Category Archives: Canadian fiction

There are moments when time dilates like the pupil of an eye, to let everything in.

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.

Incident Report

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.

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Filed under Baillie, Martha, Canadian fiction

The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Englishman’s Boy is a 1997 work by Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe, addressing issues relating to the settlement of the American and Canadian West and the myths it gave rise to. The novel follows two narrative strands: one in 1873, the other (narrated restrospectively in 1953) 50 years later in 1923 Hollywood. It is a novel of history, myth, and the role of both in shaping nations. Vanderhaeghe here deals in new territories, geographic and psychological, including the new territory of film, a medium with a profoundly democratic appeal and with an ability to create a new type of narrative – a new mythology.

The novel opens in my view fairly weakly, with two Indian horse thieves (one almost stereotypically wise compared to the white men he steals from) taking twenty horses from a group of sleeping men. The scene itself is well painted, Vanderhaeghe is a master at describing cold landscapes, the still of the night, but the patient Indian essentially horse-whispering while the oblivious Whites slept for me bordered on cliche.

Vanderhaeghe then surprised me, moving briefly into 1953 and then back to 1923, as follows:

I typed four names. Damon Ira Chance. Denis Fitzimmons. Rachel Gold. Shorty McAdoo. I sat and stared at their names for some minutes, then I typed a fifth, my own. Harry Vincent.
I did not know how to continue. It’s true that once I was a writer of a sort, but for thirty years I’ve written nothing longer than a grocery list, a letter. I went to the window. From there I could see the South Saskatchewan River, the frozen jigsaw pieces bumping sluggishly downstream, the cold, black water streaming between them. A month ago, when the ice still held, a stranger to this city would have had no idea which way the river ran. But now, the movement of the knotted ice, of the swirling debris, makes it plain.
So begin, I told myself.

History is calling it a day. Roman legionaries tramp the street accompanied by Joseph and Mary, while a hired nurse in uniform totes the Baby Jesus. Ladies-in-waiting from the court of the Virgin Queen trail the Holy Family, tits cinched flat under Elizabethan bodices sheer as the face of a cliff. A flock of parrot-plumed Aztecs are hard on their heels. Last of all, three frostbitten veterans of Valley Forge drag flintlocks on the asphalt roadway.

This is bravura stuff. We have the cast introduced, the five central characters who will drive the 1923 narrative. We have the imagery of the cold, the ice, we know that whatever happens in 1923 it will not end well for Harry, his amibitions of becoming a screenwriter (rather than a mere title-card writer) will end with him no longer being a writer at all. So too we have myth and history, the extras leaving the lot, a mishmash of dreams of what was. Many of the novel’s key themes are right there, in those two short paragraphs.

Vincent is called before studio boss Chance, an unprecedented interview given Chance’s reclusivity and Vincent’s junior status. We learn that Chance wants to make a new sort of film, to create a new American myth, and that to do so he wants access to the memories of an aged extra who was there in the Old West and who lived the truth Chance wants on celluloid. Chance sends Vincent to track down that old extra, Shorty McAdoo, but McAdoo’s experiences ended in tragedy and horror and he has no wish to revist those times or see his memories turned into fiction.

On the way to all this, however, Vanderhaeghe mixes his undoubted talent for description with several pages of blatant infodumping. It is explained who Fatty Arbuckle was and what happened to him, so showing the fickle nature of fame in early Hollywood. There is more than than two consecutive pages describing the life and work of the hugely influential director DW Griffith, a section which opens with the to me mystifying remark that “I don’t suspect the name [Griffith] means much to anyone now, except the most avid film buffs.” Vanderhaeghe simply spends too long lecturing the reader here for my tastes, after the first 30 pages or so this thankfully ceases and Vanderhaeghe instead trusts his own considerable talents to communicate the period to us, organically, within the writing.

The 1923 chapters alternate with the 1873 chapters, which tell the tale of the eponymous Englishman’s Boy – a young man who has found service in the pay of an English big game hunter and who on that man’s death joins a party of men tracking the Indian horse thieves. The expedition heads North, over the border into Canada and into lands to which no law extends, the “Whoop-Up Country” as it was apparently known, populaced by Indians, traders, outlaws and half-breeds. From the interviews with McAdoo in 1923, and from the nature of the men on the expedition, we know that like the career of Harry Vincent this will not end well.

Unusually, both storylines are equally interesting and entertaining. Vincent’s search for McAdoo, their strained interviews, Chance’s dream of being the next (but greater) Griffith and of uniting America through the medium of film, this is fascinating stuff. So too is the expedition the Englishman’s boy joins, led by the vicious Hardwick and with its own cast of colourful yet credible hard men of the Old West. The expedition travels through harsh conditions and landscape, fording rivers, dealing with natives and its own internal tensions. Vanderhaeghe conjures up the vast and empty landscape, the small band crossing it, with real skill.

