Marcel is crazy. A big twenty-three-year-old kid who sleeps in the same bed as his mother in a two-room basement apartment, waking her in the morning with his foul breath. But in Michel Tremblay's A Thing of Beauty
(Talonbooks, 222 pages, $16.95 paper), Marcel sometimes seems to be the most sane member of his family, the one with the most tools to deal with the uncomfortable edge of his life.
Three-quarters of this novel takes place during one day in late March, when the last snowfall of the season is blanketing Montreal. Although the dialogue is at times overwrought, the characters are complex in their struggles and disappointments. Marcel's Auntie Nana is dying stoically of an unspecified "woman's cancer". His sister, Therese, works as a janitor in the Club Canadien and takes baths close to the boiling point, as if to burn away her insecurity and lack of control. His mother, Albertine, has been ground down by poverty, and by the humiliation of having to sleep with her son and depend on her argumentative daughter for financial support.
Escape is a popular pursuit in this family, and Marcel has honed it to an art. His imagination is the most powerful, life-saving device he possesses. He creates detailed movies in the lake at Parc Lafontaine, starring himself as the Hero who confronts his no-good, runaway dad in a Soho bar. He invents a novel with the aid of a mirror, in which (in the style of "Madame Gabrielle Roy") he saves his Auntie Nana-not from cancer, but from a prairie fire that almost cut Nana's life short at childhood.
Tremblay's facility with description, particularly with the often overlooked sense of smell, is impressive. Odours, both repellent and attractive, waft through this book: "The smell is so strong it surprises him... Liquor of all sorts, unwashed clothing and bodies, sawdust that's lain on the floor for generations, sticky from spit, unhealthy dampness that sticks to your skin right away and stirs around in your stomach, nausea that's hard to contain." Marcel himself has a fine-tuned knowledge of odour: he is intimately familiar with the smell of each family member; he knows that Nana is not going to die yet because her scent hasn't changed.
The most terrible form of self-punishment for Marcel is to deny himself his imagination. For him, it is a lifeline to an existence which is tolerable, in which he is the god of his world.
Through Marcel, the reader gets a sense of a slowly building tragedy, of a conflagration which threatens to cleanse and erase. For fire appears not only in Marcel's novel, but also in waking dreams in which his mother's head suddenly bursts into flame. Albertine is "convinced that her child will die along with her. In a great fire."
The sense of tragedy, of impending confrontation, moves Tremblay's novel relentlessly forward. We experience Marcel's life in both its humiliations and its astounding joys, but with the growing knowledge that change is imminent. In the end, the story is perhaps not so much about the particular characters, as about imagination and creativity, the degree to which they can be squashed, and the effect that has on a person's soul.