By: Gail Scott
Coach House Books, Oct 2010, 168 pp. $19.95 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
The Obituary straddles the line between novella and full-length novel, but without question, it is brimming with myriad meanings and avant-garde style. If you seek straightforward narrative, simplistic character sketches, unimaginative writing and carefree themes, then I strongly recommend that you avoid Gail Scott’s latest novel.
Gail Scott lives in Montreal and The Obituary is her seventh book. She takes on the themes that continue to captivate readers and inspire writers: gender and sexuality, Indigeneity, childhood abuses, identities, and language. She has been nominated for a Governor-General’s award for her work in translation, and her books have garnered critical acclaim for several decades. Scott also teaches creative writing at the Université de Montreal.
Scott’s novel is playful with language but not in a flippant way. Play can be serious and organized – this is the case with her use of languages – English, French and Latin mainly. Because Scott is exploring how voices can be derivative and inventive at times, the text is not always structured and comprehensive. Scott offers more questions than answers. At times there is a cascade of thought that moves at a frenetic pace, particularly when the fly is narrating. We also get the more measured voice of the critical historian, and at other turns, a woman lying in bed or being carried along on a bus. Rosine, the multilingual protagonist, engages with past lovers, Montreal in several historical epochs, her Aboriginal ancestry and its enduring legacies, along with other contexts. Her Montreal triplex is the site of contestation, contradiction and questioning.
While the book is centred on an obituary, it focuses on lives (contemporary and ancestral). Rosine’s physical journey has been the contradictory trip east from the prairies to Montreal – she is the non-settler in this post-colonial millennium. The unsettling of a single identity through the lenses of race, gender, place, class, and sexuality are a key component of the book. It is impossible to define Rosine in any unified way. Scott would not have it any other way.
In this excerpt 1918 Montreal is described with remarkable skill:
Not unlike the thought of youth skirting, ca. 1918, limestone piles + rudimentary sewers. Onto foot-thronging ave. “Royal-Moun” he calling it. Sidestepping creature pushing buggy of screechers. Good tan. Sideburns. Pressed shirt starched presque neuve. Under open skin coat. Gold chain. Swinging nonchalantly. Young J. Dousse, born + bred in the West, + wanting to make fortune his time, pausing opposite #204 Royal Moun’. Tarred four-by-fours under deep-sloped roof. Two small garrets. Spiral outside stairs to tiny second-floor apartment. Which house quarry men, on coming down from Temiscamingue, Blanc-Sablon, Chicoutimi, Matane building low with traditional ski-slope roof curving out + up at eaves in wide generous sweep over street to keep snow from crashing down on passers. Houses sometimes abandoned in fleeing smallpox epidemy = youth straightening as Grandpa warning ear that time, like in dreams, always destroying. Till in future, only one saggy little wing-roofed edifice, corner Mentana, left standing. Its heart-framed girls dancing embossed on brick in shadow of cottages extraordinarily excrescent winged gutter. Was not his grandpa’s already slated to make way for first Montreal Forum. Built ca. 1920 but soon abandoned by storied Canadiens for smoother ice downtown. And arena reverberating, instead, with cheering Commie-leaning Norman Bethune rallies.
An obvious criticism of this novel is that it has limited appeal to readers who are intimidated by narrative and structure that leaves ‘neat and tidy’ at the front door. With little experience in reading poststructural texts (poetry or prose), many can feel as if they drowning in multiple meanings. Readers could spend nearly as much time keeping the story ‘straight’ as they do reading Scott’s evocative prose; this may well frustrate and confuse many. I believe that Scott is asking us to critique continually a monolithic and authoritative narrative not just in the context of this novel, but also in ones that do not complicate the storytelling. She would ask us to question government reports, firsthand accounts, and legal briefs as well. Another small criticism is that while the footnoting is one of the finest parts of the book, I would have liked her to flesh them out even more. Likely, this reflects my academic training in history. Some of them are brilliant and from my reading, she could have written more in several instances. Her response might be that she prefers the reader to dig further on her own – a fair point.
Scott’s book, despite these smallish drawbacks is dazzling and deserving of the accolades that continue to trail it. Without question, it falls into the contested genre of ‘literature,’ in the sense that its themes are both complex and complicated, its style is challenging and searching, and that it seeks to move and change readers’ sensibilities. It deserves more than one reading in that it is pregnant with meaning – much of it changing with the personal interpretations of the reader. I highly recommend it as a provocative and spellbinding addition to Canadian literature.
*A copy of The Obituary was sent to me to read and review. It was not purchased.