Jun 172013

Watching movies is a sentimental education. They work through images and change the way we feel, especially if they come at an impressionable moment. Strange how, for reasons of history and empire, a boy in southwestern Ontario grew up humming an Australian bush song and learned his politics watching the Australian actor Chips Rafferty in Eureka Stockade (1949), fighting for justice  in the Ballarat Goldfields on the family’s first black and white TV in the late 1950s. I don’t suppose anyone else remembers Chips Rafferty, and looking at him now he is hardly leading man material. But there you are. Much later the great Australian films Gallipoli and Breaker Morant served to upend my view of self and history, my historical self, with their mutinous revision of Australia’s glorious Imperial past (which, it seemed, applied equally to Canada’s Imperial past). I give you here first Eureka Stockade, the entire movie [actually, the entire movie has disappeared from Youtube; I can only give you a clip for now, and not the final battle scene at that], made at the famous Ealing Studios in England. I was a boy when I saw this, as I say, completely enthralled with Chips Rafferty, my hero-idol for years (though I only saw the movie once). Then the famous Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle performing his song “The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda” which turns the famous bush ballad upside down, into a lament for the gallant spirit of a country that bought the British imperial blarney about loyalty to the Mother country and saw its boys wasted in an unforgivable debacle. Then I give you the last scene from Gallipoli where the Australians have been ordered to attack across open ground against Turkish machine guns (this is at Suvla Bay, the operational area referred to in Eric Bogle’s song). It’s a gorgeous sequence. Mel Gibson is racing with a message to call off the attack; his race against Death mirrors the boyhood race at the beginning of the movie — he loses both races. (Watches and time-keeping imagery throughout as well.) Then I give you last scene of Breaker Morant, the two Australians being executed as an example during the Boer War to save Imperial face after a so-called atrocity. Beautiful irony in the dialogue about “pagan.” The pagan trooper cites the precise Bible verse to cover his case; the chaplain has to look it up. As I say, these films educated me, not intellectually at first so much as sentimentally, changed the templates, transformed my view of Canadian history, the official version never to be trusted again, authority(ies) never to be trusted again. Just as I am sure these imaginary geographies will always be more real to me than the ones you find on maps (which are truly Imaginary). For Canadians, I suggest getting a copy of Tony Wilden’s The Imaginary Canadian, a Lacanian analysis of Canadian history now out of print.



Jun 152013

Ann Ireland

Iris and Lydia are watching a divinely tasteless tourist wedding on a beach in Mexic0, the ceremony punctuated by the recorded voice of the groom singing “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Ominously, the word “narcotraficantes” floats into the conversation, not given another thought, except that the reader knows, the READER KNOWS! Something will come of this. Iris is 78 and charges through life with a certain comic grandeur, tossing off Spanish phrases. Lydia, her daughter, is cautious, middleclass — her husband has “escaped” her. The air is one of golden sand and indolence. Attentive, amenable Mexican waiters humor the gringos with money; the wedding counterpoints Lydia’s anxious memories of a lost husband; a delightful irony suffuses the entire scene, coupled with threat. And, yes, we’ve only just begun.

This a section plucked from the opening of Contributing Editor Ann Ireland‘s novel-in-progress Where’s Bob. Her fourth novel The Blue Guitar was just published this spring.



‘That’s for us,’ Iris said, pointing to the final item on the activity menu. ‘Archery is excellent for balance and concentration. I always thought I might be good at it. But you must join me, in case I start to tip over.’

Squeals of laughter rose from the swimming pool where a member of the Star Team was conducting an aerobics class, though not very vigorously, judging by the unmanaged hopping up and down as salsa music blared from the speaker.

Lydia, Iris’s middle aged daughter, frowned, and not at the noise. ‘Not such a good idea, Mama, considering your fragile bits.’

‘I have no fragile bits,’ Iris insisted and gave her thigh a hearty slap. ‘You might say that I’m better than ever.’ The left hip had been replaced two years ago, an arduous couple of months, but well worth it. ‘I am perfectly intact in limb and joint, probably tougher than you, given the fact that there’s titanium in there.’ She paused and added in a softer tone: ‘We may as well have it out now on day one of our vacation: You are not to fuss about me.’

‘I don’t fuss,’ Lydia objected. But she sounded cross.

‘Tipping over refers to a slight tendency to vertigo. As your father might have said – ‘Expect the unexpected’ – and should a rescue be required, I’ll let you know, loud and clear.’ Iris smiled at the anticipated drama of such a moment, where her daughter, no spring chicken herself, might race across the beach to catch her teetering mother.

‘Got that?’

‘Do I have a choice?’ Lydia said.

‘You do not.’

 The two women, one tall and majestic (Iris), the other shorter and thin with sparse hair (Lydia) sloughed past the beach volleyball court where girls in bikinis lunged for the ball aided by bare-chested men, not all them young.  Long-limbed, the girls neighed like thoroughbreds, tossing blonde hair over shoulders.  Iris and Lydia treaded in their sandaled feet through the fine-grained sand of the Yucatan coast. To one side, the shore sloped to the turquoise sea which was scattered with bathers, who, for the most part, stood in place and let gentle surf wash over them. To the other side was La Piramide, a five star sprawling resort whose main building was shaped in the form of a Mayan pyramid. Their room was in the Toucan wing where public areas were painted cheerful tropical colors, as opposed to the Colonial wing with its tasteful dark wood and murals of the conquistadores. Everyone wore plastic wristbands indicating where they could dine and drink without having to worry about carrying money – Iris’s idea of heaven. Money, anywhere, in any manifestation, was a pain in the neck.

She stopped beside the end of the meandering swimming pool with its tiered series of waterfalls.

‘Have you ever imagined such a place?’ Iris said, taking in a long breath of sea air, tinged with coconut oil.

‘Not in my wildest dreams,’ Lydia said.

In her tone Iris detected a certain contempt, an easy disregard for the sort of people who demanded artificial waterfalls and non-stop entertainment when they left home, not to mention five restaurants, six bars, two buffets and a snack bar that was open 24/7. The sort of places Lydia and Charlie took the kids, when Lydia and Charlie were still a team, were proudly shabby, tiles missing in the bathroom, a toilet that didn’t quite flush, iffy water flow and air conditioning, a simple hostel in some off the beaten path, perhaps in Cuba. They would bring toothpaste and underwear to the chambermaids, if there were chambermaids, and a parcel of magic markers and exercise books for local school children.

The two women threaded between loungers laden with oiled-up vacationers, their eyes now fixed on the rustic hut where a trio of blenders scoured fruit into luridly colored cocktails.

Discreetly, Lydia tucked an arm under her mother’s elbow as the sand shifted and Iris had begun to sway. She was 78 and had suffered her share of surgeries in recent years.

‘Shoot me if I get like that,’ she spoke into in her daughter’s ear.

She indicated with a nod a hefty woman of advanced years (though not as advanced as Iris) lying on a cot – a woman who had peeled down the top of her bathing suit to reveal the upper portion of two massive freckled breasts. A fanned out copy of a Harry Potter novel rose and fell on her impressive belly.

‘No one has the right to let herself go to that degree,’ Iris continued, sotto voce. ‘It’s a disgrace.’

‘To womankind?’ Lydia supplied.

‘Exactly!’ Iris nodded, pleased that they were in agreement.

Iris held herself well and had retained a defined waistline that she was proud of;  her silver bathing suit featured a braided belt around the midriff and her feet were encased by strappy sandals– a pointed contrast to her daughter’s sensible espadrilles.

‘Ah, there’s my lad,’ Iris declared, arriving at the palapa, slightly breathless from the effort of crossing the beach. ‘Miguel!’ she hailed the young man in a crisp checked shirt who was operating a blender with one hand and pouring beer with the other. She fully expected him to remember her from last night when she and Lydia had arrived, hot, dirty, and fed up from the airline journey and the hour-long bus ride to the resort. Miguel had fortified them with jolts of tequila.

 Today he greeted her with a wide smile, for of course he remembered the gringa who spoke Spanish.

‘Por favor, toss us a couple of margaritas, con limon fresco,’ Iris said.

 The small crowd around the bar parted to make way for Iris, who didn’t seem to notice that she’d slipped to the head of the line: a prerogative of age. Iris looked so delighted that no one wanted to spoil her moment.

Her daughter offered an apologetic smile while Miguel set two foaming margaritas in plastic glasses on the sticky counter.

‘You got pesos for a tip?’ Iris whispered back to her daughter. Like the queen, she rarely carried money.

Lydia dug a coin from her beach bag and flipped it into the jar.

‘Now where shall we position ourselves?’ Iris said, spinning around, holding both drinks.

Lydia pointed to a shady area near the infinity pool. ‘I’ll take the booze over then come back for you.’

Iris frowned, as if she hadn’t heard. Soon she was beetling across the hot sand, making her way to a pair of loungers at the end of a row on the beach.

‘Mum!’ Lydia called sharply. ‘There are towels on them. They are occupied.’

Her mother called over her shoulder. ‘I see no occupants.’

As Iris pressed forward she thought it would have been wise to give the drinks to Lydia. But now she was stuck with them and crossing ridged sand that had been meticulously raked by staff in the morning, cigarette butts and other detritus collected into bags, not to mention the horse manure that cascaded from the rear ends of the sorry beasts that paraded up and down the beach at dusk. Iris set a grin firmly in place: this would not be the time to pitch forward and bust a limb,  sticking Lydia with the task of carting her off to some dubious hospital. She tossed back her blonde-and silver tinted hair, noting that people were watching her progress. Well hell’s bells, she was used to a certain amount of attention, and not just from geezers. She did not cater to the commonly held belief that women of  a certain age couldn’t hope to attract notice. A person creates her own visibility, insists on it.

She stood alone, wavering, barely keeping the margaritas upside. The sun was fierce. She felt her lips under crimson lipstick pucker in the salty air and she squinted, light bouncing off the water.

Lydia scampered to her side, grabbed the drinks, and said in an exasperated tone: ‘I’m doing my best.’

‘You are dear, I can see that.’

‘Just don’t go running off like that.’

Iris took advantage of the moment to gather her equilibrium. Time to slather on lotion, throw back a drink and get on with the business of relaxation.  You could tell where one one hotel property stopped and the next began by the color of the pillows on the loungers. Blue striped (theirs) became salmon pink at Mission de La Rosa.

‘I’m sorry, dear. Hard for me to slow down,’ Iris said, conciliatory. She’d raised such an earnest, well meaning sort of girl.

Lydia lifted her arm like a wing so that her mother could cling to it, and she wasn’t too proud to do so. Glancing down, Iris noted that Lydia had neglected to shave her legs; it was some sort of feminist thing, and Iris almost remarked on it – then decided not to. It was sometimes wise to keep one’s counsel. Lydia had been a sparky child, prone to singing and dancing about the house and  inventing imaginary friends; in other words, promising. I want an interesting child, not an obedient one, Iris used to say while other mothers cast disapproving glances. Perhaps most mothers felt this about their grown up children, a sad realization that they had become ordinary. Iris herself had never felt ordinary and no one had ever mistaken her as such.

They reached the cots, webbed plastic with gaily striped vinyl cushions, and a pair of damp towels – so Lydia was right about that: clear evidence of being claimed. Could be that young couple bobbing in the water close to shore.

‘Need help?’ Lydia said. She’d noted her mother staring, like an engineer, at the low slung pieces of furniture.

Whoever designed these loungers didn’t take into account that a segment of the population needed something to grab onto while dropping themselves to shin level.

Lydia wedged the drinks in the sand, giving each a half-turn so it screwed in, then offered her hand for Iris to clasp.

After a few scary seconds of hovering in no man’s land, followed by an alarming thud and a wheeze of vinyl –Iris was settled. In every way except flexibility the new hip was grand. Beside her, Lydia glided effortlessly onto the other lounger, draping the wet towel over its end. People must not claim turf that they didn’t need; if the world paid attention to this  basic principle they’d all be in less trouble.  Iris shut her eyes against the sun. She could hear the rustling of her daughter as she fetched a crossword puzzle book from her beach bag and set to work. Behind them a Mexican family, mother and father and two small children, chattered in Spanish, something about their aunt who would, or would not, be joining them this weekend. A slap of a card game to one side. A  thrilled shriek as an unexpectedly big wave rolled in.

‘Mum? Your drink. I’ll set it on the table next to you.’

Noises retreated; the body stretched into languor, muscles cramped from air travel released and it was like drowning in new air, giving up, limb by limb. Iris fell asleep for perhaps twenty minutes. When her eyes fluttered open, the Mexican family had disappeared, leaving cameras, books, towels and beach toys behind. Her drink, what was left of it, was baking in the sun, ice cubes long since dissolved. Lydia was sitting cross-legged on her cot, reading intently with a pen in hand, ready to underline pertinent passages.

Iris said in a lazy tone: ‘Are we allowed to mention Charlie?’

‘Of course,’ her daughter replied.

‘Because, no matter how this unfolds, he remains the father of your children.’

Lydia cast those huge brown eyes towards the glistening sea, as if the obvious had been spoken, as indeed it had. Cliches popped out of Iris’s mouth around Lydia. It was because she was trying to act ‘motherly’,  a role she’d never taken to in a natural way. It was Lydia’s father, Richard, Iris’s first husband, who used to point this out, saying  – ‘Not everyone is cut out to be Old Mother Hubbard.’

‘When you share kids, you share for good,’ Iris added.

This unoriginal comment warranted no reply.

Lydia continued to stare out to sea, a widow searching the horizon for her husband’s vessel. Charlie did disappear on water, though hardly in a whaling boat; he heaved off from the dock in his carefully restored Chestnut canoe, storm clouds bundling overhead, while Lydia stood barefoot on shore in her hippie dress, fretting about lifejackets and lightening strikes, worry escalating into pleas, then anger. Iris could imagine this scene all too easily.

Charlie was escaping.

That’s how Iris saw it, because she was a champion escaper  herself – and who could blame the poor man? Lydia made it out to be a spontaneous gesture, but Charles Kingsley had never been a man to act recklessly: his disappearance was most certainly plotted. By profession, he was vice principal at Danforth Technical and Vocational Collegiate in east end Toronto – hardly a pirate. He’d sent his mother in law a crisp email after the fact, a cryptic message that Iris had never shared with her daughter. It read simply: ‘Sorry.’

‘Have you heard from him lately?’ Iris asked.

‘We’re on speaking terms. Things to do with the kids.’

Well, that was something.

Iris would tread carefully. ‘How are Doug and Annie doing?’

‘Very well, thank you.’

‘I suppose they are angry.’

‘Of course they’re angry, Mum. A parent disappears one summer afternoon; it’s pretty traumatic.’

The arrow hit its mark, for Iris had done a similar bunk when her children were young, though you could hardly compare the two episodes: she had never claimed to be stable. She was as restless as a cat and it taught Lydia and her brother to expect the unexpected.

This sky was intensely blue, a color reflected in the sea, and these poor winter eyes creased into slits, to accommodate. Iris had left behind the enveloping fog of the Bay area, Lydia, her modest house in east end Toronto in the depths of winter, Doug not much use in the snow shoveling department or other manly tasks. According to his mother, he spent hours in his room with the door closed, eyes glued to the monitor of his computer. One could venture a guess as to what he was up to. She wondered if Lydia had a clue.

Lydia sipped blithely at her margarita. This was her first; Iris reached for her second: Gracias Miguel. Or was it Pedro?

‘Another couple of suckers enter marital hellfire,’ Lydia said, tucking her feet under her, letting the book slide off her lap. The crossword puzzle magazine had fallen to the sand.

A pair of young men in sharply pressed safari suits were hauling two Roman columns, each easily eight feet tall, off a dolly. With odd ease, for these props were made of styrofoam, they planted the columns upright in the sand. When this task was done, they unrolled a strip of red carpet leading up to a dais then set up rows of folding chairs, clicking them open with one foot. Destination weddings were all the rage.

‘Shall I warn the happy couple what they’re getting into?’ Lydia said.

The caustic tone didn’t suit her.

The sun was beginning to swell directly overhead, casting a shadowless heat over the proceedings. Then the wedding party began to arrive, women in breezy cocktail dresses and high heels picked their way over the stone walkway and onto the carpet, laughing and clinging to the elbows of male escorts who wore neat shorts and tropical shirts. Some of these shirts were monogramed with the name of the resort and sported a graphic of a pyramid.

Iris propped herself up up to see better. Lydia, despite her sneering, couldn’t keep her eyes off the ceremony and she shifted her lounger so that she had an unobstructed view. She wasn’t the only one to do this. All around them, scores of sunbathers tilted their visors for an unfettered gaze.

‘Senora,  you are finished?’ The young waiter hovered, one hand ready to grab the empty plastic cups.

Yes, estoy terminada. Iris used the opportunity to practice her Spanish: What is your name?


And where is your hometown?

‘Patzucaro, Michoacan.’

Unlike waiters at home in the United States, he didn’t feel the need to speed off to the next task.

‘Patzcuaro!’ She’d spent time there, many years ago–  ‘hace mucho anos’, had rented a house with – her memory failed her for a moment – with Jake the sculptor. It had been her second extended trip to this country. Such a beautiful mountain town with views over a reedy lake, though there had been word in recent years of goings-on due to the drug trade.

‘Muy bonito!’  she declared and she and Patricio exchanged nods of agreement. Back home in Berkeley, she always spoke to her Salvadorian cleaning lady in her native tongue.

Patricio’s smooth brow suddenly furrowed and he rattled off a sentence just as the wedding party began to blast that ballad from Titanic.

Iris cupped one hand by her ear, the universal symbol.

There were ‘problemitas’ in Michoacan, Patricio confided as he dropped the empty cups into his trash bag. Bad people. ‘Narcotraficantes.’

Mexico was plagued with violence from the drug cartels; she didn’t live in a cave. She’d read about the beheadings, assassinations, and dismembered bodies dropped into pails of acid. These ghastly events were mostly clotted along the border – but wasn’t the state of Michoacan noted for growing marijuana in the hills? Now there were meth labs. Tourists flocked to this beach in the Yucatan, under the illusion that resorts were immune from trouble – Iris knew better. The country had always been lawless. She and Jake were drinking mezcal in a cantina in Chiapas one evening when a borracho barreled  through the louvered doors and pulled out an antique gun and started firing at the bartender – everyone hit the floor, the terrified gringos included. No one was hurt, and the police eventually came along, piled in the back of a pick up truck, holding rifles and looking excited. The drunk had long since vanished.

Many gringos would have high-tailed back to the States at that point, but Iris’s opinion was –why travel if you want things to be the same as back home?

She fixed her gaze on Patricio, shielding her eyes with one hand. ‘What a difficult time for your country,’ she said.

The lad revived his tourist-friendly smile, even while nodding ‘yes’. Behind that smile, Iris decided, lurked a possible family catastrophe, perhaps a murder or kidnapping, or an uncle lost to meta-amphetamines. One did not know what hid behind the happy expressions that staff were obliged to wear, along with their crisply laundered uniforms. She glanced around at the other tourists – they didn’t have a clue. The knowledge swelled inside her: she had a bond with this country. She’d knocked around its mountains and deserts and beaches for many months, so long ago. She was about to say this to the young waiter, but he was suddenly gone and the little table was bare.

As Celine Dion’s voice crested towards the chorus, the wedding party continued to assemble, observed by the audience of oil-slicked, leathery tourists humped on loungers, dazed by sun and too many pina coladas. The bride and groom hadn’t anticipated onlookers when they’d pored over the brochures back home, photographs showing Romanesque columns and acres of empty sand and the glistening Caribbean sea. Brochures wouldn’t show that fat man with hairy shoulders emerging from the water, snorkel mask in hand, shorts dragging off his rear end, nor would they illustrate the squalling children tossing sand at each other at water’s edge. A  member of staff carrying a clipboard positioned herself to the side of the proceedings and politely fended off the curious in their drooping bathing suits, asking them to please not interfere with the photographers’ sight lines.  These tourists in flip flops seemed to want to stride into the middle of the event, one reality colliding with another. It reminded Iris of those Shakespeare productions back in the 1970’s, where the audience was obliged to take part in the action, shouting encouragement to Hamlet, or handing Lady Macbeth her dagger.

‘Maybe we’ll end up at the margins of their photos,’ Lydia said. As if preparing for this eventuality, she slipped into her crinkly blouse and fluffed up her hair. A photographer was busily snapping pictures as the party made their way to the folding chairs which balanced precariously on carpet laid over sand. A trickle of applause, and at last the bride appeared, click-clacking down the stone pathway, wearing a fairy dress of white chiffon, a camilla in her hair. That must be her father, a surprisingly young looking fellow in tropical shirt and khakis, sporting a formidable handlebar mustache. He was beaming even more than his daughter who was intent on not stumbling.

‘What a remarkable garment,’ Lydia said, referring to the dress. ‘Do you think it’s made of surgical gauze?’

‘Shhh,’ Iris cautioned.

Everyone crooned an appreciative ‘Ahh’ as father and daughter stepped cautiously onto the red carpet. The bride was pale-skinned and dark haired, possibly Irish, and very slender, showing off toned arms, a nervous smile careening off her face. Not wanting to wear sunglasses, she squinted, an expression caught for posterity by the young man who might be her brother, snapping wildly with his point and shoot.

Iris was starting to tear up, as was her more cynical daughter. They didn’t dare exchange glances, in case the floodgates were unleashed. For once, Lydia made no snotty remarks and merely watched as a light breeze coasted across the beach, fluttering the pages of novels and magazines then catching the hem of the bride’s dress in a provocative way. The father, surely no more than forty-five, helped his daughter negotiate the transition from cobblestone to carpet, clutching her elbow firmly. His face gleamed with health and happiness, though he seemed self-conscious: who wouldn’t be with all these strangers watching  –and with his free hand he patted down his lanky hair that didn’t quite manage to cover his bald spot. The younger men all had shaved heads and looked like marines on furlough. The bride’s dark hair didn’t come from her Dad’s side of the family. That would be her mother sitting in the front row, also slender, wearing a pink top and silk trousers, twisting on her seat to watch the pair walk up the makeshift aisle. The bride gave a little squeak of alarm as her heel caught in the threads of carpet but Father expertly kept her aloft. The groom would be that stocky man standing at the front watching his bride’s approach. He wore a tropical shirt decorated with a pattern of shells.  His face was pink, his head shiny. Iris leaned forward to see better:  he was already puffy around the cheeks and neck– a man who liked his liquor. Should the girl be warned?

Iris knew enough about drinkers to last a lifetime.

Someone had turned down the music and now they could hear the relentless salsa beats coming from the activity pool and the Star girl urging all swimmers to clap their hands and ‘Dance! Dance!’  The bride reached the groom and was handed off by her father who  retreated, one suspected with relief, to the empty chair by his wife. This wife didn’t squeeze his hand or pat his knee, and Iris decided that they were estranged, brought together for this event.

‘I know him!’ Lydia whispered loudly. She looked excited and was pointing to a small neat man standing next to the groom. ‘We met in the Internet room. He’s a Unitarian minister who goes up and down the coast marrying people.’

The dark-skinned Mexican in a white shirt with pleats had flipped open a folder and began to read from a set piece as bride and groom held hands and listened. Iris could hear just enough to note that there was no hint of religiosity in the text and no Khalil Gibran drivel.

The breeze ratcheted up a notch and now the bride was having to fight her dress as the photographer snapped away. The minister hesitated while the groom murmured something that made people laugh, then he plucked a ring from his pocket and slipped it onto his bride’s finger. At this photogenic moment, a child carrying an inflatable whale darted behind the couple, forever captured in the event.

Lydia let out a giggle. The alcohol was finally getting to her and that tense face had begun to relax, the hatch of lines smoothing between her eyebrows. In baby pictures, Lydia always looked anxious; she was born with a furrowed brow and the weight of the ages. They used to think it was cute, because, of course, what did a baby know of the trials of the world?

By the end of the week, if Iris had her way, Lydia would lose half a dozen years and they’d be a couple of dizzy females making their way to the bar in the evening. Lydia was apt to give up on future romance; just because Charlie had blown off didn’t mean nobody else would come sniffing around. Where on earth did she ever get such a defeatist attitude? Certainly not from her mother.

The minister had the high sloping forehead of the Mayans, indigenous to these parts. He gazed over the wedding party, eyes indicating a level of boredom, as for a moment, he forgot where he was and who these people were gathered before him.

Cheers erupted from the volleyball court and a ball coasted skyward, narrowly missing the bride’s head. It landed on the makeshift dais, where it stayed, no one nervy enough to fetch it.

 Then, quite unexpectedly, the minister craned his neck and stared straight at Lydia and Iris, and he waved discreetly. Iris felt herself pinken at being singled out, then realized that it was her daughter’s presence that had caught his attention. Let Lydia claim her due. She was still an attractive woman, ‘still’ being one of those qualifying words that signaled anyone pushing fifty who was managing to hold onto her looks.

If Lydia would just relax that perpetual frown that made her look so fierce and hard to get along with. Her posture could use a little work too; an erect spine and tilted chin took years off a woman’s age.

The recorded music switched to jazz piano, one of those innocuous modern pieces, as the bride and groom remained standing in front of the small party, clasping hands. Finished his recitation, the minister dropped back. Everyone seemed to be waiting, then suddenly a booming recorded voice filled the speakers, startling the onlookers: ‘We’ve only Just Begun’ rang out in a pleasant although amateur baritone voice, rough around the edges but in tune.

The bride tipped her head against the groom’s broad shoulder, her eyes glassy.

So the groom was a singer, and this recorded performance was his surprise.

The voice sketched out the song with moderate accuracy, running out of breath here and there, yet this was what made the song so moving.  When a note caught in his throat, Iris felt it catch in her own and she unabashedly let tears run down her cheeks. Lydia rummaged around in her beach bag, pulled out a bunched up tissue and began to blow her nose. Weren’t they a sentimental pair? Lydia caught her eye and began to laugh and soon they were both laughing as they wept.

Iris reached out and touched her daughter’s forearm, and for a moment Lydia was a little girl, wounded from some playground accident, racing home for consolation and finding fresh tears the moment she spotted her mother. Perhaps Iris hadn’t been as patient as she might have been with these episodes: the girl was melodramatic, craving attention long after the crisis was over and the wound bandaged – not an appealing quality in a child.

Iris stroked her daughter’s forearm again and gave it a squeeze, but not without a sensation of being artificial.

Lydia drew her arm away.

All of this happened in a moment and Iris felt disturbed, as if she’d been found wanting. One tried to do right, but mothers were doomed to fail. Surely Lydia knew that by now, having two nearly grown children of her own.

As if recalling this fact, her daughter swung her legs over the side of the lounger.

‘It’s 2 o’clock Toronto time,’ she announced before slipping her feet into her espadrilles and taking off towards the pathway that led to the Internet room. Lydia bustled in there every few hours.

She was going to Skype Annie, who’d enrolled at a second rate University in northern Ontario, majoring in something called Environmental Studies, a profession that didn’t exist when Iris went to school. Annie and her mother communicated every day. Lydia would comment more often than necessary that she and Annie were ‘great good friends’; this always sounded like a judgement, for didn’t she and Iris go for weeks, even months, on end without communicating?

Suddenly alone, Iris set herself as upright as possible on the lounger. The marriage ceremony was winding down, the compact group making its way towards one of the private event rooms.

—Ann Ireland


Ann Ireland is the author of four novels, most recently THE BLUE GUITAR, which has been getting excellent reviews all across Canada. She coordinates the Writing Workshops department at the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, in Toronto. She teaches on line writing courses and edits novels for other writers from time to time. She also writes profiles of artists for Canadian Art Magazine and Numéro Cinq Magazine (where she is Contributing Editor). Dundurn Press will be re-publishing Ann’s second novel: THE INSTRUCTOR over the summer of 2013.

Jun 142013

Anne Francey

“Nature is a temple in which living columns sometimes emit confused words. Man approaches it through forests of symbols, which observe him with familiar glances.”

Charles Baudelaire


Anne Francey considers her artwork the visual equivalent of a diary, where spontaneous jottings of all kinds of events sketch the fabric of life. She often uses nature as a point of departure, freely oscillating between representation and abstraction in order to reveal a deeper meaning. Born in Switzerland, Anne is bilingual, speaking French as fluently as English. Adept at the artistic language of metaphor as well, Anne welcomes the unpredictable and revels in moments when she has control of what’s being shown and what’s being hidden. I met Anne in the years I worked in an art gallery at Skidmore College, where she teaches part time; or before that – at a regional arts center in downtown Saratoga Springs, through which Anne exhibited and received grants to conduct marvelous, progressive art workshops for children. Many have long admired her love of nature, commitment to her craft, thirst for knowledge, and involvement with the community and next generation. These forces recently fused with profound strength, when her daughter, Suleika Jaouad, developed leukemia. Her response, in part, when at times she could do nothing else at all, was a daily painting project titled Cariatide de Papier.                                                                                               

— Mary Kathryn Jablonski


A propos de “Cariatide de Papier”

C’est  d’un journal de bord personnel, voire intime, qu’il s’agit. Chaque semaine, une nouvelle image aquarelle sur papier format carré. Assemblés, ces jours en carré forment colonne, cariatide légère porteuse d’une période lourde de 36 semaines de temps difficiles.

Chez les anciens Grecs, la cariatide était une statue de pierre porteuse d’une masse architecturale. Sur l’espace  du mur qui sépare et rapproche ciel et terre, cette Cariatide de Papier  composée de  36 carrés sur lesquels s’inscrivent en couleurs l’oiseau dans tous ses états et l’éléphant forcé hors de sa force,  réfléchit à  l’équilibre précaire entre l’endurance et la fragilité de l’être humain face à sa propre mortalité.

D’où vient la force quand la gravité nous lâche, quand ce qui nous soutient nous est enlevé ? Quand l’oiseau tombe et l’éléphant perd pied ? Quand l’éléphant ne pèse que plume et l’oiseau en oublie sa légèreté?

—Anne Francey


Cariatide de papier

It began as a diary. Each week, I would paint my days on a square piece of watercolor paper, reflecting on events in my life that were both too personal and too large to evoke with words.

Now assembled, these squares form a column, a light caryatid bearer of a period laden with thirty-six difficult weeks.

In Ancient Greece, a Caryatid was a sculpted female figure that supported an architectural mass, the entablature of a temple.

Placed on a wall, a space that separates and connects sky and earth, this “Cariatide de Papier” reflects on the precarious equilibrium between human endurance and fragility when facing mortality. It is composed of thirty-six colorful squares portraying all kinds of birds in different states of mind, and various elephants whose force is being challenged.

Where does strength come from when gravity lets go of us, when what supports us is taken away from us?

When birds fall and elephants loose their footing?

When an elephant is no heavier than a feather and a bird forgets its lightness?

—Anne Francey


 Complete Work, Floor to Ceiling



 Detail Images








  —Anne Francey

See also:

From NY Times Blog – Life Interrupted, A Family Gets Cancer – Video of Anne & her family.

Daughter Suleika Jaouad’s NY Times Blog – Life Interrupted.


Anne Francey was born in Switzerland where she studied painting at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, before moving to New York where she received an MFA from Hunter College. She now lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she has her art studio, teaches, and has been involved in creating community ceramic murals throughout the capital region. In addition to drawing and painting, she developed an interest in ceramics during her travels in Tunisia, and has incorporated the ceramic mediums into her practice.





Jun 132013

John B. Lee

In John B. Lee’s study, there are piles of stones, cobbles to pebbles. He’s a collector, no doubt mystifying endless airport security agents monitoring his luggage. One wonders about this, except that stones are mnemonic devices (this one means a day on the beach in Korea with my son and his son). And words are like stones, bearing the same trace mineral flecks, striations, layers, conglomerates and evidence of former life. You put them together and a mysterious meaning radiates (call it a poem). John is a frequent contributor to these pages. He’s the poet laureate of Norfolk County where I was born. He lives in Port Dover on Lake Erie, home of what was once the world’s largest freshwater fishing fleet (oddly shaped boats made of steel, called turtlebacks). He hosted the the April Extravaganza on the Lake, when NC Contributing Editor Sydney Lea and myself journeyed thither and read and grown men were heard to use the word “beauty” as if it were a real thing like a Porsche or an Audemars Piguet wristwatch. After which we drove down the lake to Highgate for a second reading, gossiping about the loves and suicides of famous southwestern Ontario writers, stopping to look a graves or the farm where John grew up. Reading John’s poems like a similar marvelous adventure.



Suseuk — Viewing Stones

my son, my grandson and I
were walking
the gravelly shores
of the Yellow Sea
on Daebun Island
looking west through amber sky
west to the entirely imaginary far-away
coast of mainland China
the sun
shining like a dulled brass gong
hung in soundless heaven
over the low-tide mudflats of Korea
and we were
looking to gather up
the most interesting stones
and only recently empty shells
the small cochlear conches
that hold the ocean winds of the world
as poems might hold
a meaningful breath
at the moment of deep-breath knowing

and I have gathered
my own little tea bowl
of chalk and silvery anthracite
carrying home the light of hope
brought here from these broken mountains
and that scaling off of iron oxide
from the water-loud coves
with their coming in and going away
of moon-drawn amplitudes
that swallow the road and drown the ankles
where the beach turns to vanish under
the afternoon drop-shadows
of the great engines of the sea
and as I hold council here
with silent beauty of granite
and pink rock
cobbled with dead creatures
who cling, barnacled
to the underbelly of a time-crushed
stratum and substratum
of cold vermillion

I think back
to the finding
when our three shades crossed
like the slow dampness of dragged black cloth

and there is this consolation to loss
the way memory
the shades and hues of meaning
like wave wash on dry rock
and tomorrow’s freeze
that set the coast
in hard-white unwalkable shards of dropped ice

what we’d seen
beneath the heavy burden of winter
unpacking its load
on the threshold of a second morning
made everything
unavailable to the hands

but there
the heart reached through


Timmy’s Down the Well

as I am conscious
of the perils
of living in a world
that is bellum
and full with the falsity
of the fierce and terrible yawp of war
I send out
the kinder dog
of my most beautiful thought
and I am
wagging memory at important windows
I am barking
at the scriptoriums
of mad leaders
where oak drawers slide shut
on the keepsakes of life
I am howling
at the Lupercalia of a romantic moon
where light
and the mirror of light
are drawing in the muddy skirts
of my hometown waters
while the deeper ambitions of love
arrive and leave in waves
like the bridal bed
evenings and mornings
of warmed dreamers
who wake and sleep
in the swan tuck of angels

my son
who works and thrives
in the government regions of Seoul
tells me
his school is at the epicenter
of the animosity of big guns
training their dark zeroes
at the soul of the city
and I know—
any sunrise
has its own Gallipoli
all moonsets in yellow air
might break the shining glass
with a seismic whump of a great shattering noise
where we are all bad hammers
we are all
the pelt and pummel
of red stone and sharp sticks
on soft flesh

Mr. President
you with the burning tongue
take your crimson axe away
from my broken brain
I am here
singing from the common tree
among the magpies
among the crows
I come
palm line open to the blue ceiling
give the greater graves
the balm of a short shadow
I cast my longer darkness
onto the green recline
of an out-of-reach light
where we both breathe
we all breathe

and into this lasting language
of even the most ancient poets
I say, let Caesar weep
on the senate stair
let him weep at the river
I refuse
the map lines of his desire
I bark
at the buoyant well holes
of my body
and am dangerous with a different
and far more powerfully resonant echolalia
of the resounding voice of a father’s love

—John B. Lee


john lee portrait

John B. Lee is the author of over sixty published books.  In February he won the Winston Collins / Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem for the second time. Inducted as Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, he was also recently appointed Poet Laureate of Norfolk County where he now lives in Port Dover, a fishing town located on the south coast of Lake Erie.

Jun 122013

Donald Druick and lute

Structure is almost everything, says Peter Handke, in an epigraph to this wildly whimsical, often hilarious (“aversion” one character puns on “a virgin”), mid-life, existential love drama between a husband and a wife. Don Druick is a master of musicality. Watch the repetitions: words like scars, quagmire, diminished, love. Jack comically gathers scars as he keeps reasserting that he will not be diminished. The text shimmers. Moments of horror: Jack dropping his hands into a cooking pot full of boiling water. Moments of intense comedy: Audrey misplaces a medallion in a patient’s rectum (the patient is her neighbour, perhaps a lover; the patient gave her the medallion; the medallion bears the words “The fear of everything is love”). To communicate Jack calls his wife’s cell from bed; his wife answers; she is in bed with him. Regularly, the characters revert to speaking in the voices of animals, caws and moos; and just as regularly there are moments of trembling beauty, line after line, poignant and true.

AUDREY Did you say: kyomu?

HUMPHREY Nothingness. The Japanese have four hundred words for it.

AUDREY Really? That many?

HUMPHREY It seems necessary


Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
– W H Auden

A human being is a genius while dreaming, fearless and brave….
– Akira Kurosawa

For a work of art, material is almost nothing, structure almost everything.
– Peter Handke


 A play in eighteen scenes and two acts for six actors.

to Jane Phillips, whose own dreams fill a lifetime of shelves.


Jack, 60’s

Audrey, 50’s

Jack and Audrey are married; these actors do not double.

Four actors play the following ten characters:


Delores – Audrey’s personal assistant
Natalie – a next door neighbor; Humphrey’s wife
Curly – a bad bad dude


The Prince Mithroth – Audrey’s dearest friend
Horst – a frightening man
Old Bill – Jack and Sandy’s dead father


Humphrey – a next door neighbor; Natalie’s husband
Shlomo – a Hassidic jew


Sandy – Jack’s sister
Baby Jack – Shlomo’s precocious son

As well:

Offstage Characters

Pooky, Natalie’s dog
Talking Newspaper
Another Soldier

Chorus, as required

Note: NATALIE has a French accent; HUMPHREY has an English accent.

A visual development: JACK is progressively more scarred as the play proceeds (except: scene 18 where he is scar-free).



scene one

Jack, at home, paces the kitchen. The air is ripe with the heady odour of baking bread.

JACK  I will not be diminished

JACK at his chopping block, the knife fast and furious. He cuts himself.

JACK  Jesus, boys, that’ll be another scar. Drat.

The sink is chock-a-block full of simpering wet socks. JACK wrestles with the sodden mass, water spilling everywhere.

JACK  Shit.

Suddenly, the lentils on the stove boil over.

JACK turns; the wet socks sloosh to the floor.

JACK  Shit.

Smoke cascades from the oven.

JACK  Amazing shit, a whole bloody package of it. Drat. It’ll never be as good again. What? Yes. A package of shite. That’s it, boys, that’s it exactly.

PAUSE, as JACK ponders.

JACK  But what exactly? Man O man, I don’t understand myself….

JACK goes to the phone. Dials.

JACK (on phone)  Delores? Let me talk to Herself.


JACK (on phone)  My wife, Audrey….


JACK (on phone)  Delores, it’s me, Jack. Jesus….


JACK (on phone)  I’m not trying to be funny. Or arrogant. I’m not feeling funny. Or arrogant. Nothing’s funny anymore.


JACK (on phone)  I don’t know. A glimmer of something but I don’t get it.


JACK (on phone)  I don’t care if you don’t. Understand. Nevermind – too late, too late. There’s no more time, boy O boy, you can’t go backwards.


JACK (on phone)  Because time does not move backwards. Everybody knows that. Hey, maybe it doesn’t even move forward. Have you ever considered that?


JACK  Tell Herself I’m coming right down.


JACK (on phone)  I don’t care.

JACK hangs up the phone.

JACK   Drat, another scar.

JACK exits, slamming the door.

SFX: The sound of a car engine starting up. The screeching of tires.

A sudden vicious crash, horrendous.

SFX: Car crash, long and frightening. Shattering glass falling; a blizzard of tiny tinkles.





scene two

AUDREY’s medical office. Day.

