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Being Fiction

by John Moss
302 pages,
ISBN: 1896133258


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Fiction¨The Art of Conjuring Reality
by William Bournemouth

For William Shakespeare, it was a fairly straightforward proposition. To be or not to be, that was the question¨being or nothingness, existence or annihilation. John Moss' title, Being Fiction, suggests a slightly more complex approach. The power of fiction, Moss' stories suggest, upsets this tidy opposition by conjuring up a state that is neither straightforward presence nor absence, neither real nor unreal but somewhere in the less easily imaginable in-between. And yet this very ambivalence lends it a unique intensity. The protean magic of narrative and imagination, the stories suggest, evokes a world that is more intensely real than the one we occupy in our daily lives. The general impression is reminiscent of Robert Kroetsch's dictum that fiction makes us real.

Given these preoccupations, it is perhaps appropriate that the cover is a photo of the south end of the author, fully revealed, heading north. Each story offers an intriguing array of glimpses into its writer's life, but there are no direct sightings here, no cases of indecent authorial exposure. Instead, the stories offer a decidedly postmodern montage of ironic disclosures, oblique glances and refracted admissions. It is a volume where the author is everywhere and nowhere in particular, simultaneously ubiquitous and mercurial. The sense is not unlike the uncanny feeling, one narrator relates, of seeing himself in profile for the first time; "from then on mirrors became metaphor; I dwelt in a house of mirrors for that was my most authentic locus of being" (pp70-71). The narrators are frequently writers, mediocre or talented but unread; the physical act of writing is itself a frequent topic of discussion. Immersion in the world of textuality, one senses, serves as both a form of self-realization and a dodge, and in these stories, perhaps the two are the same thing. The carefulness with which all of this is documented is, as the narrator says, like living "in an Escher drawing. . . . I am a sketch of a hand drawing itself" (p254).

This mixture of insistent self-disclosure and evasiveness is achieved partly through the carefully triangulated structure of the stories. They are often overt conversations, both with the reader and with other literary figures. Each story is also organized around a famous literary figure, from the pantheon of Canadian literati, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and Carol Shields, to historical figures including Samuel Beckett, Jane Austen and the bard himself, William Shakespeare. Archie Delaney, better known as Grey Owl, makes a wonderfully understated cameo appearance in "Temagami." This can be a treacherous strategy that threatens to come off as overly contrived, but on the whole, these literary presences lend a playfulness to the book, in part because they allow Moss to laugh at his preoccupation with the complexities of self-absorption. "She reads the papers. She will know about me," insists a mysterious narrator who happens to have been born at the same minute of the same day as Margaret Atwood (p84). "It is ironic that I am not effeminate," he muses in the same story. "She must be intrigued by that" (p89). "There was no question," he insists, "Cat's Eye was about me" (p95). Another story, titled, "Eleanor Wachtel Has Read Everything," ends with the whimsical hope that "one day Eleanor Wachtel would read this. You have to believe in something"(p255). It's difficult to argue with this kind of optimism.

Inevitably, the stories' literary allusions and knowing, self-reflexive analysis lend a slightly academic quality to the writing. On the whole, however, professors do not fare very well. The professor narrator in "Writing Aretha" sleep-walks through three university degrees, a post-doctoral stint at Harvard, and then into a job, followed shortly by tenure and promotion, at the University of Toronto, where his students (the only judges with no vested interests) find his lectures unbearably dull. It is the career version of Newton's law of inertia¨an object moving in one direction will keep going if nothing inconvenient changes its course. "Critics make fools of themselves," a story that invokes Alice Munro and Alice in Wonderland tells us, "confusing [Munro's] fiction with mirrors, confusing the image in the glass with Alice, and simultaneously seeing it as a reflection of themselves looking in" (p231). Emotionally bankrupt, intellectually misguided, and given to jargon, these academics are not an enviable lot. But from erudite references to denizens of high theory such as Husserl, Heidegger, Saussure, Wittgenstein and Derrida (p61), to the comfy armchair-style analysis of Atwood's various novels, the tug of the professor-author (Moss is on the faculty of the University of Ottawa and a Conjunct Professor at Trent University) is rarely far from the surface.

