Measure of Time
wears a lot of different hats. It somehow manages to be a novel-or at least a novella-at the same time as a series of interconnected short stories. It also reads with a kind of unexpurgated immediacy as if it came straight out of the author's notebook. It is autobiography alongside Latvian history alongside the observance of prosaic Canadian rituals like toast, coffee, and Morningside
Jirgens is a hip Toronto guy who left for the hinterland. The founder of Rampike magazine, he now teaches at Algoma University College in Sault Ste. Marie. Nonetheless, this fiction remains rooted in the pavements of the Toronto's west end.
Or at least we beam back there periodically to regroup. The work in question, which ruminates extensively on matters of Time and Space, is itself in no way bound by such dated concepts. The linoleum in the protagonist's kitchen gives way without warning to a New York sidewalk; one minute we're drinking mescal in Indiana with a couple of shamanistic chicanos with movie star names, then we're back with Jirgens on Armadale Avenue shopping for fruit. He doesn't need sci-fi excuses à la Vonnegut for these shifts-we just go. But this is the nineties, and we postmodern readers don't need comfy segues any more.
If all this temporal and spatial hopscotch at times feels suspiciously like a Literary Device, it's more often a fun, non-linear, fictional analogue to relativity theory. Jirgens writes with precision and wit about what happens when we try to take the measure of things, whether it's the volume of the NBA star Shaquille O'Neal's size 22 triple E shoe, or the agony of oppression in the Baltic-using inevitably relative scales. Like Einstein, who makes a cameo appearance here, Jirgens finds no absolutes in the universe, only compelling parallels that converge somewhere around infinity, a place where zero equals one.
If that's too spacey for you, never mind. Jirgens's humanism provides plenty of old-fashioned unity to hold this artefact of fiction together. His description of the successive occupations of Latvia by Russian, then German, and finally Bolshevik autocrats is both a moving family portrait and a signpost to a black hole in our universe of comfortable assumptions about the war. He also finds a lot of comic elbow room in the literary out-of-bounds. One of his characters, for example, journeys through a termite's digestive tract, is transformed into excrement, and finally reverts to carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. In this form, he hitchhikes by comet to the "cosmic chimney" at the end of the universe, keeping a log of his journey.
Measure of Time is not for everyone, and difficult to fathom by familiar standards. But it is a fresh and diverting alternative to those standards, a bit of a yardstick to the expansive rear end of mainstream fiction. And that alone makes it worthy of some wielding.
Allan Casey is a Saskatoon writer.