“Is this what a life is? Someone, in the middle of cleaning the bathroom, remembers you tasting the ocean on your fingers long after you’re gone. Someone draws that out of the fog, draws out that memory, detached from circumstance, not locatable on a timeline” (115-116).
I can’t remember who told me this, but someone told me once that their hope when they die is not that their friends and family will remember them on birthdays or holidays, but that those they love might pick ‘ordinary’ days each year to remember and celebrate the dead. This idea resonated with me – with my own fears about creating meaning and being remembered. You might be able to tell that I’m in the position of not yet experiencing the death of someone so close to me (though loss is another matter – let’s come back to that). And then I read Lisa Moore’s incredible February. The book showed me that grief and memory doesn’t need to be requested or planned. No date scheduled. Moore’s book takes readers inside a grief that is perpetual, with shape and contour and bite. It follows Helen and her family in the years before, during and after the Newfoundland Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster, during which Helen’s husband, Cal, dies.
At first I found the novel slow. I kept waiting for big chunky plot elements. Not realizing that in the incremental layering of small family moments that Moore was working literary magic: heaping these tiny details of family life and love to the point that this reader ached with the catastrophe of the loss. It wasn’t until three quarters in when I realized the sub-plot of John was just that – a sub-plot – that I recognized the point of the book. I guess that’s my failing as a reader, or my suggestion to you that if you start out and find yourself wondering ‘what’s this all about’ that you keep reading. You keep reading to discover that it’s all about how the small is the epic.
Aside: It’s a little over a week until the Eden Mills Writers Festival. If you live in the Greater Toronto Area you might consider visiting. Many of my favourite authors will be there reading (think Lawrence Hill, Sean Michaels, Camilla Gibb, Anne Marie MacDonald, John Valliant, Elizabeth Hay). And the ever fabulous Guelph Poetry Slam Team will be there performing. Better still: *I’ll* be there. And if you want to meetup, you should let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ali Smith’s *How to be Both* has a bit of a gimmick. The book is divided into two, free-standing – if entirely inter-related – halves: “camera” and “eyes.” In half of the books printed and sold the section “camera” begins the book; in the other half of the books printed and sold the book begins with “eyes.” Whether you pick up a book that begins with “camera” or “eyes” is entirely chance (unless, I suppose, if you went looking for a particular starting point). One of the questions the book asks, then, is how the framing of a story – its order, narrator, what you already know about the story – changes its interpretation. It asks the question in its form – camera or eyes? – but then throughout as we explore how a teenage girl grapples with her mother’s death and asks similar questions about what she can know about her mother, what she can know about what her mother saw and did, based on the remaining frames and her memory. So, too, we explore it in the the story in the realm of art and art history, asking what we as viewers bring to an interpretation, whether our own biographies or our own sense of what the picture ought to mean based on where it is placed (a gallery or museum), what it stands next to, the notoriety of its painter, the legacy of the work.
While reading How to Be Both and knowing the split – the purposeful division and the call to think about how stories are framed in the very structure of the narrative – this reader couldn’t help but – and here’s the genius of the book (or the gimmick?) ask how my interpretation was inevitably being shaped, purposefully being manipulated by order. So of course I’m more attached to the first half of the book (I read it with “Eyes” beginning) because this is the story that came to me first, that I attached to first, that I connected with first (obviously primacy has some resonance for me). I can’t possibly know now – without magic, that is – how I’d react if I’d read “Camera” first – I certainly tried, knowing it was impossible, to hold these two ideas in balance at the same time. It is, then, a sort of formal-genius to use the form to so brilliantly work at the reader’s engagement with the content.
On the content – knowing I can’t really separate here (or ever) from the form – I’m less inclined to declare genius and more to say very good. There’s something playful in the absences of dialogue tags and curious disorientation as we’re dropped into the middle of an already unfurling (and recoiling, and reverberating) story, working as detectives to figure out who characters are, what the plot threads are, where we are in time and space (what genre we’re in, for that matter). It’s playful but also a lot of cognitive work to keep the layers and threads in order – or in purposeful disorder – as well as to be mulling the formal qualities and the readerly tensions. It’s like we have to be both immersed in the narrative and outside the text considering how our reading is shaping the meaning. We have to be both as readers reading about how to have two things that you can’t have at the same time happen at the same time. Not that play can’t be work (or vice versa), just an alert that you may want to read this one fully focused and not in short bursts – it’s not something that you can read two pages of, put down and come back without re-reading those two pages. So read it, but read it slowly and watch while you also experience the genius of form-content-reader-interpretation happen to you while you read about.