My Reader

My Reader, My Co-Conspirator

By Richard Cumyn

I was crossing Spring Garden Road near the Public Gardens in Halifax, when the young man ahead of me suddenly turned toward the older woman walking beside him and began directly a loud and ugly invective at her, some of which identified her as his mother. People's heads swivelled towards the sound and then away just as quickly as if recoiling from a blow. Many, incredulous, continued to gawk. As he executed an agitated shuffle on the toes of his high basketball shoes, the young man's body seemed to grow and spread like a flapping cape above the woman. All the while, she kept her hands thrust deep into the pockets of her jacket, her head submerged as far into her shoulders as possible. A moment later mother and son together disappeared around a corner.

Although a similar incident hasn't yet appeared in my fiction, I know someday it will, and I'll have to watch it play out again. This time, however, it will be as part of a new matrix. I'll have help with the job, and this time, if the Muse allows, the scene will make sense.

When I write, I teeter between what the world is and what I'd like it to be. The pattern I try to impose on existence is as much an act of desire as it is the result of observation. This desire, which is any storyteller's, exhibits three qualities: abandonment, seduction, and conspiracy.

I try to balance the knowledge that a son could so cruelly debase his parent, with a wilful -- some would say naive -- arrangement of the pieces of the actual, until my desire for them can be read clearly. Which is not to say that everyone will read my deliberate disregard for the facts in the same way. The imposition of my desire, my pattern, stops at the page. My wish, "This is the way I would like it to be, this is the way I dreamt it," though implicit in the act of fiction, is never explicit, never dominant enough to pull the reader through to a single conclusion. In this way, it is an act of abandonment. I leave my desire on the reader's doorstep, with a note attached: "Take good care of this baby. See her for what she is." (In contrast, this essay acts more like a hostage-taking; my argument is the gun to your head, although you see it for what it is, a toy, a soap-carved weapon.)

The story I write, fruit of desire, abandoned bundle, is also a piece of seduction. For if I have done my job well, left the thing clean, fed, warm, accustomed to being loved, then who but a cold stone heart could resist such a package? Smiling. Cooing, gurgling sense to beat the band. A seduction it must be, then, of the irresistible kind.

My wilful act has a third quality. I did not do this alone. I had someone in mind all along, an accomplice, one whose sensibilities, though like my own, may differ from mine in aspects unknown. (You can picture her, can't you? She has relaxed her shoulders a bit now, is looking warily about her.) My accomplice is the one seduced, willingly so. My reader, the one enamoured of the foundling as if it were her very own, sees it is no ill-formed thing, this story left on the step. Its form is evident from first glance, yet it does not resemble any other. Its clothes are hand-made, not from synthetic stuff. There is intelligence in its eyes, sweetness and symmetry all about it, and mystery. And it has a voice, one so jarring as to rouse you from healing sleep and make you pace the floor in astonished contemplation of its song.

Once my collaborator has bent to pick up the package, brought it into the house, and closed the door, the transaction is irrevocable. All sales final. No returns, no exchanges. The one who takes in my foundling fiction risks a change far more profound than do I, the one who could keep it no longer. And even if the adoptive parent knows who I am, she does not know what to say to me, I find. The understanding, that the two of us conspired to commit an intimate communication, that we were each seduced, I by the thought of another seeing and understanding my desire, she by the pattern itself, seems better left unspoken.

Who would write a writer, then, (unless it be the writer's mother or another writer, ever exempt from this sort of injunction) to ask about or give praise for a story, has missed an important cue. Such correspondence, balm though it is for the writer's ego, does nothing further to illuminate the piece, and can only spawn the exchange of embarrassing platitudes. The writer of fan mail (in my case this is mere conjecture, you understand) is a lazy collaborator and potentially guilty of child neglect. To such a reader I would want to say (but would never: this is fan mail we're talking about here; I'm only human!), "Go back and read it again, please. What did I do wrong, what did I fail to achieve, that you could pull yourself away so easily from something that now is more yours than mine? I can't do anything more to help you. I did my best with it. I cleaned it up, I took care of its basic needs. It can grow only with you now. It may grow to attack you in the middle of the street. That I can't prevent. But this time, this time, you'll know why."

(Richard Cumyn is fiction editor of The Blue Moon Review and author of two short-story collections, The Limit of Delta Y Over Delta X, (Goose Lane, 1994) and I Am Not Most Places (Beach Holme, 1996).