Investigating “Empty Middles”: A Critical Review of Gail Scott’s The Obituary

obituary scott

The Obituary, Gail Scott. Coach House Books, 2010.

by Martin Schauss

Midway through the ludicrously lucid précis on the back of the folding front-cover of my edition of Gail Scott’s The Obituary (Coach House, 2010), I read the line: “But The Obituary is no whodunnit.” If you are familiar with Scott’s work, or have read only a chapter of The Obituary, you know that her story will never want to be fully understood, nor be easily accessible (like the précis), nor have a detectable narrative. The piece of information “But The Obituary is no whodunnit,” in the synopsis, is, we will soon discover, intrinsically ironic, in a sense which is exemplary for the motifs that spiral through Scott’s latest novel. Up to that sentence, the précis does not provide the reader with any reason to presume that The Obituary might be a mystery novel, or any form of whodunit narrative. It tells the reader of the ghosts that haunt Rosine, and the possibility that Rosine herself might be a ghost; if at all, the reader might think The Obituary was a gothic tale. “But The Obituary is no whodunnit” is a strange negation of an absent presumption; it evokes the lack of a whodunit narrative without having previously provided the reader with a reason to believe that there ever was one. The otherwise comprehensive and logical précis unveils a gap in its own structure, and, whether intentionally or not, prefigures the emptiness of the mystery plot narrative The Obituary hints at so often, but never develops. Indeed, The Obituary is no whodunit, but it plays with the notions of being one, or wanting to be one. The Obituary works its way around such a potential whodunit narrative (be that from the film noir genre or traditional detective fiction) leaving an “empty middle” (77). To investigate and understand Scott’s creation of the “empty middle” in The Obituary, one needs to get a grasp of her experimental use of language and syntax, and the connotations and playful engagement of her experiments with the conventions of the film noir and the detective fiction genre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Scott at the same time allows a seemingly contradictive interpretation of the “empty middle,” namely that of representing the creation of new, in-the-feminine spaces.

The first section of the chapter “Venetians That Even Private Eyes Have Trouble Sleuthing” is entitled “Our Empty Middle,” a title which can be read as one of The Obituary’s strongest self-projected hints regarding its structure and language (77). A possible reading of  “empty middle” interprets the notion as an inverted reference to the traditional mechanics of a plot-driven narrative. Scott is deeply suspicious of the novel as a vehicle presenting a one-directional (forward) narrative that seeks to represent any kind of conception of how we lead (or are led through) our lives. In her collection of earlier essays, Spaces like Stairs, Scott remarks in relation to her notes for Heroine: “So why must they become sentences become narrative? Why must I get involved with this forward movement of time the novel seems to require, when the voice of the notes, the woman’s voice beckons me towards poetry?” (“Paragraphs” 79). For Scott, her works still constitute novels, but not in the patriarchal sense of lengthy, forward-moving plot development, which to her mind is an inadequate form with which any representation of our lives proves impossible. Influenced by the ideologies of Virginia Woolf, William S. Burroughs, and Kathy Acker among others, which flow into her dialogue with other Quebecois (and also Anglophone-Canadian) in-the-feminine authors, Scott looks for a language and literature apt to characterize the schizophrenic, hyperreal, and inherently incoherent nature of modernity. “Life, like literature,” she writes in another essay, is a matter of plagiarizing and cutting up . . . For me, that linear movement did not correspond to the way we think, talk, live. I was looking for a relationship between my need to “explode” language, syntax and what I perceived as my fractured female ego . . . Later this idea became, more clearly, writing across the absence that Nicole Brossard had already prophetically called Le Centre blanc (“Virginia and Colette” 32-34).

“The blank/white centre,” or what comes to be called, two decades later with similar, but also added connotations, the “empty middle” in The Obituary.

In her essay “The Sutured Subject,” Scott explains how in My Paris the subject is reduced by the constant use of present participles, which is also true for The Obituary: “the erasure of active verbs almost cruelly reduces the subject, rendered small and porous by grammatical incision, the better to absorb the maximum of the moment, shot through with multiple shards of urban sounds and tropes” (101). Scott’s use of the present participle suggests the flowing motion of the present, though hardly in a linear manner, but rather in a roundabout way, cut up, as if moving through an unstable map that is the text, the cityscape, and our inescapably public lives.[1] The Obituary goes further, cutting up the narrator herself, into many different parts (a fly, a historian, etc.), identities of which some do not even seem to belong to the narrator at all. The character/narrator “I/R”, for example, due to the shifting grammatical contexts inside which she is placed, allows for numerous readings: Is “I/R” a first person narrator or a third person protagonist? Does the R refer to Rosine (as suggested by the line “I/Rosine interjecting” [64]) intimating the reading “I am Rosine”? Or does “I/R” stand for I are, calling into question the (grammatical) identity and authority of the controversial pronoun I? Most importantly, “I/R” stands for all these questions combined; the reader must not accept her narrator or characters as consistent entities but sympathise with their fractured existence. The splintered narrator and, ultimately, all the characters in The Obituary oscillate from background to foreground in the narrative, from existing as living, “real” human beings to ghosts and shadows. They float through the text, disappearing and reappearing, in an irregular, circular motion.

