This book is not what I thought it would be. Or maybe it is.
I thought it was going to be a reflection on celebrity and fame in North American culture. I thought it would be deep and philosophical, but it’s actually very entertaining. As are celebrities.
The form reflects the content.
Don’t I Know You? by Marni Jackson is a novel written in short stories. Rose McEwan, the central character, is the axis around whom all the action pivots; and each chapter is a brief episode in her life. Also an encounter with a new celebrity.
Don’t I Know You? is deeply steeped in Canadian content. It plays with such icons of the Canadian collective psyche as loons and canoe trips; summer camps and summer cottages; campfires and campfire songs. Hudson Bay blankets. Poutine and butter tarts. Maple syrup. Hockey players hauling “corpse-sized duffel bags.”
It references such Canadian celebrities as folk singers Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and the lesser-known Valdy. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. Canadian painters Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Actor/comedian Dan Aykroyd. CBC radio host Shelagh Rogers. And the forever uncategorizable Leonard Cohen.
It’s set in Algonquin Park and big-city southern Ontario. Oh, and Greece. And Mexico. And Cannes and Taos. And Dublin.
Okay, so the content is not exclusively Canadian. Borders here are unguarded. American celebrities are allowed entry without visas — Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, John Updike, Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow — as are the Irish and the British, and at least one Norwegian.
But a lot of the references are Canadian. And it’s always fun to “get” the references.
And maybe that’s the thing about using celebrities as characters. We get the references.
They come to us ready-made. Prêt-à-porter. They are reference points in the known universe. They are the compass points of the common culture.
They are already works of fiction; and ones we feel like we know.
In 1917, visual artist Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal as “R. Mutt” and submitted it under the title of Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists in New York, who refused it for their exhibition. But Fountain went on to become one of the most important works of art of the twentieth century. It introduced the concept of the “readymade” in art: using existing manufactured or found objects to signify. To mean something. To enlighten or maybe to entertain.
“Readymades” opened doors onto collage, assemblage, and installation art; in which using a pre-existing object as part of a composition brings the meaning of that object into the work — its history; its materiality; its uses. The memories and associations we attach to it. And I think that is what Jackson is doing in a literary form with Don’t I Know You?
Joni Mitchell, for instance, comes to the reader readymade. We know who she is. We know her voice. We know her long, blonde hair and peasant skirts. We know her lyrics. We understand the context of her life, coming of age in the “free love” ethos of the 1960s. We can almost smell the patchouli oil. All of that context comes into Jackson’s story with the mere mention of Mitchell’s name. The reference.
Jackson deconstructs the lyrics from Mitchell’s song, "Carey," and uses them as context for a young, far-from-home Rose McEwan. The backstory for Rose’s misadventures living among hippies in Matala — going on down to the Mermaid Cafe and buying a bottle of wine — is pre-existing in the song. The song packs setting, characters and zeitgeist into a short story with unembellished economy.
Similarly, Jackson imports a youthful Neil Young, his father, and the unnamed foreman from Neil’s ranch to unpack the readymade lyrics of “Old Man;” to tell a short story about a long relationship.
In another story, Van Morrison transports Rose (by bus) “into the mystic.” Or at least to Cyprus Avenue.
Bob Dylan goes tubing on a lake with Rose’s teenaged son, reliving the innocence and experience of his summer camp days in Madawaska.
Leonard Cohen brings her tea and oranges.
But readymade characters can be fictionally decontextualized, and — arbitrarily, capriciously — re-contextualized. For instance, Jackson juxtaposes Leonard Cohen and Taylor Swift in the final story of the novel, casting them among a short and improbable list of characters (including Rose) who venture out on a canoe trip together.
You don’t have to know much about either of these musicians to know they couldn’t be more different. Old and young, male and female, bass and soprano, measured and manic. She is the lightning to his thunder. And in the “Mississippi’s” that you count between the light and the sound, a new context is created. A time in which anything could happen. A space for an unlikely conversation.
In that space and in that moment, shaped and defined by fictional, cultural reference points, Rose finds the story she is meant to tell.
“‘The story begins not far from here,’ [she] began.” (page 239)