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Vaudeville!

by Ga+Čtan Soucy
ISBN: 0887846947


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A Review of: Vaudeville!
by Douglas Brown

Gatan Soucy has been hailed throughout the French-speaking world as one of the most accomplished and original of contemporary novelists. That he is a masterful writer able to draw on almost all the resources of prose and fiction is abundantly evident in his series of award-winning novels: L'immacule conception, L'acquittement, La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes, and Music-Hall!. These four remarkable books are distinguished as much by their deeply original thematic cohesiveness as they are by the radical stylistic distinctiveness of each from the others. Fortunately for English-speaking readers, the last three of these are available in Sheila Fischman's superb renderings of them into English as Atonement, The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond Of Matches, and now Vaudeville!.
Soucy's novels have already been translated into a score of languages, but Fischman's versions represent especially crucial steps in the reception of Soucy's work outside la francophonie. For Soucy, whose work is both audaciously idiosyncratic and astonishingly comprehensive in its cultural breadth, is one of those very rare birds among Qubecois and English Canadian novelists whose imagination reveals an important debt to the literature of the other solitude. Whatever the rest of the world thinks of Soucy's work, the encounter of Fischman and Soucy in the Quebec and Canadian literary contexts should be seen less as an accident of publishing than as a happy compatibility of imaginative projects.
In spite of the obviously inspired quality of her translations of Soucy, it is possible to quibble with Fischman, if not over her recreation of Soucy's syntactic qualities, at least from time to time, over specific lexical decisions-but then it is precisely the palpable intelligence and many registers of Soucy's lexicon that would pose the greatest challenges for any translator. It is also possible to wonder of Soucy's work whether the coincidence of unworldly innocence and precocious intelligence is credible in the characters of Remouald Tremblay, Louis Bapaume, Alice, and Xavier X. Mortanse, the respective heroes of L'immacule conception, Atonement, The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond Of Matches, and Vaudeville!. It's possible, too, to question Soucy's handling of the prolonged, progressively more grotesque, verisimilitude-eschewing ending of Vaudeville!, and to ask how seriously intended are some of the historical and ideological implications of Vaudeville!. Such questions will no doubt trouble readers; it is simply impossible, however, to miss the singularity of any of Soucy's books.
Most reviewers have emphasized Vaudeville!'s strangeness and exemplary postmodernism, and it is easy to see why. The novel teems with bizarre figures and sometimes barely comprehensible episodes. For one thing, the plot of the novel is lifted from the 1955 Warner Brother's cartoon One Froggy Evening in which a hapless construction worker discovers a singing frog under the cornerstone of a demolished building and proceeds to try to make his fortune in vaudeville with said amphibian. Soucy's Vaudeville! may be stuffed with virtuosic set pieces, memorable characters, and compelling subplots, but the main plot of this imposing novel consists of Xavier's absurd adventures with his miraculous pet frog Strapitchacoudou.
Add to this somewhat unlikely scenario a dystopian late-1920s New York teetering between the exhilaration of the Jazz Age and the miseries of a Great Depression; a Japanese-grunting Order of Demolishers, half teamsters and half yakuza, which holds in thrall the broken population of that inhuman megalopolis; an amorous psychoanalytic, clock-swallowing ostrich named Leangreen; a tragic Christological allegory; and the complementary perversions of a mad scientist and a mad millionaire impresario. Inject moments of surreal delirium or mescaline-induced hallucination, and throw in a pocket encyclopedia's worth of comic book effects and cinematic allusions. Then consider that the strange concerns that Soucy has entertained in his previous novels recur in Vaudeville!: his Shakespearean preoccupation with psychic twinning; his morbid fascination with meat and the butchering of animals, that is, with the cruel industrial and immemorial realities of human carnivorousness; his obsession with immolation, dismemberment, and decapitation; his brooding on the fused themes of guilt and forgiveness, and of the yearning for love and the waywardness of sex; and his vision of the damaged figure of the perfect little girl.
Take in all of the above, and one sees easily why reviewers-whether lauding or panning the novel-have seized on Vaudeville!'s extravagant strangeness. Nevertheless, this emphasis on the novel's weirdness is unfortunate because, despite the work's obvious strangeness, it exaggerates the difficulties of the book and neglects much that readers will find familiar and accessible.
The provenance of the plot illustrates this dilemma: On the one hand, what could be more unusual than an ambitious four-hundred-page novel based on an eight-minute loony toon? On the other hand, what could be more immediately clear than a classic animated Saturday-morning morality tale? Indeed it is strange to read a serious novel that is sometimes devoted to describing scenes that belong in a cartoon. Yet the scenes themselves, however comic or grotesque, are so familiar that on a certain level they aren't strange at all. Paradoxically, many of the weirdest moments in Vaudeville! involve commonplace sorts of popular imagery or canonical philosophical and Biblical motifs. Consequently, if the first joys of this novel are derived from the brio of its language and the compelling narration of its perplexing story, the pleasure in rereading it comes from realizing that many things which initially disorient actually turn out to be precise and unforgettable representations of much that one has already intuited about the strangeness of humanity and of one's culture.
Reviewers have also invoked writers like Beckett, Pynchon, or Joyce to illuminate elements of the highly allusive Vaudeville!. For many people, though, this simply raises erroneous suspicions that the novel must be an unreadable masterpiece. Yet Vaudeville! also displays the influences of Vonnegut and Davies, writers whose readability has never been at issue. Vonnegut, for instance, is the likely source of a few surnames and syntactical tics in the novel, and one might usefully compare Billy Pilgrim, the Dresden-surviving anti-hero of Slaughterhouse-Five, to Vaudeville!'s Xavier.
Robertson Davies stands as one antecedent for Soucy's mingling of the extraordinary and the everyday, his confident transitions from the parochial to the global, and his depictions-sometimes comic like Davies's, but often much darker-of the universal quirkiness of human individuality. It is worth noting here that Davies, the Dr. Jung of small-town Ontario, is one of a handful of writers (the titanic Victor Hugo preeminent among them) whose names Soucy himself invokes in his work. And, in fact, an analogy to the position of Davies's Deptford trilogy in the English Canada of the 1970s gives one an idea of how significant Soucy's four novels are to contemporary Quebec.
The comprehensiveness of Soucy's art in Vaudeville! means that English Canadian, French Canadian, American, French, as well as other readers will interpret the novel in different ways. But just as the fabulously rich fable The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond Of Matches yields, is among much else, an ultimately liberating vision of the wrenching transformations of French Quebec over the last half century-including the most profound and moving account anywhere of its collective ethical and emotional responses to Quebec's political crises-so does Vaudeville! present a less happy vision of New York, of the United States, and of modern civilization that in important ways reflects a perspective that is specific to Quebec.
But crucial as that perspective is to Soucy, in Vaudeville! he has set his sights on something much vaster. Vaudeville!'s New York is the infernal capital of the illusion-embracing, humanity-wrecking twentieth century, a long twentieth century whose origins stretch back to Hugo's misrables and whose spirit extends through its crushing authoritarianisms and its manic cycles of creation and destruction. And Vaudeville!'s Chaplinesque Xavier is a post-modern everyman. He wanders through the novel's unrelenting city, uprooted, lost, enchanted, brutalized, credulous, dogged, distrustful, friendless, insomnious, beloved, grief-stricken, in search of himself, incapable of understanding what is happening, yet trying to believe he belongs somewhere here in this world.
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