All Saints, by K. D. Miller
November 4, 2014
“It’s my fix,” K. D. Miller said of writing. One or two of the other writers in the venue, all reading from their Rogers Writer’s Trust 2014 shortlisted books, had commented wryly on how personally difficult and possibly pointless writing was. Miller said she couldn’t live without it, and that, for her, a day without writing was itself difficult.
“All Saints” is evidence of a writer who must write, not merely one who can. It’s a book of ten short stories centred, sometimes tangentially, around the fictional All Saints Anglican church in Toronto. The stories flow from one to the next naturally, with threads hinted at in one appearing fully formed in another, irrespective of the order of presentation in the book. This almost gives the work the sense of a novel, though the studies contained in some of the stories would not have worked in that form.
The best stories are strongly linked. Whereas the most recurrent character is that of Simon, the new rector of the parish with a tragic personal history who appears to teeter on the brink of agnosticism, my favourite stories involve Emily. We follow her from the early 1970s in “What They Have”, where she’s a hippie in a disorganized relationship with her lover and his friends, to more recently in “Return”. Here, a stroke has felled her, and a strangely reactive totem horse lingers on the periphery of her awareness, invading the course reality of the hospital room to which she’s confined. Emily is a lovely character, manifold and inward-looking, and for me invokes an odd nostalgia and sympathy I could not find for any other. As a special treat, adding a weird depth to both her and the collection itself, she is hinted at as the author of the very first story in the book.
At the Writer’s Trust reading, Miller said that some of the stories had been brewing for twenty years or more. This would seem to make the link to All Saints tenuous, and it is in “Kim’s Game”, the story of an elderly odd-man-out whose utter humiliation at a writing retreat threatens to turn pathos into unintentional parody. The link is also easy to forget in “Magnificat”, where a sadomasochistic relationship is observed from both near and far at the same moment. The life of Alice Vipond in two other of the stories, one of which concludes the book, might also have come about separately from the concept of the church. No matter, as the collection overall is strong, and the locus of All Saints an apt anchor, itself a creaking, failing character.
At the end of the reading, while getting my copy signed, I asked K. D. Miller if the stories could possibly be autobiographical. I thought this was reasonable: most characters are middle aged and beyond, and the evocation of other, earlier times was concrete and well drawn. Although I later had a George Costanza moment–maybe referencing autobiography in a work that included S&M and shit-smeared writers was not the most poignant use of the few seconds I had with her–I thought the question was more or less fair. She paused slightly, and looked at me above the rim of her glasses while sliding the signed book back to me across the table. “I’ll let you decide that,” she said.