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Pickle Me This

Unstable Atoms

Adult Onsetadultonset
By Ann-Marie MacDonald
Tin House Books, 2015

I had a job at Pizza Hut in the last years of the old century, the location on Toronto’s Bloor Street just west of Avenue Road. I worked the take-out counter, serving ancient slices that were sweating under the heat-lamps, and one day I looked up from the till to see an elephant lumbering by, a bright emerald ribbon secured to its tail.

The Pizza Hut — where black sludge used to bubble up through a drain in the floor and I’d be instructed to push it back down with a broom — no longer exists. The two-story building was demolished a few years ago, replaced with a stack of condos and a luxury dentist’s office on the main floor whose waiting room boasts a glittering chandelier.

This is across the road from the museum, stone lions on display in a Chinese garden outside the concrete modernist galleries housing dinosaur bones and Egyptian sarcophaguses. A scene that was the very definition of permanence, I’d imagined — the solidity of all that stone. Although the museum galleries themselves were only fifteen years old and not even a decade later would be demolished too, replaced by a jutting, divisive glass structure designed by Daniel Libeskind, named “The Crystal,” reflecting the city at sharp and curious angles.

CrystThe Crystal no longer reflects the three-story McDonalds on the north side of Bloor, or the Vietnamese restaurant next door to that. Both of these were tenants in buildings that were also torn down for condominiums, along with The Bedford Ballroom further west where I used to go for dinner with my parents, the Swiss Chalet, the Harvey’s, and the Country Style Donuts on the corner of Bloor and Bedford where I once found part of a fingernail in a lemon-poppy-seed muffin.

The tall modern building at the corner of Bloor and Bedford now features the yellow brick façade of an old house across from the subway entrance, a house that never actually stood there.* It is the entrance to a Starbucks and adds an extraneous layer to my confusion as I pass by it now, along the sidewalk beside the street where the elephant once walked. The elephant a part of a St. Patrick’s Day parade, if I can properly recollect, though I wonder how could I ever be expected to do such a thing.

To properly recollect, I mean.

Because although I am walking down the same street and I am the same person, neither of these things is exactly true.

I must allow for the possibility that there never was an elephant at all.

Mary-Rose McKinnon, the protagonist of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s 2014 novel Adult Onset, recently published in the US, has her own Bloor Street. “She has lived here long enough to have seen the street change clothes if not character, and behind every new façade she can still see the earlier ones, layered like old movie posters.” She walks past the Lebanese restaurant that used to be a Hungarian restaurant, past the one Hungarian restaurant that is still a Hungarian restaurant, past the bookstore that is still a bookstore…

adultonsetmacdonaldThough it is a bookstore no longer; Book City’s Annex location closed down in 2014. Soon after the Sobeys next door (previously Blockbuster Video) became a Bulk Barn. MacDonald’s contemporary novel is historical already, though it might be more accurate to say that it exists outside of time.

Near the end of the novel — which takes place over a week in which Mary-Rose is in crisis, parenting her two small children alone while past traumas seem alarmingly present — a piece of time becomes lost entirely, five whole pages of text, along with a bouquet of tulips. Five pages during which Mary-Rose walks along Bloor Street trying to puzzle together the pieces of her past, of her present: “All of it happened, none of it happened, it is still happening…”

She has become convinced that she is repeating her parents’ patterns of abuse upon her own children, overwhelmed by a rage that seems so much like her mother’s. There is no escape from her history, she feels; her children are in danger. “She cannot see a future…It is possible to be outside on a sunny day and trapped inside a cave.”

Standing on the corner of Bathurst and Bloor Streets, across from Honest Ed’s (which, perhaps incidentally, is also the corner where Reta Winters’ daughter found her own honestedstrauma in Carol Shields’ Unless), Mary-Rose is on the edge of suicide: “Pain. She tastes the impact, yearns for the relief of it, metal slamming into her, smashing her.”

She steps into the traffic.

Or she doesn’t.

The next page is blank, and then we find her on the other side of the street. The tulips she was holding have disappeared. It will turn out that she never actually bought them at all — the shopkeeper has no recollection. Or at least Mary-Rose never bought the flowers in her current dimension, on this this particular Bloor Street.

While this incident is a key point on which the story turns, it is actually just one of many extraordinary encounters the reader finds within the novel. The idea of parallel universes has already been introduced through the series of popular fantasy books with which Mary-Rose found fame as an author, novels involving a girl who discovers an alternate version of herself living in a world called “Otherwhere.”

Closer to home, the past itself functions as another kind of otherwhere. From Mary-Rose’s perspective, there seems to be an impassable gulf between then and now, even though the characters are the same people. This is particularly the case when Mary Rose observes her parents’ ease and comfort with her domestic life in contrast with their cruel and traumatising response to her coming-out decades before, pain she can’t seem to get over: “Light being what it is, those scenes were still playing out somewhere…” (In fact, MacDonald — or is it Mary-Rose? — has these scenes actually playing out within the text.)