The blinds are drawn; phone conversations are quietly everywhere.

Prominent: a large collection of colourful Eiffel Tower models.

SFX: The continuous sound of animals.

These two speeches together:

AUDREY (on phone)  A leopard, a leopard seen? No…. No no, impossible. Not in my operating room. I mean it makes no sense….. Maybe from a zoo? Maybe a pet?…. Impossible…. Well, don’t go in there – especially if you hear loud growling.

DELORES (on phone)  The book of crows? Book of crows? Book of crows? Book of crows?…. No…. No…. No no no. What can it mean? Radical surgery? It worries me. Is it about crows or just a really really good title?


AUDREY (on phone)  Anyway, I’m not a vet.

DELORES (on phone)  Do you need an appointment?

JACK enters.

JACK   Audrey. Audrey. I need to talk.

AUDREY sees JACK; she winks and waves – it’s very friendly.

DELORES   I told you, Jack, Jack, on the phone I told you, Jack – she’s busy.

JACK   You can be as jealous as you want, Delores – she’s still my wife.

Another phone rings.

DELORES (on phone)  Just a mo – the other line.

JACK  I was out underwear shopping – I made a call – you’ll never guess what happened. Never. Horrible…. horrible….

DELORES (to AUDREY)  It’s for you.

AUDREY (to JACK)  Just a minute, darling – I’ll be right with you.

JACK   Promise?

AUDREY   Promise promise.

DELORES scoffs.

JACK sneers at DELORES.

DELORES    She’s working….

These two speeches together:

AUDREY (on phone)   Ya…. Ya ya…. She’s pissed off? So? What? Hurt?…. Why? She’s weird. I was home – she could have called…. Hey, I’m not a mind reader, just a doctor…. I’m not even sure I know who she is…. I already did that. I searched a large pile of newspapers looking for someone who might actually have her number….

DELORES (on phone)   No…. No…. really?…. Simply, I push the wrong button and the x-ray thing hassles itself apart. Whirring whirring all the time. Wow…. The patients get really nervous…. Ya but now I have no idea how to put it all back together again…. Well what do I care?…. No, really…. Really….

JACK   Can I speak now?

DELORES   She’s busy.

JACK   Drat.

These two speeches together:

DELORES (on phone)   Do you think so? Do you? I’m really happy here. Really really happy really really really happy….

AUDREY (on phone)   I’m going to read it right now…. Right right now…. Promise promise. Promise promise promise….

AUDREY hangs up the phone.

AUDREY   Delores….

DELORES (on phone)   I’ve got to go.

DELORES hangs up the phone.

AUDREY (to DELORES)   Listen to this.

JACK   Am I invisible?

JACK is shushed.

JACK   Jesus, what a quagmire.

AUDREY    You too, Jack. Listen….

JACK    So unkind.

AUDREY    Please please please – it’ll be fun.

JACK    Nobody cares about me.

AUDREY, making an impatient sound, opens a magazine.

AUDREY    Jack…. Jack. Look at me. Stop it. Please wait. I’m working.

JACK    Drat.

AUDREY (to DELORES)   Here. Here it is. You read this. I’ll start. (reading) OK OK OK, you the patient, right here downstage.

DELORES (reading)   Here?

AUDREY (reading)   No, right on the lip.

DELORES (reading)   Up your moo.

AUDREY (reading, shouting)   Up your moo.

DELORES (reading)   Moo up you.

AUDREY (reading)   You too moo.

DELORES (reading)   Too moo you.

AUDREY (reading)   Fuck you moo moo.

DELORES (reading)   You fuck moo moo.

AUDREY and DELORES laugh – especially AUDREY.

AUDREY    It’s hysterical.

DELORES   I just love it, I love it.

AUDREY    I knew you would. The wise doctor in the world. Ta-taaaaa.

JACK (crow-like, loudly)   Caw.

AUDREY (calf-like)   Mmuuh.

JACK (crow-like)   Kraa caw caw.

AUDREY (calf-like)   Mmuuh mmuuh möö.

JACK (crow-like)   Kraa caw caw caw kraa….

Suddenly the sun, large very large, large very large as it sets.

AUDREY & DELORES turn to admire it.

AUDREY & DELORES   Beautiful.

JACK (quietly)   My dad died. Poor old Bill. Poor old Bill is dead. Stroke. Such a quiet word, stroke. Another scar.


scene three

Night. JACK and AUDREY in bed; asleep.

JACK is snoring, and somewhat reasonable and gentle it is. He wakes up with a start. In a panic, he opens the light. He flaps around the night table until he finds his cellphone; he dials a number.

The cell phone on AUDREY’s night table rings.

AUDREY (very sleepy, on phone) Hello

JACK (on phone) It’s me.

AUDREY (on phone) Jack? Where are you?

JACK (on phone) What a laugh, eh? I’m right here.

AUDREY turns to see him.


JACK (on phone) I woke up and there were a million little red flies swarming all over me and you too. Fucking Mithroth was there too.

AUDREY The Prince Mithroth?

JACK (on phone) My heart’s pounding – I wish you could touch it. I feel very lonely.

AUDREY puts down her phone, and reaches out to JACK.

AUDREY O, you poor thing.

JACK is restless.

JACK (on phone) I feel…. I don’t know…. edgy like….

AUDREY O relax relax relax.

JACK (on phone) Like a wild child.

AUDREY And get off the phone – it’s crazy. I’m right here.

JACK (on phone) O I have a good plan – it doesn’t cost anything.

JACK starts to fondle her.

AUDREY What are you doing?

JACK (on phone) I feel lightheaded and very…. very horny.

AUDREY O for god’s sake – stop it. Stop it.

AUDREY pushes him away.

JACK gets up; wanders about the room.

JACK (on phone) No no no. No no not now. I have a headache. My poor little head aches. What about me what about little lonely me? – I’m horny. So bloody horny. Nothing’s working anymore. Nevermind. What if I can’t write any more novels?

AUDREY sighs.

AUDREY You don’t write novels.

JACK (on phone) I can’t hear you – the connection’s bad.

AUDREY That’s cause I’m not on the bloody phone.

JACK (on phone) What did you say?

AUDREY (shouting) I said: you don’t write novels.

JACK (on phone) But I could if I wanted to. If I had any decent stories. Which I don’t. Drat. What a quagmire. What if I’ve just squandered – wasted – my talent? What if I’m just a fucking old fucking old fuck fuck fucking old sad old has been?

JACK has a penknife.

AUDREY Where did you get that?

JACK (on phone) It’s mine.

AUDREY It looks like mine.

JACK (on phone) It’s mine.

AUDREY What are you doing?

JACK (on phone) Keeping it warm. Useful little scar machine.

AUDREY O, for god’s sake, we don’t need any more scars.

AUDREY takes the penknife from JACK.

JACK Fuck that. I will not be diminished.

AUDREY Relax, for god’s sake. Relax. Please relax. Come back to bed.

JACK (on phone) Why? Are you offering any…. comfort.

AUDREY Yes, I am.

JACK (on phone) Sex would be nice. Ya, sex. Ya. Full throttled, passionate, wild and wet and horribly illegal.

AUDREY Well, I’m not offering that.

JACK (on phone) You’re so hard. Drat drat drat, I’m just a slave to my hormones and desires. And here I thought I was a Buddhist. Maybe I am a Buddhist? Anyway – and I’ve just figured this one out …. or not – something about a package. A package? You’re not listening you’re not listening to a single word I say.

AUDREY picks up her phone.

AUDREY (on phone) I’m here I’m here. I hear you. Yes yes yes, I hear you.

AUDREY gets out of bed.

AUDREY (on phone) Come back to bed.

JACK (on phone) I don’t know. I don’t know.

AUDREY There there, that’s enough telephoning for tonight.

AUDREY takes his cellphone. She tenderly takes him back to bed. She fixes the bed clothes and tucks him in.

AUDREY There there.

JACK I had a dream you had died. Horrible.

AUDREY I had a dream we had never met.

JACK & AUDREY Nightmares.

AUDREY laughs, warm and full.

They kiss. They kiss again.

JACK (crow-like) Caw…

AUDREY (calf-like) Mmuuh mmuuh….

JACK (crow-like) Caw caw….

AUDREY (calf-like) Möö mmuuh möö….

AUDREY laughs with pleasure and anticipation.

JACK & AUDREY Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang.

SFX: Moans and building sexual groans.



JACK & AUDREY (quietly) Went the trolley.



scene four

Temple Beth Shalom, a synagogue. A Friday evening in summer. Services are in progress – we hear Jewish liturgical chanting off.

JACK enters the foyer of the temple. There is a bazaar in progress. Its very active. People are dancing.

JACK looks around.

JACK People people everywhere – everywhere I look there’s new people – and I don’t know any of them.

A Hassidic Jew is sitting on a strange bench – stone and rough wood; decorated with colourful eiffel towers.

SHLOMO Are you looking for something you can’t find?

JACK I am.

SHLOMO The truth?

JACK Ha. Good. Possibly.

SHLOMO Thus you are a philosopher?

JACK But am I really actually looking?

SHLOMO Some do.

JACK Or just mumbling within myself?

SHLOMO That might be the same thing. Jewish? You’re jewish?

JACK Half.

SHLOMO Half jewish? How can this be?

JACK My father was jewish. He went here for services. Prayers.

JACK is a bit unsteady on his feet.

SHLOMO Sit sit – I made this bench myself.

JACK sits.

SHLOMO So, what do you think? Isn’t it beautiful?

JACK I love the Eiffel Towers.

SHLOMO Thank you. It was my son’s idea.

JACK You know, you remind me of my late father.

SHLOMO Is that a good thing?

JACK Eventually it was.

The BABY gurgles.

JACK Your baby?

SHLOMO My son.

SHLOMO beams.

BABY JACK I am the perfect reason to always to be happy.

JACK He talks.


JACK But he’s a baby.

BABY JACK Thus, I have the perfect reason for superannuated contentment.

JACK And smart.

SHLOMO Thank you. We are a good team, he and I.

JACK (to BABY) Hello, you dear little thing.

BABY JACK Hello yourself, strange troubled sad man.

SHLOMO We call him: Jack.

JACK Well, isn’t that just something else – that’s my name too. (to BABY) We have the same name, little thing. I must tell my dear darling nephew about that. His name is Bob – he’s a baby too.

BABY JACK Is that relevant here? One must not be too cloying or pathetic with respect to one’s overly rated sentimentality.


SHLOMO No no no, child, don’t abuse the man.

BABY JACK To speak the truth to a penitent, dearest father – as our great talmudic teachers say – is not without the bounds of decorum. (to JACK) You seem out of sorts, if I may be so bold as to pronounce an opinion on your obvious demeanor.

JACK I do feel disoriented – the town seems somehow different. And nothing in my life seems to make sense.

BABY JACK I know what you feel.

SHLOMO But can you know this, my darling son? These same great talmudic teachers – who are our guides in all things – preclude the knowledge of another’s suffering.

BABY JACK But do they, my father? As is said: a person is only a person when and only when she or he is known to all. (to JACK) I do know what you feel, and not just in the indisputably mystical though culturally exhausted kabbalistic connotation.

BABY JACK shrugs.

BABY JACK Change is deep within us. Yet, there are troubles.

JACK There are more mountains than there used to be.

BABY JACK That is indeed terrible.

SHLOMO And challenging.

JACK And more snow on the mountains.

SHLOMO Mountains are the same as love.

BABY JACK Yes, they are, dear father. As is death.


BABY JACK I think, I believe, please please listen to me, that you will require…. a timeshare in these mountains. It will ease your anxiety and erase your sadness.

JACK What?

BABY JACK When I grow up and I am big and wonderful, I will want to work for the Northern Winter Real Estate Association. Perhaps even as their chairman of the board.

SHLOMO Now now, child, don’t overstate your ambition.

BABY JACK But I must, my dearest father – its my destiny. Under my leadership, our product line will be extensive: chalets, time-shares, winter getaways of all sorts….

JACK Ha. Well, I’m sorry – I know that’s not what I need.

BABY JACK Ah well, yes, no, no no, you are right. I have a flash, I’m getting a clear signal. Yes yes, that’s it that’s it – you’d be much better off as a chef.

JACK O? I was – how did you know that?

BABY JACK Once a chef, always a chef.

BABY JACK smiles.

SHLOMO And why – please tell us if its not too problematic for you – so why did you stop?

BABY JACK Too too much indescribable gluttony, I would imagine.

SHLOMO Now now, let the man speak.

JACK Crazy. You wouldn’t believe the yelling, noise, chaos. Just a kitchen, you say. But…. the endless crux of my life. I had a large and succulent tendrons de veau à la provençale in the oven and twenty tarts and farts in the dining room starving for it. Its time its time, yelled my souschef, its time. Alright, fuck you, alright. I shoved my hands into that seething cauldron of an oven – and forgot the mitts.

BABY JACK Your description is startling.

SHLOMO And vivid too.

BABY JACK I actually smell your searing burning flesh.


JACK I froze, just stood there, debating quite clearly in my mind while my hands burned. White pain intense and banal. What a quagmire. I just gave it all up after I left the hospital. Haven’t worked since. Drat drat drat drat.

BABY JACK Your hands are all scared.

JACK So many scars in a life.

BABY JACK So ugly.

SHLOMO Now now, child.

JACK I’m so confused. Can you help, help me?

SHLOMO But yes, of course. We will sing an opera.

JACK Opera?

SHLOMO We like to sing. We have found, over the centuries – we jews – that it is a good cure for sadness.

BABY JACK But, dearest and beloved father, we need a woman’s voice.

SHLOMO Yes, we do.

SHLOMO looks about.

JACK My dad – old Bill – used to sing a mean countertenor. But he’s dead.

SHLOMO Hmmmmm….

JACK And there’s Audrey – my wife – she used to sing quite well back when we were young.

AUDREY appears.

AUDREY I have no time for this, Jack. I have three surgeries scheduled. And anyway, you know I hate opera.

JACK I don’t think I did.

BABY JACK Frustration and incontinent busyness – surely that will be seen – in the centuries to come – as the principle reasons for the tragic demise of our civilization, so-called.

AUDREY laughs, robust and sexy.

AUDREY You’re a funny little thing. A pity I cannot abide babies.

BABY JACK Do it, dear beauteous hostile lady, sing our opera – how much time can it take?

AUDREY laughs.

BABY JACK The story will be about you.


BABY JACK And him.


SHLOMO Do it. It will make him feel alive.

AUDREY laughs.

AUDREY O well, for old Jack, the purported love of my life.

SHLOMO Attention, everyone. Attention.

BABY JACK Please listen to my dear and much beloved father.

SHLOMO Now, we do an opera by the wondrous Giacomo Antonio Domenico Puccini….

BABY JACK Amore Abbandonato. And what can ever be wrong with the twin and harmonious notions of love and destiny?

SHLOMO It is the day after Yom Kippur. Maria, the goat girl from the village meets Feivel, the chief rabbi of Riga….

BABY JACK Who is traveling to the great rabbinical court of Torino.

SHLOMO They fall in love….

BABY JACK She with him despite his many unsightly and disfiguring scars.

SHLOMO And he with her despite the fact that she is not jewish.

BABY JACK They spend an extremely meaningful- though chaste – night together under the dining room table.

SHLOMO Locked in each other’s arms

BABY JACK But chaste.

JACK I love this opera.

AUDREY I don’t care for the story.

JACK But its marvelous.


JACK And somehow familiar. It seems…. perfect.


JACK I’m sorry you don’t like it. The opera makes me feel hopeful – I don’t know why.

AUDREY shrugs.

SHLOMO Come come, we start. This is the chorus at the beginning.

CHORUS (singing)

Now the crow may be singing
Singing singing singing
Singing singing
Instead of the calf
Calf calf calf calf


CHORUS (singing) Instead of the calf.

JACK (singing) Instead of the calf.

JACK stops singing.

BABY JACK But the chorus isn’t finished.

JACK I’m getting a bad feeling. I can’t go on.

SHLOMO But you must.

JACK I was wrong to be so hopeful. The crow and the calf, that’s what I really have. Brutality and conflict. Its the package I’m left with. Drat. Almost nothing – but I guess that’s better then absolutely nothing.


scene five

Outdoors. JACK’s building a fire.

SFX The sounds of a Georgian Bay summer night. Loons.

JACK looks up.

JACK Who’s that? (calling) Hello. Hello. I can see you. You’d better come out – I have a gun. (to himself) What a quirky quagmire. O god, is it Mithroth? Drat. Fuck. Fucking Mithroth.

MITHROTH emerges from the shadows.

JACK What the fuck are you doing here?

MITHROTH Don’t let’s quarrel, Jack.

JACK Not a week goes by when I’m not forced to remember you exist. Drat, scars everywhere I look.

MITHROTH O Jack – you’re always mumbling.

JACK – impatient gesture.

MITHROTH Well, then…. Jack, I wonder if you could enhance my thinking on you and Audrey? Is there a problem here?

JACK Fucking Mithroth – what the fuck do you care?

MITHROTH Very funny, Jack. Always witty is our Jack. Ha ha.

JACK Fortunately – there’s an easy answer….

MITHROTH And that would be?

JACK None of your business.

MITHROTH Ah. Yes, of course. Still, I continue. You and Audrey seem – so it always appeared to me and I have known you both a long long time….

JACK Too long.

MITHROTH What was that, Jack? Yes…. but…. you and Audrey seem more than ever burdened by the breath of experience.

JACK Yes. Good. Not bad. Exactly right.

MITHROTH There is a flavour – a hint – of melancholy. The past as an unbearable burden….

JACK Scars.

MITHROTH Dear O dear. As from the wing no scar the sky retains. So what happens?

JACK She denies it. She denies it but she lies.

MITHROTH puts his hand to his ear.

MITHROTH What was that?

JACK Jesus… what a quagmire.

JACK and MITHROTH are on a street.

JACK My bike is gone. Drat. I’ve had that bike since I was a kid.

MITHROTH throws garbage on the street.

JACK Stop that.

MITHROTH It’s my right. My right and privilege.

JACK It’s always about you, Mithroth….

MITHROTH It’s always me, Jack. Nevermind…. look at this….

MITHROTH points to a boat on a trailer.

MITHROTH Give us a hand. This bloody quixotic thing keeps slipping off. I’ve been at it for a week.

JACK Well the…. hmmmmm?…. we could…. hmmmmmm…. we’ll just wrap this rope around here.

JACK and MITHROTH tie and fuss.

JACK Nice little outboard.

MITHROTH Listen to it sing….

SFX: The outboard engine springs to life.

The boat starts to move.

MITHROTH O look – there’s Audrey. Grab her, will you?

AUDREY I can’t reach.

JACK Lean…. foreword…. more…. more….

AUDREY is hoisted onboard.

AUDREY Have I gained that much weight?

MITHROTH You look trim and lovely.

AUDREY Thanks, dearest.

As if an old habit, AUDREY nuzzles MITHROTH.

AUDREY O look at Jack – Jack loves boats.

JACK Those summers, ya, on Schroon Lake, had a lovely little boat. Five horsepower.

AUDREY (to JACK) You can be so sweet. Look, I’ve got some time – we could be in Paris. We always had a good time in Paris.

JACK Seems a long way.

AUDREY Jack, come on. Jack Jack Jack Jack.

MITHROTH The Bistro Papillon….

AUDREY Or Chez François – I used to go there all the time when I was at the Sorbonne.

MITHROTH Those were salad days. Lovely days.

JACK I love François. He taught me how to cook, you know.

AUDREY I think we all knew that.

They laugh.

JACK O look who’s there. It’s Sandy. (calling) Sandy…. Sandy….

The boat stops.

SANDY Jack. And also Audrey. This is a quality moment.

AUDREY Hello, Sandy. This is The Prince Mithroth.



SANDY Audrey, and prince person, this is Bob.


SANDY My baby. Bob the beloved baby Bob. Bob Bob Bobber Bobby Bob Bob Boo. He’s just so new, the dear little thing.

AUDREY We’re going to Paris.

SANDY O they all do at your age. And for the same reasons….

JACK is nuzzling BOB.

JACK O, he’s so sweet. My nephew. My darling little nephew. He looks just like you.

SANDY Really? I though he looked just like Terry.

JACK Actually he looks like Dad.

SANDY I know. I miss Dad.

JACK Me too.

AUDREY is reading a newspaper.

AUDREY Your baby thing is in the newspaper.

SANDY O let me see.

NEWSPAPER (loudly) Desperation! Poverty! Blood! Greed! Death!

AUDREY You know you’re in deep trouble when the newspaper you’re reading starts talking to you.


JACK Audrey…. Audrey, come nuzzle Bob, Audrey.


scene six

Summer evening. A lovely light. Birds chirping. JACK and AUDREY are sitting on their porch.


JACK Very hot.

AUDREY Much hot.

JACK Hot hot hot.


JACK What?

AUDREY What’s that?

JACK What’s what?


JACK Where?


SFX: Aircraft engines.

AUDREY It’s a plane. A very low plane.

JACK Right, I see it. Much too low. Wait a minute wait a minute – that’s a, that’s a Lancaster bomber. What year is this? They haven’t flown those since that war.

AUDREY They’re circling around, coming back….

JACK O my god….

AUDREY O my god….

JACK O my god….

AUDREY O my god….

SFX: A big crash.

OFF: POOKY starts barking.

AUDREY Who’s got a dog? I hate dogs.

SANDY (off) What’s the emergency number?

AUDREY O my god…. It cartwheeled, O my god….

JACK (calling off) What?

SANDY (off) The emergency number.

JACK (calling off) Nine one one.

SANDY enters, clutching BOB and joins them on the porch.

SANDY Are you sure?

AUDREY It cartwheeled. O my god….

SFX: Sirens in the distance.

JACK Somebody called it already.

SANDY Do you think they’re hurt?

SFX: another explosion

AUDREY O my god.

JACK protects BOB. BOB cries.

JACK O wait. Wait. Wait, there’s somebody.

AUDREY Jack, don’t….

SANDY We should call Terry.

JACK Wait here with Audrey. I’ve got to help….

JACK rushes off.

AUDREY & SANDY (calling off) Be careful, Jack.

AUDREY Bad, very bad.

SANDY Do you think they’re dead?

AUDREY Very very bad.

JACK enters with HUMPHREY and BILL. HUMPHREY wears a bombardier jacket; he has a beard, but only on one side of his face. BILL, very old and frail, is quite natty in a corduroy suit.

JACK They’re alive. There’ll be scars, there’ll be scars for sure.

HUMPHREY What happened?

JACK I’d better see if there’s anyone else.


JACK exits.

SANDY You crashed on our street.

HUMPHREY I crashed? Who are you?

SANDY I’m Sandy, Jack’s sister.

AUDREY And cartwheeled.

HUMPHREY I cartwheeled? What a mess. I’m so sorry.

SANDY Just as long as you’re OK. And him….

SANDY gestures to the silent BILL.


SANDY Him. He looks familiar somehow.

HUMPHREY Never saw the chap before.

SANDY (to BILL) Are you alright?

BILL is silent.

SANDY (to AUDREY) He looks a lot like Jack, do you think?


SANDY The same charming bits.

AUDREY Would you, mmmm?, would you – what? – would you like a drink?

HUMPHREY That would be tasty right now. I’d better not – no no, I’d better not – they’ll think I’d been drinking. And I would have been, you see? The manifold pressure just went. Just like that….

HUMPHREY snaps his fingers.

HUMPHREY And what does it mean? What can it all mean? Does it mean anything? Other than death, certain death raining down upon you. I could’ve crashed right on your house, right on you, right down on you. Right straight down right here on you. And you know, I’m not sure I would’ve cared. I’m not sure I would’ve cared at all.

BILL falters.

SANDY (to BILL) Here you’d better sit down. Why does he seem so familiar?

HUMPHREY I’m so happy to be alive.

AUDREY I’m glad. O my…. I’m still so shocked. Are you alight? I’m a doctor.

AUDREY fans herself with her hand.

HUMPHREY You’re so beautiful. You know, I can see your dialogue written right there – right in your eyes.

AUDREY O, everybody can do that.

HUMPHREY I knew you were going to say that.

AUDREY You sure know how to sweet talk a gal.

HUMPHREY There, there, I knew you were going to say that too.

AUDREY What a party. Yikes, I need a drink.

HUMPHREY And I knew that too….

AUDREY exits. BILL starts to follow her.

AUDREY (to BILL) You stay here.

SANDY I’ll take him. He seems just like Jack. Here…. sit sit….

BILL Gazu gazu wabaza. Gazu. Za zu zee. Wugada. Wugada. Toto was wugada. Yabugu dugubu dugada. Gaga zee zu zee za zu.


JACK enters.

JACK There’s nobody else.


JACK Wait. O wait wait wait. O my god, Sandy – its Bill, its Bill. Sandy, its Dad.


JACK Dad. Bill…. its me, Jack. And Sandy.

BILL Towns I’ve never heard of but feel as if I do. Or have.

SANDY I thought he seemed familiar. But didn’t he, you know, die?

BILL (singing) I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair.

SANDY Hi, Dad. This is Bob. Your grandson.

AUDREY enters with a tray.

AUDREY Who wants drinks?

SFX: Loud car crash.

JACK turns, terrified, towards the sound.




scene seven

Early evening. JACK is puttering in his kitchen.

We hear barking offstage.

AUDREY (off) Shut that bloody hound up.

JACK (calling off) We don’t have a bloody hound.

AUDREY (off) Then what the fuck is that?

JACK She’s in a foul quagmire.

JACK pokes about looking for the dog.

JACK (calling off) Its definitely inside.

AUDREY (off) Kill it.

JACK shakes his head. He opens the door to the basement and goes down.


Knocking at the kitchen door.


More knocking. JACK enters from the basement and answers the door. Its the new neighbors – HUMPHREY and NATALIE.

HUMPHREY Hello. Hello. We’re the new neighbors.

JACK Neighbors?

HUMPHREY Right over there.

JACK peers – it’s the house next door.

JACK O yes, right ya, there. The old Crowe place. Hi, I’m Jack.

HUMPHREY I’m Humphrey and this is my wife, Natalie.

JACK Natalie Natalie…. and Humphrey – please come in.

NATALIE We’re not disturbing you?

JACK No. No no no no. I was just thinking about making a supper.

NATALIE Then we are disturbing you.

JACK No no. Mostly all prepped – a little fun cassoulet.

JACK smiles.

Dog barks off.

NATALIE That’s Pooky.

JACK You know that hound?

HUMPHREY It’s our dog. I thought I recognized his happy bark. (calling off) Bark. Bark bark.

POOKY (off) Bark bark.

HUMPHREY (calling off) Bark.

NATALIE (calling) Pooky. Pooky Pooky Pooky….

HUMPHREY (calling off) Bark.


JACK Come, we’ll go look see.

JACK and HUMPHREY exit to the basement.

NATALIE looks about the kitchen.

AUDREY (off) Did you kill the bloody thing?


AUDREY (off) Jack?

NATALIE (calling off) He’ll, he’ll be back in just a minute.

We hear JACK and HUMPHREY fussing in the basement.

HUMPHREY (off) Pooky…. Pooky Pooky….

AUDREY (off) What the hell’s going on?

NATALIE (calling off) I don’t know.

JACK and HUMPHREY enter from the basement.

JACK There’s a tunnel.


HUMPHREY Yes, from our place to theirs.

AUDREY enters from upstairs.

AUDREY What the bloody hell is going on?

JACK It’s the bloody new neighbors dropped by for a look see. And guess what?


JACK Their dog’s found a tunnel between our houses.

AUDREY A tunnel? A tunnel?

JACK In the furnace room. The hound popped right through it.

NATALIE Clever little Pooky. Such a hero. Is he downstairs? Let’s bring him up.

JACK He’s run back.

HUMPHREY He must been looking for rats.


AUDREY shudders.

NATALIE Pooky loves rats.

HUMPHREY Rat meat is a delicacy in China, you know.

JACK I heard that. I wonder if if there’s a recipe?

JACK goes to his cookbook library.

AUDREY Jack, I will not live in a house with rats.

JACK Well, Pooky will kill them, dear little beast, and then we can eat them. Hey look at this. (reading) rat with chestnut and duck – this is good. Black pepper rat shoulders hot pot.

JACK looks up, beaming.

JACK This is a whole new thing. (reading) And the ultimate signature tour de force: mushu steamed rat.

AUDREY Fuck the world of culinary delights. I need a drink.

JACK O I think we can manage something for you, darling….

JACK opens a large wooden cabinet – its filled with bottles.

AUDREY All grappa, all the time.

JACK Each a special sweet and succulent kiss – bocchino francoli marolo brunello candolini….

AUDREY It’s Jack’s hobby.

JACK Hard to know what to choose….

AUDREY Serve the drinks for god’s sake, Jack

AUDREY scoffs.

JACK examines a glass; he scowls.

JACK This glass has a scar.

JACK bangs about in the kitchen.

HUMPHREY So, ah…. what is it you do?

AUDREY What the fuck do you care?


NATALIE and HUMPHREY whisper and play with their noses.

AUDREY What are you doing?

HUMPHREY Nose calisthenics – we always do them when we feel stressed.

NATALIE You push the tip up and down, back and forth.


NATALIE It’s quite refreshing – let me show you.

NATALIE reaches towards AUDREY’s nose.

AUDREY Don’t touch my nose.

A painful silence.

NATALIE Perhaps it is time we go.

AUDREY Well, if you must.

AUDREY looks into HUMPHREY’s eyes.

AUDREY Wait a minute. I know you.


AUDREY Wait a minute wait a minute I know you, I do I do. You’re the pilot. (calling to JACK) He’s the pilot.

JACK Which pilot?

AUDREY The one who crashed on the street.

HUMPHREY Point in fact, I rather liked the neighborhood.

AUDREY laughs delightedly.

HUMPHREY (to JACK) How’s your father?

JACK He’s still dead.

HUMPHREY We all live by such selected fictions.


HUMPHREY Shall I explain? I feel I’d like to.

AUDREY And I’d like you to.

SANDY enters.

AUDREY O my god, not now.

JACK Hey, sissy.

SANDY Just popping by.

JACK Is Terry here?

SANDY He’s working on the car. Bob’s helping him.

JACK That’s sweet. Come meet our new neighbors. Humphrey and…. ah…. and…. ah….

NATALIE Natalie.

JACK Natalie. My sister, Sandy. (to SANDY) He’s the pilot.

SANDY is sniffing.

SANDY What’s that? Smoke. I smell smoke.

They all sniff.

HUMPHREY It’s true – smoke.

SANDY looks out the window.

SANDY The house next door is on fire.


They all rush to the windows.

SANDY Whose house is it? O goodness…. a raging inferno.

HUMPHREY It’s our house.


HUMPHREY Just moved in, point of fact.

NATALIE Our house is burning.

HUMPHREY and NATALIE exit in a panic.

SANDY Bob? I‘d better go find Terry and Bob.

SANDY exits in a rush.

SFX: Noise, shouting, melee, sirens. The roof collapses.

The room is illuminated as the flames grow larger, flare. Sparks.

AUDREY is overcome.

AUDREY O my god.

JACK puts his arms around her. AUDREY sobs.

JACK So fast.

Disheveled, covered in soot, HUMPHREY and NATALIE return.

NATALIE Horrible horrible…. we’ve lost everything.

HUMPHREY Everything.

JACK Might be a good time for grappa. Ya….


scene eight

HUMPHREY and AUDREY walk in an art museum. Bright and white. Large canvases of sublime and simple gestures.

A CHORUS sings softly in the background.

HUMPHREY I’ve fallen in love with you.

AUDREY laughs – a ripe Anna Magnani laugh.

HUMPHREY O? I didn’t want to….

AUDREY Thanks for that.

HUMPHREY Yes, but there it is. I love you, Audrey.

AUDREY Maudlin.

HUMPHREY I hope not.

AUDREY Ummmmmmm….

They stand in front of a large canvas. (JACK is the canvas.)

HUMPHREY This one means: kyomu.

AUDREY Did you say: kyomu?

HUMPHREY Nothingness. The Japanese have four hundred words for it.

AUDREY Really? That many?

HUMPHREY It seems necessary

AUDREY Well, we have ten thousand words for: dysfunctional human endeavor including body parts so I guess I understand.

HUMPHREY Give me an example.

AUDREY O? Almost anything. Oufffff. Ah…. good intentions, loyalty, betrayal, killed with a kissing knife, love….

HUMPHREY That’s very complex. You are very complex.

AUDREY I find it comforting.

HUMPHREY You’re smashing. That means: attractive.

They move to another canvas.

AUDREY This one has a faded quality…. more attractive than the last, anyway….

HUMPHREY Yes, I suppose.

AUDREY (imitating HUMPHREY) Yes, I suppose. (normal) You always seem reticent to commit yourself.

HUMPHREY Do I? I said I loved you.

AUDREY Do you say it to Natalie?

HUMPHREY Do you say it to Jack?


HUMPHREY Now you seem reticent.


HUMPHREY Yes yes yes. That’s it. Right. Exactly. You are so attractive. More than that. Beautiful. Its why I love you.

AUDREY You don’t love me. You don’t know me.

HUMPHREY I want to. Would you like to sit? You seem to be limping.

They sit.

HUMPHREY What’s, what’s this bandage?

AUDREY This old thing? I cut myself.


AUDREY Stupid.


AUDREY No, me.

AUDREY takes out her penknife.

AUDREY With this.

HUMPHREY Whittling again, were you? O, there’s a scar. Is it serious?

AUDREY O, for god’s sake, I am a doctor. I should be working now – I cancelled a surgery for this, you know.

HUMPHREY gets down on his knees; he kisses the bandage.

AUDREY Stop that.

HUMPHREY I want to make it better.

AUDREY Thank you. Now, get up.

HUMPHREY Tell me something….

AUDREY Well, I love you too.

HUMPHREY makes a face.


HUMPHREY “I love you too” is passive. “I love you” is active.


HUMPHREY More attractive.

AUDREY I…. I don’t want to be attractive.

HUMPHREY Alive and in the moment? A strong core? Compassionate above all? It seems good.

AUDREY Hmmmmm? What I want to be – alright I’ll tell you: fragile as paper, bold as the north wind. The Queen of all the demons.

HUMPHREY Well, I think you’ve succeeded admirably. And then some.

AUDREY Can I tell you what I really want? – intimacy and…. vulnerability. Can you offer me that?

HUMPHREY What about Jack?

AUDREY I never found Jack attractive. No intimacy with Jack, no vulnerability.

HUMPHREY But love?

AUDREY Of a sort. Some sort. I don’t know. I don’t want to be with Jack. He brings out the worst in me.

HUMPHREY Why did you marry?

AUDREY Stupid.


AUDREY This time – yes. At the start, who knows anything?

HUMPHREY I loved Natalie from the start.

AUDREY You keep bringing her up. Don’t. And don’t underestimate Jack, just because he seems like nothing.

HUMPHREY He does, doesn’t he. Very kyomu.

AUDREY Ha. Jack was a great chef. His restaurant was always packed. Always. Three stars, all of that. He gave it up.


AUDREY A long story. An old story. Our story, more interesting to me now. Nevermind Jack. What’s the one single thing you would change in your life if you could?

HUMPHREY I’d have you as my wife.

AUDREY That’s sweet. Me, I wish I could have more – a bigger dollop – of the kindness gene.

JACK, the painting, sighs.

HUMPHREY The kindness gene?….

HUMPHREY laughs.

AUDREY Well, I don’t have it.

HUMPHREY Are you kind to your patients?

AUDREY Am I kind to them? I take care of their problems as best I can. Some of them survive. Is that kindness? I don’t think so.

HUMPHREY Do you mean “nice”?

AUDREY snorts.

AUDREY Do you think I’m nice?

AUDREY throws apples at HUMPHREY. She laughs – full throated and sexy.

HUMPHREY Hey, stop that.


HUMPHREY Jesus, what a bloody thing.

AUDREY laughs and poses.

HUMPHREY You are impressive.

HUMPHREY gives AUDREY a brass chain with a medallion attached.

AUDREY What’s this?

AUDREY reads the medallion.

AUDREY (reading) The fear of everything is love.

HUMPHREY Put it on.

AUDREY I don’t think so.



JACK, the canvas, falls off the wall.


scene nine

Evening. JACK and AUDREY in Chez Zuzu, a restaurant. They’ve finished dining, and wend their way to the coatcheck.

JACK Goulash? What’s suddenly so wrong with goulash? Chez Zuzu makes the best goulash in the accessible world. Fluffy, it is.


JACK Jesus, boys, I wish my goulash was that fluffy.

AUDREY O stop it.

AUDREY burps; JACK chuckles.

At the cloakroom. DELORES is helping SHLOMO on with his coat.

SHLOMO Thank you, thank you very much. You are very kind. Very kind.

SHLOMO smiles at JACK as he exits.

SHLOMO Good yom tov, good yom tov….

JACK I know him. I’m sure I know him. God, I can’t remember where. Or when. I feel so disoriented. I’m leaving my coat.


JACK I’m leaving my coat.

AUDREY snorts.

AUDREY I’m taking mine.

AUDREY hands the ticket to DELORES (She doesn’t notice DELORES).

JACK It’s not that cold out.

AUDREY It’s bloody winter.

JACK I don’t want to be dragging it around all night.

DELORES So what are you saying, Jack – you don’t want your coat?

AUDREY Delores?


AUDREY What are you doing here?

DELORES Making ends meet. So…. Jack, you want your coat?

JACK No, I’m leaving it for the evening.

DELORES That’s real dumb.

JACK Shut up.

DELORES You shut up.

JACK Or what? You’ll take me down?

DELORES I don’t want any trouble, Jack.

AUDREY So what are you saying?: I don’t pay you enough?

DELORES No one is ever paid enough.

AUDREY I could pay you more.

DELORES But would you?

JACK Hey, handle that coat carefully – do you hear me? – its cashmere.

DELORES sighs.

DELORES I don’t want any trouble, Jack – my hands are tied. If the coat stays, you pay.

JACK More money?

DELORES It’s all about money, Jack.

JACK God, that’s depressing.

DELORES It’s the way it works.

AUDREY You are crazy.


JACK Alright alright alright.

DELORES A hundred and twenty-seven dollars.

JACK A hundred and twenty-seven? Jesus, I could buy another coat for that.

DELORES The price would be optimistic, if you wished (imitating JACK) genuine cashmere.

AUDREY laughs.

JACK Please don’t laugh.

AUDREY Don’t tell me what to do.

JACK (to DELORES) What time do you close?

SANDY enters.


JACK Hey, sissy. Did you have the goulash? Good, eh?

SANDY I’m a vegetarian now.

AUDREY laughs.

JACK (to AUDREY) Please don’t laugh.

SANDY Have you seen Terry?

AUDREY Not in a rat’s age.

SANDY Is that a no?


SANDY Anyway, I think he’s in the can puking his guts out. Hey I had a nice chat with Dad today.


SANDY He sounded great. Well, you know Dad.

AUDREY But he’s dead.

SANDY shrugs.

JACK Where’s Bob?

SANDY He’s on the table.

JACK peers.

SANDY See you….

SANDY exits.

AUDREY Your sister gets on my nerves.

AUDREY rolls her eyes.

JACK Do not roll your eyes at me. I will not be diminished. Look at that, look at that.


JACK She’s dragging my coat on the floor. (calling) Stop that. Delores, stop that.

DELORES Don’t do anything, Jack…. please don’t do anything.

AUDREY Jack, take your bloody fucking coat and let’s go.

JACK I don’t want to take my coat.

AUDREY You’re driving me crazy.

DELORES Is it my turn yet?

JACK laughs.

AUDREY (to DELORES) Its embarrassing to me that you’re here. I only do what I can. We have fun.

DELORES snorts.

AUDREY We do. We laugh

DELORES You laugh – I laugh with you

JACK Is nobody listening to me? Drat.

