Feb 12, 2010

Monkey Droppings - The Incident Report by Martha Baillie: "The unconjugated afternoon unfolded."

The Monkey discovers that libraries are far more romantic and mysterious places than he previously thought possible.

The Incident Report
by Martha Baillie (2009)
A beautiful young man, whose large dark eyes seemed to be watching a movie the rest of us could not see, walked slowly up the Reference Desk and sat down in the chair intended for patrons with questions.
To label Martha Baillie's beguiling novel The Incident Report as being 'a book about the daily goings-ons in a library' does it a grave disservice, but Baillie herself sets up the format, so superficially, it's fairly hard to argue otherwise. The story is presented as a series of library incident reports (similar in concept, if not execution, to Joey Comeau's Overqualified), professional accounts of unusual occurrences that occur within the confines of public libraries, so while much, much more may occur in Baillie's tale of of woe, wonderment, and public service, it's the public service aspect that gets all the initial attention.

And little wonder; the Canadian author, in addition to having written three previous novels, has been a part-time librarian in Toronto for over twenty years. And so there is no questioning the veracity of her librarian protagonist's observations, especially when she outlines (in a lengthy paragraph that should become the Hippocratic oath of the modern librarian) the parameters of her job:
We, the Public Libraries of Toronto, lend books to any person living, studying or working in the city of Toronto. We do not ask who you are or comment on your choice of reading materials. We require only that you return what you have borrowed in a reasonable condition and that you do so in a timely manner...Without statistics we would cease to exist. If we restricted ourselves to the lending of books we would cease to exist. DVDs, videos, CDs, internet access, magazines, comics, word-processing, story hours, literacy classes for adults, puppet shows, reading clubs: the list of our efforts is impressive. Silence eludes us. If you hope to find silence we recommend that you visit one of our branches early in the morning and lay claim to a chair in a far corner near a window, or drag a chair into the stacks. We discourage all our patrons from urinating indiscriminately, singing loudly, snoring, drying their socks on the heating vents, verbally or physically assaulting each other, cutting out the colourful pictures from our cookbooks, writing in library materials, licking or kissing the lingerie advertisements in the magazines we lend, stealing library property.
If the novel were simply a description of each day's strange encounter with a member of the public (many of them spot-on, if far more lyrical in interpretation than their real-life counterparts would be), The Incident Report would still be a terrifically fun read. Luckily, Baillie has crafted far more than a compendium of human foibles and quirks; in its sneaky way, The Incident Report is a quietly devastating account of damaged people.

The titular reports are written by Miriam Gordon, a "Public Service Assistant" in Toronto. Miriam is a strict follower of rules, often quoting the Rules and Regulations and breaking out the Manual of Conduct for Encounters with Difficult Patrons when dealing with unruly patrons such as Budgie Man, a customer who routinely challenges Miriam's sense of her place in the library:
Because he listens to recordings of song birds, because he rides a bicycle, because he expects to be served, because he is tall and waves his fist while complaining that Hitler did not do a good enough job cleaning up the world, because he disgusts and frightens me, because he breeds budgies, because I am a trained employee of the Public Libraries of Toronto, this morning when he called me over to where he sat, I went.
In addition to the patron encounters (sometimes mild, sometimes disturbing, sometimes downright icky), Miriam begins to discover handwritten notes about the library which, to her mind, cast her as the doomed Gilda from the opera Rigoletto. The notes add a surreal quality to Miriam's life, implying violence (or worse) in every public interaction.

Miriam intersperses her library encounters with observations on her past family life, as well as her burgeoning relationship with Janko Prijatelj, a Slovenian cab driver. Miriam and Janko form a cocoon about themselves that rejects their day-to-day existence apart, but when reality intrudes (as it so often must), Miriam finds herself adrift, clinging to "the necessity of the library."

It would not do to go into too much detail, as much of the joy of The Incident Report comes from placing the pieces together, getting a picture of Miriam's fragility and strength only through glimpses into her reactions. The rest of the novel's delight lies in Baillie's precise construction of sentences, her wordplay and imagery delicately balancing Miriam's wistful view of the world with its harsher realities. Phrases such as "I lowered my eyes to the computer screen and read, but the words had become hollow gourds, little seeds of shrivelled meaning rattling inside them," eloquently capture the fragility of Miriam as she clings to rules and certainty over the increasingly chaotic world about her.

The Incident Report may not be for everybody; Baillie's world is an oblique creation that only attains meaning through careful reading and total immersion, i.e. those who cannot live without linear narrative, stay away. But for those willing to make an effort, to immerse themselves in Miriam's universe; those readers are in for a rewarding experience.



Unknown said...

Thank you for this detailled and thoughtful review. It makes me pause and consider reading it. Sounds like your Monkey Challenge is going to widen my horizons too.

Corey said...

You know, the more I think about the novel, the more it resonates. It's sticking with me, this one.

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