[Book*hug; 2020]

Tr. from the French by Aimee Wall

Vickie Gendreau’s first novel, Testament, translated from the French by Aimee Wall, was published in Quebec 2013. Written while she was ill, suffering with cancer, it’s a novel that imagines her death and the aftermath through an alternate persona. As present as her persona are versions of the friends and family in her life. By the time she was writing Drama Queens, published in 2014, death had another form: the inevitable. One single copy, sans cover, was published and read in a public performance only weeks before she died. She was 24 and confronted death through literature, and through life, because in this book fueled by contradictions, she writes, “I have to learn how to live.”

Drama Queens, also translated by Wall, is a brutally honest book, one full of tricks and deceptions. It should be required reading for anyone who thinks that Elena Ferrante or Teju Cole write autofiction and that a useful way to define it is “unmediated access, over many pages, to precisely one other consciousness.” This book though, is autofiction. Just pages in, Gendreau sets out her plan, “Warning. Any resemblance to real persons is intentional. Every cliché evoked has actually been lived. You are condemned to remember in this book. . .Warning. If you’re in my life, there’s a chance you’ll find yourself in my book. . .If I find your job disappointing, I’ll invent another one for you, a more exciting one.”

Forget this absurd and infuriating belief that autofiction means books full of mundane details, straightforward narrative realism, that it’s dominated by men, or that for some reason, length matters. Drama Queens is the voice of a bold woman, fragmented. The book comes in brief sections, some narrated by Gendreau’s Victoria Love persona, or her creations of other people, Maggie Books, or Anna Ketamine. Gendreau includes Victoria Love’s sister, a double Gendreau never had, Marie-Antoinette Love. Interspersed are vignettes, poems, depicting ideas like “Poetry and Cigarettes A Jim Jarmusch Film.” I never know what to make of these little dramatic scenes, but they are enjoyable, funny, and feel right, even if I couldn’t explain, exactly, how they fit. Drama Queen is messy, it is strange. It fights with itself. That’s what wrestling with life and with fiction is, something autofiction excels at.

There is an unrelenting urgency to Drama Queens, even when Gendreau indulges herself, “I’m here to bear witness, comfortably seated in my abyss,” and we’re there alongside her. It’s not only her lack of time that creates this urgency, but her body, “When I have to sell my book I often say: the sentences are short. I don’t explain that I have to type with one hand, that each sentence is a struggle.” The practical demands of body and time create a style suited to a brilliant, funny, healthy mind racing inside a sick body: “If you’re nineteen years old, you’re automatically a little idiot. You’re a new wine. Your life experiences smell like cork. Everyone knows that new wine sucks. It often comes from Australia. I have no desire to go to Australia.” 

The quick beats of this pace work in favor of the humor, of which there’s plenty. “I’ll never make love again. I’ve never made love with my father either. I’ve never put my father’s penis in my mouth, I’m not Christine Angot. I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve put a lot of other penises in my mouth.” This comes right after stating simple facts about moving through the world in a sick body. It’s all connected for her: life, death, body, sex, humor, provocation, honesty, and literature. The reference to Angot comes off as instinct, not something to be intellectually unpacked, but a spark of the self. In Drama Queens, that’s how these connections happen: the raging, exhausted brilliance stands out.

On the opening page, she writes “They prescribed me fiction. They said it could be good for me.” There’s something mocking in that, someone who knows they are dying, inevitably and soon, stabbing at the false wisdom, dispensed by those for whom death is a distant inevitability. Really, they mean that fiction can make them feel better about the idea of other people dying, not that fiction would make them feel better about their own deaths if it were just around the corner. A few pages later, Gendreau inverts it, and sets out with a mission, one particularly suited for autofiction, “I could retune literature with my life.” But another contradiction: even if she succeeds at this, if her writing as she dies changes literature, that too is meaningless, “The universe would be just as satisfied if I kept you up at night telling you about the consistency of my shit in alexandrine verse.”

There’s shock in these visceral moments, when fluid is in play, or when this young body is explicitly revealed, but not for the traditional sexual evocation, which she used to pride herself on, instead for some other, more uncomfortable, transgressive, presentation. Gendreau wants to provoke, but knows there are limitations and feels the pains, “Provocation is a bit like that. It’s always prettier on paper. That’s why we like literature. It’s pretty and orderly on paper.” The reality of her life provokes, and she will give it order and beauty on paper, make it literature, nudge and shift and create and lie, but she refuses the escape velocity of full-fledged fiction. There’s a gravitational pull to reality in autofiction.

Despite the inescapable grounding of her illness, Drama Queens isn’t entirely focused on the singular consciousness of one person, and that makes it all the more complex. The sister, something that Gendreau never had in life, has obvious potential as a double, but the other figures are also fractured reflections. When one of them admits, “This process of detachment from my body is long and arduous,” there is so much pain in the narration, but it’s why the book is such a compelling and wrenching read. Gendreau can’t help but obsess with her own bodily process of cancer treatment, decay, and death. That body is her being, while her mind is a separate space, unable to detach, but also what lets her make all of her experience and her thought into literature, into a gift to us. These figures don’t take us away from her, aren’t artificial. They are distancing moves. As she writes, again for a character other than Victoria Love, “You don’t feel any less like crying because of the plurality.”

This plurality of voices, expressed so well in Wall’s translation, is one of the many ways she turns that focus into something both entertaining and heart-wrenching. I haven’t encountered another book like Drama Queens, except maybe Gendreau’s Testament. The vibrancy of every page, every word is a defiance of death. But somehow in that defiance there’s acceptance. She makes death relatable by bringing it so close, but we can’t cross that line with her, so it’s utterly alien at the same time. Death will come for us all. Death is unique for each of us. And this is hers. But this is also her life. It is a sincere, raw, open expression of a life, and a celebration of the layers of artifice, the multiplicity of selves, that make life fulfilling.

Drama Queens extends Vickie’s life, a version of it, and Aimee Wall’s translation is part of that continuation. Wall never knew her when she lived, but in her devotion to these two books, in the verve of her translations, she intimately knows another Vickie, and gifts her to a new audience. I won’t quote the last line, but it’s funny, shocking, celebratory, mournful, and immortal: it’s everything this book is. Instead, I’ll leave you these lines, an expression of Gendreau’s attitude towards literature, life, autofiction, “I can say anything because you’re not never sure if I’m joking or if I’m serious. If it’s fiction or if it’s not. I light the two candles. I tell you to stare into the flames. You start seeing double. Drama queens.”

P.T. Smith lives in Vermont. He occasionally writes. He is the coordinator for the Best Translated Book Award and an Assistant Editor at Asymptote.

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