DELORES (to AUDREY) You used to give more.

JACK (crow-like) Caw kraa caw. Caw. Caw.

AUDREY (calf-like) Mmuuh möö. Möö.

JACK (crow-like) Caw. Caw.

AUDREY (calf-like) Möö. Mmuuh.

JACK (crow-like) Kraa.

These two speeches together:

AUDREY (calf-like) Möö. Möö. Möö. Möö. Mmuuuuuuuuuuuh.

JACK (crow-like) Caw. Caw. Caw. Caw. Caw. Caw. Kraaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.


JACK I can’t do this anymore.


JACK Möö möö caw caw möööööö caaaaaaaw. That.

AUDREY You’re crazy.

JACK Be that as it may.

HORST comes over.

HORST Is there a problem here?

JACK You’re fucking right there is. Nobody’s listening to me: I resent being diminished. That coupled with a general pervasive debilitating sense of disorientation. I’d say that was a problem – wouldn’t you?

HORST I’m generally not interested – generally – in your problems.

DELORES laughs.

JACK Who are you? Wait. Wait. I know you. See? This is exactly what I’m saying.

AUDREY You’re raving.

JACK Again? What a quagmire.

DELORES I know these people, boss – they’re trouble. Scary trouble.

JACK All scarred up and nowhere to go.

DELORES whispers in HORST’s ear.

HORST O? (to AUDREY & JACK) I presume you’ve come to dine….

AUDREY We’ve already eaten. It was very fluffy.

AUDREY laughs.

JACK It was.

HORST Good. So now you wish to retrieve your coat?

JACK No, I wish to leave it here.

HORST O I see, a joke. Very funny.

HORST does something very very frightening.

JACK Jesus, stop that. You’re scaring me.

HORST Yes, exactly.

DELORES laughs.

JACK I want merely to continue leaving my coat here – and later – at some other moment – to retrieve it.

AUDREY Take the bloody coat. Let’s just go.

JACK (to HORST) You render me speechless – as you’ll all agree: a rare occurrence. Would that generally register as a concern with you?

HORST Perhaps. Perhaps not.

JACK And your sudden and imminent death?

HORST Perhaps. Perhaps not.

AUDREY Jack! You’re mad.

JACK O, I’m sorry, was I speaking out loud?

HORST Delores, give this gentleman his coat and the freedom of the street.

JACK (to AUDREY) Do you love me now?


scene ten

AUDREY’s office. AUDREY is examining HUMPHREY. He is wearing a split hospital gown.

Bending over the examination table, AUDREY is looking up HUMPHREY’s rectum with a flashlight. She is wearing the medallion he gave her in the previous scene.

Meanwhile, outside the frame, a watching JACK….

AUDREY Bend a little lower please. Lower….

HUMPHREY Is this good. Ow.

AUDREY’S robust laugh.

AUDREY Just relax. Lower please…. O?

HUMPHREY Is it bad?

AUDREY Very complex.

HUMPHREY Is that bad?

As AUDREY pokes and prods, the medallion catches in his rectum.



AUDREY Watch a minute….

HUMPHREY Ow ow ow….

AUDREY Don’t move – the bloody medallion’s gotten stuck….

HUMPHREY I gave you that medallion.

AUDREY Well, I’m taking it back….

She pulls the medallion out.



The watching JACK suddenly exits only to immediately reappear. A ruckus, as JACK breaks in, with DELORES on his back.

JACK Stop hitting me.

DELORES You can’t come in here.

JACK You’re always blocking the door.

DELORES That’s my job, honey.

JACK Don’t you dare “honey” me.


HUMPHREY tries to hide his semi-nakedness.

JACK I have to talk to you.

DELORES I could take you down. I could take you down right now.

JACK I really really doubt it.


JACK We have to talk.

AUDREY At home? Later?

JACK Ha ha. That’s cute. You’re never home. Never. And I know you’re having an affair – a dreary word and a dreary world, the two – with him.


JACK (to HUMPHREY) Don’t dare deny it, you sleazy shitey scumbag. All protests are futile.

DELORES That’s crazy talk.

JACK Sad sad sad. I’m having a bad year and even singing doesn’t work anymore. And meanwhile you’re doing what with this – tacky tacky tacky – this….

JACK sneers.

JACK This…. person.

HUMPHREY I am a person.

JACK Shit up your ass. Ha. (to AUDREY) Admit it. Admit it admit it admit it.

AUDREY and HUMPHREY, a long look. Is it true?

JACK (to DELORES) What are you looking at?

DELORES Shut up.

JACK You shut up.

DELORES You shut up.


DELORES I’m taking you down. Right now.

JACK and DELORES fight.

SFX: More crashes and bangs.

DELORES renders JACK immobile.

JACK (to DELORES) Brute.

JACK picks himself up.

JACK Jesus, my head hurts. Please, please O don’t concern yourself – I’m alright, Jack. Whatever happened to kindness?

MITHROTH enters.

AUDREY & DELORES & HUMPHREY The Prince Mithroth.

JACK Drat. Fucking Mithroth.

MITHROTH O, Jack…. I am only myself.

A vulnerable AUDREY goes to MITHROTH.

AUDREY Daddy, I’m having such a hard time

MITHROTH There, there, I’m here now.

JACK (to MITHROTH) Why is it you’re everywhere I look?….

JACK pirouettes.

JACK He’s always here? Its Paris all over again. Its never stopped, never stopped. You two living together….

MITHROTH In Paris, Jack? Do you mean in Paris? Merely friends sharing a kitchen.

JACK And a bedroom.

MITHROTH Two bedrooms.

JACK Scars.

MITHROTH I am a Prince, Jack – and a virgin as well. If that’s any consolation….

JACK Aversion?

JACK’s pun is ignored by all.

JACK Nevermind this. You want to know something? It turns out I had had a dream. So what Audrey just said to me was just exactly what I had dreamt. Amazing? It goes on. Finally, naturally, we’re in a fussy mood, she and I and self-inflict damage on ourselves.

DELORES Audrey is fabulous. Fabulous.

AUDREY smiles winningly at DELORES.

DELORES Jack is nothing. Washed up has-been. Not just my opinion – her’s too.

JACK (to AUDREY) Is that true?

AUDREY nods.

JACK Blood. Misery. Pain. Degradation. Humiliation. Misery – O I said that already.

MITHROTH I am so so sorry it has all come to this impasse. A pity. It was better at the beginning. I need more delectable and delicious detail.


MITHROTH Please, Jack, please please please. Please please please please….

JACK (to AUDREY) This has to be told. (to MITHROTH) Audrey slashes her ankle. I stick my blade into my arm – lucky me, I hit an artery. The paramedic is forthcoming and less than sympathetic. You stupid stupid people, she said. I had to agree. Scar poxed.

DELORES This is all wrong. He’s telling the story wrong.

JACK You weren’t there.

DELORES If I had been, I’d have taken you down.

JACK But you weren’t there, were you? And you didn’t, did you? You know what? It’ll never be as good again. I remember you when you were less…. unkind. We used to be friends, you and I. (to MITHROTH) Anyway, enough detail?

MITHROTH Not bad. You know, Jack, I’ve come to think despite all your ravings – this has to be said – I suspect you know nothing of truth.

JACK Ya? When I look into your eyes I can see what you’re going to say next.


JACK I can see your dialogue written right there. (as MITHROTH) You mean – what do you mean?

MITHROTH You mean – what do you mean?

AUDREY I am having an affair with Humphrey.


AUDREY I love him.



HUMPHREY I’m so so…. moved. You dear sweet person.

AUDREY You dear sweet person.


JACK What confused consternated crap. What is it?

AUDREY Humphrey is sensitive.

JACK I’m sensitive.

AUDREY He’s considerate.

JACK I’m considerate.

AUDREY He’s caring.

JACK I’m caring.

AUDREY He’s passionate.

JACK This is stupid. Don’t, for god sake, don’t. Don’t do this. Why? Tell me that at least. Stay. I’ll cook only Italian all the time. Just Italian. Classic mezzogiorno. No more experiments.

AUDREY I hate your cooking.

MITHROTH Never explain, Audrey.

JACK is beside himself.

JACK I’ll get lawyers. You’ll wish you’d never been born.

AUDREY I already do.

JACK sighs.

AUDREY We wanted too much of each other

JACK But that’s what love is. That’s exactly what love is. Its a whole package…. That’s it, a whole package. A whole bloody package. What a quagmire.

JACK silently leaves.


scene eleven

AUDREY’s office. A discrete collection of model Eiffel Towers. AUDREY stands, contemplating a large medical drawing, a cutaway of a rectum.

JACK enters.


JACK Audrey.

AUDREY How surprising to see you.

JACK Why not?

AUDREY Why not indeed.

JACK looks at the medical drawing.

JACK Interesting….

AUDREY A trifling post-conceptual rendering.

JACK But large.

AUDREY Yes. So goes the scale, so goes the mind.

JACK looks out the window.

JACK I feel so disoriented – I’ve lost my way – the town seems different somehow.

AUDREY Demonstrate, please.

JACK More mountains. And more scars on said mountains. Drat. And why is this? I am distressed, again anxious. A veritable quagmire.

AUDREY Poor dear thing.

JACK picks up an Eiffel model.

JACK This one?


JACK I believe it was the first.

AUDREY Was it?

JACK Yes. Bought on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques.

AUDREY The day François promoted you to souschef.

JACK Yes. We had such a lovely time.

AUDREY In Paris?


AUDREY Yes. My work at the Sorbonne. Life was powerful then.

JACK Yes. Now sad.


JACK I will not be diminished by anything less that the truth. I wish to be loved.

AUDREY You dear mad thing.

JACK I will hardly accept such rendering of my fragile social persona.

AUDREY is wearing the HUMPHREY medallion; JACK notices it.

JACK What is that, pray tell?

AUDREY What, dearest?

JACK That medallion – I do not recall it.

AUDREY This? It’s nothing.


JACK sighs.

JACK I know you don’t love me anymore – what am I to do?

SFX: Loud car crash.

JACK turns, terrified, towards the sound.

Suddenly, AUDREY is in great pain. She clutches her midriff.

JACK What’s this? What’s this?


JACK Digestion?

AUDREY Not. A possibility has been suggested by The Prince Mithroth…. I wish you liked The Prince Mithroth.

JACK His diagnosis, please.

AUDREY Inflamed gall bladder.

JACK Where is this gall bladder? Demonstrate please.

AUDREY Attached to the liver.

JACK How dark and confusing.

AUDREY There. There…. its passed.

JACK Good. Still….


JACK Dust, nothing but dust.

AUDREY How nice – you remember Mr Eliot. I must, I must go. A surgery to perform.

AUDREY exits.

JACK weeps.

JACK Bitter tears

SANDY appears, carrying a swaddled BOB.

SANDY You did good, Jack. You stood up to her.

JACK I will not be diminished, Sandy.

SANDY I know. Here, hold Bob.

JACK nuzzles Bob.

JACK I love this.

SANDY It’s Terry’s favourite thing too.

JACK You think I did good?

SANDY nods.

JACK Then why do I feel so bad? Poor me, poor me, ever the jealous brooder. A sink full of wet socks. What to do but wring them out and hang them to dry? Spilling the lentils. The sound of it. O fuck, I say. Well, wouldn’t you?

SANDY Jack. Dear Jack. Jack Jack Jack – I know I would.

JACK smiles.

JACK Would you?

SANDY Of course.

JACK, a sigh, a moan.

JACK I’m fading fast, sissy. Dear Jack says you, poor Jack says I, but, hey, a life definitely on the wane. O man. O man. I go to her office, I confront her, I express my pain. All the time I’ve wasted. Always Audrey. (as AUDREY) After all these years, Jack, you poor slob, what can be left between us? (as HIMSELF) Always Audrey. Only Audrey.

JACK, a small sob. BOB joins in. SANDY tries to take BOB – JACK gently but firmly holds onto the child.

JACK (to BOB) You dear little thing.

JACK looks at BOB; hugs him.

JACK (to SANDY) And I am, yes I am a poor slob – and that’s what’s left and that’s the very point. It’ll never be as good again, Sandy. Never. A package of shite. That’s it, that’s it exactly…. a package of shite.


JACK Drat.





scene twelve

A prison camp. JACK, AUDREY and HUMPHREY in the yard. Is it raining? Or just a mean and bitter drizzle?

HORST, the commandant, and CURLY, a soldier, enter.

CURLY Attention, attention prisoners. Line up for inspection. Now now now – you can do better than that mealy slugged-faced fucking moronic shit for brains beasts of the rectum fucking shites.

JACK groans.



HUMPHREY Yes, Doctor.

HORST (to HUMPHREY) Your personal hygiene is disgusting.

HUMPHREY Yes, Doctor.

HORST No food for this man for two days.


HORST (to JACK) You. I don’t like the glint in your eyes.



HORST Beat this man.

AUDREY No, Doctor, don’t.


JACK What she means is – ah….


JACK I know what – there’s been a small error.

HORST An error?

AUDREY We shouldn’t actually be here.

CURLY laughs.

HORST (to CURLY) Shut up.


HORST indicates AUDREY’s medallion.

HORST What is that?

HORST tears the medallion from her neck.


HORST (reading) The fear of everything is love.

HORST scoffs.

HORST I don’t think so. Pathetic.


HORST No, less than pathetic – pathetic would be an achievement for you.

HORST spits in AUDREY’s face.

HORST Where did you get this?

AUDREY He gave it to me.

HORST indicates JACK.

HORST This one?


AUDREY No…. him.

HORST No food – three days.


AUDREY We are not the people you think we are.

HORST No? Aha….

AUDREY We’re Audrey and Jack.

JACK Harmless.

AUDREY Perfectly harmless.

JACK A smidge complicated.

AUDREY But who isn’t.

HUMPHREY That’s so very interesting. I was thinking that very same thing earlier today. Your hospitality, Doctor, allows me much and plenty time to think. I’ve discovered my life isn’t always what I thought it was. Can you believe it?

HORST Beat this man.


JACK I hate this.


JACK And there’s always new people – everywhere I look I see new people – and I don’t know them and I don’t want to know them. Does that make me a bad person?

AUDREY If only we could get a message to The Prince Mithroth.

JACK I can’t bear this anymore. I feel so disoriented. I can’t wait, I don’t want to wait, I’d rather die. Drat. This, this is a quagmire.

The sun is large as it suddenly sets. Very large. Very stunning.

HORST and CURLY turn to admire the setting sun; they are captivated by the sight.

HORST Beautiful, simply beautiful.

CURLY So so beautiful.

JACK Here’s our chance to escape.

HUMPHREY Take me with you.

BABY JACK appears.

BABY JACK And me. Please take me – please – if you would be so gracious and forever kind.

JACK It’s Baby Jack.

BABY JACK How are you, my dear benevolent generous sir.

JACK (to HUMPHREY) Scoop up the kid and let’s boot it.

HUMPHREY scoops up little BABY JACK; they run fast and far. Eventually they are on a city street.

AUDREY Which way should we go?

JACK I don’t know. I don’t know this place. I feel so disoriented.

HUMPHREY I’m going to wait at that bus stop.

BABY JACK A most excellent plan; I agree completely.

AUDREY Bus stop?

HUMPHREY The two of us, we’ll just blend right in. What could be more natural than a man and a baby?

AUDREY A bad idea.

JACK Very bad.

BABY JACK We simply don’t concur – surely a most reasonable product of discourse? – and that is that. A pity but regrets, ah yes, regrets, I’ve had some few. Still, one must go on….

HUMPHREY The bus stop is a perfectly sensible idea.

AUDREY Jack, do something.

JACK shrugs.

Suddenly a truck screeching to a halt. SFX: truck breaks, noisy.

JACK and AUDREY hide behind a potted plant.

CURLY and HORST jump out. HUMPHREY panics, drops BABY JACK, and runs.

CURLY Hey, stop. Stop.

HORST Nevermind – kill him.

SFX: Machine gun fire.

CURLY shoots the fleeing HUMPHREY who falls horribly dead.

AUDREY & JACK O my god.

BABY JACK And me? What of me? What of poor dear little innocent me? Am I to die in the street as if a impoverished persecuted plague ridden god-forsaken rodent?

HORST (to CURLY) This one, this one I want to keep.

AUDREY & JACK O my god.

JACK and AUDREY turn and run.

JACK Which way?

AUDREY What about those woods?

JACK Where?


JACK O you are clever.

AUDREY Act natural.

JACK O ya, like I’m feeling really natural.

AUDREY Let’s not run.

JACK But I want to run.

AUDREY Put your arm around me.

JACK I’ve forgotten how.

AUDREY Shush….

JACK and AUDREY reach the woods and hide.

JACK O my god – look.

HORST is lurking about at the fringes of the woods.

JACK This was a stupid place to hide.

AUDREY O ya, right – and we had a whole lot of choice.

JACK Paris would’ve been a better choice.

AUDREY smiles.

AUDREY Shush….

HORST is just in front of JACK and AUDREY – he doesn’t see them.

JACK jumps out and tackles HORST. They struggle.

HORST You…. will regret…. this….

JACK Audrey…. Audrey…. kick him in the balls.

AUDREY Jack, what a horrible thought.

JACK O I’m sorry, was I speaking out loud?

AUDREY laughs as she attacks HORST. HORST falls back, gasping in pain. JACK kills him with a large rock.

JACK Wow….

JACK falls over.

AUDREY Jack, what’s wrong?

JACK He cut me. Here….

JACK points to his thigh.

JACK Is it bad?

AUDREY Pretty bad.

JACK Drat, disorientation suddenly seems a nothing problem compared to this.


JACK You are kind to me

AUDREY No I’m not. Now be quiet.

JACK Tell me a story.

AUDREY Do you remember when we met?

JACK No. Yes. No.

JACK winces in pain.

AUDREY At that party. After finals. You came up to me and said: you’re the only one here I don’t know.

JACK I did, didn’t I?

AUDREY And then we spent the night under the dining room table.


AUDREY So many years ago.

JACK A lifetime ago.

AUDREY I’ve never loved anyone else.

AUDREY & JACK (singing softly) Clang, clang, clang went the trolley
Ding, ding, ding went the bell
Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings
From the moment I saw you I fell….

CURLY enters.

CURLY (calling off) Where’s the Commandant?

ANOTHER SOLDIER (off) I saw him go into the woods.

CURLY (calling) Hello…. Hello…. (calling off) Cover me….

CURLY enters the woods.

CURLY Hey, I see them….

JACK covers his face as explosions firestorms shrapnel as well as general impaling and uncontrollable spasms engulf the stage.


scene thirteen

JACK’s kitchen. Early morning – the sun is just about coming up.

JACK enters, carrying a goldfish bowl.

The lights go out.

JACK Drat – what happened to the lights?

JACK, flashlight in hand, looks about the kitchen.

The kitchen is filled with various and many goldfish bowls; some of the fish are quite large though this may be a distortion due to the extreme curvature of the glass.

JACK (shouting) We have to protect the fish from the cat. If we had a cat….

Suddenly JACK rushes to gently pick up a fish.

JACK How did this get here?

A tear from JACK. Is it still alive?

AUDREY enters, dressed in a power suit.

AUDREY What happens?

JACK I don’t know.

JACK puts the fish in the water – it floats on the top.


JACK I don’t think so. O wait – its mouth is moving.


JACK looks at AUDREY – a pained look.

AUDREY Good. Well, I’m off.

AUDREY exits.

JACK (quietly) Will you be home for dinner?

SFX: A slashing whirling noise off.

AUDREY laughs, off.

JACK What?

AUDREY (off) You’re going to want to deal with this.

In a flap and a flurry, JACK exits to the garden. One of the salient features: layers of giant hedges. HORST and CURLY are cutting and slashing the hedges.

JACK Excuse me.


JACK (shouting) Excuse me.


JACK (shouting) Hey….

CURLY and HORST stop.

JACK What the fuck?

HORST Please refrain from foul language, sir.

JACK I’ll say exactly what I fucking well want to.

HORST I would advise you not.

HORST advances on JACK.

JACK This is my property. I advise you to shove your tongue up you rectum.

CURLY What did he say?

HORST I won’t repeat it.

CURLY Hey, was that the wife? What a peach.

JACK is aghast; he is about to speak when SANDY enters (pulling BOB behind her in a little red wagon).

SANDY What are they doing, Jack?

JACK Just a minute – wait – I don’t know.

HORST These types of hedges, they’ll be trouble latter on.

CURLY Lovely specimens….

HORST But frankly planted too close.

CURLY Much too close together.

HORST Later this will be a problem.

CURLY A big problem.

HORST You’ll thank us for this.

CURLY They always do.

HORST You’ll thank us.

CURLY And you’ll pay us.

SANDY What should we do?

JACK shakes his head.

SANDY A hedge as old as the hills. Ugly, now. Pity….

CURLY It needed to be done.

SANDY We should do something. Should we call Audrey?

JACK No god no.

HORST and CURLY laugh and laugh.

SANDY We should do something.

JACK Stop stop stop stop what you’re doing.

CURLY Or what?

JACK pulls out his penknife.

JACK Or this.

HORST and CURLY laugh, the tears steaming down their faces.

SANDY Wait a minute. Terry has something better.

SANDY exits, with BOB.

HORST Is that the knife she stabbed you with?


HORST and CURLY laugh.

CURLY That Audrey person.


HORST Its not what we heard.

JACK I stabbed myself. Jesus….

CURLY While we’re talking we’re still on the clock.

HORST Paid by the hour.

JACK Not by me.

HORST Every second of your life that passes is gone – lost – forever.

CURLY The bill keeps getting bigger and bigger.

HORST An understanding will be required.

JACK Go. Go away. I don’t like you.

CURLY Boo hoo.

HORST Someone named The Prince Mithroth asked us to do this.

CURLY Or maybe it was the wife, eh?

JACK groans.

HORST You know this said The Prince Mithroth, do you, sir?

CURLY He told us to do this job.

HORST Then he run away.

CURLY He run far away.

HORST He run away into the night.

CURLY The deepest darkest night.

HORST Run run run run run away.

JACK I’m…. I’m I’m….

HORST sneers.

SANDY enters with a massive automatic weapon. A bazooka?

CURLY and HORST laugh.

SANDY I’ll take care of this, Jack. Stand back….

HORST More trouble, eh, Curly.

CURLY Always trouble, Horst.

HORST It follows us wherever we go.

SANDY cocks the weapon.

JACK O for god’s sake, Sandy, be careful.

HORST Yes, be careful, little woman.

SANDY Get out. Now.

SFX: SANDY fires off a burst.

CURLY The woman’s crazy.

HORST But I like her style.

CURLY We’re not finished.

HORST Not even close.

CURLY First, we’re going to do the work here.

HORST Then we’re going to do this little woman’s house.

CURLY Take it right down to the ground?

HORST That’s it – take it right down to the ground.

CURLY I’d like that. I’d really like that. I’d really really really really really like that.

HORST And then let’s crush that little baby Bob while we’re at it.

CURLY Ya, Let’s get rid of that Bob.

CURLY & HORST Oink oink oink.

CURLY and HORST laugh.

SANDY Take that…. and that….

SANDY shoots CURLY and HORST. SFX: Many gunshots. CURLY and HORST scream and fall dead. A messy affair.

SANDY You did good, Jack. You stood up to them.

JACK I don’t know.

SANDY You’re a brave man, Jack.

JACK I suppose….

SANDY I love you for it.

Police sirens in the distance.

SANDY Ugly, now. Poor hedge.

The lights come on.

JACK O, the power’s back.

The lights go out.

JACK Drat. What happened to the lights?

SFX: Loud car crash.

JACK turns, terrified, towards the sound.




scene fourteen

JACK (off) Forget it, just forget it, Sandy.

Daytime. JACK’s large sunny kitchen. A large collection of colourful Eiffel Tower models squirreled here and there.

Bowls of goldfish – there are many such now in the kitchen.

JACK enters with a goldfish bowl. He puts down the bowl, opens a window and yells outside.

JACK (calling off) OK, I’m listening.

SANDY (off) Terry took the message.

JACK (calling off) What did she want? Her freedom?

SANDY (off) The message was: no message.

BOB cries.

SANDY (off) There there, you dear little piggy poo.

JACK & SANDY Oink oink.

JACK (calling off) Is she coming back, you dear old thing?

SANDY (off) O I’m sure I don’t know, you dear old thing. That’s too complicated for me. (singing) I will not languish.

JACK joins her.

JACK & SANDY (singing) I will not laaaaaaang-guish.

BOB joins in.

JACK (calling off) Just a minute, just a minute…. when did Terry take the message?

SANDY (off) Was there a message?….

JACK (calling off) Just a minute….

JACK exits outside.


AUDREY enters with a few suitcases and a large package.


JACK enters with goldfish.

JACK Ah. You. Well. Well well – this is a surprise.

AUDREY Look what I brought you.

JACK For me?

JACK opens the package – it’s a very large skillet.

JACK O? And will it fit on the cooktop?

AUDREY I wonder….

JACK gets into the skillet. He washes the salad greens. AUDREY laughs her big laugh.

AUDREY What are you doing?

JACK I’m making a salad for dinys.

AUDREY Like that?

JACK I always make my salads like this.

JACK sighs.

JACK When I do anything. Mostly nothing I do nothing.

AUDREY O what are you talking about?

JACK And where have you been? You used to live here. Its all running down. To nothing much. Drat. What if its all like…. like a bloody uncooked haggis. I will not be diminished. (doing a Scottish voice) You lie to me, you lie to me all the time.

AUDREY O my god, you sound just like my father.

JACK (Scottish voice) You’ve been gone for months. Or is it days? I might have wanted to go with you.

AUDREY There’s my freedom to consider.

JACK Freedom…. freedom. There’s a punchline to that…. I forget it. Drat. O I remember – you used to be honest. I loved you for it. Now the crow may be singing instead of the calf.

AUDREY O shut up. If you’re looking for a reason, honey, this is it.

JACK Don’t call me “honey” if you don’t mean it.

AUDREY snorts.

JACK You used to….

AUDREY What now?

JACK Mean it. I felt that anyway.

AUDREY You used to be someone who wasn’t knock kneed crazy.

JACK O stop it. Look – my opinion….

AUDREY scoffs.

JACK Wait wait, I’m having an idea….

JACK picks up an Eiffel Tower.

JACK My opinion: Paris was a package.


JACK We were all together, of a thing, you and I and the rue Rivoli. And the metro and Chez François and everything. Every breath was a laugh.

AUDREY I don’t remember it like that.

JACK At least a chuckle? Work with me. Even fucking Mithroth had it right. Salad days. Lovely days. Paris was a package – that’s why we loved it. Its all about Paris. And the package, the whole package. That’s it – the whole package, you got to take the whole package. That’s it that’s it. There’s no substitution. The whole package. No. No no. No no no no. Don’t say anything – hear me out. I’ll lose my thread. Its like at a country auction. You bid a box, you bid on a box – its a lot. You bid on a lot – three bucks – and you take the whole box – lock stock and box. That’s it, mama. You have to take the whole package.

AUDREY I hated Paris.

JACK How could you? Paris was kindness.

AUDREY wavers, uncertain on her feet.

AUDREY What do you mean? Kindness? What do you mean?

JACK Kindness? Its the opposite of – what? – fear. What, what are you afraid of? It all started in Paris. Don’t you remember?

AUDREY I was never in Paris.

JACK The scar capital of France?….

AUDREY laughs. Suddenly, she collapses, blood dripping from the corner of her mouth.

JACK What? What?

JACK takes AUDREY in his arms.

AUDREY mumbles.

AUDREY Kindness….

JACK What?

AUDREY All those times I said I loved you…. all those times…. was I lying?


AUDREY You should’ve be kinder.

JACK Me? You, you’ve never been kind enough. No no, I can’t do this anymore.

AUDREY Dear O dear, its too late.

JACK It’s never too late.

AUDREY I think I meant it.

JACK About love?

AUDREY Or did I?

AUDREY dies.

SFX: Car crash, far in the distance.

JACK is in shock; he feeds the fish.




scene fifteen

JACK is standing in the foyer of a large art museum. We see a sign: THE LIFE OF AUDREY.

HUMPHREY and NATALIE enter. JACK rubs his hands gleefully.

JACK Humphrey and Natalie, thanks so much for coming by. I wanted you to be the first to see the exhibition.

NATALIE It’s not open yet?

JACK Not yet. Soon, though, and a jovial time it’ll be – I’m already having a good time.

HUMPHREY Well then I’m honoured. We both are….

JACK I thought it was important you see it. Give me your opinion….

NATALIE I’m sure we’ll love it – just as we loved Audrey.

JACK Thank you. (to HUMPHREY) You’ve been here before, haven’t you?

HUMPHREY Here? Yes, of course. An important art museum, this.

JACK Yes, I thought you’d say that. Come….

They enter the first room. Large photographs of a young AUDREY.

NATALIE O, she’s so young.

HUMPHREY Is it all arranged chronologically?

JACK It might be.

NATALIE So sweet…. especially this one is so sweet.

They stand in front of a photo of AUDREY; her first communion. She is dressed in white.

JACK Her first communion.

SFX: Liturgical music.

HUMPHREY Yet there is something – what is it? – something in the eyes.

JACK Excellent of you to notice. The glint. Hard light, the bride of Christ.

HUMPHREY Yes, quite….

JACK Yes, quite.

NATALIE Is that a scar under her eye?

JACK That? Just some dirt

JACK wipes the photo.

NATALIE It’s still there. It looks like a cut.

JACK Naw, it’s just a blemish on the photo. Nevermind. And this one….

They stand in front of an another photo – A teenaged AUDREY on a railroad bridge.

JACK She was obsessed with bridges.

NATALIE Was she?

JACK Yes. Afraid to be on them – afraid to ignore them. Something about juxtaposition.

HUMPHREY O? Interesting.

NATALIE Is that why she’s hanging – O my god can you believe it? – by one hand.

HUMPHREY Did she fall?

JACK Fall?

HUMPHREY After the picture was snapped.

JACK O? No. She let herself down slowly with just one arm.

HUMPHREY Impressive.

JACK A human being is a genius while truly engaged, fearless strong and brave.

NATALIE Her legs are all scared.

JACK Yes, so many scars in this life.

NATALIE Did she fall…. some other time?

JACK She never said. Well, enough of that. Come to the next room – there’s still much more.

They enter the next room. They stand in front of a picture of AUDREY and MITHROTH.

NATALIE Who’s that?

JACK Ah yes – Audrey’s long mysterious connection with Mithroth.

NATALIE The Prince Mithroth?

JACK Fucking Mithroth. She was always on about him. The Prince Mithroth wouldn’t like that. The Prince Mithroth couldn’t justify this. The Prince Mithroth always buttered his bread on the left side. The Prince Mithroth never jumped if he could hop. The Prince Mithroth was a friend of the poor and lonely. Especially the lonely.

HUMPHREY Was he an old lover of her’s? The first perhaps?

JACK I never knew for sure. I never asked. When she was working at the Sorbonne, she lived with him. Shared a flat. All I remember is tea, of course. Tea, bloody tea. Tea all the time tea. Here he’s looking for paper to write her phone number. But everything there was already used – not even a scrap available. They were so upset. Eventually he wrote it on his hand. You can just see it if you look closely.

HUMPHREY and NATALIE peer at the photo.

NATALIE Right…. you can just make it out. Regent seven, three something something two. The scar seems bigger here. From her communion, the same scar only bigger. See that penknife.

JACK Where?

NATALIE On the table. Is that what caused the scar?

JACK I don’t know. Yes. Yes, they’re over here – her’s and mine.

They move to the penknife case.

HUMPHREY And beautiful objects they are too.

JACK Not bad. They’re Croatian army issue.

NATALIE You mean: Swiss.

JACK No, we couldn’t afford those. I’m sick of this room – let’s move on. Coming, Humphrey?….


They enter the next room. They stand in front of a picture of naked AUDREY and naked HUMPHREY routinely rutting.

NATALIE is shocked.


JACK I thought you’d find it interesting. Not really porno. More like cheesecake.

JACK laughs.

JACK In and out in and out. Groaning and moaning. I love you I love you I love you. Humpty Dumpty humping Humphrey.

JACK laughs.

HUMPHREY How how did you get this picture?


JACK Being invisible can be very very advantageous.

NATALIE Invisible?

JACK I’ll teach you sometime. Old Tibetan technique. Ha.

JACK laughs.

NATALIE This is horrible.

JACK Quite right. (to HUMPHREY) Every bloody ejaculation you had scarred me. Me.


JACK And you too. Sure, why not? Why should you be exempt? All we do is give each other scars. The realization, horrible that it is, that she is lying, lies, was lying to me all all the time.

AUDREY IN MEMORY I said I was at the office, but I was at a conference.

JACK IN MEMORY And you didn’t tell me. I might have wanted to go.

AUDREY IN MEMORY I don’t have to be everywhere with you.

JACK IN MEMORY There’s a punchline somewhere here, but I forget it.


JACK What good is it?

HUMPHREY Is that the punchline?

JACK Not yet. I wanted her to accept my scars but I never would accept her’s. Drat. Unkind of me.

HUMPHREY Is that the punchline?

JACK You have to take the whole package, take your fictions – match your fantasies. That’s the punchline. God, you know, I just thought of something. I always wanted her to take the whole package – but I never did myself. What was I thinking? The whole package, taking the whole package, that thing, that thing works both ways. Its a two way street, brother. And it never occurred to me – imagine. Drat. Too late now, eh? Let’s move on, shall we?

NATALIE Is there?…. more?….

JACK Cheesecake? No, that’s done.

HUMPHREY But maybe we’ve had enough…. of this.

JACK Apparently you never do.


JACK Have enough. Ha.

NATALIE I don’t feel well.

JACK No no, finish the tour – please please please. I promise you’ll love the last room.

They enter the last room. A large photo of dead AUDREY.

JACK Just moments after.

NATALIE It’s horrible. The blood….

NATALIE falters.

JACK Death – the final scar.

AUDREY IN PHOTO Is that about kindness? About being kind? Is that what you mean?

JACK IN PHOTO Kindness? What? What are you afraid of?

Suddenly, AUDREY IN PHOTO collapses, blood dripping from the corner of her mouth.

AUDREY IN PHOTO Dear O dear. It’s too late.


JACK So…. the final question: is it worth the tour?

HUMPHREY Is any life ever worth it?

NATALIE cries.

JACK O dear. I’m so sorry, Natalie. Inadvertent scars are the worst. The very worst. I’m so sorry. Here, take my hand….


scene sixteen

In a large supermarket; everywhere lovely piles of colourful foods – parsnips, oranges, tomatoes, kale.

JACK, holding a sleeping BOB, is raving at SANDY.

JACK Who was it who always said: she’s looking for you?

SANDY That was me, Jack, me – your sister.

JACK Yes, that’s right. She was pissed off. Hurt. Why? I was at home, always at home. She knew where to reach me. She could have called. I’m not even sure I now know who she was. After all those years. And for what? Dear O dear. Regret, nothing but regret now. I feel so disoriented.

SANDY Poor Jack.

SANDY takes his hand.

JACK What I thought I would do. Books I would read. The War and Peace syndrome. Books I would write.

SANDY Cookbooks?

JACK Gushy fiction.

SANDY How clever you are. Terry thinks so too.

JACK My life is like being on the beach. Waves pounding in on me. The singing crow instead of the calf. If you could change one thing from your past, one single thing? What would you choose? Me, I’d be smarter about who I marry.

SANDY Everybody says that.

JACK shrugs.

Suddenly, across the supermarket JACK sees MITHROTH arm in arm with HUMPHREY.

JACK O my god – it’s him. And that other guy….

SANDY Who, Jack, who?

JACK Fucking Mithroth…. and bloody Humpty-Dumpty. What a quagmire.

SANDY You mean over there in front of the zucchinis?

JACK is speechless – he nods.

SANDY Didn’t I meet them somewhere?

SANDY starts to peer – JACK pulls her down behind the oranges.

JACK Don’t look, don’t look – I don’t want them to see me.

SANDY That’s so sad.

BOB wakes up; starts to cry. JACK is startled; he knocks over the oranges which roll everywhere.

JACK O god, we have to keep him quiet – I don’t want them to come over. (to BOB) There there, you dear little piggy – Uncle Jack is here.

BOB stops crying.

JACK Fucking Mithroth. I wish he would get Heartgohighhigh and be really sick and puke all over himself and bleed from his eyes. And Humphrey too, why not?

SANDY O, Jack….

JACK I am horrible.


JACK But I will not be diminished. I used to be a chef.

SANDY And a great chef.

JACK And a great chef – I’ll give you that – and then – suddenly – nothing.


JACK Audrey.

SANDY She was always difficult.

JACK Well it works both ways – I wanted her to take me as I was but did I accept everything she was? No. O my god. Wait a minute wait a minute I get it I get it. What was I thinking? I am diminished. Totally bloody fucking diminished. Drat drat drat drat drat. Diminished and scarred as bloody hell – and scary to boot. And nobody to blame but me.


scene seventeen

On a busy city street. Afternoon. A hint of snow in the air.

JACK, dressed like a conquistador, waits at a bus stop.

JACK (singing) I will not languish. I will not laaaaaaang-guish.

HUMPHREY – driving by in his car – stops when he sees JACK.

HUMPHREY Hey, great…. It’s you, right?

JACK What?

HUMPHREY That’s it – well put – what’s up? Like it, like it a lot. What’s up, Jack, what’s up? What’s up? What’s up what’s up?

JACK Do I know you?

JACK knows darn well who he is.

HUMPHREY It’s me…. Humphrey.

JACK Humphrey?

HUMPHREY The pilot. The one who crashed on your street.

JACK Right. The pilot. Right. Humping Humphrey. Humpty Dumpty Hamster Wamster Humphrey. Why should I talk to you?

HUMPHREY Saw a fellow by the side of the road – thought I’d stop.


HUMPHREY I’m sorry I’m sorry…. I am bad. I am. Bad bad bad. Nobody likes me. My life has fallen apart. Everything I touch, dies.

JACK Ya, right, well, ya, we all have problems.

HUMPHREY (between the tears) Going somewhere?

JACK What?

HUMPHREY (between the tears) You’re at a bus stop. So I figured….

JACK Got to catch a plane. If ever there was a bus, which there isn’t and anyway, got to catch a plane.

HUMPHREY Where to?

JACK Paris.


JACK Someone I was. Want to be again. Or something.

HUMPHREY I’ve been feeling like that too.

JACK Everyone does – it’s the curse.

HUMPHREY (tears) Except I don’t know where to go.

JACK I learnt how to cook in Paris. God, that was good. Those were great times.

HUMPHREY Always got to help a man get to Paris. Article of faith. Pop on in – I’ll give you a lift.

JACK Beyond salvage.

HUMPHREY Why, when’s the flight?

JACK looks at his watch.

JACK Three minutes ago. Drat. What a quagmire.


JACK You know, you can never start out too early. Man O man O man – my enthusiasm is running way down.

HUMPHREY Ha. Well then – why not? – let’s go for a coffee. Have a chat.

JACK sighs.

JACK May as well – life is shorter by the minute.

JACK gets in the car.

They drive around.

HUMPHREY You seem quiet.

JACK You don’t really know me.

HUMPHREY But I’d like to.

JACK Truth, old Humphrey, I’m feeling distracted.

HUMPHREY As if your life has become a very particular sort of unrecognizable fiction?

JACK Pretty darn accurate – how did you know that?

HUMPHREY Just lucky. Here’s a good place.

They park in front of a big complex housing a number of restaurants.

HUMPHREY That place up there.

JACK It’s a bar.

HUMPHREY Too early for you?

JACK Sure. Why not? Wait, I know this place. Its Chez Zuzu. I thought it was somewhere else.

DELORES bars the entrance.

DELORES Private party.

JACK Delores – hey it’s me, Jack.

