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Ghosts of Identity by Lisa Sookraj

Gail Scott’s long-anticipated novel The Obituary is exemplary of the author’s strengths as a writer, and as a Montrealer. As always – her prose begs to be read as poetry because simply put, it is poetry in its most ethereal, advanced form. Scott’s work readily acknowledges this question on page 118: “Reader, you may be forgiven for asking here what is a novel life?”

The Obituary is beautiful, challenging poetic novel that is absolutely stunning in terms of image, sound, rhythm, merged with compelling characters and an extremely sensory depiction of place and atmosphere. Full of unconventional footnotes, brackets, symbols and crossed out words, the work itself is a complex equation to be cracked, or at least, to be pondered, much like life and identity. The narration is a fusion of three voices which bleed into each other – a woman named Rosine on a bed or bus, an erudite historian and a meticulously descriptive omniscient narrator.

The narrative is situated in Mile End – seeking to capture, (as Scott put it at the launch for the book) “the music of the way people talk in Montreal” and the particular resonance the city and its inhabitants have. She compared this intention to Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers.

Montreal street names that appear in the text are toyed with – transformed to be humorous and fresh. One example is the renaming of St. Joseph as Dada-Jesus. At the launch Scott talked about ‘sense of place’– a vital element of the novel; she has lived in Mile End since 1972 back when it was a working class immigrant neighbourhood, where as she put it, “everyone shared having to get up to go to work in the morning,” something that has certainly changed. The narrative is fascinated with the situation of life in the triplexes of Montreal,  the manner in which neighbours tend to intimately know about each other’s lives.  This is done in part through following a therapist MacBeth and his patients, who are neighbours.

At the launch the author discussed the integration of Abraham and Torok’s view of psychoanalysis which sees social context as important to shaping identity and psyche. At the book launch, Dr. Gillian Lane-Mercier suggested that the central issue of the novel can be summed up with this quote: “Who am we?” (p. 46) The Obituary plays with the idea that who you are is inextricably linked to who you identify with.

The novel begins with this epigraph: “What haunts us are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others” – Abraham and Torok. Haunting is an important element of the novel that plays out as  ghosts of Old Montreal’s politics and ghosts of Rosine’s ancestors. The protagonist/narrator Rosine is distressed by her partly-indigenous family’s “internalized racism” and sense of shame.

The narrative is concerned with hybridity and struggling with identity– avoiding and/or accepting elements and notions of self, place and past. Rosine strives to find an authentic way of speaking. Words that are crossed out show her editing or censoring herself, trying to establish for herself what she is and isn’t able to, or should or shouldn’t be able to say.

Scott responded to a comment that her narrator may be seen as “someone who is falling apart” by saying she sees her as “someone with many seams.” I agree with this statement, though it’s also interesting to note how falling, or rather, carefully pulling apart can often be a precursor to fixing pieces together, to obtaining a sense of wholeness from fractions – which speaks to the structure of the text itself.

Lovely and brave, The Obituary has an uncommonly layered feel. The language is consistently playful, sensuous and tight. The world portrayed is full of vibrancy, an accumulation of delicious details infused with social commentary and facts. Although in one sense the novel can appear difficult to follow, it is  ultimately inviting, fun and a pleasure for the reader to inhabit. The Obituary is all the things that good writing, be it poetry or prose, should be.

You can purchase this title and others by Gail Scott at the Coach House Books website.