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.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 14: “Magnificat” by K.D. Miller

May 14, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

From All Saints

All_Saints_KD_Miller“Writing is the way I pray,” K.D. Miller told fellow CanLit author Lori McNulty in the National Post. “I frequently have doubts about my relationship with my religion and my church. But writing? Never.” Miller’s substitution of an artistic impulse for the act of religious devotion is appropriate for an age in which believers and non-believers seem increasingly polarized. Mainstream or moderate adherents to any organized religion are often treated with suspicion from both sides – atheists on the one hand and fanatics on the other. Religious leaders are frequently exposed as hypocrites and charlatans, and science has provided convincing solutions for many of the existential mysteries that humans once turned to the church to explain. Doubt in sacred matters seems practically inevitable, as does the desire to find something capable of filling the spiritual void left by institutional religion’s demotion in our postmodern world.

Literature, of course, has always maintained a relationship to the divine: from the Medieval mystery plays and Dante to Bunyon and Blake, Flannery O’Connor and William Peter Blatty. The Western canon is replete with writers honouring and grappling with notions of salvation, sin, and institutionalized faith. In All Saints, her collection of linked stories circling around the titular Anglican church, Miller simultaneously extends this tradition and subverts it, writing not out of a position of blind adherence to a set of dogmatic beliefs, but from a deeply humanist perspective that attempts to examine and comprehend human nature’s essential conflicts and drives.

There are two women at the centre of “Magnificat” – one old, one younger – each of whom is grasping for something ineffable in her life. Julia is an aging spinster who has reached the twilight of her years with only the church as a steady companion. Cathy has had no shortage of male suitors, though many of them resemble Owen, the gormless poet who lives in her apartment building and whom she expends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid. At the outset, these two women appear separately, in alternating sections, but their paths intersect as the story progresses, leading to a climactic scene in a park that lays bare the malaise at the core of each character.

Thematically, Miller’s story addresses the nexus of the sacred and the profane. Julia is a devout believer, who attends All Saints regularly – as a balm, we come to understand, for the lack of companionship and emptiness she suffers in the rest of her life. She is afflicted by “an old melancholy” born of a realization that youth and experience have passed her by. “I did not take unto me a husband” is the motto she adopts for herself: “She liked to think the phrase take unto me gave her an ironic edge, and did not made her solitary state look like a choice.”

There are strong indications that Julia has remained a virgin; she is certainly censorious when it comes to matters of the flesh, and has been “disturbed by mention of sex and the Internet creeping into church services.” She is a staunch traditionalist, who prefers the evensong service “largely because modern liturgists have yet to tamper with it.” For Julia, religion should be “distant and monumental,” so as not to risk sullying itself in carnality and thereby reminding her of all that she has missed out on in her life. The church is a means of dealing with her loneliness, but only so long as it remains above and beyond the messy physical realm of human congress.

Of course, this is precisely the realm Julia is forced to confront by the end of the story. The instrument of this confrontation is Cathy, who is every bit as devoted to matters of the flesh as Julia is to matters of faith. Cathy is embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with Gabe, a drifter who fills her need for a dominant sexual partner while neglecting her in every other aspect of their relationship.

Cathy, we learn, is a masochist who first noticed her proclivities as a schoolgirl, when she experienced a sexual response to being administered the strap as punishment for a transgression. In Gabe she discovers someone who will fulfill her need for abjection without hesitation or pity; his pick-up line on first encountering her – “Time you got what’s coming to you” – provokes a reaction by its resemblance to that long-ago school punishment.

Gabe is aware of Cathy’s sexual kink because she has confessed it – along with its origins – to him. Gabe “knows everything” about Cathy, while she remains ignorant about the details of his life and history. As a “professional house-sitter,” he has no fixed address; she doesn’t even know where to locate him on a consistent basis. This unequal power dynamic puts Gabe entirely in control, while Cathy worries constantly that he won’t call, or that he will:

He never says hello when she snatches up the phone, or even It’s Gabe – just dictates his latest address and hangs up. And that makes her afraid all over again – that she’ll find out the address doesn’t exist. Or that it does, but Gabe isn’t there. Or that he is there, but won’t fuck her, even when she begs. Or that he’ll have another woman with him. Or another man. Or that he’ll want to do more and more things that hurt. And that she’ll let him. Because it’s time she got what was coming to her.

Cathy’s neediness is a carnal mirror of Julia’s loneliness; the older woman follows the couple into a local park without being able to explain her motivation, finally stumbling upon them having sex in the dirt.

Here the symbolism in the story is actualized: Cathy’s earthiness is given a literal manifestation as the grass chafes at her knees and her “fingers dig into the dirt.” Julia, who is pictured crouching and (not incidentally) “clutching at herself,” appears to Cathy “in a blue robe and a kind of white headdress, like a nun’s.” The association here is with the Virgin Mary, a figure Julia has been explicitly linked with in the previous scene.

This association is extended by the Magnificat hymn that Julia sings to herself having witnessed the act of copulation. The hymn is one of humility before God, taken from a passage in Luke’s Gospel following the angel’s revelation to Mary that she is to carry the Christ child in her womb. She visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant (with a child who will grow into John the Baptist), where she declaims the words of the hymn. Here, Miller combines imagery of motherhood and devotion, while also engaging in comic debasement by having Julia appear barefoot, with her shoes over her hands.

Julia has removed her shoes because of a blister that has broken on her foot; the wound is a physical representation of her inner pain, as Cathy’s abjection is actualized by her tearing at the ground, though the younger woman also pictures herself “surrounded by angels.” In this moment, the sacred and the profane – which otherwise remain poles apart in Miller’s story – are united, and there is at least an implied transference between the two women. Each possesses aspects of character coveted by the other; their encounter brings them together in a fleeting, if ultimately unacknowledged, reconciliation.