‘Document 1’ by François Blais (Review)

While I haven’t read an awful lot of literature from Quebec, much of what I have tried so far could definitely be filed under ‘quirky’.  Whether it’s Éric Dupont’s playful take on his miserable childhood, Pierre-Luc Landry’s schizophrenic tale of star-crossed lovers or Christian Guay-Poliquin’s apocalyptic road trip, most of these books have had a certain something.  That, inevitably, continues today, with another short novel set in French-speaking Canada, one that will have more than a few readers scratching their heads and wondering when the story will actually begin…

François Blais’ Document 1 (translated by JC Sutcliffe, review copy courtesy of Book*hug) is the story of Tess and Jude, an average couple of Quebec residents with a penchant for vicarious travel by means of Google Earth.  A lazier pair you couldn’t hope to find, so when they one day decide to visit one of the many towns they have stalked online, even they are surprised.  All they need to do is get some money together, buy a old car and then head off to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania for an extended break.

As you may have guessed, though, it’s not quite that simple.  With Tess making little money from her shifts at Subway (and Jude’s financial contributions limited to his handouts from the Canadian government), our hapless heroes need to come up with a way to fund their trip, and having ruled out plying the lottery, robbing a bank and opening a massage parlour, there’s (obviously) only one solution open to them: why not write a book about their trip?

Document 1 is a fun, irreverent romp that goes nowhere in particular, but enjoys itself along the way.  The names of its two protagonists are no coincidence, as the writer includes two Thomas Hardy quotes to start the book.  You’d have to say, though, that they are rather ironic choices because there’s little Blais’ creations have in common with poor, innocent Tess and the hard-working Jude.  These are just two fairly average people trying to get enough money together to pull off their strange plan.

The novel is narrated (mainly) by Tess, and it involves the story of a trip, or at least the plans for one.  However, our friendly narrator is up-front about her shortcomings from the start:

You should also know that we’re the kind of people to make a mountain out of a molehill.  We don’t try to hide it.  Most of the time, we don’t even need the molehill.  We’ve never accomplished anything, never been anywhere, and the smallest change in our routine pushes us to the brink of despair.
p.23 (Book*hug, 2018)

It’s fair to say that even the most optimistic reader will very soon have doubts about the viability of the couple’s plans.  While it’s often said that it’s about the journey, not the destination, with Document 1 it seems like it’s all about thinking about the journey rather than actually going on it.

That’s because Blais’ novel is really about the book itself.  In an attempt to find the money for the trip, the idea of writing about the journey is floated by their neighbour.  Of course, as cash in advance would be handy, what they really need is a writer’s grant, but for that they actually need to have already published a book, or know someone who has.  By the way, have I mentioned the author who’s obsessed with Tess yet?

I think by now you should have a pretty good idea of what the novel is about, a fair amount of meta-fiction and wondering how to write a book.  Marc Fisher and his non-fiction guide The Work of the Novelist is what Tess turns to her for hints (I initially assumed this was made up, but I actually just found him on French Wikipedia…), and he offers handy advice on the qualities writers should strive for.  Tess flicks through the advice, hoping her work makes the grade, but she soon discovers that her masterpiece is not going well:

Quality 2: Relatability. “Novels that have characters in which everyone can recognize themselves generally do well.”
There’s no point burying my head in the sand here: I’m off to a bad start.  The good news is that there are still eight qualities to turn things around.

Of course, the most important point to note is that style is irrelevant, especially if you’re looking to be big in translation – a tip Tess is happy to hear 😉

While it’s all fairly amusing, there are some drawbacks to Blais’ story.  In particular, if you start the book expecting it to go anywhere, prepare to be disappointed:

You can accuse me of taking the long way round, of going from Shawinigan to Trois-Rivières via Winnipeg, but I think I’m totally entitled to take this tale wherever I want.  It’s the author’s whim and not up for discussion (p.44)

Tess/Blais isn’t being modest here, and it isn’t until a good way in that you see where it’s going.  In addition, Fisher’s advice on translation-ready texts is rarely heeded – Document 1 is a *very* local book, sprinkled with Québécois town names.  One section simply goes through submission guidelines for various Canadian publishers, and some readers may start to lose interest at this point…

However, overall, there’s a lot to like, and it’s a book you can zip through in a couple of hours, with an excellent translation adding to the enjoyment.  There are many amusing parts, such as Tess’ dilemmas over taking advantage of Sébastien, the writer with a crush on her, and it’s at its best when the scope widens a little, and we get to see the dynamic duo actually leave the house.  By the end, I found myself enjoying my time with the hapless couple, even if they struggle to make it out of their street, let alone across the border- and that’s without mentioning Steve.

Who’s Steve?  Well, that’s another story – you’ll have to read the book to find out 🙂

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