[Coach House Books; 2020]

Tr. from the French by Rhonda Mullins

Karoline Georges’ fourth novel, translated into English as The Imago Stage, by Rhonda Mullins, won the Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction in 2018. It’s her second to make it to English, after 2016’s Under the Stone. Under the Stone takes place entirely within a giant structure of numbered cells, within each of which parents raise a child entirely in isolation. The short novel becomes increasingly abstract and poetic as it progresses, minimalist and fragmented in its exploration of that degree of isolation, and the cruelty of a culture that would practice it. With The Imago Stage, it’s not surprising she found larger success: structurally, it progresses familiarly like a novel, and the emotional core rises to the surface. Yet, like Under the Stone, it has its own science-fiction touches, it features another isolated individual, it is less a novel of ideas and more a novel of a single idea, and it is powerfully feminist, in its own distinct way.  

Imago Stage is set in some near future. Though it is scarcely glimpsed, it does feel like one we are rushing towards. There have been terrorist attacks on Montreal, then a nuclear accident, “and the subsequent hysteria, pandemonium, and din of contradictory information.” These events are followed by other accidents, other attacks, multiple wars, and “a new reality TV show featuring the pornographic games of a group of Chinese billionaires was setting ratings records.” We see so little of this future because the narrator, an unnamed woman, lives as isolated as she can, in a Montreal apartment, supplied and spending as much time as possible behind a mask that projects a virtual world. Reality, the physical world, the mundane and terrorizing suburbs, the frantic city, have never suited her. Her minimal needs, minimal desires, and her savings from her life as a model in Paris in the 80s and 90s make the retreat from reality possible, until her estranged father calls to tell her that her mother is likely dying.

Until then, the woman has been fascinated with one thing her entire life: image. This is the account of her lifelong relationship with image. Beneath that, her lifelong relationship with herself, with her mother, with woman as mother, with the other roles and representations of women. The novel opens with birth, the way this woman sees, and her voice:

The era I was born into was like a mushroom eye trying to expand its field of vision to encompass the macrocosm and the microcosm, then regurgitating it all through the mouth of the media before which I sat immobilized for much of my existence, cross-legged, in the same position since my childhood, hands clapping as I watched cartoons or clasped over my open mouth in silence as the World Trade Center came down.

Much of the early novel recounts her childhood, her evolving encounters with a variety of images, TV shows, news, book covers, album covers, and her relationship with her parents. We follow her modeling career, and interspersed are bits of the present day, her visits to her mother in the hospital, her tense and brief interactions with her father.

Those earliest pages are when it feels most like a novel of a single idea. And it’s not hard to wonder. . .will that suffice? Can this singular focus shift, advance, open? The answer ends up being yes, and it clicks rather early. This is a femme, feminist, pop culture mash. It’s not unique, but it’s not what most people are doing:

It was when Grease came out. I had spent a week trying to learn the movie’s closing dance number, where Sandy gets a complete makeover and turns into a femme fatale, and pandemonium ensues. It was electrifying. I was so excited to see my idol with a new appearance that gave her fresh powers, like Wonder Woman spinning to shed her alter ego as an ordinary woman and reveal her true colors. Or like Jeannie, who wore dresses that hid her magic and was in step with the times, but who, with a blink of her eyes, could go back to her timeless, show-stopping look. In this dramatic transformation of image, I saw nothing short of a rebirth.

We see a child seeking image after image, wanting to be surrounded, and it’s easy to see how perfect an increasingly virtual and multitudinous world is for her. Surrounded by image, reality is no more. Though given this world of likes and follows, it is not exactly solitude. When the years of silence between her and her parents is broken by impending death, her isolation must change and her desire towards image will also necessarily evolve into a new phase.

A narrator alone in their room, objecting to reality, pounding at a single idea, seeking a final form, conclusion, end of that idea, is not unfamiliar. This narrator is usually intelligent, irritable, maybe a little wounded. This narrator is usually a man, and that intelligence is often aggressive, a thing of undeniable confidence and certainty. Imago Stage is different, and not simply because it’s a woman written by a woman, but the intelligence is different. It’s unexpected. It’s unassuming.

It’s surprising because she prefers herself as an absence. She is, to most, a void. As a child, this is how she wins her first modeling gig: “my blank facial expression was what won over the jury.” Her success in Paris comes because she shows none of the will, none of the self, that the other women do: “My way of life involved spending as much time as possible being passive, as if already I barely existed beyond the image.” Her words can be empty too, and it’s how she keeps her distance from her mother: “I would improvise without thinking, in an impulse that passed for enthusiasm; I would talk so fast she would catch almost nothing. I didn’t think it was anything like talking, or expressing anything at all.”

