31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 21: “Magnificat” by K.D. Miller, revisited

May 21, 2015 by · 2 Comments 

From All Saints

All_Saints_KD_Miller“Every critic,” writes Philip Marchand in the opening chapter of his 1998 book Ripostes, ” … must feel, at one time or another, a bit of a fake. Every critic must sometimes suspect, upon feeling baffled by a book, that there are other, more acute readers, who have understood the author’s intentions – understood them, and relished the results. They are not baffled. But meanwhile, intelligence has failed you, the critic. In a few cases, it may have failed so badly that your remarks will serve to amuse posterity.” These comments occur in a chapter not incidentally entitled “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” and they are comments that have long struck a chord with me.

Any critic tries – or, at least, should try – not to get it wrong. A critic’s first responsibility, after all, is not to posterity, or to the aggrandizement of ego or reputation, but to the work under consideration. Honesty is important, yes, but so is intelligence, and a willingness to see things that might be difficult or outside the realm of one’s own experience. One might call this latter quality, for want of a better word, empathy.

Of course, being human, there are times that critics will get it wrong. They will be working too fast, or dealing with pressing matters in their personal lives – a sick relative, the pressures of a job (most literary critics in this country not being able to make a living off their writing alone), insomnia, a recalcitrant landlord – that may make them less attentive than they should be. There is the ringing telephone, background noise from the café or (on those few days the weather will allow) the park where one has taken refuge to read, or any number of other distractions.

Elsewhere in his essay, Marchand comments on the anxiety that accompanies the “feeling that if I read a given paragraph with less than maximum attention I might miss the key to the whole book.” He applies this principle to novels; it works equally powerfully with short stories.

One week ago in this space, I chose to focus on K.D. Miller’s story “Magnificat,” from her 2014 collection All Saints. This was not my first encounter with Miller’s story: I had reviewed the collection for the National Post when it first came out, and returned to it again at the end of the year, when I included it on my selection of standout books for Quill & Quire. “Magnificat” was, to my mind, one of the strongest stories in the collection, and as I was putting together the list of stories I wished to focus on for this year’s 31 Days of Stories, it bubbled to the top. I reread it and crafted a post explicating my experience of the story.

My interpretation of the characters and events in the piece involved a reading of the older character, Julia, as a spinster who was innocent of sex and sexual encounters, and used the church as a substitute for such carnal matters. From my first encounter with the story, there was something about the final sequence that bothered me, but it was nothing I could put my finger on precisely. It was just a feeling that something was off, that I was missing something. This feeling did nothing to diminish my admiration for the story, or for Miller’s writing, which is among the finest and most subtle I have encountered in some time.

These, of course, are the very qualities that should have given me pause.

Yesterday, I was pleased to read a post at the blog Matilda Magtree. In addition to saying nice things about this site and its annual focus on short fiction, the blog’s author, Carin Makuz, offered an alternate take on the events of the story from my own:

Julia, an unattached, never married, middle-aged woman with blisters on her feet and a pretty ordinary life notices a young couple, Cathy and Gabe, having it off in the park. Only something’s not right about the scene and it makes Julia remember an incident of sexual abuse at the hands of a man who recited religious passages, which caused her to sing the Magnificat … essentially, a  survival technique.

Makuz references the scene in the story in which Julia is in bed, imagining herself the Virgin Mary, a scene I also pointed to in my own post to illustrate a different reading of the story and the character. That scene, I believe, should best be read straight, with the character longing for a kind of immaculate conception, a kind of idealized relationship in the realm of sex.

However, that reading in no way negates Makuz’s idea that Julia, far from being virginal herself, has suffered abuse in her past. As she follows Cathy and Gabe into the park, the words “be not afraid” go through her head, and Miller writes, “Strange. Those words haven’t gone through her mind for – well, not since she was a girl.” There is nothing explicit here, only a hint that something wrong, something far beyond the simple shock of following a young couple into a park and witnessing them having sex.

The key passage occurs on the second-last page of the story, after Julia has dragged herself away from the scene of the couple and collapsed onto a stone bench in the park:

Out of habit, she looks at her watch. She can barely see the hands, and in any case cannot remember what time it was the last time she looked. No way of knowing how long she had been in the park, then. How long it took. The thing that happened. The thing that was done to her.

Yes. Something was done. And it was done to her. She begins to cry. And she was terribly frightened by it. She has suffered something dreadful, she whimpers to herself. Something that ought not to have been done.

To what does this passage refer? What is the something that has been done to Julia – something that Miller insists was done to her, emphasizing this through the use of italics on the page? My own reading had this as a kind of transference: the it referring to Julia’s somatic reaction to the sex between Cathy and Gabe; the “thing that was done to [Julia]” being her recognition of a burning desire for the same kind of carnal knowledge, something that has passed her by in her life.

Yet does one not have to work hard to read the passage this way? Is it not simpler, more obvious, to read it as Makuz does, as indicating that Julia has been the victim of abuse (“Something was done. And it was done to her“)? She tells herself not to be afraid upon entering the park, not because she is trailing the couple and fears being caught, or is fearful of what she might witness them doing, but because the park was the scene of her long-ago violation. “She has suffered something dreadful … Something that ought not to have been done.” How much more explicit does Miller need to be?

Makuz is extraordinarily generous in suggesting that my own reading of the story is not wrong, merely a different interpretation of the events on the page. Perhaps. Though returning to the story now, having digested Makuz’s reading, the passage above appears to stand out as though in neon. Perhaps this is another instance of transference. Or, perhaps more likely, my earlier post must go down as one of those failures of intelligence that Marchand warned of.

Comments

2 Responses to “31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 21: “Magnificat” by K.D. Miller, revisited”
  1. carin makuz says:

    Not to be all Chip & Dale but this is some kind of extraordinary generosity in itself. Cheers.

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  1. […] Was gob-smacked to find Steven Beattie’s re-visit to Miller’s story; even more gs’d to know my interpretation resonated. Because, well, what do I know?? […]