K.D. Miller’s new volume of linked stories unfolds in dialogue with the work of the late painter Alex Colville. Each story is preceded by a reproduction of one of Colville’s spare, almost sculptural renderings of figures in landscapes. Every one of these images depicts people on the move while never disclosing their destination; they represent decisive moments liberated from context, the figures’ turned-away heads or otherwise veiled intentions storing secrets or coiled violence for use in Miller’s musings and extrapolations. Colville’s paintings seem to have inspired in Miller a steady forward motion even as the stories, set in various parts of Ontario and New Brunswick, shift back and forth in time and alternate among a broad community of characters, most of them old enough to suffer ongoing negotiation with the wearying body or mind.
Among those characters are a contender for an obscenely lucrative literary prize, a woman confronting her adolescent assaulter, a geriatric virgin, an ex-con, and an emotionally aphasic man who discovers communion with an octopus. There is a story in which a long-married couple gradually find their way back to each other after years of mutual alienation; elsewhere we encounter elderly women who choose to be curious about bodily change rather than fear it.
Miller’s compassion for her characters – and the occasional consolation she provides – in no way tempers her willingness to put them through their respective ringers. Old or young, the characters in Late Breaking find themselves vulnerable to encroaching penumbra. Death is a frequent presence, whether the result of age, murder, euthanasia, or suicide. There are other, more uncanny forces at work, too. The book’s most surprising – and surprisingly resonant – turn arrives with the story of a couple and their young daughter, whose potent imagination seems under the sway of harrowing historical events to which she’s never had any exposure. In a twist that would not be out of place for Stephen King, the girl’s novelist father worries that his writing might be implicated in his daughter’s apparent corruption.
The structure of Late Breaking feels pleasingly intuitive, emphasizing interconnectivity while eschewing the thudding intersectional events that sometimes turn such network narratives into ham-fisted displays of mundane moralizing or baroque plotting. Echoing Colville’s images, most often things are left open-ended: choices are mulled over, steps are taken in a certain direction, dramatic plans are delayed or aborted, life goes on – or it doesn’t. As for the book’s focus on aging, Miller’s attentiveness to the ways daily routines must be scrutinized by those whose energy or mobility is at a premium is touching, while swathes of time pass by in a blur for the younger characters, whose lives are frenetic, exhausting, or afflicted with resentments or insecurities.
One story feels somewhat out of place because of its attempt to incorporate a clutter of central characters – something the book as a whole does quite elegantly. The stories themselves are rich with coherence, meaning, and suggestion, and part of what makes them so satisfying is the space they leave free for us to engage with them and find our own interpretation.
NOTE: This review has been amended from the print version to remove a line about an essay that was included in the advance reading copy but does not appear in the finished book.