Reviewed by Ryan Porter
The Un Certainty Principle. Chaudiere Books, 2014.
Ottawa’s prolific rob mclennan has published more than twenty books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His most recent title, The Un Certainty Principle, falls somewhere within those generic lines. Although marketed as fiction, the collection sometimes reads like poetry masquerading as microfiction, as mclennan often values the aural effect of language and the power of a solitary image over all else. The work reads as a series of short, random, disconnected snippets, and focuses on how the unknown, the unsaid, and the apocryphal are central to our lives. It is also often peripatetic, and while the thematic continuity seems at times lost, the collection is consistently satisfying for its brevity and humour.
Alternately written in the first and third person, mclennan’s brief narrations flit from family history to pop-culture references (The Lost Boys and Russell Brand) to moments not of epiphany, but of its contrast, what might be called the “known unknowns.” For example, “When I was young, my mother confided to me a number of stories … Some time later, I asked about one and she swore it not true…Now, I am disappointed by her unreliability, that something she confided so easily dismissed, and now question everything she tells me, even the things I know for a fact are completely true” (58). Here mclennan’s persona reveals the illusoriness of surety, the brittleness of that knowledge we daily take for granted; even a mother’s constancy can be shadowed by doubt.
The Un Certainty Principle focuses on solitary instances, anecdotes really, and the revelations emerging from these moments yield only uncertainty for the persona; these short selections are often about a growing awareness of one’s own lack of awareness. Consider the following final lines from a selection of mclennan’s narratives: “I begin to realize how little I know of the situation, and just how sheltered I’ve been” (57); “There was something we wanted not to have known” (65); “If I say that I situate myself somewhere between atheist and agnostic, it means I’m not sure what I don’t believe” (67). Many passages conclude by affirming the un-affirmable, which, far from confounding the reader, generally and successfully yields hushed revelations and an appreciative pondering of the final turn that casts new light on the entire preceding passage.
mclennan’s writing is also very funny and his humour displays a propensity towards bawdy puns: “Here’s my idea to make money for the American Federal Government, in bumper sticker slogans: Some like the Senate, I prefer Congress” (42). Or how about the following zinger: “I’ve been chaste for years, she says. Now it’s finally caught up with me” (48). Yet even in this quotation, it is the homophonic indeterminacy of “chaste,” the not knowing if it’s this or that, upon which the humour rests (as all puns do, come to think of it).
One continuing thread throughout the collection is mclennan’s Twitter parody, #IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp, which appears several times throughout the collection: “Winnipeg was founded by cheese moguls. #IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp”(68). While I tend to see these passages as simply mclennan being playful, I also read a social critique regarding new media’s shucking off of the obligation to actually confirm what they transmit. What is communicated through hashtags and memes? Are these part of our unfiltered access to knowledge, the ostensible promise of the digital era, or merely ephemeral bricks with which we naïvely construct a modern, spectral epistemology?
mclennan’s book never explicitly poses these questions. What it confirms, if it confirms anything, is that life, rather than offering an accumulation of knowledge, of facts and data allowing us to bustle confidently through our days, is a slow accretion of questions left both unasked and unanswered.
Ryan Porter is a Professor of Technical Communication at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He received his Ph.D. from Queen's University and wrote his dissertation on small-town Ontario literature. His articles and reviews have appeared in a number of Canadian and international journals.
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