Novel: The Path of Most Resistance by Russell Wangersky | Goodreads
Release Date: August 20, 2016
As entertaining as they are insightful, the stories in The Path of Most Resistance are anchored by the concept of passive aggression in our everyday lives: ordinary people who are quietly, desperately, and indirectly trying to impose their will on the uncaring world around them.
From a woman who compulsively shops for luggage in order to sublimate her desire for a divorce to a senior citizen who tries to force his family to visit by refusing to eat, the characters in this collection try to change their lives through oblique resistance. The stories also humorously show readers how passive aggression is perhaps at its most effective when carried out in smaller, more insidious ways. Uncertain about the state of his relationship, a man obsesses, but refuses to clean, a spot of mould in the bathroom.
The Path of Most Resistance is an observant and compassionate look at the feelings of powerlessness that we all share, and will have readers silently cringing and nodding in recognition of their own bad behaviour.
I’m picky about my short stories, which is a little bit of a problem considering that I don’t especially know how to sort through them within bookstores. The collections all seem to have the same buzz words, and there’s a fine line between what I love and what I’ll just plod through. In essence, it boils down to the facets of my taste: lyrical, focused on small details, not overly pessimistic. Even though I’ll occasionally enjoy them, I roll my eyes when they all have the same elements: male narrators drinking whiskey and having affairs when they lose the rosiness of the marriage they had in their teens. (It’s a common thread.)
In Port Hope, I picked up a collection from a Canadian writer. The hook intrigued me: stories of passive aggression, told subtly and gracefully. I was only partway through the first story when I realized this is exactly the type of collection with which I connect. It has those types of human moments that make me pause, small reflections with which I identify although I’ve never been able to articulate them.
As a whole, I loved it. I read the collection in pieces, which I don’t normally do, because I knew each story would at least have a glimmer of something lovely. I even finished it at camp, with bugs sticking to the pages because they dove straight for my flashlight beam at night while I read in the cabin. Good times.
I don’t think I’ve ever fully reviewed a collection of short stories before, so I think the most effective way for me to go about this would be to briefly comment on each one, and then make an evaluation overall. (If you have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.)
Bonus for his dedication: “For those who fight the hardest to win the smallest of battles. You know who you are.”
In “Rage,” a pharmaceutical rep finds out he has melanoma, and thinks through it on his drive home. On the drive, he rolls through habits and memories, reflections on the way other drivers function on the road. As someone fascinated by driving in general, I loved the emphasis he placed on the poeticism of it. Psychoanalyzing the way it all worked. It also immediately hooked me because the flow is absorbing, with a memorable character, and the transitions worked beautifully within the narrative.
“Armenia” is one of my favorites out of the collection. In it, a man obsesses over the state of his home, which his bohemian girlfriend never lets him clean. As their relationship goes further downhill, he thinks more and more about just going ham with the Clorox. I dig the imagery in this one (although some of it is a little cringe-worthy) and the careful assortment of detail. I also love his slight naïveté. Immediately, it’s distinct from the first story but has the same voice.
“Bide Awhile” is significantly more broken up than the stories preceding it, flitting between several characters with whom you empathize. It focuses on a little girl collecting ants, two parents fighting in a small cottage, and some dry-mouthed moments of regret. Not totally sure what happened at the end — maybe that went over my head — but I liked it well enough.
The premise of “Baggage” got me. A woman who feels trapped and dreams about going to faraway places. Putting plane tickets in her queue just starts to depress her, so instead she browses luggage stores to make herself feel better. The exquisite attention to detail impressed me.
Official Rules for Pool
Stopping through a small town on a road trip, a couple notices some of the history in an old pool hall. I really enjoyed the flashes of another life weaving through “Official Rules for Pool.”
This one just made my heart melt (pun not intended.) An old man wakes up every snowy morning and tries to mow his pretty young neighbor’s lawn before another male neighbor can. For one, I loved his interactions with his wife. The story itself was sweet, funny, and also strangely gorgeous. Bonus for winter imagery.
The Path of Most Resistance
“The Path of Most Resistance” is drafted like a letter, drifting in that no-man’s-land between friendship and love. The letter is confused and pleading, with undertones of anger that flare at times when Nell describes aspects of the trip she wasn’t supposed to be alone for.
The story itself is well-crafted, focusing on the helpless aspects of working the late-night news and being pigeonholed into one job. A bit sad, a bit quiet. Memorable for sure.
I love that, although some stories could be dark at times, they were punctuated by moments that made me laugh. It’s a pleasant surprise, submerged in elegant prose. In this, a woman collects donations for various societies and keeps harassing the same man, who’s on the verge of giving into her.
Another one that made me laugh, small glows of humor punctuating the melancholy atmosphere. Helen, an elderly woman walking her dog, reflects on the neighborhood’s affluent young taking over. She’s the last of a batch, a sore spot on a glossy brochure. She also gets her revenge in a way.
A man visits all the spots he went to with his girlfriend now that they’ve broken up, hoping to find redemption but finding something else instead. First of all, I love the idea of this — the insight into his personality from his desire to overwrite memories, to have control over his own head. The spots he visited are conveyed with immediacy.
“Three Days” made me sad, although I love Art, the old man who wants his family to call. In his head, he mentally cycles through a script he’ll say on the phone when they realize they’ve been neglecting him. It’s such a haunting story about growing apart from people, and I love the distinct ways that Wangersky builds on the struggles of old age.
In “Heavy Load,” a workaholic of a man who never misses a deadline helps to transport a container of sorts — I didn’t totally catch what it was. While doing so, he worries about how his working affects his wife, and what he can do to regain control over his own life.
As a whole, the collection is stunning. In that cold, sharp way that has surprising warmth. It’s like that feeling when you dive into a frigid lake and your body temperature immediately spikes when you get back on land. Warm all over and prickly, but with a spine of cold. I don’t know how to reduce that feeling to adjectives, to a string of words that properly conveys the mood of this book.
I’m a mood person. I love any writing with atmosphere. I love reading writers good enough to maintain consistent voice while switching up the personas and details. I think it’s so incredibly impressive that someone can do that, especially managing to convey so much left unsaid.
It’s a collection that ranges in scope, but never dips in quality. It’s consistently beautiful but understated, with ephemeral details that lead to lasting emotion. The lines are all lovely, and so it’s difficult to pick out some that emerge beyond the rest. Here’s one example, at least:
He realized later that night that the owners had turned off every light in the house before they left, so Sam’s cabin was a barren little pool of empty light all by itself in a mostly darkened valley, with only the stars and a line of street lights along a distant ridge to break the almost-absolute darkness. When he went outside, there were so many stars in the sky that it seemed almost oppressive, as if the sky was actually bulging down toward him, pressing all those stars closer. Like he was being forced to eat.
Each story cut me deeply, and I ended the final story feeling deeply satisfied. When I find a writer like this, I want to hold on; I’ll be reading more Russell Wangersky in the future.