DELORES I know it’s you, Jack. Chez Zuzu is now forever closed to you. No trouble, Jack. Please, no trouble.

HUMPHREY Bloody hell.

DELORES I’ll thank you not to be abusive.

HUMPHREY You don’t know who I am, do you?

DELORES And I’m darn sure not interested.

HUMPHREY God, you sound just like me. We could be friends.

DELORES I have more than enough friends already.

JACK laughs.

JACK Please, Delores – for old time sake? I could use a little pick-me-up this morning. Its cold – I could use my coat.

DELORES laughs.

DELORES Sorry, Jack. I wish I could.

HUMPHREY Do you? Do you? I don’t think so. You’re a bitch queen, that’s what you are – a bloody bitch queen.

DELORES cries.

JACK Jesus, Humpy – take it easy.

HUMPHREY Women and their tears – can’t take it. Never could. Reminds me too much of old Mum.

SANDY enters.

SANDY (to DELORES) O you poor thing.

SANDY puts her arm around DELORES.

JACK What’s happening, Jack?

JACK Where’s Bob?

SANDY Terry’s got him.

HUMPHREY I’ll tell you what’s happening – she won’t let us in – that’s what. Quite nasty about it.

SANDY Who are you?

JACK Humphrey, this is my sister, Sandy.

HUMPHREY But we’ve met.

SANDY I doubt it.

HUMPHREY Just like Old Mum. Buggers….

SANDY (to HUMPHREY) Be quiet. (to JACK) Is this about that damned penknife?

JACK Drat. How do you know about that?

HUMPHREY O we all know about that.

SANDY How could you, Jack?

JACK I didn’t do anything to Audrey.

HUMPHREY That’s not what I heard. I saw the scars.

SANDY You did it to yourself – its the same as doing it to her.

JACK She did it too.

HUMPHREY But did she?

SANDY Audrey can be very difficult but you all loved her. Anyway, loving isn’t owning. Look, I’ve got to go – got a date with Dad.

SANDY exits.

We see OLD BILL in the distance; BILL waves and is gone.

DELORES She’s nice, your sister.

HUMPHREY I can’t say I care much for her.

JACK Shut up.

DELORES Ya, shut up.

JACK takes DELORES’ hand

JACK It’s good to see you.

DELORES You too.

JACK We used to be good friends.


JACK What happened?

DELORES Life got in the way.

HUMPHREY It always does.


HUMPHREY I said: it always does.

They continue to ignore HUMPHREY.

DELORES I miss her. That laugh…. I loved that laugh.


JACK nods.


DELORES Sometimes I hear it on the wind.

JACK That’s sweet.

HUMPHREY Isn’t it interesting you say that. I was thinking….

DELORES: a hard look at HUMPHREY.

DELORES (to JACK) Be careful.



DELORES I don’t trust him.

HUMPHREY Me? How can you say that about me?

DELORES I got a bad feeling.

JACK Thanks, Delores. Thanks.


HUMPHREY and JACK exit to the car.

JACK Well, that was sort of good.

HUMPHREY Merely mundane. You see a lot of that these days.

JACK Look Humphrey, I’ve had just about enough of you. I’m going….

HUMPHREY O no don’t – we’re getting on so well.


JACK I don’t think so.

HUMPHREY I’m famished. We could go to L’Express. The poulet au citron is utterly fabulous these days.

JACK It’s Jean-Jacques’ secret saffron source.

HUMPHREY So I’ve been told. Uses grappa to marinate the bird….

JACK Alright, let’s go. But I have to drive.

HUMPHREY O? Can’t do that, I’m afraid. Can’t do that. This is a prototype, this is a special – a very special – automobile. I’ve promised my mechanic chap I would be the only one who drove it. Sort of a family heirloom in waiting if you get my drift. Sorry….

JACK I have to drive.

HUMPHREY But its left hand drive. You know, the opposite of the right hand drive. Which – if your stop to consider it – is dashed confusing. Cause left hand drive is on the…. right hand side of the car. Which is rum and confusing also. Dashed confusing. And then there’s the question of pedals. Because they don’t seem to be reversed. They’re the same whether they’re on the right or on the left. Or are they?

JACK I have to drive.

HUMPHREY sighs; he tosses the keys to JACK.

JACK Which one is the break pedal again?

HUMPHREY grimaces. They drive.

JACK This is fun. I can see why everybody does it. I’ll tell you something for nothing, old Humph. Revenge is never never sweet. Never never sweet. Somehow, now, there’s no point to it. All I can feel is everything I’ve lost. Drat. Could I ever get it back again?, that’s the question. That’s why I was going to Paris. And the answer is….

HUMPHREY Hey wait – can’t concentrate – this is the wrong direction to L’Express.

JACK O? No problem. Easy to fix. Today, everything’s easy to fix.

JACK does an illegal U-turn.

HUMPHREY Are you crazy?

JACK Relax…. (singing) I will not languish. I will not laaaaaaang-guish.

SFX: Screeching of breaks; a speeding car hits in the middle of the turn; an ugly nasty noisy crash.

JACK is killed; he is covered in scars and blood.

HUMPHREY O my god – he’s dead. And they’re all going to blame me. You’re all going to blame me. I didn’t cause these scars. And the blood. Blood. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t even driving. I wasn’t even driving. Dear O dear O god O god.




scene eighteen

Evening. Chez Zuzu.

Bustle and noise. The occasional snatch of singing. Its all very familiar.

JACK and AUDREY enter.

JACK I don’t like this place any more.

AUDREY laughs, full and rich.

AUDREY We always come here.

JACK But now I only see its flaws: vast disconglomerated nothingness, lacking in true variety.

AUDREY Disconglomerated?

AUDREY chuckles.

JACK And brutal management and bloody hot.

AUDREY Take off your bloody coat.

JACK Ya? No. Once they almost destroyed it – I won’t give them the satisfaction.

AUDREY It’s summer, Jack.

JACK I love this coat.

AUDREY sighs.

JACK O well, it’s just a coat.

JACK takes off his coat, throws it on the floor.

AUDREY is surprised, then impressed.

They sit at a table.

A folksinger, off, croons through an early Bob Dylan song.

FOLKSINGER (HUMPHREY) (off) How many roads must a man go down
Before you call him a man?
How many roads?
How many roads?
How many roads?

AUDREY O my god – that folksinger….

JACK I hate folk music.

AUDREY It’s Humphrey.



JACK laughs.

JACK The evening is definitely picking up.

AUDREY Be nice. It’s my birthday.

JACK Don’t worry – I don’t mind if he’s out of tune.

AUDREY You’re acting strangely tonight.

JACK O, I don’t think so. Just same old bloody Jack.

JACK laughs.

AUDREY Ummmm?….

SANDY enters. She struggles to the table carrying a tray of tiny succulents and baby BOB in a carrier.

SANDY (calling) Hi there….

SANDY gives AUDREY the succulents.

SANDY Happy birthday, you dear old thing.

JACK And you brought Bob.

SANDY I brought Bob.

JACK Where’s Terry?

SANDY The poor thing – he feels crazy. (to AUDREY) He sends his love.

AUDREY That’s sweet.

JACK nuzzles BOB.

JACK Baby baby Bob, you’re such a baby baby darling.

SANDY Audrey? Would you like to nuzzle Bob?

AUDREY Ah…. ummmm….

MITHROTH enters.

AUDREY It’s The Prince Mithroth….

JACK Fu….fu…..fu….fu….


JACK Fu…. fu…. Fabulous Mithroth.

JACK laughs.


AUDREY Ha indeed. (calling) Prince Mithroth, Prince Mithroth. We’re over here.

MITHROTH waves and comes to the table.

MITHROTH Hello, hello all…. I’ve brought no gift. See? No gift. Why?, you ask. I’ll tell….

JACK Looking forward to it.

AUDREY glares at JACK.

JACK (to AUDREY) No I mean it.

MITHROTH Thank you, dear boy. First, I thought: only emeralds would do. But alas, the emerald market is deplorably depressed. Only pathetic, though admittedly greenish pebbles remain. So – instead – I brought you myself to do with as you will….


AUDREY How charming you are.

SANDY rolls her eyes and JACK laughs.

AUDREY Sit over here by me.

JACK Do you know my sister, Mithroth?

AUDREY (sotto voce to JACK) The Prince Mithroth.

JACK How could I have ever forgotten? Its The Prince Mithroth, Sandy.

MITHROTH I have not had the pleasure. O wait. O wait. I have had the pleasure. Both you and your Bob. I trust you’re both well.

SANDY I seem to remember, prince person, that you were in a boat?

MITHROTH O? Perhaps. Yes. Now, what’s the cuisine here?, might one ask.

MITHROTH raises his eyebrows.

MITHROTH Vitally continental?

SANDY I would call the menu here at Zuzu exactly standard plebeian bistro fare, prince person. Tasty…. if you’re hungry.

SANDY smiles at JACK.

MITHROTH O? Well said….

MITHROTH looks into SANDY’s eyes.

MITHROTH You know, I can see what you’re going to say next.

SANDY You mean – what do you mean?

MITHROTH I can see your dialogue written right there in your eyes.


MITHROTH I knew you were going to say that.

SANDY Did you now?

MITHROTH And that too.

SANDY Well then, in that case, apparently now the calf may be singing instead of the crow.

MITHROTH O? Wait. No. I didn’t see that.

MITHROTH peers into SANDY’s eyes.

MITHROTH No, it’s not there. Strange. What does it mean?- the crow thing what what what the singing calf.

SANDY I think Bob said it first, prince person. (to BOB) Didn’t you, little piggy.

MITHROTH Oink oink.


JACK glares at audrey.

JACK Let’s not have too many Bob jokes tonight, shall we?

MITHROTH Quite right. Now this crow thing, is it – perhaps? – the victory of violence? Better yet: the violence of hegemony?

JACK That’s very interesting, Mithroth – the crows over the calfs.

MITHROTH Exactly, dear Jack.

JACK Otherwise – dear O dear – and this becomes a revolution, it would mean it could mean: no more veal scaloppini.

MITHROTH Is that a tragedy?

SANDY Not if you’re a calf, prince person.

AUDREY laughs till tears come.

AUDREY That’s very funny, Sandy.

HUMPHREY enters, dressed in bell bottoms and carrying a guitar.

AUDREY Whatever are you wearing?

HUMPHREY Do you like it? Do you? You do, don’t you. I can tell.

JACK Humphrey, this is my sister, Sandy.

HUMPHREY We’ve already met – at your place. It was the day our house burnt down. (musing) Might have been the actual beginning of the end….

SANDY O yes…. did you rebuild?

HUMPHREY No, we just continued living in the rubble.


AUDREY And this is The Prince Mithroth.

JACK They’ve already met.

HUMPHREY The Prince Mithroth? O my goodness. This is…. so special.

JACK You’ve already met him.

MITHROTH And why not do it again, dear Jack, why not do it again? (to HUMPHREY) Now tell me – be honest now – did anything every come of that rectal business?


HUMPHREY (stammering) O, I say….

JACK O, leave him alone, you two. Let’s not have too many Humphrey jokes either.

HUMPHREY Ah, yes, thanks. Birthday time, birthday. (to AUDREY) A little birthday something.

HUMPHREY hands AUDREY a book.

HUMPHREY An autographed copy of the erotic stories of Anais Nin. Very lovely…. very – well, it must be said – erotic.


MITHROTH I knew her, of course.


SANDY What was she like?

MITHROTH Very stylish. Very vain. Very secretive. I believe one of those stories is about me.


JACK Very impressive.

MITHROTH – a little bow by way of reply.

HUMPHREY Do you like it? Is it just what you always wanted?

AUDREY’s fulsome laugh.

HUMPHREY Ah yes, funny, yes. But do you like it? Say you do.


MITHROTH So what exactly are you up to, Humphrey?

HUMPHREY I know this will sound strange, but I’ve had this vision – quite frightening really – and so I’ve decided to run away and embrace the bardic lifestyle.

SANDY What a fun idea.

AUDREY The bardic lifestyle? O, I see.

JACK Perfect. Just perfect.

MITHROTH I myself am not interested in such things. Anyway, I no longer have the voice for it.

SANDY Voice?

MITHROTH It’s all about singing, isn’t it, this bardic lifestyle? It always was when I was a lad.

MITHROTH sings Puccini, and quite good it is.

MITHROTH Best of luck, my dear fellow.

MITHROTH snaps his fingers. NATALIE comes over with champagne.

AUDREY Natalie?

NATALIE Hi everyone.

HUMPHREY Hello, Natalie.

NATALIE ignores him.

HUMPHREY Hello, Natalie.

NATALIE cries.

JACK O you poor thing. Here, sit down….

NATALIE Not only content to destroy my life and its innocent pleasures, this…. horny salacious lecherous…. hippy has given away all our money.


HUMPHREY It seemed wrong, suddenly – do you know what I mean? – to own things.

MITHROTH Dear girl, I can see we need our champagne now more than ever. I have ordered the Pol Roger – 1990. A dark vintage.

NATALIE pours the champagne.

MITHROTH Does everyone have a glass? You too, dear Natalie.


MITHROTH A toast to the Goddess – Audrey – you are more beautiful with each passing year. And also – I feel genuinely inspired to do this – also to little baby Bob – may he grow up to be worthy of his name.

SANDY (to BOB) Did you hear that, piggy-poo? Piggy-poo piggy-poo.

JACK That’s kind, Mithroth.

MITHROTH, a slight bow to JACK. They all clink and drink.


JACK and AUDREY laugh.

NATALIE And perhaps a book while you wait?….

NATALIE has a wagon filled with books. SANDY touches a few books.

SANDY I’m getting very hungry.

AUDREY Me too.

JACK Soon…. soon….

AUDREY But I’m hungry now.

JACK Wait a minute, can’t you?

AUDREY You never could plate up on time.

JACK If it’s worth waiting for….

MITHROTH Quite right, Jack.


MITHROTH Let’s have more of this fabulous champagne. Make it two more bottles, please, dear Natalie.

NATALIE Of course, Prince Mithroth….

Brushing HUMPHREY aside, NATALIE sets off.

JACK examines the books.

JACK Ah. Ha. This is a library full of scars.

AUDREY O shut up.

JACK Wait wait. I’ll show you a scar. All these books are by Anais Nin.

AUDREY Really?

MITHROTH Let me see that book.

MITHROTH examines the gift book.

MITHROTH Wait wait wait. This is decidedly not the Nin signature. I know her signature. This simply isn’t it. Wait wait wait. I know what our sly Humphrey’s done – he’s autographed the book himself, haven’t you, Humphrey?

HUMPHREY stammers.

JACK Well, when you’ve given away all your money what else can you do? (to AUDREY) That’s what I’m talking about – that’s a scar. (to HUMPHREY) You silly fool.

An embarrassed HUMPHREY looks out of the window.

HUMPHREY That big black cloud does seems rather large, doesn’t it? Or is it just me? Wait. Its…. crashed into that house. What? People running screaming. I feel very vulnerable at this moment. Very vulnerable. Its not a cloud at all. How could I have been so mistaken? Its…. its a giant fir tree and its fallen over. Now there’s fire. Flames. I shall never now never never survive.

NATALIE arrives with more champagne.

HUMPHREY That can’t be good.

NATALIE You’re a stupid stupid man.

NATALIE spits on HUMPHREY, who sobs quietly; BOB joins in.

JACK And that’s another scar….

SANDY There there, little piggy poo.

JACK Poor old Humpty-Dumpty.

JACK helps HUMPHREY to a chair.

JACK Humphrey, stop sniveling and sit down and join the party. I promise you – it’ll all be better.

HUMPHREY (between the tears) Will it?

JACK nods.

JACK Scars heal.

AUDREY rolls her eyes. In response: JACK rolls his eyes.

AUDREY Don’t you dare roll your eyes at me. I too – I too have genuine wounds and scars to show for it all.

AUDREY pulls up her pant leg.

JACK O ya, that one. Ya ya, that one – I’ve seen that one before.

AUDREY It bled.

JACK Ya, but not as much as mine.

JACK rips off his sleeve.

JACK I hit an artery – this one bled like a slaughtered bunny. The paramedic was less than sympathetic.

AUDREY I think she called us stupid.

JACK I had to agree.

AUDREY Maybe, I did too. Now this one….

AUDREY swivels to show her back.

AUDREY I did this one for you. Hard to reach….

JACK So, does that make it more important?

JACK takes off his shoe; shows the bottom of his foot.

JACK I did this one for you. Didn’t even use a mirror.

AUDREY hikes up her shirt.

AUDREY Now this – this – this one is a really ugly one.

SANDY Oooooo….

JACK What’s that?

AUDREY I fell out of a tree when I was seven.

JACK Yikes.

JACK lowers his pants.

JACK Me, this is the creme de la creme.

AUDREY That’s ugly. That’s really ugly.

JACK Is it the ugliest?

AUDREY Could be. So what is it?

JACK Can’t remember.

JACK and AUDREY laugh.

SANDY That was a Christmas scar, Jack. The tree fell on you.

JACK O goodness, I do remember. OK now, now its my turn.

JACK looks around the table, pleased. This is his place, his life.

MITHROTH More scars, Jack? Dear me, I don’t know if we’re up for it.


JACK No more scars. I propose a toast to my darling wife and her whole package – the good the bad and the ugly – you have to darn well take it all. Which is probably on a good day the kindest thing we can do. To Audrey and all that you are.

ALL To Audrey.

They clink and drink.

NATALIE Tried my best, I tried my best to be kind to the people I love…. or thought I loved.

SANDY puts her arm around NATALIE.

SANDY I’m always kind to the people I love. (to BOB) Aren’t I, little piggy poo?

BOB coos. JACK kisses SANDY on the forehead.

JACK Yes, you are.

MITHROTH Kindness is often overlooked in the fracas of our lives but it is worth something.

AUDREY I always wanted to be kinder. I did.

MITHROTH Never too late, my dear.


JACK No. Never too late.

AUDREY (to JACK) All those times I said I loved you…. all those times…. I thought I meant it – was I lying?

JACK About love?

AUDREY Or was I?

JACK Do it for me? Do it for me.

AUDREY Be kinder?

JACK Yes. It is a birthday after all – a new beginning.

AUDREY A birthday.

JACK Happy birthday.

AUDREY Thank you.

AUDREY’s full passionate laugh.

AUDREY Alright, now where’s that Bob. Give me that Bob. I’m going to nuzzle Bob.

JACK My my….

SANDY Did you hear that, little piggy? Aunt Audrey now loves you.

MITHROTH I’m – dare I say it? – I’m pleased. Can those be tears in my eyes?

JACK Prince Mithroth, you are a true hombre and a half. How could I have not seen it? Have a glass, you old thing, and let me tell you all about the life of the mind.

MITHROTH Delighted, dear boy.

AUDREY Can we eat now?….

JACK catches NATALIE’s eye; he nods.

NATALIE The menu for tonight: Oysters à la florentine, épigramme of mutton, and for dolce – our specialty – coquilles Saint-Jacques de François.

AUDREY claps her hands in delight.

AUDREY My absolute three favourite dishes. Jack. Memories of Paris…. and dear young sweet love.

JACK Happy Birthday.

AUDREY O Jack. I take it.

JACK The whole package, eh?

AUDREY Still sweet.

JACK and AUDREY kiss.


AUDREY takes JACK’s hand. Chez Zuzu to black; JACK and AUDREY to light.

JACK Look at you….

AUDREY Look at you….

SFX: Dance music. JACK and AUDREY dance.

Their waltz ends with hostilities – they pull viciously at each other’s noses.


AUDREY Stop that.

JACK You stop that.

AUDREY O shut up, and dance.

Again and again they dance.

AUDREY Zing zing.

JACK Zing zing zing zing zing….

AUDREY Went my heartstrings.

JACK & AUDREY I love you.

JACK Yes. Yes.

Falling in a heap, they laugh and laugh.

Till tears.



— Don Druick


DON DRUICK is an award winning playwright, translator & librettist, a baroque musician, and a gardener and chef.  In a career spanning more than 40 years, Don Druick’s plays have been produced on stage, radio and television in Canada, Europe, Japan, and the USA.  His publications include playtexts, translations and critical writings.  Publications of his plays, WHERE IS KABUKI? and THROUGH THE EYES, have both been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Awards.  His current plays are: GEORGEVILLE (passion and poetry in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, 1816; the darkest night of Lord Byron), WILDEST DREAMS (a deconstructed narrative; something close to love amongst the elders), and a translation of Emmanuelle Roy’s play, LAZETTE. Druick lives in Elmira, a small Mennonite farming town near Waterloo Ontario, with artist Jane Buyers.

Jun 112013

Gordon Lish photo by Bill HaywardGordon Lish: Photo by bill hayward

Gordon Lish, despite his pesky notoriety vis a vis Raymond Carver, bestrides the American literary scene like a colossus but not, you know, in an obvious way because he stands outside the non-tradition of the marketplace, that other colossus. He is a restlessly prolific author, editor and teacher; his influence seeps into the interstices of the culture. He has established a taste and a method (see Jason Lucarelli’s “The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence“). His ghostly signature lies on what a lot of readers and writers today think of as good writing. There are websites devoted to listing the writers he has touched. The last American prose writer who had this kind of impact on the minds of the best writers of her era was Gertrude Stein.  Like Stein, Lish is in the ranks of the avant garde, the Modernists. Once he was known as Captain Fiction and edited fiction for Esquire and later books for Knopf. I always found that amazing, a disjunct. Because the first piece of Gordon Lish fiction I read was his 1989 novel Extravaganza, which was unlike any American fiction I had read before (and, I thought, completely NOT mainstream — how could this guy be working for Esquire?). Extravaganza is 200 pages of borscht-belt standup comedy, one Jewish joke after another. There is no story at all, but gradually the language of the jokes becomes infected with references to the Holocaust, the hoary old jokes are disrupted with references to whips and cattle cars. It is a beautiful, scary, maddeningly recursive adventure. The recursiveness, the throw of grammar, lulls the reader, defines expectation. Then Lish defies expectation; violence, depradation, sadism, mayhem explode into the sentences.

So, yes, when I think of Gordon Lish, I think of Gertrude Stein, I think of Flaubert (Extravaganza seems like an heir to Bouvard and Pécuchet). I think of the avant garde. I think of a writer super-conscious of the role of language in the shaping of reality. I think of a writer steeped in Continental philosophy (Deleuze, Kristeva — and I think how extremely small-minded and beside the point are the debates about his role in Raymond Carver’s career). I think of a writer who has an almost mystical appreciation for the relationship of words (type, text) and the white space, the frame. I interviewed Lish once (I have published the sound file on NC: Causing Damage — Captain Fiction Redivivus: DG Interview With Gordon Lish), and we spent some time talking about this, his idea of cutting words to expose the “mystery,” the word “mystery” having, yes, a technical armature, almost tangible for Lish. We are talking here not of a mere writer of stories, but of a man who self-dramatizes as being on the world’s rim, the space between language and not-language. He gets your blood up, does Gordon Lish. His sentences make you itch to write.

All this by way of introducing the following brief, shocking excerpt from Lish’s 1986 novel Peru, just republished by Dalkey Archive Press with an introduction by the author. Peru is a compulsively “spoken,” recursive, stylized monologue that circles around and around the moment in 1940, when, at the age of six, the narrator murdered another six-year-old boy with a toy hoe in a sandbox. I give you here one of the great death/murder scenes, bizarrely dispassionate, full of a kind of schizophrenic detail and a consciousness on the narrator’s part of wanting to tell you the story correctly. So, at the outset, the first detail he tells you about the murder is that he could hear water running for the garden spigot, a detail that seems irrelevant and then compelling. We see the pitted marks the hoe leaves on the victim’s face. We see the victim getting up from his dying and stumbling around, watching his own dying. Everything is strange, focused, and unexpected. Lish escapes the novelese of conventional expectation and launches us into a realm of language and horror.

In addition to the excerpt, I point you here to David Winters’ excellent essay on the novel in 3AM Magazine: “Truth, Force, Composition.” Also, as linked above, Jason Lucarelli’s essay on Lish’s compositional method, called consecution, and my interview with Lish. Finally, the photographer bill hayward, long an associate and friend of Gordon Lish, recently allowed NC to publish a series of Lish portraits: Gordon Lish: Photographs — bill hayward.




I’ll tell you one of the worst things in my life.  This is one of the worst things in my life—a day when the nanny said that I couldn’t come over and play but one when she went ahead and changed her mind later on and said that I could actually do it—and then it started raining just a little bit after she’d said it, like just instants, just instants after she had given me her blessing—and then for the whole rest of the day, all the rest of that day after Andy Lieblich went in and the nanny went in with him, I sat down inside of our garage and kept feeling funny and out of the ordinary, like as if I was in some kind of trouble and that certain things which I did not exactly know about yet were probably dangerously unfinished, lying lopsided somewhere and being dangerous, and it made me feel a terrible wildness, this strange feeling, which I think, to my way of thinking as a child, was the worse one, the feeling before the feeling of wildness, the feeling of incompletion and of chaos, a feeling of things getting started and of never getting them over with, of parts of them being impossible for you to ever get them totally taken care of yourself.

In a halfway sense, I think I can say that the day I killed Steven Adinoff, that is, that that particular day—but only in this halfway sense of things which I have mentioned—was a day like that.  On the other hand, now that I have said that, I think it is only fair for me to say that I have the feeling that I am making too much out of the thing, that I am probably not really remembering anything.

I should be skipping the feelings and be sticking to other things, anyway.  To what I remember because I actually heard it or saw it or so forth and so on—I should be sticking to things like this before things start getting too mixed up.

I heard the water going.

The whole time I was killing him I heard the water getting out of where the colored man had it hooked up to the Lieblich’s spigot—the water he was using for the Buick, the whole time the other thing was happening, the water for the fit between the hose, on the one hand, and the spigot, on the other, was a little bit loose, even though it was the colored man who had it hooked up and who—next to me, next to me—was the world’s most watchful human being in the whole wide world.

Even afterwards, even when I was going home, it was still going then, the tiny hissing was, like a sizzle, like the way a frying pan with some drops of water in it will sizzle, or make a sizzle, or sound like it’s sizzling.

The nanny saw it.  Andy Lieblich saw it.  So did Steven Adinoff himself.  We all saw it.  We all watched.  Steven Adinoff watched just as much as anybody else.

That’s the thing about it—you watch.

That’s the unbelievable thing about it—that you watch it even if it’s you yourself that’s getting killed.

He watched himself get chopped up.

To me it looked like he was interested in just lying there and watching it.  Because isn’t it interesting to watch it even if it’s happening to you?  That you’re the one who’s getting it doesn’t make any difference.  Actually, if my own personal experience can be counted for anything, that part of it—my opinion is that that part of it is the part of it which just makes you al the more interested in it.

But maybe he did not understand what was going on anymore, what connection there was between him getting killed and the hoe anymore, between what was happening to him and what I myself was doing to him with the hoe anymore.  Maybe the thing was that Steven Adinoff was probably thinking of something else.

I don’t know.  Maybe that’s what you do—you think of something else.  Maybe you can’t even help it.  Maybe you can’t even stop yourself from just going ahead and thinking of something which doesn’t have anything to do with the thing that is happening to you, except I myself don’t think that’s it, that that explains it, no.

But I don’t know what does, what would.  I can’t even begin to guess, except for the fact that I think it’s got something to do with a nice feeling, with having a nice dreamy sleepy very special, very sleepy now feeling.

Or else I am overdoing it or am anyway just wrong.  Maybe he just wanted to see how getting killed looked.  Maybe it didn’t matter to him who was getting killed.  Because for a lot of the time he just lay there watching instead of trying to get up and fight back and try to kill me back—and then he finally did, finally did get up—except that by then he was almost dead, except by then I think he was almost dead, even though he wasn’t actually acting dead, even though he just got up and started acting baffled and shocked instead of being sorrowful or mad at me.  But I don’t think it was so much on account of someone having almost killed him as it was on account of his realizing how he’d missed the boat on this thing by getting distracted, by letting himself get distracted, and by not paying enough attention to it, or at least not to the part of it which really counted, until it was just too late and you felt silly for more or less being the center of attention of what’s going on but the last one to be informed as to what it is all about and means.  I mean, I’ll bet it’s like finding out that you are the last one to get in on a secret which turns out to have been much more about you than you ever dreamed it was, ever could have, in your wildest dreams, dreamed of or thought of anything.

To my mind, Steven Adinoff was just woolgathering and then caught himself at it and went ahead and woke himself up and then noticed he was almost dead.

Except that it was just probably only a gesture by then.

There were pieces of his face—there were all of these cuts which were deep in his head.

Not that he couldn’t actually get up when he tried.  He got right back up on his feet again and went and got the rake again and then he walked around for a while, then he walked in and out of the sandbox for a while, stepping up to get in it and then stepping down to get out of it, and meanwhile saying these different things and looking in his pockets almost all of this time, but some of it, some of the time, looking at me again and trying to get me with the rake again before I myself got ready to really buckle down to business again and kill him again and then he fell over again almost as soon as I got busy on him again and really dug in.

Anybody could tell that this time it was for good.  It didn’t matter if you were just a six-year-old boy.

Any six-year-old could have killed Steven Adinoff.


Gordon Lish

Jun 102013



Steven Schwartz writes to his obsessions.  Currently, he’s obsessed by success, failure, and redemption, fixations which contextualize the main conflicts of his short stories and novels.  In the title story of his first collection, To Leningrad in Winter, Schwartz tells the story of manwho attempts to distance himself from his Jewish heritage even when faced with acts of anti-Semitism that compel him to join a cause.  Lives of the Fathers, his second collection, follows relationships between family members as they attempt to grow up and distance themselves from their parentage.  Schwartz’s title story of this collection is told from the perspective of a son who simply wants to help his father move after his mother’s death.  But when his father ropes him into helping him pursue Victoria, his father’s ailing, long-lost love, the narrator realizes he may be unable to avoid repeating his father’s mistakes.  Schwartz’s first novel Therapy is told from the perspectives of three interconnected characters, each working through family dilemmas, personal trauma, and therapy to find meaning and love in their lives.  In his second novel, A Good Doctor’s Son, Schwartz tells the story of a teenager who grows up in a racially intolerant small town in Pennsylvania.  After accidentally killing the child of a black family while drag racing, the main character refocuses his life by attempting to deal with the moral repercussions of his actions.  Schwartz’s most recent collection, Little Raw Souls, features stories of characters faced with difficult situations that force them to question their complacency with their lives, such as a man who can’t seem to let go of the adolescent crush he’d had when his transgender cousin was a girl; a rancher easily fooled by a couple vagrants who camp on his property; a woman at an airport who contemplates spending the night with a stranger rather than telling her husband her wallet was stolen.

Following the release of Little Raw Souls and his recent reading at an independent bookstore in Denver, CO, I spoke with Schwartz on how he maintains flexibility in his writer’s voice, pursues his obsessions, and wrestles his material into character-driven narratives.

—Jacqueline Kharouf


CraftBookJacqueline Kharouf: You wrote a very interesting essay about voice called “Finding a Voice in America,” which was published in the AWP Chronicle (Oct.-Nov. 1991) and later published in the craft anthology Bringing the Devil to His Knees.  In the essay, you briefly discuss the discovery (or acceptance) of your “material” and that once you finally stopped avoiding it, you came into your voice: “[…] the writer’s voice emerges at the place where her unique experience meets the larger culture.”  I think of the writer’s voice as an ever-evolving aspect of being a writer (or that as we have new experiences, we meet that “larger culture” in ever-different and unexpected ways) and I wonder how you’ve noted (or embraced) that evolution in your own career.

Steven Schwartz: I think it’s important to say that writers, especially younger writers, although this can happen at any stage, spend a lot of time running away from their material.  And why do they do this?  Well, for any number of reasons.  They’re afraid of being boring, that is, what happened to them couldn’t possibly be of any interest to anyone else simply because it did happen to them.  They’re worried about dredging up material that might hurt those close to them—even when it’s disguised as fiction or only inspired by real events.  But you can’t run away from your material because you don’t choose it, it chooses you.  Even writers who claim not to be autobiographical at all—as if this is something to be ashamed about, suggesting they have no imagination—you’re still unconsciously going to run into your own obsessions if you write long enough.


For me, I had this idea that plot alone would make me an interesting writer, until I came to understand that I was only using plot to avoid revealing anything about myself that might stray into dangerous emotional territory and risk being sentimental.  But it quickly became obvious—and I remember the story in particular, “Monkey Business” in my first collection To Leningrad in Winter—that when I finally wrote about the pain of a lover having an affair, (and allowed the real life event to take imaginative flight) and saw the impact it had on readers, I understood voice came out of the depths of character.

That intersection you mention about voice emerging at the place where your unique experience meets the larger culture is always variable.  Which is another way to say that your voice does change over time depending on everything from your new experiences to what you’re reading to what you choose to write about.  The idea of “finding your voice”—that chestnut of writerly advice—makes you think once you have it, that’s it.  Good.  I’ve got mine, hope you get yours.  But actually you have to lose your voice periodically to keep it alive.  Otherwise it becomes stale because you’re clinging to what worked before.

One caveat here: I remember speaking with the writer Charles D’Ambrosio after he gave a reading of his wonderful story “Screenwriter” and asking him about its genesis.  He told me something very interesting.  He said, in fact, the story was all voice at one point, and he had to proceed in the opposite direction, find what undergirded the voice, a structure for that voice that had some sort of narrative arc.  So you have to be aware that your work can actually depend too much on voice and neglect all the other fundamentals of craft.

JK: One of the most intriguing and moving components of your prose is your dialogue, which is always a showcase of the differences that put your characters at odds with each other and an opportunity for those differences—and degrees of separation—to reveal what the characters most want.  I wonder if you could discuss how you work on dialogue and if you could explain a bit of your process for fusing motivation with desire in terms of the particular context you want to create for the story.  Do you begin a story with a particular context already in mind?  Or does the character (and his/her particular situation/conflict) shape the story context?

SS: As a child I was always listening, always the witness to a lot of other more flamboyant family members. I think many writers, who tend to be watchers or witnesses in their families, silently take on the voices around them for lack of having any voice themselves. They become mimics.  They study their subjects.  They teach themselves to imitate others in order to get attention.  But with the polyglot of voices you’ve collected, you begin to populate an inner world, and you do that by a sort of talking to yourself.  You then come to appreciate how sound can be associated with image and before long you’re creating stories that are more interesting than what’s going on around you.  Soon you discover that lived life isn’t enough for you, that it needs to be heightened, in particular by language.  That’s how you learn to speak.

Dialogue as everyone knows can’t just be about delivering information.  It has to be about creating character.  So while other people may be listening for information, all that watching and listening that you’ve done has primed you to hear resonance.  You hear all the shadings of meaning, the tones and intentionality, the emotional landscape behind the words.  Without realizing it, in the silence of your listening, you’ve been teaching yourself about subtext.


When I’m working on a story, I usually have some idea of when a scene has to occur and how vital it is to bring in the actual voices of the characters.  In one of the more dialogue-heavy stories in Little Raw Souls, “Stranger,” I needed to allow these two strangers who meet in an airport and contemplate having an affair to speak for themselves, as if only direct testimony from them could explain their actions.  So you might say that dialogue comes into play when it’s most urgent for characters to speak and no other words than theirs will do.  Dialogue has to feel special in a story.  What I mean by that is that when you come across it, you have to be a little thrilled to hear directly from a character, and if you’re not, then it’s either bad dialogue or it’s being overused.  Dialogue has to have force behind it—a pressure to speak.

JK: I really enjoyed your reading and I especially admired how you handled the variety of questions that you received from the audience.  The first question, in particular, was pretty interesting because someone asked about the risky subject matter of the story you read (the story includes a transgender character).  The audience member didn’t say whether he liked the story or not, but if you had hesitations about sharing it.  Do you think—in this current state of the culture, which tends toward shock value and grabbing the consumer’s attention with as little effort from the consumer as possible—an author should worry about what readers will think of their work?

SS: Well, the short answer is no, of course not.  But let’s be honest.  What writer doesn’t—especially in this age of populace commentary—peek at those sometimes nasty comments on Amazon or Goodreads.  In the past, writers were more insulated from that opining.  You published a book.  Someone maybe sent a letter to you.  Or to your publisher.  But it was all relatively private.  Not anymore.  And those comments stay.

All that said, it still shouldn’t matter one bit.  If you want to take risks as a writer, and you’d better, if they’re honest risks, then you have to find a way to block those outside voices that are more prevalent today than ever before and would like to tell you everything from how you should write (or not) to tips about your personal hygiene.

JK: What are your obsessions that you write towards in your work?  Do you actively cultivate these obsessions in other aspects of your life (aside from writing) or, in writing about your obsessions, do you work through those obsessions as a way of learning and letting them go?

SS: You have to make friends with your obsessions.  But the catch is you don’t know your obsessions until you write enough to discover them.  What you think you’re obsessed with may in fact not turn out to be the matter at all.  I know for a fact that I’m obsessed with success, failure, and redemption, but how those forces will play out I never know, and in fact, don’t want to know.

You can’t rid yourself of your obsessions but you don’t have to assume you’ll always be trapped into writing about them either.  If you say, I’m not going to repeat myself in this book by writing about X or Y, you’ll undoubtedly do just that.  On the other hand, if you don’t fear that you’ll repeat your obsessions, you’ll find that they evolve into fascinating elaborations on a theme.  Thomas Wolf couldn’t seem to stop writing about going home, Fitzgerald about wealth, Flannery O’Connor about mother figures, Dostoyevsky about suffering, judgment, goodness, violence and a whole bunch of other obsessions bursting at the seams of his books.  In short, you have to embrace your obsessions with a faith that they’re both inexhaustible and capable of transmutation.


JK:I’m curious about the hierarchy of characters in your first novel, Therapy.  Each character has such depth and dimension that, as I was reading, I often thought that they could each carry on in their own separate narratives.  The novel’s close third-person point of view mostly centers on Cap, but also dips into the perspectives of Wallis (Cap’s wife), Julian (one of Cap’s therapy clients), Celia (Julian’s classmate), and Anna (Julian’s reclusive mother).  I wonder if you could talk about what you hoped these other points of view would reveal about the story.  I think there’s a certain danger in having too many points of view—a need to collect more information than the reader needs to feel invested in the story—and a risk in creating red-herrings (events or people who turn up, seem important, and then don’t necessarily influence lasting change on the main characters or their situations).  However, each of your characters, with their various issues and desires, propel the plot forward and you return to and revisit other characters (and simultaneously drop others) in a kind of juggling act that raises the stakes of the story the longer you keep this number of characters in play.  Ultimately, the novel (and the point of view) culminates at the point in which Cap recognizes what I think is at the heart of all desires: “It was what he’d always wanted to know too.  The riddle of The Thing: Am I loved?” (331).

SS:  Among the different points of view in Therapy, I have, Julian, a young man in college who is epileptic, Cap, a psychologist, and Wallis, Cap’s wife.  At one time I was trying to write three individual books about each of these characters, toiling away over a period of a decade.  Then I realized they could all be united in one story by the device of therapy and benefit from working off of each other.

It’s always interesting trying to decide exactly who will be a primary character and who a secondary one.  I just wrote a paper for a panel about this topic for the AWP conference, and one of the conclusions I came to is that secondary characters have to be distinct in their own right.  They can resemble types but at the same time they have to freshen that type.  Secondary doesn’t mean second rate.  But they are basically there to illuminate the struggles of the major characters, as Celia does for Julian when she meets and falls in love with him.  So secondary characters can often fulfill their role, contradict it, or exceed it, and you have to be alert to the possibility of discovering your secondary characters are outgrowing their intended potential.


