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Montreal’s Mile-End neighborhood is famous as an artists’ haven, home to bands such as Arcade Fire and a multilingual writing community. It’s a hybrid zone of overlapping languages and ethnicities and the setting of Gail Scott’s fourth novel, The Obituary.
“A whole life happens at the level of the city, ‘under’ which are unspoken presences,” Scott said in an interview in an upcoming issue of Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory.
In The Obituary, a finalist for the 2011 Montreal Book of the Year, she excavates the city’s overlapping identities, shuttling between quarry workers and the present day boho professionals, a thwarted middle-aged lesbian narrator and the aging gendarme, psychologist and neighbors who observe her.
Scott’s experimental novel is more prose poem than fiction, more interested in the rhythms of daily footsteps on the street than character or plot. Its film noir murder mystery, for example, falls flat.
But its pleasures include the author’s French-English wordplay, its fugue of language and bursts of erotic energy, and the way Scott tests identity politics, even as she explores her family’s, and Canada’s, Métis heritage.
Scott’s 1999 novel My Paris, was a conversation with Gertrude Stein and philosopher Walter Benjamin. In My Obituary, she continues to challenge the notion of prose narrative and a clear sense of narrative time.
A narrator variously referred to as R protagonist, I/R, Rosie and Rosine slips between being a “Face” looking out a window, a horny male fly on the wall, a woman pleading with an unfaithful lover and a “Bottom Historian” with a French-Indian-Scottish family history, parts of it lost or suppressed.
Another thread of the novel includes a policeman-hacker spying on R and riffs off Dial M for Murder. A third observer, Rosine’s gay psychologist, MacBeth, ironically notates the action.
We enter competing stories of Rosine’s past through the multiple voices of her family, her tap-dancing grandpa chasing the only man he ever loved, her uncle Peeet, her Auntie Dill and her mother Veeera. Did her grandma speak Cree and argue with her Irish maid who called her a squaw? Did one of her ancestors lack a last name because she was native?
Scott’s insights challenge conventional identity politics, both excavating a shamed past and mocking her own attempt to claim it.
The mixed-race narrator thumbs an unfinished Book of Genocides that doesn’t yet include indigenous people. “Did I know Louis Riel’d lived in the hood?” she asks, referring to the Métis leader who tried to create a separate state in Manitoba in the 1800s.
At another point, Rosine tries to pretend sympathy with an Abenaki woman on a bus by dredging up the only native word her grandpa taught her, the Mohawk word for “goodbye.”
She is, at various points, too Anglicized and too French. Her ancestors have survived by successfully assimilating—the aunt, for example, who when asked what color her mother’s hair was replied, “N-O-T N-O-I-R.” Who is she to claim “native” roots when the pendulum of identity politics swing back?
In a 2010 interview with the blog Lemonhound, Scott said, “What struck me about this narrator with the partly repressed past of her family was her difficulty in establishing a sense of community in the extremely ghettoized city that is Montréal.
“I wondered if people with hybrid or multiple strands in their ancestry often seem to need to choose sides. Otherwise they find themselves dancing in two different directions at once. It was painful to think about all the what-ifs in my ancestry and interesting to find a way to shape that into some kind of telling,” she said.
Scott’s experimental novel resonates deeply when it raises questions about which identities we choose and which we erase.
By Gail Scott
Paperback, 9781937658038, 220 pp.