The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction recognizes excellence in Canadian non-fiction writing, awarding $25,000 to the winning author on March 5.
Madeline Sonik’s fourth book begins with the circumstances surrounding her conception on-board the Queen Mary in 1959; that same year, she writes, American Airlines started its 707 service from New York to L.A., and the U.S.S.R. photographed the far side of the moon. Several of the 17 first-person experimental essays in Afflictions & Departures effortlessly sway between these offbeat historical details that read like curious non-sequiturs and the author’s memories growing up in the chaos of the 60s and 70s. Clearly, even though Sonik digs deep personally, she—and everyone—is part of a much larger picture.
Often with beautiful brevity, the 52-year-old author recalls memories that drip with sweet, youthful innocence; scenes of riding bikes down suburban roads, smoking cigarettes in trees and first kisses play out with cinematic effects. And even though the stories are brutally honest, many anecdotes still manage to elicit laughter: when a 14-year-old Sonik asks some neighbourhood boys why they don’t like her, they explain that she’s not like the other girls. And, “Other girls wouldn’t ask. They’d just go home!”
When it comes to her parents, the author looks back with little rose-tinting, and while the contradictions of good and evil in the unsympathetic pair are never reconciled, they are vividly elucidated: her mother may have spent hours sewing elaborate dresses for Sonik’s childhood collection of Barbies, but she also blamed her daughter for her brother’s homosexuality. And her father may have been a violent, often unemployed alcoholic who once abandoned the family dog along a country road, but he still tried to make his children better people; the sort who’d be capable of appreciating fine art, even if the art was reproductions of paintings purchased from gas stations.
Two years before Andy Warhol was shot, my father began bringing home art. Not the kind of art Warhol did—depictions of soup cans, electric chairs, and dollar bills—but the kind of art my father considered “real,” paintings done by “the masters,” canvases that “had endured the test of time.”
With every fill-up of gas, for a quarter my father could purchase such a picture. In the past the station had sold soft-drink glasses and cutlery, and my father, who travelled a great deal, took advantage of these promotions, but not with the same enthusiasm as he embraced the pictures. They were all textured with identical faux brush strokes, printed on inch-thick cardboard, “suitable for framing,” the gas station advertised. And my father would bring them home, at first one at a time, but soon in groups of sixes or sevens, as the gas station tried to dispense with pictures no one would buy.
Some weekends my father would build frames for these pictures from scraps of wood he had hanging around. He’d show me how his radial-arm saw worked, though he’d never let me feed the wood in by myself. Sometimes, however, he’d let me choose from an array of baby food jars the suitable group of nails we would use for the frame, and once he got the nails started, he’d let me hammer them in the rest of the way. We worked like this as Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers played in the background. Once we had completed the frames, my father would slide the pictures in from behind and secure them with metal posts. Then I would help him tap in two nails at the backs, and around these we would twine the string the pictures would hang from. We lived in a big house then, and there was lots of wall space for the pictures, and it became kind of a game, finding the places to hang them. We discovered an expanse of room on the stairway and hung an ascendance of pictures. I recall there were a lot of Goya portraits there, some Hals in the halls, a miscellany of Vermeer, Renoir, and Rembrandt in the living room, dining room, and den, Gainsborough and Lawrence in my parents’ room, Degas in my room, and Caravaggio and Reynolds in my brothers’ rooms.