This is far often more true for a novel than a short story, a short story being an exclusive operation that weeds out material and a novel being an enterprise that wants to suck in everything around it including the idle conversation you just had with your neighbor about cantaloupe at the market (“I know I can work that in!”).  So one of the characters in Therapy, Maureen, with her highly charged sexual behavior, started out more as a minor character but blossomed into a major one as she got more involved with Julian and I had to understand her motivation.  And once you start mucking around with a character’s actions, and those actions are perhaps damaging to others as in the case of Maureen, you almost have an obligation to investigate the complexity of why a character behaves as she does, and that in itself indicates you’re on to creating a primary character. You have to explore motivation in a way that even if an act appears random the possibilities of what caused that act are myriad and compelling, otherwise you’re light on character.  In Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby literally winds up doing nothing, fading away as a human being, but it’s the why of his nothingness that makes this story a fascinating study of motivation with its possible social, economic, psychological, spiritual, philosophical explanations for behavior that can’t be reduced to one cause.

And this is where point of view often comes in, regardless of whether we’re talking about a primary or secondary character.  I knew for most of the principal characters I could go into their heads, but with Maureen, I had to stay out of it, despite her being a major character.  I simply could not do justice to—and in fact would be subtracting from—the nature of her behavior if I tried to explain her from the inside out.  It was an intuitive decision to stay out of her head, as many decisions about point of view are, knowing that she would have more raw power as a character seen from the outside than from the inside.  My friend, Robert Boswell, talks about the half-known world of characters, that “you can measure how successfully you’ve revealed a character by the extent to which his acts, words, history, and thoughts fail to explain him,” and I think that’s true of all characters: you don’t want to over-solve.  If you do, their mystery disappears.  You have to take the measure of how fully you’re going to expose each character, or to use your phrase, complete or make incomplete their lives.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with not developing a character to the fullest—all characters need to have their trajectories followed through on—but with psychological constructs of a character, if you still believe in that sort of thing as a writer of mostly realistic stories, as I am.  And since I’ve brought up the subject of realism versus other modes, I should say that I think it’s often an artificial or perhaps useless distinction.  A Jonathan Franzen versus an Aimee Bender.  Borges versus Roth (who’s taken a few fantasy turns in his fiction himself).  In Therapy, I have an absolutely bizarre sequence of events that takes place in the basement of a psychiatrist’s office.  People always ask me about that scene, and I really can’t give any more justification for it other than it fits and that’s where the story took me.  Likewise in Little Raw Souls, in “Absolute Zero,” there’s no explaining the Seer.  But nothing could persuade me to take these moments out just to make the stories “consistent.”  Insisting on categorization can only inhibit the work and the possibility of a truly original moment happening.  I published an essay in The Writer’s Chronicle called “In Defense of Contrivance,” and one of my arguments I make is that it’s not what happens but what happens afterward that makes an event believable or not.  Create the right context and follow up and there are no limits on how a so-called magical moment might pop up and become integral and credible to an otherwise erstwhile realistic work.


JK: In your new story collection Little Raw Souls, you create situations for your characters and then introduce conflict that threatens to disrupt or end these situations.  For example, in “Bless Everybody,” the narrator Charlie is retired, divorced, and living off the land he’d always wanted to own, but then two hippies arrive and want to stay for a time.  In “Absolute Zero,” Connor’s dying mother won’t sign the papers allowing him to enlist for the Marines, but then he spends time with a classmate who is also dying.  In “Seeing Miles,” David reconnects with his second cousin who—over the years—has changed her gender.  Did you begin your stories with these situations in mind first?  Or did you think of the conflict first before crafting a situation that contextualizes the resolution of that conflict?

SS: I really don’t think one knows the conflict in advance of writing stories.  In “Bless Everybody,” Charlie has a run in with some young hippies who take a liking to his land but turn out to be different people than they appear at first.  That story came out of an experience of a couple who did call us out of the blue and ask to stay on some land we owned.  They turned out to be deceitful and though it’s not necessary to go into exactly how, I can say, what intrigued me about the situation for years before I could write about it was how easily I was hoodwinked.  In other words, I couldn’t get over my own susceptibility.  In writing the story I had to find a way to investigate that initial miscalculation of mine, given I consider myself a good reader of people, which broadened into a conflict about a man confronting the idea of what it means to be a good person and whether he’s failed at that over the years or been too rigid in his pursuit of that goal.

So the original conflict that might initially intrigue me and be based on my own experience has to evolve into something more universal in the course of writing a story, otherwise it just stays limited—a situation, not a story.  Likewise for “Seeing Miles.” I was always fascinated by how I had my first crush on my lovely cousin at thirteen, who turned out in her thirties to have a sex change, and what that meant about me.  The real conflict, however, involved wrestling with a story about the nature of desire.  Did I at any point sit there and say to myself, I’m writing a story about the nature of desire?  Absolutely not.  I probably would have hit myself over the head with hammer first and said get back to work, Steven!  Wake up and write a story, not an idea.

—Steven Schwartz & Jacqueline Kharouf


author photo

Steven Schwartz grew up outside Chester, Pennsylvania, and has lived in Colorado for the past twenty-eight years.  He is the author of two story collections, To Leningrad in Winter (University of Missouri) and Lives of the Fathers (University of Illinois), and two novels, Therapy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and A Good Doctor’s Son (William Morrow).  His fiction has received the Nelson Algren Award, the Sherwood Anderson Prize, the Cohen Award, the Colorado Book Award for the Novel, two O. Henry Prize Story Awards, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Bread Loaf.  His essays have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, Crazyhorse, Image, and have been awarded the Cleanth Brooks Prize in Nonfiction from The Southern Review.  He teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Warren Wilson College and the MFA program at Colorado State University, where he also serves as fiction editor for the Colorado Review.  Married to the writer Emily Hammond, they have two grown children.  His new collection of stories, Little Raw Souls, was published by Autumn House Press in January 2013.

 Jacqueline KharoufJacqueline Kharouf is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  A native of Rapid City, SD, Jacqueline currently lives in Denver.  Her work has appeared in Numéro CinqOtis Nebula and H.O.W. Journal, where she won third place in a fiction contest judged by Mary Gaitskill.  She had work forthcoming in NANO Fiction. Jacqueline blogs at: jacquelinekharouf.wordpress.com and tweets  @writejacqueline.

Jun 092013

Tess Wiley

I love the strange triangulations that take place on NC regularly. This time we have a Halifax librarian, novelist, and short story writer, Ian Colford, writing a profile about Tess Wiley, a Texas-born singer and songwriter, who makes her home and career in Germany. Ian is a longtime contributor to NC: stories, novel excerpts, profiles, and everything he writes has the idiosyncratic aura of a thoughtful outsider poking about in the culture, turning up half-hidden treasures. See this! he says. Amazing! he says. Ian has his own particular angle of vision; that’s one of the prerequisites for appearing at NC. And the music? Tess Wiley? Just listen. She’s to die for.

And while you’re at it, please take a look at our growing and heterodox collection of music posts.


An Accidental Meeting

I discovered Tess Wiley by accident. In late 2002 I was searching for music by a band called Rainy Day Assembly (I had downloaded a couple of their tunes from a free site). Thinking this band might have an album, I tried Amazon.com. They did not have an album (and, so far as I can tell, never have). But, oddly enough (given it’s an unusual phrase), my search returned an unrelated result, a CD called Rainy Day Assembly by an artist I had never heard of named Tess Wiley. Curious, I listened to a few of the song samples. I was impressed.

Rainy Day Assembly entered my regular rotation immediately upon delivery. I buy a lot of music and when I discover an artist I like, I buy everything they’ve recorded. Over the years this has led to numerous successes, but also some disappointments and a few miscalculations. A lot of songs, CDs, and artists have come and gone. But in 2013 Tess Wiley’s three studio albums, the most recent of which was released in 2007, continue to receive significant playing time. Unashamedly, I have become a fan.

Tess makes music that grabs the listener’s attention for all the right reasons. It is music that is memorable but never cloying, carefully crafted pop that does not follow a formula and is still revealing surprising details on the fiftieth listen. This is music for thoughtful, inquisitive people, not because it is revolutionary or especially challenging, but because it is immediately apparent that the driving force behind it is probing and untypical. The elements are familiar, but they are deployed in a manner that does not readily call to mind the work of anyone else. You can enjoy these songs for their tasteful arrangements and clear, ringing harmonies and go no further than that. But Tess’s music offers the curious listener the further choice to dig deeper, to find out where these songs come from, and to learn something about the person who created them.

Tess Wiley was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1974. Her father, Fletch Wiley, is a working musician who in the 1970s recorded with the gospel group Andraé Crouch and the Disciples. The family moved around, and Tess spent her childhood in Houston, Seattle, and San Francisco, before returning to Houston. With her mother a writer and her father a musician, there was little chance she would grow up without exhibiting a creative side, and she embarked early on her musical career, taking up piano at age five, violin at 12 and guitar at 14. She spent her school years writing songs and performing in a band, before capping her education with studies in classical piano at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

In 1995 Tess joined the Texas-based pop/rock band Sixpence None the Richer, touring and recording with them and contributing the song “Disconnect” to their second full-length CD, This Beautiful Mess. Her year with Sixpence was not an easy one. The band’s label went bankrupt and refused to release the group from their contract. Tess was one of the members who left the band during this period. For the next several years, working on her own and with producer and recording engineer Chris Colbert, she recorded and performed her songs under a variety of names (Splendora, Phantasmic and Tess Wiley and her Orchestra).

Adding an interesting twist to her biography, when Tess fell in love it was with a photo-journalist from Germany, Christian Roth. She met Roth while with Sixpence, when the band was performing at the Flevo Festival in the Netherlands. Roth attended the festival and interviewed the band for a magazine. After she left Sixpence the two kept in touch, meeting again when Roth visited the US to attend some musical events. Roth’s photos and artwork adorn the Rainy Day Assembly CD case. They married and in 2003 settled in Geissen, a university town in central Germany, which is perhaps best known for the Botanischer Garten Gießen, the oldest botanical gardens in the country. Tess has two sons and still resides in Geissen, though her personal life has become more complex lately.

Rainy Day Assembly (2002) was recorded in New York with the aid of American musicians. Her subsequent studio albums, Not Quite Me (2004) and Superfast Rock’n Roll Played Slow (2007), were both recorded in Germany with German musicians.

Tess Wiley’s music is rooted in a North American pop sensibility, the inventive and richly detailed arrangements heavily reliant on acoustic and electric guitars and keyboards, along with the occasional electronic beat. Her songs carry unmistakable echoes of classic folk, 1980s alt-rock, even late 1970s post-punk. Her lyrics can be message-laden or brutally confessional. She is not afraid to be loud, to mix tempos, to juxtapose pop rhythms and loosely structured mood pieces. Even her most upbeat songs have a melancholy edge to them, and enough depth, ingenuity and unpredictability to keep them off the pop charts. Her independent voice and musical daring—perhaps her greatest artistic assets and two reasons why her fans are so deeply devoted and pulling for her to succeed—also mean that a mass following has proven elusive. I feel lucky to have encountered Tess early in her solo career, and to have followed her development as an artist and songwriter through three full-length albums that exhibit an astounding breadth of musical ambition and achievement. The wait for a fourth studio album has been lengthy (a “live-in-the-studio” CD with one new song was released in 2010). But 2012 saw the release of the EP Tornados. Based on this most recent output, how can there be any doubt that commercial success is on the horizon?

Tess Wiley 3 Bang Bang Photography


To Begin at the Beginning …

We become fans of musicians, actors, painters, filmmakers, authors, playwrights, for many reasons, but usually because we sense an affiliation of some kind, and/or a deep appreciation for what the artist is trying to say. The artist is expressing something that we, if only we possessed the tools, would express for ourselves. I came upon Tess’s album Rainy Day Assembly not long after it was released, and after listening to the CD more times than I can count, I am intimately familiar with the songs it contains. Because it can be both challenging and totally accessible—keeping the listener guessing while at the same time drawing us in—it continues to hold a fascination years after I first listened to it. My attempts to identify where the songs come from have failed: their antecedents remain obscure. Sixpence None the Richer is a pop/rock band with several hit singles to their credit and a reputation for making music that is both brainy and catchy. There is a relationship between them and the music Tess Wiley is making in the late 1990s and early 2000s, though hardly a direct one. Recorded from 1999-2001 and released in September 2002, Rainy Day Assembly seems in some respects to drop out of nowhere, a product of stark originality that feeds 1980s and 1990s pop influences through a subversive and mischievous aesthetic filter. With their mix of pure pop ambition and occasional structural eccentricities, songs like “Small Things Define,” the title track, and “Out of My Head” seem a distillation of everything she has accomplished since and serve as a perfect introduction to her music.

I realized, of course, that I had got my hands on something special. In 2002 Tess Wiley was making music for grown-ups at a time when much of the music dominating the airwaves was for kids. By the time the fourth track, “Breathe,” was over, I knew I would be listening to this album often.

Her second album, 2004’s Not Quite Me, places more of an emphasis on linear pop structures and downplays some of the delightful eccentricities that make Rainy Day Assembly a unique listening experience. Taking their place is a more straightforward approach to crafting harmonious sounds and radio-ready songs that have a broader appeal. Naked pop rhythms abound, such as in the title track and the sinewy and seductive “How Does Silence Feel?” But Not Quite Me is a Tess Wiley album, and there is something different going on. This becomes apparent on “Let it Come,” when toward the end of the song the instruments fade into the background, vanishing behind a rising swell of voices, a rich wordless chorus. Overall, despite the jaunty closing cut, “This Shadow,” and a track titled “Happy Now,” the album weighs in on the meditative, melancholy side, with an abundance of minor keys and lyrics that do more questioning than celebrating.

In 2007 she released Superfast Rock’n Roll Played Slow, which leaves behind the electric polish of Not Quite Me in favor of a simplicity and rawness in its predominantly acoustic arrangements and occasional whimsical flourishes that give the album the spontaneous feel of a demo. The primary instrument here is Tess’s voice, which is front and center throughout the recording, and exhibits an expressive range that is nothing short of remarkable. There is a quality to her voice and her approach to singing on this album that on a few songs seems to leave her utterly exposed, dangling somewhere between tough and vulnerable. As you listen you begin to suspect that maybe the toughness is nothing more than an attempt to mask the vulnerability. To this point in her career Tess’s lyrics have included confessional elements and at times can even be described as self-critical, but here the self-doubting becomes explicit. This is most noticeable in the sublime “Idle,” in which she admits:

No matter how much I protest,
No matter how much I am blessed,
I’ll always have to prove myself to me.
I can’t let it go. I don’t know what they might think of me,
And I know I shouldn’t care, but I can’t let it go.
I don’t know how I should feel.

Tess Wiley 5


Question & Answer

IC: You come from a creative family. What music were you listening to growing up?

TW: I heard a ton of jazz and classical, of course: Steely Dan, Miles Davis, Beethoven, Mahler. But I was drawn to the radio like any other kid. My first “favorite song” was “The Tide is High” by Blondie. I can remember telling my mom that when I was four. I’m sure she was thrilled. Later I loved Billy Joel, Whitney Houston. My dad got me the Amy Grant cassette tape “Unguarded” to finally give me something else to listen to than Whitney’s debut! I wore both of those tapes out in the end. My very first purchase with my own money, oddly, was the first Skid Row LP. That was the beginning of my “metal” phase, although it was probably more glam. Dangerous Toys, Mr.Big, but of course: Guns n’ Roses.

IC:   Tell me about your earliest attempts at making music.

TW: I recall having fooled around on the piano early on, and when I turned five my parents signed me up for piano lessons. My mom would tell you I started singing before I spoke in full sentences, though. “Tender Shepard” and “Create in me a Clean Heart” were in the early repetoire. Apparently, at my recitals even age 5 or 6 I would improvise when I made a mistake or forgot how the song went, until I could find my way back into the piece. Unfortunately, my improvisational skills may have been nipped in the bud by too much classical music, too much reading notes and not being free with it. I do have one of my first recordings still on cassette tape. My dad brought home a synthesizer to try out, and I recorded a piece that had an A-B-A form and found two different sounds that fit the different moods. A bit ahead of my time at 7.

IC:   Who were you trying to emulate?

TW: That didn’t start until later on when I actually started making my “own” music, it was with a band of high school friends. They had a lot of idols: Bob Mould, REM, U2. To be honest, mostly stuff I wasn’t interested in. I can’t exactly recall what I was listening to in the 9th grade (other than the classic rock radio station), but soon after I discovered indie. Throwing Muses, Belly, Juliana Hatfield, Lemonheads. Then our bass player found out about The Frames. They were on the listening booth at the local music store, promoted by Glen Hansard’s part in The Commitments. That and very early Green Day consumed us for a while.

As far as singing, I can’t really say I ever tried to emulate anyone, honestly. I’ve always felt that the influences I had were more things I internalized, and what came out of me didn’t necessarily reflect those sounds. Maybe I’m just a true original?

IC:  What prompted your decision, at the age of 22 and after only one album, to leave Sixpence None the Richer and embark on a solo career?

TW: Well, ahem, I was 20 at the time, so – ya – really immature. The problem with Sixpence in that phase was that they were going in circles, no one seemed to be pushing them out of the microcosm they toured, and no one in the band had a whole lot of gumption to take things further (it seemed). I was antsy, plus they wanted to move to Nashville, which at the time seemed like a hellish idea. I can’t explain why. Maybe because it represented country and christian music, two genres I didn’t want to have much to do with. I didn’t see the singer/songwriter aspect of it, and I didn’t see myself as a singer/songwriter then, anyway. I was punk! I was indie! I was alternative! I was way more Austin than Nashville, so that’s where I decided to stay. In addition, a certain someone in the band was in love with me and frustrated that I was dating the sound guy. We butted heads, both in our stubborn ways, and I basically got kicked out. There you go.

IC:  What was it like, at 25, to be recording your first solo album in NYC?

TW: The entire NYC experience was pretty mind-boggling. I knew it then, but I keep having flashes of, “OMG, I can’t believe THAT person played on my record, too, and now he’s playing with David Bowie/Aimee Mann/Sam Phillips/Solomon Burke/Elvis Costello.” The list goes on and on. At the time, the most amazing thing was to have Jeff Buckley’s drummer play on it. It was definitely one of the fancier studios I’ve been in, and being able to say that Kevin Killen mixed the thing still provides me with credibility from those who know.

But on the other hand, I was an awfully shy thing for a long time in my life, and it absolutely intimidated me. I didn’t really find my true voice anyway until a few years later, but I feel like I sound a bit stifled. It’s a shame. I kind of wish I could re-record the vocals to it one day.

IC:  Has your approach to songwriting changed over the course of a career that now spans almost 20 years?

TW: Holy moly – 20 years. Can’t believe I can say that. Yeah, I’d say I’m trying hard to be less precious about it. I try to think less, not use such “big” words or be so grammatically correct (although it is a desire of mine to promote good language!) I also start more often with lyrics. I try my best to write down everything that comes into my head, hoping to be able to use it later. Sometimes something doesn’t make sense until later. And in any case, if I don’t write it down immediately, it’s gone, gone, gone. So frustrating.

IC:  You moved to Germany in your twenties and just as your career was getting underway. Musically speaking, how do you view that move today?

TW: Hmm, musically speaking, it wasn’t the best idea. I used to joke that the Beatles kick-started their career in Germany, but of course, they were in Hamburg, not Giessen, which I like to refer to as Germany’s armpit. That’s not really fair anymore – a lot of music has been coming out of this town for a while now, and the city planners are starting to finally get a bit of a grip on aesthetics. It’s changing. Slowly. And I get out more, I have a manager with a vision, and I’m MUCH less intimidated than I was before. I shot myself in the foot every day with my “humility”. Was a waste of time! But better to learn late than never, eh?

IC:  Does your career have a defining moment?

TW: I think that’s on the immediate horizon.

IC:  What are your hopes for the new CD?

TW: That it provide that defining moment.

I really hope to be able to find a good niche for myself. I don’t want to become a huge star, which is good, because I imagine I’m a bit too old for that now, but I simply don’t want to be on the road constantly. I have two wonderful boys who need their mommy close to them as much as possible. I hope to enter the songwriting world more, possibly write with and for other people. I love to sing, and I enjoy performing, but there’s something enticing about hearing what other people do with my creations. Plus I imagine it must be nice to stay at home and let the checks come in.

Tess Wiley 2




This Beautiful Mess (Sixpence None the Richer)


Rainy Day Assembly (full-length CD)


Not Quite Me (full-length CD)


Superfast Rock’n Roll Played Slow (full-length CD)


Tess Wiley – Live (live in the studio recording)


Tornados (EP)

—Ian Colford

—Tess Wiley Photographs by Apolonia Wieland at Bang Bang Photography; you can watch more Tess Wiley videos on her Youtube channel, TessWileyMusic. Her new CD, Little Secrets, is due out this fall.


Ian Colford

Ian Colford has been publishing stories and reviews for a long time. This profile of songstress Tess Wiley is his first venture into music journalism. His short story collection, Evidence (2008), was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed, Raddall Atlantic Fiction and ReLit awards, and his novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomas (2012) recently won Trade Book of the Year at the 2013 Alberta Book Awards. Most of his disposable income goes on books and the rest goes on music. Recently he has been mourning the death of Ray Manzarek by listening to too much of the Doors. He works as a reference librarian at the Sexton Design & Technology Library at Dalhousie University.

Jun 082013

Greg Hollingshead

Canadian politics has always been ripe for satire, perhaps never more than at this very moment. Two fat men dominate the situation: Senator Mike Duffy nailed for fiddling his expenses (currently under investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and Rob Ford, the former mayor of Toronto famous for a video that appears to show him smoking crack cocaine. The Duffy scandal has reached into Prime Minister’s Office; his chief of staff has resigned, and the smoke cloud only grows (a criminal trial is currently on hiatus).

Enter Governor-General’s Award-winning short story writer and novelist Greg Hollingshead with a cunning literary instinct for the jugular. “Ottawa Confidential” is an absolutely hilarious satire on a certain unnamed Prime Minister and Canadian politics in general written from the point of view of the Prime Minister’s “intimate confidant,” his righthand man, a failed novelist (had to be) turned political hack (with a dog named Wags). This story really is brilliant, seething with dry wit. I have a list of quotable lines as long as my arm. “Of course, the Prime Minister was not exactly an old man, or even an adult, but something more along the lines of an enlarged boy.” “The Prime Minister further confided that as a child he had an imaginary friend, but when his parents found out about it they forced him to put it to death.” “Politicians tend to be human to a fault, which is to say they are first and foremost animals, whereas the Prime Minister, with his unreadable demeanour and that funny little smile, if that’s what it was, and his one-brick-at-a-time approach, had the personality of an algorithm…”

My favourite (it’s long but I can’t resist) is when Hollingshead draws an analogy between the rise of the Prime Minister (yes, yes, unnamed) and his party (also unnamed, wink) to the behaviour of slime mold. “Dynamic system theorists tell us we should not be surprised by the behaviour of slime mold, but what are they thinking? In good times, slime mold consists of an aggregation of cells, each going about its individual life. But when the going gets tough, these cells cohere into a slug, which proceeds, trailing slime, to a prominent location. There it grows a stalk with a head, which explodes, releasing spores, after which the mold reverts to a loose collection of cells with no apparent common interest, until the next time. It was the combination of tough times for the FPMC’s [Future Prime Minister of Canada] party and his rapid rise to dominance within it that would turn a desultory collection of politicians into a slime-trailing slug juggernaut with an exploding head.”



Where on Earth Did He Come From?

According to his wife, with whom I have conducted a series of interviews in an attempt to arrive at a working sense of what the heck goes through her mind, it happened like this:

She was crossing what remains of the Columbia Icefield, just out of hearing of a small party of other guests from Jasper Park Lodge. Directly in front of her, walking backwards, was her fiancé at the time, Lt. Wayne McLeod, who was looking deep into her eyes as he verbally abused her for what he had detected over lunch back at the Lodge as a liberal view of Afghani cultural practices. Oh that’s very nice, he was saying, so you would willingly sell your firstborn daughter to the highest bidder even before she was born? Why, that’s extremely enlightened of you. I’m sure you’d make an excellent Afghani mother. The only problem, which even a dumb cluck like me might think would have occurred to someone as highly intelligent as yourself, but it just so happens we live in a civilized—

And so on.

The rest of the party had slowed their pace so as not to have to listen to this or to her saying over and over Wayne keep your voice down. It was possible that as a four-year veteran of our peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, Lt. Wayne McLeod had once been a fine young man and was not to be held responsible for his current behaviour as a dull-normal abuser. Only the woman who loved him could hope to know the real Wayne McLeod, but how much more could she take?

Anyway, as McLeod was walking backwards in front of her, with his face so close to hers that she could smell the garlic on his breath from lunch, he suddenly dropped out of sight. When she saw the hole in the snow crust and screamed, the others came running, led by their guide, who had a rope. The rope was lowered into the hole, and when the tug came, everybody heaved, but imagine their surprise when it wasn’t Wayne McLeod they hauled up but the future Prime Minister of Canada (FPMC).

What an astonishing story! I cried. What happened to Wayne?

At first the FPMC’s wife didn’t answer, and then she shook her head slowly, holding my eyes.

And the FPMC? I cried. What was he doing down there?

Wedged, she said. It was a crevasse. And she explained that the FPMC had been staying at the Rimrock Hotel, near Banff, taking a weekend in the mountains to decide whether or not to go into politics.

A momentous mountain weekend for Canada, I pointed out.

Ignoring this, the FPMC’s wife continued her story. Familiar with the theory that cool air promotes effective decision-making and inspired by a brochure in a rack by the Rimrock check-in desk, the FPMC had gone for a walk on the Columbia Icefield. He started out long enough ahead of the Jasper Park Lodge party that they didn’t see him but not so long that he was wedged down there for more than a few hours. He reported that McLeod had passed him falling. Slighter of build than the FPMC, McLeod had longer to fall before wedging.

If he wedged, the FPMC’s wife added, with a significant look that I could do no more than mentally file before she’d resumed her story. So we stood around, she said, shouting down the hole and listening for an answer from Wayne. Nothing.

He must have been unconscious, I said.

Or playing possum.

Why would he do that?

A survival reflex. He was a mess of them. You should have tried to sleep through the night in the same room.

Hardly a useful survival reflex in this case, I pointed out.

Listen, she said. One went down, the other came up. What more do you want from me?

The one who came up—

I know. I married. Not as soon as I’d have married Wayne, but I’d known Wayne longer. With the FPMC it was a conventional courtship, a traditional wedding. Nothing unusual or untoward about any of it. Boy, was there nothing unusual or untoward.

And the marriage?

She threw back her head and laughed. The marriage? Are you kidding me? Where have you been? That’s when the circus came to town! Are you the only one in the country who doesn’t know this?


Slime Mold Homology

Dynamic system theorists tell us we should not be surprised by the behaviour of slime mold, but what are they thinking? In good times, slime mold consists of an aggregation of cells, each going about its individual life. But when the going gets tough, these cells cohere into a slug, which proceeds, trailing slime, to a prominent location. There it grows a stalk with a head, which explodes, releasing spores, after which the mold reverts to a loose collection of cells with no apparent common interest, until the next time.

It was the combination of tough times for the FPMC’s party and his rapid rise to dominance within it that would turn a desultory collection of politicians into a slime-trailing slug juggernaut with an exploding head. And while this transformation required that the range of behaviours of individual politicians be radically reconfigured and restrained, in fact the higher-level behaviours enabled by their universal submission to top-down management so vastly outperformed anything they could have accomplished individually that even the mouth-breathers among them sensed the wisdom of their entrainment. If the FPMC cramped their style, never in the political life of this country has there been a concatenation of styles more in need of cramping. In fact so thoroughly were they cramped, so comprehensively under their leader’s control, that it was evident from early on that were this party ever given a chance to form a government, Watch out, Nellie! 


Early Losses

Long before I became the Prime Minister’s trusted confidant, I was living with my dog on a small, remote lake in a rock tract of bush and muskeg equidistant between Sudbury and Timmins. Wags and I were all that remained of a three-couples-plus-chickens-and-pets quasi-commune that had lasted less than a year, owing to the close quarters, the same faces day in and day out, the constant physical work just to keep a fire in the stove and food on the table, and the endless grey winter skies. The only reason Wags and I stayed on was I had a novel to finish.

In those days I was the quintessential political bystander, but at the dump the day after a national election I asked the custodian who had won, and he told me the Opposition, by a landslide.

Really? I said. Wow. That wasn’t in the cards.

No, it wasn’t, he agreed.

That same day, conscious of history in the making and here I was living out in the middle of nowhere but what did the world care about that and why should I? I canoed to the village for a paper and was further surprised to see, on an inside page, a picture of the FPMC sitting in the back seat of a limousine looking ill. The picture reminded me that information from the custodian of the dump, although readily provided, usually had something the matter with it or was dead wrong.

Why do you even talk to him? my then-partner used to ask me. He’s an idiot.

I talk to him because I happen to believe that you can learn from anybody.

Another point on which you and I fundamentally disagree.

One day the dump custodian and I fell into conversation, and he revealed that as a young man he had gone out to Alberta, where he worked for several years as a cowboy. He told me that he loved the life and everything about it: the country, the living rough, the hard work. In fact, he had never been happier. He thought he’d died and gone to heaven.

But you came back, I said.

Why, that’s true, he said, as if he hadn’t quite thought of it that way.

Why? I asked.

He said he didn’t know.

Anyway, you had a good time, I said.

I sure did. The best time of my life. Bar none.

Sounds like the name of a ranch.


Bar None. The name of a ranch.

Is that so, now?

Later the same day that I read about the Opposition’s devastating loss, I was in the liquor store. There I got caught up in a game of peekaboo across the Crown Royal display with a mad-eyed geek, hyper-alert with bush fever. It wasn’t until I noticed that the display was ranged along a mirror that I knew my novel had never been any good and it was time to return to the city and make a lasting contribution to society.


His Man Friday

One of the more dubious strategies employed by the human male to justify his routinely sleazy behaviour is the appeal to Darwin. As a young man, I certainly wasn’t proud of the rage I inwardly experienced in the presence of an older man, particularly a kinder, gentler one. It was a blinding compulsion to take the old boy down, and it felt pretty Darwinian to me, but you didn’t catch me going around implying that that made it OK. By the same token, I think it said something about the Prime Minister that in all my years as his confidant these feelings never once surfaced. Even before I knew him, as I rolled and tumbled, inexorably as it seemed at time—though it was sheer luck, I swear—through the hoops and red tape that landed me the position, ultimately, of his intimate confidant, I was conscious of no hostility toward him whatsoever.

Of course, the Prime Minister was not exactly an old man, or even an adult, but something more along the lines of an enlarged boy. Also, he played the game on a whole other level. Politicians tend to be human to a fault, which is to say they are first and foremost animals, whereas the Prime Minister, with his unreadable demeanour and that funny little smile, if that’s what it was, and his one-brick-at-a-time approach, had the personality of an algorithm, a boy’s-own Turing machine, or a Crusoe, on his desert island. Because here’s the thing about Crusoe: he’s king, but of what? There’s a poignancy there. Not a figure you necessarily feel driven to bring down. Besides, I was there when one or two tried, and it was horrible to watch. They didn’t have a clue what they were getting into. Nothing in their political training had prepared them for this. The depth and range, the sheer anticipatory power, of the Crusoe method, was beyond their abilities. They were squawking gulls struck down by a brickbat tossed by a tall stout boy in goatskin, they were dead in the water.


Election Day

On the day the FPMC would become the Prime Minister, I was standing by his side at the Plexiglass window of the press box high above the Ottawa Convention Centre, gazing down at a sea of waving placards. Chants and songs with lyrics rejigged to be topical were sweeping through the crowd that waited for him to go down there and restate what they already believed so memorably that they would be able to smell it and taste it and carry it home under their arm like a giant panda or Naugahyde ottoman.

How does it feel, I asked him, to know that every person down there is waiting to hear what you have to tell them?

The FPMC’s reply was enigmatic. I think what he said was it felt like every day from now on would be Pajama Day.

I nodded, thinking confusedly of the festive atmosphere of the classic Broadway musical The Pajama Game, but weeks later he would let fall a detail from his early life that revealed his true meaning here. (See below.)

Meanwhile, as we continued to gaze down at the swaying throng, he murmured, Isn’t that the most beautiful sight you’ve ever seen.

Yes, it is! I cried, but reaching across to seize his right hand in both mine, I found it unavailable, and so I pretended I was gripping a baseball bat to knock one out of the park but on second thought made it a hockey stick, which I used to drive the puck deep into the net.


Early Life

Transferring power over an entire country into your own hands is a complex, thankless task, and not surprisingly the Prime Minister found himself with little time or inclination for emotional excavation. But that was not my style, and every once in a while I’d toss him a random question. Don’t try this at home. Sometimes his head was so packed with data that a question out of nowhere caused it to explode, most often, fortunately for me, in a contained way, and he would fade to smiling bemusement and from there sink into a quasi-narcoleptic stupor. But soon enough he’d rouse himself and resume his deliberations. On other occasions he’d return a thoughtful answer, sometimes stunning in its candour, as when he cleared up my earlier confusion concerning his Pajama Day comment by casually mentioning that as a child he attended Grades Two to Five in his pajamas. In response to my surprise, first that he had done this, and second that his parents and the school had allowed it, he assured me there was nothing in the schoolboard dress code to prevent it, as he knew because when he first got the idea he had checked. As for his parents, they considered it a phase he would soon outgrow.

I guess you showed them, I said with a smirk.

Let’s be clear, he said. All I wanted to do was stay in my pajamas.

Would he characterize his parents as liberals?

When her son pees in the teacher’s wastebasket, he inquired by way of an answer, does a liberal mother drive him to the gates of the local penitentiary and tell him that’s where he’ll end up if he fails to mend his course?

Good Lord, I said. That is hardball. How old were you?


The Prime Minister further confided that as a child he had an imaginary friend, but when his parents found out about it they forced him to put it to death.

Why, that’s terrible! I cried. What were they—?

Good parents. It was a talking snake. Unlimbed Evil. Any child in his right mind would be grateful to get that thing off his neck. You know how on a plane you’ll sometimes hear Beatles songs in the roar of the engines? As I used my hockey stick to bash in its head, with each blow I heard my father say Good job. I can hear dad now. G’dj’b! G’dj’b! G’dj’b!

The Prime Minister also told me that as a child, on board ship once, he caught a glimpse of himself on the crowded foredeck.

In a mirror—? I said, thinking of my experience in the liquor store.

No, from behind. I recognized the haircut. I tried to push forward through the crowd but was lost to myself.

After a pause, I respectfully asked how being lost to himself had felt.

How do you think it felt? he replied irritably. Frustrating. Annoying. Disappointing. How would it feel to you?


OK, fine. Uncanny. It felt uncanny. Woo-woo.

The Prime Minister’s favourite story as a child was the one about the master stonemason of Rosslyn Chapel, who set out on a ten-year journey in search of inspiration for the primary pillar, and when he returned with a first-rate idea for how to do it, his apprentice had already carved it exactly that way, so he killed him.

What do you think it is about this story that speaks to you? I asked, with a chill.

Its palpable unlikelihood, the Prime Minister replied. What obviously happened was, when the master stonemason saw the apprentice’s pillar, he knew right away it was far better than anything he himself could do. This was a guy who hadn’t lifted a chisel in ten years. Thinking fast, he told everybody that the pillar was exactly the way he’d have done it. It didn’t matter that people gave each other looks and thought, Yeah right, and pigs fly. The pillar problem was solved. Now there was only the apprentice to be punished, for the insubordination. That’s where the stonemason made his mistake: doing it himself. He’d almost certainly underestimate the amount of bottled-up energy he was carrying around, not just from being pumped to carve a primary pillar after such a prolonged build-up but from finding the job already done better than he could ever do it. I’m sure the unanticipated relief mixed up with the disappointment of a lost opportunity for a career-capping achievement, not to mention understandable intimations of inadequacy, failure, and mortality, made for a perfect cocktail of energy in need of an outlet, and though a perfunctory, face-saving, appearance-sake sort of beating was what was called for, he got a little carried away.

I never thought of the Rosslyn Chapel story that way, I admitted.

It’s the only way that crazy story makes any sense, the Prime Minister said. Unless the apprentice had a weak heart and keeled over dead at the first tap, but fly that one past the Occam’s Razor people and see how long you last.

When I asked the Prime Minister if there was any one thing he’d done as a child that he particularly regretted, his bottom lip wobbled as he confessed that he had once forced three kittens to swim back and forth across the neighbours’ pond, for over an hour. I don’t know what I was thinking, he said. The water was freezing. I still have nightmares.

Were they OK?

They didn’t drown, if that’s what you mean. For those kittens my fun game was a living hell.

Was there a moral in that for you?

A moral? In what? Shivering little kitty bodies?

Do unto others?

I was doing that! I love swimming, it’s the chlorine that gets to me, and this was a freshwater pond, with minnows! When I saw the consequences of my actions, I scooped out a couple for the kitties, but they were shivering too violently to focus.

Here the Prime Minister took his face in his hands and appeared to sob. Smoothly, with the tact he would come to know me for, I changed the subject. Let me ask you something, I said. Is a minnow a developmental stage of any number of kinds of fish or is it a piscine variety in its own right?

The Prime Minister lowered his hands from his face and gave me a look that was arguably grateful and yet, when all was said and done, utterly inscrutable.

Minnows don’t have rights, he said.


Recreational Suspension

I’d worked closely with the Prime Minister for some time before I discovered his practice of relaxing, when he could make the time, by hanging in the doorway between his inner and outer office wearing nothing but his black dress socks and women’s underwear. The first time I blundered in on him like this, we both pretended he was “hanging” in the doorway in the usual, metaphorical sense of the term. But the third or fourth time I came upon him like this, despite the fact that I had never seen him hanging from anything except his ankles, I ventured an autoerotic asphyxiation comment.

It’s interesting, I said, that the root of the word embarrassment should be the old Portuguese for noose, baraça. Presumably the flush of embarrassment resembles the look on the face of a man being strangled. It’s always seemed to me that there can be few activities more embarrassing to be discovered engaged in than autoerotically asphyxiating oneself. And yet etymologically the act could be said to presuppose, if not actually render redundant, the embarrassment of being discovered at it.

Instead of considering my point, the Prime Minister brusquely informed me that any flush I saw down there was due to gravity, and I reflected how it’s funny but also a little bit sad when the Great, in their vigilance against being misunderstood, run roughshod over an observation however acute.

The whole idea, he added, is I’m upside-down. To increase blood flow to the brain while I connect with my feminine side.

Women are voters too, I verified.

He seemed to reflect for a moment. But you’ve probably wondered why you’ve never seen me even slightly embarrassed. I mean, considering everything.

I said I had noticed but never wondered. I’d always assumed he had nothing to be embarrassed about.

Oh, get off it. I weaned myself. I consciously set about to ensure that nothing can embarrass me. Too much depends.

You do, I shot back wittily. But his mind was on other things. So how did you do it? I prompted him.

Inoculation. I placed myself in one disgraceful and humiliating situation after another. Gradually I became inured. Literally free of shame.

This inspired me to tell him the story of my first summer in the bush, when I was so badly bug-bitten that I developed encephalitis and nearly died but ever since have been immune to insect bites.

A good analogy, the Prime Minister confirmed.

What kinds of disgraceful and humiliating situations? I asked.

You have been following this? I went into politics.

Sometimes a confidant to Greatness will be afforded a glimpse of the extraordinary dedication required of the one who would be Great. Those of us who have abandoned the quest for Mastery, let alone Greatness, will especially appreciate a reminder of how much harder and longer we would have needed to work, and even then it would have been a crapshoot. In this way we assure ourselves we made the right decision, for the truth is that the reason we are not Great is not because we lack potential for Greatness but because we are not made of stern enough stuff.

