Tr. by Lazer Lederhendler
Every so often I encounter the literary equivalent of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon: reading several books very close together that deal with a similar subject. Earlier this year it was novels about dogs; last year it was bears. This spring it has been transplants — not a subject I can recall encountering in fiction before — in two novels and one television series. In a further coincidence, the two books were both translated from French: Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (translated by Jessica Moore; published as Heart and translated by Sam Taylor in the US) and Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall (translated by Lazer Lederhendler). In the same month I watched the latest series of House of Cards, in which one of the central storylines for several episodes is a character waiting for an organ transplant.
The idea of the transplant is central to The Party Wall, a polyphonic novel that uses ordinary lives to delve into extraordinary subjects. The transplants it deals with go beyond the physical placement of an organ from one body into another body and become a metaphysical exploration of the nature of the self. What makes us who we are? Is it biology — the material manifestation of our selves? Or is it something less solid and more intangible — what we believe, what we know and think we know? The Party Wall is interested in what happens when one of these aspects — which we usually consider to be immutable — is thrown into doubt. This arena of metaphysical intrigue — who am I, who am I if I have someone else’s organ, who am I if I don’t have the genetic material I thought I had — sparks questions to which the novel returns again and again. Each of the stories newly illuminates the subject, but ultimately the novel concludes that a biological answer is not the final, definitive resolution that its characters desire.
The novel appears at first to be composed of unrelated stories. Each of the four narratives, three of which are told in two long parts and one of which is delivered in short fragments throughout the book, is about a pair of siblings, although the sibling relationship is not always immediately obvious. The connections between the stories are thematic; the characters do not know each other (the stories are not all set in the same time period and take place across North America, from the Deep South to the Maritimes), although links between the stories do appear towards the end — just satisfying enough to pull the whole thing together as a novel rather than a collection of interconnected short stories. Leroux is good at drawing together parts to form a whole: her latest novel, Madame Victoria, starts from the real story of a dead body found in Montreal and nicknamed Victoria by the police, who are unable to discover the corpse’s identity. Each chapter of the novel imagines a unique Victoria in a very different sort of multi-voiced novel.
In The Party Wall we meet Madeleine, a woman living alone in the Maritimes whose son, Édouard, sends travellers to stay with her. Although her house appears to be a haven for other lost souls, Madeleine herself is not at peace, and her crisis is heightened when Édouard comes home after a long absence. He has recently discovered he is ill and in need of a new kidney. Their relationship, and Madeleine’s sense of self, is thrown into turmoil when DNA tests show that she is not Édouard’s mother.
The second narrative is the story of a young couple, Ariel and Marie. Ariel has just been elected Prime Minister, determined to keep his campaign and his government clean and incorrupt. But a secret from his past — far worse in public opinion than the corruption he has long denounced — derails Ariel and Marie’s future and leaves them wondering who they are, both separately and together.
The third tale focuses on Carmen and Simon. We first meet them as they travel to their dying mother’s bedside and soon learn that they have spent their lives trying to discover the identity of their father. From letters their mother wrote to them shortly before her death, they learn that this secret is far from the only mystery in their family tree. Carmen and Simon’s tale feels like the thinnest of the three long narratives, inspired by a slightly less outlandish situation and somewhat less compelling in terms of character than the others.
The interstitial story of Angie and Monette, two sisters in Georgia, shows — as do all the stories — how an ordinary day can turn into the most unexpected tragedy. The brevity of the girls’ sections mean that the reader does not have the same experience of inhabiting their minds and lives, but they are in many senses the binding agent that brings the novel’s disparate elements together.
These descriptions are deliberately vague because a great part of the pleasure of The Party Wall comes from realizing that things are not as we — and the characters — believed them to be. Reality is bent and twisted out of shape as the very notion of what reality means is explored and reimagined. The novel is structurally impressive, and Leroux demonstrates control at both micro and macro levels as the seemingly unrelated tales begin to overlap and cohere. These disparate narratives, brought together like organs from several donors, form a coherent whole in the end.
Incredible, mind-boggling, unbelievable things happen to each of the eight central characters — life-changing, earth-shattering events and discoveries — and yet the reader believes them, believes in them. The ordinariness of the characters in their “before” phases builds them up, bolsters them, allows the reader to accept them and their fate in the same way that we might deal with a statistically impossible freak accident or trauma happening to ourselves or someone close to us: however injured, mentally or physically, we might be, we are still the same person underneath — ordinary, banal, no more or less flawed or heroic than we were before.
In a brief postscript to the novel, Leroux explains that real-life stories formed the starting point to some of the more implausible tales. The fascinating biological intrigues that inspired the novel do not become sensationalised or circus acts, but instead allow Leroux to observe and explore human reaction to emotional stress. The Party Wall is a sensitively handled examination of people, relationships, and above all of fascinating questions of genetics and biology that are usually broached only in tabloids or gossip. This Baader-Meinhof-esque concatenation of unlikely events demonstrates both great humanity and considerable intellect.