By Meters or By Miles

Near Harvey, New Brunwick. September 3, 2015.

By meters or by miles
over fences, over stiles,
my path the solitude of highways,
enduring every weather’s trials.
Through parking lots of asphalt want,
bureaucracies, and their tedious wiles;
evading sleepless pumice stones
of worry, the dull-eyed queues of waiting aisles;
tenaciously I’m coming back
by meters or by miles.
My goal is set. My sight is clear.
My pace is steady as my smiles.
I’m settled with the unpaid debts
time relentlessly compiles.
However great the distance,
however much to quit beguiles,
look for me; I’m coming back,
by meters or by miles.

April 29, 2017

Cloud by Eric McCormack

I’m having the hardest time reviewing Cloud and I know why. It’s a novel by Eric McCormack and I want to categorize it. I’ve all kinds of terms rattling around in my head as I try to write about it but ultimately what I end up with is just a lot of thinking out loud on paper.

Everything centres on the narrator of Cloud and this is as it should be as it is essentially his autobiography. Thematically, the novel concerns the nature of memory, to some degree narrative, and also narcissism. The narrator, Harry Steen, is a less than reliable fellow. He’s secretive and self-deceptive though he seems, or at least tells us, he’s quite sincere. He readily admits to his secretiveness – he even explains it as if it is a virtue.

But the question is always there: Can we believe anything about Harry other than his untrustworthiness as a witness?

Cover of ‘Cloud’ by Eric McCormack

Harry finds a book in an out-of-the-way bookstore in La Verdad, Mexico. It is a very old, mildewed book with the title, “The Obsidian Cloud: An account of a singular occurrence within living memory over the skies of the town of Duncairn in County of Ayrshire.” The story it tells is bizarre to say the least but what catches Harry’s eye is the reference to Duncairn, Scotland, a place he lived for a brief time in his life, a time that defined him because of a love found and lost and never understood. (Actually, a love misunderstood.)

There is a Dickensian, or at least Victorian quality to Cloud in that it is episodic. Harry’s life takes him around the world. As a young man he begins as a school teacher, becomes a sailor for a time (one that suffers from seasickness), and eventually the head of a Canadian mining company.

Now here’s the thing about Harry: he’s a frustrating ass, so much so you want to kick him in the ass. This is largely due to his secretiveness, his constant caution about how people might react to truth and, because of this caution, his inevitable reluctance to tell it. He is constantly explaining that he isn’t revealing the truth because it’s best for someone else, when in fact it is really because he’s afraid to do so. In most, if not all cases, he eventually finds out that people already knew the truth anyway.

It is also because of his constant focus on himself and how events affect him, his interpreting of the world only to the extent that it relates to him, to see everything in terms of how he feels. And (usually) how he feels is wronged. For much of the book he sees himself as a victim.

This is purposeful on McCormack’s part and in many cases allows for a good deal of humour and makes the story an intriguing, entertaining yarn. But it also leaves the reader feeling a degree of frustration with the narrator because he is such a self-involved ass.

The novel is a mock-heroic one, with a post-modernist sensibility and a few metafictional games thrown in. It is about the dubious nature of perception and memory and, as a consequence, narration.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, narrator Harry sees people and situations in ways that suit him and his idea of how the world should be. Yet it is seldom, if ever, an accurate world he imagines. Cloud is a comic novel, though it may not strike readers that way. It’s not comic in the sense of a “fall out of your chair laughing” way. It’s comic in form, in the sense that it is a series of misreadings, misunderstandings, misconstructions of people, situations, and events.

In his novel, McCormack gives us a peculiar variation on the picaresque novel. However, unlike the traditional novel of this type, McCormack’s hero is anything but roguish. (It sometimes seems as if every character is except Harry.) Harry is more coward than rogue.

It’s a peculiar book. But that is par for the course with Eric McCormack. I do know this, however: I want to re-read Cloud. I liked it and want to get a better grasp of the story I’ve read. This review feels to me as if it is a cobbled together series of impressions.

(Originally written and published November 21, 2014)

Message on a Whiteboard

Surprisingly, I wrote yet another very short story based on the StoryADay prompt for today,

“Whatever happens, don’t die. See you Monday.” The note is not signed and you’re not certain who wrote it.

My story is a bit simple, and maybe a bit obvious, but it is short. 🙂

Message on a Whiteboard

Who would write such a thing on a whiteboard? What were we supposed to make of it?

Whatever happens, don’t die. See you Monday.

Tilly was upset. Moe laughed it off and Brandon got busy trying to figure out who had written it.

“I’ll bet Tyson did it as some kind of joke. I’ll bet she’s not showing up today. Gave herself a long weekend.” Brandon frowned, feeling cheated by upper management. To Brandon, they gave themselves everything. Middle guys like us, we get nothing. That was Brandon’s feeling.

Ms. Tyson was upper management. We were waiting for her to arrive and get things underway. It was her meeting.

Not surprisingly, Brandon was wrong. Ms. Tyson came in, on time, sharply dressed, and looking very much the executive in charge. She glanced at the whiteboard. “Who wrote that?” she asked.

We all pleaded ignorance, truthfully. We had no idea.

“Who isn’t here?” she asked.

We scanned the table. There should be eight of us. We were seven. Who was missing?

The message had us rattled. We were all there. We had forgotten to include Ms. Tyson in our count. When we realized our mistake, we were more rattled. Someone was lying! But who?

Annoyed, Ms. Tyson wiped the message from the whiteboard. “Let’s get started,” she said as her assistant came in the room with the usual box of donuts. With a smile, he set them on the table then left the room.

All of us stared at the box of donuts. Even Ms. Tyson. Normally, we would have been at them like disaster victims reaching for relief packages. Not today. Everyone was waiting for someone else to try them first, our thoughts filled with the unsettling message, “Whatever happens, don’t die.”

Ms. Tyson shook her head and repeated, “Let’s start.” And so we did.

The meeting went on in an unusually quiet way and was more brief than normal. Ms. Tyson’s meetings were known for their brevity. But it was even more brief today with nobody going off on a tangent she had to rein in.

When the meeting was over we all went to our cubicles. As we left I glanced back at the unopened box of donuts. Like the others, I still felt uneasy because of the whiteboard’s cryptic message.

Later, however, I saw Ms. Tyson’s assistant with the box. He had in his hand a jelly-filled donut. White sugary dust had fallen on to his lap. He was with the other assistants. They all had a donut in hand.

His mouth filled with jelly and dough, I heard Ms. Tyson’s assistant mumble, “It was a longshot, but it worked like a charm.”

He then claimed a chocolate glazed donut.  “I think it was that last part, the see you Monday, that did it,” he said.


May 5, 2017