Darwin Alone in the Universe

by M. A. C. Farrant

Published by Talon Books

160 pages, 2003


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Vignettes of the 21st Century

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

"This book of stories is about 'change'," writes M. A. C. Farrant in her quixotically brilliant new collection, Darwin Alone in the Universe. "Because if you look at a thing long enough what you get is a bouquet of perceptions, various interpretations present themselves. The prolonged gaze that manifests itself in words."

Gaze at anything long enough -- a tree branch, a train wreck, a word -- and it gradually loses its literal meaning and dissolves into metaphor. Or could it be a whirling vortex of atoms, not solid and static but ever in feverish motion? Not too many writers can take things down to the atomic level, but Farrant manages it with great panache.

With previous works like Altered Statements and Raw Material, she attracted labels like "surrealist," "postmodern" and "alternative," though she also proved to be adept at domestic comedy with 1999's Girls Around the House. Farrant provides the best description of her approach in the introduction to Darwin: "concomitant alternative realities presented as existent."

She leaps right into this world (or unworld) fearlessly. Sentence one, story one: "I called for an early morning taxi and they sent a hearse." This simple statement stuns and arouses curiosity in equal measure. Who is this? Why the bleak allusion to death? And in a black sort of way, it's funny. Hold on, for Farrant's strange vehicle is about to take you for a wild ride.

There are 42 stories here, in a book of only 160 pages. Some are closer to haiku or Zen koans than epic tales. All seem to mirror the particular angst of 2003, a world of "coffee at five dollars a pop" and "intravenous Buddhism," in which people earnestly believe that "ferrets are spiritual." At a party, a character is "watching a woman with a bottle of Echinacea dispense twenty drops into her husband's martini. She had the look of a zealot, dead serious, humorless. She said, 'I've personally taken charge of Bob's immune system.' "

These scenes ring so perfect, so 21st century, yet it's hard to analyze exactly why. Some of the entries make very little literal sense, yet ring with unmistakable truth. "Ten Point Lesson" (one of several "Ten Point" stories which look like answers to unstated, enigmatic questions) advises us to "choose metaphors that are pest-free and ultra-hardy, ones that prefer wasteland environs such as shopping malls, concrete boulevards, airports, abandoned king-sized beds."

It's hard to compare Farrant to anyone, though there are hints of James Thurber ("The bride's dress was beautiful. It was made of white satire and flowed about her in an elegant trample"), not to mention Lewis Carroll spinning down a rabbit hole of the mind. There is something of the flavor of the Beat poets in the way she puts words together, and a hint of early Bob Dylan in songs like "It's All Right, Ma" and "Desolation Row."

But in the final analysis, she defies analysis. When John Steinbeck tried to describe a beer milk shake in Cannery Row, he couldn't do it: "It's like a shrimp ice cream." One does not expect to crunch down on a big juicy shrimp in a mouthful of ice cream. Surprise.

In "Jane and Mr. Leakey," a tale of a couple frozen in terminal boredom and ennui, Jane says one night, "Hey, let's have a theme party! Let's dress up as bag ladies, as bums, as hobos, as homeless people, as crazy people, as schizophrenics and psychotics off their medication. Let's go over the top and invite ornamental catatonics, real ones, not just your regular bored empty people like us but authentic vacated bodies; we'll serve hospital food; we'll turn the house into a shelter. For fun. Everyone pretending to be destitute or suicidal." Here the satire bites hard, and deservedly. But she never pounds her fist on the podium or preaches, just presents what she hears and sees, and lets us be the judge.

Though I was fond of "The Heartspeak Wellness Retreat" ("Jason, formerly in real estate, formerly called Gerald, followed his bliss last year and now does ear coning for a living"), my favorite was "The Little Pieces of Your Mind," a meditation on being "wanted" as a literary celebrity:

You are borne into a roomful of maybe twenty people and sometimes fabulously -- oh, the universe is kind! -- one hundred people or more. You are borne into the reading room and all chatter stops, heads turn your way; two or three latecomers hurry to their seats. Someone has draped a green velvet cape over your shoulders. A formerly wanted one marches before you clearing the way. Another scurries behind you clutching your books, the little pieces of your mind that you will impart to the audience this very night.

Satire can be too remote, too barbed or even downright hostile, but there are softening elements here, touches of awe at the natural world ("Poplar leaves are snapping like flags at a fair") and reflections that reveal a kind of tender curiosity: "Why is it, she wondered, that we have difficultly experiencing what is before us? We're always sliding into somewhere else, someplace imaginary, second hand, unreal; it's like an experiential tic, as if lucidity were something to be taken only in small, furtive doses, as if present experience isn't worthy of our attention." Here she has summed up the writer's dilemma in a nutshell, not to mention the weird mindset of our time (the decade that has no name), in which blurs of fast-moving illusion stand in for reality.

And as a special bonus (a lobster claw in the ice cream, so to speak), the book ends with the most unique author photo I have ever seen. It left me laughing, and it was an unexpected gift, funny, strange, and oddly appropriate. These same words apply just as well to the entire collection. | July 2003

Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.