Johnston’s stories an exercise in brevity

We Don’t Listen to Them

By Sean Johnston

Thistledown Press

144 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

Continuing with the spare but complex minimalism that made Sean Johnston’s other works so satisfying to devour, We Don’t Listen to Them is a collection of stories with blind-depth that holds you at every turned page. Johnston was born in Saskatoon and grew up a few miles from the small town of Asquith. He is the author of two novels, two books of poetry, and two books of short stories, and was the 2003 winner of the ReLit Award for Short Fiction for A Day Does Not Go By. His newest offering of beautiful and fleeting short stories is a powerful example of the brevity that makes the form moving, and, arguably, the hardest to work in. Johnston has mastered the medium to the point of appearing effortless.

The plots of Johnston’s stories are subtle, often taking a back seat to characters, ideas and insight into the ontology of human existence. Each story is an opportunity for Johnston to explore the act of being. In the story “He Hasn’t Been to the Bank in Weeks,” he writes, “we make copies of all our legitimate responses to the material world, we see the copies we make the copies from on huge movie screens, loud as hell, or alone with tiny earbuds in our ears and the personal screens inches from our face. We have lines to say and whatever we say we know it is the approved expression from a genre we despise, and yet we do feel, we do”. Johnston makes moments feel like eternity, and then inhabits and examines those moments. This is the case right from the first story, “How Blue,” which takes place on a suburban sidewalk on a hot day in so little time that the young boy-protagonist’s ice cream cone doesn’t even melt.

Both directly and indirectly many of the stories are a reflection on the act of writing itself. “We Don’t Celebrate That,” follows a writer and his colleagues on the day they have “received the new rules” for writing. The story explores the fallacy that there are regulations that dictate the process of writing in a very literal, but almost satirical manner, exposing the ridiculous notion that the creative process can be boiled down to a set of rules that must be followed in order to be successful writing. In this story, Johnston writes almost as if describing the stories you hold in your hand, “These stories inhabited this very world, they grew out of our own concerns but they were about love, for instance.”

Other stories don’t tackle the subject of writing directly, but contain snippets that transcend plot to talk about craft. For example, in “It Cools Down,” a story about a man moving to a small town so his children can be closer to their biological father, Johnston writes, “There was nothing to do but your mind goes on. I could picture it all. The real story was in the car. A road trip gets things moving.”

When speaking of books they love, people often say, “I couldn’t put it down.” Such is not the case with We Don’t Listen to Them. In fact, after reading almost every story in the collection I had to put the book down, as it was all I could internalize in a day. I found myself living with the stories, often re-reading lines, or full stories to unravel the complexities of each one. A small disclosure: a few years ago I took a class with Sean Johnston and experienced first-hand how meticulous he is in the creation of fiction. He taught me a lot about the craft of fiction in a very short time, and reading his work does the same. If you read in order to learn to write, and you are looking for a blue print, or “the rules,” look no further; Johnston has offered you something better than a blue print: a finished home.

Cole Mash is an English and creative writing student at UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in The Eunoia Review and The UBC Okanagan Papershell Anthology.

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