The entirety of the debut novel from the Ottawa-born, U.K.-based multidisciplinary artist Jordan Tannahill transpires in an instant, an instant in which an Ottawa-born, U.K.-based multidisciplinary artist named Jordan Tannahill hovers in the doorway of his terminally ill mother’s bedroom, beholding her inert form, uncertain as to whether she’s alive or dead. It is 11:04 a.m., January 21, 2017, already inauspicious for being the morning after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, and this anxiogenic, ambiguity-laden—indeed, liminal—moment Jordan inhabits triggers a flood of correlative musings and a little under three decades and 304 pages of memories in more or less chronological order.
Though Monica may be dead or dying, it isn’t her life that flashes across Liminal’s pages but, rather, Jordan’s. Aside from a thumbnail biographical sketch near the novel’s start, Monica’s trajectory as a single parent and artificial intelligence research scientist at Carleton University is surveyed only to the degree that it is linked to Jordan’s trajectory as an artist, lover, friend, impresario, and adventurer. This focus on Jordan, rather than Monica, blurs the impulse toward autofiction with that of memoir—an effect that is amplified when considering this book alongside two other recent offerings from Tannahill. January saw the publication of Liminal, but also of Tannahill’s latest play script, Declarations, and the world premiere of Declarations at Toronto’s Canadian Stage in a production directed by Tannahill. Both novel and play were prompted by the same real-life circumstances, and examining these works together provides a rare opportunity to glimpse an idea expressed in myriad manifestations.
In the novel, it’s notable that the protagonist’s trajectory, including his co-founding of the now-defunct Toronto storefront arts space Videofag, appears to closely mirror much of the highly accomplished young author’s, although Monica and several supporting characters stray from their real-life models in various regards. Monica’s relegation to the narrative’s periphery squares with Liminal’s conceptual conceit—Jordan isn’t going to research his mother’s life in that dizzyingly dense instant of not-knowing—but it reads as a limitation nonetheless, since the handful of substantial scenes between them—shopping for a greeting card; an argument over the autobiographical content of one of Jordan’s plays; feasting on room service in a London hotel—are some of the book’s most vividly rendered passages by far. They leave one wishing that Liminal’s strategies left more space for curiosity about the beloved figure at its core.
Indeed, Tannahill’s rather schematic approach to the novel does a disservice to his curatorial talents and formidable intelligence. Consider the protagonist’s aforementioned musings. Early in Liminal Tannahill launches a smart, accessible layman’s explanation of quantum mechanics, eventually arriving at the oft-cited thought experiment known as “Schrödinger’s cat.” The parallel between the feline whose state of animation can only be determined upon observation and the mother in the bed whose state of animation will only be determined upon closer examination is obvious; Tannahill nonetheless spells it out for us. Lot’s wife, body horror movies, the mummies of Guanajuato: each of these subjects weaves into Liminal’s trajectory and is not allowed to exit until Tannahill has thoroughly explained its relevance. What emerges is a triumph of numbingly airtight thematic unity, with little space for us to draw our own conclusions. Large swathes of the novel feature digressions on topics as diverse as George Bataille, terrorist attacks, Chantal Akerman’s final film, or the politics of plastic surgery: if Liminal had an index it would be lousy with fantastically stimulating subjects. Thing is, Tannahill has already digested the significance of these subjects for us, creating a garland of closed circuits with no entry point for the discovery-hungry reader. There is something tidy and oddly risk-adverse about Liminal’s habit of presenting a subject, clarifying its pertinence, and then promptly deconstructing it for us. It’s a habit that invites us not so much to engage but, rather, to admire.
