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The Perplexities of the Human Condition

Every September since 1997, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival presents THIN AIR, a celebration of books and ideas. Their curated line-up is a perfect fit for curious readers who are ready to discover strong voices and great storytelling in practically every genre. This year, they're presenting a hybrid festival featuring 60 writers, live events, and a dynamic website.

To watch video content David Bergen has prepared for them, visit the festival website.


Five writers, very different in their styles, but equal in their use of language to convey the perplexities of the human condition. I read each of these writers while working on Out of Mind, my latest novel. Not to imitate, but to understand structure, and how characters move, and what stuff these writers borrowed from the material world, and how contradiction and ingenuity raise the mundane, by giving it ‘its beautiful due.’


“Thanks for the Ride” from Dance of the Happy Shades: And Other Stories, by Alice Munro

I’ve read this story numerous times, and each time something fresh and new is revealed: the grandmother described as "collapsed pudding"; the violence and then the passion between the narrator and Lois; the revelation of intimacy; or this line, after sex—"To find our same selves, chilled and shaken, who had gone that headlong journey and were here still”; Lois’s apparent self-destruction; the gap between the rich and the poor.

But what I admire most in Munro is the clarity of her writing, and the movement between the mind and the body.  High and low. Her writing is never pretentious. She invites you to listen, and then tells a story that is perfectly honest, as if to say, This happened. And in the end, I am gutted.


Book Cover Outline

Outline Trilogy, by Rachel Cusk

I devoured this trilogy. Rachel Cusk’s writing is coldly efficient, and there is a great distance between the narrator and the action, though there is little action, mostly talking, and even then the narrator talks very little. She listens. She observes. She lets others dig a conversational hole and then leaves us with no interpretation of what has been said. She is hard on men, she is hard on some of the women, but I never felt that she was hard on her narrator, who seems to be "thinking" her way to some sort of understanding of the world. Like Munro, what is left unsaid echoes throughout the trilogy.


Book Cover Zolitude

Zolitude, by Paige Cooper

Reading Paige Cooper, I thought, Here we are, in a very strange country, and then, Here we are again, even more strange. Each story in this collection veers off in a different direction. Surprise after surprise, and perhaps it is Cooper’s ability to surprise (with character and language) that made me think, I wish I could do this. And yet, for all the strangeness, the stories are very human, and deeply emotional, and psychological. I’m a sucker for the psychological—not the surface stuff, but the intelligent subtle knowledge of the unspoken, the unconscious.


The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje

A prose poem about Billy the Kid. This is like Cormac McCarthy didacted. And I mean this in the best of ways. Ondaatje’s writing soars in this book—he finds the perfect way to straddle poetry and prose, and through the ellipses of that form he makes us fall for Billy, for his mind, for his desires, his anguish, his vulgarity, his teeth! Ondaatje has always had a keen sense of form, and if you want a lesson on how a perfect structure produces a perfect story, this is it.


Book Cover Antigone Undone

Antigone Undone, by Will Aiken

This is a memoir. I typically don’t read memoirs, but I came to this because I love Juliette Binoche and Anne Carson. And then, moving on from that affair of the heart, I discovered the intimacy of Will Aiken’s world—the collapsing of thought, the fear of loss, how an ancient story can still pierce your heart and leave you breathless and out of mind. I loved the honesty. The clarity. I loved reading Anne Carson’s emails—she is ribald and frank. At one point she writes, “I find Meryl Streep’s teeth depressing.” Best of all in this short book, Aiken uses others to look at himself. Like Cusk. And the other writers mentioned here. All necessary.


Learn more about Out of Mind:

In Out of Mind, David Bergen delves into the psyche of Lucille Black, mother, grandmother, lover, psychiatrist, and analyst of self, who first appeared in Bergen’s bestselling novel The Matter with Morris. Although adept at probing the lives of others, Lucille has become untethered, caught between duty and desire, between the demands of family and her own longing.

Her ex-husband Morris betrays her by publishing a memoir about the aftermath of their son Martin’s death in Afghanistan. She travels to Thailand to attempt to extricate her youngest daughter from the clutches of an apparent cult leader. And she is invited to the south of France to attend the marriage of a man whom she rejected a year earlier. Negotiating with herself about her altered role in the lives of her family and friends, Lucille circles the globe—and herself.

In this brilliant and subtle evocation of vulnerability and loss, Bergen traces one woman’s quest to reform her identity, reminding us that the unexpected is always lying in wait.

September 23, 2021
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