Translated by Sheila Fischman
A 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.