Unperformed Experiments Have No Results

by Janette Turner Hospital

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

“Unperformed Experiments Have No Results” is made up of several seemingly unrelated events, the sequence of which the narrator no longer knows. The events include Philippa’s sitting on her dock observing a man rowing a canoe upstream, her memory of climbing a waterfall in Queensland with her friend Brian during their last year in high school, a dream in which she sees the body of Brian on a submerged suspension bridge at the end of her dock, and her discovery that Brian is ill and has disappeared. A fifth “event” is Philippa’s reading historical accounts of French Jesuits who came to Ontario in the seventeenth century.

Much of the story is taken up by Philippa’s experience on a summer afternoon when, while sitting on her dock, she sees a man paddling upriver in a birch-bark canoe against a strong current. She describes in great detail the man, “all manic energy and obstinacy,” fighting the stream with almost supernatural strength. Thinking she recognizes something about the man’s physical gestures, she is astonished when he looks up and she thinks it is her friend Brian. Although she knows it cannot be Brian, who is in either Japan or Australia, she is mesmerized by the man until he paddles out of sight. Later at a dinner party with her husband, she hears about a birch-bark canoe having washed up on shore. When someone says the authorities are searching for the body of the man, Philippa says she hopes they do not find him.

In a second section of the story, Philippa remembers her senior year in high school when she and her friend Brian climbed a waterfall in their native Queensland, Australia. When they reached the top, they talked about their “unmapped future.” Brian said that he hoped to go to Japan after university to do research in physics and told Philippa that she would probably end up in Africa or Canada.

In the third section, Philippa dreams she is at the end of her dock when she notices that Wolfe Island across the way has been transformed into a rain forest in Queensland. She then sees a submerged suspension bridge between her dock and Wolfe Island, with Brian, his eyes open but unseeing, lying beneath the water, looking like Ophelia from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600-1601). She asks, “Alas then, are you drowned?” He answers “Drowned, drowned.”

When Philippa logs on to her e-mail to tell Brian about the dream, she sees an undated message from him, saying he is going away and that he thinks it is a pity that they cannot go back to when they were young together. She then quotes a letter she received from her mother telling her that Brian has some nervous system disorder and that after refusing treatment has flown to Tokyo. She sends daily e-mail messages to Brian, trying to goad him into responding, but she gets no answer.

The story ends with Philippa watching for news about the discovery of the missing man, relieved that no body is found. She reads the accounts of the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries, checks her e-mail every day, sends out messages, and tries to formulate theories to account for the parallel nature of the events.

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