Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Diane Schoemperlen, Double Exposures

IN TWO YEARS, Anna will be drowned in a boating accident on Cameo Lake. her hair is water-coloured when they find her and Natalie wants to think that the silver fish swimming into her mouth are coming out poems. But everyone assures her it couldn’t be true.

Stewart Bush will blame himself for Anna’s death because he was drunk in the boat at the time. Natalie was minding the baby. After the funeral, Stewart will take the baby to his parents’ home in Michigan, where his father owns a car lot. He will stay there and take over the business when his father retires.

But of course this story isn’t true yet in 1951.

Working further to complete my own “house: a (tiny) memoir,” and hoping to have a completed manuscript sometime over the next few months, I’ve been recently going through Kingston writer Diane Schoemperlen’s first book, Double Exposures (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984). Discovered in late November in a used bookstore in Toronto, the construction she uses for this first novel compares some to my own project, writing small prose passages from old family photographs, yet hers, writing a fiction instead of my own project, relating directly as memoir. As she writes in the acknowledgements to the book: “Although the photographs are of actual people, the story itself is a work of the imagination and the characters and events which it describes are fictional.”

What exactly makes up the story of family photographs? How exactly does a story get told? My project is obviously very different, but on the surface, precisely the same, writing out a story of the photographs, writing out, to the best of my knowledge, what is “true.”

THE BABY IS HEALTHY and good. They name her Susan Kathleen. The mother baths her on a towel spread over the kitchen table. Everyone admires the baby’s big brown eyes and, in fact, it seems that the rest of her body grows to fit them. The mother worries about her endlessly, wondering if she is going to be brilliant or die young or what. There is no way of knowing. The father, who has never been a father before, assures her that’s just the risk you have to take. He is always taking pictures of the baby. Now the parents can’t imagine what life was like, what they were like, before Susie came along. She is everything they ever wanted and more.

What I like about these pieces, among all the threads she weaves through a story, surrounding the narrator’s parents when the narrator is small (and before), is in how so many of the small fragments hint at further length and extended stories not told but merely hinted at, go simply no further, and whisper and what doesn’t need to be said. Still, some of the sections get a bit awkward to follow, shifting from first to third person and back, between parts, all meant to be kept track of inside the reader’s own head.

A recurring structure that seems to come through Schoemperlen’s works are just how she incorporates other strands, writing either from or with various images, found words in the dictionary or any other kind of structured accident, writing ephemera out of ephemera until it finds the magic of its own particular shape. Do you remember the novel she wrote a decade or so back, writing each section out of a random word from the dictionary? Still, this book makes me wonder, what would the shape of her Double Exposures be, all these years later, if she were to revisit the images, and write out the same photographs as straight memoir?

DAN AND NATALIE’s apartment in Bayside is one of four built over a bakery. My mother still hates the smell of baking bread. They call it ‘the suite’ and make it more homey with ivy wallpaper and appliquéd cushions. Natalie is always repainting things while Dan’s away at work.

The people next door are always making noise, always arguing and letting the baby cry himself to sleep, moving furniture, rattling pots and pans, slamming doors, dropping knives and forks on the linoleum, singing sad country songs. Natalie thinks the husband beats the wife.

Dan buys a second-hand car and takes all the neighbourhood boys for rides on Sunday afternoon. Sometimes he charges them a nickel just for a joke. My mother will never learn how to drive.

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