Six degrés de liberté

by Nicolas Dickner

Alto, 2015

In Six degrés de liberté, Nicolas Dickner—arguably Quebec’s best-known and most-respected contemporary author—explores the huge and hugely complex world of container shipping, “a vast world of ochre and rust made up of thousands of boxes, each containing a world all its own, or the fragments of another.”

Despite so much potential for fascinating glimpses at these worlds not our own, Dickner’s narrative is largely built around a set of two parallel stories. The initial disorienting flurry of characters in the opening pages quickly subsides and the novel settles down to focus on its main two characters: Lisa, a teenager growing up in a small Quebec town near the U.S. border, and Jay, an ex-con approaching her fortieth birthday, who is now working for the RCMP in Montreal and helping to track down a ghostly container that erases all trace of itself from each port of call before moving on.

We watch as Lisa’s plans take shape, each morsel of new information adding piece after piece to the jigsaw puzzle we have been presented with as readers. And at the same time—or rather, not always quite at the same time—more and more is revealed about Jay and the mysterious circumstances that led to her arrest and then release from prison in return for agreeing to work for the RCMP for the remainder of her sentence.

Quirky details and curiosities abound. We learn how the leader of the Shining Path was betrayed by a tube of psoriasis cream. Éric—Lisa’s best friend (and partner in shenanigans)—suffers from agoraphobia, dashing his ambition to become an astronaut and leading to him ruling his business empire from a luxury apartment in Copenhagen, while the pages are filled with land-buying Chinese (“armed with reinforced suitcases and satellite phones”), references to obscure bands from Belarus, elegant parachutes made from the finest silk shirts (“dark and flimsy like Japanese bats”), and background characters named Anker Høj. That said, there are still plenty of references to Quebec to add a touch of local flavour (investigations turn up warehouses in Valleyfield, Willie Lamothe plays on the radio, Jay comes from the tiny village of Tête-à-la-Baleine on Quebec’s Lower North Shore).

And the title itself? In a hideaway discovered by Lisa between the walls of an old house she and her father are renovating, she finds a copy of Life magazine from February 1962 lying on the floor. It is open in the middle of an article entitled “Six Degrees of Freedom.” (That particular issue of the magazine has John Glenn, astronaut, on the cover. A nod to Éric’s failed ambitions to become an astronaut? Check.) And six degrees of freedom refers to the freedom of movement of a rigid body in three-dimensional space, such as a ship—or a container—at sea. It’s that kind of book, packed full of delicious facts and asides that reward close reading.

“When Jay hangs up, a sad smile crosses her face, as though she were playing a highly complex game and only beginning to discover the rules. [] She feels like she’s trying to put together a 3D puzzle without knowing what it does, what it looks like, or even what size it is.”

With “no one to love, no children, no future,” she has all the time she needs to get the bottom of her shipping mystery. “Some people put ships into bottles, Jay tracks down the container on the loose.” And some readers enjoy airport thrillers, while others have a great time of things trying to figure out games of the author’s making.

Even when Dickner gets to geek out over his years of research into container shipping, the writing still zips along, crackling with style and a little touch of magic. References bounce off each other to the reader’s great delight: Jay suffers from claustrophobia, Éric from acute agoraphobia; almost every character in the book struggles to fill their day, while Lisa’s father finds himself left with “a memory set out in distinct floors, floors in which he wandered around as he pleased, taking hidden staircases and invisible trap doors.” Time is not on our side. And we even learn a thing or two about life along the way: “The kilometre we know always goes by more quickly than the one we don’t” and “The number of cat photos on a Facebook account is inversely proportional to the probability of that person being a terrorist.”

In case anyone still needs telling, Dickner has a way with words. He never takes the easy way out. There are no lazy metaphors here; everything is sharpened to a memorable, cutting edge. Characters are “concentrated like Kasparov in front of Deep Blue,” the Total Sexe bar and saloon seems so out of place it’s as though it’s been teleported there by a “race of incompetent aliens,” Lisa has “an apartment in ruins but an ego made from reinforced concrete,” and a Whippet “tastes of 1983: soft and sad.” In fact, the more mundane the setting, the more fun Dickner seems to have breathing life into it:

“The escalator at Jarry Station is being repaired. Two technicians are working away in the pit like surgeons of the underworld, surrounded by mysterious steel organs and toolboxes amidst the chewing gum and Doritos packets and used métro tickets.”

The puzzle has been carefully put together for the reader, each piece carefully laid and well written. The result is that Six degrés de liberté closes with a satisfying thud of regret, the sound that all good books make when it’s time to move on, to leave their stories and characters behind.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Peter McCambridge
PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Forthcoming in Lazer Lederhendler’s translation. (All translations here by Peter McCambridge)