Raining Selves

Reviewed by Will Smith

In new works by Carellin Brooks and Nelly Arcan, the details of the everyday are potent for considering the various fictions of the self. In One Hundred Days of Rain, Vancouver is a mythical rain-filled city. The structuring device of one hundred days, each one defined by the city’s relationship with precipitation, gives the narrative a constant in a world where the nameless female protagonist has few. Brooks’ central protagonist is in the midst of a breakup with “M,” in a complex relationship with a lover, “S,” and meanwhile looks after “the child” whilst keeping in touch with “her son’s father.” These enigmatic terms are reflected in her troubling history with M, not “her wife” but instead, even after courtroom drama, “her spouse.” Such a limited idea of personal names could serve to distance the reader from the social drama, yet they heighten the emotional intensity of break up, love affair, and lives being lived.

The novel’s poetic prose observes characters in small precise and particular interactions before leaving them to retreat into the interiors of their own worlds. The rain is then the broader gesture, a hint towards a longer time frame: “Rain is the citizenry’s inheritance, their boondoggle, their folly, their insurance policy.” The rain connects the protagonist to her memories as if she can locate herself in weather data. Past actions and consequences are recollected and structured in an attempt to make visible how relationships are exposed to emotional seepage and wear. The novel’s diary-like numbered entries separate these intense bursts of emotional detail and accumulate into a kaleidoscopic portrait of contemporary urban life.

Nelly Arcan’s Burqa of Skin also entertains the power of rain, invoking it to represent the transitory and yet lingering qualities of the public gaze. In Arcan’s first text from this posthumously published collection, “The Dress,” it is “walking the streets, or at the supermarket, in cafés, glances skim off my body like rain.” That the gaze might skim is cursory, superficial even, and yet uneasily close to the skin, spreading across its surface. Arcan’s writing plays with proximity to the self, analyzing the depth of feeling and complexity in performing subjectivity and the external forces creating the interpellated subject.

Containing unpublished work alongside lesser-known articles, the collection coheres around themes of self, body, and gender in Canadian society. A fiction, “The Child in the Mirror,” relates the childhood memories of Dominique Mercier. Dominique’s own sense of self is partially framed by understanding her forename to be common. By alluding to the similar situation faced by future Isabelles and how they would “have to make themselves up dramatically to be seen,” Mercier and so Arcan (née Isabelle Fortier) articulates autofiction to be both confession and disguise. Similar tensions are made explicit in the third text “Shame,” which highlights how media publicity displays the writer as a continuation of their work and a separate self, commenting on their work for the public. Arcan exposes how the hypersexualised lens of television and talk show host combines with subjective notions of appropriate public presentation to flatten writerly complexity.

Both writers hint at the claustrophobia of self-analysis but ultimately open up to contribute nuanced frameworks of subject formation in contemporary society.

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