The Razor's Edge
A collection of linked short stories that hopscotches between time and space to explore the haunting hunger that reaches beyond the physical and into the spiritual—for love, for understanding and for truth.
"Unwillingly, I’ve become part of the story. Questions lie when reconstructing incomplete facts, half-truths, enigmas. What remains is incompletion, interruption. Only the dead know what happened."
In The Razor’s Edge, Karl Jirgens presents a collection of interlinked fictions that inhabit halfway worlds between past and present, dream and actuality, science and divination. Ordinary daily activities and events lead to unexpected slides into lucid dreams and flirtations with the edge of madness. Drawing on literature and pop culture (from Cinderella and Hamlet to Vladimir Mayakovsky and Anthony Bourdain) as well as the history of twentieth-century genocides (including the Holocaust and the Gulag), these complex, magic realist stories suggest that what seems separate is really interconnected, that the distinction between past, present and future is illusion, and that we might all die of the truth if the truth were truly known.
What critics say...
"Karl Jirgens is so hip in his use of his European tradition, that I am looking forward eagerly to his third story collection. He has a prominent place in my line of favourite Canadian writers."
—George Bowering, author of The Gangs of Kosmos, Rocky Mountain Foot and Burning Water
"Karl Jirgens writes like no one else in this country. Every piece in this collection is a tour de force, weaving together history and idea and story with a wit that thrills as much as it challenges, leaving always that shiver at the back of the neck that comes from being in the presence of the ineffable."
—Nino Ricci, author of Lives of Saints
“Rampike editor, Karl Jirgens has constructed stories in which a trip to the bank, a visit or a phone call act as a catalyst triggering a reaction that leads the reader into a postmodern version of the Twilight Zone.”
—Charles Mandel (The Globe and Mail).
“Jirgens is a highly talented writer wrestling with complex material…a very rewarding literary experience.”
—Kevin Connolly (Mondo Hunkamooga).
“Karl Jirgens is an alchemist. His short ‘stories’ are amalgams that blend diverse ingredients into miraculous new material. – These stories take details from the murky world we live in, and transform them into high art, tales to be read again and again for their intricacies and revelations.”
—Steven Ross Smith (Prairie Fire).
“An epistemologically laden document, rich in immanence on the noumena of being.” While Karl Jirgens was referring to a refrigerator manual featuring an enlightening explication of sounds that might be heard to emanate from said appliance, there could not be a more apt description of his own marvellous new publication. The Razor’s Edge is in its own fascinating way, a manual of sorts as well—a guide to human nature via the lenses of philosophy, history, mythology, semiotics, mysticism, architecture, martial arts, dream, and divination."
—Steve Venright, author of The Least You Can Do Is Be Magnificent: Selected and New Writings, Floors of Enduring Beauty and Spiral Agitator
"Though I am loath in general to speculate on whether a book constitutes autofiction, in this case one feels that Jirgens is deliberately inviting the comparison (one of his narrators is a publisher and a university professor, for instance). I might even argue that the book could serve as as a refutation of at least one poorly conceived, but now-infamous, assertion that autofiction is a newfangled concept propagated by careless youngsters. In The Razor’s Edge, the ostensibly autofictional elements seem quite deliberate and functional; for instance, they heighten the meditative significance of repetitions. Across multiple stories in the collection, the narrator(s) (who may or may not all be the same narrator), think again and again of their mother(s), who “turned cooking into an art,” in spite of, or because of, the fact that so many of her family members starved to death in work camps. Jirgens insists upon this idea, often without elaborating on it, simply placing it in new juxtapositions with other acts and memories, in a way that perhaps only someone who has done much living and writing (and even publishing) can convincingly pull off."
—Jade Wallace (CAROUSEL)
"Such an oblique passing nod to a Proustian search for lost time is hard to miss here, as elsewhere in his carefully constructed stories about people, whether living, dead or imaginary. He reminds the reader that there will indeed be a future, though not necessarily the one we expect or hope for, and that is how he tracks the smoke of memory to the actuality of fire. There’s a good reason why this storyteller opens his collection with an epigram reference to Franz Kafka, master of unreliable memories, and the patron saint of unreliable narrators: “A book must be an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.” Karl Jirgens hands us just such an axe in The Razor’s Edge, and he cracks open the private sea inside himself, until it slowly melts into first a river and then a waterfall, one perfect sentence at a time."
