Dean Garlick is a fiction writer living in Montreal. His first novel, The Fish, was published by Anteism Press in 2010 and was translated into French on Les Allusifs in 2015. His novella, Chloes, was released in 2014. Dean also writes fiction reviews for Montreal Review of Books.
“Waylay is a speculative novel set in what may-or-may-not-be Highway 401 in very Southern Ontario. Due to a massive cyber-attack, power is out across North America and all communications are down, including television, internet, and radio. Fleets of ATSs (Automated Transport Systems) have also been shut down, resulting in a massive traffic jam. Montana is a first-year art school student on her way to the city with her father. She matches with Owen on Tindr in a rest stop food court before the attack happens, and they find themselves stuck together in the jam. What results is Nowhere is a Place, conceptual performance art that holds the promise of connecting people in this volatile and potentially hostile situation.
Nowhere is a Place is a loose reinvention of the performance / theatre work of Montreal writer / performance artist Jacob Wren, most specifically the piece Unrehearsed Beauty-Le Génie des autres (as described in his book Authenticity is a Feeling: My Life in PME-ART). Unrehearsed Beauty, as envisioned by Wren and his performance collective PME-ART, obliterates the division between performer and audience, inviting audience members to a microphone as contributors to the performance, creating a sense of radical collectivity and a feeling that ‘anything could happen.’
Just as everyone present in the theatre in performs Unrehearsed Beauty, the organic evolution of Nowhere is a Place is a result of the cumulative contributions of the random collection of people trapped on the highway. Nowhere is a Place also takes on the same spirit of organic evolution utilized by Wren, with Montana forming the initial idea for the piece but allowing it to evolve as more people engage with it.
Lastly, there’s a spirit of both optimism and amateurism in Wren’s work that I wanted to recreate in Nowhere is a Place, one that can potentially mine a sense of hope and collective strength from naive idealism.”
‘So who’s going to be our first guinea pig?’ asked Owen, surveying the infinite row of possible candidates.
Montana pointed towards an unassuming burgundy sedan. At the wheel sat a middle-aged woman in horn-rimmed glasses, knitting needles clicking in steady rhythm. Owen thrust out his lower lip and gave an approving nod. She seemed like the perfect first participant: bored, benign, and quirky enough to tolerate what was bound to be a bizarre interaction.
‘Good evening, Ma’am,’ chirped Montana.
The woman took out her earbuds, blinked back in confusion.
‘What’s that you’re working on?’
‘Oh, it’s a shawl for a friend. Thank God I happened to have my wool and needles with me.’
Montana jotted something down in her notebook.
‘Can I help you with something?’
‘You’ve already started. I wanted to initiate an interaction with you for an art project.’
‘Um. Ok. What’s it about?’
‘It’s about being stuck in this traffic jam.’
Montana laughed nervously.
‘Yeah, well, I guess you could call it my own little knitting project. Would you like to participate?’
The woman lifted her shoulders as if to say what else do I have to do?
‘Can I get your name, age, and occupation?’
‘My name’s Margaret Ableman, I’m 42, and I’m a municipal archivist. Why is that guy standing over there?’
‘That’s just my friend, Owen. He thought it might be intimidating if we both approached you.’
‘I’d argue the looming is creepier,’ she said, and waved at Owen. Owen raised his hand bashfully but stayed where he was.
‘So, now what?’ she asked.
‘The next part is a kind of word association game. Do you mind if I record? It’s easier than writing every response.’
‘Sure, why not.’
‘Just say the first thing that comes to your mind. Here we go: Time.’
‘Failure. Definitely Failure.’
‘Excellent. Just a few questions now. What’s this traffic jam keeping you from?’
‘The Frida Kahlo exhibit, and a visit with a few friends in the city for the weekend. That’s about it. Just wanted to get out of town, really.’
‘If your current emotional state was a colour, what would it be?’
‘Are you serious?’
‘I guess blood red because this whole situation pisses me off?’
‘You seem to be dealing pretty well, actually.’
‘I like to turn my rage into something productive,’ she said, raising her knitting needles.
