I start with a confession: I had never read a book by the iconic literary figure Marie-Claire Blais. I had read snippets of her work, from books on the bookshelf loosely labelled (in my head) as my experimental reading shelf. I had enjoyed paragraphs of Blais’s work. I had read a lot about her. She has been recommended by some great literary minds. She is both a Quebecker and a lesbian, half the reason, I think, why people recommend her to me, given the themes of my first novel. I appreciate her as a cultural figure and am fascinated by her life: She was once part of a three-person relationship with two other female artists! She’s Canada’s very own Gertrude Stein! A rebel in a sea of boring, upstanding literary WASPs! Be still my heart.
Yet for some reason, I hadn’t read a complete book. I was probably not alone. Blais is not someone you can read in one sitting, or on the subway, or simply for the story. But I don’t need an action-based plot to enjoy a novel, nor do I necessarily even require a plot. And so picking up this book, I felt a bit defensive, thinking, I’m not scared of a little labour. But perhaps that wasn’t entirely true.
Going in, I felt that I already knew who will read this book: academics, poets, poet-academics, feminist and queer literary theorists, and their ’fraidy cat students in university women’s literature courses. But readers outside that demographic should try it, if only to exercise a different part of their reading brains, and expand their sense of what reading might be. This is a record of my attempt to do just that.
A courier delivered a copy of the book. I was excited by the back-cover copy: It’s about drag queens! And a tough young girl with “uncensored observations on femininity, youth and freedom”! This describes the theme of an ideal book for me to take to a desert island. I settled in on the couch, read the first page, put it down, and e-mailed my editor to ask for a week’s extension. Then I went to water the garden and wrote “read page two” on my to-do list.
The next day I was more successful. I made it to page 11, and rewarded myself with a cocktail and opened the window. Reading Mai at the Predators’ Ball, I felt initially like I might be suffocating. Blais rarely punctuates her sentences with periods; in fact, there are only commas, occasionally long dashes. When a period did occur, I circled it. There were maybe 12 circles by the book’s conclusion. There are no paragraph breaks. One storyline backs up against the other on the same line, with no visual cues. One cannot skim. One must immerse and reread, immerse and reread. Initially, this felt punitive. By page 25, I wanted to reach through space and strangle her – just for a second or two – so that she might feel as breathless as I did from the lack of punctuation.
I put it down again, asked for another extension, got in the car and drove to a lakeside vacation spot. While those around me on the beach read glossy magazines, I sat by myself and focused on Blais’s literary acrobatics. By page 40, my resentment had melted away, and I found myself deeply engrossed in her hallucinatory and poetic story, ripe for underlining and rereading. Like any hallucinogen, once you give yourself over to it, you can welcome in the mind-expanding experience. As long as I was caffeinated and nobody dared breathe too loudly in my presence, I was transfixed by the whirling cast of characters and the places they took me.
The book opens with two plotlines. One concerns Mai, a teenaged girl on a drive with her father, Daniel, who has insisted she silence her cellphone while they drive through both the literal and emotional fog of father-daughter communication, the theme of sex and purity, propriety and expectations thick between them as they fail actually to talk to each other honestly. Even though Mai is the title character, the most compelling and original story takes place in and around the Porte du Baiser Saloon, and the most finely drawn character is Yinn, a dancer and seamstress, the main attraction at the bar, who lives with his mother and husband in a house with a rotating group of drag queens .
Beautiful and transformative Yinn is pretty much universally admired, “everyone’s star,” respected by even the cops who rough up his patrons and the surly drunk men who patronize the bar with their wedding rings pocketed. At the end of the book, Yinn is convinced by Herman, the resident anarchist drag queen, to put together a parade of all the queens who are falling ill, to honour them before they take their leave of this Earth. It is a beautiful way to wrap up the story, as Blais describes Yinn as personifying “the unbreakable chain of life to a better and evolving future.” While the other storylines read as needlessly complicated, peppered with too many characters, the family of performers who populate the saloon is what gives this novel its heart.
If you put the time in, Mai at the Predator’s Ball will reward you.
Zoe Whittall is currently adapting her latest novel for film with co-writer Lisa Foad.