Review

Testament

by Vickie Gendreau

translated by Aimee Wall

BookThug, 2016

 

“When you come home completely stoned, lie to your mother if you want. But never lie to yourself. Never stop singing, singing to yourself in the shower, in the street, while you’re washing the dishes at your mother’s restaurant. Never prostitute yourself intellectually. Don’t talk bullshit to seem interesting. Be yourself. Big or small. Without makeup. With morning breath. The soul has no need of Colgate. Don’t boast, don’t pity yourself. Simple words, simple sounds, agreeing in gender and number with your difficult years. Don’t be mainstream, or easy to please. You can hide in the kitchen all your life if you want. No need for social exhibitionism. No need to jump high to be noticed. Quality, not quantity. Be your own little private party, be your hand that rises, easy, all the time, on demand.”

On the face of it, this is one of the passages the reader spends much of Testament grasping for, in hope of an explanation. It reads like a “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” for the no-shit generation. This is the unvarnished truth, the unColgated truth. No makeup. Morning breath and all. This is Vickie Gendreau’s private party, and everyone’s invited.

It is, of course, not the truth at all. It is a bold and provocative work of fiction, built around a story that is simple but not easily told:

“My friend was raped, became a whore and died.”

The truth is in the telling, and one thing is crystal clear from start to finish: this is Gendreau’s story, her narrative, and she’s going to tell it her way. “This is not 7-Up for the soul gone flat,” she writes. “It’s grappa for a heart on the threshold of alcoholic coma.” It’s “punk, androgyneous, animal literature.”

The text is cold and slippery; it’s difficult for the reader to get a grip. There are flashes of reality—”It is June 6, 2012, and I’m sad”—footholds for the clueless, but in general the imagery is so confusing and unfamiliar it’s like trying to decipher a blurred photo.

The reader’s search for meaning becomes increasingly frantic, especially in the early going. But frustration builds and the WTFs begin to mount—”She goes out to smoke a cigarette behind the club. A man in black hands her another fox. The girls put out their suitcases in the litter box.”—the reader’s patience determining just how many fennec fox references they can handle, trying to weigh up how much is just intriguing and how much is plain opaque.

In a word, the narrative is destabilizing, its delicious prose poetry dervied from looking differently at the world. An overhead cellphone conversation, for example, becomes a work of art in Gendreau’s hands:

“There’s a line-up. In front of me, a guy and a girl, two cell phones.
— I stretched out in the park and read my book, says the guy in front of me into his phone.
— There was a bird caught in the window, says the girl in front of me into her phone. I was in the little shop at the corner of Pap and Laurier. The one where I bought my hat. You like my hat? It’s funny, right?
— Jean Genet. Les nègres. Funny thing to read in a big sunny park.
— I was thinking that a baby bird might have touched it, my hat. That’s sort of why I bought it.
— Would have been nice to have some chocolate to go with my pineapple. Yeah, I have some left in a Tupperware. I didn’t finish the book. I didn’t get anything done today.
— I started singing “La vie en rose” to the other one, the girl who was shouting, short hair and big eyes. It was super cute with my hat.
— Nigga please.
— Like a French Liza Minnelli.
— One ticket please.
— Oh, some guy in front of me. But I’m going to get two tickets, I’ll probably come back tonight.
The guy realizes: the girl is looking at him intensely.
Bonjour, tension.”

A noisy chorus of characters is active throughout, both addressed by Vickie and, in her mind, reacting to her death to come. There are diabolical kids living the apartment upstairs, suicidal parents, blow-up dolls, and, yes, fennec foxes.

It feels like you’re reading poetry, difficult poetry at that. Often we’re in over our heads. But the overriding feeling is that everything, somehow, just works.