Montana scribbled in her notebook. ‘This is good stuff. Sisyphus pushing her ball of yarn up a mountain of mind-numbing boredom,’ she thought.
‘In a situation like this, what do you think is a more crucial value, individualism or collectivism?’ she asked.
‘Uhhhhhhh. Well. We can help each other out as long as there’s enough to go around, so in that sense, I’d say collectivism. But from my experience, when things get scarce, it’s every person for themselves.’
‘Has a stranger shown you any kindness since the jam began?’
‘My neighbour gave me a veggie-burger and a slice of watermelon this afternoon, which was nice,’ she said, nodding towards the van in front of her.
‘Who knows, maybe if we’re here long enough you can knit some toques and scarves for people.’
‘What a terrible thought.’
‘Yeah, let’s forget I said that. Next question. Has anyone been rude, unkind, or violent towards you?’
‘No. But I did see some cops harass a guy this morning for not being in his car. So there’s that.’
Montana took a few more notes.
‘So, the last part of this will be a kind of interactive dialogue-slash-performance. Are you OK with this?’
‘Umm. What do I have to do?’
‘Just be in the moment. You have complete free will for the duration of the interaction, so you should react however feels natural to you.’
Montana put her notebook on the ground and cleared a mass of blond curls from her forehead. The butterflies in her stomach were now a fury of buzzing hornets. ‘Am I really doing this? I am really doing this,’ she thought.
‘What does the phrase the unreality of stillness mean to you?’
‘Some say it’s the place where your mind goes when you’re trapped in limbo, where the usual props for the magic trick of happiness have been denied to you by circumstance.’
Margaret looked bemused but was willing to play along.
‘So… this traffic jam, for example?’
‘Yes, exactly. But where does the mind go while waylaid in this unreality? Does it dwell in the past, project into the future, steep itself in fantasy, succumb to cycles of compulsive self-critical thought?’
‘I tend to disagree that we’re trapped in some kind of unreality here,’ she said, making air quotes around unreality. ‘This is the kind of situation that forces you to be present. I just don’t think most of us are used to it. But to answer your question, I try not to think at all. Just one loop after another, hoping this traffic moves eventually.’
Montana hadn’t considered non-thought to be an option, but now it seemed obvious.
‘Umm… but… are we truly ourselves when forced to languish in alien surroundings? When we can’t act on our intentions, plans, and dreams? Do our surroundings not somehow begin to define us? Who are we when our concerns shrink to the needs of the present moment? We are reborn into a new world, and our former names become meaningless.’
‘Oh man. I thought you just wanted a light when you walked up to me.’
Montana gazed earnestly at Margaret.
‘What name will you take into this new reality?’ she asked.
‘Wow. Um. So I’m supposed to think of a new name for myself? Ok. Sure. I’ve hated the name Margaret as long as I can remember. Always felt like a Lucille. It’s classic, but a bit more rock-and-roll, you know? So yeah, you can call me Lucille.’
‘Nice to meet you, Lucille.’
‘And what’s your name for this cyber-apocalyptic traffic jam from hell?’
Montana realized she hadn’t thought of her own name yet. She looked up at the first stars multiplying in the deepening twilight.
‘Patience,’ she said.
‘A little literal, isn’t it?’
‘My given name is Montana, so anything’s an improvement.’
‘Got a point there.’
Patience had been the most nervous about the next part of the performance. If she’d made a connection it would go as planned. If not, there was bound to be some pain in the very-near future.
‘In ten seconds, I’m going to fall backwards. If you believe in the collective interdependence of living things, you’ll know what to do next… one.’
‘Are you serious right now?’
‘Two. Three. Four.’
Lucille’s eyebrows migrated steadily towards her hairline.
‘You’re not really about to fall are you?’
Patience emanated a mix of tranquility and determination.
‘Okay, let me out of this car.’
Patience felt the door bump against her leg.
Lucille grunted as Patience’s full weight dropped into her arms.
‘Are you fucking crazy?’ asked Lucille, lifting Patience back to her feet.
Patience took Lucille by the shoulders.
‘I’ve never felt more sane,’ she said.