Performance & Precarity

  • Katrina Onstad
    Everybody Has Everything. Emblem Editions
  • Marie-Claire Blais
    Mai at the Predators' Ball. House of Anansi Press
Reviewed by Gillian Dunks

As Judith Butler argues, individuals who do not “live their gender in intelligible ways” have precarious lives. They are exposed to social misrecognition, violence, and even death. Katrina Onstad’s Everybody Has Everything and Marie-Claire Blais’ Mai at the Predators’ Ball examine characters whose subversive performance of gender makes their lives precarious, yet Blais finds potential for positive social change in subversive performativity, whereas Onstad does not.

The dust jacket of Katrina Onstad’s Everybody Has Everything poses the book’s central question: can everyone be a parent? The book’s implicit answer to this rhetorical question is no. James and Ana, married, middle-class professionals in Toronto nearing the age of forty, cannot conceive. In a convenient plot twist, when their best friends Marcus and Sarah crash their car, James and Ana become the legal guardians of their friends’ son, Finn. Ana, a corporate lawyer, struggles to orient herself within her new role as “mother,” whereas James, upon losing his job, takes on the role of “stay-at-home-Dad” with aplomb. Sarah, Finn’s biological mother, survives the crash, but remains in a coma for most of the novel.

Like Alice Munro, Onstad is more attuned to the subtle complexities of character development than plot. Much of the plot feels shopworn: Finn’s arrival in the couples’ life reveals their increasing incompatibility, and Sarah recovers from her vegetative state precisely when Ana recognizes she is not interested in mothering Finn. There is another question, though, that the novel poses: why are women expected to be mothers? Ana consistently fails to perform the “maternal,” demonstrating a marked lack of interest in Finn. Furthermore, Ana’s professional life proves inhospitable to motherhood—her office, dominated by better-paid male colleagues, causes another female lawyer with children, Elspeth, to pretend she has no children. Although Ana’s husband expects her to accommodate a child easily—based on his assumption of women’s innate maternal nature—Ana resists constructed femininity. It is only when Ana rejects her husband and child that she gains autonomy, yet Ana remains emotionally unfulfilled at the end of the novel, perceiving only “pointless” white space in the universe around her. Ana’s existential angst, Onstad suggests, is a result of her refusal to remain within the confines of constructed gender identity. As such, Ana’s life becomes increasingly “unreadable,” as Butler claims precarious life is.

Mai at the Predators’ Ball unites the narratives of a group of men in drag at the Porte du Baiser Saloon with the story of a teenage girl named Mai. Blais accomplishes this through the use of free indirect discourse. One key Saloon character is Yinn, a costume designer and artist who presents as both male and female throughout the novel. Yinn’s name, surely an overt pun on the interconnected, opposing forces of yin and yang, reflects the social constructions of gender for the drag Queens at the Saloon. Their successful performances of femininity and masculinity de-stabilize notions of innate gender identity. However, such performance is not free of pain: HIV, drug-abuse, and systemic problems that are the result of social injustice mark the lives of these characters. The Saloon is a liminal zone—Blais’ frequent references to the hostile world surrounding it, full of abusive johns and harassing police officers, locate Yinn and friends in a world where they are socially stigmatized and exposed as objects for public consumption. The death of the aptly named Fatalité, a performer at the Saloon who has succumbed to AIDS, becomes an occasion for Yinn to make a public bid for equal social recognition. Yinn’s elaborate public pageant is motivated by a recognition of “the overwhelming precariousness of all their lives” and a desire to “get back some hope.” Although the pageant may not secure the political recognition Yinn desires, Blais locates the potential for positive social recognition within precarious communities like the Saloon. For example, Petites Cendres, a character with HIV at the fringes of Yinn’s glittering circle of Queens, nourishes a desire to be recognized by Yinn. In the novel’s final scene, Yinn makes eye contact with Petites Cendres and waves “tenderly”—a powerful moment suggesting the potential within precarious communities to resist the violence of imposed gender identity and social misrecognition.

Mai’s life is also bound by heteronormative gender constructs, but, unlike the Queens at the Saloon, Mai struggles to make her performance a subversive bid for social change. Mai is capable of making mature observations but is limited by a body hovering between childishness and full sexual maturation. Mai’s friend, Tammy, oppressed by her parents’ patriarchal expectations, takes more action than Mai does: Tammy becomes anorexic, attempting to reject her newly minted hips and breasts in order to emulate the bodies of male rappers, who look “like just a heart with some flesh and skin around it.” Tammy’s desire for an identity that is not defined by her femininity is shared by Mai and several of her other female relatives, who are unsure of how to be good daughters, wives, and mothers. It is in connections like the ones between Mai and Tammy that Blais locates potential for a re-engagement of gender identity.

Despite the difficulty of Blais’ style and the occasional redundancy of Onstad’s, both novels do an exemplary job of examining the ways in which the social construction of gender shapes individuals’ lives.

This review “Performance & Precarity” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 142-43.

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