The Obituary by Gail Scott. Nightboat. 220pp., $15.95.
Books can be difficult in a myriad of ways. They can be obscure, esoteric, emotionally draining, linguistically complex, morally repulsive, stylistically challenging, narratively intricate, boring, long, or riddled with puzzles. Among adjectives applied to books, “difficult” is remarkable both for its descriptive feebleness and its frequency of use. In the category of words that say almost nothing, yet are employed with astonishing regularity, it is perhaps only surpassed by “interesting.” Though when someone describes a book as “interesting,” you at least know it’s being recommended. By contrast, to describe a work as “difficult” is to issue a warning and a challenge: an admonition of arduousness, but also an invitation to a community: a group gathers in an Irish pubs to read Finnegans Wake out loud; an online tribe crawls though Gass’s The Tunnel; “safe in warm houses,” college freshmen born four decades after the end of the Second World War, congregate in a chat room discussing Levi’s If This Is a Man.
So when I tell you, as I must, that The Obituary by Gail Scott is both difficult and interesting, I hope you won’t be scared off but will join in the conversation. In a world where most stories are produced under severe restrictions of time, space, and genre, and where their emphasis is on accessibility, digestibility, and instantaneous appeal, serious literature goes against the grain. Surely this is a fact known to Gail Scott, who before turning to literature was a newspaper reporter in Montreal, where much of her fiction, including The Obituary, is set. Far from the easy unity and confident voice of journalistic prose, The Obituary makes both the narrative and its narration into puzzles. Here are some of its relentlessly writerly gambits: It alternates between prose and verse. Its line breaks sometimes slices through sentences, leaving only their stumps. Some words are struck through, soon followed by more
duplicitous appropriate words (a trace of the editing process, a remnant of the Freudian lapsus). Some words are written in ALL CAPS. There is much français, sometimes italicized sometimes not. Spelling reflects accent and accent reflects every conceivable identity category in both languages. A good chunk of the book being written the present continuous, turning every verb into a gerund. As it turns out, Scott’s formal experiments are integral to her narrative and far from frivolous, even if discovering this requires some patience.
The plot is deferred for most, if not all, of the novel. Instead of story, we get promises of a story: “Rest assured, dear X, a tale’s encrypted mid all these future comings + goings of parlour queens, telephone girls, leather divas, Grandpa’s little split-tailed fis’.” And later: “Oh darling X, is not our future narrative to keep us moving forward?” And again, this in a footnote to a description of her own “slippy-slidey sentences, switching this way and that”:
Reader, a lapsus carries a secret index. Little by little revealing why we meander in speaking. As disparate in associations as a voyageur on a train. Hallucinating on various angles of the sunset, unless distracted by fussy table linen, or fancy brickwork on stations of the early area. When this still new, therefore allegorical, mode of transport advancing in winter night over ‘empty’ prairie. Direction, a Southern AB smalltown station, where ‘copasetic’ [i.e. assimilated] young ‘half-breed’ signalman in stepping out to switchpost, slipping on ice right down under oncoming train.— Some idiot, yelling Dill, ‘d put salt around th’ post.
Normally a lapsus would stand out, noticeable against the smoothness of the text. The Obituary, however is all lapsus, replete with secret indexes and ghosts. Ghosts such as the voyageur—the exemplary figure of someone full of “disparate associations” whose story itself constitutes a diversion, or “meandering” away, from the tale.
Deducing the plot from “slippy-slidey sentences” is helped along by the presence of other texts in The Obituary. It gradually becomes clear that plot entails a murder along the line of Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, both of which get quoted extensively and without attribution. Part of the difficulty is the literary erudition demanded of the reader, the demand of being able to follow these and other, more obscure, citations.
Another part of the difficulty lies in keeping track of the characters, which include Rosine (or Rose, or Rosie, or I, or I/R, or, maybe, the Fly), Face (a face in a window, or a magazine, or in a mirror), the
Basement Bottom Historian (who writes footnotes indexed with “heart” signs), a psychoanalyst called Macbeth, X (possibly the Reader, or the addressee of the text), NEIGHB (a neighbor) who appears in a theatrical dialog with STREET, Celia Raw Raw© (a radio talk-show host), Veeera (Rosie’s mother, unknowingly aboriginal), and Grandfather (R’s).