On the subject of transvestite autoerotic asphyxiation, I remarked that the notorious pirate Calico Jack had a fondness for wearing women’s underwear. I added that he and his all-female crew were finally captured in 1702, in Negril, I believed it was.

This Calico character was probably a woman, the Prime Minister said.

Gosh, I never thought of that.

Could you give me a hand down here, the Prime Minister said.


In the Trenches

Before my relocation from deeper in the bush, like most people I thought of Ottawa as a dull city, a poor man’s Edmonton-in-Ontario sort of place, and yet too much a Shield town to be a feasible home for so many people wearing jackets and ties, or jackets and skirts, or pantsuits with blouses, or even turtlenecks some of them. But the town soon revealed itself as a go-for-broke playground of pomp and high-jinks, of wonder and intrigue.

That said, a little of the politicians went a long way. With the exception of the Prime Minister and a handful of others of assorted political persuasions, the politicians were the weak link. Specious, untrustworthy, expendable. Outsiders clamouring to be insiders. Incontinent talkers, broadcasting seamless flows so inchoate that the seamlessness was the seamlessness of no distinguishable parts. Not listeners. Their strategy was talk so incessant as to prevent a word in, and if one did get in and it wasn’t short and graspable by a non-thinker then it would be as if it hadn’t got in at all, and when you wearied of being talked at by someone incapable of listening and tried to move away, he’d follow you, still talking, until an aide appeared from a doorway to lead him away to his next meeting, and even as he disappeared down the corridor he would still be talking.

Fortunately, with the Prime Minister at the helm, even the members of his own party knew nothing and to that extent were powerless. Their briefing notes, in the form of loose-leaf pamphlets in 28-point font, children’s picture books without pictures, were tossed to them in their offices like bones to animals in their cages. All they knew, and all they needed to know, was the tops of the waves. Meanwhile the Prime Minister worked full-time to ensure a calm sea. This way, if anything happened, they found out about it no sooner than everybody else. This way, they could talk all they wanted and nothing would get out. Their noise was white noise. It provided necessary insulation as the Prime Minister worked away to remake the country in an image of Greatness entirely his own.

When the Prime Minister did meet with members of his caucus, nobody was left with any doubt who was boss, and this was just as well because they were morons. They assumed because the Prime Minister wanted them in shirtsleeves and always placed his hand on their back as they left the meeting that it had been an intense session of camaraderie and hard work. But the Prime Minister was not naturally a toucher, and when I asked about the hand on the back, he explained that he was making sure he could see his entire handprint. The ones who failed to sweat enough were soon out, the ones who regularly went so far as also to wet their pants he promoted, and those who found it necessary to wear brown pants became his closest “advisors.”

The politicians could have been, and often had been, insurance salesmen, mortgage brokers, petty thieves, outpatients. The bureaucrats were a cut above. The real shame of Ottawa was that the Prime Minister was never able to extract unquestioning cooperation from this remarkable pool of ability. Some civil servants were amenable, of course, on principle or because they had none, but not enough of them. Privately the Prime Minister said they were worse than Jews: too intelligent to be counted on, too likely to have a working moral compass. Even amongst those bureaucrats who did their best to be team players, as soon as a Prime Ministerial initiative entered a legal or parliamentary grey area, invariably somebody would suffer a failure of nerve or an attack of conscience, and a plan the Prime Minister had been working on for years would go sideways. Nothing caused the Prime Minister’s head to explode like being foiled by the foolish compunction of some latté-guzzling nonentity. We’d all duck for cover and wait for the relative calm that came with detumescence.

The reality is that when the rubber hits the road, every slime mold cell is either a component of the slug or it’s not. And every cell not a component is a potential enemy. Why didn’t it surrender its autonomy when it had the chance? The Prime Minister’s method for dealing with non-aligned cells was twofold, a double refusal: of money and of information. By cutting off funding to the civil service and keeping it in the dark, he reduced its capacity for creating impediments. How else do you get things done in a place so hide-bound? Fail to cut off renegades at the knees and you had a government at the mercy of precedent and what the Prime Minister during in camera sessions with his “advisors” would put on a droll face and use a God voice to designate as the democratic process. When he was in a good mood he’d sometimes insert this phrase with increasing frequency, until he had us falling about in our seats, weeping with laughter.

On the surface, for the most part, things proceeded smoothly: that calm sea. But every once in a while something would hit home vis-à-vis how things actually were. I remember on one occasion the Office of the Assistant to the Acting Assistant to the Deputy Minister of _________—which consisted, I later learned, of the Assistant himself in a poorly lit, badly ventilated temporary cubicle in a Ministry basement hallway—was given twenty-four hours to produce two substantive reports, which it did, right on time. Not widely available, the two reports were the sort of thing people would prefer to know existed than actually read. But somehow they both landed on my desk, simultaneously, and while I was leafing through them over lunch one day, it came to my attention that they were identical. Word for word. Different titles, same content.

When I called the Office of the Assistant to the Acting Assistant to let them know about this clerical glitch, the Assistant himself answered. When I told him there had been a glitch, he informed me there was no glitch. They were different reports because they had different subjects. Different referent, he said, enunciating clearly, as to a child, different meaning. Anyway, he added, what are the odds anybody’s going to read either one of these works of deathless fucking prose, never mind closely enough and close enough in time to notice any similarities?

I read both just now, at lunch, I said. Well, not read

I was going to say.

Checked through. The two texts are identical.

Yes, but who are you? Who listens to you?

The Prime Minister listens to me.

Give me a break.

On another occasion, when a respected member of the Opposition was making hay out of a claim that the Prime Minister’s party was guilty of some sort of mismanagement of party funds, the national press, at a loss for anything on this Government capable of holding the public’s attention for longer than a day, played up the story. It was clearly a let’s throw this one at the wall and see if it sticks tactic, but an unfortunate succession of leaks, gaffes, revelations, whatever, followed, and soon we were headed straight for a non-confidence vote in the House. (Let me just say here that whoever said a week is a year in politics got it right. How can nothing ever seem to get done and yet everything change in a day? In the morning you wake up a god, that night you pass out dead drunk a Muppet. Or vice versa. By the end of the week you’ve gone from god to Muppet and back again so many times you’re ready to say or do anything for anybody who can guarantee you’ll remain a god. But it doesn’t work that way. Not now. Not tomorrow. Not ever. Not for anybody. This is politics.)

So with a non-confidence vote barreling down the track toward us, I accosted the Prime Minister, practically wringing my hands, crying, What are we going to do?

His reply was worthy of Socrates. Has something somebody once said ever come back to you later, he asked me, and you were struck by its profundity, and then you remembered who said it, and suddenly it didn’t even seem especially true?

Why, yes. That has happened to me.

It’s happened to all of us. It’s why you so often hear the phrase Consider the source. Nobody likes the truth, so we put a human face on it and that way minimize it, making it easy to dismiss. With any luck it’ll be forgotten completely, until the next time it comes out of the mouth of some flawed individual and it becomes necessary to go through the process again.

Discredit the Honourable Member? I asked, shocked at how far we were prepared to go when push came to shove.

A human life is rarely pretty in the details, the Prime Minister affirmed quietly, with a smile, though perhaps only baring his teeth.

They speak like angels, I murmured, but they live like men.

Who said that?

Dr. Johnson.

Did he? Good. We’ll use it.


The Stash

Unlike his wife, who told me herself that she would stay in one every single night of the year if she could, the Prime Minister wasn’t fussy one way or another about hotels—with one exception, the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal, but then it had to be Suite 1203. There were better suites than 1203 at the Ritz-Carlton , far better, but the Prime Minister always insisted on having that particular one. In fact, if for some reason Suite 1203 at the Ritz-Carlton proved unavailable, he would sometimes even choose to stay at the Four Seasons.

When this quirk became known beyond the PMO, some of the younger staffers were rumoured to be offering wagers on what exactly it was about 1203. These ranged from a weight-reducing mirror to a hole drilled through to the next room. One day, checking into the Ritz-Carlton to prepare for the Prime Minister’s arrival later that evening, I found the staffers in a giddy state. By informing the front desk that the Prime Minister needed certain files in place before his arrival, they had got hold of the key to 1203. The plan was to search the room for what it was about it that made it the Prime Minister’s suite of choice at the Ritz-Carlton.  When my own preparations were complete, I went along to see what turned up.

Since three of us had stayed or were now staying in rooms identical to 1203, only on different floors, it was easy to discount extraordinary features. The view, of Sherbrooke Street, was unexceptional. Nothing advantageous about the bathroom fixtures, no extra force from the shower head. Standard closet space. After half an hour of fruitless searching, all we could think was that something of sentimental value must have happened to the Prime Minister in 1203: news of the shaming or suicide of an opponent, or perhaps the number itself spoke to him in some Christian or Masonic way. When one of the staffers drew a Robinson screwdriver from his pocket, slipped off his shoes, climbed onto the desk, and set about unscrewing the grate over a ventilation duct, we quietly stood and watched. By that point, none of us had much hope. After lowering the grate to us, the staffer reached into the duct and finding nothing, reached deeper and drew out a pair of beat-up old Size-13, moccasin-style Sperry Top-Siders.

These, after examining closely, he handed down to us. When we too had finished turning these articles over in our hands, we passed them back to him and watched in silence as he replaced them deep inside the duct and rescrewed the grate. And then, like whipped hounds, we got out of there.

Nobody talked much afterward about what we had found. Some of us were pretty badly shaken, though I suspect most were simply disappointed not to have won the bet, or to have come anywhere close. For myself, I was left with the sober reflection that the discovery of a person’s deepest secret can leave you knowing far less about them than you knew before, not because it has opened up a whole new set of questions but because what you have found, this enigmatic object, or objects, that you may even have held in your hands and gazed at in queasy wonder, have tipped you into an aporia of absolute unknowing.


Arts and Sciences

Two years into the Prime Minister’s second term, it was my great honour to be invited to attend a teepee handover ceremony on a grassy margin at the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis. Strictly speaking, only the Prime Minister and the Heritage Minister were allowed to join the Blackfoot elders inside the teepee, but the ceremony was held next door to a high-power, two-day conference entitled “Whither the Arts?” hosted by the Heritage Minister himself, and so I passed the time at that. But I found that despite being handpicked and not so much artists as arts administrators and lobbyists, the attendees’ general tone was surly and intemperate, as exemplified by the raucous laughter that erupted when somebody remarked that the h in “Whither” had surely been a misprint. This was beggar-on-horseback stuff. Rarely has this country been under the direct personal control of a Prime Minister so devoted to the arts. What people fail to realize is that Greatness is not just a quality you have, it’s a full-time job. Its unacknowledged cost to the Great One is the foregoing of every last glittering night at the opera and sleepy afternoon curled up with a tome penned by one of our army of international-household-name authors. These extraordinary pastimes, whose galvanizing effects on the Canadian soul have been well documented, are simply not in the cards when your creative energies are dedicated to remaking a country from the ground up.

At any rate, the teepee handover ceremony was held in the late morning of the second day of the conference, a day that began in a literally auspicious way. First, at dawn, a hawk swooped from the sky to carry off a prairie dog from the mouth of its burrow close to the door of the teepee. Not half an hour later, a passing coyote entered the (empty) teepee and sniffed around before continuing on its way. Finally, after the elders and the Heritage Minister had gathered inside and the Prime Minister was about to step in himself, a raven alighted at the tip of one of the teepee support poles. As the ceremony started up inside, with the Heritage Minister thus engaged, the rest of us broke from our conference, which had been taking place in a meeting room a few steps away, and stood around in the sun outside the teepee, cooling our heels.

It was nobody’s fault that we waited out there over three hours, and when the Prime Minister and the Heritage Minister emerged from the tent, their faces painted in celebration of the native titles that they had been awarded along with the teepee (the Prime Minister was The Grey One Who Toils in Secret, while the Heritage Minister was simply [unprintable]), they were visibly elated, but the Prime Minister, with a flight out of Calgary to catch, had to dash, and when the Heritage Minister rejoined our conference and the discussion resumed, you could see the elation draining out of him, and before we knew it he was pacing up and down, berating his aides for interrupting this crucial conference on the arts for a ceremony that had gone on far too long and chastising us for having achieved so little the day before and earlier today and now here we were with hardly any time left at all to continue to drill down on the question of whither the arts. After delivering himself of this senseless tirade, he shouted, And if you don’t think I know this is churlish behaviour on my part, you’re dead wrong, but that’s the kind of person I am, and then he stormed out and we never saw him again. We were forced to pass on our conclusions concerning whither the arts in the form of an email attachment and never did receive from his Office an acknowledgment of our efforts.

Later, when I mentioned this unprofessional outburst to the Prime Minister, he said,

Hal can be a bit of a hothead sometimes.

Hal? I thought his name was Bob.

It might not be Hal, the Prime Minister admitted, but I don’t believe it’s Bob. I think I might have heard him answer to Bill once or twice, but never Bob. Not that I couldn’t get him to answer to Bob, if I felt like it . . . .

The only other noteworthy exchange at the conference had occurred earlier, when the Prime Minister looked in on us. As it happened, the attendees, though all from the arts community and explicitly charged with talking about the arts, had got themselves into a lather about global warming—I know; go figure—and in response to a speech disguised as a question from a young native woman, the Prime Minister replied native-style, with a story from India. In a rice-processing facility, an employee comes running into the boss’s office with a cockroach he’s found in the rice. Here! he cries. Conclusive evidence, sir, that we have roaches! The boss says, Let’s see that. He pops the roach into his mouth, swallows it, and says, That was not a roach, it was a betel leaf!

The sheer, blinding wisdom of this story caused a hush to descend upon the attendees. You could practically see its ramifications causing them to reevaluate everything they had ever assumed about global warming. Finally the young native woman said,

But that’s completely dishonest.

Dishonest? the Prime Minister wondered. Or quick thinking in the name of an overriding economic reality? Who shuts down a rice facility in India because one problem employee starts running around crying Roach? Honest, dishonest, who’s what? Employee? Boss? Who can say? In China or Russia, a troublemaker like that would be jailed, or shot. In the West we do things differently. In Canada, for example, he’d be fired, and if not he should be, and once some of these laws we’ve been working on take effect, also fined, and if possible, deported.

This was something to think about, but before the native woman could continue to dominate the mic, the Prime Minister was obliged to step away to attend the teepee handover ceremony.


First Trip Abroad

Though one or two commentators were on it right away, and several took to carping on it weekly, it didn’t seem to matter to the general public that the Prime Minister was in office for some time before he ventured abroad. The reason was simple: he needed control, and because he didn’t know what abroad was like, he couldn’t be sure that he would have it there. I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday the afternoon of the day he was scheduled to take his first trip outside the country—an early evening flight to South America. I had never seen him in such a state. He was like a drunk who does everything with overscrupulous care because he is too drunk to admit to himself how drunk he is.

He packed and unpacked and packed again. He chose and discarded reading material for his carry-on. At the last possible moment he took a bath, of all things. He’d just had his hair cut specially for this trip, but he’d decided it was uneven at the back, and I remember at one point him sitting on a dining room chair in the garden of 24 Sussex and me with a pair of kitchen scissors trimming his hair, while he held up a mirror that kept flashing the sun in my eyes, until I took it out of his hand. Now that I think of it, he was sitting there with his pant cuffs pinned up with safety pins. He’d convinced himself they were too long, but he hadn’t been able to get them the same length, whereas all I could think was who at this late hour we could possibly get to re-hem them. As I snipped, to take his mind off his anxiety and at the same time yank his chain a little, I described the classic Sid Caesar routine in which Sid tries to get his sideburns even and ends up taking his entire hairline back an inch, but the Prime Minister wasn’t listening. Already his thoughts were deep inside the jungle-green and beige-walled labyrinth that is South America.

Probably the reason we humans feel compelled on no evidence whatsoever to distinguish ourselves from the other animals is that 99% of what we do is pure animal routine: rote, unconscious, we’ve done it all so many times before we’re on automatic. Only when we move out into unaccustomed territory do we become what we think of ourselves as being all the time, “human,” because only out there do we become conscious and need to think about everything we do. Only out there is life arbitrary and fearsome, as well it should be. Out there is where the other animals wisely fear to tread, because out there is where the big mistakes are made. This was the place the Prime Minister was in that day, but what I would see in South America was a man who quickly made himself right at home. Once he’d met a few world leaders and witnessed for himself that they were only human, perhaps brighter or more assertive or more charismatic than the rest of us, though not, in the Prime Minister’s view, than himself, and certainly shorter and slighter, most of them anyway, he relaxed, and before long he was stepping on a plane and flying off to South-east Asia as casually as you or I would hop on a bus to Arnprior.


Law and Order

The Halloween of my second year in Ottawa, my sister’s boy, who was eight, wanted to go trick-or-treating as a terrorist, and so my sister, who shares the family’s artistic bent even though she lives in Vancouver (joking!), spent the day with him and a friend, making pretend pipe bombs out of toilet paper rolls and sewing camouflage fatigues and headscarves. Once she had the boys kitted out as terrorists, she took a few pictures, which she dropped off at Costco, and on Halloween the boys in their gear were a big hit around the neighbourhood. But two weeks later, in the middle of the night, a SWAT team kicked down my sister’s front door and pulled the family from their beds and went through the house for weapons and ammunition. The last thing the officer in charge of the operation told my sister and brother-in-law as his team was packing up to leave was,

There’s something you people need to understand. This is the world we live in. From now on, what happened here tonight is how it’s going to be.

I thought of my sister and her unnerving experience when I recently found myself standing in the street, trying to snap a picture of the Prime Minister as he rode in a motorcade along Spring Garden Road in Halifax. It was a sunny day, and the people if they weren’t exactly cheering were trying, as people will, to register a glimpse of Greatness. Unfortunately, the group I happened to be standing with found itself on the wrong side of a police cordon. One minute everybody was straining to see, the next we were being unceremoniously pushed backward. When people objected and even tried to resist physically, truncheons started flying, and one must have caught me across the side of the head.

The next thing I knew I was sitting on the curb with the worst headache of my life. I tried to tell the officers who I was and that I needed a doctor because my brain seemed to be filling with blood, but they had people with injuries far worse than mine to deny assistance to. In all we were held for just under ten hours. During that time and for the next three weeks I kept passing in and out of self-awareness. At the end of the day I’d be missing entire blocks of time. But once the swelling went down and the headaches grew less severe and more infrequent, I gratefully put the incident behind me. Now I simply avoid crowds and arrange to be out of town on parade days.

When I told the Prime Minister about my experience, he proposed a thought experiment: A. Assume I’m a terrorist. B. Ask myself: Did this treatment meet with my approval as a law-abiding citizen?

Not really, I said.

You’ve assumed you’re a terrorist, he reminded me.

Assumed, until proven guilty, I countered.

There’s no proven, the Prime Minister said, eerily reifying the sentiment expressed by the SWAT team leader. Not any more. It’s too late for proven.

To explain where I was coming from, I assured him that few people had ever felt more warmly disposed toward the police than I used to. All my life I’d found them almost painfully polite and considerate. To take just one example, when I lived in the bush, two of them crossed the lake to our dock in a motorized canoe. The one in the bow, a beefy fellow, got out and, after ascertaining who I was, snapped to attention, stood at ease, placed his hat on his heart, and said,

I regret to inform you that your grandfather has died.

And had he? the Prime Minister asked.

Yes. What a civilized country this is, where the police provide a service like that for a citizen. I wasn’t even on the grid!

If you’d been on the grid, the Prime Minister observed, they wouldn’t have needed to go out there. You could have saved the taxpayer a hefty chunk o’ change.

Still, I said.

Did you thank them?

Not at first. I laughed nervously, the way one does.

From the grief, the Prime Minister said.

Not really. Bamp was a hundred and two. He was ready to go. I tried to explain this, but it came out as Hey, no worries, the guy was incredibly old. I should have kept that to myself. They must have wondered why they’d gone to the trouble of putting a boat in the water.

Did you get any good pictures? the Prime Minister asked.

What? Of the police on our dock?

No, of the motorcade.

I told him I got one or two, but they were blurry with flying truncheons.


Last Days

Talk of slime mold is all well and good, but every slug has its day, prominence is achieved, the stalk grows a head, the head explodes, and sooner or later the time comes for a return to its constituent parts. To put this another way, not even a Great Man can keep a lid screwed tight forever on a cauldron of monkeys. The Prime Minister saw the end coming long before I did. One day he told me a story that let me know without letting me know.

The Prime Minister’s father had supported his little family on the income from  a car-refurbishing business. One summer he came into the possession of a mint-green ’56 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, for next to nothing because someone had died in it. Several days must have passed before the body was discovered, because the car had a smell to it that the seller had been unable to mask. But as a skilled renovator of automobile interiors, the Prime Minister’s father replaced the floor mats and took out the seats and recovered them and essentially recreated the car’s interior. For two summers he drove it with the top down, but when the cold weather returned and the top went up, the smell was still there, and eventually he too had to sell it.

Why am I telling you this? the Prime Minister asked me.

I don’t know, I said.

I’ve been driving that mint green Cadillac Eldorado for seven years, the Prime Minister said. Summer and winter.

Who died? I said.

I don’t know, he said. All I know is it stinks and the stink isn’t going to go away.

That should have been my first clue that the Prime Minister had entered that late stage of an endeavour when, as we prepare psychologically to step away, all the dreadful things that, in our eagerness to be here, doing this, we’ve chosen not to see, rise to the surface and stare us in the face. The thrill has died, the bloom has gone off. Nothing is what it was. Peers and superiors, once gods to be emulated, to rebel against, are now Muppets, not worth the bother.

It’s at a time like this, when youth has fled, a time of disillusion and decline, that fissures form in the structure of reality, and the Lt. Wayne McLeods and their ilk crawl out and walk backwards among us, their faces thrust into ours. One thing that can’t be appreciated enough about the Prime Minister’s immigration policy was its friendliness to multicultural diversity. No one saw more clearly than he did the vote-generating potential of a platform designed to assuage newcomer fears of social instability while silencing any conceivable charge of structural governmental racism. McLeod’s party, with its Great White North bombast, was a knuckle-dragging throwback. If this was exactly what the country didn’t need, it was also the only kind of political challenge that could have at the same time unseated the Prime Minister and made him, and everything he had accomplished, appear to be—depending on your politics—either the step that had taken us closer to the world according to McLeod or the last great flowering of effective one-man government.

A tell-tale characteristic of Greatness is that no one, not even his closest confidant, can hope to possess the scope of mind necessary to grasp the larger picture. But then somebody will always come along with a story that seizes the imagination of the people, who will all of a sudden tire of the ineffable leader who served them with such unswerving devotion, and in their fickle way they will hitch their wagon to a little man who has told them a story they can hold in their minds. It doesn’t even need to be his own story, it can be a story he’s picked up somewhere, that happened to somebody else. All it needs to be is a story that will stick to him through the thick and thin of all the empty promises he will make and the lies he will tell. A master narrative, in other words, and thanks to the tour of duty and the row of medals on the chest and the nasty hectoring speeches and the crazy eyes and the crooked arm, this one stuck.

It was the Prime Minister’s wife, appropriately, who filled me in, some months before McLeod’s people put it out there for public consumption. The story went like this.

McLeod did eventually wedge in the crevasse, upside down, with a wall of clear ice between him and the melting face of the glacier. Requiring an implement to chip his way through, he snapped off his left arm just above the wrist and used the sharp end of the compound fracture to dig himself out. His account of this ordeal always ended with the passionate declaration that human life can offer no greater thrill than the one experienced by a man as he plunges from glacial entrapment into freezing water. McLeod’s promise to the Canadian people was that his election would result in an experience for each of us not unlike plunging into a glacial lake while cradling an arm we’d just used our free hand to break off.

This was heady stuff. It also left the impression that the Prime Minister had somehow kept us encased in ice, even though it was hardly like that at all, as anyone can tell you who ever ran for cover when his head exploded or luxuriated in the halflight of his smile, if that’s what it was. But the Canadian people, knowing even less about the Prime Minister and what he was up to than the politicians did, were hungry for a story, preferably, in this age of darkness and decline, something heroic, or its imitation, as we swim for our lives.



The last time I saw the Prime Minister I was standing in the press box of the Ottawa Convention Centre, gazing down at that vast, lonely space, and there he was in his grey suit, moving heavily up and down the floor with an air hockey stick, and when he reached one end he’d take a hard shot on goal, pick up the rebound, stickhandle his way to the other end, and take another hard shot, and watching him down there I understood that after we hauled him up out of the ice like a Colossus, this was what his life had been, and in a vision I saw that it will be a cold day in Hell before we are again bestridden as the Prime Minister bestrode us in the full majesty of his Greatness.

–Greg Hollingshead


Greg Hollingshead has published six books of fiction, including The Roaring Girl, The Healer, and Bedlam. He has won the Governor General’s Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and been shortlisted for the Giller Prize. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta and director of the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre. In 2011-12 he served as Chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada. In 2012 he received the Order of Canada. He now lives in Toronto.

Jun 072013

Full-cover-art Artist Mystic

The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi
Alex Stein & Yahia Lababidi
Onesuch Press
86 Pages, $9.98
ISBN 978-0987276049

In Alex Stein’s book, The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi, there are two central topics—conversation and the artist-mystic. Conversation and its relation to artistic-mysticism manifests in the magical coming-together of an artist and his inspiration; Stein and Lababidi describe this inspiration as conversation or a commune. Artistic-mysticism denotes firstly a form of self-induced suffering and sequestration and, secondly, a notion of attention. Stein writes: “I kept trying to clarify to myself this idea of the artist as mystic, the artist and the mystic and their disparate ways of summoning the spirit, and I kept coming back to the idea of attention. Attention is the artist’s mode of prayer.” This is the most beautiful moment in the book. Here, we have a true convergence of the artist and the mystic in this notion of attention.  What follows is an investigation into the different mystic ways and words of several authors who have inspired or intrigued both Lababidi and Stein.

This book becomes, in effect, a homage to these masters. Stein remembers that while writing the book he could hear Lababidi’s voice telling him to: “Make of your art an offering to those spirits (“literary masters” as Yahia calls them) with whom you would commune.” Stein weaves conversations between himself and Lababidi about Nietzsche, Kafka, Bataille, Kierkegaard, and Rilke, among others into a compiling of thoughtful reflections on what it means to do art and to be an artist, or more specifically, an artist-mystic.

For Stein and Lababidi conversation is much more spiritual than a Socratic dialog or the Hegelian dialectic. The spirituality or mysticism inherent to conversation in Stein’s book is the way in which conversation is inspiring. Conversation is a moment of commune in which an exchange of spirit happens, and the duality of dialog renders down to a monad of thought. In many ways, though they are the titular aspect of the book, the conversations between Stein and Lababidi are not the focus. Rather, the implicit conversations with those dead authors for whom the book is an offering are the focus. For Stein and Lababidi these references in conversation to these late thinkers and artists is akin to a conjuring, bringing with it a revelatory or mystical magic which compels those conversing toward art.

Being an artist-mystic, like those late “literary masters,” is a specific way of life typified by self-denial and suffering. This way of living, according to Stein, “cannot be a voluntary thing”; it is duty which neglects and ignores personal happiness in service to art. To Stein, “the life of the artist may not be apparently monastic, or holy, but there is the same sense of sacrifice, of vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness.” This sentiment follows Lababidi who says that the artist is “called to service” and “exalted.” There is a great deal of play between Christian religiosity and a kind of eastern self-denial throughout this book, however I don’t think it would be right to characterize Stein’s mystic as a version of the Christian monk. Rather this artist is someone inspired and willing to suffer to create art. This investigation into personal suffering and anguish is particularly interesting in relation to the importance which both authors put on conversation and “communal destiny.” Suffering for the sake of art or in the service of art sequesters the artist from the rest of society as a sufferer, while the idea of mysticism and communing with dead “literary masters” introduces these hyper-individuals to one another. There is an implicit play, then, on the idea of the conversation between a group of people who see themselves as rejected in some sense or, at least, have removed themselves, from society and thus are not predisposed to conversation.

The thinkers and authors Stein and Lababidi mention become case studies for their overarching thesis about artist-mystics. For example, they see in the philosophy of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche the same anguish in the face of self-induced suffering for the sake of art that appears in the literary work of Baudelaire and Rilke among others. Lababidi talks about watching Bataille in an interview: “But there he was, this shifty, shifting creature who looked as though he could be anything from a pedophile to mass murderer.” Lababidi’s characterization clearly puts Bataille outside of the norm of society, an outlier of law (murderer) and of socially acceptable practices (pedophile). Thus, for Lababidi, Bataille is an artist who refuses to acquiesce to social institutions. This construction is only confirmed or at least enhanced by Bataille’s own writing which focuses on death and necrophilia among other things. Lababidi and Stein see this peculiarity as a demonstration of Bataille’s mysticism. As Lababidi says, Bataille himself refers to writing as “dabbling in the black-arts.”

Stein and Lababidi are looking for a mystic quality that manifests in the writing of the author but also comes across in his actions and biography. Stein says that “it is this detachment, in its variety of permutations, that I admired in the lives of the artists whom I would eventually take for my models.” “[Kierkegaard, for example] determines to himself that he is ill-suited for marriage. He no longer believes it would be ethical to drag another person into the inward life to which he believes he has been called.” He breaks off his engagement with the woman who will turn out to be the love of his life and retreats into a mystical inwardness necessary for him to produce thoughtful and revelatory work. Of course, there is no way of knowing if Kierkegaard’s diagnosis of love-as-distraction was correct; but the question of how much writing he would have produced had her married will forever linger. As Lababidi puts it: “Maybe [Kierkegaard] thought that because he made the sacrifice, she would be returned to him the way faithful Abraham’s son Isaac is spared and returned to Abraham.”

This conception of mysticism and self-denial returns during the discussion of Kafka. Stein includes the following aphorism by Kafka:

“There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you” (Kafka’s Aphorism 109).

According to Lababidi, the world Kafka refers to in this specific aphorism “is the ‘there-world’ into which he enters to write, as the yogis enter theirs to breathe.” Lababidi’s comparison between Kafka and yogis suggests that Kafka’s mysticism takes the form of a trance or meditative state, that the ‘there-world’ is an achievable form of awareness or attention. In Lababidi’s words, the ‘there-world’ is “a paradox, like the snake that swallows its own tail until it has swallowed itself entirely. A double joint in time, or a space that is only a bit of fabric that gives, and one can just slip on through it.” Thus the ‘there-world’ is an escape of sorts—a break from reality.

There are nonetheless similarities between Kierkegaard’s choice not to marry, Kafka’s world, and Bataille’s unsettling topics. These all represent modes of escape. But it is crucial that these not be seen as ways of escaping from torment or suffering. Rather they are ways of escaping from a fixedness. In these moments of escape, “inspiration is able to move with more agility and vision to engage with more dexterity.” This is not a physical escape from X to Y, but a transformation of attention; rather than travel to a new place, we are looking at the world differently.

Stein rightly notices that art is a manifestation of what the artist is paying attention to, and correspondingly the mystical moment for yogis and for Kafka, as it were, is a certain way of directing attention toward something. The artist-mystic never goes to the there-world, for we are always already inside it yet un-attuned to it. Stein and Lababidi’s book investigates the way the artist, be he a phenomenologist or a poet, “prays” to that which is already before us in a more attuned and spiritual way.

 —Jacob  Glover


Jacob Glover

Jacob Glover is a pursuing an MA in Classics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Jun 062013

transformed volumes final

The book is disappearing into the ether, becoming electrons assembled on screens, or maybe not — you never know with books. The obituaries might be premature. But the mere threat of the disappearance of books has prompted a fascinating surge of art related to books, not images in books or book cover art, but books as objects converted into works of art. All of which connotes, yes, a vast nostalgia amongst thinking people for the book and a multimedia inquiry into the meaning of the book.

Numéro Cinq is carving out a niche for itself in the field of book art (hybrid text and art, conceptual art, art using typography, typesetting and media, books made into objects of art) and hence it only seemed just and fitting when Paul Forte asked me to use NC as a venue to announce and promote a major new show of artist’s bookworks, Transformed Volumes, scheduled to run at the Hera Gallery, Wakefield, RI, June 15 to July 13. Forte has assembled a stunning, surprising, witty, gorgeous collection artist’s books by six artists, also provided us with a short essay on the concept of the artist’s bookworks along with mini-essays by each of the artists, a trove of  art and information. Who can resist Doug Beube’s self-description as a biblioclast? And Donna Ruff’s use of the word scarify, relating her work to scars and script? These are smart, wonderful artists. The work dazzles.



The “artist’s book,” as publisher and poet Dick Higgins once defined it, provides a good basis for understanding what artists are doing when they use a book format to make art. In the preface to Artist’s Books: A Critical anthology and Sourcebook, Higgins writes: “It is a work. Its design and format reflect its content – they intermerge, interpenetrate.  It might be any art: an artist’s book could be music, photography, graphics, intermedial literature.  The experience of reading it, viewing it, framing it – that is what the artist stresses in making it.” [1] Higgins points out that the artist’s book is nothing new, that it has a venerable history that can be traced to the work of luminaries like the 18th century Romantic poet, William Blake, a master printer and bookmaker who was also an accomplished visual artist.  Books by artists–whether the livre d’ artiste of the late 19th and early 20th centuries or the experimental works made since the mid 1960’s–have long provided a kind of portable venue for the dissemination of art.  But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that artist’s books gained mainstream recognition as a legitimate genre.  There have been countless exhibitions over the years devoted to the artist’s book, but much less attention has been paid to a more recent development: the artist’s bookwork.[2] Artist’s books and artist’s bookworks are not the same thing.  Whether considered something distinct from or a sub-genre of the artist’s book, the bookwork–or art object based upon some formal or material aspect of what we recognize as a traditional book–departs from the medial concerns of both ordinary books and most artist’s books.  And it does so in a cognitively interesting way.  The defining feature of bookwork art is its “de-mediated form, which means that the basic function of the book to convey ideas or expression through its content (usually text and or images) is disrupted or suspended in some way.[3] The artist’s bookwork does away with or occludes content in any number of ways.  And yet, the most successful examples of this art form can still be read in some sense, not for what they contain, but for what they embody. While no longer acting as, strictly speaking, receptacles or vehicles for words and or pictures, bookworks can nevertheless rise above mere reduction to a formal or material basis and take on or acquire symbolic or semiotic functions.  Such unusual art objects succeed as significant or meaningful things when exhibiting an imaginative engagement with the material and or form of the book while also maintaining clarity of purpose embodied by that material or form.  This is exactly what makes the bookwork cognitively interesting.  Viewing and reading, sense and thought are brought closer together. The point, according to interdisciplinary scholar, Garrett Stewart, is: “reclaimed or fabricated, the de-mediated bookwork, as we will come to understand it, is a conceptual object: not for normal reading, but for thinking about.”[4]   

The bookworks assembled for this exhibition explore various facets of de-mediation through two related transformative processes: 1) the alteration of found volumes and 2) the fabrication of new objects based in some way on the traditional book.  This exhibition has two objectives as well.  The first is to turn the usual way that books convey ideas on its head and present the bookwork as a primary or immediate mode of thought, thus also distinguishing it from the better known genre of artist’s books.  As Stewart puts it: “One way or the other, to become book art, rather than an artist’s book in any sense, requires in the main a  surrender of pagination to sculptural form, message to sheer mass.”[5]  This is understood, although, again, the “sheer mass” of the book might be used in some way to convey ideas by acquiring a symbolic or semiotic function.  And Stewart agrees with this in principle because he made it clear to me that what was de-mediated (by occlusion or effacement) was text alone (although, I would also include images here as well) leaving the medium or material of the bookwork sculpture as a trope or metaphor; which is to say, a sign or symbol. The second objective is more nuanced and perhaps problematic: to mount a show that counters the prevailing notion that bookwork art is largely in response to the displacement of physical books by digital technology.  This is less a reaction to such a possibility and more a matter of offering an alternative view.  For those who believe that physical books are on their way out, bookworks are inherently elegiac.  But there is another way to understand the bookwork phenomenon, this recent development that deploys what appears to be a passing mode of cultural conveyance: bookwork is an art form that summarizes, encapsulates, and exemplifies a cognitive turn in the arts.[6] A half-century ago the arts took a conceptual turn.  In time we regained our senses, so to speak, newly informed by our conceptual bearings.  The phenomenon of the bookwork speaks to this cognitive turn in ways that other art cannot.  After all, books have always been the great repositories of thought and feeling. Now they and the objects that represent them have become vehicles of sense as well.

— Paul Forte


Transformed Volumes

Doug Beube

“Fault Lines” 2003
Altered Atlas, 18 x 25 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches

1. Doug Beube

Doug Beube: Why do I perpetrate acts against the book?  I have a love-hate relationship with the medium of my art. I love the collection of concrete words and ideas set in their fixed margins, the heft of its pages, the exposition, the narrative, the linearity and curvature of a story, the unfolding of a point of view, the simplicity, even the assumed preciousness, of this object, the codex. Yet, its technology in this digital millennium is outmoded, even frustrating, as a method for recording, preserving, and transmitting culture and information. On computer, I can delve into ideas with a series of clicks on a keyboard; I can drill down through websites into an almost infinite library of human expression. I can reshape, rearrange, erase, and restore, at will. All such acts, so intrinsic to digital technologies and so unnatural to books, is nevertheless what I am driven in my art to do. I view the codex with the span of its body and its spine, as a metaphor for the human form, and with its story, as a metaphor for human expression, on the one hand; and as an artifact of civilization, on the other. And, so like a physician or an archeologist, I am compelled to examine it, to dissect it, to cut it open, to dig into it, literally and otherwise. And, ever the biblioclast, I am compelled to unfix margins, make tomes weightless, empty volumes of their stories, and twist a point of view into its opposite.

Doug Beube is a mixed-media artist working in bookwork, collage, installation, sculpture and photography.  Since 1993, he has been curator of a private collection, The Allan Chasanoff Bookworks Collection: The Book Under Pressure, in New York City.  Beube has taught classes at Parsons The New School in artists’ books, collage, mixed media, and photography and given workshops at Penland School of Crafts, in Penland, NC, Haystack Mountain, Deer Isle, MN and The Center for Book Arts in New York City. He regularly lectures on his work throughout the US, Canada and Europe. Prior to receiving an MFA in Photography from the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY, graduating in 1983, he was a darkroom assistant to Minor White in Arlington, MA. Doug has exhibited nationally and internationally and his bookwork and photographs are in numerous private and public collections. In the fall of 2011 a monograph entitled, Doug Beube: Breaking the Codex: Bookwork, Collage and Mixed Media, was published by Etc. Etc. The Iconoclastic Press, Brooklyn, with an introduction by David Revere McFadden, chief curator of the Museum of Art and Design in New York City.  The volume presents an in-depth overview of Doug Beube’s artwork over the past thirty years, with essay contributions from several well-known writers, critics and curators.


Claire Dannenbaum

“The Red Line” 2011
Book mounted on board, 10 x 6 1/2 x 6 inches

2. Claire Dannenbaum

Claire Dannenbaum: In this recent work I explore the conceptual life of the book.

My artwork is constructed from fiction, holy books, guidebooks, instructional manuals, and all types of books recycled from thrift stores, used book stores, and library book sales. In these pieces, I rearrange texts, disrupt, reveal, or obscure the narrative and the authority posed by the printed word. I use the graphic quality of text on the page to create a layering of visual narratives.  I have purposefully flattened the book so that it can be appreciated as a vehicle for associations, without even being read. For me there are many compelling contradictions in books. They are mass-produced yet precious; they are sacred, they are pulp. They can carry profound personal connotations as we carry our experiences into reading.  Books can be rare, lost, digital, or dog-eared, and still convey loaded meanings and conventions that fuel daydreams, revolution, the social imagination, and far-reaching historical dogmas.