Then, in Liminal’s final third, as we move closer to the present, something interesting happens. Jordan strikes up an alliance with a Japanese theatre artist who makes highly innovative—and, I’m guessing, based on these robots’ interactive abilities, slightly speculative-fictional—use of robots; at this point the novel embarks on a sustained sequence of scenes depicting Jordan’s period of apprenticeship with the artist’s company in London. It’s there, just as the U.K. votes to withdraw from the European Union, that Jordan falls in love with a man who, in an especially charged scene set in a pub, challenges his emblematically Canadian, anti-confrontational approach to negotiating with strangers of opposing political opinions. It may seem a little retrograde to praise what is arguably one of this novel’s more conventional tactics, but in this last, more character- and narrative-driven third, Jordan seems to be making actual discoveries, and Liminal comes to life.
If Tannahill’s novel often errs on the side of explication, his latest play, by contrast, embraces the suggestive and the oblique—and emerges as more evocative and affecting for it. According to its playwright’s note, Declarations was written in a single bravura session during the transatlantic flight Tannahill undertook upon learning that his own mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness—the same shard of devastating news that, in a more roundabout way, provoked Liminal.
Written for five performers, the text consists of a battery of terse declarative statements. For much of the play these declarations read as non sequiturs connected only in the most loosely associational manner, moving vertiginously, for example, from the micro to the macro: “This is a pocket with a hole in it/ This is the planet Saturn” or “This is a feather/ This is a decade.” One evocative thread possesses the air of a journey across a vast landscape: “This is smoke/ This is a path/ This is night/ This is a mountain/ This is a hill.” On occasion the associations seem more banal, such as the nudging film reference in the pairing “This is the colour blue/ This is a film starring Juliette Binoche.”
Those who have read Liminal will recognize certain images that call back to the same litany of personal experiences: Guadalajara, Dollarama, a tent in the wind, the weight of a soul. It is only very gradually that we detect the emotional flak jacket of pre-emptive goodbye, that certain motifs alluding to a mother-son relationship are revealed, and it’s only at the end that we receive a small narrative involving the retrieval of a forgotten mobile phone that explicitly refers to this relationship, and alludes to communication and the invincibility of maternal instincts.
While the material in the play that’s meant to be spoken is fixed, on the stage most of that material is to be accompanied by a gesture that’s to be improvised anew with each performance. “This is jazz,” goes one of the declarations, and there’s something to that—the performers, somewhat like jazz musicians, are called upon to draw something fresh and dynamic from their instrument every time out—but the way Declarations is structured, the musical feeling of it, the way elements accumulate and unify, then splinter off, plays as something closer to what is called systems music as exemplified by modern composers such as Steve Reich. There is fluidity and pleasure in this, though, naturally, it’s more evident when staged than it is on the page.
It was the musicality of Declarations that struck me as most affecting, at times even exhilarating, when I saw the play about a week into its Canadian Stage run. I dislike dividing form and content, but it bears noting that Tannahill’s arrangements and spacing are what facilitate Declarations’ potential transcendence. The show I witnessed began uneasily, opening with an extended solo that revealed the limits of the improvisatory gestural gambit, to the degree that the words being spoken, and their possible resonance, were overwhelmed by the sheer fact of the actor’s exhaustion; her desperation to continually invent on the spot yielded gestures that seemed like little more than naive illustration, which gets old fast. As more and more of the company took to the playing space, however, their interplay proved galvanizing. While the line “This is what grief looks like” felt unearned, a misunderstanding of the play’s emotional force, there is in the performers’ collective exertion a sense of exuding life and energy in the face of loss and oblivion.
Declarations climaxes with a sequence in which the performers work a handful of words—“shake momma shake”—in sublime unison, with repetition obliterating meaning until meaning rises anew: to shake with despair, to shake with ecstatic joy, to shake your mother awake, to shake something inert back to life. The sequence defies detached analysis in its dervish-like physicality and steady verbal assault. In Liminal, he writes that “theatre is revealed in the instant of its disappearance,” which is another way of saying that there is the moment in which the thing happens to you and the moment when that thing is gone and only then in its wake can you begin to process it. The climax of Declarations prolongs a liminal state; it’s a kind of pure theatre that bypasses the intellect yet, after it’s over, rewards thoughtful consideration.