by Judy MacDonald
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press/Mercury Press
151 pages, 1999
Clueless in Mississauga
Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman
The blood in the ice cream was my first clue. Until that scene, I was blithely reading Judy MacDonald's Jane. I had enjoyed the excerpts in Geist (32), the word play, child's play, Canadian references. M-I-S-S, I-S-S, A-U-G-A. Jaded reader that I am, I was anticipating another Canadian girl's coming-of-age story. Knowing as I do how every writer needs a hook, every publisher a niche, I suspected perhaps Canadian-lesbian-comes-of-age might be the twist. Wrong. When the blood spurts into the ice cream, I am appalled. What is going on here? Why this juxtaposition of the macabre, suggestive of wounds and worse, with treats and summer days and student jobs, with the sweet and desirable? The reader is meant to squirm. Nothing is as it seems.
Initially, Jane's cover art did not appeal to me. Too self-conscious, with clipped letters like an extortionist would glue together; splatters like a crime scene; a blonde in the dark, her hair haloed in headlights; fridge doors, stairways, windows into her skull; her eye, eyes, peering into me as if into a mirror. After I finished the book, I looked with new eyes. I grabbed my magnifying glass to look for the spiders. Yes. There they are. For this is a novel of a spider woman who weaves fantasy stories for her twisted lover to entertain, to please, to entrap, to make him stay at home. Her web is spun with hairs of gold, and decorated with black and brown and red accents, souvenirs from their victims.
Not in Canada, you say? As Jane's narrator weaves her fantasies, we can check off the list of possible explanations for deviant behavior: childhood competition and peer pressure; repressed memories; alienation from parents; insecurity; low self-esteem; reactivity; childhood sexual assault and abuse; power and control issues; dissociating; living in the moment; evasion of responsibility; immaturity; alcohol and drug abuse; narcissism; grief response; obsessive compulsions; addictions. Jane is a short 151 pages with much blank space. Each of its twenty chapters opens with a vignette, a sauce flavoring the underlying larger theme, which has itself been scooped from the headlines. There is one limited point of view, that of the female narrator. But it took me some time to realize that the "you" she is talking to is not "me," not "you, the reader." So it was necessary to go back and read it twice.
Jane is not for everyone; each chapter depicts an escalation of deviance, a juxtaposition of sexuality and violence, that not all readers will want to explore. However, we do see the narrator grow as she attempts to comprehend the monster, "this thing that is us," to cope with her own fear, to envision a future. In her final "story" of a snake, we attempt to interpret how this monster relationship happened, how she severs herself from it and kills it. (She believed that once she got a hold of a part of it/him, the rest would follow, like a kiss to build a dream on.) The surreal snake scene blends all the motifs, causing, like blood in ice cream, an involuntary gag reflex. The banality of evil is horrific. The narrator's small dreams, spawned in suburbia, her seemingly empty skull, depict the relationship between vacuity and vacuum. Snakes sense a void and will force themselves deeper and deeper into any warm open space. But it is the emptiness that is the horror, not the snake or the snake pit. Nor the spider, nor her spider web, nor her fly.
The novel's erotic content is disconcerting. As a reader, I feel manipulated, seduced into participation I am not sure I really want to choose. MacDonald shows, makes me feel, what the characters felt, this strange juxtaposition of blood and ice, like pornography. Neither the narrator nor the male lead are named, but they suggest people we recognize from news reports. Again, the writer has won, forcing me to do something against my own better judgment. Because I deliberately refused to let sensationalism suck me in when similar stories made headlines. Now I want to know which details are imagined and which are facts; I feel compelled to research, further disgusting myself. I wanted to remain "Canadian," above it all. I refused to reward the sick behavior of the wounded with my attention, to reinforce the tendency of the unloved and the unwanted to force themselves upon us, to be the "Most Wanted," the ones the police "like," the "darlings" of a media only too happy to exploit them. MacDonald refuses to let me sit back in my splendid isolation and lick my waffle cone in the summer heat.
The writer has nailed this character, never slipping out of her chosen narrative position, never inserting an image or a reference alien to her narrator's head or life experience. Obsessed with her hair and appearance, living as if in a bubble underwater, the narrator seems strangely invulnerable, cocooned in her own rationalizations and fantasies, impossible to empathize with or feel anything for except disgust. An ice queen. The problem with the limited point of view is that it takes us down there with the narrator where we are stuck with her twisted insight. Now really, why would I want to go down that path and stay there? How can I, the reader, get out of that hole, that snake pit? How do I overcome the gag reflex? Do I want to? Now I'm answering my own questions. I can think about it, talk about what I think and feel, write about it, search for more information. Do all the things art asks us to do. For ultimately this novel is exploring relationships between emotion, fantasy, play, pornography, crime, imagination, and art.
Humor me as I don my Cassandra cape. I predict that Ms. MacDonald will revisit this story. First, to imagine the man with the briefcase hiding the catalogue of horrors. Then, when Mississauga has healed, she may play around with her recipe. Add some egg to the cream, the way they used to do in the old days. The next flavor, maybe Alias Jane Doe, will be less a juxtaposition than an augmentation. The yolk and the vanilla beans give a subtle tan to the milk-white, a thicker creaminess which we cannot see but sense. Less horrific, more nourishing, rewarding the curious and the faithful reader with insight, with answers to the questions we wished we had never had to ask. How could this ever have happen here? How can we ensure in the future that our children do not have such empty places where a soul should be? M-i-s-s, i-s-s, a-u-g-a, strong and free. | October 1999