Dead on Arrival
There’s no elegant way to eat cretons
Too much of today’s anglophone CanLit wants to be American TV, and, judging by Marie-Renée Lavoie’s Autopsy of a Boring Wife (Autopsie d’une femme plate), Quebec is not immune to this condition. Lavoie’s Mister Roger and Me won the province’s version of CBC’s Canada Reads, the Survivor-style competition of non-literary book advocates discussing everything but literature. But I didn’t want to hold the dubious honour against her latest: an abandoned-wife novel with an appealingly bleak title. After all, the scorned-wife theme has given us literary gems as disparate as Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, Carellin Brooks’s One Hundred Days of Rain, and Katie Kitamura’s A Separation.
Autopsy, sadly, turns out to be neither a fantastical revenge romp, nor a dive into the darker side of human psychology, nor a poetic meditation on grief, nor a surreal travelogue. It is a romance novel, post-romance. In reading it, I kept asking myself, What is Anansi doing publishing romance novels in its Arachnide imprint, which supposedly celebrates translators who “bring French voices into another language”? The book should have been marketed for its likely readers, not for literature lovers.
Romance novels share with sitcoms and much of Hollywood a certain flatness of personality and memory, thinness of context, and overreliance on clichéd shorthand. In Autopsy ’s nearly 300 pages, we never once learn what Diane, the narrator and titular wife, does for a living. What is her calling? What are her interests, other than her husband? We know that she goes to an office, where she has co-workers, one of whom is head of HR. There is occasional talk of “sales.” We learn that she is handling the “Murdoch file,” and that her department is called Physical Resources. Near the end of the book, her nameless Quebec City company downsizes and moves a chunk of administrative staff to Toronto. Throughout, bosses and secretaries pop in and out, but you give up trying to deduce anything substantive. Diane pretend-works at a generic pretend business. A vocation is superfluous in the narrative of a woman’s life, this novel tells us.
What’s not superfluous? Diane’s flab and her husband’s enduring good looks. The story starts with the husband — an engineer, by the way — admitting he’s in love with a younger woman and asking for a divorce. It continues as a series of steps and missteps on Diane’s journey to accept her new situation, distract herself from grief, and find another mission in life. So far, so reasonable a structure.
The trouble is that Lavoie, instead of giving Diane credible personhood, assembles a character from a set of out-of-the-box consumer habits. There are two important shopping scenes, when even one would be too many, and by the end of each we are informed how much Diane has spent. The scene of her crying on a boutique change-room floor? $200 jeans. When she buys running gear? Ka‑ching: $427. “He flashed me the dazzling white smile of a non-coffee-drinker,” says Diane of the salesperson. (Men are handsome and flash smiles, women jiggle flab and model wrinkles.) After her sportswear purchase, Diane comes home to make another one online. That’s three buys in seventy-seven pages.
The role of clothes does not end there. Through Diane’s first-person narrative, Lavoie meticulously describes what every character is wearing, including makeup and jewellery where applicable. “She waved at me, fluttering her white acrylic nails and white pearl rings perfectly accessorizing the white earrings, bracelets, decorative comb, and eye shadow that matched her pantsuit” is how we meet Josy, Diane’s office nemesis. One time, her therapist’s pale pink silk button-down has a calming effect; another time her “mandarin collar jacket” gives her a stern look. Charlene, her ex’s younger lover, comes to visit Diane “in loungewear,” but alas: “All my excitement had waned when she showed up looking so unkempt.” The mother-in-law, of course, is the opposite: “A regular family of four could feed themselves for several months for the price of her most unassuming pair of earrings.”
Diane loves wine — champagne in particular — and she covers herself with not just any kind of blanket, but an alpaca throw. One night, having “no idea what wine to pair with plain old eggs,” she falls back “on a perfectly adequate herbal tea.” (Seriously, whose inner monologue runs like this?) Diane also loves her house and overgrown backyard — when she is not breaking stuff, that is. Lavoie exaggerates her heroine’s Bridget Jones–style goofs and has her do things like smash walls whenever something pisses her off and obsess about how to French-kiss an office fantasy, J. P., who’s otherwise a complete stranger.
The presence of men seems to make everything better. When J. P. eventually says something nice to her, she is ecstatic: “I had been reborn and all it had taken was a compliment.” At another point, she meets a construction worker, building a house not far from her own. This being bad TV, with no verisimilitude in sight, he is not, in fact, an immigrant with rudimentary language skills minding his own business, but rather a tattooed hunk who likes friendly chats with middle-class women passing by. When friend Claudine falls from Diane’s back deck (don’t bother visualizing it), Tattoo Guy rushes in: “With his dirty, chapped, cracked hands,” he lifts Claudine’s bruised forearm “delicately toward him, like he was handling a newborn.” On another occasion, when he spots Diane crying in her car, he comes over to comfort her, and, one thing leading to another, “he slipped his arm of steel under my legs and swept me up.” He even carries her across her own threshold: “Enfolded in his magnificent arms, my woes suddenly seemed negligible.”
Excepting Claudine and Diane’s daughter, women are evil bitches, and Diane employs her unruly post-breakup behaviour to tell them this. Her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, the office rival, her husband’s girlfriend — all monsters. Her husband, though, remains an irresistible chunk of manliness forever and ever. Which also goes for J. P.: “George Clooney couldn’t have held a candle to him.” Eventually, Diane runs into him outside the office, at the funeral for Claudine’s estranged father, and laments, “I wished he hadn’t seen me, unprepared for the moment, and gave myself a quick once-over — the corners of my lips, my eyes, under my nose, smoothed the eyebrows — before walking briskly over to him.” The spread before them is full of food, which, if tasted, will make her look unladylike. “Cretons: not a good day. There’s no elegant way to eat pork spread, period.”
I could go on and on, but there’s no elegant way to continue. I will say that I set out to compare Aaronson’s English translation with Lavoie’s original text, but there is no point. It makes no difference if the translation accentuated, attenuated, or was equal to the paint-by-numbers original.