Nor is pinning down the narrator a simple matter. Referring to the “ever-shifting amalgam” that is Rose, the blurb at the back of the book claims that “[p]lace, language and identity are lived in ways that challenge narrative, so that even in probing a murder, The Obituary is less a whodunit than an investigation of who speaks.” True. But if the book gains in power from peeling back the complicated layers of identity of a narrator whose voice must pass through place (“Mile End, Montreal”), race (“Celtic,” “Indian,” “Caucasian-American,” “aboriginal”), gender and sexuality (“no real lezzie”), class (“working class solidarity”), and above all, language (“Eeeeeeeeeengleeesh” in a French city), then it also loses in plainness. Especially for readers who, like me, are not from Montreal, unfamiliar with its local slang, customs, practice, or history. Of all the varieties of difficulty in The Obituary, this is the one I find most striking, all the more so because, as a professional translator, I usually champion not only foreign literatures, but also foreignness in literature. But The Obituary is more than just foreign to me. It reads like it is deliberately encoded to keep me on the outside looking in—an aesthetic experience that is neither entirely unpleasant nor entirely uninteresting. Normally, assuming readers like me are willing to do some work, to learn about a place, about its geographic, socio-historical and linguistic make-ups, a foreign novel can open up a new world to them. And there are parts of The Obituary that encourage this, which even sound a little like a guidebook:
Herself, in glancing up at the 4999 Settler-Nun window, musing that Face behind venetians permanently staring toward yonder mountain. Which mountain named, like the avenue, Mont-Royàl in French. Yet, interestingly, ‘Monte Reale’ [Italian] providing the name for our French-speaking [sort of] agglomerate.
But these moments of clarity, of addressing itself to the outsider, translating for those external to the culture, are few and far between in The Obituary. A more representative excerpt would be:
She’s from The Outers, so instead of the friendly tangled back courtyards we used to have, now looking down from Settler-Nun flats onto North America’s biggest crop: lawn.
Reading this I wonder if The Outers is real, whether it is Scott’s renaming of an actually existing but differently named place, or whether it merely denotes the generic outlying regions. With the shift from “She” to “we” it is unclear whether The Outers is a place of “friendly tangled back courtyards” or not. But I like the lawn joke, and that’s enough to keep me going.
Aside from its stylistic challenge and its micro-cultural specificity, The Obituary brings up another set of difficulties: death, genocide, murder, haunting, and ghosts. The novel’s present is regularly invaded and interrupted by past violence. Scott is innovative in letting these ghosts from the past warp her telling of the tale, using her gerund-ridden elliptical style to insist that this past comes to us as present. Nonetheless, this dimension of the book comes off as failed: where the trauma should be difficult to deal with, it is easy. That, of course, may be intentional. Scott can sound distanced about violence:
Reaching for Book of Genocides, turning non-acid-treated leaves. Detaching as I touching. GER-many. Somalia. Armenia. Rwanda. Kosovo. Sudan. Eeeeeeeast Teeeeeeeemor. Scrutinizing for la Gêne on which we standing, those going here before, stencilled in ice tunnel below bridge.
When Rosine (if it is Rosine) leafs through the Book of Genocides, the pages come loose, “Detaching as I touching,” unfixing these historical traumas. As the pages loosen, the reader is also “detaching,” becoming capable of being playful with place names that signal atrocities. She never finds la Gêne (the wrong) committed locally; it’s not in the Book of Genocides. And as we know, “a lapsus carries a secret index.” What is absent from the Book of Genocides returns to haunt The Obituary. And yet, the force of this haunting seems rather weak in a book where it appears next to “Eeeeeeeast Teeeeeeeemor.” I remain unable to tell whether I am unresponsive to this difficulty because of my distance from “la Gêne on which we standing” as a non-Quebecois, non-Canadian, non-American reader, or because of the book itself.
One exception to my general disaffection is the response I have to the second of two images, and the only photograph, incorporated into the book. Like some of the best photographs included into W.G. Sebald’s work, this image is enduringly unsettling. It appears alone on the page, an oval-shaped portrait of a young girl with a bowl cut. Soft focus. The bottom half entirely opaque. Only her head and shoulders emerging from the grey mist of early twentieth century photograph. A face. Face. And a caption that simply reads, “Veeera.” Perhaps this is also the child described in novel’s closing:
little girl with clear strong features. French. Québécois. Greek. Indigenous. Also Caucasian-American ancestors. Laughing + saying
This strange and affecting singular photograph notwithstanding, The Obituary makes me feel like an outsider. I am able to admire its ambition, to approve of its project, but to be still fundamentally excluded: an experience more appropriate to the book and the city it describes than one might initially think. In an afterword, in which Scott defends the poetic license she has taken in having The Obituary diverge from the real Montreal, she explains one of the book’s recurring terms:
The “Shale Pit Workers!: were actually stone quarriers [in the early 20th century], but got mistranslated in a document unearthed by the author. The mistranslation seemed relevant. It seemed relevant as well to make them legendary.
One of the ways these workers enter into legend and into the novel is through a bilingual popular song that haunts its pages. Each time this song is repeated, it confirms the mistranslation and the misunderstanding. The possibility for this kind of error seems elemental to the Montreal of The Obituary. It is a city that is never entirely legible, even to its denizens. A city where it is entirely appropriate to get lost in a sea of identities, languages, and accents, and where history is difficult, even for the locals.
Jan Steyn is a literary translator from French and Afrikaans. His translations include Suicide by Edouard Levé’s and Alix’s Journal by Alix Cléo-Roubaud.
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