THIS NOVEL BEGINS A decade after the events in The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, the first in a series of autobiographical fiction by Michel Tremblay. On June 20,1952, a boy identified only as "the fat woman's son" steps out of his house and into the beginning of summer. At that moment, "the entire city was suspended, motionless, waiting for the signal to go on living." For the fat woman's son, the instant of suspension is a moment when he steps outside himself, sees himself as part of a snapshot that encompasses the city, the street, the day, himself.
Another child experiences the moment too, but differently. Marcel, cousin of the fat woman's son, saw summer arrive "between two of Mama's yells." Yet this is not a shared moment; Marcel and the fat woman's son have very different perceptions of the world. The fat woman's son, the "gifted" child, experiences the moment as objectification, that terrifying and sudden childhood experience of standing outside oneself. For Marcel, the "mad" cousin, the moment is an incidence of possession, as claiming the summer as his because he saw it arrive.
The First Quarter of the Moon traces the boys through the day, to final exams at Ecole Saint-Stanislas, through neighbourhood detours, and into Marcel's hideaway. Envious of his cousin's ability to enter another reality, the fat woman's son tries to share Marcel's experience but becomes frustrated. As the novel cuts back and forth between the boys' narratives, Tremblay builds a keen sense of both the bond and the gulf between them. He gives us Marcel drawing endless variations of the same picture and having a seizure in the classroom, while his cousin, the boy everyone assumes will do well, embraces an idea of Marcel's genius, and subsequently blanks out during an exam.
While the novel is tightly focused on the two boys, the lens that recorded the arrival of summer moves outward to observe their world -- neighbours, classmates, family. At home, the fat woman provides a kind of anchor for her son, while Albertine, Marcel's mother, is a building storm. Tremblay's portrayal of the latter woman - bitter, disappointed, always threatening to explode even beyond her ordinary outbursts -- is precise and sensitive.
The First Quarter of the Moon is intense. Detail builds on detail, and the day is so closely observed that the reader emerges with a strong sense of having visited a real place and time. Clearly, this arrival of summer occurs in a workingclass neighbourhood in Montreal in 1952; other summers would have arrived elsewhere. Tremblay's evocative style and Sheila Fischman's translation allow us to see this place, enter it.
The reader's experience of the day, an excursion taken alternately with the fat woman's son and with Marcel, is also a journey into the worlds that lie on either side of a barrier difficult to define -- a place between life experienced and imagined, between perceptions of genius and madness. What "giftedness" is remains an enigma as the first quarter of the moon, "the commencement of everything," rises at the end of the novel. It is Marcel Tremblay's particular gift -- one often observed in poetry -- to simultaneously enlarge a day into a world, and compress a world into a day.