Testament, Vickie Gendreau. Le Quartanier, 2012.
Essay by Aimee Wall
JEAN SHORT PARTY.DOC
We are enfants terribles. We are fils absents. We are du même nom de famille plate. We are histoire plate. We are même pas dignes de mention. We are quand même dans ta playlist. We are pas loin de plein d’autres noms importants. We are passés à côté. We are pas pleins de pentes douces. We are abrupts. We are Rocky Road. We are ice cream and we get eaten. We get swallowed and then we spin. We are yet to be announced. We are the enfants of the revolution. We are même pas nés au complet. We are aussi morts que vivants. We marcher en ligne droite. We tomber de haut. We never conquered. We failed.
1. The Montreal writer Vickie Gendreau passed away in May of this year, at the age of 24. She’d been diagnosed a year previously with a brain tumour, and while undergoing treatments that could possibly buy her an amount of time the doctors estimated you could count on one hand, she wrote her first novel.
2. Testament is composed of fragments that move between the voice of a first person narrator (Vickie Gendreau) and the voices of her friends as they receive packages containing texts she’s written, and respond to her death. It’s an audacious inversion of the “grief memoir,” a sort of beating-everyone-to-the-punch.
3. These sections, which begin with dedications – “À Catherine, je lègue; À Antoine, mon frère…” – end up becoming a kind of dialogue between the narrator’s texts and the friends’ reactions, and these conversations touch on things left unresolved. A diagnosis received in the middle of a full life, in the thick of it all, the mess, and so how to say everything that needs to be said? An unrequited love, a sexual assault, the parties and the days dancing in a club and the writing, above all, the writing:
Stanislas, ça va toujours être l’homme de ma vie, je ne suis tout simplement pas la femme de la sienne. Je t’expliquerai ça plus tard. Plus tard dans ce petit livre, dans ma petite vie. Je pensais que j’allais écrire ce livre et ne plus jamais revenir sur le sujet, sur le garçon. Tout est impératif maintenant dans ma vie. C’est probablement la dernière peine d’amour que je vis. (18)
4. From an interview with La Presse: “Dans mon livre, je fais réagir les gens à ma mort et, dans le fond, c’est parce que je veux qu’ils réagissent.” Something many of us think but feel we’re not supposed to say out loud: that we want our deaths to provoke reaction, that we want to have made an impact, to leave something behind that made a mark, that lives on. It’s like admitting that we want to be famous. Or, maybe more simply, that we want to be loved.
5. I have spent a lot of time trying to find a way into writing about this book. I wanted to talk about it, but then wasn’t sure I knew how. I went looking for other novels written from similar places of suddenly-limited time. Hervé Guibert wrote several books while he was dying of AIDS, the first of which was entitled À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (translated as To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life). Guibert’s autofiction is an intimate recounting of his own diagnosis and treatment, as well as the illness and death of his close friend Michel Foucault, who appears in the novel as ‘Muzil.’ The friend who does not save his life is Bill, the manager of a pharmaceutical laboratory who promises, but never delivers, a place in a clinical trial. Guibert speaks, in a way, to his friends. Gendreau speaks through hers.
6. Carl Wilson recently wrote about David Rakoff’s final novel and spoke of the “distinct delicacy of assessing a text written by someone recently deceased.” This is not really a review, nor is it yet an essay. It is, necessarily, something more like “Notes Toward” or “Preliminary Thoughts On.” I’m thinking about how Rakoff died before this novel came out, but how he died emphatically a writer, a career behind him though it was cut too short. Is there is a different energy behind pushing toward a first novel in the fragile time remaining?
7. I spoke to someone about the difficulty I was having approaching this text and they said “Well, it’s also just a novel.” And I wanted to say no, no, my god, it’s not. (And is it ever? And maybe that’s where we differ.) But I do feel a need to find a way into writing about this novel which is not “just a novel” but is one nonetheless. To not treat it as such, to not write about it as literature, is to do it a disservice. But it’s complicated. Often in discussions of work by writers who play with autofiction, there is a slippage that occurs in talking about the narrator and/vs. the author, which is interesting but can also sometimes be presumptuous, problematic, especially if it forgets that autofiction still inevitably becomes some kind of fiction once the words hit the page.
I flip through the pages again and my eyes catch on a date, startled. Le 14 avril. We have the same birthday.
