Book Review: The Obituary, by Gail Scott

The Rumpus, September 30, 2013

[Read at The Rumpus]

The Obituary is a novel that resists stillness. On opening its pages, the reader is quickly pulled into a space where everything is continually shifting. Words slip from English into French, then back again. The book’s fragmented narrator, Rosine, is alternately a woman gazing out the window of her Montreal apartment, a fly on the wall, and a politically correct lesbian historian who speaks mainly in footnotes. Characters move in time and place, one moment displaced to the 1880s, or to the mid-twentieth century, or back to the present—though by then we’re full of questions about whether the present is really present at all, or merely a ventriloquization of the past.

The writer responsible for this exuberant, shape-shifting book is Gail Scott, whose novels always push the boundaries of traditional narrative. (“Yes. It counts how you tell a story,” Rosine says, and Scott obviously agrees.) With one hand firmly on the signal-to-noise dial, Scott has written a work that she has said is more a “field of associative incidents” than a standard chronological plot. Rosine is at the center of this field, and the novel’s action moves around her as she roams, both physically and mentally, through past and present Montreal. Much of that roaming is in the service of Rosine’s investigations of her family’s history—she suspects a cover-up of indigenous ancestors by family members ashamed of their biracial heritage. In pulling apart Rosine’s family secrets, the novel is also able to take issue with the way they were replicated on a national scale, by a colonial Canada intent on assimilating its Native population. (The book’s title suggests that we read it as a requiem for lost indigenous culture.) So one function of The Obituary’s ever-shifting narrative is to mirror the ways in which history is rewritten—to show how easy it is to change the story.

Scott makes the same point with her sentences. Each of Scott’s novels (this is her fourth) is interested in how language can be stretched to translate complex issues of identity onto the page. The Obituary continues this work. The book’s sentences read more like lines of poetry than prose, as in this description of Rosine, as the fly, “havin’ dozed a smidgen in upper stairwell reaches. To lullaby of Fleur-de-lys, Sun-of-British Empire, faux-Goth cornices. Resonant with sweetly dissonant architectural playback.” Throughout the book, phrases are spliced in surprising ways that put pressure on their standard meanings; words are crossed out or bracketed; the present participle frequently stands in for the simple present. Sometimes whole scenes feel more like a series of images flashing, one after the next, on a screen. Toward the end of the book, a cop is kneeling in Rosine’s stairway. The next moment, he hears a phrase that jolts him:

toward boul Saint, Montréal, QC. Ca. 1924. His youth, still unquaffed, hastening North toward Maude David’s brothel. In search of only man he ever really loving. Passing countless tavern windows. Patrons reaching for glasses to accompaniment of music. Streetcars. Rag-trade women rushing along narrowing boul Saint ribbon. Disappearing into pinky-turquoise at end of horizon.

It’s the type of prose that you read and, on reaching the bottom of the page, go back and read over out loud just to appreciate all of the beautiful, unexpected sounds.

But the language-based boundary pushing is more than just playful—it has a point, or a few of them. Scott writes in a way that mirrors the verbal stumbles and revisions that come from concealing the truth: Rosine describes, for instance, a shelf that “holds books in French + English + a few in a script not European. Plus various family groupings significant to our Native narrator.” And later, to her grandfather: “I/your granddaughter am a liar wanted to be authentic. After, I mean, just before the future.”

Though Scott’s stylistic experimentation draws attention to the fallibility of accepted narratives (“consider the genealogy of the lie—+and the lie of genealogy,” Rosine prompts), it is also meant to push back against this idea and show how language can be a site where multiple layers of voices and ideas comingle. Voices enter the text from all around: from inside Rosine’s head or up from her floorboards; from the ghosts of the past and the neighbors down the street. And shape-shifting Rosine herself, in the moments when she embodies the fly on the wall, adopts her Native ancestors’ speech patterns—dropping her Gs and blending words together—as if to note that her ancestors continue to speak through her. Scott’s unusual syntax and poetic lineation also create space for readers to pause, think, and make connections for themselves, another way that she uses form to invite voices into the text.

This desire for readers to step into the work is visible throughout The Obituary: it is a novel that is seriously interested in shaking up the ways we see the reality of the world around us—though it doesn’t present a neatly wrapped version for all to accept. (For Scott, no solid, stationary portrait of the world will ever be adequate.) The Obituary’s narrator is aware of the pressure to tie things up cleanly—as the book closes, Rosine increasingly reminds us that “futurity as yet offering no key to dénouement.” But Scott resists an easy ending—Rosine doesn’t end up with a cleanly drawn family tree. She does, however, have a clearer sense of where she is in the world, gleaned from waves of questioning language, place, and history. The questions without simple answers will continue for Rosine, Scott seems to say, and for us. It is the book’s acknowledgement of the necessity of this questioning—its celebration of it—that makes The Obituary feel so vital. Scott sees life in all its instability and uncertainty and mess, and doesn’t shy away. Instead, she talks back, and makes her readers want to do the same.