by Jean-Philippe Baril Guérard

Éditions de ta mère, 2016

It’s hard to resist the temptation to compare Royal to Jean-Philippe Baril Guérard’s first novel, Sports et divertissements, which is forthcoming in Aimee Wall’s translation from BookThug. This is never a problem, though: Royal easily stands up to the comparison.

Sports et divertissements is a scathing depiction of the most shallow of Montreal starlets, while Royal examines our obsession with performance—and what we’ll do to get where we want/need to be—by taking an unflatteringly close look at a GPA-consumed Université de Montréal law student; S&D is written in the first person, while Royal is written, somewhat unusually, in the second; S&D is deliciously cynical—”The dialogue is flawless and barely a page goes by without a pithy maxim,” I wrote in my review here. “More often than not a sad reminder of our Facebook-obsessed society bent on instant gratification, one-liners for the empty, modern age.”—and Royal doesn’t miss a beat: here too every minute spent in our anti-hero’s company is a delight.

Royal is thoroughly entertaining, which comes as something of a surprise given the on-the-face-of-it thoroughly unpleasant narrator, the potentially dry subject matter, and the lack of stakes: will our self-obsessed little rich boy wind up with an internship at a high-flying law firm that will set him on the road to fame and fortune? Hopefully not, you might groan, but the book’s success resides in the fact that we end up rooting for him, despite it all. Baril Guérard manages to conjur up such tension that the pages fly by. As one reader revealed on Goodreads: “I’ve never felt so involved with a story about the GPA of a guy I really hate.” Or, as Le Devoir put it, “Royal is a novel that enthralls and disgusts at the same time.”

This is a novel of excess. It begins with privilege—”If you are here today, it’s because you already belong to our society’s elite.”—and the pressure that comes with it. The pressure-cooker environment of having to stab your study partner in the back to make sure you get ahead instead of them leads to excessive and outrageous behaviour. Hazing sessions, heavy drinking, trophy girlfriends who hold you up as a trophy boyfriend next time around, a study environment where “you feel like you’re at the wedding of a colleague you don’t particularly like,” going to the gym “with the firm intention of hurting yourself,” hiding away in the disabled washroom to ugly cry, increasingly loud sex, increasingly rough sex with your girlfriend, then an actress, then a first-year student, as you try to regain some control over your life, picturing yourself hanging from the balcony, gravity pulling you down towards the St. Lawrence as you jump from the Jacques Cartier Bridge… it’s all par for the course in the name of “relaxing slash studying,” hanging on to that beach bod, getting your hands on a MasterCard World Elite, and hopefully never turning to the exit bag you ordered online to bring a merciful end to it all.

Cousin Fred is on hand with some helpful advice. “Being good doesn’t cut it anymore. You need to be the best.” Trust no one: “Competition turns everyone into a monster.” The best-looking go further in life. “You need to talk Alouettes if they like the Alouettes, sailing if they like sailing, that exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts if they like the Museum of Fine Arts; you need to know your shit. You need to be there, but not too much. You need to be everywhere, just like that, not too pushy, living somewhere in the back of their minds, so when they see your CV and your grades and they wonder if you’re worthy of a place at their firm, deep down they know, though they couldn’t say why, that they’ve always been looking for someone just like you.”

“It’s a bit like falling in love, like love at first sight,” you reply.

“You’re so cute,” Cousin Fred shoots back. “No, it’s more like when you walk into a shoe store and there’s a tiny voice in your head that tells you to leave with Nike not Adidas. You’re the goods and you’re the salesman. You’re the production team and the marketing department. You’re the sports shoes and the Superbowl ad. You need to be the product, man.”

The vacuity quickly piles up. The problem is, you see, there are only “thirty-five, maybe forty” quality internships per year. Thirty-five, maybe forty internships that will make it all worthwhile, that will make up for all the sacrifices, that will, probably, set you up for life. Thirty-five, maybe forty internships for four or five hundred applicants.

There’s no place for morals, no place for scruples, second thoughts, or human dignity. That doesn’t matter, you shrug, “you’ve never been a big fan of human dignity anyways.”

Lessons are learned along the way. “Every single human being is capable of letting you down: you just need to give them time.” The law faculty is the “dumping ground of humanity.” “There’s no such thing as the social ladder.”

And then there’s the question that remains stuck in your mind every day. Why? Why do you even want this so badly? Our unnamed narrator is the opposite of Camus’ Meursault, who famously refused to play the game. This is playing the game for all it’s worth. This is putting it all on red then wanting nothing more than to walk away from the table. Because what if everyone’s been lying to you since the day you were born? What if you’re no better than mediocre? If you can’t win the game then why are you even playing?

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Peter McCambridge