The Presence of Absence

  • David Helwig
    Mystery Stories. Porcupine's Quill
  • Clark Blaise
    The Meagre Tarmac. Biblioasis
  • Mark Anthony Jarman (Editor)
    Coming Attractions 10. Oberon
Reviewed by Graeme Northcote

Punto in aria means ‘stitches in the air,’ a fabric that is defined by what is missing, a pattern fabricated around empty space.” This pattern, which lies at the core of Mystery Stories, is woven throughout both The Meagre Tarmac and Coming Attractions 10. These works reflect on the tangible presence of absence in our lives. Each collection elegantly and powerfully articulates how lives and loves are defined by what is missing.

In Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac, the focus is on the absence of place, belonging, and a fixed cultural identity. Blaise invites readers into a series of shifting perspectives surrounding the Waldekar family, the Gangulys, and the Nilingappas, as he explores each family’s attempt to recover (or forget) what has been lost as they struggle to situate themselves in terms of time, culture, and identity. Defined in relation or reaction to where they come from and who they were, the rich characters reveal that the only distance that matters is the distance between people. Blaise meticulously conveys a sense of connection and isolation in the lives of Indian immigrants who are detached from their former lives and country, “untethered to any earth,” and yet are shaped and guided by that absence. Heritage becomes contested space, as an Indian boy reinvents himself in America and his family wages a legal war over their ancestral estate in India. Another emigrated Indian searches Italy for a resting place for his uncle’s ashes, and in doing so discovers familiarity embedded within the foreign. These narratives are woven around a deep but subtle connection to place as a lost home that nonetheless crosses distance. Such connection is beautifully contrasted by the way the opening stories fracture a single family’s narrative into multiple perspectives, illustrating the divide that separates people from one another and rendering it more tangible than any geographical border. In the end, The Meagre Tarmac is like a slow exclamation caught halfway between a sigh and laughter, between hope and despair, connection and dissonance.

David Helwig writes with similar flair and skill. Mystery Stories is structured around the absence of people. The first piece contains elements of a formulaic mystery and a ghost story, but holds back from committing to either. The mystery is left nebulous and uninvestigated while the ghost’s presence is ambiguous and uncertain. It is the perfect guide for how to approach the subsequent stories. Mystery Stories is not about answers. It is about questions. And it is about ghosts, fading into memory and leaving empty places in their wake. The reader is left to contemplate these stark, pale absences.

In one story, a criminal with an unknown past occupies a house for its absent owners, caring for a dog with a missing leg and a pony deprived of its sight. Like this motley assembly of characters, the stories of this collection are designed to be whole and incomplete at once. Whereas Blaise hints and alludes with subtle grace, Helwig boldly gestures straight towards the missing pieces of his tales, shaping stories around them like a magnifying glass. With what reads as supreme confidence, he directs the reader to these empty spaces. In doing so, he replicates the whimsical scene from the first story, where a man plays music on a broken piano, heedless of the missing keys. There remains a persistent sense of mystery, a discordant chorus of possibilities that keeps the stories fluid and dynamic without lapsing into incoherence.

Coming Attractions also evokes the absence of moments in time. The three authors respectively explore the empty spaces and temporal gaps that exist within the past, the present, and the future. Alexander MacLeod’s harsh and vibrant stories are notable for the complete absence of clear endings. A tavern brawl escalates out of control; a young woman swims for her life and that of her would-be boyfriend; a wife and husband wait in the hospital at their ailing infant’s bedside. Then . . . Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Not even “The End.” MacLeod denies the reader any sense of closure by abruptly, almost brutally, cutting each tale short at the very peak of narrative tension. The narrative gap that closes each story constructs the future as an empty space, into which we might project both hopes and fears. Ultimately, the silence at the end of these tales serves to remind the reader that closure is a lie, that uncertainty is an inevitability of fragile life.

By contrast, Wasela Hiyate situates the past as the source of narrative tension in her stories. The empty spaces left by loss function as the thematic core of each tale. She explores the nature of regret and doubt and shows how absence is the substance of so much human emotion. Hiyate’s narratives are ghost stories in the vein of Helwig’s collection. They reveal that the present is haunted not only by that which has been lost, but also by that which could have been.

Théodora Armstrong draws the collection, as well as the exploration of absence, to its natural conclusion. The future is unknowable. The foundations of our past are constructed around pockets of nothingness. Whether a young boy weaves tales to conceal his crimes or a father is determined to maintain the facade of a happy family, human experience is articulated as punto in aria, stories fabricated around emptiness. Armstrong focuses on the holes in these narratives and the strain that causes them to slowly but inevitably tear apart. In doing so, she seems to ask if we are really anything more than the narratives we tell.

This review “The Presence of Absence” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 168-69.

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