Toronto: Pedlar Press, 2009.
This photo does not do the cover of the book justice, nor do any others I have found. On the cover of The Incident Report is a photograph of a book with black binding called The Incident Report, a novel by Martha Baillie. The photograph is sharp enough that you can see that it has a fabric hardcover binding, but there is a visible laid and wove pattern of the paper used for the actual cover that competes with the horizontal lines of the photographed fabric cover. Art and life duke it out in the visible signs of texture.
Inside the covers, art and life also duke it out, and form continues to be a defining principle. The protagonist of the novel is Miriam, and her story is composed of 144 incident reports about the goings on at the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library. These are often short (one paragraph, rarely more than one page) sketches of the crazies who come in to the library, and it must surely be one of the premises of this novel that Information Studies (formerly known as Library Science) should include classes in social work. I call them “crazies”; Miriam is less judgemental, almost emotionless. As Karen Luscombe states in her review,
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.
My favourite incident report is one I am afraid I will be doomed to enact in my dotage:
Incident Report 92
An elderly patron identified himself as Ovid Mallory. He came to the Reference desk to say he had “lost his ideas.” As he could not recall his phone number or address, the police were called. The time was 5:30 PM. (135)
Baillie herself has worked as a public librarian, and the end papers of the novel (the numbers 1-9 written closely and repetitively in ballpoint pen and covering the front and back of loose leaf paper) were papers she found in her own librarian life.
I had no reason to believe the writer of numbers was a man, but often as not, beliefs ignore reason. (41)
In addition to the sketches of the library’s crazy patrons, a mystery and a love story unfold, so the short reports do begin to accrue narrative continuity. Miriam finds the score to Rigoletto in the photocopier, and then she begins to receive threatening notes from a man who adopts the identity of Verdi’s mad anti-hero. The blurring of art and life becomes a threat, and the police are called in.
Ultimately, there are actually few discussions of the content of books in this book about books. Miriam’s father had been a bibliophile with the hoarder’s illness of amassing things and substituting goods for emotional gratification. His books clog the passageways and staircases of their house, they overtake the garage, they threaten to topple onto all of them. Odd that she would choose the profession of providing books to people when they are such a source of sorrow and shame at home.
The intertextual references are to opera, music, painting, fairy tales, which of course appear in books but are part of an oral tradition. Books themselves are used as projectiles, screens behind which to masturbate, and surfaces on which to ejaculate. Miriam does go in search for books for patrons, but more often she provides them with other things: web sites, sheet music and toilet paper to take home. The library is many things to many people.
The form is clever, but I rather thought it proved its point too well: we are a fragmented lot, but we crave continuity. Our society is fragmented, the minds of both the mentally stable and unstable are fragmented, we crave stability, but it is in short supply. When Miriam meets her lover, Baillie uses the brevity and impressionism of the incident reports to great effect for the sex scenes. There are flashes of eros, and they are beautiful. But flashes of eros are not enough, and Miriam keeps asking Janko to tell her stories about himself. In that repetition she not only hopes to build a narrative identity for him, she also tests him, probing for gaps in his story that might indicate that he is not telling the truth.
She needs more, and so did I. I found the fragmented sketches to be an obstacle to pleasure, and while I became more engaged as the mystery of Rigoletto unfolded, the appeal of the descriptions of the patrons wore thin.
As a book about books, though, it succeeds brilliantly and darkly. Like Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile, this book warns that we get lost in books at our own peril, that human connection trumps falling into a well of lost plots.
For a link to an interview on CBC, visit Martha Baillie’s site here.