Less "Je ne sais quoi," More "Je ne sais pas pourquoi"
“She moved over the surface of life the way figure skaters move. . . she never broke through the ice, she never pierced the surface and descended into those awful beautiful waters, she was never submerged and she never learned to swim in those currents, these currents: all the shadows and light and splendorous horrors that make up the riptides of life on earth.”
Like so many coming of age stories, Last Night in Montreal, the first novel from Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, attempts to mythologize the life of the wandering hermit. This no-longer-rare breed of personality: the reclusive oddball-runaway renegade, stoic, unbreakable spirit — the Humbert Humbert and the Holden Caulfield — is as ubiquitous in our literary heritage as pastels are around Eastertide. Accordingly, it is essential for any author working in the genre of loner-literature to paint such a figure with idiosyncratic brushstrokes, if only to avoid authorial clichés. Without submerging into the protagonist’s psyche, or even in spite of that submersion, novels of this sort risk becoming tedious catalogues of narcissism. Unfortunately, Last Night in Montreal is just that: a monotonous melodrama surrounding a figure who, despite modest habitual quirks, remains almost entirely two dimensional, yet magically acquires the lifeblood of the chronicle and everyone in it. Interestingly, however, the novel is saved from the brink of decline by near-genius plot twists and a distinct proclivity for description.
Last Night in Montreal depicts a tragic protagonist, Lilia — young, beautiful, and peculiar — abducted at a young age by her father, and therefore addicted to “leaving.” Abandoning a snail trail of lovers and friends, Lilia and her Father drive around North America, stay in hotels, and manage to evade reality. Several unambiguous allusions to Nabokov’s Lolita challenge any claim the book might have to inspired originality. The plot winds its way through nameless locales in a senile meandering, and eventually picks up a private detective, several weary art groupies, and a go-go dancer.
Structurally, the narrative shuffles indiscriminately between two stages in Lilia’s existence: youth and semi-adulthood (eventually we are revoked the right of being privy to specific ages). What we know about Lilia is limited, for the most part, to her desire to not participate in the lives of those around her, and for good reason: their lives are single-mindedly obsessed with hers. One can see the obvious artistic value of the setup; mirrors staring at mirrors might shed some light on the nature of fantasy and reality. But if all the characters are depicted with equal indifference — when and where is the reader meant to connect?
Mandel’s anguished attempts at profundity and poetic fixation are unwarranted by the circumstances and depth of the individual characters themselves, and evoke cringe rather than contemplation. In chapter 31, she unwittingly gives a succinct description of her own approach: “[o]r perhaps it’s just this: memory is too unreliable to entrust a story to the hero alone. Somebody else has to have observed the chain of events to lend credibility.” Mandel tries to use the lack of heroic pathos to depersonalize the book — to lend it credibly — but the result is just the opposite. The most unappealing aspect of her permutation is that the story is replete with formulaic, albeit eye-catching symbols and supporting characters. Well-chosen symbols can at least externally develop the soul of a novel. Instead, coffee shops, apathetic art scenes, a slashed arm, pill bottles, telephone booths and unmarked signs scroll past with equal lethargy, failing to involve the reader emotionally. Nouns fly fast and thick, with a sloppy disregard for the “why should I care” factor: “complicated sequences of travel: maps, garbled announcements of departures and delays in the tiled aquarium acoustics of bus terminals and train stations, clocks set high on the walls of station waiting rooms.” People are similarly unimportant: “In Santa Paula there was Gene… in Los Angeles there was Trent, and later another Edwin, who was more interesting than the first one but not as kind.” In Chapter 35 an entirely new relationship is introduced as critically important to the main character, and then shoved aside. The symbols, personalities, relationships, and setting are not more profound for their lack of weight; they are simply inconsequential.
