A CARILLON OF EARTHLY TRUTHS:
A REVIEW OF MISHA BOWER'S
MUSIC FOR UNINVITED GUESTS
BY LEE SHEPPARD
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Short Fiction | Issue 6 | May 30, 2014
I first heard of Misha Bower through her work as a member of the choral-folk-roots-rock group Bruce Peninsula. She has written and produced a play, too. So, it is perhaps natural that her debut collection of short stories, Music For Uninvited Guests, is an over-dressed, multi-media package. The book comes with a complimentary compilation of music by Bower, Bruce Penninsula and some of the indie rock luminaries in her circle. Opposite the title page of each story are coloured-ink illustrations by Jon Claytor that feature anthropomorphized animals like an alligator/crocodile in a housecoat or the cigarette-smoking bear surrounded by empty beer bottles on the cover.
Because of their gently uncanny quality, the first two stories in Music For Uninvited Guests are among Bower’s best. The title of the first story, “Naked Women,” refers to pin-up girl images on picture postcards exchanged by the narrator and his brother. The brother is a soldier at the beginning of the story, but he continues sending pictures of scantily clad women to the narrator despite becoming a man of the cloth. The second story, “Leading Man,” is a meditation on an archetypal hero that is flavoured with dreamlike story details—a wagon crash, the hero standing in a lake. Because the narrator seems to be using these details to construct an essay, “Leading Man” feels like it was dreamed by a cultural studies major taking a catnap while writing a paper.
The narrator of the final story, a two-pager titled “Uninvited Guests,” is a person at peace with the fact that she lives alone, but, like many of us, her peace depends on habits and routines. “I have my shows that I like to watch, but mostly I listen to music. Without music in the mix, TV starts to bother me. A lot of things start to bother me without music.” There follows a description, which I found confusing for reasons I will explain later, of how the narrator ended up music-less. “I finally, finally got the record player going again, which has been a huge relief. My speakers crapped out last week—a week before payday—so from the eighth to the fifteenth, it was a terrible, ghostly week.” This sets up the last paragraph, which could easily be a romantic’s description of the haunting that leads to writing a book of short stories: “The place felt so empty without music, but it filled up fast with all the stupid chatter in my mind. I was alone, but I swear the place was more bumping than ever ... . ”
In “Uninvited Guests” Bower sets up a tension between music and the voices—let’s call them characters—in a person’s head. Throughout Music For Uninvited Guests there is a tension between Bower the creator of characters and Bower the musician. The twenty-page-long “Whole Lotta Nothin’” has very little action, at least of the kind that lets a reader experience the mystery of the narrator’s personality without his mediation. If you wanted to turn this into a film, you would have very nearly carte blanche as far as scenes go, that is unless you decided to present extensive footage of a late night car-ride with a lot of voice over. What “Whole Lotta Nothin’” does have are quoted song lyrics—the narrator is listening to the radio—and a surplus of musing and self-reflection by a poker-player driving home to tell his girlfriend that he’s again gambled away a substantial sum. It is less a story than a narrator singing a long prose song about his life up to that moment. Some of the narrator’s insights are expressed so beautifully that if you heard them over and over, sung by a singer of Bower’s skill and power, you would memorize them or, if there were people around, start demanding silence for them—phrases like truth bells ringing. Describing his grandmother, the narrator says, “Those big, soft arms—she’d be giving me shit for something and then hug me after, and the comfort of it was like getting poured into just the right shaped skin.” So frequently do Bower’s narrators ring these bells that the book is like carillon of mundane truths, which are the most resonant truths, or my favourite kind at least.
In Ralph Ellison’s essay, “Living With Music,” he tells the story of building a hi-fi system to drown out, among other noises, the woman practicing vocals in the apartment above him. He feels guilty being intolerant of someone learning an art form because he himself had, as a child, learned to play trumpet and was, at the time he built the hi-fi, working on his first—his only—published novel. I had to take breaks from reading Music For Uninvited Guests because what I see as the book’s flaws are flaws I recognize in my own evolving work: moments of telling not showing, but also incorrect or, worse, unnecessary phrases and sentences that distract from either the story or that truth-bell-ringing clarity Bower often achieves. For example, Bower writes, “ Talking to her was like unwrapping valuables with someone addicted to popping bubble wrap. She would start telling a story, and then describe every single detail of the experience like it was a story unto itself.” Because I don’t agree with the narrator’s interpretation of her own simile, the second sentence stands out like a dancer who missed rehearsal. The third sentence in the sequence is, “She’d come over and I would ask her, ‘Lil, how are things?’ and 45 minutes later, she’d be standing in the front hallway with one shoe on, telling me what ratio of plain chips to milk-chocolate squares tastes, ‘sort of like lobster,’” which is funny, but more importantly, goes way further towards illuminating the bubble wrap image than the ungainly explanation that immediately follows Bower’s simile.
