Carmella Gray-Cosgrove’s Nowadays and Lonelier lives up to its title—it is a book our times and the recent past—a world of alienation, dysfunction, misery, despair. Gray-Cosgrove’s finely-honed senses seemingly absorb all she encounters, and when she writes, all of these sensorial observations are put on the page, and we are right where she wants us. She writes principally, and beautifully, about the underbelly of Canada—about the often-mean lives of sex-workers and their children; about the often-meaningless lives of ordinary Canadians, fueled by booze and drugs; lives of economically-depressed people spent in endless cycles of frustration as they exist in drab apartment complexes; about how the ever-encroaching spread of consumerism is cheapening and destroying the qualities of peoples’ lives. She presents not the guidebook, picture-postcard civility of Vancouver, but the back alleys, the side roads, the rows of soul-killing apartment houses.
But it is to Gray-Cosgrove’s credit that she can find moments of fragmentary beauty, that often emerge in these stories, and it is when these moments occur that her writing especially sings. Such a moment occurs in the story “Mars Spills Out.” After the funeral of her grandfather, the narrator, who was then a child living with her mother, recalls, in a monologue to her mother, that later in the year, in the Spring, a bird flew into their living room through an open patio door:
I come home from school and we sit watching it. It stays all evening, cocking its head, hopping from chair to couch to chair. You make supper and talk to it from the kitchen. You tell me it is the reincarnation of your father. You apologize to the robin for the laughing fit. It chirps loudly and leaves at sunset. It comes back every spring for five years.
There is something heartbreakingly miraculous about this passage—something to do with the fleetingness of life, and the connection between the humans and the bird—a moment of love, presented by Gray-Cosgrove not in a heavy-handed way. It comes at you sideways, and yet it is direct, and pierces your heart.
The cast of characters in these stories is enormous and varied: female sex workers and their children; dedicated ballerinas; aged grandmothers and grandfathers slipping into senility; callous lovers; egomaniacal painters; pedophile priests; tourists in Italy from Loveland, Ontario; raging, violent youth; angels; and a pregnant coyote that saves a young woman’s life, just to name a few. In “The Dance of the Cygnets,” as the ballerina practices her exercises, she muses on her twin sister, who “hates ballet and she looks nothing like me. She’s into video games, snowboarding, self-harm and hallucinogens.” In “Another Angel,” in the Florentine countryside, a girl sits on a stoop in a courtyard preparing to do some washing, after having brought buckets of water that have made her hands stiff. As she rests for a moment, “rubbing the fleshy parts of her palms before she starts the washing. The angel is barely visible in the sunlight. Glimmering gold, more of a feeling than something the girl can see. A warm shiver, shimmering in the shadow of the house across from her. It is almost indecipherable, a blank spot in her vision, but then she catches the glint of a wing, the shine of a cloak.”
Gray-Cosgrove’s challenging stories march into your face and demand your attention. They open your eyes to a world far more out-of-whack than you would like to believe exists. But I know, because of Gray-Cosgrove’s persuasive writing—that world does exist. These characters live varied lives, chock-full of drama and trauma; they teeter on the edge of oblivion, but do not fall. Even when the writing becomes surreal, hallucinatory, and dream-like, Gray-Cosgrove ensures these characters’ tough experiences are inescapably real.
Each of the twenty-two stories in this collection has subject matter that encompasses much of what is going on the world today: poverty, drug-addiction, sexual predation, sex madness, and just plain sex; cruelty, deception, lunacy, and love. There is a great deal of desperation and unhappiness in these tales, but also an abstract desire for comfort that is struggling to surface, not always successfully, due to the narrative, and the author’s firm grasp on reality. Gray-Cosgrove writes with the most unflinching honesty about everything—and when finished, you are left spent and empty, and convinced of the relentless hardness of our times—or buoyed-up by the spirit of love.
Nowadays and Lonelier, by Carmella Gray-Cosgrove. Vancouver, Canada: Arsenal Pulp Press, May 2022. 220 pages. $17.95, paper.
Los Angeles native Stephen Daly is a writer, actor, and film enthusiast. His magazine articles have appeared in Los Angeles Magazine, The ‘E’ Ticket, and Filmfax.