Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

More Than Representation: Storytelling and Self-Invention in Alistair MacLeod's Narratives

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

More Than Representation: Storytelling and Self-Invention in Alistair MacLeod's Narratives

Article excerpt

This article develops ways of reading resonance and connection between Alistair MacLeod's short stories and his novel No Great Mischief (1999) by focusing not only on what is said but on what is not said. It does so by developing MacLeod's concern with the continuously evolving subject in his short stories before touching on similar thematic concerns in the novel. As MacLeod demonstrates, the past is necessarily present in our conscious experiencing, just as our present understanding continuously reinvents our perceptions of what has been and our expectations of what is to come. By framing MacLeod's fiction within contemporary theories of memory and narrative self-construction, storytelling is revealed as more than a mere representation of the past. Rather, it becomes a means of articulating and interpreting temporal existence, as well as of constructing personal and social identity.

THEMATIC AND FIGURATIVE RELATIONSHIPS between Alistair MacLeod's internationally acclaimed short stories and his celebrated novel No Great Mischief are sufficiently dramatic to constitute an intertextual realm in their own right. These patterns of repetition enable ways of reading resonances and connections which can focus not only on what is said but on what is not said. Through its regional specificity MacLeod's work inscribes difference and resists invasive pressures, while at the same time reaching for connections within a larger Canadian (and then European) history. Whereas critical examination of historical and genealogical background, and of Gaelic language and mythology combined with existential philosophy, have already created pathways into this remarkable body of fiction (for example, see Berces 1991; Nicholson 2005; Omhovère 2006), the role of memory, particularly in the invention of self and other, has not received the attention it deserves. Framing MacLeod's fiction within contemporary sociological and anthropological theories of memory, particularly relating to orality and autobiography, opens the texts up for fruitful investigations in which storytelling becomes more than a mere representation of the past. Rather, it becomes a means of articulating and interpreting the individual's existence in time, as well as of inventing personal and social identity.

Recent sociological theories suggest that memory is active not only in our interpretation of past experiences but also in our perception of present (and even future) experience, as MacLeod's storytellers - often painfully - reveal. Richard Terdiman observes that because memory 'functions in every act of perception, in every act of intellection, in every act of language', it becomes 'the essential condition of our cognition' (1993: 9). Through memory, we become conscious of temporal existence, both as individuals and as members of a community. Anthropologists agree that it is memory, this sense of an ongoing personal narrative, which allows the subjective self to exist and evolve: if one does not remember a past, there can be no imagining of a future or even understanding of the present moment. In order to render comprehensible our perceptions of the present, we constantly reinvent our personal narratives in the attempt to reconcile our current experience with what has been (and vice versa). For MacLeod's storytellers, the moment of articulation represents the paradoxical process through which narrators shape and are shaped by the stories that they tell.

Through the careful construction of his characters' experience of the past, MacLeod reveals the ubiquitous presence of memory in the evolution of individual self-awareness. Every new experience is assimilated into and filtered through the individual's record of previous experience in order to be remembered as well as understood. Boundaries between past and present are blurred: 'not simply because present factors tend to influence - some might want to say distort - our recollections of the past, but also because past factors tend to influence, or distort, our experience of the present' (Connerton 1989: 2). …

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