Through Scott’s devoted use of parataxis, splintering possibly long, clause-heavy sentences into short, single entities that work together through their contiguity, her sentences become just as fragmented as her narrator(s). A self-reflexive example:

May we offer a clue in R case. A solid griffe or claw from ‘the past.’ Which time-worn device [analepsis]. Deployed in wider noir genre. By way of photo inset. Or scintilla. The past + its objects, saying the great Walter B. Solely graspable in present as fragment or flash of illumination (118).

Playing, in this case, with the notion of analepsis—the flashback device traditionally used in the film noir genre—Scott, by way of enactment, reveals much about how language structure in The Obituary works. Like the analepsic inclusion of a photograph of the character Veeera, many of Scott’s “sentences” invoke single “flash[es] of illumination,” briefly shocking the reader with the intrinsic present of that momentary flash, leading them on a different, new trajectory of thought and memory. (Not just because of Scott’s reference to one “Walter B.” are we reminded of Benjamin’s concepts of profane Erleuchtung [profane illumination] and Jetztzheit [now-time].) The Orbituary embodies the feminist poet’s discomfort with the patriarchal sentence as a means to encode memory: “Virginia Woolf,” she writes in “Red Tin + White Tulle,” “frequently advocated breaking the sentence in order to overcome women’s sense of awkwardness, inferiority in writing” (24). Syntax in The Obituary, as in all of Scott’s works (especially the later ones), is disrupted, punctuations are misplaced, parataxes and countless interrupting footnotes disallow any fluent, simple reading. Another self-reflexive example:

Sun glinting off solid pairs of waistbelt cuffs, Rosie’s preferred accessory. –Now, she always saying, in starting a story. Then speaking so fast she brutally destroying syntax. Punctuation + the right adjectives meaning nothing. Breathlessly asserting her visual, auditory, olfactory impressions (135).

The contiguous relationships between the fragments that constitute Scott’s prose (single, yet hardly lonely, entities that are in dialogue with each other) open up her text and provide multiple trajectories for drawing meaning from her text.

In one of the few essays on Scott, “‘Towards the uncanny edge of language’: Gail Scott’s liminal trajectories,” Bina Toledo Freiwald expands on the calculated results of Scott’s syntactical experiments. Freiwald describes Scott’s narrative as “kaleidoscopic” (“A Word”),[2] supporting the impression of her novels as a kind of collage—reminiscent both of the cubist tradition, and the tradition of Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique. (Indeed, Burroughs is referred to repeatedly in The Obituary). Narrative linearity is dismissed in favour of an experimental prose reliant on shock, effect and impressions, asking the reader to put aside their traditional expectations of a novel. Scott, as Freiwald points out, pushes her language towards the margins, towards “the uncanny edge”; her writing becomes a liminal practice because it happens in a “space of radical openness” (i). The marginalization of language in her novel recalls Scott’s own marginalization as a minority Anglophone writer in Quebec, as an Anglophone language novelist influenced by Quebecois avant-garde poets as opposed to other Anglophone Canadian novelists, and, above all, as an in-the-feminine writer and a voice outside the realms of the dominant patriarchal language (see her essay “Virginia and Colette”).

Thus, what one might want to call Scott’s border prose involves the creation of an “empty middle”: “Reader, you may be forgiven for asking: what, here, is a novel life? If endlessly eclipsing into the emptiness of the middle?” (118). Moving along the edges in a liminal space, Scott’s language in The Obituary never allows her narrative to take the potentially coherent shape of a murder mystery that is so often hinted at (sometimes ironically: “Here, dear Reader, we begin our intrigue.” [30]), but never actually developed. The traditional plot-driven whodunit, as a patriarchal form, and absurdly linear in its representation of modernity, becomes Scott’s “empty middle,” the narrative that she skirts, leaving the reader with a kaleidoscopic frame of an absent core. Considering that the traditional murder mystery as a genre so strongly relies on plot development and suspense, Scott’s use of the film noir genre as a template (with explicit references to Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder) reveals the novel’s fundamental irony. The notion of the detective pursuit is turned on its head in The Obituary, as plot, hints, clues, suspense, all dissolve inside the “empty middle.”

Yet, although the mystery plot constitutes the “empty middle” through its absence, Scott, by association, projects its very themes and motifs onto her text, allowing for connotations, wordplays (clou/clue), and associative games. Scott uses the genre’s signs according to Umberto Eco’s aphorism (which is also the epigraph for her novel Heroine): “We use signs and the signs of signs only in cases where the things themselves are lacking” (5). The signs of the mystery plot are present, but the plot itself is missing. The notion of the private eye becomes as multifaceted as her narrator: the voyeuristic private eye (figuratively) begets the private eyes, of the masses or of the narrating fly, begets the private I (or rather the impossibility of such a private self) begets the phallic private dick. Similarly, Scott toys with the concept of the “gaze” (in the Lacanian sense), a concept that has been closely associated both with feminist writings and detective fiction (especially postmodernist detective fiction).[3] You will find plenty of references to the “gaze” in The Obituary: people peeping through keyholes; spying out behind venetian blinds (or spying into the room, through the gap the blinds leave); watching and being watched; voyeuristic surveillance; investigations; psychoanalysis (shrink Macbeth as the embodiment of the “male gaze” on the female subject). It is only through Scott’s fragmented narrative that the subject can slip from this gaze, disintegrate, split, and reassemble elsewhere. As MacBeth notes: “Rosie, unseen for a week. Unseen again today . . . Dispersal: a mental state relating to paranoia” (136). She (the narrator-subject cannot be observed and objectified the way Grace Kelly was—both in Dial M for Murder as Margot, or in real life as the famous actress who married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco.