I didn’t know the titles of any of these paintings. For some reason, this information was not included on the backs of the prints, and I mused over many, trying to imagine who the characters might be, and (not understanding the concept of portrait commissions, which applied to most of these works) why the artist had selected these people to paint. I sometimes asked my father questions, especially if I couldn’t reason satisfactory explanations for myself. A case in point was one of Goya’s—a child in a crimson suit. I would later discover this work was called Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga after its subject, who was a three-year-old boy. But at the time, I couldn’t make up my mind if the subject was a girl or a boy or a child at all. There was something old and clownish about this figure who wore a golden sash and overly large slippers, something circus-like in the menagerie of animals—his cage of finches and his magpie on a leash. His audience of three hungry cats left me feeling even uneasier. Had this quasi-adult-child any notion that his cats were likely to eat his birds? My father went into a long-winded explanation, peppered with strings of polysyllabic words. In fact, he knew nothing about the painting, but felt it important that when we spoke about any form of art, we did so with great pretension and confidence. He said something about Goya trying to achieve the illusion of youthful aging in the picture, that the character was of course a middle-aged woman, and that her birds and red suit symbolized her conflicting instinctual and intellectual desires, while the cats, representing the three fates, were cleverly employed by Goya to demonstrate the character’s dread of the future. I knew it was all bull, but somehow it made me feel a bit easier at the time.
The more prints we framed and hung, the more I found myself disturbed by what I saw. Was Rembrandt’s man in the golden helmet crying or laughing? I shut my eyes. I tried a joke. “What do you get when you cross a millipede with a parrot?” I imagined the man listening. “A walkie-talkie!” I shouted and quickly looked. The man seemed to be sobbing. I closed my eyes again. “I hate to be the one to have to tell you this,” I said very solemnly, “but your wife is dead.” When I opened my eyes, I was certain the man was stifling a chuckle. When I talked to my father about it, he gave me a mini-lecture on ambiguity and paradox. He made me repeat the words a couple of times and encouraged me to add them to my list of three-syllable-plus words, “for future reference.”
“You don’t know if the man’s laughing or crying either,” I said.
“The artist doesn’t wish for us to know,” my father said confidently.
But the more questions I asked, the more my father’s confidence wavered, until finally, he was forced to buy an art book. It was a large, thick book with a golden binding entitled Treasury of Masterpieces, and he brought it home shortly after I expressed my misgivings about Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, a picture that completely terrified me. I was convinced that the figure in the painting was a Raggedy Ann-type doll. She had once been a woman, but some evil puppet master had transformed her and set her to this arduous task, forcing her to work day and night without rest. I wasn’t completely certain what the task was, but considering the painful hunch of her shoulders and the alarming tension in her hands, I imagined it must be something quite impossible, like the task of spinning straw into gold that the king had set for the miller’s daughter in my favourite fairy tale, Rumpelstilskin.
My father didn’t think my reading of the picture was correct, although it was clear he couldn’t form any kind of definitive thoughts on it himself. He granted that she did, in fact, look like a large ugly doll, and that indeed she seemed to be incredibly uncomfortable, but he’d commit himself to no more than that.
My father spent hours poring over the art book he’d bought, and when we next discussed the frightful picture, he told me, “Vermeer was attempting to express feminine industry as honourable.” This was something I found hard to believe. Even though I didn’t think it would change my feelings about the picture, I still wanted to read what the book said for myself. I challenged my father to show me the book, but he claimed he’d misplaced it, which made me even more suspicious.
I imagined that my father had discovered in his readings that the painting was actually cursed, that any girl who looked upon it would be transformed into a hideous doll on her 16th birthday and forced to make lace for the rest of her life. I was only seven, so I had a good nine years left and believed my father had intentionally hidden the book so my remaining human time would not be plagued with dread and worry.
Weekends passed, and while I remained frightened by The Lacemaker, I forgot all about the book. My father and I framed more and more pictures, and I started to become frivolous in my placement of them. I thought it was funny to put the Mona Lisa with her enigmatic smile directly across from the toilet in the powder room. I tacked the print of Millet’s The Gleaners on a low hook, over the dog’s dish, so it looked like the three women were picking chaffs of wheat out of his kibbles. My mother, who thought the pictures were tacky but couldn’t stop my father from buying them, told me if I was going to be silly, she’d find me some real work to do, and I knew that meant rolling my father’s and brothers’ socks, so I promised I’d be serious and escaped to the living room where I could contemplate the divestment of the remaining pictures with as much impudence as I wished.
Excerpted from the book Afflictions & Departures © 2011 by Madeline Sonik, published by Anvil Press. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.