During the spring of 1893, Paris-based composer Erik Satie wrote what today is considered his most experimental piano work, Vexations , a mind-numbing "mantra" to be repeated exactly 840 times each performance. At the bottom of his score, Satie inscribed this koan-like performance note: "To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities." If we are to take Satie seriously (and the jury is ever out), monotony is a mode of prayer, paralysis a route to expanse.
Toronto author Martha Baillie is clearly an acolyte. In her new novel, The Incident Report, she not only cites a host of Satiean performance notes, but also, through a series of deft and repeated derangements, broaches the very edge of Satie's expanse.
The Incident Report is a maddening work. Inter-textual head nods run a dizzying gamut from Satie to Giuseppe Verdi, the Brothers Grimm to Thomas Bernhard, Marc Chagall to Mark Rothko, Ray Bradbury to A.A. Milne; even Jim Davis, "renowned cartoonist and author of Garfield the Cat," makes a fleeting cameo.
But it is Verdi's operatic hysteria that offers first foothold: Miriam Gordon, a 35-year-old "Public Service Assistant" at the Allan Gardens Library in Toronto, chances upon an innocuous piece of sheet music abandoned in the public photocopier. It is the score and libretto for Verdi's Rigoletto, and a momentary indulgence for the cautiously rule-bound Miriam, who, because of a maelstrom of unnamed triggers (Baillie's novel is a psychological maelstrom), holds a special passion for this particular opera.
Verdi's histrionic plot - which intertwines the perversions of an incestuous hunchback, a lecherous duke and an androgynous, love-smitten daughter - becomes a threatening reality for Miriam, who repeatedly "happens" upon a vitriolic series of anonymous "Rigoletto notes," each of which casts her as the ill-fated Gilda. Things do not look good; Verdi's heroine ends up dead in a sack. But Miriam's Rigoletto mystery only heightens Baillie's absurdly normalized mania: The library serves as a kind of outpatient ward for a rather creaturely cast of literate "nutters" - some deeply sympathetic, others not so much. One patron directs traffic with a teabag; another, who threatens to "cut off" Miriam's arm, harbours "a large knife and a can of bear repellent" in his bag.
Despite all this (and Miriam's conviction that her father has effectively wrecked her for love), she does indeed fall for Janko Prijatelj, a 28-year-old Toronto cab driver, who, in his native Slovenia, is a renowned restorer of medieval church frescoes. In contrast to composed Miriam, enigmatic Janko is "never serious" - he reads children's stories, bakes plum tarts and paints scorched-out, Rothkoesque canvases, which he faces to the wall for fear of frightening the uninitiated. Together, Janko and Miriam (alias Hansel and Gretel) conjure a surreal fairy-tale-like refuge entirely apart from Baillie's urban nightmare. But, when an inexplicable tragedy deranges all happiness, Miriam is left suspended on the very "tip of thought."
The Incident Report is so many disparate things, each wrenching at the other, that it seems palpably to tear at itself. The paradoxical title, which claims that this "novel" is an objectively "true" document, is tethered to Baillie's teasing proviso that her collection of reports really seems a "pack of playing cards."
Baillie is a subtle portraitist and creates an engaging heroine with rich psychological nuance. Somehow, despite Miriam's automaton-like impassivity, her evolution matters to us. When she happens upon a "sticky mess" left by one of the library's "determined masturbators," Miriam's absurd über-restraint simply compels: "The books, soiled by what looked like common semen, we bagged in clear plastic and I withdrew them from the collection. No other actions were taken." The effect simply harrows.
Baillie's unsettling dreamscape, like the hysterical Rigoletto plot, seems to speak to a host of unsaid violations. Most vile is the Brothers Grimm's shocking tale The Juniper Tree, which tells of a harridan-cum-stepmother who, having invited her stepson to reach into a trunk to get a juicy apple, slams down the iron lid and next convinces the weeping sister that the bloody mess is entirely her fault. Wrongs are predictably righted - bones are buried, there is a chirping bird, but Baillie's resolution sounds rehearsed and the horror terribly hovers.
But all is not darkness. The Incident Report is also very funny. Miriam records the mischievous antics of one "cunning" old man, who practises lascivious deception. The minute his wife drops him off at the library lobby, the old devil makes his way to the telephone booth - shoving pocketfuls of candies between his gums - and, once in, embarks on an orgy of surreptitious "phone calls."
Baillie is a naturally figurative writer and, through precise and concrete imagery, captures, paradoxically, what is simply too much for measured words. Unnamable fear is "small as a cherry stone" that "cracks open" just behind Miriam's "breastbone." The love in her breast "became opaque and hardened into a substance resembling glass."
Meaning comes not from any reasonable correspondence between objectively known word and objectively known thing, but rather through a stilling repetitive tempo of sheer and glowing things - ginger teas and purple tarts, oval faces and sinister hands, poised brass trays and dark sewn sacks. We understand this novel through gentle contrapuntal leaps.
Which returns us to Satie, Baillie's most resonant reference. While on her rounds, Miriam notes a curious "pattern" reminiscent of Satie's penchant for absurdist repetition. It is a sheet of paper diligently scored on both sides by an infinite series of consecutive numbers: "012345678901234567890," etc., which Miriam interprets as "an escape into order."
There is more. Repetition of this sort does things. Satie's obsessive Vexations, his diet of only "white foods" - "eggs, sugar, shredded bones, animal fat, salt, coconuts, rice, turnips, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish" - his purchase of 12 grey corduroy suits and hats - all of these blinding repetitions are conspicuous acts of self-effacement.
But to what end? Satie suggests a kind of "serious immobility."
And, apparently, this is what occurred when pianist Peter Evans attempted to perform all 840 vexations, solo, in Sydney, Australia. After 16 hours, Evans abruptly stopped: He explained, "I felt each repetition slowly wearing my mind away... . People who play it do so at their own great peril."
The Incident Report actively courts this extraordinary mystic "peril." Through bludgeons of repetitive absurdia, orchestral assaults on Reason, fantastical escapes into subliminal pathology, and in the provocative spirit of gentle Janko - who so alluringly wonders: "Have you ever gotten lost, Miriam, my Darkest Miriam, so lost you couldn't find your way home?" - Baillie offers us the utter virtues of disorientation, of supremely getting lost. A beautiful derangement.
Karen Luscombe is writing a thesis on epiphanies. Like all humble foreigners, she clings to her map.