Book: Use Your Imagination!
Author: Kris Bertin
Publisher: Vagrant Press
Price: $19.95 CAD
Use Your Imagination!, written by Canadian author Kris Bertin, is a collection of seven stories published in 2019 by Vagrant Press. Bertin, author of 2017 ReLit Award-winner Bad Things Happen, is in top form as he crafts stories so strange, it’s hard to believe they’re fiction.
In a 2016 interview with 49th Shelf’s Trevor Corkum, Bertin credited “bad parenting, a tumultuous home life, a lack of supervision, and access to comic books and coloured pencils” for his career as a writer. Bertin said he spent much of his early life daydreaming, which likely explains his vibrant imagination as an adult. “There’s my life, and then all the imaginary ones that are living in my head,” said Bertin, who seems to have unlimited imaginary lives as he gifts fiction fans with seven new stories.
Throughout the anthology, Bertin’s attention to emotional detail creates believable characters and thrusts them into situations both mundane and wild. Through the voices of female, male and juvenile characters, Bertin explores the oddity of memories and relationships.
Fascination with the human condition is timeless. Most of Bertin’s stories read like they could have happened any time in the last 50 years. A few stories, however, have more ties to modern culture. “The Grand Self,” which follows the fallout of a phony guru, puts its finger on the pulse of today’s exploitative self-help industry.
To call Bertin’s guru antagonist, Grant, exploitative would be an understatement. He’s a caricature of the modern-day fake Buddha. He takes a bunch of billionaires on a dangerous journey with a promise of enlightenment and ends up in prison. Bertin tells Grant’s story through the voice of Janine, his business partner/accidental accomplice, as she manages the public relations fallout that follows an accidental death on the trip. Janine’s self-aware post-mortem of their business sees Grant’s “pseudoscientific jargon” in a new light; Bertin’s descriptions of this strained partnership bring the drama between these spiritual capitalists to life.
Estrangement and spoiled relations are a common thread throughout Use Your Imagination!, but Bertin uses creative techniques to give each story a distinct life and rhythm. From story to story, Bertin takes varied structural approaches to dialogue. “Waiting for the Heat to Break and the Cold Air to Move In” uses no speaker attributions. The lines of dialogue stand alone. As a result, the conversation between a man and his dying friend happens in rapid-fire—a fitting pace, since the characters are witty, veteran comedians. In “Name That Mean Spirit,” Bertin uses standard dialogue which makes sense for the characters, many of whom are obsessed with convention and keeping up with the Joneses. Bertin’s structural shake-ups help him create worlds that fit his characters.
Another structural victory is Bertin’s use of narrative framing devices. The best example is Use Your Imagination!’s titular story — the longest and strongest of the book. The story features a “creative non-fiction” essay by Eric Codder, a prison inmate. Bertin frames the essay with correspondence letters between Eric’s parole officer and the creative writing teacher advocating for his release. The opening letter, which characterizes Eric as “a very intelligent, thoughtful, and talented young man who deserves the opportunity to rebuild his life,” sets the reader up to believe in him. The parole officer’s response at the end delivers a twist that turns assumptions about Eric on their heads. Bertin is a manipulator, much like Eric, and the result is a memorable story that stands out above the rest.
It’s hard to find a weak link in the collection, but some stories reach a level of depth that others miss. “The Calls” uses phone calls to frame the relationship of Maggie and Allan, a male escort and Maggie’s estranged little brother. Unfortunately, the story lacks pace and conflict. Maggie’s struggles are bland compared to the drama of “The Grand Self” or “Use Your Imagination!” Bertin’s protagonist does offer eloquent criticism of privileged free-spirit travelers who try to “forcibly wring meaning out of exotic locales all while capitalizing on the value of [their] foreign money,” but overall, her character arc falls flat.
Despite this, “The Calls” still has a lot to offer. Bertin succeeds in creating a fascinating antagonist. Allan, whose family “cast gayness upon him” from a young age, personifies the “black sheep” archetype that will be familiar to many readers. He’s the youngest child and the subject of family gossip and judgement. His life is so curious and cringeworthy, one can’t help but make the irresponsible assumption that some plot points are based on Bertin’s real-life experiences.
Bertin’s greatest strength as an author is his imaginative empathy. It allows him to build believable characters and create painfully realistic situations. Anyone who has memories or relationships they’d rather forget will feel a little less ashamed after reading this book.
Use Your Imagination! is an example of CanLit that transcends Canada. There are a few mentions of Canadian locales, but the anthology doesn’t require a reader to be familiar with Canadian topics or areas. The only thing a reader needs to be to appreciate the book is human. Whether Bertin is pouring through the generational history of a character or offering a snapshot of an intimate conversation, he does it in a way that resonates with lovers of strange and engaging stories.