I just finished my first ebook, The Beggar’s Garden, a collection of short stories by Michael Christie (who is from Northern Ontario, you know the place, who wouldda thunk?). I enjoyed the writing, very much, there was wit, sadness and a very good reflection of the human spirit, ugly and beautiful as it is.
After completing the book, I found myself a bit troubled. Most of the stories revolved around some element of Vancouver, more often than not what has become affectionately known as the downtown East Side or, at least, qualities that have become synonymous with that area. Addiction, poverty and mental illness are driving forces for Christie’s characters and he writes about them with a skill that at once shows their humanity, weaknesses and occasionally finds the humor in what could otherwise be treated, as it often is, with a removed quality if not distain.
This is what leads me to finally commenting on a book after a long absence from this blog. What troubled me was my own reaction to the characters. I was unsure as to how to interpret them and their troubles and stories; whether to feel sorry for them, upset or blame them for being the agents of their own destructive behaviours. I believed, to my embarrassment, that I was grappling with the same cultural malaise that affects modern society when it comes to viewing those that society recognizes as “down and out.”
Upon further reflection and clarification, I am comfortable with how the real life me approaches the societal problems outlined in The Beggar’s Garden. I am comfortable in seeing society as a big jumble and that, in real life, the characters in this collection would be treated, by me, with the same patience and tolerance as I afford everybody. It was the reading me that was challenged. Rare is the protagonist that starts so low on the societal ladder. Rarer still is the protagonist that is not allowed to rise and overcome their adversity to become the hero of the story. As a reader, I was challenged by characters whose conflicts stem from elements that are seen with such negativity from the majority of society.
The notion of tragedy, watching a character fall from a height due to hubris, usually requires characters to start or become members of society’s elite. Christie’s characters certainly exist within a tragedy, but do readers experience the same catharsis for someone who is schizophrenic as they do for an ambitious king or, more true to life, a drug addicted rock star?
While affording a much needed insight into the personalities that exist in the “down and out” part of our society, there is a direction in this collection that, on the literary level, Christie challenges by calling out our expectations as readers and forcing us to react to his untraditional protagonists. I would have to consider it effective, especially as I continue to think about it and retrace the stories so that the ‘reading me’ can better understand their effects on me.