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Zero Gravity by Sharon English  

Zero Gravity is Toronto author Sharon English’s second collection of short stories. The book is rooted in Vancouver, with side trips to British Columbia’s Kootenay mountains, Montreal and Delphi, Greece. English’s characters lead accelerated lives only to be seized by spiritual emptiness. Their attempts to escape -- by joining, by quitting, by falling in and out of love -- make for funny, insightful and intense reading. The author presents a fly’s-eye view of urban experience, coming at city life from multiple angles that unite, as the book progresses, into a vivid experience of isolation and adaptation. The book’s unusual imagery and controlled prose deliver an edgy and anxious commentary on a new century.

In this remarkable new anthology of stories, mostly set in Vancouver, Sharon English provokes, shocks, amuses, and finally satisfies the reader with her insights and her character studies. In lucid detail, she captures the lives of a series of slightly skewed protagonists. Using a blend of descriptive detail, convincing dialogue, and social comment, she creates scenes and characters that linger in the mind long after one has finished each story. Corporate inanity, coastal weather, personal foibles and neuroses -- all are evoked with wit and verbal dexterity.

The characters are the more fascinating because they are so ordinary, so recognizable, yet the reader becomes involved with each to such an extent that one regrets that the story must end. A young woman, gradually detaching from reality in her Toronto corporate position, flees to Vancouver where the dream state persists. Another successful executive can no longer see himself. A lightly dressed tourist survives a mountain night by immersing himself in a hot spring. A sixty-eight year old woman encounters, on a nude beach, the woman who stole her sweetheart forty years earlier. From these seemingly innocuous plot lines emerge stories that are fascinating and thought provoking and often very funny.

prize

2006—Globe Top 100,
Commended

prize

2007—Giller Prize,
Long-listed

prize

2007—ReLit Awards, Short Fiction,
Shortlisted

The stories in Zero Gravity are set in British Columbia, mostly in Vancouver. While the stories are not linked explicitly, they are connected by setting -- elevated to the status of character -- and by recurrent themes such as the fragility of home; the lure and alienation of nature in a technological world; and the problems of identity and spiritual grounding in a constantly transforming society.

As Canada’s newest metropolis, Vancouver is largely a city of immigrants: people from other countries as well as other provinces. A number of stories in Zero Gravity explore the impact of homelessness in this broad sense: the dislocation caused by having to create a new home some vast distance from one’s birthplace, and in a city where so many people are in the same situation. In the lightly comic opening story, a woman from Toronto makes the westward journey across Canada, following the road taken by pioneers and migrants since the opening-up of BC. In Vancouver she befriends an Iraqi computer programmer from Winnipeg, with whom she attends an East Vancouver rave sponsored by a collective called ‘The Cosmic Elfs’. In another story, a long-time immigrant from the Baltic has her life disturbed by an archaeological discovery in her back yard.

Vancouver’s location offers a stunning juxtaposition of city and nature, and this constant contrast -- beautiful, strange, and overwhelming at times -- affects the psyches of those who live there -- or so Zero Gravity aims to suggest. In one story, for example, a woman is forced to confront her dishonesty and desperation on a mismanaged expedition to Garibaldi Park. In another, an aspiring filmmaker loses a young child, and possibly his soul, on an eerie, abandoned strip of beach adjacent to the Vancouver airport.

Problems of lost identity and spiritual grounding pervade Western culture. Vancouver, in its freshness, is a city of lyrical promise that attracts those searching for answers. Yet it’s also a city whose roots are still young, and this leads to insecurity. The stories in Zero Gravity show characters struggling with radical changes to their lives, either imposed by accident or, more mysteriously, surging up from within themselves. In one story, for example, a woman working for a downtown Eastside shelter starts to lose her sense of purpose and mental stability.

Table of contents

The Cosmic Elfs

Lawless

Devotion

In the Woods

This Side of Thirty

Nine Outtakes from the Life of Mark T.

Ship of Fools

The Road to Delphi

The Flying Woman

Review quote

‘a talented, keenly observant writer.’

—Nancy Schiefer, London Free Press

Review quote

‘English has a strong sensibility and while she can see the faults of her characters, she is always sympathetic to them. People make mistakes, but no one in this universe is evil. The stories are suffused with a gentleness about human failings and an understanding of human need. Frailty, desire and need are perceived as part of the human package, and English’s attitude to humanity is acceptance punctuated with acerbity. It’s a splendid combination.’

—Candace Fertile, Globe and Mail

Review quote

‘What is remarkable about most of these stories is that, though they at first seem disaffected, detached, and apathetically ‘‘cool’’’ they are, at their best, ultimately hopeful. People change, they find friends, they face humiliation, and they move on. It isn’t particularly hip to admit that you need a friend, or that you’re not doing what you want with your life, but these characters do it anyway, and when they do, it’s refreshing.’

