Portrait of a Writer
David Macfarlane’s new memoir
Why should we believe in the orderliness of memory? Memoirists, whose soul-baring genre is thriving as never before, have convinced us that daily life has a clean structural shape, that writerly remembering can impose meaning and inspiration on all those bygone highs and lows and in-betweens through the symmetrical logic of storytelling.
It’s a pleasing fiction, not quite malevolent enough to be branded an outright lie but too convenient a marketing ploy to be treated as gospel truth. David Macfarlane, whose sense of craftsmanship is visible on every page of this dense, deliberate memoir of a dying son, is too smart and too experienced and too refined a writer to accept a reductive view of memory. He has chosen his title, Likeness, with the same care for detail that has marked so much of his work (including his masterpiece about a doomed Newfoundland Great War regiment, The Danger Tree). The act of remembering, for Macfarlane, is an artistic endeavour first of all, and even if art is accepted as the best device we have to do justice to the past, its nuances and colourings and framings and necessary omissions and self-interested rejiggings can’t amount to more than an enduring approximation of what’s dead and gone.
Macfarlane’s fine with that. He’s more than fine with that: he luxuriates in the artistic licence and the myriad ambiguities of memory that a title like Likeness allows him. For a writer who has spent much of his career in commercial magazine journalism (albeit on the well-paid, award-winning, artisanal wordsmithing side of things), this cross-generational family portrait is outrageously discontinuous and disorderly, layered with jarring elliptical detours that the psychedelic crowd in Macfarlane’s not overly misspent youth would have called acid flashbacks. But since everything a deeply self-conscious writer like Macfarlane does is chosen for effect, you have to think what he’s trying to do here is escape the usual smug, ordinary confinements of reality-based memoir writing — in the belief that unbounded artfulness, whirling through time like an Alice Munro narrator on speed, ultimately provides a more perfected likeness.
“He had no time for unnecessary diversion.” That’s David Macfarlane’s pithy description of his son, Blake, somewhere in his twenties, at the moment his leukemia was diagnosed and he was working as a film editor, cutting documentaries. Diversion is such a good description for what Macfarlane is trying to achieve in Likeness, a double-meaning word that subverts the idea of orderly memory and the earnest, sombre memorializing of a short life with the more playful, endlessly distractable talents that a confident storyteller with all the time in the world can bring to bear.
Life is brief, painfully so in some cases, but art is long, endlessly long. Faced with the prospect of finite fatality, Macfarlane tells stories that seem to go on forever and go nowhere at the same time, as if you could prolong a life or at least forestall death by looking away, by hiding in memories, by telling and retelling tales that never quite reach their punchline before your diverting memory veers off topic yet again.
Blake objected to meandering stories, his father notes in a section of Likeness so meandering that you finally realize it’s got to be a set‑up, a savvy writer’s trick of the trade. As they await Blake’s test results at the Princess Margaret Hospital in downtown Toronto, father and son, aesthetes at heart, characteristically wander together through the Art Gallery of Ontario. Macfarlane writes about golf and the role it may have played in his comfortably middle-class Hamilton childhood. He alludes to his Newfoundland-born mother “losing her marbles,” as she liked to say in her no-nonsense way, and the family stories that persisted through her dimming memory via constant repetition (the reader is meant to recognize a familial theme). Then Blake — now ensconced in a hospital room, conveniently listening to his father reading a passage from his memoir-in-progress — takes issue with an apparently random reference to Jacob’s Ladder, the grandiose title given to a set of steps that once ascended the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton. Nothing ever happened on them beyond smoking and necking — other people’s smoking and necking at that. A dismembered torso turned up once, but not there and not then.
Never mind. A woman, Evelyn Dick, was charged with cutting up her husband. You may have heard her name because it lent itself so well to an off-colour joke (“How could you, Mrs. Dick?”) that was still being repeated in (here we rejoin Macfarlane’s actual memories) the playground chants of baby-boom boys. From there, lightly sanitized, it made its memorable way into the bawdy nightclub routine of Catherine O’Hara’s naughty SCTV character Dusty Towne. (Surprisingly, that quintessential Hamiltonian baby-boomer series goes unmentioned in Likeness, but then these are Macfarlane’s memoirs, not mine.)
Pause for a disquisition on Blake’s preference for ordered storytelling: “The one thing they have to do is begin and end.” But what about everything in between, the roundabout, episodic, long-winded, odyssey part of the Odyssey ? A paragraph on family drives, the music that was played, the lessons that were taught through Beethoven and the Talking Heads about rhythm and variation, and the Macfarlanesque tension between complexity and simplicity. An enigmatic quote from the director Josef von Sternberg (“Shadow conceals — light reveals”) that will undoubtedly take on deeper meaning as the book progresses on its chiaroscuro way. A perplexing turn to the baseball writer Alison Gordon —“And I had to admit (Blake asked) I wasn’t sure how Alison was going to fit in.” Add in Macfarlane’s oldies band, its practice sessions amid the snooker table and the guacamole, Gordon’s own cancer diagnosis, Blake’s objection to non-linear storytelling (possibly based on the more focused narrative arc of his Star Wars childhood), and voila, we’re back to Jacob’s Ladder, but this time in its Biblical version of angels ascending a radiant staircase — a visionary story that turns out to be far too miraculous for a very sick young man raised on Luke Skywalker and linear progression.
