Vaudeville!, by Gaetan Soucy

Translated by Sheila Fischman

soucyA number of very good critics say that Gaetan Soucy is the best writer in Quebec today and that Vaudeville! is his best book.  I read  Immaculate Conception when  it made the Giller shortlist in 2005 so I was eager to take on this earlier work, first published in English in 2003.

Xavier X. Mortanse thinks he is from Hungary and that he arrived by boat in New York City in 1929.  He wandered the streets for some days and eventually, while begging, ran into the Philosopher of the Sands of Silence at a demolition site.  The Philosopher takes to Xavier and gets him a job as an apprentice demolisher, although X’s chances of ever becoming a journeyman in the Order of Demolishers are very slim.

Obviously, we are not dealing with a realistic novel in Vaudeville!.  Fantasy is probably too quiet, Armaggedon just a bit much.  Let’s say an excursion into alternate fiction.  Let the characters wander a world we do not know and see what happens.

In the first part of the novel, Xavier shows up at demolition sites and does his work — tormented by the foreman Lazare (who was born to demolish), but supported by the Philosopher.  Eventually, the neighbor in the closet next door, Peggy Sue O’Hara takes a shine to Xavier and wants to integrate him in the city — and introduce him to vaudeville.  Alas, Lazare has developed his own crush on Peggy Sue and complications ensue.

Quoting from this book would be a hopeless exercise — one of Soucy’s great strengths is that his prose proceeds at a very measured and steady pace, regardless of how absurd the meaning is.  Sheila Fischman is widely known as the best translator of Quebecois fiction and, while my French is not up to reading the original, it certainly seems she has done fine work here.  One of the great strengths of this book is that the narrative just keeps moving on, forcing the reader to figure out what has happened, rather than having language get in the way.

In the first half of the book, surreal or fantastic as it may be, Vaudeville! is neither traditional  morality play nor allegory, but a study in character.  Xavier, Peggy Sue and Lazare all come to life as real characters — their names certainly imply a religious allegory, but that is just a tease from Soucy.  As unreal as their surroundings are, they become real people.

And then Peggy Sue and Lazare disappear from the story and the reader is taken into a far more desolate world, as Xavier finds himself experiencing a New York even more remote than that he first discovered.  We enter the world of vaudeville, not on stage, but in real life.  As the final parts of the novel unwind (and they do unwind, rather than being told) it is akin to following a downward spiral into a non-spiritual version of Dante’s Inferno.

Soucy asks a lot from his readers — not with his language (because the story flows easily) but rather that they set aside any notion of reality that they might bring to the book.  It is a device that often annoys me — I find myself wondering if the author has fallen into laziness and opted for a trickery that makes the reader, instead of the writer, do the work.  That is definitely not the case with Vaudeville! — if you are willing to grant Soucy the indulgence, he repays your trust in spades.  And when he finally draws the novel to a close, he does it in a most exemplary fashion.

I can think of only one book to which I would compare this one — Mark Helprin’s homage to New York, Winter’s Tale, a novel with a cult following of its own.  Even then, the comparison is not fair — Helprin extends his fantasy outward, Soucy looks inside.  (Okay, there probably is an allegory in this book that may be beyond me — others can outline it in the comments.  I find the introspection to be reward in itself.)

This is certainly not a book for everybody but if you are up to the challenge it is a most fascinating example of alternate fiction from an exceptional author.  Well worth the read and a very good introduction to an excellent author — if you have a religious bent, try Immaculate Conception as well.

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9 Responses to “Vaudeville!, by Gaetan Soucy”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    Thanks Kevin, I’ll look out for this one. I read Immaculate Conception last year and liked it a lot. I don’t have a religious bent, but had one forced on me when I was young, so that’s good enough experience usually to help me appreciate what is being said.

  2. Isabel Says:

    Peggy Sue – what a name! It sounds like a 1950s name instead of early 1900s (which I assume is the time that the books was set in!)

    What are they demolishing? Tenements?

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    In Soucy’s bizarre world, the Order of Demolishers (who are basically running the city) often start with a “rat drop” by planting rats in the crawl space above the ceiling and then saying the building must be torn down when the rats chew through and dust starts to fall. Yes, a lot of tenements are involved (leading to a class called the “demolished” who camp out in parks with their belongings in trundle carts nearby). The theatre where Xavier sees his first vaudeville is victimized by a rat drop at the end of the performance — patrons know that the theatre will soon be gone. The biggest prize, though, is to demolish a church, given the special attraction of destructing the steeple.

    The novel is set in 1929. As for Peggy Sue O’Hara, my reading is that Soucy is updating from Mary to Mary Magdalene through Margaret to Peggy (to go with the biblical side of Xavier and Lazarus) and overshot by a generation or two.

  4. dovegreyreader Says:

    Ah yes, Gaetan Soucy and my mystification over Atonement which I read last year.This one sounds intriguing Kevin, I must revisit GS because I sensed there was much more to this writing than I was grasping first time around.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: It is intriguing and mystifying at the same time. Soucy creates a very surreal world, but one which I appreciate. I don’t normally like “speculative” fiction because it often seems to want to impose the author’s worldview on us — this book leaves many interpretations not only open but possible and even probably, and you can fill in your own interpretations. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one.

    And Colette, I appreciate the phrasing of “had one forced on me”. My knowledge of things religious comes from exactly that experience — not one that I now celebrate, but at times it does come in useful.

  6. John Self Says:

    I have the very opposite of a religious bent – a rigid atheism I suppose – but I do have a copy of The Immaculate Conception which was recommended to me by a trusted source who compared it with Patrick McGrath. Perhaps now is the time to try it.

    There is also a bookstore in my home city which has had a copy of Soucy’s The Little Girl Who Was Fond of Matches (or something like that; title from memory) which I keep feeling I should rescue from the shelves. The cover of my edition of Immaculate Conception has a dead match on the cover, which makes me wonder if matches are a running theme in Soucy’s work. I suspect not, but only one way to find out.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Matches do play a big role in Immaculate Conception too — Vaudeville! features other tools but the notion of destruction is certainly consistent. I’ve only read Trauma from McGrath. I think there are comparisons but they don’t extend as far as Winter’s Tale for me.

  8. redheadrambles Says:

    Hey Kevin,
    This may be way behind the eight ball, but congratulations on starting a blog. I think I said way back in August last year that if you started a blog I would subscribe!. Sorry it has taken me so long to catch on developments in the book blogging world..I still have a list of all the books you have suggested to me, so I hope to tackle some of those this year.
    Keep up the good work

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Great to hear from you redheadrambles — I was afraid you had dropped off the blogging world. Thanks for your kind thoughts and please keep dropping by. This is fun.

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