While I have my own reasons for supporting Montreal-based publisher QC Fiction (as you’ll see in a few months’ time), there’s no bias when I say that their first series of books was a great success, culminating in the excellent Brothers towards the end of 2016. They have another three books planned for this year, and the first has just appeared, a two-handed story set in a dream-like near future. There’s a lot to like about this latest addition to the list, even if it isn’t always clear exactly where we’re going…
Pierre-Luc Landry’s Listening for Jupiter (translated by Arielle Aaronson and Madeleine Stratford, review copy courtesy of the publisher) follows two very different people from very different worlds, who nevertheless find themselves connected in a rather unusual way. Xavier lives in Toronto, but his job as a sales rep for a major pharmaceuticals company keeps him on the road most of the time. The novel begins with him battling through a blizzard to make it to his London hotel, and once he’s finished in the UK, it’s off to an unseasonably snowy Bilbao for another important pitch.
Meanwhile, over in Montreal, we meet a young man called Hollywood, working his way through a graveyard shift (literally). Here, it’s unseasonably hot for March, with temperatures nudging thirty-degrees celsius, and much of the action takes place late at night. The arrival of an old friend, Saké, disrupts his routine, and along with Chokichi (friend/personal drug dealer), the pair decide to hit the road. So what does all this have to do with Xavier? Well, you see, there’s this dream…
Listening to Jupiter is a smooth read, seemingly over in far less than its 200+ pages. The main structure consists of two third-person narratives following Xavier and Hollywood on their travels, but it’s supplemented by a couple of extra strands, the thoughts from Xavier’s journal and a selection of Hollywood’s poems. Of course, let’s not forget the final series of sections, the dream sequences, as this is where the whole novel comes together. As mentioned above, there are two translators at work here, but there’s no hint as to whether this was a joint effort or a division of labour…
The main characters of the novel are two people looking for something, and Xavier is particularly disillusioned with his job. While rich, he’s also unfulfilled, as well as being addicted to painkillers and sleeping pills. Hollywood, on the other hand, is literally a youth without a heart, with a metal box having replaced the defective organ, causing him to occasionally cramp up in pain. Their crumbling lives are reflected in how the real world is falling apart, with climate change doing strange things to the weather (although we’re never quite sure how there can be heatwaves and snowstorms at the same time).
When real life fails to live up to expectations, it’s always tempting to drift off into a dreamworld, and that’s exactly what Listening for Jupiter is all about. Xavier’s journal entry is our introduction to what’s going on when the two men fall asleep:
I had the same dream again. I say ‘the same’, but that isn’t true. It never happens in exactly the same way. And the conversations are always different. I have this recurring dream so often it makes me wonder: Who is this guy I only see at night? The next time he appears, I’ll ask him. Yes: tonight, I’ll ask his name.
p.22 (QC Fiction, 2017)
Whenever they sleep, they meet, usually wherever Xavier happens to be, and they sit on his hotel bed, wondering how they came to be there. Later, when both experience health issues, they’re able to prolong their time together at a neutral venue, but sooner or later they must awaken and return to the real world. The reader wonders whether they’ll ever be able to connect in a waking state, but that’s not the way Landry’s mind works – what if the dreamworld is more real than the real thing?
The novel has a beautifully crafted, languid style, perfect for watching people drifting in an uncertain world. Its title is taken from the documentary on Jupiter that the pair watch repeatedly, both fascinated by the eye of the never-ending storm. Eventually, they’re tempted to listen for the sounds of the giant planet, with the prospect of hearing echoes of Jupiter putting trivial human affairs to shame. When added to the havoc climate change is wreaking across North America, there’s a sense that individual lives count for little in the grand scheme of things.
The parallels of the story don’t stop at the documentary. Both men see windows smashed by fragments of comets, take pills, go on shopping sprees, experiment (or think about experimenting) sexually and lose themselves in their respective obsessions (Xavier loves films, Hollywood’s a sucker for music). There’s a sense that despite their dissimilar backgrounds, they’re fated to meet, with their paths inevitably converging from the start. This is one of the many mysteries of the novel, yet this is not really a book where you can expect a logical plot progression:
“Will you explain what this is really all about?”
“Meaning why we’re actually here. You told me how you brought me here and all, but that’s not what I want to know. Don’t you think this is completely absurd – the three of us, here, now?”
Saké took a bite of the cucumber she was holding.
“I don’t know, Holly. If you think everything in life needs to have a point, a meaning, you’re in for a bumpy ride, my friend.” (p.177)
This is something the reader has to bear in mind as there are several unsolved mysteries through the novel. Quite apart from the climate change strands, there’s the small matter of Gia, a woman Xavier encounters on the streets of Bilbao, and the way she’s able to contact him even when he’s dropped off society’s radar. In a similar way, Saké’s parents (who disappeared to go travelling) are able to send her money no matter where she moves to, and even seem to know who she’s living with…
I loved the book despite the occasional confusion, but I did have one issue with it. For me, the character of Gia was overplayed, with her later (non)appearances making for some of the weaker sections, and the ending didn’t quite work. Brothers, another book where the reader spends most of their time wondering what’s going on, manages to nail the landing perfectly, creating a suitably ambiguous finish to a wonderful story. Listening for Jupiter tries to tie things together too neatly and in doing so slightly detracts from the effect Landry had created, one clumsy page jarring in the smooth overall structure.
Nevertheless, Listening for Jupiter is an intriguing light read, a novel blurring the lines between dreams and reality:
It’s like waking up after a dream and finding it hard to shake the feeling. The dream was so realistic that it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other, the true from the false. And on what basis can we judge if something is true or not, anyway? (p.212)
I’d chalk it up as another success for a young publisher building a brand (c.f. Peirene Press, And Other Stories), with the blending of voices by the two translators building on their promise to do things differently.
But speaking of differently, just wait until you see their next book…