It is easy to share Blake’s impatience. This is storytelling as an anaesthetic, memoir as a morphine drip that diverts the writer and the reader alike away from the too obvious pain of dying and remakes consciousness into a dreamier, more uncertain state — but one where an ambitious writer has more room to roam beyond the usual paternal pieties and clichéd solemnities about death. Macfarlane knows he’s taking a risk in shedding conventional ideas of autobiographical coherence and forcing readers to believe in his diversionary tactics more willingly than his son does. And so Blake becomes the book’s built‑in critic and pre-emptive strike force, partly sick son, partly literary device, the voice of a restless modern sensibility with no time to spare that’s unaccepting of the wordy, indirect, belles lettres preciosity cultivated by an older generation of leisurely raconteurs.
Objection sustained. The obvious dilemma for a sixty-plus middle-class white male surveying a largely uneventful life lived almost entirely among one’s own tribe is that almost all your diversions can seem unnecessary. The stories have all been told, many times over, if not by you then by someone just like you. Macfarlane has a hook unavailable to others — sorry to be crass, but it’s a publishing-industry truth — in his son’s death, but he’s too good a person and too original a writer and too representative of his restrained WASPish private-school breed to exploit that too directly. And yet with Blake established as his hospital-bed audience and sternest critic (not just of his father’s loquacious meanderings but — woke alert! — of his too blithely worn white privilege), Macfarlane is set free to relate the progress of the disease almost in passing, giving him more room to look for clever ways to connect all the disparate, random, evasive, but more variegated tales that should coalesce into this fateful story’s inevitable end.
One challenge Macfarlane has to solve, so that he can’t be easily dismissed as just another shiraz-sipping baby-boom bore carrying on about his acid-tripping youth, is how to pull the past into the present and make it seem current and available. And this is where we encounter one of the biggest problems in Likeness. To locate his stylized childhood memories in something like the modern moment, Macfarlane relies on a sprawling portrait, a likeness if you will, painted of him against a Hamilton backdrop by John Hartman, one in a series of Canadian authors depicted in their chosen landscape. Macfarlane’s portrait went unsold, to his chagrin, and ended up on his wall to pass the time, waiting until the Macfarlane market got hotter.
A chatty, zippy, self-deprecating, lightly promotional magazine article might have done the trick, back in the day. But by relocating the attention-demanding portrait to Likeness, and indeed giving it a starring role ahead of the more significant actual human figures, Macfarlane the literary artist has ceded way too much prominence to his art. A book about father-son relationships goes off the rails whenever analysis of the painting and the painter intrude, and even though diversionary sleight of hand must be acknowledged as the Macfarlane métier, all too often the youthful geo-memories supposedly prodded by the painting feel artificial and weirdly narcissistic.
Solipsism goes with the turf, admittedly. But why claim to stare at a likeness of yourself, over and over and over again, for self-regarding inspiration when the introspective modesties of literary memory are equally productive on their own? Okay, it’s a device — but as Blake, ever the perceptive deprecator, seemed to recognize, it doesn’t work. “He wasn’t in favour of narrative floundering around.”
Floundering is perhaps too harsh, since almost everything Macfarlane writes about has a purpose and a role in the greater scheme of things. He knows how it’s done, and he has been doing this all his life: he studied English literature at the University of Toronto’s elite Trinity College, advertising his incipient bohemianism by wearing his college tie as a belt (there’s no mention of the sartorial transgressions he may have perpetrated with his academic gown). He read the copies of Esquire scattered around the waiting room of his father’s ophthalmology office in the Hamilton Medical Arts Building and those of The New Yorker that sophisticated family friends brought along when they dropped by for a swim in the Macfarlane pool. Like Roger Angell effortlessly prolonging the denouement of a baseball game, he recognizes the greater value of not getting to the point. But this fixation on narrative complexity, all too lovingly laid out, threatens to become an act of self-sabotage in a personal memoir that’s expected to privilege sincerity over artifice.
Too often the carefully drawn-out meanders in Likeness, measured against the son’s more clinical and straightforward side story, end up seeming pointless and lifeless. Baby boomers always sound desperate when recounting their youthful drug experiences as if they were meaningful and transcendent rather than dumb and commonplace. Take Macfarlane’s story of a particular acid trip when he played golf against his father while on a connoisseur-level variety of LSD: “It was windowpane. Early windowpane to be precise. A year later you couldn’t find acid like that anymore.” This is the dominant leitmotif and idée fixe of Likeness, a strange choice of prevailing theme for the sensitive paternal memoirist (the acid, not the golf; well, maybe the golf too). Inhibition loosening is undoubtedly part of it for the well-bred, calmly bemused WASPish male, who may resent even in comfortable old age the prim, fastidious, unfun stereotypes that attach to his class. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Macfarlane writing about acid trips is much less illuminating and artistic and convincing than Macfarlane writing about the construction and layout of the jewel-like Hamilton Golf and Country Club — class will out.
It’s possible to admire David Macfarlane for his boundless skill with language and style and, especially, structure in such an intricate memoir, and still be exasperated that he too often indulges his talents so obviously, as if he were competing too strenuously against John Cheever for a spot in William Shawn’s New Yorker. The Hartman painting includes a detail of the backyard swimming pool that prompts pages of exquisite meditation on summers past, and a particular moment of nostalgia when a family friend, swirling the ice cubes in his Chivas, looking out to the trees and sky, considering the unruffled surface of the water, as the crickets chirped and the moon slivered, uttered something so Chekhovian, or possibly Cheeverian, that it seemed to sum up the entire experience of an outwardly optimistic, inwardly gloomy postwar parental generation. And what did he say after all that drink swirling and view appreciating and fine writing? What’s the epiphanic payoff, the Wonder Years moment? “Well”— dramatic pause —“the days will be getting shorter now.”
You can appreciate why Blake, whose own time was truly running out, might have resisted the appeal of this story.