In the massive Taschen omnibus Art of the 20th Century, Karl Ruhrberg assesses the work of the late Canadian painter Alex Colville, whose output is deemed to be “proof of the fact that a realism of content need have nothing in common with naturalism, that the serious realist does not unthinkingly reflect reality, but analyzes it.” Ruhrberg goes on to observe, “Colville’s silent images are static. Yet practically all of them tell a story, in a brief, concise plot that does not always have a resolution.” This cogent distillation of the visual artist’s technique could be applied, with minor variations, to the short fiction of K.D. Miller.
Indeed, Miller finds vast reservoirs of inspiration for her latest stories in Colville’s paintings – in their aura of mystery and expansiveness, their figures that appear constantly in motion. Though that motion is captured in brief moments that are left unfinished, and the figures are rarely seen straight on; they are more frequently turned away or held at a distance. Like Colville’s images, Miller’s stories often resist closure and, to somewhat echo Ruhrberg, the author’s realism is apparent on the level of the prose, though the content and style of the work often tugs at something beyond strict mimesis. How else to explain “Octopus Heart,” about a retired widower in the aftermath of a cancer scare who becomes convinced he has developed an emotional interspecies attachment to an octopus at the local aquarium? Or “Lost Lake,” which veers into the supernatural as a novelist and his family are increasingly haunted by figures that appear to arise out of his book?
The novelist in “Lost Lake,” Leo Van de Veld, appears in the earlier story “Olly Olly Oxen Free” (also the title of Leo’s novel). In that story, Leo encounters a woman named Miranda, who remains a virgin at age sixty-five. Miranda agrees to tell Leo a traumatic and transformative story from her childhood in exchange for his having sex with her. The story she tells him – about going into the woods as a young girl along with her best friend, who is raped and murdered by a stranger – becomes the subject of Leo’s book. The way “Lost Lake” and “Olly Olly Oxen Free” refract and chime with one another is emblematic of the intricate care Miller has taken linking the various pieces in her collection: in both stories, the woods adopt a traditional Shakespearean or fairy-tale resonance as a locus of chaos and danger and various details (the brown shoes, tweed jacket, and cap the rapist and murderer wears) are repeated across the two stories with subtle variations in tone and meaning.
The subject matter here is undeniably dark, though Miller’s stories are not devoid of humour, most especially surrounding the travails and pretentions of the writing life. Before becoming the receptacle for Miranda’s confession, Leo plays at being a novelist, using money his wife makes at her office job to finance the purchase of gourmet meals and fine wines: “After all, fictional characters do eat, don’t they? So did he not have to educate himself as to the flavours, aromas, and textures of as great a variety of cuisines as possible?” And in the title story, two competing book prizes vie for cultural influence and importance: “Something called ‘the Olympia effect’ has been identified. Unlike ‘the Biggar Effect,’ (BE), which causes book-sale figures to balloon, the OE attacks authors like a psychological virus.”
Humour and dread are peppered throughout Late Breaking, but the more dominant emotion is melancholy. Many of the characters in these stories are old and spend their time glancing backward at lives that have proved disappointing or painful, or looking forward to foreshortened existences of loneliness and regret. The supportive words spoken by a husband to his injured wife at the end of “Higgs Boson” – “On the count of three. One. Two …” – recur in the story “Crooked Little House,” but in the latter context they are applied to an elderly widower who has had to put down his sole remaining companion, a dog named Sister, and is attempting suicide by rolling off a dock into the icy water below.
But if Miller is unafraid to subject her characters – and her readers – to situations that appear remarkably bleak, there is nevertheless a pervasive strain of hope that runs through Late Breaking. The closing story, “In the Crow’s Keeping,” features a ninety-year-old mother who has lived with the grief from her daughter’s murder for decades. In the final moments of the story, the woman rejects the notion of paying a funeral home to schedule an assisted suicide and instead determines to write a book: “And she’ll write it, too. If it kills her.” These stories plumb the depths of sadness and despair but never lose sight of their obverse: the quiet resilience and dignity of the human spirit, which doesn’t fade with age.
Steven W. Beattie is the review editor at Quill & Quire magazine. He lives in Toronto.