The Review: The Fiction of Margaret Gibson

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A photograph of Margaret Gibson taken by John Reeves appears in her story collection Desert Thirst, published in 1997. It is an arresting image for many reasons. The photograph is an extreme close-up, sharply focused, of a mature, unsmiling woman. There is, in this unforgiving treatment, a tacit decision: nothing will be hidden. Though beautiful, it is also revealing; no coy vanity here. The portrait appears to be an objective representation of the author, seemingly unmediated by the artfulness of the photographer or the play of light and shadow.

And yet that photograph presents a mask-like face, neither comic nor tragic, but composed, almost carved. In each luminous iris there are reflected white dots of light that show the curve of the eye and hint at a depth. And Margaret Gibson’s eyes are so very, very large.

It is hard not to imagine the subject of this photograph as a kind of visionary. The author’s gaze is that of a searching, acutely sensitive observer, marked by deep interior reflection. It is a dramatic portrait, full of contrast, and I think it illustrates Gibson’s literary voice—both powerful and vulnerable, knowing and innocent, attuned to an inward torrent of feeling and full of a compassion for others that is nothing short of a quaking moral force.

Hunger, of every sort, charges Gibson’s fiction, a hunger that is bald and hot, shameless and owned. Her stories make no attempt to prettify a single mother’s rapacious need for love and security, nor the hunger of living on a welfare cheque, nor the profound sexual hunger of women of all ages. Gibson shows how punishing these hungers can be.

But her stories also offer a startling sense of compassion and a fast-flaring, intermittent joy. It is the joy of saying what is so. It is the redemption, in every story of suffering, that comes from the act of telling, and telling accurately—eyes wide open.

Gibson’s brand of feminism—and her fiction is feminist simply because it tells stark truths about women and men and how they define, deform, and save each other—is the old-fashioned kind of feminism that I most admire: gritty, scorchingly intimate, politically aware, and sexually provoking. Provoking, in fact, of all sorts of social mores and values, previously held convictions, and uneasy self-discoveries.

This kind of feminism is full of a brute strength born of necessity. Gibson’s work uncovers what lies in wait for those who are fiercely intelligent, without means, and unafraid. She takes as her subject, again and again, these fundamental themes: How deeply we need to be loved, how lonely and terrifying mental illness and poverty can be—and how very dangerous. How we fail as mothers, and how much that failure fills us with shame. How we succeed in loving our children, as no one else can, and how we protect them.

Gibson’s stories are full of an exacting and intricately concocted rage against injustice—the institutionalized cruelties of racism, sexism, poverty, illness, and hunger. There is an anarchic spirit in her stories, a chemistry of fury, empathy, and craft, marked by a lack of fear. It’s as though Gibson doesn’t give a damn about social convention. She’s decided there’s too much at stake.

The social safety net of the 1970s is already unravelling in Canada while Gibson writes most of her work, the mean Mulroney years burning bright in the Toronto she draws, neighbourhoods with drug addicts sleeping on the sidewalks, broken glass, the piss-smelling foyers of ugly brick tenements, cockroaches scuttling in the dark, crime, and occasional gunshots. There emerges in the background of Gibson’s fictional world a catalogue of the failures of social services, mental hospitals, and the law—most social institutions, in fact—to support the powerless and those in need. It’s hard to think of another Canadian writer who captures the urban poor of the 1980s and 1990s from the inside, as Gibson does, with lyrical prose, by turns staccato and lush.

Hers are characters who have had lobotomies, victims of shell shock, violent men who have come out of decades of imprisonment, porn stars and drag queens, drug dealers, addicts, and alcoholics. She writes about the betrayal of trust between lovers, doctors and patients, husbands and wives, mothers and sons.

