The quote from Margaret Atwood on the back of this collection identifies Clark Blaise as a “master storyteller and border-crosser”.
This might refer to the national borders that the characters cross in the eleven stories in this collection.
It might also refer to the fact that the author — though born to English-Canadian and French-Canadian parents — lived in more than 20 cities in the United States before attending university in Pittsburgh, moving to Montreal, living in Toronto, and moving back to the United States.
And it might also refer to the borders between the stories in this collection, for the characters therein move across the stories themselves like they move across national borders.
(The collection begins with an instruction: “These stories are intended to be read in order.” Readers who normally prefer novels will find the way in which characters slip between stories in The Meagre Tarmac satisfying indeed.)
There are also other borders negotiated in the stories: between truth and rumour, between traditional and modern values, between past and present, between alienation and engagement, between happiness and loneliness, between perfection and chaos, between movement and stillness.
Ultimately, there are no firm boundaries. In stories told about the old country, talk of geographic boundaries shifting reveals that even these can shift.
Many of the characters in The Meagre Tarmac find themselves negotiating not a dividing line, but a state of between-ness.
In “The Quality of Life”, a four-year-old boy observes the prop plane that will take him and his family to Bombay and then London and then Montreal:
“Our bags — my father’s old suitcases from his student days in Scotland, taller than I am — are lined up at the edge of the tarmac under a strip of awning.”
This thin strip of pavement is a border too, as much marked by expulsion and exile as it is marked by promise and discovery. But it is the emotional hinge that turns upon this lifeless strip which preoccupies the author of these tales.
One character considers “…I would not call myself happy. I am well-adjusted. We are all extremely well-adjusted. I believe my situation is not uncommon among successful immigrants of my age and background.”
Another wonders whether “[m]aybe the time has come to be the author, not the editor of my life”.
And yet another observes that a spouse “has strong memories of India, but when she visits, she’s unengaged and mainly irritated. She’s able to compartmentalize, or maybe just pinch off what she doesn’t need. Deadheading the past, like a good gardener.”
The Meagre Tarmac is a deliberately crafted tour of “the endless middle of an unticketed journey”.
Clark Blaise’s collection could be viewed as a cross between 2006’s winning linked-story collection Blood-letting and Miraculous Cures (Vincent Lam) and the taut prose of a classic Canadian writer in 2004’s winning Runaway (Alice Munro). Might this be a winning combination?
Characters are drawn tightly enough to be recognized even in a one-sentence-long reference several stories later; the art of interconnecting obviously requires incredible attention-to-detail but less-obviously demands that these details carry an untoward emotional weight.
Precise. “She’d spent a life straightening other people’s creations, pinching the language here and there. ” / “I haven’t moved in hours and have barely spoken, but my heart is racing, as though I’d climbed the very steep hill below me.” / “Perfection seems just a more refined form of accident.”
The meagre tarmac. Bombay. Calcutta. Bangalore. San Francisco. Italy. The leaning tower of Pisa. New York City. Toronto. Montreal. London. Caranzalem. Goa. The collection simultaneously seems to contain pieces of everywhere but be attached to no one place in particular.
Characters are often distanced from the reader by their own sense of being apart, of being at a distance from what matters and from their own selves. “I am now truly, alone in the world, a middle-aged orphan.” Depends upon the reader’s willingness to cross their borders.
You are mesmerized by the way cream behaves when it’s poured into coffee in a glass. You constantly move your chair in the garden: sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the shade, sometimes both. Maybe once you stared at the ground, charting the marked progress of the rain, the visible and changeable line between dry and wet on the pavement as it moved like a sheet pulled across a bed.
Rohinton Mistry’s Tales of Firozsha Baag (1987)
Bronwen Wallace’s People You’d Trust Your Life To (1990)
Dany Laferriere’s The Return (Trans. David Homel) (2011)