All I Ask: Review
BY Paul Chafe
All I Ask
by Eva Crocker
House of Anansi
320 p $22.95
Reflect for a moment on the title of Eva Crocker’s first novel, All I Ask. It is a common enough phrase. But think of the times in your life when you have used it to start a sentence. Were you compromised? Defeated? Pleading? Think of the times someone has said it to you. Were they giving up? Giving in? Did you really heed that imploration? There is a power dynamic inherent in the phrase: someone has been steered into doing something they do not really want to do but is hoping to salvage a little comfort and control from the wreckage of their resolve. Perhaps you have uttered this phrase to avoid further confrontation or discomfort. Perhaps you have evoked it while terrified. All these possibilities play out in Crocker’s crackling, intense, and ultimately delightful narrative of Stacey Power, an Arts graduate and actor navigating her mid-20s as well as the sometimes dangerous, sometimes magical, often claustrophobic streets of a modern St John’s familiar to readers of Lisa Moore, Michael Winter, and Megan Gail Coles.
The narrative begins on the morning four armed Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers barge through the front door of Stacey’s downtown home with a warrant for “Illegal digital material.” The first paragraph of the novel captures how disempowered and violated Stacey is by the incident that hangs over the rest of the novel focused on the months following the invasion: “They took my computer and phone so they could copy the contents. They called it a mirror image. They said it was the fastest way to prove I wasn’t the suspect and also I didn’t have a choice.” Stacey’s phone does not contain “illegal digital material,” but it does contain the sort of mortifying miscellanea found on so many of our phones: “there was a picture, taken with the flash, of a pimple on the back of my neck — swollen and inflamed … There were rejection emails from casting directors. All the stupid things I’d googled. Things I should have known.” The embarrassment is heightened by fear as these uniformed men bully an unprepared and underdressed Stacey (“I’d slept in a big T-shirt and a pair of bicycle shorts—no bra. I woke up to the doorbell ringing and a pounding that shook the house”), follow her through her home, into her bedroom, mere months after a colleague was found not guilty of sexual assault, though he admitted in court to having sex with a woman he knew was intoxicated while she was in his custody and he was on duty and armed. The chapter’s final paragraph captures masterfully the clear and present danger of Stacey’s immediate situation and her life in St John’s: “The bleak reality of the verdict settled on the city … I passed ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE. on my way to work and when I went to bars to hear music. Then there was the pounding that shook my house, four cops on my doorstep, more hiding outside the back door.”
Crocker’s novel is not about this moment, not really. As Stacey later that day prepares to open the local theatre where she works, she observes, “As space brightened up I felt that morning’s invasion slide out of my body.” But the narrative and Stacey herself wear the events of that morning like a caul and Stacey is perhaps a little more timorous and frangible than she would be had her world not been disrupted by such a bold imposition of state power. Stacey begins to see evidence of surveillance everywhere — the unmarked police cruiser outside her place, a drone hovering above the entrance of a local pizzeria — and she stops eating properly as the act of cooking for herself means prolonged moments with her exposed back to the kitchen door. Friends and family encourage Stacey to file a complaint, but apropos of the novel’s title, all Stacey asks is that she be ruled out as a person of interest: “Hopefully the situation would just resolve itself.” There is something very Kafka-esque about introducing a narrator in a moment of implication or what Judith Butler terms “injurious implication” and readers learn Stacey first through a guilt that is not hers — the vicissitude of the police raid solidifying Stacey’s “identity through injury” and her entrance into her own narrative through “the appropriation of guilt … [and] a submission to the law through an acceptance of its demand for conformity.”
Stacey is no shrinking violet — she is gregarious, she is self-aware, she is cool (she effortlessly slips into the gender-neutral they/their/them when describing her friend Frankie Castillo), she marches, she protests, she shoplifts, she bold-as-brass purchases a sex toy and chucks it in the bookbag she wears on her bike ride home, and she does all the drinking and dancing any self-respecting denizen of downtown St John’s should do — but the Stacey readers meet is always already on the backfoot post-police incursion and this heightens or highlights the more passive and obsequious aspects of her character. Stacey would rather defer and delay than argue or even discuss. She is possessed of a halfway, evasive mode of living and talking that is frustrating to readers and the characters around her. If a restaurant serves her the incorrect order, she does not send it back. When asked by the woman she is dating what she should wear to a family dinner, it is evident Stacey’s continued laissez-faire is adversely affecting the relationship:
On the afternoon of the party, Kris called me for the first time ever to ask if she should wear a button-down shirt or something more casual.
“Is it a formal thing? What are you wearing?”
“Just wear whatever you’re comfortable in, no one will care,” I said.
“What would make me comfortable is to be dressed appropriately.” I was surprised by the edge in her voice.
Stacey is cognizant of her wishy-washy tendencies and the novel is really a tracing of her attempts move from the passive (sometimes passive-aggressive) to the proactive as when she debates sharing an uncomfortable truth: “For a moment I considered not telling her. It seemed like the sort of thing that could maybe be undone if you never ever mentioned it to another person;” or when she considers standing up to an aggressive salesperson: “I could see two possible futures stretching out in front of me — one where I phoned Mark’s Work Wearhouse immediately and possibly resolved the situation, and another where I let myself forget about it until it inevitably came back to haunt me, months or maybe years later.”
Stacey’s existential angst is paired with the precarity of existence in a perpetually post-boom St John’s: “A wave of downtown businesses had closed that fall … Shops that had been open for half a century went under. People who could afford to leave the island were moving to the mainland in droves … Everyone and their dog was looking for a job.” Yet, while Stacey is undeniably living in that post-degree poverty that drives one to consider, in the immortal lyrics of WGB, lightin’ up the fireplace with your Bachelor of Arts, she is not as endangered as the truly impoverished and disenfranchised that dwell on the margins of novels like Alligator and Small Game Hunting at the Local Cowards Gun Club or drive the narrative of novels like We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night. She has a support network and friends and family so that she is just secure enough that she can risk becoming a tourist in her own life. Piggish patriarchy made all the more dangerous by being in its death throes, a sluggish economy, a creepy and creeping internet all pose real threats to Stacey, but the real power in this novel lies in her process of becoming a sufficient and sincere and sanguine citizen of her city.
There are a lot of different things at stake for Stacey in All I Ask, and Crocker, whose first book, Barrelling Forward, won, among other awards, the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction, is possessed of the short story writer’s ability to dedicate just the right amount of time to the disparate aspects of her narrative and make each moment compelling. Uncannily, Crocker is also possessed of the seasoned novelist’s ability to intertwine these aspects and keep her readers engaged for over 300 pages. The novel is a wonderful character study and an encapsulation of a particular time and place. Plot and prose are rendered perfectly and the ending will drive readers to scribble questions in the margins and create book clubs and discussion groups. Crocker is a writer we will be talking about for a long time.
Paul Chafe teaches at Ryerson University.