Years after telling her daughter that she’d rather she’d died of cancer than be a lesbian, Mary-Rose’s mother is now a doting grandmother, sweetly senile, her own sense of time and history playing in her mind on a loop instead of moving forward. And Mary-Rose’s sense of her own immediate narrative seems as non-linear as her mother’s — no wonder she has concerns about her health. Her anxiety about her children is manifesting in visions of them being hurt, those scenes of harm playing out extensively in the otherwhere that is her mind.

MAtwoodThe text also gestures toward an alternate universe that is in fact the non-fictional world, referencing real-life figures and scenes that have played out in reality — “Someone in a Volvo drives by, it looks like Margaret Atwood. It is Margaret Atwood.” These scenes, which are not limited to MacDonald’s own considerable autobiographical details and this appearance by Atwood, serve to deepen the texture of the fiction.

In one such example, Mary-Rose remembers her older sister bundling her and her brother into the car when she was a child, an escape from their mother’s rages:

She drove out to the locks at Kingston Mills. It rained.
They looked at the canal. There were places where you
could drive a car right in if you weren’t careful.

This last sentence takes on additional heft when one considers that the Kingston Mills Locks are where the bodies of Zaina, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, and their father’s first wife Rona Amir Mohammed were found inside a car underwater during the summer of 2009. The girls’ parents and brother would be convicted of the murders, underlining the violence ever-present within family life. “All of it happened, none of it happened, it is still happening…”

There is a yellow balloon that haunts the first half of Adult Onset, one of “the expiring balloons from [Mary-Rose’s son’s] fifth birthday party” that has “revived to float above the floor, riding the gusts of hilarity.” A lingering presence, just like a ghost: “God bless Balloon King and their money’s-worth helium.”

Not far into the novel, Mary-Rose visits Toronto Western Hospital for an appointment with a specialist, and notes the blessed Balloon King (a party store) across the street. Balloons are a portent in the novel, and the Balloon King a sacred ground, somehow. I decided this point when I got to page 374 — on which Mary-Rose’s streetcar rattles up Bathurst Street — and read about her noticing that the Balloon King has become a Starbucks. But just days before, which is to say a few hundred pages before, on the day of Mary-Rose’s hospital visit, that location had still been the Balloon King.

Aha, I said, getting out my trusty pen to underline. This occurrence is first a non-literal representation of what happens in a city (the Pizza Hut transformed into condos, seemingly overnight — the city itself is as unstable as memory) but also an indication that Mary-Rose’s world is not quite our world, and that perhaps the reader is best to avoid literal translations.

I got that part wrong though. I realize now as I leaf through the pages, that the earlier hospital trip had in fact taken place months before, not days before, a strand of narrative from the not-so-distant past. My thesis is undermined, and yet my mistake proves something else — the reader’s experience of the narrative is meant to be as disorienting as Mary-Rose’s.

starbucksAll this doesn’t stop me from noting what I first take to be an error in the text, however. On Mary-Rose’s Bloor Street, which is remarkable in its specificity and comparability to mine, there is a Starbucks at Bloor and Howland. No way, my swift pen notes with an asterisk — the Starbucks on my Bloor Street is one block west at Albany Avenue.

But there are no accidents in MacDonald’s fictional universe(s). It does not escape my notice that it is in this dislocated fictional Starbucks that Mary-Rose encounters a fan who dares to correct her on a plot-point. He’s not wrong either, and:

She flees [from him] an impostor in her own life; a husk of
whoever it was that, once upon a time, created a world that
others could claim, a world in which readers could immerse
themselves…and feel they belonged.

The first time I read Adult Onset, it was late September, the beginning of autumn. I’ve reread it now the following June, discovering that rereading is its own kind of otherwhere. The most salient difference is that I didn’t have a two-year-old then. My youngest daughter was fifteen months old, still categorically a baby. I would have cheerfully read along the passages in which Mary-Rose battles with her youngest daughter, who is two, fiercely two. Boot-hurling, inflicting-violence, suffused-with-rage-and-frustration two. The same age my baby is now, and when I read the scenes about their battles, my response is visceral. I empathize with Mary-Rose’s situation in a way I wouldn’t have nine months ago.

Another thing that’s changed for me is the nameless voice that keeps and marks the passage of time: Hi there, and happy Thursday… Jian Ghomeshi, host of the CBC radio morning show Q. Its placement in the text always vaguely sinister, but especially in light of Ghomeshi having been charged with several counts of sexual assault just weeks after I read the book the first time.

All of which is to say that by both design and by accident, a literary text then turns out to be as stable as a city street. And while a rereading of Adult Onset reveals the tautness of its construction — the attentive rereader will note that the novel is rife with signs and omens — there is something essentially illusory about the book. Almost magically, its narrative possibilities refuse to be contained. One must allow for the possibility of an elephant at any given time.

*It has since come to my attention that the facade is actually a reconstruction of a building that once stood on the site and then was demolished, the studio of notable architect John Lyle, designer of heritage buildings throughout the city. The facade is built from bricks from the original building, which had been preserved.

Kerry Clare writes about books and reading at Her debut novel, Mitzi Bytes, will be published in early 2017.