Part of what Vanderhaeghe is bringing out of course, with these two doomed enterprises (and of course we know that no great Western movie did create a new American myth), is the youth of America. The 1873 expedition, alone in all that emptiness, is just fifty years before the bustling new Hollywood of 1923 in which the rules of a new art are being created on an almost daily basis. 1953, when the novel is ostensibly written, is itself within the lifetime of a man who met and talked with a member of that expedition. The timeframes are brief, the transformation of America huge, it is a country with a past so recent it is almost yesterday.

For Damon Ira Chance, this lack of history is a challenge, a call to arms. America is too young, too new, to be a real nation. It lacks myth. It lacks a voice of its own. In cinema, the aptly named Chance sees an opportunity to change that. Here Chance speaks to Vincent of his first time seeing a movie, and his sudden understanding of the power of this new medium:

When I left that nickelodeon, I took something important away with me. The knowledge that the new century was going to be a century governed by images, that the spirit of the age would express itself in an endless train of images, one following upon the other with the speed of the steam locomotive that was the darling of the last century and symbolised all its aspirations.

America is not the only nation without yet a true identity of its own. Canada too is in question. It’s history equally short, it’s voice equally unfound and cinema is America’s answer, not Canada’s. Here Vincent explains to his best friend, Jewish head writer Rachel Gold, why he is working for Chance and why he believes in his project of the Great American Film:

‘… Immigrants can’t read English. Whitman is for the elite. But everybody goes to the movies. It’s the movies that have the chance of making everybody – the immigrant, the backwoods Kentuckian, the New York cab driver, maybe even the Ivy League Professor – all feel the same thing, feel what it means to be an American. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are all very well, but constitutions make states, they don’t make a people.’
“And you’re a Canadian Harry. So why is a Canadian so concerned about teaching Americans how to be American?’
‘Because I chose this place. And I’m not the only one in Hollywood. America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, was born in Toronto; Louis B. Mayer came from Saint John, New Brunswick; Mack Sennett was raised in Quebec. Canada isn’t a country at all, it’s simply geography. There’s no emotion there, not the kind that Chance is talking about. There are no Whitmans, no Twains, no Cranes. Half the English Canadians wish they were really English, and the other half wish they were Americans….’

In both countries, the frontier has been conquered, but the countries built on it remain unfinished. Vincent is sucked into Chance’s vision, wants to be part of it. He looks to Chance, his larger and more colourful acquaintance, as a man who can lend purpose to his own lack of direction. Chance sees Vincent as a fellow spirit, offers him the chance to write the new movie’s script, takes him into his confidence.

Both stories progress in many ways as one would expect, I will not go into plot here but it is hardly a spoiler to say that Vincent discovers that Chance may not be wholly rational, that his vision of America may not ultimately be one that Vincent will want to be part of, that the truth learnt from McAdoo may not be what Chance wishes it to be. Similarly, the expedition of which the Englishman’s boy is part is not one that is likely to return successfully with the guilty punished and the innocent spared. History at the end it is simply what happens, myth what we tell ourselves about it afterwards.

The Englishman’s Boy is not a flawless novel. The early infodumps, the depictions of Indians in the few scenes where they have their own narrative voice (one scene even implies an ability to see the future in dreams, though thankfully it does not make the truth of such a gift the only possible interpretation), the curious conceit that throughout the entire 1873 expedition nobody ever seems to think to ask the Englishman’s boy’s name and so he is referred to by that rather clumsy title for the entire novel, all this is problematic.

All the above problems are though but a small part of the novel. Vanderhaeghe’s feel for the collision of truth and dreams, for the bloody consequences of conviction, for the reality of a literally lawless country, all this is well captured. When violence erupts, it is convincing. Vanderhaeghe brings early Hollywood, it’s madness and vision and sheer sense of possibility, to life.

Above all, Vanderhaeghe displays a genuine gift for description. The detail of his internal locations is reminiscent of that in much 19th Century literature, sufficient to create an almost cinematic image. Where he truly shines though is with landscape, wilderness, which he brings impressively to life:

… they walked their horses on under an impassive sky dappled with handfuls of torn white cloud flying before the wind like cottonwood fluff. Men and horses blinking in and out of the eye of the sun, cloud shadows overtaking and ecompassing them and racing on, patches of darkness sailing over the billowing grass like blue boats running before a storm. Anetelope and mule-tail, prairie chickens and jack-rabbits, coyotes and fox and grouse started out of the sage, flashed across the emptiness at their approach.

The Englishman’s Boy is just over 400 pages long. In that length it packs a story of Hollywood hubris, an ill-fated expedition into the badlands of 19th Century Canada, an Indian massacre and a meditation on the nature of myth as a way of interpreting the messy past. It is, the problems mentioned above aside, extremely well written and is worth reading for the evocation of place and time alone. Vanderhaeghe was recommended to me by Kevin of http://www.kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com, and it is a recommendation I appreciate. I shall be ordering The Last Crossing, another of Vanderhaeghe’s thoughtful westerns, and look forward to reading it in due course.

The Englishman’s Boy

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Filed under Canadian fiction, Historical fiction, Vanderhaeghe, Guy, Westerns