Pushing Boundaries

  • Catherine Leroux (Author) and Lazer Lederhendler (Translator)
    The Party Wall. Biblioasis (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Vickie Gendreau (Author) and Amiee Wall (Translator)
    Testament. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Myra Bloom

Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall (translated by Lazer Lederhendler) and Vickie Gendreau’s Testament (translated by Aimee Wall) are products of the Canadian translation boom that, spearheaded by small presses, is introducing Quebec’s emerging writers to the English-speaking world. Though formally and thematically distinct, both works provide a window into the dynamic and increasingly cosmopolitan leanings of contemporary francophone writing from Quebec.

The Party Wall is composed of four interlinked stories, each of which is anchored by the relationship between sibling pairs. As each narrative hurtles toward its climactic event or revelation, it provides the reader with a glimpse into a world ravaged by the forces of climate change, religious fundamentalism, and fractious partisan politics. Although this dystopian backdrop was purely speculative when the book was first published in 2013, Leroux’s predictions of Trump-era phenomena, including a wall separating Mexico and the US, have proven eerily accurate. Her description of the newly elected Canadian prime minister tasked with battling these issues (“He’s young. He brings people together. Has ideas. Energy. Charm”) is equally uncanny, penned as it was before Justin Trudeau had even announced his bid to helm the Liberal Party.

While the macrocosmic issues cast a menacing pall, Leroux is more interested in the human-scale calamities. One story chronicles two siblings’ desperate hunt for the identity of their father. Another culminates in a tragic accident. Although Leroux successfully braids several bizarre real-life events into a compelling fictional drama, one wishes at times that she had pushed the dystopian elements further rather than letting them pend ominously in the background. Nevertheless, the political prescience of The Party Wall, combined with its use of real sources, reminds us that truth is, as they say, indeed stranger than fiction.

The line between reality and invention is even more porous in Vickie Gendreau’s auto-fictional novel Testament, in which the twenty-three-year-old writer, dying of an incurable brain tumour, imagines her death and its after-effects. As the name implies, it is both a witnessing and a bequest, at once a chronicle and an offering to the friends she will leave behind. Gendreau’s writing shares key similarities with that of the late Quebec writer Nelly Arcan, who likewise worked in the sex trade and whose auto-fictional novels were similarly concerned with her own demise. Where in Arcan’s work death is a desired release from suffering (Arcan committed suicide in 2009), the tragedy of Gendreau’s slim novel is its testament to the young writer’s desire to live in spite of her awareness that her time is short.

Testament hits a number of affective notes, with the sadness at the novel’s core frequently offset by gallows humour. Imagining a former lover posthumously receiving an electronic copy of her work, she writes in his voice, “Today Vickie is wearing a USB key and a brown envelope, it’s cold out, it’s winter. She’s naked underneath. Always naked, that girl.” Elsewhere, she gently mocks her own self-pity by anthropomorphizing her “sad brunch”: “I have sad orange juice . . . sad tomato juice, sad green tea, a sad club sandwich . . . totally-depressed milkshake.”

Despite the novel’s comedic elements, Gendreau takes her craft very seriously, reflecting on her writing practice throughout. Her critique of the challenges faced by young female writers in a patriarchal literary culture is particularly trenchant: “You said: I find it so cute, a girl writing. It’s like a cat that plays the piano . . . It’s just that I only write out of melancholy and fury, and that’s not cute. I’m not cute when I write. I cry, I get all snotty, it gushes out.” Like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, another recent Canadian auto-fiction, Gendreau’s Testament makes space for female experience through formal experimentation. The challenging form works in tandem with agonizing descriptions of Gendreau’s failing body to resist stereotypes of female quaintness or docility.

Aimee Wall, one of Quebec’s most exciting emerging translators, has done a superb job in rendering a novel that is peppered with oblique references and inside jokes, and penned, moreover, in an idiosyncratic mixture of French and English. Wall joins established translator Lazer Lederhendler in showcasing the new generation of Quebec writers, one whose star is on the rise and another whose career was cut tragically short. Experimental, culturally attuned, and unafraid to blur the line between fact and fiction, Quebec writers and translators are pushing the boundaries of contemporary Canadian literature.

This review “Pushing Boundaries” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 153-154.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.