This passivity, this turning self into an object for others to manipulate and interpret, would not usually be associated with intelligence. However, in this case, it’s an utter lack of interest in showing her intelligence to anyone, and that makes her impressive, and compelling. Part of this is her raw honesty. It’s not innocence, that would be insulting her, but there’s a deep placidness in her, amidst anxieties, including the willingness to admit not knowing. It takes another model for the narrator to recognize that certainty is different than intelligence, and her lack of the former is not a lack of the latter: “When I was with her, my love of image was no longer deviant, confirmation of a superficial mind, but on the contrary, indication of a superior quest, a desire for elevation, intelligence, harmony, transcendence.”

It’s important that a woman is the one who lets her realize her intelligence. I’ve called this a feminist work, but I haven’t expounded on that. I’ve said this is a book about image. That the narrator is obsessed with crafting and interpreting image. But I haven’t said that it’s an almost entirely female image. Yes, her father and trauma with her father’s treatment of her mother, is present. Yes, historical and pop cultural images inevitably include males. The female image persists, though, without Georges going to any blunt lengths to make it obvious, and yet: “I became the image of a woman before I hit puberty” and “as for me, I was fourteen, and becoming an image seemed as natural and predictable as puberty.” Particular images of women crop up again and again: the child, the star, and mother, that image she dreads and fears but which child, girl, woman, star might be condemned to become. The narrator denies all of these images for herself. She is a woman, but she wants to be her image of womanhood, not these others that come with baggage, with the prescriptions and expectations of others.

But what can she do with this love of image? How does she pursue elevation? How can she find the image of the woman she is or wants to be? Art. In this near future, virtual reality has grown. The narrator wears a mask to enhance reality around her. She has a posse of generated images who follow her. But more importantly, she has Anouk, her avatar and the focus of her virtual creations. She explains the earliest versions, the limits of the technology, and the advancements. These comprise her career as an artist. Anouk is a woman who can be made again and again, skin changed, eyes changed, hair, anything, and the narrator does so endlessly: “I would find something to redo, to shape some other way. After a few minutes of curviness, I would be seized by the need for change again. Copper skin that looked radiant one day seemed dull the next.” New images of Anouk are titled, and displayed in her massive gallery for others in the virtual world to explore.

Her art is her process. It’s how she turns into pure image, it’s how she searches for that image she’s sought her whole life, some uncertain thing she can’t envision, but knows exist, like a word forever on the tip of her tongue. It’s also how she handles emotions, crafting versions of Anouk that express her state of mind and heart. This can lead to an avatar she displays for an audience, or, in the case of an evening with Anouk after visiting her mother in the hospital, her manipulations and revisions reveal her mother’s face, in the decomposition of sickness and death. It is such an intense experience that she feels out of the virtual world, but out of her body too, and present with her mother: “I sense I am trembling. But I can’t move. I am still standing on my work mat. Erect, petrified. Barely breathing. And I cry, silently.”

Her evening with Anouk is one of the many wrenching moments of grief in this novel. For all the thought about the meanings of the varieties of image, the evolutions of the form, the little excitements of Asterix and Joe Dalton following her around in VR, and the glamour of modeling, it’s all in service of the emotional core of the book, which is grief. This is a woman who has been trying to reconcile her own self for most of her life, and not cared to reconcile her relationships, which had only damaged her anyway. This freed her from needing reality, but now death is here.

Death means the dying body and the dead body. Here, that dying body is painfully present and real. In the hospital, she can’t access her VR, she’s left only with reality. But reality is still image — that of the body of her dying mother, and the dead body of the no longer living. The bodies of the dead have had endless portrayals in media, and we’re familiar, but we’re not ready. The loved one’s body. It’s physically overwhelming, and equally overwhelming is the fact that it is an image, a lasting image. Early on, she understands that image “creates a bridge between reality and fiction. Between life and death.” By the end of Imago Stage, it’s more than a bridge. The original Quebec title is De Synthèse, of synthesis. What that synthesis could be, I’m can’t say with certainty, but maybe it is not a synthesis of life and death, or of virtual and reality, but maybe of living and dying, and of all this together, a virtual life that is tethered to reality, to movement over stillness. Death is a stillness, a still, lasting image. Life, virtual or not, should be movement, even if it is inevitably toward death. Georges, through the reliable and versatile Mullins, and their model narrator suggest that reality can be lived, forming a lasting image instead of the preserved, yet temporary image of the virtual. 

The narrator does find something at the end, a conclusion, a clarity of realization, though this conclusion doesn’t come with answers to everything. It is something beautiful, something heart-wrenching. Like the rest of the novel, it is a combination of play, intellect, and deep feeling. It’s deeply personal, but it’s a reflection of the world, and of life, too.

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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