An Audience of Chairs

by Joan Clark
354 pages,
ISBN: 0676976557

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Been There, Seen That
by Lisa Salem-Wiseman

The latest novel by St. John's writer, Joan Clark, opens with an invitation to the reader to "[p]icture a woman playing a piano board at the kitchen table on a late December morning." The skillfully executed scene takes us inside the woman's head as she imagines "heavy velvet curtains drawing apart and lively notes rush[ing] onstage, where leaping and skipping, they perform a short, spirited dance." Next, we're transported, with her imagination, to a stream, and finally, to "an alpine meadow," before the woman, Moranna McKenzie, finishes her performance and bows "to an audience of chairs." This scene is rendered poignant by the realisation that the beauty described exists only in the woman's head. Moranna, known locally as "Mad Mory", is a gifted artist, who is mentally ill, and whose imaginative creations are somewhat at odds with the world in which she lives.
Clark's prose is vivid and evocative, but An Audience of Chairs is seriously marred by her efforts to turn Moranna into that most hackneyed of literary clichTs, the unforgettable, loveable outcast. Much of the narrative is spent filling in the details of Moranna's past. Born to a young woman who was viewed as "free-spirited", she is the daughter of someone who clearly suffered from mental illness. Her mother committed suicide, and soon after, Moranna began to show signs of having a similar temperament. We see her physically and mentally transforming herself into Heidi for her first Halloween party at age ten, laughing hysterically in class, dancing barefoot at her graduation dance, and singing a cappella a tribute to her teachers as part of her valedictory address. She seems always unaware of-or at least unconcerned with-the impression she makes on others. She is passionate about everything she does; as an adult, she moves from one all-consuming obsession to another. First, she has ambitions of becoming an actress; next, she is writing a novel about Robert Burns. She paints, writes sermons, novels, and children's stories, plays her piano board (she boasts of having "perfect pitch"), and bakes bread. However, her main preoccupation is carving wooden likenesses of her Scottish ancestors, the sort of detail that will cause detractors of Canadian literature to snort with derision.
Judging from Clark's descriptions, Moranna does all these things extraordinarily well. In spite of Clark's obvious attempts to craft a sympathetic, even loveable character, I couldn't overcome my extreme dislike of Moranna. Although the jacket copy helpfully tells the reader of this "unforgettable" character's "struggle with mental illness," she struck me as less mad than narcissistic. Convinced of her own genius and unable to see things from any perspective but her own, she drives away her friends, family, and eventually her daughters. As her husband Duncan observes, "There were times . . . when Moranna went off on a tangent and became so wrapped up in herself that no one else existed. She was single-minded that way and, he reminded himself, easily distracted." Her complete absorption in herself and her art culminates in an astounding act of negligence which endangers her daughters and niece.
Fictional characters have no obligation to be likeable. However, this novel's success most likely depends on whether or not the reader feels sympathy for Moranna. But to feel sympathy, we must interpret her situation as a struggle with mental illness. Clark could have chosen to portray realistically a woman's harrowing battle with madness, as the late Margaret Gibson did in her fiction. Instead, she fashions Moranna into the latest in a long line of beloved CanLit outcasts and eccentrics that stretches back through Margaret Laurence's Morag Gunn and Hagar Shipley, to Lucy Maude Montgomery's Anne. Like the red-haired Shirl, who "spent her childhood living down Anne Shirley," the character of Moranna spends this novel living down the legions of "unforgettable" misfits who populate Canadian fiction. Moranna bears the strongest resemblance to the "madwomen" created by Timothy Findley: Headhunter's Lilah Kemp, Stones' Minna Joyce, and The Piano Man's Daughter's Lily Kilworth. Clark's portrayal of mental illness is every bit as romanticised as Findley's; Moranna is brilliant, intelligent, insightful, and subversive of social conventions. In spite of the fact that Moranna is never diagnosed as suffering from a specific illness (apart from a period of clinical depression), she has much in common with the schizophrenic Lilah; both have an intense love, understanding, and knowledge of literature, and both refuse to take medication, for fear that it will stifle their creativity:

"Later when she finally admitted to herself, and only herself, that she had problems, she still avoided taking medication, convinced that if she did, she'd destroy the very essence of herself, the creative, vibrant, essential part of her echoing from every crevice and hillside of her being. Destroyed by drugs, she'd be easily manipulated and controlled, her will sucked away until she was nothing more than a zombie."

As comforting as it is to believe that the mentally ill are merely more creative, more unconventional, and more honest than the rest of us, the fact remains that very few people suffering from serious depression or other mental illnesses are able to cure themselves through sheer force of will, without therapy or medication, merely by following "strategies" such as "laying out the next day's clothes" in advance.
Clark seems torn between giving the reader an honest portrayal of mental illness and creating another quirky yet admirable outcast. Unfortunately, she settles for the latter, a decision which keeps this book from rising above a clichTd sentimentalism. For Moranna, it seems, "Mad Mory" is just one in a series of roles she has played since childhood-which include Heidi, Joan of Arc, and "waitress" (while waiting tables during the summer):

"Moranna dons the costume she wears during tourist season, the outfit her brother loathes but which she insists is good for business. Beneath a pink satin bathrobe she wears a red lace blouse over a plain T-shirt, a MacKenzie kilt, tartan knee socks, and on her head a purple wig. She's eccentric, so why not profit from it?"

However, if one can simply choose to play the role of eccentric, then one can also choose not to. This is where Clark once again opts for the safe, dull path, providing an overly simple and utterly implausible resolution. It is nice to think that those whose lives have been irreparably damaged by mental illness can, by simply removing the costume of madness, choose to play a different role. Sadly this is a romantic and false view. I would have appreciated being given some insight into the nightmare world of mental illness. I would have liked to learn of the complicated emotions Moranna's daughters harbour toward their mother. Regrettably, this novel offers little of the sort, giving us instead a character who is designed to be "unforgettable", largely because we already know her story.

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