September 25, 2009
Reviewish: Therese and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel
After only my second foray into the novels of Michael Tremblay (the first being The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant earlier this year), I am a solidly devoted apostle. After this year’s Canada Reads competition I find I am in good company. We in English Canada have been a bit slow on the uptake, I think, but we’re finally cluing in on what our fellow devotees in French Canada have known for thirty years: Michel Tremblay is one of the finest storytellers in the world.
Therese and Pierrette is the second book in Tremblay’s Plateau Mont-Royal series, following about one month after the events of Fat Woman. The cast of millions present in Fat Woman have largely taken to the background and we accompany Therese (the Fat Woman’as neice) and her friends Pierrette and Simone as they figure in their Catholic girl’s school.
One of the “complaints” I recall being voiced during the Canada Reads debates is that the structure of Fat Woman doesn’t “go anywhere”, that no clear story is being told – that hasn’t changed. That was never a problem for me; in fact, that is part of the genius of Tremblay’s work. He offers a slice of life, a portrait woven of the characters’ actions, thoughts, memories and digressions that reconstructs so accurately the sensation of living. Any traditional novel-wide narrative structure, of beginning, climax and finale, he intentionally subverts by giving away the ending. Tension created by fights, incidents and dangers is immediately diffused by a omnipresent storyteller’s intervention with a “years later” digression. The effect is that we are not distracted by needing to find out “what happens next” or by being carried away by the plot; instead we can focus on the immediacy of the events. You are drawn into the moment and are free to appreciate the relevance of that paragraph rather than looking ahead to the next event.
This trick of focusing the reader’s attention on the page and words rather than a story is reinforced by the “block of text” formatting which also put some readers off Tremblay’s work. You can not skim his books – not only is it physically difficult to do so but there is no benefit to doing so. The reward is in the moment, not in the cumulative effect of the whole. I have never seen a Tremblay play but I can see how his talent for drawing you into the now could be so engaging on stage. He creates a beautiful moment without it being reliant on a meta-reactions like shock, suspense and anticipation.
That said, I loved returning to the characters from Fat Woman and discovering what has become of them, just as I would enjoy catching up with a friend and hearing how their family is faring. We learn the latest on the playground-guard whom Therese kisses in the first novel, and the fate of Dupliesse the cat, so mortally wounded when last we saw him. Victoire and Josaphat-le-Violon find some closure and we get a brief glimpse at the Fat Woman and her looming infant. Tremblay doesn’t exhaust us with unecessarily melodramatic tragedies and incidents. Life is lived by the inhabitants of his Montreal just as you or I live our lives. It’s charming and inspiring without being syrupy and white-washed.
I bought the entire Chronicles of Plateau Mont-Royal from Talonbooks; six books all told of which I have now read two. I considered diving right into the next one right away but, just as email correspondence can become dry by virtue of its over-immediacy, I think I’d better wait and get some distance before I visit again. The visits are so rewarding that I want to savor them. The lives will sit there and wait for me until I am ready.