I come to this topic from several vantage points. As a librarian I have, quite literally, built my professional life on the book form.  I see books as social agents: of inquiry, of personal fulfillment, of self-determination, and fundamental to the very fabric of knowing. Despite an onslaught of data, and routine access to trillions of bytes of information, there remains an enigmatic resonance to the book and the written page. Reading is a kind of magic one performs on oneself.  Every act of opening a book poses potential transformations:  of heroic escapes, of redrawn borders, of ecstatic pleasure, or a reconstructed sense of oneself in the world.  In my work I explore how the book is both inanimate and a living organism.

Claire Dannenbaum is an academic librarian and visual artist living in Eugene, Oregon.  Her current work explores the conceptual life of books through manipulation, destruction, reconstruction, and collage. Claire’s bookwork has been exhibited in Oregon, California, and Rhode Island.  She was awarded a Celebration Foundation grant in 2012.  Working as a librarian continues to be a rich source of inspiration for her projects.  Previously, Claire was a filmmaker and her work has screened internationally. She has participated in public panels, been a visiting artist, won a few awards, and has films in university libraries on both coasts. 


Paul Forte

“Liber Dermis (Skin Book)” 2008
Medical illustrations (human skin cross section) on sealed medical book, mounted on wood, 17 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 3/4 inches

3. Paul Forte

Paul Forte: My use of a book format to make art began in the mid 1970s when I produced a series of small booklets in editions of 50 in offset lithography.  At about the same time I was also making simple one-of-a-kind book objects, what were then called “unique volumes.”  The first book objects experimented with typewritten signs, graphic symbols and materials such as graphite and Mylar in an attempt to blur the distinctions between form and content.  Such early works were precursors to what are now called “artist’s bookworks.”  As with much bookwork today, the unusual content of these pieces was meant to be visually metaphorical.  By simply placing such “content” between the covers of a book, the material signaled intention, thus inviting the viewer/reader to explore it for significance. Visual metaphor is a primary vehicle of or for meaning in all my work, bookworks included. Philosopher, Noel Carroll, calls visual metaphor, “a device for encouraging insights, a tool to think with. This is not to deny that visual metaphors can provide insight, but only that they do so by way of having a meaning.”[7] An artwork that is visually metaphorical can elicit more than one interpretation, although, these readings are usually constrained by both the material parameters of the work and the context in which it is presented or understood.  Appreciating such art, much like creating it, requires focus and openness, judgment and imagination.  This conceptual attitude or orientation is in my view the key to opening a new chapter in our understanding of the relationship between art and the world. Liber Dermis is an illuminated manuscript of sorts, but one that celebrates the body or flesh instead of the Spirit. The color illustration on the book’s open pages is an enlarged image of a cross section of human skin. The implicit humor of the title is meant to create some tension by raising the specter of the sacred versus the profane. In keeping with those extravagant medieval works of piety, the surface of the open pages of Liber Dermis has an almost jewel-like quality. The skin image has been duplicated in reverse and both sides are rendered in low relief to provide an appropriate tactile experience.

Paul Forte’s career began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s. Primarily a visual artist, he also writes poetry and essays. Forte has exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, California  (1975, 1976, 1983); A Space Gallery, Toronto, Canada (1978); 80 Langton Street Gallery, San Francisco, California (1981); The Center for the Visual Arts, Oakland, California (1986); The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut (1991); the Kim Foster Gallery, New York City (1998); Francis Naumann Fine Art, New York City (2007 & 2008); and The Wattis Institute, San Francisco, California (2011). Forte’s work is included in the Sol Lewitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (artist’s books); and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, among others. Forte has lectured on his work at Hera Gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island; The University of Rhode Island; The Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University (Honors Program); Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; The California College of the Arts in Oakland, California; and the University of California at Berkeley.  Paul Forte is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Fellowship (1978), and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Fellowship (1990). A resident of Rhode Island since 1987, Forte lives in Wakefield with his long time partner, Laura Beauvais.


Donna Ruff

“Fanatic 2” (from Fanaticism Series) 2009
8 x 10 inches

4. Donna Ruff

Donna Ruff: Paper has a very real and tactile appeal for me.  I’m attracted to paper’s fragility and pristine beauty – yet my work involves scarring, incising, burning and puncturing its surface. These processes are simultaneously destructive and constructive, providing an image that confounds reductive comprehension as drawings. The word “scarify” is etymologically related to stylus and script, and creating works in this way developed from my interest in language, books and the written word. I’m inspired by geometric systems- celestial, fractal, graphical: the basis of visual language and the historical means of informative communication.

Donna Ruff grew up in Miami Beach, and moved to New York to pursue a career in graphic design and illustration. She earned an MFA from Rutgers University, where she focused on printmaking and installation. In 2010 she moved to Santa Fe, NM. She has been chosen to create site-specific installations at the Eldridge Street Project on the Lower East Side of New York, PS 122, and for ArtSPACE in New Haven, Connecticut. Exhibitions include Speaking Volumes at the Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin; Fireworks at the Hunterdon Museum in New Jersey; Paper[space] at the Philadelphia Art Alliance; Qville, at the Flux Factory in Long Island City, NY; 4th International Graphic Trienniale in Prague; and Feedback: Artist to Artist at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Germany, as well as numerous gallery exhibitions. Recently her work was purchased by the New Mexico Museum of Art. She has curated several exhibitions, including Off the Wall>Rethinking the Print at the NewArt Center; and Status Update at Heskins Laboratory at Yale University. Her work was recently featured in Book Art: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books, published by Gestalten.


Jacqueline Rush Lee

“Inside Out” (from Volumes series) 2001
Soaked, dried, book components, 21 x 22 x 9 inches

5. Jacqueline Rush Lee

Jacqueline Rush Lee: My work focuses on the book as object, medium and archetypal form. Working to reveal or transform the nature of a book, I’m interested in the aesthetic of books as cultural objects that come with their own histories of use and meaning.  By using books as my canvas or building block, I can transform their formal and conceptual arrangement through a variety of practices in which the physicality, and thus the context of the books have been altered. I’m also interested in creating evocative works that are cerebral with emotional depth.  Remaining open to the physical and metaphorical transformations that occur in my working process, these residual sculptures or installations emerge as a palimpsest – a document that bears traces of the original text within its framework but possesses a new narrative as a visual document of another time.

Jacqueline Rush-Lee is a sculptor from Northern Ireland who lives and works in Hawaii (USA). Jacqueline has been working with books for fifteen years and is recognized for working with the book form through artwork features in blogs, magazines, books and international press. Selected bibliography include: BOOK ART: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books; PAPERCRAFT: Design and Art with Paper and PLAYING WITH BOOKS: The Art of Upcycling, Deconstructing, and Re-Imagining the Book. Jacqueline’s work will be featured in ART MADE FROM BOOKS, Chronicle Press, 2013 by Laura Heyenga, writer and former editor for SFMOMA. 

She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Distinction in Ceramics and a Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, with a background in [‘O’ level] drawing and painting from Northern Ireland. She exhibits her artwork nationally and internationally and her work is in private and public collections, including The Allan Chasanoff Book Under Pressure Collection, New York City.  

Irwin Susskind

Untitled 1998
Altered paperback book (series), 8 ¼ x 7 x ½ inches

6. Irwin Susskind

Irwin Susskind: Books are tactile – computers are not.  I started working with books eight or nine years ago when I felt this impending shift.  I create these objects as if books have already passed into history.  As if they are archeological discoveries from another time.  They can no longer be read, but by means of tearing, cutting apart and re-assembling, concealing, revealing and other manipulation, I try to reveal the lives of these books.

Irwin Susskind has worked as a graphic designer at Lippincott & Margulies. Inc., a firm that specializes in developing corporate identities, where he designed logos for Fortune 500 in the United States and world wide.  His artwork has been exhibited at the Bertha Urdang Gallery in New York City and in the Members’ Gallery in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.

—Curated and introduced by PaulForte


Paul Forte

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Dick Higgins, Artist’s Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, p. 11. Joan Lyons, Ed. Visual Workshop Studies Press 1987.
  2. One of the earliest bookworks was Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade of 1919.  Bookwork art or “book objects” first appear in the mid 1970’s as a development with roots in Conceptual art.
  3. De-mediation is a relative matter, whether it involves text or images because the effacement, disruption, or occlusion of such content is often partial or incomplete. Instances of purely de-mediated bookwork are probably rare because, among other things, the refashioned material embodied by most transformed books and their surrogates could be broadly construed as image content.
  4. Garrett Stewart, Bookwork, Medium to Object to Concept to Art, p. 14. The University of Chicago Press 2011.
  5. Ibid. p. 97
  6. A good working definition of cognitive can be had from philosopher, Nelson Goodman: “Under ‘cognitive’ I include all aspects of knowing and understanding, from perceptual discrimination through pattern recognition and emotive insight to logical inference.”  See Goodman, Of Mind And Other Matters, Harvard University Press, 1984. p.84   According to Goodman, “cognitive” and “conceptual” are not interchangeable terms.  Cognitive is the more inclusive term, lending depth and breadth to how we know and understand.
  7. Noel Carroll, Visual Metaphor, in Beyond Aesthetics, Philosophical Essays, Cambridge University Press, 2001. P. 365
Jun 052013

All That Is
James Salter
Alfred A Knopf, 2013
290 pages, $26.95


In an age and a culture that have seemingly lost a sense of discrimination and taste, James Salter has once again elevated the American novel to a place of punctilious dignity, gimmick-free prose, and passionate sexuality. All That Is, Salter’s first novel in over thirty years, is an exquisite story of love, betrayal and humanity set against the backdrop of the New York publishing world.

All That Is chronicles the life of Philip Bowman, an editor at a small, literary publishing house. The novel opens in 1944 with Bowman standing watch on a warship crossing the Pacific. As sailors search the skies for signs of the dreaded Kamikaze, a young Bowman worries how he will respond in battle. “How he would behave in action was weighing on his mind that morning as they stood looking out at the mysterious, foreign sea and then at the sky that was already becoming brighter. Courage and fear and how you would act under fire were not among the things you talked about. You hoped, when the time came, that you would be able to do as expected.”

Salter is obsessed with rites of passage. Combat, sexual experience, home ownership, marriage, divorce, parental death and career success are among the many trials through which Bowman must pass. “What are the things that have mattered?” a woman asks Bowman at a London bar after the war, and this question might well form the narrative spine of the book. Is it a quest for a fulfilled life? Is it love, or the meaning behind love? Whatever the answer, we may rightly expect that many of the things that matter will be rendered.

After the war, Bowman returns to America, attends Harvard and eventually lands a job in New York.  He meets his future wife, Vivian Amussen, in a bar, and soon woos her into bed.  His first sexual encounter ends quickly, but he feels “intoxicated by a world that had suddenly opened wide to the greatest pleasure, pleasure beyond knowing.”  Alas, the marriage is not meant to thrive. Vivian comes from a gentrified, Southern family and Bowman never quite fits in on the Amussen farm. There’s a brief period of somewhat muted happiness between the young couple, but on a business trip in Europe, Bowman has a passionate affair with Enid Armour. “It seemed his manhood had suddenly caught up with him, as if it had been waiting somewhere in the wings.” We aren’t surprised by any of this, of course, because his marriage seemed destined for trouble from the start.

Told in a kind of limited omniscience (anchored for the most part in Bowman’s perspective), the narrative bends the most important characters (and even some lesser characters) into the text with terse, jump-cut bursts of interior narration and point of view shifts. There’s something brash about this approach. It hearkens back to the nineteenth century when authors exercised complete authority over their creations. In a brief scene at Bowman’s wedding, Salter uses nine different points of view  in just under three pages. The effect is appropriately dizzying, as though we are drunk and dancing at the reception.

Salter renders his secondary characters fully in quick, highly compressed flashes. For example, in the that wedding scene, he briefly cuts to Bowman’s mother, a woman whose presence heretofore has been muted:

“Be good to one another. Love one another,” she said.

Though she felt it was love cast into darkness. She had doubts that she would ever know her daughter-in-law. It seemed, on this bright day, that the greatest misfortune had come to pass. She had lost her son, not completely, but part of him was beyond her power to reclaim and now belonged to another, someone who hardly knew him. She thought of all that had gone before, the hopes and ambition, the years that had been filled, not just in retrospect, with such joy. She tried to be pleasant, to have them all like her and favor her son.

Notice the superlatives, the subdued hyperbole, the broad brushstrokes used to create a sense of time and history. The delivery is economical, a method prone to abuse by writers who don’t do the deep emotional thinking behind such narration. Salter refuses to fill in the blank spaces, but we feel them deeply, little resonant pools of mystery and being.

Bowman and Vivian break up, and he licks his wounds by briefly rekindling his affair with Enid in Spain. After the death of his mother, Bowman begins to stare down middle age, and becomes intent on finding a house in the country. There’s a certain disjointedness about the book’s pacing, and the reader must struggle a bit to assemble these moments into a coherent narrative. Then again, Salter has long been the master of minimalism and negative space. He manages to make vivid and vital characters, sometimes at the expense of plot. But a trust develops between the reader and the author, born of the latter’s wisdom and experience. We believe in the crafted dream, and don’t require much in the way of explanation. The gaps and questions are easily overlooked because Salter does the heavy filtering for us, removing the dross and delivering what he deems are the necessary parts, the distilled story, flowing in crisp sentences, swift and stripped-down scenes, strange juxtapositions, and whole characters rendered perfectly in only a few paragraphs. This is the quintessential Salter styling, and few do it better.

The third great love of Bowman’s life is Christine, a married woman trapped in a dead-end marriage. For awhile, she seems to be the perfect match. “He was free to do anything. It had never been this way, not with Vivian, certainly not with Vivian, and not with Enid.” Christine and Bowman eventually buy a home together, sharing it with Christine’s daughter, Anet. But again, for Bowman, this love will exact a heavy toll.

Salter, now 87, is a West Point graduate; he was fighter pilot in the Korean War. His first novel, The Hunters (1957), recounts some of what combat flying must have felt like. Several novels  followed, including The Arm of Flesh (1961), A Sport and a Pastime (often considered his finest novel, 1967), Light Years (1975) and Solo Faces (1979); his short fiction was published in Dusk and Other Stories (1988) and Last Night (which includes one of my all-time favorite short stories, “My Lord You,” 2005). In addition to his fiction, Salter has written numerous screenplays, poems, travel essays, and even a literary cookbook of sorts, Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days, which he co-wrote with this wife In 1997, he released Burning the Days, his captivating and powerful memoir.

Never one afraid to shove aside cultural sensibilities in search of a good story, Salter swipes at the social and historical changes which blew across America during the latter half of the twentieth century in All That Is.  While not necessarily a critic of feminism, or liberalism or even of capitalism in general, Salter does critically examine the shifting effects of those movements on his subject, in this case, the middle-class, white, American male. In so doing, he offers an unsentimental, post-Empire look back on all that was Empire. The stultifying decadence of America after World War II stood in sharp contrast to the all-but destroyed, majestic cities of Europe (we visit a few in the book). But even unscathed, America was rife with problems below the glistening surface: prevalent racism, the objectification of women and the cracking structures of family. Salter seemingly wants to show us the dry rot in the clubhouse walls of white privilege and old-boys networks. The world is changing, but the Architects of Empire continue to sip their Scotch and sodas even as the clamor in the streets grows ever louder.

At first glance, many of Salter’s characters appear to typify the myth of the brusque, strong-shouldered American male. Yet Salter transcends this myth, taking aim at the American Dream and pulling the trigger. Bowman, in many ways, is a feckless hero. Love eludes him, but he carries on in spite of his setbacks and disappointments. Though a virgin when the novel opens, Bowman’s primary fault lines are sexual ones, and, for him, love and sexuality are inextricably linked. “It was love, the furnace into which everything was dropped.”

It’s hard not to think of Hemingway when you read Salter, except a less vainglorious version. Whereas Hemingway wants to drink you under the table and shut down the bar, Salter wants to order a bottle of Château Latour. They both want to seduce you, it’s just that Salter will still be upright and semi-sober when he does it, and he’ll buy your breakfast in the morning; Hemingway won’t even leave a note on the pillow.

And make no mistake, Salter likes to write about sex.

She lay face down and he knelt between her legs for what seemed a long time, then began to arrange them a little, unhurriedly, like setting up a tripod. In the early light she was without a flaw, her beautiful back, her hips’ roundness. She felt him slowly enter, she reached beneath, it was there, becoming part of her. The slow, profound rhythm began, hardly varying but as time passed somehow more and more intense. Outside the street was completely silent, in adjoining rooms people were asleep. She began to cry out. He was trying to slow himself, or prevent it and make it go on, but she was trembling like a tree about to fall, her cries were leaking beneath the door.

Notice how he leaves much to the reader’s imagination, and how the act and the emotion fail to fuse. Like life itself, love and sex are deeply sad and fleeting things. And this may indeed be Salter’s point, the emphasis falling on moments rather than on the prevalent myth of permanence. Words like eternal love and forever seem rather cloying and foolish when placed next to the reality of experience.

Love, finally, eludes Bowman. His affairs of the heart end badly. What makes Bowman empathetic and heroic is his refusal to be defeated. He remains stalwart and upbeat, even as setbacks befall him. He retains something of a quixotic delusion about love, but this makes his failures less pathetic and his forbearance admirable. By the close of the book, Bowman arrives at a certain wisdom, even if he must first pass through a stage of numbed-out cruelty. In the book’s most shocking reversal, Bowman executes a brutal, cringe-worthy, act of revenge-sex that creates a complex emotional space for the reader: you simultaneously root for and hate the hero.

Of course, Bowman is not heroic in a traditional sense. His trials are hardly the stuff of legend. He wins quiet victories, endures muted disasters, and carries on through authentically human struggles. Remember, he’s a book editor, itself a quiet job that hides in shadows. But there’s an abundance of dignity in Bowman’s life. He works hard at his job, maintains virtuous standards toward his work. A certain decorum surrounds his struggles and triumphs. There’s also nostalgia for now old-fashioned independent publishing houses like Braden & Baum. Parties, business trips, working dinners, talented authors and exotic women make Bowman’s world quite full, quite rich, by almost any standard.

The French writer Marguerite Duras wrote that “the person who writes books must always be enveloped by a separation from others.” With Salter, one might well suppose the opposite to be true. He seems to be a writer who has lived life fully even while writing many of the books that have helped define a culture. In a recent interview at Guernica, Salter was asked about immortality as a writer:

You would have to be very optimistic to think that any of your books will be among the books that survive in the very long run. I think if a writer is lucky enough to still have a few books around after he’s gone, a few that are still being read, then he’s accomplished quite a lot.

While Salter is correct about the uncertainty of predicting trends and tastes, few writers today are more deserving of a long literary legacy.

—Richard Farrell


 Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell is  the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of Vermont College of Fine Arts students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including short stories, memoir, craft essays, interviews, and book reviews, has been published or is forthcoming at Hunger Mountain, upstreet, A Year in Ink Anthology, Descant, New Plains Review and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.

Jun 042013

Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has always been an inspiration and a muse. He has written some of the most delightful short stories I have ever read. Also those truly amazing novels Shakespeare’s Dog and A Good Baby, which, if you haven’t read them, you have to read (I have written an essay on the latter, which you can find in my book Attack of the Copula Spiders). And then, late in life, as if he hasn’t done enough damage already, he takes up painting and turns out passionate, sensual, witty canvasses that exude desire, subversion, irony, and an acute adoration and attentiveness to the feminine — unapologetic, insouciant, even scabrous. Oh, Leon! A man who follows the electric current of creativity wherever it leads. A model for us all.


DSC00857 Beale Street Memphis, 2013  (oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.)

DSC00903The Manicurist, 2012 (oil on canvas, 30 x 20 in.)


DSC00909Beach Girls 1, 2013 (acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 in.)


DSC00938Sirens, 2013 (oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.)


DSC00948Brideshead Revisted, 2012  (acrylic on canvas, 60 x 36 in.)


DSC00949Red Hair District, 2013 (oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in.)


DSC00961Untitled (Holland), 2013 (oil on canvas, 12 x 16 in.)


DSC00975The Magistrate, 2013 (acrylic on canvas, 48 X 60 in.)

—Leon Rooke


Leon Rooke exhibits his paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. He has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

Jun 032013


“You should choose the finest day of the month and have yourself rowed far away across the lagoon….”

Henry James, Italian Hours, 1909



It’s five a.m. in Milan and my alarm rings. Outside I hear rain beating on my windows. I mute the clock and sling a leg out of bed. I’m going to Venice on the 6:30 train even though the entire Italian peninsula sloshes like an overflowing bathtub.

I stumble for the shower—some hot water to wake me up. And then for the espresso maker. Soon I’m ready and out the door. Dark clouds spit raindrops like shrill warnings. The wind upends my umbrella.

On the train, map open, I review my Venetian attack. So many have been to Venice, photographed Venice, written about Venice—from Michel de Montaigne to Byron and Dickens and Browning and Ruskin and Henry James and Mark Twain and Hemingway (and many in between and afterward) and I’m following in their footsteps.



Cà d’Oro — “A noble pile of very quaint Gothic, once superb in general effect.”

John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.



Santa Maria della Salute — “…the grace of the whole building being chiefly dependent on the inequality of size in its cupolas, and pretty grouping of the two campaniles behind them….”

—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.


Today I’m on the trail of Henry James and John Ruskin. Both men loved Venice and visited it often. Ruskin documented his passion for the city in several tomes, most notably the Stones of Venice, a three-volume best-seller when it was published mid-century (1851-1853). In the later part of the 19th century, James wrote a series of essays for journals about his stays in Venice (as well as other Italian cities) which were compiled into the 1909 Italian Hours.

I plan to take pictures of the palaces and churches and squares both men loved as well as those they abhorred, and accompany the photos with their words. I locate the Cà d’Oro, a palazzo Ruskin liked, and circle it on the map for easy reference later. I find Santa Maria Formosa, a church whose architectural flights disgusted him, and circle that too. And I star the location of the Ducal Palace, a building both men loved. I plan to chug along the Grand Canal in a vaporetto, not an elegant vessel, but serviceable and cheap when compared to the eternally classic gondola. From a perch in the prow I’ll take photos. I’ll have more than ten hours; I arrive in Venice at 9:30 am and my return won’t be until 7:50 pm. With so much time at my disposal I’ll be sure to get my shots right. And while I’m shooting, I’ll spend a marvelous day like others I’ve spent in the city. I’ll revel in the light, the merging of sea and sky, the shining domes, the golden lions glinting from columns, from lintels, from façades.

Although. From the sound of the reverb on the roof of the train—fortissimo like Ligeti’s The Devil’s Staircase—the rain doesn’t seem to be abating. And we’re in Padua with just one more stop to Venice. But I won’t worry yet. A lot can happen in a few kilometers. And no doubt the rain won’t hold too long in Venice. After all, this is the city that James said was mutable “like a nervous woman whom you know only when you know all aspects of her beauty. She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan….” [Italian Hours.]  So if flighty, changeable Venice starts out wet, she’ll soon turn dry. Right?

Just as I’m quitting the train station the storm worsens. I fling myself onto a vaporetto for cover without paying attention to which one. And so, instead of threading through the Grand Canal that snakes through the city’s protective embankments like I planned, the boat I’m on veers wide, toward the wind-tossed sea. Waves soon blast over the bow. Water drums in at a slant. My hair is soaking but at least my camera’s (relatively) dry; I thought to wrap it in a plastic shopping bag before leaving the train.


Like an ungainly walrus, the boat plows onward through the swell, past the fish market, some cranes, a garbage vessel. It carves a leftward swathe in the green sea near smokestacks, circles the city’s outskirts and finally, approaches those genteel structures that have entranced visitors for centuries. I spot the onion-shaped outlines of St. Mark’s five domes, off in the soggy distance. No inimitable views in my viewfinder quite yet, but as soon as I’m in the vicinity I’ll nab some. That is, rain permitting. Right now it’s lashing those of us foolhardy enough to stand in the prow. I see that droplets now splotch my lens; I need to clean it, pronto, but have nothing dry at hand.



The Ducal Palace — “the central building of the world….”

— John Ruskin, Stones of Venice


The boat rounds the Isola della Giudecca. St. Mark’s Basin churns with waves and whizzing motor boats. There I spot the mouth of the Grand Canal, gaping like a toothy eel. There’s Santa Maria della Salute with her stately steps, a large white pearl gleaming in the mist. And San Giorgio Maggiore with its Palladian façade and soaring campanile, a gushing brick and marble proclamation. And on the opposite shore, the Ducal Palace, Ruskin’s model of all perfection in architecture, “the central building of the world.” [Ruskin, Stones of Venice] But I’m not immortalizing anything with my camera yet. I’ve got the water-splotched lens twisted off and, in spite of the downpour, am switching it for one that’s clean.



View of the Piazzetta — “We pass into the Piazzetta to look down the great 
throat, as it were, of Venice …”

—Henry James, The Grand Canal


When the boat stops at San Zaccaria, not far from St. Mark’s, I hop off and flick my umbrella open. I navigate slick alleys to the Campo Bandiera e Moro where I find the Palazzo Badoer, “a magnificent example of 14th century Gothic, circa 1310-1320, anterior to the Ducal Palace showing beautiful ranges of the fifth-order window….” [Ruskin, Stones of Venice].



A magnificent example of 14th-century Gothic…. 

—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.



But a tour group stands between me and my picture. Like me, they were caught ill-prepared for the weather and have bought bright raincoats from a street vendor. Unfortunately their plastic wrappings seem to keep them dry because they continue to stand listening to their guide with rapt attention. While I wait I find myself agreeing with James who wrote: “The
 sentimental tourist’s sole quarrel with his Venice is that he has 
too many competitors there. He likes to be alone; to be original; 
to have (to himself, at least) the air of making discoveries. The
 Venice of to-day is a vast museum where the little wicket that 
admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march 
through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers.”  (Italian Hours).



Riva degli Schiavoni — [From his rooms here] “the waterside life, the wondrous lagoon spread before me…”

—Henry James, Italian Hours.


Then I head down the glistening Riva degli Schiavoni toward the center of the universe—the Ducal Palace and St. Mark’s. As I go, my shoes squelch—not rainproof after all—and my coat flaps like wet wash on the line. My camera’s dry inside my shirt but then, in a rush of air, my umbrella flips its underbelly and entrails up. Flapping, I grab at the nylon and wrench it down but not before I douse myself.


Dripping, I decide to abandon my plan—at least temporarily—of tracing Ruskin’s and James’s footsteps through the city. Under the loggia ringing the Palazzo Ducale, I merge with a horde of fellow Venice-gazers standing in line for the Manet exhibition: a way to stay dry and warm. No photographs are allowed of the interiors of the sumptuous rooms of the Ducal Palace themselves, but the courtyard is fair game.



Courtyard view — “Within the square formed by the building is seen its interior court (with one of its wells)….”

—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.




A dome and pinnacles of St. Mark’s from the Ducal Palace courtyard — “All European architecture, bad and good, old and new, is derived from Greece through Rome, and coloured and perfected from the East. The history of architecture is nothing but the tracing of the various modes and directions of this derivation.”

—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.


After an elbow-to-elbow tour of the small show and a bit of yellowed mozzarella and wilted lettuce in the teeming cafeteria, three hours later I emerge into St. Mark’s Square. The rain has stopped. With the reprieve from the wet grimness of the morning, a charge of excitement pulses through the crowd outside, a jumped up beat, verging on hysteria. And I see that many of the hooting visitors are stripping themselves of their shoes. Because now the square is filling with the sea.



St. Mark’s lion and St. Theodore atop columns in the Piazzetta — “Whether St. Mark was first bishop of Aquileia or not, St. Theodore was the first patron of the city; nor can he yet be considered as having entirely abdicated his early right as his statue, standing on a crocodile, still companions the winged lion on the opposing pillar of the piazzetta.”

—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.



Wind whips water over the embankment fronting the lagoon. Water bubbles up from holes in paving stones. I dodge the deepening rivulets, looking for higher ground while people around me dance and splash in the greening stuff that smells like rotting mackerel.

It starts to rain again. On the raised platform of the Library, under the loggia there, I find refuge from the flood. Protected by the arcade that’s higher than the level of the water, I skirt around one side of the square marveling at the show of people prancing through the water. And when I’ve had my fill, an hour later, I decide to catch that vaporetto I’d missed in the morning. I’ll go back to my original plan and take photos of palazzi along the Grand Canal. But there’s no way off the Library’s plinth. It has turned into an island. Rising water maroons me.



View with the Pillars of the Piazzetta — “The two magnificent blocks of marble … [that] form one of the principal ornaments of the Piazzetta, are Greek sculpture of the sixth century.”

—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.



A shopkeeper in a fancy jewelry store says the water will still keep rising. “Forecasts vary,” she says, “but we could get another 10 or 20 centimeters.” I can’t tell if she’s serious. She tells me to take my shoes off, roll up my pants and brave it. “This is nothing. In November the water rose to my waist,” she says, scoffing. “Bidet level,” she adds, batting her waist with her palm.

But I don’t want to wade through stinky deluge even if it is only ankle-deep. The water’s cold too. I’m cold. I want my boots. Why didn’t I wear my boots?


“Where can I buy some cheap rain boots?” I ask.

“I told you,” she says, rolling her eyes. “We’re cut off. Cheap boots are at the Rialto. And the way to the Rialto is flooded.”



Florian’s café — “I sat in front of Florian’s café, eating ices, listening to music…. The traveler will remember how the immense cluster of tables and chairs stretches like a promontory …. The whole place … under the stars and with all the lamps, all the voices and light footsteps on marble … is like an open-air saloon.”

— Henry James, Italian Hours.



I wander away, wondering what I should do. At Florian’s—where James and Hemingway and who knows who else once sat—I pause to listen to a quartet under a white canopy play the Titanic theme song. The bandleader has a sense of humor. I linger, reading the menu but nix a warming cup of cappuccino (over $10) as too expensive. Traipsing on, I watch people wade through water that is now over their ankles. The shopkeeper was right. The water’s still coming in. I’ll never get off my island unless I take my shoes off.


But then I overhear a couple in new blue boots telling another couple with plastic bags tied around their feet that a boot sellers is a stone’s throw away. “Round the square,” they say, “cut through that glass shop at the end of the arcade. Go out the back door,” they say. “The alley beyond was still dry moments ago.” They stick their feet out so that their boots can be admired. “Only 12 Euros each.”

Having listened to their directions, I dash off—ahead of the bag-clad duo.


I find the glass shop. The owner frowns as I cut through to the back door and out into the alley behind. The alley’s puddling, but still traversable. It flanks a canal. In the canal water is rising. And in the canal there’s a gondola jam—gondoliers clog a passage under a bridge racing to bring tourists and boats back in. But they must lean and tilt their craft: 40 degrees, 50 degrees, 60 degrees. They risk spilling occupants and belongings. Tourists on board scream with glee, as if they are at a museum-cum-amusement park, which, as James noted over 100 years ago, they are. And I suddenly realize that for most of the day most of the gondolas have stayed lashed at their moorings; only the audacious have been out and about.

Leaving the stream of paddling boatmen, rounding the corner, I find the store with blue boots in the window. The price has gone up to 16 Euros. I stand in line, and, when it’s my turn I pay the extra without complaint. I’m just glad they have my size.

Newly booted, I splash to the embarcadero where I wait for my vaporetto. When the boat comes, I check my watch. It’s almost 7 pm. The hours have slipped by too fast. I’ll have time for just a one-way ride down the Grand Canal and a few shots of some of the palaces and churches I set out early this morning to admire.

The Grand Canal


The Grand Canal – “The noble waterway that begins in its glory at the Salute and ends in its abasement at the railway station.”

—Henry James, Italian Hours.


I sink into a wet seat—it’s sprinkling. I think how this day’s touring of the city has been different from others I’ve spent. Drenched in Venice by Venice.  Inundated. With James and Ruskin for company.

The boat groans forward. Foam flies over the bow. We leave Santa Maria della Salute behind and wind our way down the Grand Canal. Beautiful old palaces rise up, their lacy windows turning luminous with evening lights. Venice always inundates I think as we surge past. One way or another.



Palazzo Pisani Moretta — “[the] capitals of the first-floor windows are … singularly spirited and graceful, very daringly undercut, and worth careful examination….”

—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.




Palazzo Contarini delle Figure — “I must warn [the traveler] to observe most carefully the peculiar feebleness and want of soul in the conception of their ornament which mark them as belonging to a period of decline….”

—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.


I spy a Renaissance building with fanciful decoration coming up–the Palazzo Contarini delle Figure.  I hoist my camera and click.


I would endeavour to trace the lines of this image before it be for ever lost, and to record as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat, like passing bells, against the stones of Venice.

— John Ruskin, Stones of Venice

There is nothing new to be said 
about Venice certainly [.…]  I write these lines with the full consciousness of having 
no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten 
the reader; I pretend only to give a fillip to his memory [of Venice]; and I
 hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love 
with his theme.”  

Henry James, Italian Hours.


—Natalia Sarkissian


Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy and the United States.

Accademia bridge




Jun 022013

Robin Oliveria 

Herewith a cogent, revelatory, insightful essay on the inner complexities of novel construction, to be precise, the often ignored (unthought, unimagined) techniques of character gradation and grouping. Don’t scratch your heads and ask what character gradation is. It never fails to amaze me how few people who want to be writers have the vaguest idea of how a novel is put together. Plot and subplot, for example. How are they related, how is the subplot introduced through the text? Too many proto-novelists naively assume that a novel is just a 300-page story (um, without having thought much about what a story is either). Character gradation and grouping is related to subplotting; it’s a technique for deploying other characters (plots) as devices that reflect the concerns and themes of the main plot characters. It’s a form that helps the novelist invent content and also create a consistence and cohesive thematic whole. It is an old technique (though few readers actually notice it).

Robin Oliveira has thought long and hard about the structure of novels. She is a former student of mine, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine  Arts, who rocketed into the ranks of published novelists with her well-received Civil War novel My Name is Mary Sutter. Her second novel, based on the painters Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, is due out with Viking next year. She has contributed to Numéro Cinq from the outset. And it is always wonderful to have her back.



For the most part characterization in novels has not been discussed in terms of coherence, that is, in the scientific meaning of the word as the intermolecular attraction that holds molecules and masses together.  Coherence is important because a novelist must corral the differing, wayward elements of a novel into a whole, making associations and connections between characters and events.  An efficient way to do this is through character gradation and grouping.

Character gradation is a cousin of the tried and true literary device of comparing and contrasting characters, but it is more than that.  In his book The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover explains that parallel and contrasting characters do not just share traits, but that “traits are varied, diminished or intensified from one character to another, that is, they are graded.”[1] I like to think of gradation as a spectrum, with the full shade of a trait, from fully realized to fully opposed, deliberately manifested in the population of a novel.  This spectrum is crafted by the careful writer in order to flesh out the themes and story question presented.  Grading ensures that the novel’s central issues reappear again and again in a number of guises.  In essence, grading does the difficult work of achieving the coherence necessary to reinforce the meaning of the book.  In addition, groupings and cross-groupings have a kind of cascading effect that helps to build momentum.  As Glover explains, “The effect of character grouping and gradation is…to create a thematic and structural cohesiveness, a critical intensity of focus which prevents the long story (with all those extra characters) from sprawling and dissipating its energy.”[2] These gradations cause echoes, reminding the reader of how the characters are connected and also what they have at stake, what emotional issue is tantamount, and ultimately what the story is about.

Character gradation is the child of echoing and repetition, which E.K. Brown discusses in his book, Rhythm in the Novel.  In his first chapter, “Phrase, Character and Incident,” he comes to the conclusion that repetition, combined with variation of action or character trait or even phrasing, establishes the “rhythmic process, the combination of the repeated and the variable with the repeated as the ruling factor.”[3]In his discussion of James and Thackeray, he makes another point, which is that “flexibility” and the use of “antithesis” “irradiates the characters.”[4]   Therefore, variation of character traits combined with alternating groupings of characters achieves a sense of connectedness that is a powerful tool when devising a novel’s population.  This coherence not only solidifies theme, as Glover says, but these variations and repetitions graded on a spectrum amplify the story, which gives the novel vibrancy and the sense of a larger world.

With these principles in mind, I begin my discussion of gradation and cohesion as manifested in novels by Jane Austen, Anne Tyler and Mark Haddon with assertions fundamental to my thinking on characterization.  They are: that a novel is a story about people, and people act in such a way as to secure that which they desire.  They desire something because of who they are, where they have been, who they love, of what they have been deprived, what they perceive they need, and what they do not consciously understand about themselves (though the author does, or will come to, as the characters develop).  That a novel by design is a cohesive entity.  That nothing is inserted into a novel by accident.  That each element of the story serves the larger whole.  That a novel or story is built, brick by brick, rather than spilled onto the page, and each brick is the result of who the characters are and what they want; their desire dictates plot.

With these assertions in mind, I will argue that in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, character gradation is a fundamental and indispensable tool.

pride2In Pride and Prejudice, Austen populates her novel about the Bennet family daughters’ romantic fortunes with neighbors, family friends and extended family.  But it is how she characterizes them that gives the novel its cohesive feel of being about one thing.  The story revolves around the question that if one wishes to marry for love, as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet do, how does one choose a marriage partner when faced with class and financial obstacles?

The principal characters in this story are the two eldest daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Jane and Elizabeth, and the two men with whom they will fall in love, Mr. Bingley and his friend Mr. Darcy.  Again, if we think of gradation as a spectrum, diminished to heightened, or opposite to opposite, we see how Austen crafted her principal characters.  Notice how alike Jane and Bingley are, and how singular Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are; how opposite Jane and Elizabeth are, how dissimilar the two male friends are.  Elizabeth is lively, playful, witty and can easily see peoples’ base motivations, though she fails to perceive, at first, Mr. Wickham’s base character.  She is a more vibrant character than Jane, who is sweet, kind, never finds fault in anyone, and would never ascribe dishonorable reasons for anyone’s actions.  Mr. Bingley, who will eventually marry Jane, is described in terms similar to Jane: he is gentlemanlike with a pleasant countenance and excellent manners.  Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth’s opponent and future husband, is deemed by all to be proud, class-conscious and disdainful of those beneath him; different from Bingley, but like the vivacious, independent-thinking Elizabeth in that both share the trait of pride, causing them each to prejudge the other, resulting in dual, unfavorable impressions that are not easily unseated.

Austen uses these principal characters’ gradations to craft a spectrum of attitudes toward the story question.  She employs this method by setting off Bingley and Darcy as opposites, though they are also grouped as friends.  This opposition is interesting, since they are not opponents in this story.  They are parallels.  Bingley’s courtship of Jane runs a very close second plot to the Darcy/Elizabeth romance.  But from the beginning, Austen writes:  “Between him and Darcy was a very steady friendship, in spite of a great opposition of character.”[5] They act out this opposition of character in a variety of ways:  Darcy refuses to dance at a party where Bingley dances every dance; Bingley falls in love with Jane immediately despite her poor family connections while Darcy must overcome his pride; Bingley yields to his friends’ and sisters’ opinions, while Darcy defies them.

Jane and Elizabeth are at odds as well, though they are grouped as sisters.  Jane quickly falls in love with Bingley, while Elizabeth initially despises Mr. Darcy before comprehending his true character and falling into love.  Jane pines away for Bingley in London, accepting her fate, while Elizabeth visits Darcy’s home, Pemberley, accepts dinner invitations from him, and fights his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, even when Elizabeth has no evidence that Darcy is in love with her.  These articulate variations are a type of repetition.  Both the sisters are in love, they are in love with two friends, yet their personalities and actions are dissimilar.  Furthermore, Austen groups each pair of lovers.  Jane and Bingley are parallels.  As Mr. Bennet says to Jane, “Your tempers are by no means unlike.  You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved upon; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income.”[6] Elizabeth and Darcy, however, remain in opposition, and everyone is amazed when they are engaged—sisters, father, mother, friends, relations.  But the careful reader knows that they acted in the same way, just as Jane and Bingley did: they each disliked the other at first.  This variation of action and intention in groups has a wonderful, dynamic effect on the novel as the reader experiences all the permutations of love and desire.

