Neither Dead, Nor Alive

Reviewed by Tracy Ann O'Brien

Lost in September shares the story of Jimmy, a homeless thirty-something former soldier living in present-day Montreal who bears a striking resemblance to General James Wolfe, the British army officer whose victory on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 marked the beginning of British rule in Canada. Kathleen Winter brings these two characters together in a delicately crafted tale that sees Gen. Wolfe revived through Jimmy as both characters are given eleven days in September to confront shared traumas and what they’ve lost through war.

Jimmy shares a tent in Parc du Mont-Royal with his colourful though caustic companion, Sophie. She remarks one evening that he is “in a worse state of hauntology than ever” and accuses him of having “a problem with time.” It is unclear, however, how Jimmy, or James, might solve this problem. He struggles to piece together decaying memories from the eighteenth century while suppressing obscure recollections of his twentieth- and twenty-first-century life. What we are left with appears to be a person in a fugue state, whose narration leads the reader to question what is dream and what is reality in this story.

Winter weaves two strands of hauntology through the novel. One is what film scholar Mark Fisher has called “a virtuality,” the traumatic “compulsion to repeat.” James Wolfe no longer exists, nor does his war. What the reader sees through Jimmy, however, and what Jimmy sees through himself, is how war repeats; a particular battle ends, but the compulsion towards aggression survives. Early in the novel Jimmy meets historian Genevieve Waugh, who shares in a letter to him that she has read “another firsthand account of war that has impressed on me the truth that we are in all time at once, that history is now, that we are in an eternal struggle with power and aggression.”

Letters are a motif Winter uses to situate Wolfe temporally and to collapse linear understandings of time. This second strand of hauntology is woven through letters conveying what Mark Fisher has called that which “has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual.” James remembers letters he wrote and received in the eighteenth century; he seeks and speaks of these letters in the present day. They are letters that took weeks to deliver, in effect slowing down time. They allow the present to be recorded on paper to be read in the future, and then, upon delivery, continue to bring the reader to the past. The world that was General James Wolfe’s lived experience is juxtaposed with a twenty-first-century Montreal in which communication is governed by instant and immediate gratification and in which Jimmy struggles to piece together his past, Wolfe’s past, and to find a listener.

Winter’s writing is precise and heartbreaking. Jimmy describes his friend’s lips as “cut plums, bruised against his white teeth.” She balances this fragility with piercing wit: Sophie, Wolfe tells us, “often claims to possess all sorts of attributes far more interesting than I’ve been able to discern.” He is no gentler in his opinion of twenty-first-century Montreal, which is not the future he’d envisioned after Britain’s victory in 1759. Of it he says, “I don’t see how any soldier returning here could want to do anything except slit his own throat.” Wolfe finds the city “ostentatious yet unreal” and we do not learn why until he visits Quebec City, a place where “nothing British thrives.” Here, he identifies the root of his disdain for contemporary Montreal to be the “British influence” there, which he has been trying all his “born days to outrun.”

Winter is careful to balance mythologized portrayals of Wolfe as a hero with the brutal realities and traumas of a war where “redcoats scalped any Canadian they pleased: Indian, habitant, woman or babe.” Jimmy and General Wolfe, no matter the nature of their existence, are trying to come to terms with the gruesome and unforgiving realities of war, realities that transcend time in a way that the landscape and technology have not.

Post-traumatic stress disorder morphs Jimmy’s identity into that of a historically remembered war hero, someone without whom, he tells his companion Harold, he “would continue to be just another ruined soldier trying to find his way back home.” Rather than label Jimmy’s eleven Septembers a delusion, however, Harold tells him that his rationale is “the heaviest possible dose of reality.”

This review “Neither Dead, Nor Alive” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 171-172.

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