The Horrors: An A to Z of Funny Thoughts on Awful Things. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Bitter Rose. Linda Leith Publishing Inc. (purchase at Amazon.ca) and
When faced with horrifying or traumatizing events, an individual can choose to either repress or face them. Martine Delvaux’s novel Bitter Rose and Charles Demers’ collection of essays The Horrors employ these opposing approaches. Delvaux’s narrative shows how the sinister that lurks in the mundane is inevitably concealed, while Demers’ essays bring darkness to the foreground in order to analyze it and rob it of its power. While these two works share little in terms of form or style, both texts shed light on the unsettling way in which negative experiences can play a central role in identity formation.
In her novel, Delvaux creates a dark fairy tale out of the seemingly ordinary events that mark a child’s growth and identity formation. Despite the fact that young girls around her disappear, Delvaux’s unnamed protagonist maintains a certain distance from these traumatizing events by converting them into stories that she either hears or tells herself. The novel is composed of four sections that specify the young girl’s location, and as she narrates her life, from childhood to adulthood, she defines her experiences from the onset as determined by the space she inhabits. Yet regardless of whether she lives in a city, village, or suburb, the narrator’s world is shaped by the women around her; it is “a world where no one spoke of men, they were not a subject of conversation because they didn’t really exist. . . . Life was lived among girls.” As a result of living in a world without men, she understands them through fairy tales, where “the Princes were away, and one day they would suddenly appear after having fought a dragon.” Even as the protagonist grows up, she still relies on such tales to capture life as she experiences it, a strategy that allows Delvaux to bring out the darker implications of her protagonist’s environment. Much like Bitter Rose, fairy tales can be deceptively happy stories that conceal a harsh reality. Thus, when the protagonist’s friendship with a local girl, Valence, falters, she imagines that “she’d evaporated into thin air, an ogre had kidnapped her.” These references soon take on a more poignant quality once the disappearances cease to be fictional and start manifesting themselves literally in the protagonist’s surroundings. Even though her family chooses to live in a village and, later on, in a suburb where “nothing ever happens,” kidnappings and disappearances do occur frequently in this novel. Bitter Rose thereby shares another point of comparison with the fairy tales it evokes, as female characters are either in danger or burdened with restrictions. Indeed, stories of unwed mothers banned from their homes, of drunken husbands, kidnapped children, and bones found at the bottom of a river abound in this novel. Those stories are combined with Delvaux’s sparse and deadpan narration of everyday events to create the gendered bitterness evoked by the title, as the narrator must grow up in an environment where horrifying events secretly mark the lives of every woman around her. The protagonist therefore finds herself building her identity by “sticking together the mismatched pieces” of her life under the distant yet caring supervision of her mother. In the end, it seems like painful experiences must be either forgotten or repressed to allow the protagonist to make her own path into adulthood.
Demers’ essay collection The Horrors takes a very different approach, as the author’s explicit goal is, to quote the subtitle, to share “funny thoughts on awful things.” Demers explains his decision to combine humour and pain by mentioning that in his family, a series of early traumatic losses “produced the rapid alternation between grief and laughter.” At times intensely personal and at times more general, nearly all of the essays are grounded within Demers’ own experiences, thereby demonstrating the extent to which coping with “awful things” is a part of the author’s identity. Through humour, the collection addresses the potential of humour to undermine “that which terrifies us and oppresses us, in either our political or our personal lives.” As Demers states in his introduction, whether or not humour can be a subversive tool remains an open question; but in this collection of essays, humour certainly does defuse the tensions that mark attempts to discuss controversial or “touchy” subjects, such as the societal impacts of capitalism, imperialism, and settlerism. In these essays, humour operates as a strategy through which topics people seldom wish to address, like the fact that Canada is a “country built on genocide and dispossession,” can be broached, if only to examine our reluctance to discuss them. In this way, Demers is able to bring uncomfortable truths to the foreground since they are presented as humorous asides. For instance, when he relates how he resembles Canada because he was born on July 1 “to an English-speaking mother and a Québécois father,” he mentions that the “analogy isn’t perfect, because my folks didn’t steal the delivery room from an Indigenous family that was already using it.” In the more personal essays, humour enables Demers to close the gap between his experiences and the members of his audience who may not be familiar with the topics he explores. While discussing his struggles with mental illness, his jokes help him represent his symptoms efficiently to people who may not know or understand them. The complex recovery process from depression is likened to economic recessions, and symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are compared to Spiderman’s behaviour. The Horrors therefore functions as a powerful collection of essays that unearths the sinister aspects of the things we may either take for granted or refuse to think about. While Demers’ self-deprecating humour could not be farther from Delvaux’s sparse yet elegant prose, both of these works share a focus on the sinister and its role in identity formation.