“Reruns,” the story that I just quoted, is a narrated by a woman living in an apartment above her cousin Lily. Though Lily’s mental health issues provide many humourous images and the narrator often finds her exasperating, Lily is rendered with compassion. People who love and support individuals living with mental health issues are occasionally rewarded with strange, funny moments; laughing through these moments is the way many of us deal with the often difficult and thankless tasks of loving and supporting. Just ask my in-laws, who have a dozen adopted children, nearly each child suffering from at least one mental distress. Or buy me a beer so I can regale you with tales from my years of teaching teenagers that the jargon calls “at-risk.” By paragraph two of “Reruns,” Lily has had another “medication mix up.” She mildly overdoses on some prescription downers and in her stupor brews coffee with no pot to catch the drips.
It’s a lovely moment, but the phrase from the book is “no pot under the percolator.” The pedant in my head—call him Fact Checker—wants to say that a drip coffee maker and a percolator are different things and that no part of the former is called a percolator, but the poet in my head—less assertive than I want him to be—likes the sound of “pot under the percolator.”
Or lets go back to “Uninvited Guests” and the sentences, “I finally, finally got the record player going again, which has been a huge relief. My speakers crapped out last week ...” I suspect that Bower is using “record player” to say “stereo system,” which I have definitely heard people do, though it has been decades. Bower does not mean to say that both her turntable and her speakers broke, but untangling that fact distracted me from the beautiful bit of writing at the end of the section: “it was a terrible, ghostly week.”
As all good illustrations do, Claytor’s images offer compelling interpretations of Bower’s stories. On her thank you page, Bower’s message to Claytor is “Without you, no one would ever know what the characters really look like.” The fox whose head is, or is in, a red house with a smoking chimney, seems a perfect introduction to “Fidelity’s Bluff,” a story told by a serial monogamist with a deep urge to settle. The narrator of “Footprints In The Sand” is a woman befriended by the single, older man who ostensibly hired her to clean his house. Clayor’s drawing of a raccoon carrying heavy looking shopping bags with SAVE written on them in big red letters suggests the older man to me, but might also represent the narrator.
At first, I suspected that the eight songs on the downloadable compilation might have some obvious relationship to the eight stories in the book, but I could find none. Aside from the obvious cross-promotional benefits, what the compilation does is situate Bower as a multi-disciplinary artist and remind the listener of Bower’s musical skill and sophistication, which reads as a promise of the great things we can expect of her writing. At worst, these songs are a distraction from the book itself.
On Vimeo, there is a video trailer for the book, directed by Lara Mrkoci and starring Bower who drives a boat, chops wood, prepares dinner and sits down to eat before she is interrupted by someone at the door. The way Bower looks at her guest tells us quite clearly that they are uninvited. The video effectively captures the pace and tone of many of the stories in the collection and echoes “Uninvited Guests” in which the narrator’s thoughts become living beings.
In Carla Gillis’s Now Magazine review of the Toronto launch of Music For Uninvited Guests, she says that the music was great, but that Bower read too little from the book. If Bower did not put the event together herself, as I assume she did, I feel confident that she at least had something to do with the choice to limit her readings. This in itself isn’t obviously self-deprecating, but I would like to again quote the section of “Uninvited Guests” that I think serves as Bower’s description of her fiction-writing process: “The place felt so empty without music, but it filled up fast with all the stupid chatter in my mind.” Chatter is demeaning enough without the adjective stupid. I’m on thin ice suggesting that the narrator of a story is the author, but it is at least someone the author has taken some time and trouble to relate to. In an interview with Amanda Grant of Metro London, Bower says of her playwriting, “I’m just such a rambler . . . My main criticism of myself is that it’s been half an hour and I haven’t been able to get someone to walk from stage left to stage right.” I would apply the same criticism to the least successful stories in Music For Uninvited Guests.
The event reviewed by Gillis is similar to Music For Uninvited Guests with all its distracting supporting materials—the music and images and video. You don’t get to be an artist of worth in any discipline without a healthy, ongoing criticism of your own work. I predict that as Bower’ writing voice matures, as she learns to ramble less and start moving characters around sooner, she won’t dress her books up with so many other media because she will feel better about letting her prose stand naked before us. I don’t predict that she’ll stop publishing. In fact, I figure that one day I’ll brag to someone about reading this book the way indie rockers like me brag about having seen someone perform, or heard someone, or owned the first pressing of the first single—or “seven inch”—of this now popular band, which we found before the rest of the world caught on to their very particular genius. I look forward to rereading Music For Uninvited Guests at a later point in Bower’s career when I will be able to see more clearly the latent potential in this collection.
LEE SHEPPARD is a writer, a contributing editor of the literary magazine Pilot and a teacher at West End Alternative Secondary School in Toronto where he has developed and currently teaches two project-based courses: ReelLit a film-studies and video production program and The West Enders, a creative writing and illustrating program that produces an eponymous illustrated literary journal.