—Sarah Steinberg, Quill and Quire

Review quote

‘The writing rarely fails to engage. First sentences make an impression. Some examples: ‘‘In his seventh year at TrendCrop, Dayton began to disappear.’’ or ‘‘Emily and Clive once went to a party held in honour of a dead cat.’’ And for the most part, the book stays this good, maintaining a steady register of mood and an uncluttered immediacy of expression. The sort of exact language necessary when measuring forces like gravity. Which is a weak force really, especially among human bodies.’

—Alex Good, Kitchener Waterloo Record

Review quote

‘Nadine Gordimer writes that the short story is the art of ‘‘the only thing one can be sure of -- the present moment.’ Zero Gravity upends this notion by evoking the uncertainty upon which the present moment floats. In these stories, English makes art out of incertitude, out of the giddiness and fear that can inhere in a moment, especially when that moment is a life-altering one.’

—Michelle Ariss, Books in Canada

Review quote

‘Most of the writers on our underrated list are veterans who have spent their careers toiling in the suburbs of oblivion. Sharon English, however, is still an up-and-comer, with only two story collections under her belt -- though they should have been enough in themselves to raise her profile considerably. Her debut, Uncomfortably Numb, stood out as a strong collection of linked coming-of-age stories (no mean feat in this country), but it was Zero Gravity that really announced her arrival as one of our sharpest new talents, wedding precision of language to a remarkable moral and imaginative range. That it made it onto the Giller longlist was slight consolation, given the presence of both Ondaatje and Vassanji in that year’s final five.’

—Alex Good & Steven W. Beattie, The Afterword

Author comments

The West Coast. A magnet for the churning edges of youth and creativity, a haven for the eccentric, and for many, a land that promises what the world has withheld.

It’s not just the mountains and ocean that compel -- but something deeper, hidden. Where the modern values of freedom, novelty and transience possess people -- and push them toward the nothingness of themselves. A state of exhilaration and darkness. The state of zero gravity.

A shelter worker wants to make a difference in the world, but descends into self-doubt when a strange seduction challenges her carefully constructed identity. Chatty, anxious, and dependent on his wife, a middle-aged teacher gets lost in the woods -- and himself. Time’s thread -- both flexible and taut -- winds itself around an aging woman when on a nude beach she encounters a dark companion from her youth. And, in a modern twist on an old theme, an ambitious executive becomes invisible -- but only to himself.

Discussion question for Reading Group Guide

1. Sarah Steinberg of Quill and Quire wrote that ‘What is remarkable about most of these stories is that, though they at first seem disaffected, detached, and apathetically ‘‘cool’’ they are, at their best, ultimately hopeful.’ Do you agree with Steinberg? Why do you think English offers such hopeful endings -- and are there any exceptions to the trend? What might English be concluding about human life?

2. Water -- from the shore to rain to a hot spring -- plays a prominent role in many of English’s stories. What importance does water have to the characters? To Vancouver? How does the symbolic importance of water affect your understanding of the important turning points in each story?

3. Consider the role of Vancouver in Zero Gravity. Would you classify it as a setting or a character? What distinguishes Vancouver from other cities, like Toronto? Why do characters feel connected or attracted to Vancouver in the first place -- or why not?

4. In many stories English reflects on the importance of immigration to Vancouver. Does English present everyone as a newcomer to Vancouver on some level, or are there characters who seem to ‘belong’ or feel at home in the city? Why or why not? What transforms a location from ‘away’ to ‘home’?

5. Do you notice changes in style or theme between Zero Gravity and Uncomfortably Numb? How have English’s interests changed between the two collections, if at all?

6. Love and sex play important roles in Zero Gravity. Are they creative or destructive forces? In ‘In the Woods’, for example, Cal finds himself re-energized after his near-death experience and goes on to enjoy affairs behind the back of his wife. Many of the characters in Zero Gravity seem to be in search of an ‘anchor’ for their lives; is sex a return to positive physicality, one kind of anchor, or is sex a distraction from the search? How do human contact and touch figure into the stories?

7. GoodReports.net’s review states that ‘Breaking free from the mundane, the shrinking walls of the work station, ‘‘the sanitized, pre-packaged life,’’ is part of the process of rebirth and renewal.’ Do the characters’ state of ‘zero gravity’ inherently arise from modernity and technology? Are the characters in Zero Gravity trying to escape or to adapt?


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Sharon English is the author of two collections of short stories. Zero Gravity (Porcupine’s Quill, 2006) was long-listed for the 2007 Giller Prize, short-listed for the 2007 ReLit Award, and included as a Globe and Mail notable book for 2006. English’s first collection, Uncomfortably Numb, was praised by the Globe and Mail, THIS Magazine and Books in Canada, among others, for being ‘highly readable,’ with a deft use of ‘language that ambushes the reader.’ Sharon has also published stories in numerous journals, including Best Canadian Stories, 2004.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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FICTION / Short Stories

LITERARY COLLECTIONS / Canadian

ISBN-13: 9780889842793

Publication Date: 2006-09-01

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 192

Price: $22.95