The Canadian author Marni Jackson has won acclaim for for her memoir and journalism, sharp, elegant investigations into topics as varied as documentary filmmaking, dementia, and wilderness canoeing. In her first book of fiction, teasingly titled Don’t I Know You?, she is both elusive and recognizable, tracing the life of freelance writer Rose McEwan through 14 interlocking short stories in chronological order.
Rose leads a charmed existence, sort of: In discrete chapters, each a kind of freeze frame of a moment in Rose’s life, she keeps encountering famous people. The stars, who range from actors (Meryl Streep) to authors (John Updike) to musicians (Joni Mitchell) to visual artists (painter Agnes Martin) don’t so much invite her into their worlds as become temporary, coyly incongruous figures in hers. In one story, for instance, Bob Dylan shows up at the lake house Rose shares with her husband and stepson. He mumbles some koans, cleans out their refrigerator, and sleeps in their guestroom for a month. Elsewhere, as Rose earns some extra money washing salad greens at a restaurant, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd stop by, awkwardly get her number, then whisk her off to a barbecue. Jackson seems less interested in wish fulfillment—Cinderella tales of an ordinary woman tossed into zones of preposterous glamour—than offbeat comedy. She could write the mumblecore film adaptation of “Stars—They’re Just Like Us.”
Yet as appealing as it is to see these marquee names pulled earthward, Jackson realizes that she can’t let them descend too far. In the author’s note that opens the book, she argues that “celebrity itself is a kind of fiction … Stars can only exist at the point where their public roles and our imaginations meet.” We forge the fame of our idols, even as they make the movies or compose the songs. The resulting amalgam of person and persona floats just out of reach.
Jackson, whose husband spent 28 years as an entertainment writer for MacLean’s, obviously intends her stories to literalize the intimate, powerful role that icons can play in the mundane doings of the hoi polloi. We feel as though they walk beside us, talk to us. We think they like and understand us—and their imagined presence (at, say, a spa in Finland) can turn an everyday experience into an inflection point. She is less focused on the celebrities themselves, who are well-written and fun to spend time with on the page but lack the psychological nuance of the “normal” characters. The point is always that, by interacting with high-wattage figments, Rose can clarify aspects of her own life. Drinking wine with Joni Mitchell helps her resolve to leave her boyfriend. Boarding a bus driven by Van Morrison allows her to come to terms with her abortion. A May-December fling with Adam Driver, who materializes on her doorstep to shovel snow, revives her from a lonely depression.
A lovely, tremulous magical realism helps Jackson sustain her tone. Both within each story and in their overall progression, she pulls us deeper and deeper into the weird. Not only does Rose improbably meet and connect to a vast firmament of famous people, but she meets them doing improbable things: administering facials, performing surgery (while drunk, in Keith Richards’ case), serving as Apple TV technicians. In one of the strongest chapters, Rose escapes to Cherry Beach in the middle of arranging her mother’s funeral. She accepts a free ice cream from the gent in the Mister Softee truck, “an older man with close-cropped silvery hair, wearing a black apron and a gray fedora,” who turns out to be Leonard Cohen. The music trickling from his speakers is “tidal … inevitable … like an infection moving up through the body, toward the heart.” The treat he vends is called “the Cone of Perpetual Longing,” made with “fresh Mission figs, coconut ice cream, spearmint leaves, and Okanagan black cherries” and lined with communion wafers. He also offers the “Twist of Fate”: “butterscotch ripple coated in bitter dark chocolate with a misting of Jack Daniel’s, and a shard of broken glass on top.”
Cohen is more than Cohen here. He is also a kindly Grim Reaper, or Hermes ready to escort the souls of the dead down to the water. (Cohen’s death this week makes the symbolism especially eerie and surreal.) In another story, Rose takes a seat on Van Morrison’s bus and rides to a mysterious hospital wing for patients awaiting “transition.” From where? To where? She catches a glimpse of twins, perhaps the ones that she aborted years ago, and of white-tiled rooms decorated with standing pools and wilting flowers.
The strangeness crests with the last story, in which Rose, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Mister Softee/Leonard Cohen, and Taylor Swift go camping in wild Algonquin Park. After a slippery conversation about the nature of fame and art, the group stumbles on a deer carcass in an empty canoe festooned with velvety branching antlers. The tableau—boat, body, horns—is pure signifier, a still life seemingly heavy with meaning. But what does it signify?
That Jackson refuses to tell us is consistent with her strategy all along. In presenting readers with distilled moments rather than a novel’s unbroken narrative, she has asked us to fill in much of Rose’s story ourselves. And in crowding those snapshots with celebrities, she has invited us to examine the slender line dividing fame and fantasy. She has made us aware of how much personal matter we invest in the astrological bodies orbiting above our human lives.
Rose, our surrogate, is a writer. She calls the stars into being with her mind, just as we call them and her into being by reading Jackson’s words. To understand this is to hear, perhaps, a subtle rebuke to those who might consider a book about celebrities “unserious.” Don’t I Know You? reframes our fascination with famous strangers, which can be as flippant as paging through Us Weekly in the checkout line or as passionate as a desperate teenage crush. In Jackson’s hands, that fascination is a kind of creativity—even a kind of art.
Don’t I Know You? by Marni Jackson. Flatiron Books.
Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.