This “empty middle” as a playful, hyperconscious engagement with the traditional and patriarchal whodunit narrative at the same time embraces and contradicts another, more conventional reading of Scott’s writing. In her essay, “Shaping a vehicle for her use,” Scott comments on the appealing form of the sphere which, as she writes, in order “to permit a circular exploration . . . requires a centre, moving, vortex-like. (The story as ellipsis—with heart.)” (73). This inherent contradiction of ellipsis with heart epitomises the interpretations of “empty middle” as it is ultimately a reflection of the in-the-feminine spaces that Scott wants to explore. By pushing her way through to the “uncanny edge,” to the margins of language, the “empty middle” that is produced becomes in turn part of a new space. Refusing to work with patriarchal conventions, in-the-feminine authors have been “forced to operate in language from a negative semantic space” (“Red Tin” 26). And Scott, in opening up the text through her fragmented prose and the contiguous workings of her sentences, also opens up new spaces: those “gaps in culture where the feminine should be” (“Vehicle” 73). The “empty middle” can thus be the spaces in-between the dominant patriarchal language and culture, the spaces that are left for the female writer to discover and exploit, and which Scott so thoroughly takes advantage of with her exploration of syntax, narrative structure, language, etc. And they are at the same time the empty spaces that emerge exactly from this exploration. Simply put, by investigating uncharted spaces, Scott produces new spaces in turn.

If the “empty middle” is the absence of the patriarchal plot-driven narrative, how can we simultaneously interpret it as the newly created in-the-feminine space? The contradiction is hardly inconsolable: by alerting the reader to the patriarchal plot’s emptiness—as it is captured in The Obituary—Scott evokes the potential of a kind of tabula rasa at the centre of her novel. Phrased differently: if the patriarchal form is the empty space, this space opens up for an entirely fresh exploration and exploitation, if perhaps only from the negative semantics previously mentioned. The Obituary represents exactly such an investigation of the patriarchal genre of the whodunit, although, as the précis reminds us, “But The Obituary is no whodunnit.”

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. 1968. Trans. Harry Zohn.       Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969. Print.

—. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Trans. Edmund   Jephcott. Ed. Peter Demetz. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Print.

Brossard, Nicole. The Blue Books. Trans. Larry Shouldice and Patricia Claxton. Toronto: Coach House, 2003. Print.

Eichhorn, Kate, and Heather Milne, eds. Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics. Toronto: Coach House, 2009. Print.

Freiwald, Bina Toledo. “ ‘Towards the Uncanny Edge of Language’: Gail Scott’s liminal trajectories.” Essays on Canadian Writing 54 (1994): N. pag. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2011.

Gladman, Renee. The Activist. San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2003.

Godard, Barbara, ed. Collaboration In the Feminine: Writings on Women and Culture From Tessera. Toronto: Second Story, 1994. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1981. Print.

Scott, Gail. Heroine. 1987. Burnaby: Talonbooks, 1999. Print.

—. Main Brides. Toronto: Coach House, 1993. Print.

—. My Paris. Toronto: Mercury Press, 1999. Print.

—. The Obituary. Toronto: Coach House, 2010. Print.

—. “Paragraphs Blowing On a Line.” Spaces like Stairs 77-104.

—. “Red Tim + White Tulle.” Spaces like Stairs 15-27.

—. “Shaping a Vehicle For Her Use.” Spaces like Stairs 65-76.

—. Spaces like Stairs. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1989. Print.

—. “from The Sutured Subject.” Prismatic Publics 99-101; 103-105. Excerpts from “The Sutured Subject.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 28.3 (2008): 62-72.

—. “Virginia and Colette: On the Outside Looking In.” Spaces like Stairs 29-42.


[1] The motif of the unstable map is one recurrent in Canadian experimental feminist writing (see, for example, Nicole Brossard’s The Blue Books; or Scott’s My Paris).

[2] Freiwald wrote her essay shortly before the publication of Scott’s novel Main Brides in 1993, but added the foreword “A Word” afterwards, confirming her views in light of Scott’s new publication. Similarly, Freiwald’s observations still apply to Scott’s later novels My Paris and indeed The Obituary.

[3] See, for example, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, or Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Assignment, Or, on the Observing of the Observer of the Observers.


Martin Schauss has just received his Masters in English from the University of Calgary. He is from Luxembourg, and currently still lives in Calgary, Alberta, with the intention of moving on soon.