In the winter, Montreal’s Square St-Louis is quiet and aloof, all scrabby trees and variations on white. In warmer weather, the park bustles, cheerfully mixed-use. Here an ice-cream stand; there some hoodied youths skateboarding in the empty fountain. A face-painting table offers whiskers and lizards while a would-be flasher clasps his overcoat. Syringes, schnauzers, sunbathers and strollers share the scene, easily.
The protagonist of Loren Edizel’s novel Adrift resides in this south Plateau neighbourhood, but he lives mostly in his head and in his past. John is a familiar convention of the modern city – cogfully employed, with acquaintances but few friends, his inner life commanding far more of his attention than his impersonal, interchangeable days. Even his closest co-worker at the hospital where John works as a night nurse doesn’t know much about him: Does he have kids, she prods; where is he from?
We never do find out his provenance, though as the novel’s stories unfold, a series of connections come to light, spanning several years and countries. The most vivid of these are John’s fabrications about his patients – for instance, a dying man’s non-existent wife becomes real after John invents their youthful courtship – and the snippets of a long-ago relationship. Between shifts at the hospital, John is adrift, sits in a coffee shop, goes to the laundromat, silently covets his pretty neighbour.
The stories unfold and interweave: John meets Pablo, an Argentine writer, at the café; Pablo introduces him to Salvador, who is having a doomed affair with said coveted neighbour, September. September, we learn, is the dental hygienist who tends to one Thomas, who is – wait for it – the former husband of John’s lost love, Selma.
It’s a small world, we’re meant to gather, and the best we can do is wrangle our coincidences. Yet Edizel’s characters are merely two-dimensional illustrations of these splices, and she narrates their lives in expository sound bites. We have the Well-Adapted But Exotically Melancholy Immigrant: “I either had to find the new Pablo or perish from the unbearable sadness of exile,” he announces, seemingly without irony. When John puts on a CD for his new buddy, Pablo duly becomes a nationalist cliché: “Ah, Piazolla [sic] Very thoughtful of you!” Selma is the Wistful But Strong Divorcee, having already “mourned [the marriage’s]passing for many years.”
An ocean away, her Rich and Emotionally Flailing Businessman ex implores the lemony September (Valiant But Longing Single Mom), “run away with me.” Even the city can’t avoid a bromidic wash – “there are PhDs out there driving taxis. It’s a Montreal thing.” And John, well, the deep drifter dedicates his “days and hours to the loss of hope.”
Possibly Edizel keeps her characters and readers at a deliberate distance; perhaps the single, authorial perspective suggests a contemporary urban sameness, and perhaps compassion for the baggage of others might avoid the solipsistic-cum-tragic note on which Adrift ends. Or maybe baggage is more interesting examined, imagined, mined – or checked.
Sitting in the Square St-Louis recently, I met a homeless guy. We chatted; he bought me an orange juice. Around us dogs pooped, kids kidded, lovers loved. Even at its surface, reality is more complex, and we ask our fictions to also look closer.
Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor and translator in Montreal.