Dead air also features prominently on almost every page, and the reader is expected to spend unlimited intervals watching characters stare at things, pluck pubic hair, talk about the protagonist or when they will find her, drink coffee and smoke (there’s at least two weeks’ worth of hanging out in coffee shops). Picking up and putting down objects is another indispensable activity. Extending the interest of the reader to such a degree would work well in a movie, but in the context of fiction this technique has the collective impact of a distant voice on the telephone telling a somewhat amusing anecdote despite significantly disturbing lags and static: imagine Hemmingway as a doped up post-capitalist hipster. However, Mandel does include some attractive camera work to compensate for all the monotony.
Arguably, the most compelling moments of the book are rooted in fresh aesthetic descriptions, which are at times surprisingly refreshing and lively. The details lack personal interest, but they are pretty just to read, as looking at a stranger’s vacation album might be a mildly pleasant activity. The scenes are cast with Mandel’s descriptive embellishments: her “pictures of winged things, hummingbirds and pterodactyls and rickety-looking antique airplanes” and “dark beautiful murals, over the dilapidated houses with their spiral staircases and strange turrets, the endless porn theaters and strip clubs, the people who walked on frozen sidewalks with their hands in their pockets and their breath turning to ice inside their scarves” are delightfully photographic. Mandel puts her passion into the landscape, somewhat abstractly. What is unbelievable, however, is that the characters also witness life through Lilia’s eyes, carefully documenting light and color during moments of crisis in precisely the same voice. The technique is either a choice by the author or a lack of impartiality; in either case it makes the characters’ feelings seem empty and, at best, contrived. Any reader familiar with Virginia Woof’s The Waves will recognize the effort: the outsider is present, hauntingly infusing all characters equally, even if she is absent psychologically. In Woolf’s masterpiece, this omnipresence lends an unaffected air to the novel and informs the inner lives of the characters. The lacuna of a death serves to lend credibility to a richly diverse, though mysteriously complimentary group of voices, united by the invisible hand of Woolf herself. In Last Night in Montreal, however, the technique is less successful, creating a hazy, unreliable effect: why should the reader care to believe any particular individual when their voices reverberate with a tiring, melodramatic obsession with Lilia? The descriptive technique reveals the primary failing of the book: an unmistakable lack of character development.
What Last Night in Montreal lacks in characterization, though, and fails to overcome through Mandel’s imaginative descriptions, it nearly makes up for in suspense. The author manages to steer her audience forward in expectancy of Lilia’s distant return. At one point, a stalemate between two pieces of information regarding Lilia’s whereabouts freezes the plot for a handful of chapters. Will Lilia’s ex-boyfriend tell Lilia’s ex-friend where he can find Lilia? Only if Lilia’s ex-friend tells Lilia’s ex-boyfriend what happened to Lilia when she was being chased by Lilia’s ex-friend’s father, who is also possessed with a need to find her and “to fuck her” (excuse the French patois, but it is in there). Have you heard of the up-and-coming cinematographic genre “mumblecore”? According to my sources, this is basically it: French New Waves swirl around two yuppies, hanging on every utterance and sanctioning the blather with the self-importance of a Greek tragedy. As if aware of what the author is asking of her reader, Mandel’s character notes “if she kept talking and talking the way she did in this state, she’d slip; she’d say where Lilia was, where Lilia might be, if Lilia was still in this frozen city, if Lilia was even still alive, if Lilia had even ever actually existed in the first place, but instead she told him stories about terrorists and circuses”.
Finally, after the painful obsession with Lilia’s discovery has played itself thin, the book manages to weave several nearly-arbitrary plotlines together, rendering a well-crafted climax, with a cinematographically exaggerated sweep. The plot, with all its dizzying randomness and arbitrary, attractive detail, finally reveals thoughtful planning on the author’s part. At this late stage in the story, though, it is a lost cause. In a book where secondary, uninteresting people attempt to illicit the reader’s interest in a primary uninteresting lack-of-a-person, one can only be so excited when something finally happens. Ultimately, Last Night in Montreal is self-important, frictionless, and tiring.