The Strange Truth About Us: A Novel of Absence by M.A.C. Farrant

When you’re in a bookstore, where do you find a semi-autobiographical, lyric novel like Arleen Pare’s Leaving Now? The story-poems in Patricia Young’s Amateurs at Love? Books are morphing. Spilling out of the varnished boxes set out for them: fiction, poetry, non-fiction. Where do you find a book that proposes not to be there at all? M.A.C. Farrant’s has written such a book, an unsettling story entitled The Strange Truth about Us: A Novel of Absence.

Farrant’s book is not about absence, a recognizable theme in fiction such as Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s RoomRather it is a novel which itself is absent, even as it unfolds. The novel has chapters, but they are very short: a paragraph, bits of dialogue, a single sentence. A nameless narrator in the first of three sections says that she and her companion are “concocting” a make-believe novel about the future. Of course, all novels are make-believe, since they are fiction; however, this novel exposes our habit of reading familiar tales, stories “where because of the overuse of antibiotics, we succumb by the millions to a gruesome new plague . . . where beyond all expectations, we discover a habitable planet, but we don’t have the technology to get there . . .” We read these books comfortably because we believe that such stories are the fantasies of authors, and not about ourselves, at least as long as the night fires of the homeless remain distant. These stories, Farrant argues, offer a truth with “a roof over its head.”

Farrant sets out to deliver a story (a non-fiction?) we don’t want to hear: one about our “apocalyptic” fear of the real future.  The pages of The Strange Truth about Us are eerily empty, since her characters don’t want to look at – or generate – a narrative of their own demise. In “Part One: Annotations about an Absence: Going Forward,” the boomer couple, safe within the “splendid fortifications” of a gated community, agree that they will record only “tactful exchanges” which avoid alarming emotions (“we do not exclaim, retort . . . or shout, except by implication”).

They choose to annotate – that is, provide a critical commentary or “gloss” on existing narratives – rather than write a “real-time” text. The narrator describes herself and her partner in the language of ads: “We’re the handsome pair romping on a tropical beach. Look at our tanned bodies and laughing faces!” Connection with their daughter occurs only when she communicates not in her own voice but in angry quotations they cannot understand; contact with the world beyond their surveilled walls happens in the form of news reports: “[W]e view the nightly news where horror and trivia are delivered by anchors with merry eyes, with voices as sweet as lullabies. We seem to be participating in a nightmare about humanity, but who can tell? The visuals are so alluring, bright, like gift-wrap.”

But beneath their prescribed calm, they are afraid: “[W]e know this atrocity is real because we have seen it on our TV screens.” They worry that we may not hear them inside the novel they are writing; they fear the absence of their own bodies. Their panic finally surfaces when a real narrative is thrust upon them: armed men break into their compound, and the camera is suddenly no longer “the predicate” of their lives.  This section of Farrant’s novel engages: the characters (and their growing horror) are decidedly recognizable, the unusual format intriguingly “novel,” and the ironies unsettling: are we really “[y]earning perversely for a single catastrophe that will . . . rouse us to emerge from behind our walls and collectively set the world aright”?

Part Two, “Woman Records Brief Notes Regarding Absence: Benchmarking,” is more of a challenge for the reader. The woman, like the couple in Part One, embarks on telling a story about the future. However, also like the couple, who “every day speak their disembodied bulletins,” she offers us 115 seemingly unrelated, cropped paragraphs. It is as though Farrant herself occupies these pages, tearing at her authorial clothes.

She begins this section with the observation that telling about the future, which presumably she has attempted to do in Part One, is an impossibility. Just as her characters cannot discern reality beyond the camera lens, she cannot deceipher her own voice above the din of media: books, films, TV documentaries, cartoons, screenplays, canned music, on-line gurus, junk mail, anonymous quotations. Note 69 reveals her entanglement: “Woman notes Peter Handke wrote screenplay for Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire which is about ultimate things as is Handke’s play Prophecy from which remixed quote opens woman’s own book.”

On the one hand, Farrant demonstrates cleverly all twenty-first-century writers’ angst: they are drowning in information, and they doubt a new voice would be heard, even if it had something original to offer. They breathlessly benchmark, measuring their performance against those in the thousands of Internet hits they call up with a single click. On the other hand, Farrant risks losing her reader when she writes such an exhaustive “gloss” on writing. The reader may very well miss that, in the stream of fragments, she rises above mythologies of media and the fog of martinis to “escape into clarity,” if only for 1.75 hours a day.  She momentarily restores irony, a quality which diminishes as fear rises in Part One. In Note 19, she observes: “Unable to afford artworks of conquered people woman collects quotes and fearful scenarios instead.” Occasionally, she brushes against hope, as in Note 66: “Woman who ponders Leonardo da Vinci’s claim that ‘vows begin when hope dies’ decides to find fun in dark places like filmmaker Rene Clement did with Che Gioia Vivere (The Joy of Living) during fascism.”

These small triumphs set the tone for “Part Three: Other Prose Surrounding Absence.” Although fear persists (terrorist bombings, emergency rations, endangered species), the characters in these slightly longer narratives are not cowering in a secured community contemplating catastrophe theory. Rather they question their “movie emotions” even while using them, get down on hands and knees to weed and build rock sculptures, and choose to change the tunes cycling through their heads. In darker pieces, laughter prevails despite prohibition, and Death comes only to request a burrito. The future arrives bringing “strange new air,” or so the narrator says. She’s got “stories strung in her head like lines of wash”; she’s got a waterfall in her mouth. Is she to be believed? Now it doesn’t seem to matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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