Monday, April 09, 2012

Jean McKay, Exploded View: Observations on Reading, Writing and Life

This morning the parking lot beside the library was empty. It was seven o’clock, it had only been light for half an hour. Even the coffee shop was still closed. A full moon was setting behind the church spire, insubstantial in the lightening sky. I looked at the completely unremarkable parking lot, thought ahead three hours to the bustle of the fall plant exchange.

How would it differ from the way I was imagining it? Nothing ever pans out the way you expect it to.

When my father died, and I flew home from Saskatoon, fresh baby sitting on my lap, nothing would do for my mother but that we should have a bouquet of roses and baby’s breath beside his picture, on a table in the church narthex.

This became my task. No florist had baby’s breath. I had brought along a breathing baby, but it wouldn’t do; we were flummoxed by alternate meanings.

“Surely,” my mother said, “somebody in the congregation must have some in their garden.” She gave me the church membership list.

Hello. You don’t know me, but I’m ───’s daughter. He died yesterday. My mother wonders if you have any baby’s breath in your garden.

I made only one of these absurd calls. Then I came to my senses, put my foot down firmly on my mother’s wishes, and insisted on fern fronds.

Thirty-two years ago this week. And this morning a woman brought baby’s breath to the plant exchange. As I’d predicted, here was the unpredictable.

Now it’s planted in my garden, tucked in between a clump of daisies and the coreopsis. So the next time he dies, I’ll simply go to the garden with my scissors. Here, Mother, here’s plenty. (“Negative Space”)
I finally managed to get my hands on a copy of London, Ontario writer Jean McKay’s out of print novel-as-short-stories, Exploded View: Observations on Reading, Writing and Life (Douglas & McIntyre, 2001). The original co-founder (with Stan Dragland) of Brick: A Literary Journal, this is only the second title of hers I’ve managed to find, after her short story collection, The Dragonfly Fling (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1992) [see my review of such, here]. I might call this a novel, but am I reading into what hasn’t been claimed? Exploded View is a striking abecedarian of short fictions, collecting fragments of observational, meditational stories set up in an unlikely pattern. The stories are quite unusual for in just how they strike, and tell their larger stories, twisting and turning into each other, allowing her sage observations to float to the surface. McKay’s stories are as smart as any I’ve seen, demanding the strictest attention, as they weave through concepts, memoir, narrative and any sort of relation. Given her book’s subtitle, there is something about Exploded View that seems closer to, say, Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti’s The Chairs Are Where The People Go, subtitled “How to Live, Work, and Play in the City” (Faber and Faber, 2011) than most of the other works of fiction over the past decade or so. How is it her work isn’t wider known? This work is long out of print, only (finally) found via The Book Depository, various other avenues exhausted. And this collection, now, is over a decade old. Might there be another in the works, and perhaps, another after that?

We’re getting to the end, picking our way through the dark thicket of the final letters. This is the alphabet’s outback, letters that give rise to prickly words of myth and science.

That little family in the trailer didn’t have room to turn, and had to back all the way to the beginning. The mother of the other little family, mother of the bedtime story, was teaching her children how to turn time inside out and reminisce in reverse.

As a mere classification tool, the alphabet has a short shelf life. People change their names, get married, die or move, and directories deteriorate. Even this book’s plan is restless. It seemed a simple matter at the offset, an entry for each letter, but now there are two each for g, j and m, and “Intermezzo” breaks into song.

Why am I dawdling here, killing time, when the journey’s almost done? I feel a bite in the October wind, there are storms in the North Atlantic. It will be winter soon, and the book will be finished. Then what will we all do?

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