“Jirgens writes with precision and wit about what happens when we try to take the measure of things. – Jirgens finds no absolutes in the universe, only compelling parallels that converge somewhere around infinity, a place where zero equals one.”
—Allen Casey, (Books in Canada).
"Emotionally vivid and formally inventive, these stories are a fascinating blend of fiction, nonfiction and, at times, memoir, rich with captivating detail. As each story unfolds, you realize that it is not the story you expected was being told. The Razor’s Edge not only takes you into an engaging fictional world, but immerses you in thought and memory, the compelling music and texture of storytelling itself."
—Gary Barwin, author of Yiddish for Pirates
“Jirgens has achieved the most difficult thing…finding an original voice.”
—John Oughton (Now).
“Jirgens’ method is that of ‘pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions proposed in the 1890s by Alfred Jarry. His instruments are the ‘pataphysician’s; the pun, the speculative leap, the impeccable train of logic derailed… elegant and witty. -- In these days of bland, commercial almost corporate fiction, it is a welcome breath of reality.”
—Brian Shein (Quill & Quire).
“These stories never lose sight of process, the fluidity of meaning, or the need to stretch language to reveal experience.”
—Lorraine Johnson (Books in Canada).
"There is something Proustian about the device Karl Jirgens uses for his narrator in The Razor’s Edge…. Something about the narrator’s left-right two-step dance also places the reader on a razor edge. By that I mean that in reading, one is continually led to question one’s own bents and contradictions.”
—Gail Scott, broadly published author including The Obituary (Coach House, 2010) and Permanent Revolution (Book*hug, 2021).
"Karl Jirgens’ narration is self-aware but not self-indulgent, never getting in the way of a concise or complex line. This is world-class storytelling, simply put, with spell-binding journeys. Beginning with “The Freshness of a Dream,” the hook was in. Reminds me of Günter Grass (as opposed to Jerzy Kosiński), carrying the light Herman Hesse uncovered, to wade through the swamp of the dark places. Jirgens tracks artifacts of the elusive oral to hard artifact letters from an uncle imprisoned in the Gulag. Readers, collectors and writers of short stories should buy The Razor’s Edge. This book is not by a unique Canadian writer but a formative writer of our endangered spinning blue gem."
—Karl Kempton, editor publisher of Kaldron
"Time isn’t lost. It’s coming back around, the past laid out for us like a wide open, four-lane highway north. Or, in Karl Jirgens’ line of thought, time is the recovered-and-aching movement of an earth-bound clock hovering from the Pantheon over Paris. That is time’s measure at the heart of Jirgens’ recent stories in The Razor’s Edge, a wondrous collection where time itself is held up at the world’s edge."
—Garin Cycholl, Reviewer for The Typescript, and author of Rx (Atmosphere Press, 2022).
"Karl Jirgens (or Karl’s doppleganger) accomplishes his cerebral journeys through various literary constructs. To begin, he repeats particular images or motifs throughout the stories: dreams, mirrors, tarot cards, ghosts, food, displaced persons, war and/or conflict, history, myths and fables, Eastern mysticism, martial arts, allusions and/or references to pop culture and art/intellectual icons. Secondly, he employs a writing style that appears almost adlib, or free-association-like, using these same images and motifs to effortlessly move/jump from one new topic to another."
—Stan Rogal, Author. His writings have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies in Canada, the USA, and Europe. He's published 26 books. He is a lapsed agnostic and a non-practicing pansexual.
"Given the thematic “width” of the collection – from pop culture to classical literature, from historical events to contemporary relationships, from scientific experiments to divination, from the trivia of daily life to the horrors of holocaust and genocide – Jirgens could have easily lost his balance. He is, after all, performing a first-person/narrator high wire act here and it doesn’t take much to fall. That he didn’t, that he keeps the reader interested (nay, more than interested – inextricably involved to the very end on multiple levels), is a tribute to his writing skills, the intricacy of the interwoven material, and the truth of the central themes that he worries to the bone in each of the stories."
—Michael Mirolla, Author of a clutch of novels, plays, film scripts, short story, and poetry collections, plus a novella, The Last News Vendor, which won the 2020 Hamilton Literary Award for fiction. He’s won three Bressani Prizes and was nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize.
