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August 15, 2009

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

Something happens when you work in libraries for too long, even part-time. I learned this the day a patron came to the circulation desk asking to borrow a stapler, and I had to explain why this was against our policy: “If we gave it out to you, then we’d have to give them out to everyone.” It was a sorry power trip, from up there on my desk-high perch, and I even felt like kind of a hero. Averting mass stapler lending, which really means holding off CHAOS in the library, the foundation of our society. Where would we be without me?

But I was not the worst case. One librarian where I worked had seen fit to apply labels to every object at the circ desk and the place where that object was to rest. “Pencils” said one tin, “erasers” said another. “Paper Cutter” lived in the “Paper Cutter” place. “Coats” on the closet. This was the Dewey Decimal System gone mad!! I wrote “Floor” on a post-it note, and placed it underfoot. My colleagues, being librarians, failed to see the humour.

But I love it. I don’t think I’ve always been like this, but after a cumulative five years of library work, my own books (and CDs) are always in alpha order. Out at the library, I am always made steady by the sureness of call numbers– that everything will be where it is supposed to. I used to relish shelf-reading, and not just because I got to browse the stacks, but whenever I found a volume out of place and put it back where it belonged, I’d performed a task even more worthwhile than keeping would-be stapler lendees tamed. I love libraries. I love cataloguing. May the god of order forever reign.

At the Toronto Public Library, as I now know, employees are instructed to log incidents which take place on their shifts. Martha Baillie’s novel The Incident Report is made up of such logs, Miriam, her protagonist, seeing fit to order her life to fit the confines of these reports. Perhaps a way to order chaos indeed, as her job sees her engaging in bizarre (and sometimes dangerous) interactions with those on the fringes of society. Her incident reports “resembling a pack of cards” stacked in a desk drawer, containing records of what you might expect (and what you couldn’t possibly imagine but some of which probably comes from truth [Baillie is a librarian in the Toronto Public system]), but also episodes from her personal life (which include a man she meets while sitting on a park bench during her lunch break), and from her history (usually about her father, and a tragedy in her past).

Miriam’s strait-laced recounting of library incidents is very often amusing, but also poignant, this underlined by Baillie’s exquisite prose. The every-day becomes captured for its singular moments, its eccentric characters, and the library as a marvelous backdrop. Baillie goes further, however, with excellent plotting, this potentially gimmicky book distinctly a novel, with romance, mystery, suspense, darkness, and tragedy (oh god, the gasp I uttered near the end, I could not believe it, I wanted to turn back the pages and have it happen a different way, but alas, there is only going forward).

This is a clever little book, but not too clever, for it is mostly beautiful. Rich with literary allusions that aren’t the point, but still round out the universe. And rich too with story, which goes to show that you can make stories happen anywhere.

2 thoughts on “The Incident Report by Martha Baillie”

  1. Britt Gullick says:

    This made me think of the time, after a 12 hour indirect flight from Mexico gone completey awry, with nothing to eat all day and bad air exchange on a full plane, I arrived at the Toronto Airport only to find, after an additional hour of waiting, that my baggage had gone missing. I went to the clerk who instructed me to wait an additional hour before filling out a claim form. I waited 60 minutes exactly before turning to him and asking for the form. Which he gave to me. I asked, then, for a pen. Despite his pocket full of them, he refused to give me one, saying that if he gave me one, I would probably just take it, and then everyone else would take one, and then there would be no more pens. Can you imagine the wrath that ensued? Deprive me of food, sleep, luggage and writing utensils and watch what happens.

  2. Melanie says:

    Love this review, so precise and thoughtful. I felt the same way about the ending; and yet it all seemed inevitable. I was impressed by the way Baillie avoided the gimmicky potential of the form, as well.

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