Friday, April 18, 2014

Recent Reads: "The Uncertainty Principle: stories," by rob mclennan

Published by Chaudiere Books, 2014.
ISBN 978-0-9783428-8-3

Two springs ago I was listening to a talk on contemporary poetry when a fellow enthusiast asked rob mclennan what inspires him. “I don’t wait for inspiration,” he responded. “My father didn’t wait for inspiration. He milked the cows every day because he had to”. That no-frills answer sprung to mind midway through The Uncertainty Principle: stories,, an eclectic compendium of pocket-sized tales crafted from 2008 to 2011. The brevity and randomness of each story makes it tempting to view these as the crème de la crème of one of mclennan’s daily writing exercises. However these individual pieces transformed into a working manuscript – whether they were organized from the start or encountered a “eureka” moment along the way – mclennan’s bounty of ideas repeatedly underpins that day-in-day-out discipline.

Uncertainty plays a crucial part in the flow of so many mini-narratives. mclennan forgoes anchoring his characters with names and ambitions, instead letting pronouns contribute to a foggy tapestry of shared thoughts and concerns. Common themes converse and accumulate throughout, binding playful and contemplative experiences into a lifetime’s knowledge, some vague, communal whole. Recurring subjects in first person obviously lean toward the autobiographical, such as memories of one’s mother or fleeting moments around familiar Ottawa landmarks, while others belong firmly in the speculative.

Describing himself as an errorist, he spends
his day deliberately misspelling, otherwise the
copy-editor could be out of a job and he never
see her again.

The above example illustrates how mclennan populates the fictional side, using unidentified people as a means to observing poignant or funny sociological traits. This lens expands to feature some insightful pop culture commentary, including theories on Hollywood films, comic books, as well as an eerie parallel between two misfits of nuclear fallout – Godzilla and SpongeBob SquarePants. Broadening the humour, mclennan litters a few entries with the hashtag #IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp to offset the more intricate accounts.

I recently had a Doctor Who-style dream, set
in early twentieth-century Dublin, with you as
my faithful companion. We found James Joyce
and his house of infinite, hidden rooms, stalked
by some kind of vampire creature. Was this,
we began to suspect, something his own de-
mons had created, dark language made physi-
cal, an altered Nora Barnacle? I don’t recall a
conclusion or resolution. This is often the way
of dreams. Someone suggested I write out
what I can, to reinforce memory, flesh out the
scene. The front door of the house was green-
painted wood, with a peephole large enough to
see Joyce’s face, his round glasses. The foyer
had a soft wood paneling, brown and tan
wainscotting. He had been drafting a letter,
left out on the table. There was something we
wanted not to have known.

This dream recollection bridges the fantastical elements of The Uncertainty Principle with its more somber (but no less intriguing) realities. Besides capturing the fragmentary act of piecing together the unconscious, mclennan’s details settle around an omission that haunts the page. The same can be said for many of the best stories on offer, where an unknowable truth lingers just beyond (or somewhere within) the information made available. Whether oscillating between irreverent and astute or observational and tender, mclennan’s concise anecdotes are remarkable for opening so many doors without betraying their secrets. Here’s a lovely near-poem we can add to the “observational and tender” category:

We were stretched flat on the dark side of the
lawn, opposite the garage light and porch, star-
ing up at the sky. We were counting the stars. I
can’t believe you’ve never seen a shooting star,
she said, as common as goldfish. We remained
for a long time, sweeping our eyes across
Ontario sky, and I looked over, amazed at this
sprout of a child beside me, my ten-year-old
daughter. I was studying the shadowed shapes
of her developing profile, a sparkle in her eye.
There’s one, she pointed. I turned to look. It
had already vanished.

Thanks to mclennan’s discipline, our experience reading The Uncertainty Principle requires none. Organized to accommodate brief interactions (which, like the psychology behind bite-sized chocolate bars, results here in complete overindulgence), the book proves incessantly fresh, taken as a whole or in cursory, page-flipping handfuls. 

The Uncertainty Principle: stories, will officially launch on May 10, 2014 as part of the Plan 99 Reading Series at the Manx Pub in Ottawa. It is now available to buy at Chaudiere Books' website.

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