Excerpt from the book:
My mother and I are sitting at her kitchen table. Through the glass door behind her, I gaze at the tangled garden. My mother is quietly crocheting a hat for my son. She peers through her glasses. Her old fingers nimbly turn the wool strands on light metal crochet hooks. It’s time for another tea, but I’m held in place by a strange inertia. I ask her about what happened to her brother during the war, my uncle Joe. She has fed me small pieces of this story before, but I’m hungry for more.
I’ve learned that he was tossed into a mass grave, only to be retrieved. The entire nation had been forcibly ‘occupied’. I remember that the bulldozer driver was ordered by a Soviet commander to cover up dozens of bodies. The bulldozer driver refused. He’d witnessed several fingers moving on my uncle’s left hand. They threatened to kill the dozer driver. He rejected their threat. ‘I’m the only bulldozer driver for hundreds of kilometers. If you kill me, you’ll have mass contagion.’ My uncle had been fighting with the partisans, first against the Nazis, then the Soviets. The commander shrugged, relented. Pissed off, he ordered a pair of soldiers to haul my uncle’s body out of the trench. The dozer driver ensured they hospitalized him. I’m told that my uncle was among several partisans sitting in the back of a resistance truck, the kind with a canvas tarpaulin covering the back. The truck driver inadvertently trundled up to an unexpected military check-point. Realizing the danger, the driver stomped on the gas, swerved past the checkpoint barrier, but one of the ground-troops managed to lob a grenade. My uncle was near the back. Knocked unconscious, he was bloodied, blinded, and crippled on his right side. The bodies of the other partisans shielded him. I wanted to know more. My mother kept crocheting. ‘What happened to Uncle Joe, later on?’ This fall it’s been unseasonably warm. A reprieve. Sun dances lightly on shifting shadows beneath the backyard maple. I watch yellow leaves swirl across the lawn. There is a light breeze, and I really should be outside raking. But it is so comfortable in this kitchen and I don’t want to miss what she will say when the spirit moves her. ‘Today is the first of the month.’ ‘October is veļu mēnesis, the spirit moon, the time when they return among us.’ I nod and sip my lukewarm tea. 1If you like, I’ll read your cards.’ I nod again. She puts down the crocheting and clears the table. I think today we should light a candle. She hands me the cards. ‘Shuffle the deck and think about what was behind you.’ I’ve had these readings since boyhood. They always start the same way and are almost always right. It’s uncanny but I no longer question it. When I was younger, I thought she was eavesdropping on my conversations over the phone, or learning of my activities some other way, and as a devoted mother was using the readings to warn me of my own stupidity. It drove me crazy. I surreptitiously hid magazines under the mattress, foolishly forgetting that she was the one who usually changed the sheets. Now, she’s old, lame in one leg, her one good ear is almost deaf. I have to find the right frequencies when I speak, so that her hearing-aid picks up my words. I know she can’t overhear any of my conversations, so I reason there must be something else to her card readings. I let her talk. The hearing aid never seems to work correctly, but I’ve learned that silence and simple gestures work as well as words. She lights the candle and we begin. ‘Now cut the cards three times towards yourself.’ I know this without her saying it, but sometimes she uses a different approach, so I quietly follow directions. She observes the cards in three piles and says, ‘It’s good. You are no longer dwelling on the past, but there is an open space before you. You don’t know what to do yet. Give it time.’ We begin. She starts laying out cards on the table. I remember the day she told me about how she learned this ritual. I was only half-paying attention, mildly intrigued and slightly bored during that ordinary summer day. I remember her words, about how it was, back in the old country, on the farm they used to have. Gypsies coming from the south would visit them in Daugavpils, on route to Riga. There were so many stories about those strange visitors. Daugavpils, sometimes called Dvinsk is near the Russian, Polish and Lithuanian borders. Her neighborhood was mostly Roman Catholic and Jewish. Earlier during the war, the Nazis rounded up the Jews, and my mother visited her former neighbours in the prison camp. It was dangerous. Had the guards known she was bringing food, they would’ve shot her. A blithe smiling girl of fifteen smuggling dark rye bread and other goods in her school bag. She was ‘just visiting’. They indulged her. What could such a young girl do? Sometimes they questioned her on the way out. ‘What did you talk about?’ ‘Not much, the weather, how long they’ve been here. How long they might have to wait before they get out.’ She knew the right answers.
[Continued in The Razor’s Edge]