by Pierre-Luc Landry
Éditions Druide, 2013
Towards the end of L’Équation du temps, we find ourselves in a Vancouver art gallery. Émile—one of three main characters we follow throughout—picks up a book, a retrospective of the past five years at the Contemporary Art Gallery. The book is called, you guessed it, The Equation of Time.
“Time short-circuits with places and people,” he reads. “We are all somebody somewhere sometime. And that keeps changing, every second. I could be somebody else, somewhere else, if I was not here and now.”
This preoccupation with time and identity is central to Pierre-Luc Landry’s impressive first novel. The first part skips back and forth between the first-person narratives of Émile, Francis, and Ariane; the second (written in the third person) takes place over the course of 24 hours; and the third section (also in the third person) focuses on place rather than identity or time: Montreal, Quebec City, Vancouver, Paris, Maine.
The story is modern, international, and philosophical while remaining incredibly readable. If this sounds familiar, it should: the same virtues apply to Landry’s second novel, Les corps extraterrestres, which we reviewed here and which has recently been translated into English as Listening for Jupiter. It’s always a fun game drawing parallels between an author’s various novels, and while L’Équation du temps isn’t a prequel or sequel to Listening for Jupiter, many of the concerns and the means of expressing them remain similar, from the vaguely subdued narrative (with occasional flashes of magic) and ubiquitous TV documentaries to the out-of-control weather (“I twirled around and looked up at the sky, torn apart by violent bolts of lightning. I offered up my body to the storm. I was in ecstasy.”), the uncommon character names (Hollywood, meet Mehdi), exhausting dreams, and prominent soundtrack. But, as one reviewer recently pointed out when talking about Listening for Jupiter, what passes for normal is, in fact, not.
If Listening for Jupiter has stars falling from the sky, L’Équation can be equally cinematic, most dramatically with a series of anonymous notes that begins with “You NEVER had a cat” and escalates from there. Once again, Landry’s creations like to imagine themselves as characters in a movie, a reflex that draws further attention to the source of their frustrations and sense of unease: the gap between fiction and reality.
Existential angst is everywhere. “I was empty and incomplete and well aware that I was missing something to give my life meaning,” Émile remarks early on. “I’m missing something. And I can’t put my finger on what it is,” says Francis. And Ariane is no happier: “I told myself that half the pill might help me forget the lack of interest in my life at the moment.”
Characters frequently contemplate suicide or, at the very least, death as a release. A release to what exactly is less certain. One tragedy aside, it’s mostly boredom Landry’s characters are having to deal with, the numbness brought on by the deadening routine of everyday life, not any real hardship or misfortune. But the goal is no less real: they’re each looking to bring some meaning to their lives. And getting out of Dodge is often their chosen means of going about it, by upping sticks to go teach on an unnamed island, hopping on a bus to meet an old flame in Vancouver, or taking a spur-of-the-moment flight to Europe.
Though fully developed, I think it’s fair to compare Francis, Ariane, and Émile to pieces on the author’s chessboard. As time zones shift, we get the impression that events could just as easily be happening to a different character if only he or she were there instead and the narrator often introduces a scene with a “he” or “she” whose identity is only revealed through context or a snatch of conversation a few lines or paragraphs later.
We can turn a page only to realize we’ve suddenly moved forward a few years in time, adding to a slightly kaleidoscopic narrative structure that fascinates more than it confuses, while once again drawing attention to the interchangeability and randomness of it all. A twist of the kaleidoscope is required to bring everything into focus and it’s very much the narrator who decides when that twist of clarity will come to the reader.
The writing is far from obtuse, though. As mentioned above, the biggest discrepancy in a novel built around a whole series of them (how we see ourselves vs. how others see us; the equation of time, which tracks two types of solar time; the mundanities of everyday life vs. unspoken moviestar fantasies…) is the way in which what is accepted as being normal is in fact far from it. It’s all in the delivery, and there’s one particular image that I think helps give the reader a real feel for the book.
At one point, Francis wakes up in a dingy hotel, roused by a wake-up call he didn’t ask for. (His girlfriend has disappeared and his cat has mysteriously reappeared, but that’s another story.) He puts on a pair of jeans, pulls a shirt over his head without bothering to unbutton it, and slips on his shoes. The actions if not the events of the scene are entirely realistic, but it’s “dirty” realism of a kind. There’s something at once comforting and slightly uncomfortable about waking up and slipping straight into a pair of jeans, unwashed, too warm, in a run-down hotel room.
This is the world in which L’Équation du temps plays out. There’s a strange beauty to the melancholy. Things are grotty but never gritty; realistic and unbelievable all at once.
Review by Peter McCambridge