Once I went through puberty, my mother said I had to stop skipping. The sacred little home that God has put inside you, she said, for a baby to grow in, could be injured. It’s loose in there, and it might jar, or get tipped, so you wouldn’t be able to have children.
Growing up was all like that. Finally, after ten years of watching me be Daddy’s girl, learning to box, tail-saw, shingle a roof, crack a hardball right over the school, she could move in and say Welcome To Womanhood: here’s a list of four thousand things you’ll never do again. She had me, Gretal, in her cage. She was, bless her, inside the cage herself, but back then neither of us knew that. (“Skipping”)
I remember doing a reading in 2004 at the Windsor Festival of the Book with London, Ontario writer Jean McKay and being amazed; where has she been hiding all this time? McKay, the original co-founder (with Stan Dragland) of Brick: A Literary Journal (as well as being poet Don McKay’s first wife), has apparently been publishing books for years, but the only one I’ve managed to get my hands on is her collection of short fiction, The Dragonfly Fling (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1992). She must have at least a couple more titles (I would like to find more), but her bio mentions only (obviously) the previous, her “autobiographical novel” Gone to Grass (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1983), which won the Gerald Lampert Award for prose that year, apparently.
In Windsor, I remember being extremely taken with her odd bits of prose, and it’s taken me this long to find any of her work, in a little collection of stories that wrap around each other like a novel that isn’t a novel (Sarah Manguso’s little story collection Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, published in 2007 by McSweeney’s Books, comes to mind). The repetitions that thread through the collection certainly help, whether the three stories titled “from the Dragonfly Notebook,” or the linked stories “Last memory one,” “Last memory two” and “Last memory three.” The stories almost wrap around each other like dna strands, interlinking not quickly but eventually, in odd stories writing memories, grocery lists and domestic matters, the surreal aspects of small neighbourhood stories and what happens between a person and perhaps another person. How can a writer with a blurb from Annie Dillard that reads “Jean McKay is one of North America’s finest writers” be so invisible, so disappeared, so immediately unknown? Just what has she published since, and is she still going? Where did she go?
Yesterday my nose got itchy. I scratched it. It didn’t help. I buried it in a mound of fresh-chopped onions. It didn’t help. I phoned my mother. She said, it means you’re going to kiss a fool. I’ve tried that, I said, it didn’t work out. She had nothing else to offer. I phoned my spiritual advisor. He said I should go out to a graveyard at midnight and ram my nose up a cat’s ass. I decided to switch churches. (“The nose”)
Like small jewels, these stories set together can’t help but interplay, a series of stories on domestic scenes and even domestic matters; a dream, the story of a lost child, an early memory; do they connect at all, or does it even matter? The question remains, what does a novel mean? Is it made out of stories or story or all of the above? Another of her shorter pieces, here’s the entirety of the story “Introspection”:
Okay, so suppose one day’s worth of events does go into one brain cell, I guess I can give you that, let’s adopt it for a working model, but we have to account for overlap, for the fact that a quick sudden sight of a kid pulling a pike out of the water under a railway trestle can activate a good half-dozen memories, all unlooked for, suddenly accessed from their own day’s-worth brain cells, where they were quietly tucked dozing away in a row in the archival fridge. And does this day’s brain cell include all of that? Or is there a night-staff who straighten out the flies while we sleep, put the grumbling brain cells of the previous days who were so rudely called upon to cough up their memories back in order? And are they then untouched, the same as they were? Or if, on some idle ramble, we’re rummaging through that older day, will we not shoot suddenly forward to today’s kid, today’s pike and trestle, and then not splatter laterally, headlong, into all those other glistening singing images?