31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 9: “Oh, My Darling” by Shaena Lambert

May 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Oh, My Darling

Oh_My_Darling_Shaena_LambertThe title story in Shaena Lambert’s 2013 collection is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of them being its canny use of narration. The story manages a rare effective use of the second-person voice, though Lambert layers this with a level of self-reflexiveness that exposes the gears used to drive the narrative mechanism. By dissecting the second-person approach, Lambert shows it for what it is: veiled first-person. After all, there cannot be a “you” without an observing “I.” (This is true also of third-person narration, although the explicit authorial presence, beloved of the Victorians – consider William Makepeace Thackeray’s approach in Vanity Fair – is old-fashioned and outmoded; contemporary authors and readers tacitly accept the notion of a separate omniscient consciousness that allows the creator to fade into the background and get largely forgotten or ignored.)

“Oh, My Darling” begins with an anonymous voice addressing a woman named Vanessa. The first thing a reader notices is the tone: intimate, cloying, knowledgeable about the woman being addressed. The second thing one notices is a particular literary resonance. Here are the first two paragraphs of Lambert’s story:

Hello, Vanessa.

Such a lovely name, with that sensual V, and those three satiny syllables, Va-nes-sa. There will be none of the diminutive stuff for me. No Nessa, or Ness, or, dear God, the worst of them all: Nessie. What on earth were you thinking, letting them call you that? It reminds me of the Loch Ness monster. I can just picture your size-fourteen body, mottled and walruslike, plunging into the subaqueous depth of that Scottish lake. Living your invisible life.

If associative bells begin to go off while reading the above passage, they are absolutely intentional. Compare Lambert’s opening with the following:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

It’s all there: the syllabic pronunciation of the key figure’s name, the assessment of the various diminutive forms of address, and – not incidentally – the air of menace. If Lambert’s passage alludes to the famous opening of Nabokov’s most notorious work, it does so at least in part to evoke the reference, merely implied in Lambert’s version, to a murderer.

It transpires that the voice addressing Vanessa is that of a malignant breast tumour, “a five-centimetre invasive lobular carcinoma … cagily situated in your left breast, at two o’clock from the nipple.” Here, the narrator reveals himself (or, perhaps more accurately, itself) as the incipient murderer suggested in the story’s opening. And no wonder the voice should be so intimate: the tumour knows the woman it is attacking from the inside out.

But this is where the narration turns in on itself, initially by shifting from second-person (the tumour referring to Vanessa) to first (the tumour referring to itself), then by pulling the veil back even farther to reveal the story’s true narrator: Vanessa herself. “Here you sit,” the tumour says, “writing like the very dickens, attempting to expunge me from your system.” Lambert’s story is presented as the voice of a malignant tumour addressing the woman it is attacking, but this dark fantasia is actually filtered through the mind and the pen of the woman herself, who is writing the story as a kind of rebellion against the invader that has taken up residence inside her body, a villainous presence compared in the story to “a combination of Humbert Humbert and Jack the Ripper.”

It is certainly not necessary to know how Lambert came to write “Oh, My Darling” in order to appreciate it, although being aware of the circumstances behind its composition lends yet another level to the narrative. In an essay in Quill & Quire entitled “My Crow Self,” Lambert talks about the autobiographical genesis of her story. In 2012, the author was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her essay references a dream about a spider, which in turn prompted her to write a story about cancer. She began by addressing a letter to herself, in which she listed the treatments she had undergone to combat the disease: “Radiation. Tamoxifen. Exercise. Healthy diet. It felt good to draw up a list.” A list very similar to this one appears in the finished story.

The idea to personify the cancer as the villain in “Oh, My Darling” sprang out of the author’s own experience, and specifically from that writing session in a Kitsilano café. “I suppose I must have been shocked by how the cancer had been personified in the dark of my unconscious mind,” Lambert writes in her essay, “then wriggled into my hand and written itself into my journal. But as a writer I was electrified. I’d found the voice of my story.”