The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie
When I was at university, I worked for a while in a department store’s take-away food section. That meant serving the public, and the thing about the public is that while most people are perfectly fine, it’s not most people you remember.
The ones you remember are people like the minor celebrity who came indoors on a cloudy day wearing dark glasses, which made you stare at them until you realised they were a celebrity ostentatiously looking inconspicuous so that people would stare at them; or the guy who held up two bottles of water from the chiller cabinet, one in each hand, and asked me which one was colder; or the countless, countless people who asked me if they could mix the pick’n’mix. Yes, I would say, you may pick it and you may mix it.
I still to this day don’t eat pick’n’mix.
I like people. The public though? Those people are weird.
Martha Baillie’s fine novel The Incident Report draws on her experience working in the Toronto Public Library. I hope nobody ever held two books up to her asking which one was longer.
The book’s written in the form of library incident reports. These are forms that have to be filled in when an incident occurs in a public library, “including a Suspect Identification Chart.” There’s a template form right at the start of the book. The librarian filling them in is Miriam Gordon, thirty five years old, single, her official job title recently changed from “Clerical” to Public Service Assistant”.
The first few reports seem straightforward enough, descriptions of odd patrons at the library, but the librarian writing them includes details that almost certainly aren’t required. Here’s an early example:
Incident Report 7
At 2:20 this afternoon, the unusually pale female patron who suggested, a few days ago, that I deserved to be placed in a cage, walked briskly into the library. She was clothed in blue jogging shorts and a white tennis skirt, which she wore as if it were a Roman toga, the waistband slung confidently over her right shoulder. The crisp white pleats released themselves in a fan across her chest. We did not speak. She found what she wanted without my assistance. She left. Almost skipping with delight. Sunlight fell through the windows in broad swaths. A man looked up from his book and smiled.
The patron had previously been abusive, so writing up her return seems arguably fair enough (though she doesn’t do anything this time). The details though about sunlight, about a man smiling? There’s no library-approved reason for those.
Soon the reports become stranger yet, filled with personal details, with Miriam’s history, reports going far beyond the intended purpose of the forms. These are the incident reports of her life. Here’s another early example:
Incident Report 10
When I was eighteen, someone broke my heart. Within the period of a week, without warning, the love in my breast became opaque and hardened into a substance resembling glass. A few well-placed blows, and my heart shattered. One of these blows was administered over the telephone. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I slammed down the receiver. I was still living with my parents. I rushed out the front door without stopping to pull on my coat or boots. The freezing air slapped my cheeks; it plunged down my throat into my unsuspecting lungs. My father, who happened to be clearing the front walk, tossed aside his shovel and ran after me across the lawn, his feet breaking the crust, sinking into the deep snow. When he’d caught up, he took me in his arms. I present this memory in my father’s defense whenever I take him to trial, as I often do, laying my fears and shyness, my crippling self-doubt, at his feet.
As the book continues, part-stories emerge. A library patron may be stalking Miriam, leaving excerpts of the score to Rigoletto and notes suggesting the writer sees himself as Miriam’s protector. She begins a romance outside the library, reflects on her past and above all on her relationship with her father. Her life starts to unpack in the form of scattered reports, scattered incidents.
It sounds gimmicky, and I suppose it is, but Baillie pulls it off and the book’s a joy to read so it’s good gimmicky.
As the novel progresses it becomes both a mystery and a love story, or perhaps mysteries because many of the patrons featured in the reports are regulars and come with their own stories, their own pasts. These mysteries aren’t solvable. A librarian may see that a patron carries signs of old traumas, mental scars, but a librarian isn’t a private detective and the mystery walks out the door with the patron and their chosen books.
The greater mystery is Miriam’s relationship with her father, a man she blames for her own timidity and failings, such as they are (and her failings seem small ones). The tragedy of his life emerges from the incident reports too, but as with the library patrons we only have a partial view of him, a child’s view here, and we can never know what he carried with him, what happened when Miriam wasn’t there to see its effects.
Against all this is the love story, with Janko, a Slovenian painter and refugee who now drives a cab. A new love is a new future, a looking outwards instead of in. Miriam then is poised between the trap of her history and the possibility of her life yet unlived, as of course we all are.
The reports themselves are mostly less than a page long, sometimes a single sentence (the quotes above are both entire reports). There’s 144 of them in total and the whole book is only 195 pages long (including the template report). It’s a quick and easy read, in many ways ideal for a commute where you can read a few reports, consider them and return the next day or on the way home. It’s also an unusually gentle read, save one incident of great drama near the end which for me felt slightly at odds with the rest of the book’s tone and that I think could possibly have been avoided (though it’s not for me to tell Baillie how to write her own book).
The Incident Report is also often very funny. Much of the book is melancholic, Miriam’s past isn’t a happy one and it’s soon evident that the library is a sort of refuge for the human flotsam of a society that has no other place for those who aren’t economically contributing, but the sheer oddness of people and the deadpan nature of Baillie’s style makes it hard not to laugh. Here’s one final quote:
We have no reason to believe the patron found these titles [books relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict] particularly arousing. It is true, however, that the books most favoured by determined masturbators are those located at the back of the library. These include Fine Art, Poetry, Plays, Literary Criticism and History.
As has probably come across by now I rather loved this one. Fiction often struggles with normal lives, and in particular with lives that are undramatically damaged, ordinarily flawed. Baillie here isn’t trying to write the Great Canadian Novel, whatever that might be, and her book is all the better for it. I sometimes describe the sorts of books that tend to win Booker prizes as widescreen novels (a term originally coined by John Self I think). Big canvas novels covering countries, generations, making grand statements about human lives and society and the ever-popular but never defined human condition. Narrow focus novels though can be much more interesting, and perhaps more truthful.
As a final word, it’s worth mentioning that physically The Incident Report is a beautiful object, Baillie’s publishers Pedlar Press really did her proud. It’s well bound on excellent quality paper and just a pleasure to hold. If any authors should happen to read this you should get a copy of this and wave it at your own publisher. If all books were printed as well as this kindles wouldn’t be nearly so popular as they are.
For another review of The Incident Report you can’t do better than that by Kevinfromcanada, here, which first brought the book to my attention. Martha Baillie’s own website is here, for those who’ve not heard her name before (I hadn’t before Kevin). Her stuff is hard to get in the UK, this is only available I think because it was listed for the Giller Prize. Next time I’m in Canada therefore I’ll have to see if she’s better stocked there, and hope that she is.