Montreal-Toronto corridor writer Michael Mirolla’s publications include the novel Berlin (Bressani Prize winner), two short story collections, and the poetry collection, The House on 14th Avenue. His short story, “A Theory of Discontinuous Existence,” was selected for The Journey Prize Anthology. He is also the co-owner of Guernica Editions. Ahead of his January 8 visit, Michael drops by to tell about his latest novel, The Giulio Metaphysics III.
Of Immigrant Roots & Psychic Journeys: A Metafictional Approach
At the basis of my novel-cum-latest short story collection, The Giulio Metaphysics III, lies the journey – be it literal (as experienced by immigrants, for instance) or metaphorical. Translocations. Of being a stranger, of trying to adjust, of not knowing what to expect. It is this combination, this conjunction of literal and metaphorical journeys, that I’d like to address.
For those curious about the book’s title, there is actually some method to my madness: the reason for the III is a result of a continuation of several section headings from my first story collection, The Formal Logic of Emotion. There you will find two Giulio stories, the first – “A Theory of Discontinuous Existence” – under the heading “The Giulio Metaphysics I,” and the second – “The Proper Country” – under “The Giulio Metaphysics II” heading.
Which brings me to Giulio himself: each of the sections in The Giulio Metaphysics III is about a character named Giulio. Giulio may or may not be transferable from one section to the next. So either the book is about the fluidity of identity and the lack of essentialness in any attempt to define identity, or it’s about my inability to come up with enough different names to populate the 18 stories.
Giulio’s Italian-Canadian immigrant (literal journey) roots are obvious from his name and from the fact many of the stories reflect those roots – or at least bits and pieces: blood colouring the thick red sauce; a half-empty wine glass in his pale-blue hand; his mother’s special cake, layered in vanilla and chocolate cream and soaked in vermouth. The seventh story, “And the attendance of weddings,” is a dialogue in dramatic form between “Giulio” and another character in which they discuss the details of Italian-Canadian weddings.
So we can assume with some assurance that the character Giulio is Italian-Canadian. But what about his psychic journey, the more universal journey we all experience? In The Giulio Metaphysics III, Giulio feels he is being controlled by someone else, someone who calls himself “the creator.” So the question then becomes: Is Giulio’s Italian-Canadian-ness something that defines him? Or is it something that has been imposed on him?
When I was young, I didn’t consciously go out and do “Italian” things. Except when in the house with my parents, where I was forced to speak Italian dialect because that’s what they understood, I didn’t use the language. My favourite sports were football and baseball; my favourite authors were Franz Kafka and James Joyce; when it came time to attend university I didn’t go to Loyola, the one recommended by my teachers for good Italian Catholic boys and girls, but to McGill. I avoided Italian festivals and associations. I studied the English Romantic poets at university. I penned my first fledgling attempts at creative writing in English. And yet… and yet… in the end, I was still classified as a first-generation Italian-Canadian immigrant. It was as if I were caught… trapped in some type of cultural schizophrenia: one part of me dictated by others; another part trying desperately to create itself and separate itself.
In a much more symbolic and literary way, Giulio undergoes something similar. In the first part of the Metaphysics, Giulio feels as if he’s being controlled, manipulated. He finds himself involved in conversations with his creator, (that’s me, I guess), arguing about how I don’t allow him to have his own life, actions, thoughts, feelings… in a word, his own identity. The creator is forcing Giulio to act in ways he thinks are beneficial rather than those that make up the essential nature of the person.
But then the question: what exactly is the essential nature of that person? What is Giulio’s core identity? In the Metaphysics, Giulio dumps his controlling creator. And then what? Giulio, having abandoned the status provided him by the creator, (like a passport or citizenship papers), flounders in a type of no man’s land. A place where identity is scraped down to the essence. No homeland, no religion, no clan, no family – what does it then mean to be human?
This is the postmodern existentialist position. While it appears, at first, to go much deeper than the other labels that attach themselves to us, the problem is that such a position consists basically of digging out the foundations beneath your feet. And then digging it out again… and so on to infinity.
This “existential freedom” quickly leads to loss of memory and identity, to dislocation, and to a re-living of past events without the original context: a bit, I would venture to say, like someone who fights to strip away his or her roots and ends up with…
Giulio undergoes this process in Metaphysics. In a literal sense, he loses himself. Unable to remember his name, where he is, why he is here and not there, what has happened to get him where he is, what the past means, where the present is going. In some ways, this mirrors much of our world today once we tear away the pillars that have supported our beliefs, our logic, our confidence. In other ways, it represents a much longer-standing concern faced by all human beings: the consciousness of mortality.
So what’s the solution to this? Well, obviously there is no solution to mortality… to that ultimate loss of identity… no matter how many anti-aging creams we might apply. But there may be a way to recover that identity in the brief time we do have. On his physical and psychic journey, Giulio comes full circle, ending pretty much right back where he started – in a house eerily similar to the one found in the first part of the collection. In other words, like it or not, he finds himself once more in the midst of the Italian-Canadian symbols that he despised when he felt he was being controlled by his creator, (me): symbols of cooking, xenophobic but loving mothers, wine-making and consumption, elaborate marriage events, death and funeral rites. A world both familiar and unfamiliar. The old world seen through new eyes.
By now, Giulio should have got the hint. He should have worked out what exactly he needs to do to free himself from having others impose an identity on him. And, after a long series of nudges, he does finally. Ironically, however, he can only do this once he has been forced into a corner… into a situation that allows for no escape. Giulio has to be trapped, (symbolically in the Metaphysics, within a sealed room that provides him with all the amenities but not the key to the door), before he understands what his core identity is. For Giulio, (as for me, I guess), that identity comes from what I am: a writer — someone who creates his own story — of Italian-Canadian descent obviously but not defined that way… a person who above all things has to dig his way through words in order to try to make sense of the world and of this enigmatic creature known as a human being.
Michael Mirolla visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2014 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Katie Boland, J.M. Frey and Sherwin Tjia. Come early (6:30) for a talk by author Cory Silverberg about crowd-funding and how writers can put it to use.
Watch this space for more with each of our readers in the month leading up to the event!