Sometimes she writes about rape or violence visited upon the weakest members of society—women and children, immigrants and those with mental illness. But an equally damaging, subtler form of violence happens in the simple routines of everyday life; for instance, the diet of the poor. Consider this shopping list from the short story “Cacti”:

She shops there for food. Tins of Heinz Spaghetti and Alphagetti, blue and yellow boxes of Kraft Dinner, slices of soft cheese wrapped in cellophane in high blue square cardboard boxes. Tins of tomato soup for 39 cents and dried packets of Lipton’s Chicken Soup and cans of Libby’s Brown Beans. The occasional tinned small ham that you open with a key. Sometimes as a treat for Kee she buys a big cellophane bag of gumdrops for 99 cents. Or two chocolate bars for a $1.00 from a big grab-all bin. For herself she buys tins of Allen’s Apple Juice for a $1.15 a tin. And there are always the food banks and the free church vegetarian lunches with fruit cocktail for dessert. She loves the fruit cocktail. The juice in it. And there are sometimes tiny crusty rolls spread with an expensive brand of margarine. Sometimes the church ladies even serve real butter, tiny half-frozen hard pale yellow pats with little crystals of water dripping from them on tiny dainty perfect white squares of paper.

According to Gibson’s son, Aaron Gilboord, his mother stayed up for days without sleep and without medication, putting her health in serious jeopardy (as she was an epileptic), to hammer out stories. Gilboord remembers being woken, often in the wee hours of the morning, because his mother needed help changing the typewriter ribbon.

“She chain-smoked and drank soft drinks—her two vices—and blasted Barbra Streisand,” he says. “She threw a glass ashtray at the wall when things weren’t going right and sent the cockroaches running. When she received a royalty cheque or a grant, she took me o for a weekend to a hotel.”

“I was the most important thing in her life,” Gilboord says, “and her writing was the second most important thing.”

Gibson had given herself over completely to writing in a sort of race against her illness, against sleep and poverty. For a time she lived on the street and alienated friends during bouts of illness, but she seemed to su er most when she could not write.

And here is the result of that consuming need to tell stories, to stay awake for days until they are told, no matter the cost. Here is what it feels like to be insane; here is what it feels like to be beautiful; here is what love feels like; here is what it feels like to be hungry, to be abandoned, a mother struggling to care for a son; and here is hope.

Hope most often blazes out of the dark of her stories in the form of a child. There is, for all the disturbing harshness of Gibson’s world, a voice innocent of despair, and that is a form of brute strength. That is the innocent and raging feminism of the early 1980s; that is the vision that comes from having experienced helplessness and the forging of a certain kind of inevitable, hard-won freedom.

Gibson writes frequently about a protagonist with giant eyes, blue or green, and long hair and a small frame, a character who physically resembles the author, a character who suffers from mental illness, as the author does, who tries to raise her son alone and who is a writer. In many ways the fiction of Margaret Gibson appears to be autobiography except for the important fact that she called it fiction.

In the story “Brian Tattoo, His Life and Times,” Meg Glen, the author of a humorous women’s column and wife of a social worker whom she refers to as Rehab, decides to write a profile about one of her husband’s clients. The client, Brian Tattoo, is a member of a biker gang and has been judged to be of low intelligence. Brian drinks all day and lives a life of such pathos that it almost breaks his would-be biographer, who feels fear and tenderness toward him.

On a visit to his house, Meg meets Brian’s stepfather, Frank, who has a metal plate in his head. Frank is saved from being entirely grotesque, amid his beer bottles, rotten teeth, and filth, simply because he is rendered in Gibson’s prose with such careful accuracy. “Frank smiles at me for the first time and touches his head with great gentleness and not without humour as one who handles a well-known and beloved museum piece. He ripples the skin of his scalp back and forth with stub fingers.”

Meg is forced to overcome her revulsion—not, it seems, for Frank, but for a world that has made the poverty of Frank’s life not only possible but implacably ultra-present—when she is asked to touch the metal plate for herself.

“Yes, I felt it, I felt it,” she assures Frank.

Whether the content of this scene is autobiographical or imagined, or both, as is the case with most fiction, it is undeniably intimate and personal. It is felt.

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Lisa Moore is the author of the novels CaughtFebruary, and AlligatorCaught was adapted as a television series for the CBC. Her most recent work is a collection of short stories called Something for Everyone. She lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.