Haunted Histories, Storied Selves

Reviewed by Erin Wunker

“What haunts are not the dead but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others,” write psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, and indeed both of the texts under review are haunted by the secrets of others. At first glance, Gail Scott’s most recent publication, The Obituary, and Gabriella Goliger’s new offering, Girl Unwrapped, have little in common. Scott’s novel is a beautiful cipher haunted at the level of the sentence. Goliger’s novel, also set in Montreal, opens with the clear and compelling voice of Toni, the young narrator whose coming of age story is the narrative arc of the text. The reader will find no experiments at the level of the sentence in Girl Unwrapped—it is a stylistically straightforward text—but Toni’s coming of age and coming out story is nuanced. These novels tackle the trauma of the past through the indelible and often strangely ephemeral present tense. Historical injustice, family secrets, and the ineffable search for self drive—rather than ground—these two texts.

Goliger’s novel is set in Montreal in the 1960s. The childhood of the protagonist, Toni, is steeped in sepia tones and hung against the backdrop of her Holocaust-surviving parents’ struggles with the long reach of trauma. Toni’s story opens with her mother’s insistence that the family “choose life!” Yet, for the young Toni, aware of her sexuality early on, her mother’s demand is complicated. The reader follows Toni’s grapple with her sexuality as she first prefers playing with the boys, then, while at camp, falls in love for the first time. Her inability to articulate her attraction to her counsellor Janet leads to one of the most poignant and heart-wrenching scenes of the text. Girl Unwrapped follows Toni through high school, to Israel after the 1967 war, and then back to Montreal where she discovers the underground lesbian bar scene. Goliger draws subtle tensions between Toni’s coming of age, her coming out, and the backdrop of global and familial histories.

The Obituary is Scott’s most experimentally innovative text to date. Set in Montreal, the opening page is set under a reoriented cross, as though the “X” that marks the spot is the shadow of Mt. Royal’s own strange and iconic adornment. The past hovers and insists throughout Gail Scott’s seventh publication, an inexorable presence to be expected in a book called The Obituary (2010). As one of Scott’s characters implies, the past is like a roman à clef: it carries a key to its subjects and events. However, that secret key only reveals itself if the reader lingers in the shadows of speech and at the interstices of languages and cultures. To unlock the narrow narrativizations of his- tory, the reader must acquaint herself with the spectres that worry the very syntax scripting that past. She must be a detective, a translator, and a medium. Scott’s text enacts a poetics of contestation. It draws from the practices and conventions of translation and literary techniques to craft a narrative that is neither English nor French, but multilingual.

The Obituary is a polyvocal, multilingual text. Though grounded in the local—a central portion of the novel takes place in a Montreal triplex—its polyvocality enacts a rhizomatic narrative structure that deterritorializes language acts and reorients readers away from dominant discourses and towards margins and memories left in the shadows. Coming as it does after six previous publications, The Obituary marks not only her most recent, but also her most intensive interrogation of the issues of narrative, language, and history. The Obituary refuses to clarify its central subjects just as it refutes any singular narrative plot. Indeed, the text is better described as an assemblage of narratives performed by spectres from the shadows.

The story is on one level a noirish murder mystery. As the title intimates, there has been a death, and the narrative works as a kind of obituary, though it is only through the process of navigating the text that the reader learns who—or what—has died. There are other stories that make their way into the central narrative: “crazed family members,” for example, insert themselves into the space of the novel. Though the text deliberately resists traditional linear fram- ing devices, the plots are architecturally anchored in Mile End, Montreal, where the triplex is located. The Montreal triplex is an architectural structure unique to the city, and it anchors the narrative in the present. As the intervening Bottom Historian observes, the triplex is an “architectural peculiarity” such that “each exit, no matter how high, permits unique access to the exterior, so that every tenant may call her flat her house.” Like the past, which contains secret indices, the triplex likewise presents a unified struc- ture from without, while concealing multiple spaces within. Spatially and architecturally, then, the triplex locates the central narrative in Montreal and houses several important characters, both literally and figuratively.

This review “Haunted Histories, Storied Selves” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 168-69.

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