One of the things I enjoy about following other bloggers and reading their reviews is the discovery of ‘new’ things, interesting books that I might not have heard of otherwise. A case in point is The Incident Report (2009), an excellent novella by the Canadian author, Martha Baillie, which I bought after reading Max’s review. I very much doubt that I would have stumbled across this book had it not been for Max’s blog, and that would have been a shame as it’s a little gem.
In some respects, Baillie’s book could be described as a fragmentary novella. The central figure here is Miriam Gordon, a thirty-five-year-old single woman who works as a Public Service Assistant at the one of the branches of Toronto’s Public Library. The book is written as a series of library incident reports. Whenever an incident occurs at library, the librarian in charge is required to complete the necessary forms detailing a description of the episode, the perpetrator, any witnesses, actions taken, etc. (There’s a template at the beginning of the book.)
The reports themselves cover quite a variety of different incidents ranging from minor offences (squabbles over the use of a computer) to health-related issues (a man who experiences recurring fainting episodes) to the downright bizarre (a guy who spends hours stripping the plastic covering from electrical wire with the aid of a pocket knife – it’s his own length of wire, not the library’s). Some reports are fairly innocuous, others more threatening and abusive. Here are a few to give you a flavour – all three are quoted in full.
Incident Report 61
A young patron, suspected of previous thefts, was caught at 10:30 this morning in the act of stealing a brand new Mad magazine. He was warned that his behaviour was ill-advised. The magazine, though slightly torn, was reinstated in the collection. (pg. 100)
Incident Report 9
At 11:20 this morning, a patron entered the library to report that a man outside, who was embracing a tree, appeared to be experiencing some distress.
By the time the ambulance arrived the man had lost hold of the tree and lay unconscious. He was lifted from the ground into the ambulance, which drove away without event. (pg 31)
Incident Report 67
At precisely 2:00 this afternoon, I received a telephone call from a patron who complained that the library ought not to hire librarians who “look like terrorists.” I thanked the caller for his advice and assured him that his concerns would be taken into consideration. He suggested that if all our librarians were dressed in cheerful uniforms, the public would feel less threatened by the severe demeanour and foreign physique of certain librarians. As soon as I’d hung up I reported his suggestion to our Branch Head, Irene Frenkel, thereby carrying out my end of the bargain. I remained uncertain as to what constituted his end of the bargain. (pg. 108)
As the book progresses, more details about Miriam herself start to emerge. Some incident reports have little to do with the library; instead they reveal something about Miriam’s life, her current situation and certain significant episodes from her past. In particular, Miriam reflects on her relationship with her father, a gentle, outwardly cheerful man who suffered terribly from an inner sense of despair.
It was all a performance, one he badly wanted to believe in, while inside his head he was whistling a private tune of grave self-deprecation and despair. A master of distractions, light on his feet for such a heavy man, and quick with his hands, he would have made a fine magician or boxer. Instead he wrote poems in rhyming verse that nobody would publish, and earned his living by selling insurance of various kinds.
I wanted to save him from humiliation. (pg. 34)
When Miriam was eleven, her father disappeared for three days. Even though she knew her husband was probably wandering around somewhere (almost certainly visiting bookstores), Miriam’s mother had a hard time accepting this, especially on his return. In time, her initial resentment turned to fear, a worry that almost certainly transferred to Miriam herself. There are more details of Miriam’s backstory in the book – in particular, the quiet tragedy of her father’s life – but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves should you decide to read the book. These experiences have left their mark on Miriam, and she is reminded of her father during another incident at the library – it’s one of the most poignant episodes in the novel (quoted here in part).
Incident Report 44
At precisely 11 AM this morning, when the library was not yet full of urgency, John B, a regular, sat down and looked at me through his watery blue eyes. His long stiff legs stuck out in front of him. His bony hands rested on the Reference Desk. He asked that I locate the Web site of a small publishing house, Raccoon Jaw Press, and write down their address for him. I did so. He explained that the press was on the brink of publishing a collection of his poems.
“Very soon my book will be out. I’ll bring you a copy.”
I thanked him and handed him the address, the same address I’d copied out for him the week before and the week before that. Once a week he requested this address. (pg. 76)
The fallout from past events has left Miriam reluctant to form any lasting relationships with men. She is wary of getting too involved, fearful of exposing herself to the possibility of more suffering in the future. Even so, Miriam finds herself attracted to a man she meets in the nearby park where she likes to go for lunch. His name is Janko, a taxi driver from Slovenia. He is kind, gentle and sensitive, an avid reader and a talented artist. Maybe, just maybe, Miriam has found a soulmate.
Incident Report 55
Again I arrived at Janko’s apartment. His skin, and under his skin. What his left toe knew. The smell of him. The orbital smell of him. That our knees spoke willingly. Inexplicably, the taste of raspberries filled my mouth. (pg. 90)
In another book, I might have found that last passage a little annoying, but not here; it works perfectly within the context of Baillie’s story as snapshots of Miriam’s new life with Janko are threaded through the second half of the novella.
Certain other threads also recur: stories of some of the library regulars, typically those who come with their own habits and idiosyncrasies; incidents involving one of Miriam’s co-workers, an annoying woman named Nila who seems to delight in sounding off about the most trivial things at every opportunity; and perhaps most worryingly, details of a series of very creepy notes left in various places around the library, notes that appear to be targeted at Miriam herself.
In spite of its fragmentary nature, Baillie’s novella hangs together quite beautifully. For such a short work it’s surprisingly layered and satisfying. Everything comes together to build a picture of Miriam’s life, and when the ending comes it packs quite a punch.
One aspect that works so well here is the juxtaposition of different tones. Some of the reports concerning ‘true’ incidents at the library – numbers 61 and 9, for example – are, on the whole, factual and objective; others – the excerpts from Miriam’s life and even some of the episodes at the library itself – are more emotive, often embellished with subjective details which bring them to life. They are by turns, amusing, touching, melancholy and unsettling.
I enjoyed this book very much. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, a novella I quite liked in parts but not as a whole. To my mind, the Baillie is the more successful of the two, or maybe it’s just more my kind of book. Either way, it’s definitely worth checking out.
The Incident Report is published by Pedlar Press.