Les corps extraterrestres

by Pierre-Luc Landry

Éditions Druide, 2015

“My days don’t belong to me. I haven’t slept since I came back and I don’t feel tired. I watch movies all night without really caring about the plot. Even movies I’m watching for the hundredth time, movies that usually manage to pick me up, don’t appeal to me at all. It’s cold. It snows every other day. The nights are freezing. I drink beer and eat burgers. I wait for something to happen.”

It has the feel of a road trip, or at least of a journey of discovery, of self-exploration, of star-gazing and navel-gazing. The road signs alone ensure this novel belongs firmly in the camp of “international” literature to come out of Quebec: London, Bilbao, Toronto, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Alabama… And yet there is the feeling of moving around in circles, from hotel room to hotel room. The characters feel trapped, stifled, backed into corners. Unsure where to turn next. And they turn to the unlikeliest of places at times.

Hollywood is living a dead-end life working at the local graveyard, while Xavier is working for a pharmaceutical company he couldn’t care less about, with “time to waste and money to spend.” Les corps extraterrestres is about how the two fill their days (mostly with movies, music, sleeping pills, and other drugs)… and how they meet in their dreams.

But it is about much more than that, too. Labelling this a philosophical novel risks condemning it to a pigeonhole full of wafer-thin plots and one-dimensional characters, all in the service of setting out the author’s world view. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a pleasant depth to proceedings. Existential questions hang over the self-questioning characters, but there is a real story to savour as we turn the pages, switching back and forth between the lives of Xavier and Hollywood, all with a satisfying dollop of magical realism thrown in for good measure.

This is recognizably our world, but set in the near future. Hollywood has had an operation to remove his heart, and “Montreal is becoming Los Angeles.” An everlasting summer has begun, giving rise to 30°C February days, with winter forest fires burning up ground that hasn’t frozen in a year. The United States, meanwhile, is struck by regular punishing snowstorms. While Europe is suffering most from climate change. As we accompany Xavier at the beginning of the novel, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and parts of the United Kingdom have been paralyzed by freezing conditions, while Spain and Portugal have declared a state of emergency, nightclubs there having become “the last bastions against the mass hysteria that threatens to descend on the human race.” And, one by one, the stars are literally falling from the sky.

The action plays out against this backdrop to detachment and widespread indifference from the two main characters, both of whom are short on friends and might well be clinically depressed. Xavier in particular, although given to flashes of anger (“I want to scream, tell the whole world how much of a pain in the ass it is, give it a black eye.”), is Meursault-esque in his disarming frankness, detachment, and lack of feeling:

“I pretended to read a book of poetry I had picked up at a bookstore but that bored me to tears. I listened in on conversations and watched people and it made me feel like I was taking part in something, that my existence wasn’t entirely pointless because it was part of a universal program; I was part of the community.”

He finds his situation summed up in a late-night repeat viewing of Reality Bites:

Lelaina Pierce: I was really going to be somebody by the time I was twenty-three.

Troy Dyer: Honey, all you have to be by the time you’re twenty-three is yourself.

Lelaina Pierce: I don’t know who that is anymore.

Pierre-Luc Landry has a few nice putdowns up his sleeve (“I don’t want to change lives. It’s a change of scenery I want. To find other reasons to get up in the morning,” says Hollywood. “You’re never up before noon,” his friend replies.) and he dreams up enough uncanny events (letters mysteriously arrive from Stockholm, meteorites fall to earth, characters meet in a ghost town in what might or might not be a dream…) to leave us wondering how much is real and how much is imagined, perhaps the product of a feverish or drugged mind.

The novel is narrated in a style that sometimes reminds the reader of Nicolas Dickner (a pair of old boots is “on the verge of being protected by UNESCO as a piece of historical heritage”), and a character singing “The Star Spangled Banner” in return for free hotdogs at girls’ softball games would not be out of place in a novel like Six degrés de liberté.

Random objects appear and reappear, a favourite technique of more playful contemporary Quebec writers like Eric Dupont, giving the reader something to hold on to as well as providing the cohesion of a well-constructed novel. Xavier constantly imagines scenes from his life playing out in art-house films, himself as “the focal point for a film that is projected too quickly, a silent film I’m at the centre of, even though I do nothing at all,” while Hollywood, along with his friends Saké and Chokichi, takes part in madcap plans “like they do in the movies.” Echoes like this are everywhere, drawing parallels between the two protagonists. And throughout the novel, amid the shooting stars and attempts to listen in on Jupiter, there is the constant idea that we are nothing more than a speck of dust in the universe, with characters that look to the stars as often as they look to their empty souls, giddy at the prospect of taking their place in the cosmos.

Landry explores what are fundamentally little more than first-world problems, the unbearable emptiness of modern life, with not even a heartbeat in Hollywood’s case to remind us that we’re alive. Virtually all we are left with, he suggests, is Jazzercise, Joni Mitchell, Audrey Hepburn, Leonard Cohen, hotel minibars, and drugs. It’s barely enough to get us out of bed before noon.

Because if this book has a message to convey, it’s probably this: What’s the point? From the “We’re all going to die” of the opening line to the “Absolutely nothing happened” that begins one of the later chapters, we’re encouraged to think, What’s the point of it all? Although, refreshingly—and this is important—this is not mirrored in our reading experience. Landry sees no need to meditate on the futility of existence by serving up a disheartening, disorienting fragmented maze of a novel; it is a pleasure to read.

The reader can play at collecting clues, references to the absurd, hints at a modern-day version of Sartre’s Nausea, but the truth is this is a novel by Pierre-Luc Landry, and it reads like a novel by Pierre-Luc Landry. It has a style all his own, a style and a way of thinking well worth discovering for yourself.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Peter McCambridge