While the pop-culture imprint of the music video for Kanye West’s “Famous” was less indelible than its creator expected, the clip’s basic thesis holds up: “Celebrities – they’re just like us!” The floating, Lost Highway–like camera that hovers above the face-down wax museum dummies of Mr. and Mrs. Yeezy and their (in)famous friends is meant to represent the public eye, probing and yearning for similar proximity to greatness; the twist is that, in their unconscious state, the revellers are unaware of being watched. Say what you will about Kanye’s decision to include a prefabricated double for Taylor Swift in his makeshift squad, it’s the most serenely peaceful public appearance of her career to date.
Taytay is the only crossover figure between “Famous” and Marni Jackson’s Don’t I Know You?, a more gently surrealistic – and yet very similarly themed – novel-in-stories, in which the author, an acclaimed non-fiction writer with one of the most recognizable bylines in Canadian media, imagines an alternate life that keeps intersecting with the trajectories of icons. Swift shows up in the final chapter, where our heroine, Rose, goes rowing around Algonquin Park with the singer and oarsmen Leonard Cohen and Karl Ove Knausgaard, an odd-trio grouping that coyly suggests a sort of blissful generational détente. “As Karl Ove kept time, Leonard and Taylor harmonized … Leonard’s [voice] woolly, frayed and ocean-deep, Taylor’s like a thin, strong, silver wire.” Anyone who’s ever engaged in a pitched boomer vs. millennial battle over a car-ride iTunes playlist can appreciate the Utopian vision on offer.
Don’t I Know You? is inherently comic, but Jackson is attempting something more than literary fanfic. If the author’s note is to be taken at its word (and a case could be made that it shouldn’t have been included at all), the book is a form of disguised, heavily altered autobiography that uses its brand-name interlopers to reflect and refract aspects of the narrator’s (and the writer’s) sentimental education. For instance, when Rose attends a summer course in creative writing at a secluded private school, the author-in-residence is John Updike, a perfectly imperious mentor figure for a wannabe wordsmith. Backpacking through the Mediterranean as a twentysomething, Rose shares a campsite with Joni Mitchell; a few years later, on the verge of a big-time gig in Toronto, she goes swimming in Kingston with a pre-superstardom Bill Murray. And so on, until the fateful date in the canoe with Leonard and Karl (and Taylor, too).
Each of these vignettes has been smartly conceived and brought off via a strategically casual first-person style that suddenly – and intriguingly – drifts into omniscience and back again around the book’s midsection. The subtle gradations of Rose’s sexual, intellectual, and emotional evolution are conveyed crisply, without a lot of conventional exposition. Jackson writes with a journalist’s eye for detail, yet not even the metafictional aspect of the storytelling can account for some of the strange chronological errors.
These slips aside, Jackson takes the opportunity to practise some cultural criticism amid her storytelling, as in the wonderful “Bob Dylan Goes Tubing,” where the songwriter’s decision to passively lie around Rose’s family cottage after arriving unannounced suggests the diminished drives of middle age. An episode featuring Keith Richards as an operating-room doctor cleverly links the guitarist with stirrings of mortality, as well as giving his sticky fingers a new (and amusingly plausible) vocation.
There’s something dully affirmative about the book’s relationship to celebrity, as if Jackson can’t imagine going further than gentle ribbing. The more scandalous or lacerating potentials of the scenarios go totally unexplored, and there’s a telling bit of posturing in a chapter set at the Cannes Film Festival, where Jackson tries to satirize art cinema by inventing titles for Jean-Luc Godard and Nuri Bilge Ceylan films. Pretentious moviemakers are fair game, of course, but their passing presence points up the almost exclusively white, western, and mainstream identities of Jackson’s guest stars (excepting Jimi Hendrix), which feels less like a self-reflexive commentary than a wolf whistle to a similarly minded readership.
At the same time, the argument can be made that the book works on a level beyond its actual content, and that Rose’s adventures are best interpreted as a spur for every reader to re-evaluate his or her relationship to a beloved artist or entertainer.