Reviewed by Zain R. Mian
The World Afloat: Miniatures. Talonbooks, 2014.
Canadian readers would be ill-advised to ignore M.A.C. Farrant’s The World Afloat. A much-lauded recipient of the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize, this collection of seventy-five miniatures vividly explores the many lives of the anonymous and misunderstood across a diverse Canadian landscape. A recent phenomenon, the miniature (or ultra-short story) has few notable practitioners at present. Usually under five-hundred words long, this form tests an author’s ability to lace each sentence with pathos and meaning. Farrant accepts this challenge with aplomb.
As far as characters go, Farrant’s work has no single star whose name lights up the proverbial golden-yellow marquee. Rather, her collection thrives through the richness of its ensemble cast, which features a host of idiosyncratic personalities – from the “small Asian woman in a birdcage” (7) to “Owen with his red moustache and excellent teeth” (81). Despite the absence of a central figure that may elicit our sympathies, Farrant attunes us to the individual’s struggle to make sense of everyday life. Her stories revel in the unfailing tendency of things around us to come undone. In this world, characterized by the disintegration of language, the economy, and reality itself, it is a chore to keep the ordinary functioning. In Farrant’s universe, one must actively struggle to sustain appearances, to hold the world afloat, as it were.
Farrant produces a disjointed reading experience. The relations between her tales and characters are tenuous; each brief vignette moves swiftly into the next with little ceremony. There is no obvious causal or temporal connection between adjacent stories such as “Autumn Idyll” and “Steak Soup.” Farrant’s project is not to give us a unified narrative of a steady and stable subject. Instead, she creates a constellation of very focused fragments, all of which function as windows to reveal precisely those moments when the supposed solidity of everyday experience melts into air. In focusing largely on these instances, Farrant builds a truly absurd collection – one that prides itself on its internal inconsistencies, and seeks to magnify them.
The World Afloat is interested in exploring discontent. Its characters teeter on the edge of economic instability. These individuals look out from their unfulfilling suburban lives, wishing for something more, to “be in another world, a car commercial or something” (42). Farrant fills her work with distinctly middle-class landscapes: Value Village and Shoppers Drug Mart are regular fixtures. One finds a clear divide between the expansive “us” that incorporates the central characters in this work, and the “them” that recalls, more often than not, a seemingly perfect upper-class society viewed from the outside. It is exactly this second world that Farrant evokes through the image of the car commercial, and which recurs in the reference to the Muses that have now “gone mad and are living as lady golfers in Palm Springs, California” (62).
The miniatures in The World Afloat may be broadly divided into two types. In the first kind of story, Farrant takes as her focus very brief spans of time in the present or in the recent past, as is the case with “Young Man with Leaflets,” “The Next Story,” and “The Times Felt like Doctoring.” In the other sort of story, Farrant attempts a comparison between two distant moments in time. In stories such as “Back Then” and “Wanting Cake,” Farrant depicts how the past impinges on the present, using this comparison to introduce either satire or pathos into her work. Farrant is at her strongest in the first sort of story. The short, strange, and immediate event proves the most apt subject for her writing, for it is precisely in these momentary events that the mask of the world comes off. In contrast, Farrant’s prose is weaker in the stories that attempt to reckon whole lives within only a few paragraphs. Pressed for laconicism, Farrant risks reducing her characters to types. Their life stories, so compressed, seem almost bathetic. The satirical element, when it is there, appears forced. This small failing of The World Afloat, however, bodes well for us. It is part and parcel of our collective exploration of this young literary form – the miniature, the micro-story, flash fiction, whatever we may choose to call it. It is a necessary step in the present moment as Farrant, as a modern literary explorer, claims fresh territories of form and genre.
Zain R. Mian has
recently graduated from McGill University with First
Class Honours in English Literature. He begins graduate studies this fall,
focusing on postcolonial literature, the state, and nationalism. Zain has been
a dedicated reader, writer, and editor of fiction for much of his life. He has
edited Old McGill, The Veg Literary Magazine, and Scrivener
Creative Review. He is presently the founding editor of Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies.
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