It’s fun taking snatches of writing out of context. “Ryan Gosling in a jazucci.” “One plus one equal fucking two.” “Never anything but this allegorical ostrich.” Musings and truths for the Twitter age. Not that they always make more sense in context: “Nobody lets their kitten out on Mont-Royal at night. Or during the day. The kitten definitely washes the dishes all day long in the back room.” Or how about this one? “A nightingale perches on my shoulder. I blow my nose with it.”

But this is a game that works only because of the novel’s addictive quotability, because Gendreau has poured such intensity into every single line.

“You said: I find it so cute, a girl writing. It’s like a cat that plays the piano. You said it was a joke, I said it wasn’t funny. I meow and I play the piano. I would go out for tea with you, but there’s a man coming to ‘tune my piano.’ It’s just that I only write out of melancholy and fury, and that’s not cute. I’m not cute when I write. I cry, I get all snotty, it gushes out. Not cute. Not meow.”

At times, it’s written in a strange language all its own, off-key references like “Uccello, fennec” and “Meow, piano” resurfacing as familiar shorthand for recurring thoughts and themes.

At times, it’s wonderfully poetic, at times painfully prosaic (“There will always be a collection agency to wake me up in the morning. There will always be a pot of something rotten in my fridge. There will always be someone to hate me. Someone to make a fool of me on the telephone at three in the morning. Someone to treat me like a slut in front of my family. Someone to steal my drink, someone to steal my purse.”); sometimes dealing directly with the illness (“Every day since the twenty-second treatment, I think I’m going to die on the X-ray table, that my heart is going to leave my chest, that it’ll explode. Panic attacks. I always have to keep my back arched, exaggeratedly arched. My book catches up with me; my illness catches up with me. It usually happens after I’ve eaten. Palpitations, eyes ringed with black, feeling like a heap of organs with a fuse.”), sometimes anything but.

There are heartfelt reactions to the unfairness of it all (on June 6, 2012, Vickie Gendreau was diagnosed with a brain tumour she would quickly die from): “I look up at the sky, fingers raised in fuck you formation. It wasn’t enough, to see her degrade herself like that? You had to kill her too?” Mathieu writes.

There’s a list of “exciting and crazy things I did when I was drunk.” There are awkward confessions to Maman: “Maman, I slept with a man for money. With a few men for money, with five, to be exact. (…) Maman, I eat hard knocks for breakfast. Maman, I drank every day for six years. Last Wednesday, I had six Moosehead to start.”

The queen is dead, “so trashy, so sparkly, so explosive, so much of her generation.”

It’s like reading modern art, a wild, wonderfully unique hybrid of autiobiography, prose poem, last will and testament, and poetry. It is, as Aimee Wall mentions in her translator’s note, like “eavesdropping on snippets of conversation for which we have little context, smiling at inside jokes we don’t really understand.” In short, “Testament pulls the reader in close and then doesn’t let her in on the joke.”

Aimee Wall, it must be said, does a fine job in the face of an intimidating text. In some ways it’s tempting to think it must have been relatively straightforward to translate. Sentences like “In the middle in the night. I had to hold this colourful little train out of the water.” abound; in Testament it’s not so much the words themselves that pose a challenge to the translator as their meaning to the reader.

But some fine translation choices in particular shine through, be it adding an entire sentence to explain a French pun or nimbly sidestepping the problem posed by the French as a taxi driver “tells me to drop the ‘monsieur.'”

Thanks in no small part to Wall’s flawless translation, Testament is one of the most original and exciting novels from Quebec I’ve read in a good while. Somewhere along the way, it all begins to fall into place; the stranger references we remember stumbling over become familiar and reassuring through repetition, something to hold onto; the kaleidoscopic narrative comes a little more into focus, enough at least for us to appreciate what Gendreau is up to. As with any great art, Testament demands to be respected and appreciated. Its 150 pages are well worth a few hours of your time. Like the narrator, sometimes our “gaze gets lost in the details,” but this is narrative as a performance. And what a performance.

The queen is dead; long live the queen.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Peter McCambridge
PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Read an extract here