8. I am thinking about Alix Cleo Roubaud and Jacques and how I felt almost voyeuristic about The Great Fire of London, his intricate, sprawling novel of his grief at her sudden death, and somehow much less so about Alix’s Journal, her own posthumously published diaries. There is a different kind of intimacy in the agency of her first-person writing than there is in witnessing his memories of her and his grief. What Gendreau has done here moves between these two perspectives, plays with elements of both, exploring the possibilities.
9. From Guibert’s To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life:
Perhaps David hadn’t understood that when I’d learned I was going to die, I’d suddenly been seized with the desire to write every possible book – all the ones I hadn’t written yet, at the risk of writing them badly: a funny, nasty book, then a philosophical one – and to devour these books almost simultaneously in the reduced amount of time available, and to devour time along with them, voraciously, and to write not only the books of my anticipated maturity, but also, with the speed of light, the slowly ripened books of my old age. (62)
“Tout est impératif maintenant,” Gendreau writes, and the novel vibrates with that urgency, this unfortunately incredibly particular kind of urgency, that is the one of youth crossed with the one of ‘not much time left.’
10. What does it mean to leave something behind? A legacy. Un testament. A novel that both is one and explores the leaving of one: the logistics (USB keys in brown envelopes, organized and ready to be delivered), the narrator’s texts, her friends’ reactions. Is there a modicum of control in these acts, in a situation in which there is otherwise very little? Provoking a set of conversations, steering memories in this or that direction, writing what needed to be said.
11. From another interview, at Mlle: “En fait, j’ai donné une voix à ma mort, je l’ai mise en scène et je suis une des témoins.” To write one’s death and thus have some agency over it; to let one’s death speak and thus become its audience. To be both author and spectator at once. I’m wondering about the possibility of gaining power by ceding it, and then also if it’s futile and absurd to speak of power and control when it comes to death. Though maybe that’s all the more reason to do so.
12. Just as Guibert chronicles his friend’s death as he is beginning to realize his own illness, Gendreau writes of the suicide of a friend, the sudden facing up to death that is required:
C’est fou ce que ça fait un cerveau en de telles situations. Quand quelqu’un te pose une question, tu as la petite main dans la tête qui va directement écarter le bon rideau et qui se saisit de la bonne matière à vulgariser. Quelqu’un t’annonce que quelqu’un que tu as connu est mort, tu n’as plus de moyens, tu as huit petites mains, tu as la méduse dans la tête, toutes tes pensées se solidifient, les rideaux tombent, tu es nue dans un désert de béton et de gyproc et tu n’en finis plus de te répéter: Il faut réagir, comment réagir, r.é.a.g.i.r. (65)
13. Il faut réagir, mais comment réagir? How does one react to the death of a friend, how will your friends react to yours? She feels she’s not responding the right way to this death, perhaps because it’s a reaction that is in the direction of life, the body, and it seems like grief shouldn’t look like that:
Tu te réveilles d’un des meilleurs, d’un des pires wet dreams de ta vie le lendemain après-midi. Il était là et vous vous sautiez dessus en cachette. Il avait une bosse de huit pouces de long et de trois pouces de large dans ses pantalons et il frenchait fucking bien et Dieu que le sexe était bon, tu en vibres encore quand tu te réveilles. Tout ça te fâche comme ce n’est pas possible. Quelqu’un est mort, quelqu’un que tu as connu et ça ne t’empêche pas d’aller boire une bière entre amis, ça ne t’empêche pas de faire un wet dream pas possible où il y a un mec avec un fucking pastèque pour pénis. Tu te dis que toi quand tu vas mourir tu voudrais que les gens ne puissent pas faire ces choses-là, que ça ait plus d’effet sur eux. (74)
We are somewhere taught that these reactions are irreverent, ‘inappropriate,’ when there is actually, I think, a deep kind of respect in such responses, an awareness and affirmation of life, the body, the physical. “La vie est vulgaire et elle continue.”
14. “Vickie est entrée dans la pièce dripping in gold.” Toward the end of the novel, we are back at the club. They come to see her dance: her friends, her brother, her somewhat reluctant mother.
La rapide est faite, go pour la slow. «The Hardest Button to Button», le remix de Golden Filter, part. Je remonte sur la stage avec ma robe multicolore.
Her desire to be remembered this way, the gift that is their willingness to look:
Je la regarde tourner autour de son poteau avec ses fuck-me boots et ça me calme. C’est ainsi que je veux la voir dans mes souvenirs. Gold et nue.
Aimee Wall is a writer and translator from Newfoundland currently living in Montreal.