Renewing Canon: On Bob MacKenzie’s “The Miriam Conspiracy”

A stylized photo of Bob MacKenzie, author of "The Miriam Conspiracy" (2023), originally published under the title "Another Eternity".

The experienced reader encounters a work with a certain awareness of literary history, of written genres; in some cases, it might be that an experienced reader will avoid certain genres as having less personal resonance, of being unsatisfying to read, perhaps because of the superficiality of the text—a situation that can both attract or repel a reader because the work is “brain candy”. For those readers who enjoy a more demanding reading experience, there are literary works; and while there is an established, historical canon of such literary works, new additions being made to that canon are subjected to as laborious a process as that of the canon of sainthood. The experienced reader may or may not defer to the institutionalization of written works as being thus canonized, but there are those experienced readers who find delight in discovering works worthy of literary consideration that may be otherwise unknown. In this latter case, of undiscovered country, readers are invited to tour Bob MacKenzie’s new novel, The Miriam Conspiracy.

An investigation into the physical entity of this book reveals a number of interesting aspects: inclusion of color plates, font changes, use of symbols in the text itself that concur with the symbols referenced in the narrative and used to separate sections within chapters. The book has a visual vibrancy, despite being a soft cover trade sized volume. Additionally, the author information page tells us of a full life spent in the arts, of awards and rare editions; the author photo itself is the opposite of the glamor shot so prosaic now, as it mostly shows the beard of the author at a podium, apparently in performance—this is no neophyte effort, and a discerning reader will enter the text with perhaps a bit of a gourmand sensation, with an anticipation of encountering a savory read.

The novel itself starts with a few pages of text that may deter the existentialist reader, in that, on the page following the author’s disclaimer (a paragraph detailing how the work is fiction), is a paragraph citing Old and New Testaments by chapter and verse. Following this page comes another disclaimer by the supposed author of the text itself, who is actually an invented protagonist for The Miriam Conspiracy’s overarching first person point of view; however, the novel itself contains multiple points of view, which are demonstrated by font changes and the color plates. A blithe reader may or may not be intrepid enough to essay past the first few pages, the prologue, which utilize both passages in italics and regular font, and are separated by a symbol: the ankh. Additionally, the italics passages are decidedly of a spiritual topic, using language such as “Messiah” and “Latter Days”, but the alert reader will notice a reference also to “the god Osiris”—a clue to a wry humor which becomes a dominant tone in this unusual novel.

Bob MacKenzie’s overarching construct contains multiple narratives told simultaneously, but which occur both in a past time, and a modern one. The cast of characters, centering on a first person protagonist who is a graduate student, involve the invented historical figures who are being researched by the graduate student, a faculty member and his assistant; yet, the descendants of those historical figures also turn up to reveal a strange parable of family conflict and cult-building ambition. Added into these narrative structures are dream sequences that rather than becoming the elements of a generic horror tale, are a kind of secret map for the reader forewarning plot elements later revealed. In some cases, these dream sequences are overtly labeled in the text, such as when the protagonist suffers a concussion: “I remember the old house, and the feel of the bannister giving way under my hand” (28); yet the dream gives the protagonist the location of a secret book that he later finds, buried in a field. The suspension of disbelief is a given from the opening pages of this work, yet the author is also employing a distinct type of dark humor—wry, a bit sardonic—and readers oblivious to the humor here are missing much of this novel’s flavor.

Perhaps the most overt demonstrations of humor in this work are the slapstick action scenes towards the novel’s last third, though the more subtle humor invested in the invented historical figures is perhaps more rich. Displayed elaborately in the text by use of a different font are the letters of two sisters, even to a calligraphic signature of the character Cassie. This narrative arc concerns a spinster sister and a married one who argue, “You are mistaken, you know, about the amount of evil that lives in the city” (60) and continues in another letter:

I agree, Miriam, my dear sister, that Mr Aberhart is a great man of God, and that he has    brought a new day to Alberta. But this has to do with social credit and Prosperity Certificates—and the correct economic policies.

It is not God’s rule on earth! Mr Aberhart is not here as Elias, to announce the Second Advent, and because he speaks of the End Time on the radio does not mean that time is here.

I do worry about you Miriam, all alone in that wilderness! Oh, where do you get those ideas? (63)

The reader who is somewhat familiar with the processes of publication ought to be aware of the elaborate nature of this work’s layout. Although an artist’s book might have used differing papers for the various sequences, for a larger run work, these tactics are worthy of consideration, as they do affect the overall novel’s impact.

Due attention must be paid to the plates, which emulate an old diary with a parchment hued background, images of the edges of a leather book, and perfect cursive. It’s an invented diary, as there are no strikethroughs, and the writing is steady and clear. What this diary testifies to are the musings of the catalytic character Miriam, who lives alone on her father’s farm until she is joined after decades by someone she thinks is somehow a divine entity, but who also might be a traveling salesman. The diary is not complete, but plates of its sections are a generous third of this volume. The diary is, of course, another invention, but the character that emerges has a veracity that holds the reader, despite the character’s endless invocation of devout language. A more cynical reader will find the character’s constant ethereal realities perhaps amusing, perhaps a clue of dark humor that becomes more overt when the machinations of the modern world become central to the novel’s escalating series of complications. The language of the diary also involves the repeated trope of a dream sequence, but although two different characters dream the same dream, the telling of the dream is true to each character’s habitual language choices—quite the adept skill of Bob MacKenzie.

Because publishing ultimately must consider marketing, The Miriam Conspiracy is being posited as a mystery, which apparently has a dedicated readership. Readers with a sweet tooth for historical fiction will find some satisfaction here as well, as will those with a fondness for Alberta or Canadian literary lights. Nonetheless, there’s quite the banquet offered in this novel, including a poetic sense of language that occasionally bursts forth: “Time does not fly. It pulsates, moves forward with fits and starts, vacillates, seems to fly then seems like Rodin’s bronze to sit on its backside and meditate: a rocketship and the slow boat to China, and we never know for certain which we are on” (160). Yet this work seems to both expertly navigate and defy genre, just as it navigates past and multiple modern times, multiple points of view, and multiple visual elements in the text.

Whether or not the reader finds this work to be of sufficient expertise to be admitted to some contemporary literary canon ought not to deter its reading for the fun of it, for the deeply sardonic humor, for its toothsome and savory flavor.

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