How does this pair of lovers feel about marrying despite class and financial obstacles, the story question at hand?  Again, they are graded.  Jane and Bingley provide the calm backwater to the more tempestuous love affair between Darcy and Elizabeth. For Bingley and Jane there is no obstacle.  Jane wishes to marry for love, falls in love and remains true despite the class and financial obstacles in her path.  Bingley perceives neither class nor financial obstacles, and is only persuaded not to marry Jane because his sisters and Darcy, who are very conscious of the issue, persuade him that Jane is not in love with him.  Elizabeth and Darcy, however, confront the issue and each other.  When Darcy proposes the first time, and Elizabeth wisely but pridefully turns him down, Darcy verbalizes the class and financial differences between them, saying he is proposing in spite of them.

Reinforcing the central question of how to choose whom to marry, Austen presents a series of couples to echo the two main couples.  Elizabeth’s dear friend Charlotte Lucas, who eventually marries Mr. Collins—Elizabeth’s second cousin who proposes first to Elizabeth and then, when refused, applies to the acquiescent Charlotte—is drawn in opposition to Elizabeth by a differing perspective on marriage.  Charlotte believes that “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance…It is better to know as little of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”  Elizabeth counters, “It is not sound.  You know it is not sound, and that you would never act this way yourself.”[7] But Elizabeth is wrong.  Charlotte will and does act exactly in this way, marrying Mr. Collins, a man invariably described as absurd, conceited and obsequious.  This direct opposition of Charlotte to Elizabeth, though they are friends, serves to dramatize the story conflict and further illuminates Elizabeth’s desire to marry for affection, not money or class associations.  Were Charlotte merely a friend who did not wish to marry, she would have no parallel plot, and Charlotte as a character would neither resonate nor reflect on the story question.  But she is constructed in such a way that she serves as an antithesis to Elizabeth’s desire to marry for love, then enters into a marriage that will serve as the antithesis to her marriage to Mr. Darcy, all the while being grouped with Elizabeth as a dear friend.

Furthermore, Austen inversely mirrors the Charlotte/Mr. Collins marriage to the coupling of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.  In the elder Bennet marriage, it is Mrs. Bennet who is universally considered absurd, and Mr. Bennet the man who chose poorly.  Mr. Bennet, however, upon learning that Collins and Charlotte were about to be married, thinks “Charlotte Lucas, whom he had been used to think tolerably sensible, was as foolish as his wife….”[8] But while Mr. Bennet believes himself to be sensible, he is as foolish as Charlotte, a sober person marrying for the wrong reasons.  Elizabeth contemplates her parents’ marriage thusly: “Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.  Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever.”[9] So, ultimately, Mr. Bennet was the foolish one, not his wife.  This question of who exactly is the foolish one again reinforces the story question of how to choose a desirable marriage partner.  This inverse mirror reinforces the theme and aspiration of both Jane and Elizabeth that choosing well in marriage will provide the only possibility of future happiness, and fattens the peoplescape, or population, of Austen’s novel.

Yet another iteration of a poor coupling is that of Lydia, Elizabeth’s youngest sister, with the officer George Wickham, a dissipated fortune hunter who preyed first on the young Miss Darcy, the very minor character Miss King, and finally Lydia, who was deluded and silly enough to behave without any deliberation, on the basis of flirtation alone.  Lydia’s actions serve as the brightest opposite to the more sober method of obtaining a husband adopted by both Jane and Elizabeth, and Wickham and Lydia as a couple are the stunning opposites of both Bingley and Jane and Darcy and Elizabeth.

The Gardiners, Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, are yet another couple echoing the main couples, serving as an example of a fine partnership to which Elizabeth and Jane aspire.  They are also relatives.  Darcy has an aunt, too, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  Note the symmetry here, another kind of grouping. But here is where the similarity ends. While the Gardiners are egalitarian and helpful, Lady Catherine is autocratic and obstructive.  Where the Gardiners hope for the union of Darcy and Elizabeth, Lady Catherine campaigns against it.  Where the Gardiners cooperate in helping Darcy mend the miserable connection of Wickham and Lydia, thereby tacitly agreeing to a union between the two families, Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth to sunder the possibility of her marriage to Darcy and to decry the poor family connections that Darcy also once disdained.  At the close of the novel, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are grouped with the Darcys as representative of the happiest of couples, as well as Jane and Bingley.

These couples populate the novel as echoes of the main characters, providing numerous contrasts to the way Jane and Elizabeth are going about their romantic affairs, showcasing imprudence and resignation (Charlotte) and foolishness (her mother and Lydia) in order to highlight Jane’s and Elizabeth’s more prudent approaches.  Their stories of course are subplots, but they are subplots because of how they mirror and magnify the main characters’ plots, and they mirror and magnify those plots because their desires and character traits are grades of the main characters and their conflict.  These multiplications not only populate the novel but also give it coherence, imparting that sense of a whole world with teeming inner connections.

Austen also groups individual characters.  Elizabeth’s three younger sisters are all shades of Mrs. Bennet.  Austen echoes Mrs. Bennet’s character in the headstrong, silly Lydia.  Lydia is a younger variation of Mrs. Bennet, who also once loved a redcoat: “I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well—and indeed so I do still at my heart; and if a smart young colonel, with five or six thousand a year, should want one of my girls, I shall not say nay to him.”[10] When the regiment leaves Meryton and Lydia is pining for the loss of the officers’ society, Mrs. Bennet says, “I cried for two days together when Colonel Millar’s regiment went away.  I thought I should have broke my heart.”[11]

Kitty is first grouped with Lydia—considered by their father to be “two of the silliest girls in the country.”[12] —but toward the end of the novel, when she is “removed from the influence of Lydia’s example, she became, by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant and less insipid.”[13]

Mrs. Bennet has lesser echoes in her sister Mrs. Phillips, whose behavior is likewise “vulgar”[14], and in Lady Lucas, who echoes Mrs. Bennet in her singular desire that her daughter Charlotte be married, no matter what the cost.

The other sister, Mary, is a minor echo of Mr. Collins and, though it is never directly stated, is the obvious marriage partner choice for her double.  She sounds like Mr. Collins when she speaks: “ [Lydia’s elopement] is a most unfortunate affair; and will probably be much talked of.  But we must stem the tide of malice…loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin….”[15] He stupidly ignores her, underpinning the theme that most people make foolish marriage choices.

I think it is important to note that the techniques of grouping need not be as obvious as those previously discussed.  Notice that Austen makes Mary seem the best choice for Mr. Collins only by inference.  Mary’s opinions are his opinions; when she speaks, she mimics his self-righteousness.  Never are the two described as being alike, yet every reader knows that Mr. Collins should have chosen Mary, an association achieved merely by this more subtle method of grouping.

Elizabeth’s suitors are also graded.  Mr. Collins appears at first to be primary on the least desirable.  However, Mr. Wickham, at first grouped with Bingley in appearing to be the best choice for Elizabeth, is revealed instead to be the worst when Darcy reveals Wickham’s attempted elopement with his younger, vulnerable sister.  And when Wickham instead succeeds in eloping with Lydia and extorting a fortune from Darcy, Mr. Bennet has this to say of him:  “He is as fine a fellow…as ever I saw.  He simpers, and smirks and makes love to us all.  I am prodigiously proud of him.  I defy even Sir William Lucas himself, to produce a more valuable son-in-law.”[16] This reevaluation regroups Mr. Wickham at Mr. Collins’ end of the spectrum.  A fainter echo is Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is presented and grouped with Mr. Bingley as a better alternative to the proud, disagreeable Darcy.  In Charlotte’s mind, Fitzwilliam was “beyond comparison the pleasantest man,”[17] but in the end, he remains nothing but a faint echo of Mr. Bingley and yet another contrast to the incomparable Darcy.

The lesser characters of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst serve as opposites to Elizabeth.  Miss Bingley wishes to marry Darcy and goes about it all the wrong way, using teasing and jealousy in an attempt to alter his emerging affection for Elizabeth.  Mrs. Hurst is an echo of her sister, and her marriage to the frequently drunken Mr. Hurst echoes the ill-advised marriages of other couples in the novel.

In summary, in Pride and Prejudice, grouping and regrouping of the characters magnifies the theme of the novel and coheres the whole.

dinnerDinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler,is the multi-generational story of the Tull family: Pearl, the matriarch, her husband Beck and their three children, Cody, Ezra and Jenny.  Like Austen, Tyler uses character gradation to enhance, emphasize and reinforce her novel’s essential question, which is: Can a family, divided by a history of pain, come together?  Like Pride and Prejudice, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is populated by family members, their spouses and friends.  But Tyler’s novel employs a more interior POV and hence the characterization is less firm.  The reader’s view of the characters in Dinner shifts as the characters regard themselves and each other at different points in their lives.  Memories are unreliable, conflicting; assessments change, not in the way that Elizabeth’s opinion of Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy changes, but in a more complex, unstable way.  Therefore, the characters can be viewed only in their shifting relations to one another.  But this shifting characterization still provides its own kind of cohesiveness, because the shifting groupings further link each of the characters one to the other.  In effect, Tyler has taken this technique to its most articulate expression, further enhancing her story of this unstable, troubled family. It is important to note that Tyler tells the story in third person, shifting from one character’s view point to another as the novel progresses, a perfect approach in this instance since Dinner is the story of a broken family. Still, Tyler’s employment of character gradation works in much the same way that Austen’s does.  The foundational principle is the same: repetition and variation of character traits in order to group the characters to reinforce theme and story.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant begins with Pearl’s story.  The matriarch is on her deathbed, having willed herself to die by deliberately catching pneumonia through self-induced immobility.  Intermittently conscious, she reviews her life: her relationship with the husband who deserted her, and her life with their three children, Ezra, Cody and Jenny.  We learn that Pearl experienced moments of explosive anger, that she was never very happily married, that she considered herself unreliable, at times, as a mother.  She wonders why her children did not find themselves a substitute mother: “You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say.”[18] Before she dies, she instructs Ezra to call everyone in her address book, knowing full well that the only one left alive is Beck, the absent husband.  It is this dual wish/act—dying and having Ezra call her estranged husband—that will ultimately unite this sundered family.

The characters in this novel shift associations as in a kaleidoscope of literary Venn diagrams, in which character traits and associations are grouped and regrouped again and again.  The shifting and regrouping, both of desire to reunite and the characters’ assessments of one another, are so fluid that they are difficult to outline.  As in Pride and Prejudice, the groupings in this novel are based on desire.  In this case, the groups shift on the basis of whether or not reunion is desirable.  In the first grouping, Pearl and Ezra want the same thing, for the family to be reunited.  Pearl wants the family to be together so much that she does not tell the children that their father has left, and pretends to them and the neighborhood that someday Beck will return.  Ezra spends the novel trying to unite the family over meals, adopting the traditional mother role and thereby becoming the substitute that Pearl insists her children need.  He is also grouped with her by both her and his siblings.  We’re told that “Ezra was her favorite, her pet…The entire family knew it. ”[19] And Pearl thinks Ezra will stay with her, “the two of them bumping down the driveway, loyal and responsible, together forever.”[20]

But the novel’s Venn diagrams constantly shift as the characters make associations with the other characters.  At various times, Ezra is grouped with Luke, (Cody’s son) and Ruth, the woman Cody will steal from Ezra.  However, as soon as Cody marries Ruth, his regard for her, and therefore the way he associates her, changes.  Where once he grouped her with Ezra, he now groups her with his mother, using the same description he used to describe Pearl.  Later, Cody reassociates Ruth with Ezra because she, too, tries to feed him.  But just after Cody steals Ruth from Ezra and marries her, he encounters an old girlfriend whom he had dropped because he thought she preferred Ezra instead of him.  As soon as she relates that she had always considered Ezra “a motherly man,” Cody develops an heretofore unheard-of affinity for Ezra because “she really hadn’t understood Ezra; she hadn’t appreciated what he was all about.”[21] You see the cascade effect here, the kaleidoscope.  One character is grouped to another, is grouped to another, then is regrouped again.  These subtle cascading impressions link Cody to Ezra, enhancing in the end the plausibility of this damaged family being able to reunite.  Gradation, therefore, serves to cohere and reinforce the story question.

Pearl is grouped with others beside Ezra and Ruth.  Pearl and her daughter Jenny are both characterized as tidy, though later Jenny will abandon that trait when she becomes a substitute mother to her third husband’s brood of children, whose mother abandoned them, an act which creates two more groupings: one of abandoned children and another of parents who abandoned their families.  To further reinforce the theme, Becky becomes a substitute mother to all of Joe’s children, a split off from Pearl thinking they all should have found a substitute.  Also, Jenny leaves her first husband Harley and never tells the family, just as her mother did when Beck left.  And Jenny loses her temper with her daughter just as Pearl did with her: “’No,’ said Becky, and Jenny hauled off and slapped her hand across the mouth, then shook her till her head lolled, then flung her aside and ran out of the apartment…All of her childhood returned to her: her mother’s blows and slaps and curses, her mother’s pointed fingernails digging into Jenny’s arm, her mother shrieking, ‘Guttersnipe!  Ugly little rodent!'”[22] In another cascade, Jenny’s daughter Becky later develops anorexia, as Jenny had as a child—Jenny was once referred to as looking as if she had come from Auschwitz.  And to further illustrate how complex the groupings are, in an even more convoluted reflection, Jenny thinks Cody perceives that everything she says “carries the echo of their mother.”[23]

The men, too, are linked in this cascading fashion.  Previously, we observed the cascade from Ezra to Luke and Ezra to Ruth.  Tyler groups Cody with Beck—the father he could never please—in that he takes a traveling job like his father and ends up living the life he lived as a child, unconnected to his neighborhood.  Unlike his father, however, Cody takes his family with him wherever he goes, echoing Ezra’s desire that the larger family be reunited.  Note here the subtle method of grouping by action.  While Darcy and Bingley acted in opposite ways, Cody and Beck act alike.  Yet Cody would never be able to consciously admit that he is anything like his father.  Indeed, he prides himself on being the exact opposite.  But he is the same.  While Ezra takes on motherly qualities, Cody takes on paternal characteristics.  It is a way for the reader to see the grouping without the character ever being aware of it; indeed, if Cody ever admitted to being like his father, I am not certain he could survive the psychological blow.  Toward the end, when Ezra has invited Beck to the restaurant for the funeral meal just as Pearl wanted and Beck, feeling out of place, leaves, it is Cody who ultimately finds his father and, more importantly perhaps, recognizes his son in his father: “There was Luke, as if conjured up, sitting for some reason on the stoop of a boarded-over building.  Cody started toward him, walking fast.  Luke heard his footsteps and raised his head as Cody arrived.  But it wasn’t Luke.  It was Beck.  His silver hair appeared yellow in the sunlight, and he had taken off his suit coat to expose his white shirt and his sharp, cocked shoulders so oddly like Luke’s.”[24] This grouping has, again, the effect of delineating the associations between characters and answering the story question of whether or not a family can reunite after pain.  And the answer is, Yes.  Cody, the one who feels most responsible for the breakup of the family, the one who develops the paternal qualities, the one who thinks, “Was it something I said?  Was it something I did?  Was it something I didn’t do, that made [Beck] go away?,”[25]and the one regarded by his mother as “Always cheating, tormenting, causing trouble…”[26] is the one who ultimately invites Beck back into the family circle.

Other characters’ situations reflect and comment on the Tull family situation.  Echoing the abandoned children plot are Joe’s children, most specifically embodied in Slevin: Slevin is Jenny’s stepson, whose mother walked out on them, an inversion of Jenny’s history.  Mrs. Scarlatti is portrayed as Ezra’s substitute mother because she is also husbandless and had a deceased son who was a soldier, as Ezra is about to become at one point.  She also acts as Ezra’s mother, calls him her dear boy, and upon her death leaves him her restaurant, supporting his dreams in a way that Pearl could not.  And Ezra attends Mrs. Scarlatti in the hospital (as he will later tend his mother on her deathbed).  Mrs. Payson is also presented as a surrogate: “[Ezra] has been like a son to me.”[27] In a further iteration of the substitute mother idea, Ezra replaces the waiters in the restaurant with “cheery, motherly waitresses.”[28]

These connections, Venn Diagrams, and shifting groupings have the effect of, again, “reinforcing theme,” as Glover saysThese groupings are wrapped up with desire: Ezra wants the family to stay together, as does Cody, as does Jenny, as does Pearl.  Tyler sets her characters to act as one whole as they stumble about trying to achieve this.  Again, it is character associations and gradation that accomplish the task of coherence most successfully.

curiousWe even find this device of character gradation in Mark Haddon’s book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which would at first seem impossible, because this story is narrated by an autistic, savant teenager, whose disability is distinguished in part by an inability to discern character.  To illustrate how deep a challenge the use of gradation is in this instance, when Christopher, the narrator, describes his two teachers, he writes, “Siobhan has long blond hair and wears glasses which are made of green plastic.  And Mr. Jeavons smells of soap and wears brown shoes that have approximately 60 tiny circular holes in each of them.”[29] This characterization is not even characterization.  It is merely a description, telling us nothing of who these people are.  As Christopher tells us at the beginning of the narrative, he cannot read any other emotion than happy or sad, that all others are far too complex, lead to confusion and cause him to resort to screaming and groaning as coping methods, or to retreat by going outside at night to pretend that he is the only one in the world.  Therefore, it would seem impossible that character gradation could be used as a literary device to convey theme and enhance cohesion in this novel.  But character gradation is nonetheless a significant element in the book and Haddon uses it seamlessly, without ever unraveling the autistic cocoon.  Haddon employs this device to answer the story question in this novel, just as Austen and Tyler did.   The story question in this case at first appears to be Who killed Wellington?, the neighbor’s dog, but percolating underneath is the question of which even the narrator is unaware, though the reader is made aware of it immediately.  It is the question of whether or not Christopher is going to survive emotionally in a world in which he is handicapped.

Because Christopher’s disability prevents him from being able to speculate about the other characters’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, Haddon must resort to subtler ways of grading and grouping characters.  Though Christopher is unable to grade himself, he can, however, grade himself against someone who is not a fully developed, three-dimensional character.  Throughout the book, Christopher compares himself to Sherlock Holmes, a two-dimensional character in another story in which a dog gets killed, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

He says,

I also like the Hound of the Baskervilles because I like Sherlock Holmes and I think that if I were a proper detective he is the kind of detective I would be.  He is very intelligent and he solves mysteries and he says

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

But he notices them, like I do.  And it says in the book

Sherlock Holmes had, in a very remarkable degree, the power of detaching his mind at will.

And this is like me, too, because if I get really interested in something, like practicing maths, or reading a book about the Apollo missions or great white sharks, I don’t notice anything else.[30]

Christopher not only compares himself to Sherlock Holmes, he compares the act of writing his book to Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery:

Also Doctor Watson says about Sherlock Holmes

His mind…was busy in endeavouring to frame some scheme into which all these strange and apparently disconnected episodes could be fitted.

And that is what I am trying to do by writing this book.[31]

He can also grade himself in relation to characters he himself imagines.  He fantasizes about the kind of people he wishes populated the world.  In his dream, “there is no one left in the world except people who don’t look at other people’s faces and don’t know what these pictures mean [in the text there is an illustration of complex facial patterns indicating shades of emotion] and these are all special people like me.  And they like being on their own and I hardly ever see them because they are like okapi in the jungle in the Congo, which are a kind of antelope and very shy and rare.”[32] Christopher is saying that he is special like these imagined people and that they are shy and rare.  It is an indirect way for Christopher to state that he is shy and rare.  It is the most intimate thing he will say about himself, but he expresses it in a dream.

When it comes to real people, not literary characters, Christopher ungroups himself.  He is never like anyone else.  For instance, he might be going to school at a Special Needs school, but he is unlike any of the other students.  “All the other children at my school are stupid.”[33] But while Christopher doesn’t grade or group characters, Haddon does, and he does this by making us aware of parallels and contrasts Christopher is not aware of.  For example, at another point in the book, Christopher says that he does do stupid things: “Stupid things are things like emptying a jar of peanut butter onto the table in the kitchen and making it level with a knife so it covers all the table right to the edges, or burning things on the gas stove to see what happened to them, like my shoes or silver foil or sugar.”[34] Here, Christopher is unaware of himself, but Haddon deftly uses this list to group Christopher with the classmates he scorns and to convey how Christopher is seen not only by society, but by his parents, too.  Christopher knows he is not stupid, because he plans to sit for “A Level maths” and pass them, yet society regards him as stupid.  He may not be willing to make the association himself, though he does without fully expressing it—he says, “I’m going to prove I’m not stupid”[35]—yet Haddon groups Christopher with his Special Needs classmates to make us reflect on the essential question of whether or not Christopher will survive in a society which regards him as incapable and odd.  Haddon also groups Christopher with other characters in the book.  Christopher says he is different from others because “the pictures in my head are all pictures of things which really happened.  But other people have pictures in their heads of things which are real and didn’t happen….”[36]

But as Christopher’s dream about the okapi-like people suggests, Haddon is grouping Christopher with those Christopher is ungrouping himself from.  This is most clear when Christopher reports, as an example of how “others” think, a fantasy very like his own: “And Siobhan once said that when she felt depressed or sad she would close her eyes and she would imagine that she was staying in a house on Cape Cod with her friend Elly, and they would take a trip on a boat from Provincetown and go out into the bay to watch the humpback whales and that made her feel calm and peaceful and happy….”[37]

Through these fantasies, both of which involve rarely seen animals, Haddon subtly groups Siobhan with Christopher.  This grouping reinforces the story question yet again, because one of the reasons Christopher begins to come out of his autism is that Siobhan encourages him to investigate the death of Wellington, an investigation that forces him at first only minimally out of his shell—talking to the neighbors—but ultimately leads him to the previously impossible solitary train trip to London to find his mother.  By encouraging him to investigate and write the book we are reading, Siobhan enables Christopher to believe in the end that he can move away to a university in another town.  She has helped him to survive.  They are a team.  Siobhan and Christopher act in the same way, dream the same things, work toward the similar goal of solving both the small mystery of the death of Wellington and the larger mystery of his survival.

All of these groupings are indirect—implied rather than stated—but there is one direct instance of grouping in the novel, that of Christopher and his father.  But Christopher does not make this connection, his father does.  When Christopher is unable to control other people, when they cross the bubble of his self-protection, he becomes angry and hits.  He hits a policeman, he hits his father, he hits a girl at school.  When his father is revealed as the murderer of Wellington, and the two get into a fight, his father says: “But, shit, Christopher, when that red mist comes down…Christ, you know how it is.  I mean, we’re not that different, me and you.”[38] Not only does this passage reveal that his father and Christopher are alike, it reinforces the subtler meaning that although Christopher is shy and rare, he is not as unlike others as he thinks he might be.

Through Christopher’s efforts to place himself in the world by comparing himself first to the two-dimensional Sherlock Holmes and then to okapi, the reader understands that Christopher will always be isolated; however, we also believe that Christopher will survive because in the end he is able to face the future and make plans and hope: “And then I will get a First Class honors degree and I will become a scientist.  And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”[39] There is a tension in the novel between what Christopher understands about himself—that he is different and always will be—and the possibility of being able to make his way in the world.  At the beginning, we fear he will be unable to.  But by the end, the possibility exists that he will have a bright future.  This change in Christopher and in our attitude toward his future is because of the shifting and grouping of characters.

Therefore, even in a novel narrated by an autistic savant, character gradation exists,not as densely, perhaps, as in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Pride and Prejudice, but in all three of these novels, grouping and gradation serve to cohere the theme and answer the story question.

To what end, all this?  What does it matter if a character is grouped, graded or opposed?  Just this: in our daily lives we meet people randomly.  The important and the unimportant pop in and out, at important and unimportant times.  We begin our days with the letter carrier or the clerk at the grocery store, or our spouses after a quarrel or our teenagers sullen over some unrevealed irritation (as teenagers have).  Our daily lives have only the cohesion we assign it.  But whereas we have little or no control over the people in our lives, a novelist has all the control over all the lives in a novel, and this constitutes an obligation to the reader that the world in which she immerses herself will be one of cohesion and import; that the author will not introduce characters willy-nilly; that the author will have something to say, a story to tell, and that the fictional world will be contrived in such a way that it will make sense of the story dilemma presented.

Novelists promise the reader something that real life rarely yields: the illusion that a reader can make sense of her own life.  And an effective tool for accomplishing this magic trick is by constructing subtle associations and connections between characters that reinforce meaning and intent, that help solve the characters’ problems, that yields light on the confusion and tumult of everyday life and helps the reader understand what drives mankind to weep, love, adore, disdain, despair, abandon and sometimes yield to the hope that life matters in some shimmering way.  But a writer cannot achieve this mystical, ephemeral thing without precise craft.  I submit that character grouping and gradation, as daughters of echo and repetition, underpin our fiction with a sturdy backbone that will achieve the goal not only of illumination, but of coherence.

—Robin Oliveira


Robin Oliveira is the author of My Name is Mary Sutter, winner of the 2007 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction and the 2010 Honorable Mention from the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction. A Registered Nurse, she also holds a B.A. in Russian, and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, Drew, but longs to live in Paris where she recently traveled to do research for her historical novel on Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, just published by VIKING.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Glover, Douglas, The Enamoured Knight (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 2004), 128.
  2. Ibid., 130.
  3. Brown, E.K.,  Rhythm in the Novel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950), 17.
  4. Ibid., 27.
  5. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice   Ed. Donald Gray. 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), 2000. 11-12.
  6. Ibid., 227.
  7. Ibid., 16.
  8. Ibid., 7.
  9. Ibid., 155.
  10. Ibid., 21.
  11. Ibid., 150.
  12. Ibid., 20.
  13. Ibid., 252.
  14. Ibid., 251.
  15. Ibid., 187-188.
  16. Ibid., 214.
  17. Ibid., 120.
  18. Tyler, Anne,  Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant  (New York: Fawcett Books, 1996), 2.
  19. Ibid., 37.
  20. Ibid., 186.
  21. Ibid., 166.
  22. Ibid., 209.
  23. Ibid., 84.
  24. Ibid., 299.
  25. Ibid., 47.
  26. Ibid., 65.
  27. Ibid., 78.
  28. Ibid., 122.
  29. Haddon, Mark,  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time  (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.
  30. Ibid., 73.
  31. Ibid., 73-74.
  32. Ibid., 198-199.
  33. Ibid., 43.
  34. Ibid., 47.
  35. Ibid., 44.
  36. Ibid., 78.
  37. Ibid., 79.
  38. Ibid., 121-122.
  39. Ibid., 221.
Jun 012013


“Love bears the name of our fathers, of their leaving themselves behind,” writes Byrna Barclay in her self-reflection upon this suite of poems upon, yes, her lost father. It’s nearly impossible to go mentally from the sweet photo above — father and daughter in a hammock, a book, the daughter sleeping safely in the cradle of his legs — to the idea that Byrna Barclay never actually knew her father, that he was dead before she was three. Byrna Barclay’s poems are poignant reconstructions of absence, they are like the light from a cosmic event millions of years old, the light filters through the universe but the star is gone.

Byrna Barclay lives in Saskatchewan. She is prolific writer of novels and short stories. She is not exactly an old friend. We shared a car ride from Saskatoon to Regina one summer day in the last century and managed not to keep in touch until Numéro Cinq brought us back into contact. A wonderful thing about the magazine is that it picks up lost threads.

See more work in the NC Fathers Collection here.


It seems to me that every writer has a Robertson Davies’ snowball, a traumatic event in early life after which nothing is ever the same again.  So many spend their writing life avoiding the telling, but that single moment not only informs their work but is the pressure beneath the lines.  It always erupts in imagistic and recurring threads, like dream.  Mine was the death of my father on the day before my third birthday.  That loss punctuates everything I write. 

Sometimes,  in the search for father one must go through the mother to find him.  The absent father.  So shape-changing he disappears at the point of contact.  Yet love bears the name of our fathers, of their leaving themselves behind.

—Byrna Barclay


From the Land of the Dead

I once knew a poet who took three naps a day
then wrote poems about his dreams.  Mine
are wild these nights, with flying
red tea-table chairs from my childhood,
empty closets, bookshelves bereft
of my father’s unfinished stories.

When I wake up I feel as if I’ve been held
by someone who didn’t appear in the dream.
How did that old song go?  Darn that dream.
I can still hear the sugar-sprinkled-on-cream-
of-wheat voice, but can’t recall the singer’s name.
I remember stories but forget the authors,
how between Great Wars a plum burst
in a poet’s mouth.

Tonight my mother takes my children
to the merry-go-round-man
I once wanted her to marry
so I could have all the rides she couldn’t afford.
Too much money spent on story-books treasured
in the linen closet.  I read my self to sleep.  At school

I made up the story.  The King of the Dead Sea
looked like my father & rode a seahorse out of clouds,
twirling a seaweed rope that turned into a ladder
to save trapped in the turret of the castle school
a pigtailed child who looked too much like me.

From the land of the dead my mother
lugs home my teacher father’s scarred desk,
his steamer trunk full of Dime novels,
his portable Royal typewriter, its red ribbon
shredded, even his ink blotter.  A feather pen.
She puts them in all the wrong places.

She brings me his manuscripts:
a radio play, a textbook on how to teach
Drama.  A story about Riel.  Rebellion.  His last
memory about his home in India: Ivory hunters
& elephants long walks, their struggle to die
in ancestral graveyards.

With indelible ink he signed his name.  Letters
squirm like unfolding larva, leap
to a height undreamed of by a moth,
final landing soft.  In my palm:
proof that my father lived, his ivory voice
no longer lost
among elephant bones.


Always, Father

More than I wanted the big kids
to boost me up to the window
so I could kiss Dougie
just back from the sanitorium
I wanted his sloe-eyed father
just back from the War
to marry my widowed mother
so she would stop her nightly fall
down a bottomless well.  Stop
screeching about boys spreading germs.
She made a doctor take pictures of sacs
in my chest the same way
Dougie’s shoe-salesman father
let me see how the bones of my feet fit
inside brand-new Mary Janes
through a magic box that made snow.

More than I wanted to marry Allan
when I grew up, I needed his shoemaker
father who hid red licorice in his leather apron
to marry my mother when his mother died.
In the pockets of his father’s pants
hanging on the line we found matches
and struck them on the stucco house.
His mother screamed and slapped Allan,
and mine warned me about the danger
of playing with fire.  She never knew
how Allan and I practiced for our parents,
he wearing his father’s airforce jacket and cap,
me trailing my mother’s lace curtain veil
in a ceremony fired by loss.

Years later, more than I wanted to marry
a man with the same initials as my father’s
I needed to get away from my mother.


Red is the Colour of Mourning

My father has finally come
not for me, twenty-one years older
than he was when he died,
but for my winter-weary mother.

He waits on the other side
of a window.  Large
so my mother can look out
at a changed world: Sun-grilled
dunes ripple away from scrub
towards a calmed river
as far-reaching as the sky.

Only three when he left,
I never knew him,
yet I’m awed by suddenly remembered
perfection of features clearer
than the line where a lowering sky meets earth.

Humped nose broken three times
on the rugby field.
Eyes as large and mild as a sacred cow’s
in the country of his birth.  He wears a red turban,
an out-of-place scarlet coatee
as if he’s just come from a ghat.

In India red is the colour of mourning.
Here, it’s the deep shade
of my mother’s passion,
of her anger at his leaving her,
of her forgetting his name.

I hear my father’s voice
modulated and muted
as if coming from the bottom of a river.
More than a call to my mother, or a comfort to me,
it’s the knowing: I heard this voice
before I was old enough to remember
a swaying hammock, his singing
me to sleep and every little wave had its night cap on…

I expect my father to come for my mother
in a winter caboose pulled by Clydesdales,
but he beckons from a refurbished roadster,
the one my mother crashed into a ditch
to avoid hitting the Rainbow
bridge where he carved their initials.
He won’t let her drive now.

Leaving me behind glass,
they’re away, river-bound,
with a salute from him,
a promise to return for me.


Love Stories You Just Can’t Tell

Your widowed mother picked up a stranger
on a train. He wore a suit just like your dead father’s.

She said she’d sub-letted her barn of a house
& you had to stay in a hotel until the renters left.

He said his name was the same as the hotel’s,
only backwards: George King.

When you fell asleep he was taking off
your father’s identical trousers.


Among My Father’s Curios

In this chanber of glass
this cabinet of teak carved
with thistles and flights of birds
I find the jaded head of the judge,
my father’s grandfather.

Against the scent of jasmine
against the blowing up of sand
his nose turns down. Brief & jagged
line of lip & curve of jaw
juts above his court tabs
stiff with starch. They say in India
he ordered hung sixteen sepoys
each mutinous day.

One severed lock of his powdered wig
lies safe in a silver snuff box
with monogram: W.L.H.

Here is a photo of my faher,
a sultry turbaned boy
astride a country pony. They say
he spoke only Hindustani. Forbidden
his grandfather’s English tongue
lest he speak improper Cheechee
learned from the servant holding the reins.

On the first shelf
a blue chiffon violet
folds its leaves
into a square of silk.
…………………………………………My first Elizabeth was my first love.
On the second shelf
in a curry dish
a single hook & button of jade
a wooden brooch: cherries
dropping redly
…………………………………………My second Elizabeth was the mother
…………………………………………of my children.
On the third shelf
a shop girl’s bright brass camel,
ivory tusks of her trade. They say
to her he left all his worldly goods,
disinheriting his children. My father.

…………………………………………\My third, Eliza, the delight of my dotage.
Beneath crossed sabers
…………….whips & spurs
I staring stand & dare not
touch the jade(d) head
sitting in judgement
on the skin of a leopard.

Did He Dance?

Dorothy told me they buried my father under the ice. She was four whole years older. She took me to her church after supper. The girl with the brilliant hair twirled, flimsy skirt flared. She’s going straight to hell, Dorothy said. The girl’s red mouth opened: she howled. She fell down and her hair hid her face. See? Dorothy said. She gripped my hand. The screen went dark, the lights came on, and Dorothy led me down the rows of bowed heads to the back of the hall. A woman in a blue dress made me kneel on the seat of a chair. The scabs on my knees hurt. Her father died, Dorothy said. They put him in a box lined with satin and buried him under the ice. Was he baptized or christened? the woman said. Did he drink? Did he smoke? Did he dance? Pray for your father’s soul! On the way home, crossing the skating rink, I twirled circles on the ice. I fell down. I brushed away the snow. The ice was clear and blue. I pressed my face into think snow, tried to see my father buried there, his last pale unshaven face, his last dance.

How I Want to Remember Them

1. I must forget how I moved
….in…. slow…. motion
through air white as a blank page.
So white. My father’s freckled face,
his raven-wing hair fanned on a pillow.

In my mother’s black photo album
he holds me aloft, as if awed
by his own small reflection.
This is how I know
………………………he knew me.

2. I must forget my mother’s death mask,
the sharp beak of a squab,
her hair cropped albino crow-feathers,
a crone’s toothless mouth agape.

This is how I remember her:
Saturday morning opera from New York.
Jan Peerce’s voice filled with light.
My mother’s let-down braids
the colour of sun’s early song, red
chenille robe whirling, me on her hip,
she dances me
………………….Till doors change places with windows.

3. Only a dream can give memory
to a child too young to remember them
together. I find them mirrored
in the silver tea service tray he gave her.
Every day he brought her breakfast in bed
until he fell ill, and she served him
while in the mountain ash outside
a robin sang of morning.

Picture them in pillowed bliss,
honeyed lips, a bit of döppa, dunking
thin strips of toast in soft-boiled egg
or in coffee made in the Swedish way
just for her. Braided life-
bread, sticky with icing and jam.
He won’t let her lick her fingers,
dipping the tips in a silver bowl,
then dabbing them with starched white serviettes
saved for these mornings reflected
in a silver dream she polished for me.


My Father’s Gloves

Found in my mother’s steamer trunk
the suede gloves she saved
have taken the shape of paws
yellow backhair curried
padded underside cracked
& each long finger
the curl of a claw.

I hold palm against palm
smell the dampness
of an old cave
into winter sleep.

My hands grow a second skin
yellow fur.

My Surrogate Father

I called him Uncle, my mother’s cousin, Karl Mauritz The Moose Millar. When he was thirteen and the eldest of ten, his switchman father died, and his mother left one porkchop on the window sill so the neighbours would think they hae meat for dinner. That night The Moose left home and didn’t return until he found a job as a stockboy for the Buffalo Nut & Bolt Co. He worked his way up to Vice-president, one of the last of the self-made men.

The Moose looked after everyone in the family. Leg braces for sister Maimie. Food for sister Violet when her steel-maker-man boozed away his pay cheque. When he found his first wife in bed with his brother he paid for her care in an asylum. He lost his son Missionary Bob to malarial anger, the chill of grieving too long for an absent mother.

Every week The Moose wrote to me, the Canadian half-orphan, stories about our great-grandmother who swept the streets of Ystad to pay their way to America, how my grandmother looked like the gleaner in The Song of the Lark. His own painting of her granary house failed when he forgot her woodflowers transplanted from the grave of her father to her husband’s beneath our Canadian cold-blue spruce. When I turned thirteen he wrote: Never dance with a kilted man. It all started when our Swedish ancestor, with grog jug in on hand and the hair of his woman in the other, dragged her up the Celtic shores.

The Moose gave me away when I eloped with the son of a Scot, his glasses splashed with old tears.


Love Bears the Name

I am the child lifted
onto my father’s heaving chest.
His raven hair sweeps back
into wings.
……………………….What’s going to happen
””””””””””””””””””’to my holy-hecker? His last words
beating through halls turning.
A dark-hooded woman leads me to another room
where stained glass refuses morning.

A box lined with satin
will hold his sleep.
I believe I took away
his last long breath.

He has gone to the War.
He floats under ice.
He has gone to Winnipeg.
I will find him if I reach
for the red sky.

I dream of the men who took my father away
on a bed with straps, away in a wailing car.
Into my hands my mother thrusts
a small red box. A snake
writhes around her fingers. In side the box
her wedding ring sinks into leaves soft as dust.
On a sleigh-shaped bed
my mother slides over ice.
She screams herself awake
from an endless fall.
Morning is the hardest.
Basement cold. Night ashes
in the furnace. No coal.
She struggles to her school,
falls on ice. And stars
stare down: red.

She tells me my father’s dream:
when his father died
he found him boarding a plane.
He couldn’t stop his father
from flying away.

Love bears the name of our fathers,
of their leaving

—Byrna Barclay


Byrna Barclay

Byrna Barclay has published a series of novels known as The Livelong Quartet, three collections of short stories, the most recent being Girl at the Window, and a hybrid, searching for the nude in the landscape. Her many awards include The Saskatchewan Culture and Youth First Novel Award, SBA Best Fiction Award, and City of Regina Award,  YMCA Woman of the Year, CMHA National Distinguished Service Award, SWG Volunteer Award, Sask. Culture Award, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.  In 2010 she published her 9th book, The Forest Horses, which was nominated for Best Fiction for the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  Her poetic drama, The Room With Five Walls: The Trials of Victor Hoffman, an exploration of the Shell Lake Massacre, won the City of Regina Award.  She has been president of SWG twice, President of Sask. Book Awards, and Fiction Editor of GRAIN magazine.  A strong advocate for Mental Health as well as the arts, she served as President of CMHA, Saskatchewan, was the founding Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and for twenty years was the Editor-in-chief of TRANSITION magazine.  Vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board from 1982-1989, she is currrently the Chair. Mother of actor Julianna Barclay, she lives in Regina.