At times stories threaten to descend into an undergraduate lecture. The narrator in "I Know Who You are, Jane Austen," laments the failure of Canadian novelists to accede to Joyce's admonition "to write well from your life, then pass out the other side. The twentieth century has seen the authorial voice merge with the voice of the author, sometimes naively, sometimes for wondrous ironic effect" (p192). It is sometimes unclear just how earnestly we should take these opinions. More frequently, however, the academic allusions form part of this book's own ironic effect. One doesn't really need to interpret this writing; it's always there one step ahead, doing it for you, though that doesn't necessarily mean we should trust what it's telling us, the stories continually remind us.

The most intense conversations are not with literary peers, however, but with the reader, with whom a kind of literary cat-and-mouse game is being waged. "I will explain in due course," we are told in "Kafkaesque." "You have a right to know the details. I will arrange pertinent information in ways that will enable you to make more sense out of my existence than I have found living it" (p140). "You may be thrown off a bit by my arbitrary revelation of a female persona," he upbraids us a page later (p141). "You have been so good," he congratulates us later in the same story, "suspending disbelief, abiding by the conventions of narrative, it is unfair to compromise your moral integrity further" (p153).

Despite¨or perhaps because of¨the unusually high incidence of grisly murders in these stories, there is an enduring insistence on the ethical quality of the reader-author community. "We both have moral obligations," the narrator counsels us in "The Juxtaposition of Alice": "you to evaluate illusions of authenticity, and me to enforce the efficacy of illusion. Moral, I say, because ours is an earnest business, reading and writing, and the implications are profound" (p229). Just what this moral obligation or literary responsibility amounts to is never quite clear, but it adds to the dramatic tension of the stories. Something important is happening here, we are being reminded, if not between the various characters, then between the author and reader, the two figures who are, in the end, the real characters in these dramas.

This emphasis on reader and author reflects the considerable extent to which the process of story-writing is itself the main theme of these stories. A personal narrative about childhood memories is suddenly broken off with the comment: "At this point he sat back and pondered. He had been writing first person narrative and that seemed appropriate since he was drawing directly from his own life story. He wanted to insinuate in his reader's mind the impression that an authentic personality had strayed into a fictional context. The problem was, the fiction was not convincing, time and place were insubstantial, and the narrator, therefore, was insubstantial" (p245). Four pages later, after another series of recollections, we are again brought up short: "At this point he stopped writing. He felt overwhelmed by fiction; the details were disconcerting, more authentic than the world beyond the text" (p249). The willing suspension of disbelief is definitely not part of the bargain with these particular stories, nor is the story itself really the thing. Or perhaps the opposite is true. Far from unseating the sovereignty of fiction, these editorial intrusions enrich it. The author who confides in us here is just another character, his literary efforts another storyline that we might want to take with a grain of salt.

Elsewhere, the divide between fact and fiction is more decisive. The murder mystery, "Temagami," which circles around an intriguing set of childhood memories and the narrator's opening admission that "Whenever I am in Temagami I think of murder" (p57), is interrupted by a similar editorial intrusion. "Every story must have a setting," the narrator tells us. "Today I am in Temagami. I write that down and the fact becomes fiction, a truth to which you accede by narrative convention¨you, by convention, lending your life to the text to affirm its veracity. The story at this point is simple; it is about me in Temagami contemplating murder. But nothing has happened. I have established a location in your rational mind, but probably not yet in your imagination. I have indicated a temporal context¨today¨although it will always be today in my text, so time is elusive. I have seeded your curiosity, perhaps, with a passing reference to Archie Belaney, a name which gained much prominence years later when it was associated with the man who became famous as Grey Owl. I have suggested emotional conflict, my concern about age.. . ." (p60) For many readers, the story itself will probably have been good enough to make them yearn for a bit more suspension of disbelief and a bit less exposure to the inner workings of the mechanics of narrative. For others, however, for whom the real story is the magic of story-telling itself, these scenes of ironic dislocation represent the triumph of narrative¨a world beyond being or nothingness, like a hall of mirrors in which images are caught at oblique angles. ˛

William Bournemouth is a freelance writer from Toronto whose poetry has appeared in various literary magazines including Quarry, Event, and the Wascana Review.

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