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Brothers

by David Clerson; Katia Grubisic (trans.)

Hungary-Hollywood Express

by Éric Plamondon; Dimitri Nasrallah (trans.)

Variations of the word “innovate” appear 10 times in the Wikipedia entry for Steve Jobs, which also includes an Innovations section with nine subsections. As Walter Isaacson, who authored the definitive biography of Jobs and also wrote about him in his best-selling book, The Innovators, told Salon in 2014, the word has been so overused that “it’s been drained of much of its meaning.”

Reviews-December_Brothers_CoverQuebec-born, Paris-based author Éric Plamondon’s Hungary-Hollywood Express opens with an epigraph from Jobs. However, it is difficult to ascertain what aspects of the novel make it (according to the publisher) “a shining example of a new generation of Québécois literary innovation.” Comprising 90 very brief chapters ostensibly organized around the life and times of Johnny Weissmuller, the Hungarian-American Olympic swimmer best known for playing Tarzan on the silver screen, Express is the first novel in a trilogy whose second and third instalments focus, respectively, on the writer Richard Brautigan and, yes, Steve Jobs.

However, Express isn’t about Weissmuller. This is in part because it’s actually about a fictional middle-aged French Canadian, Gabriel Rivages, who becomes obsessed with Weissmuller, but also because many chapters have little discernible connection to either subject. A four-page list of everything an unspecified speaker sees in present-day New York City precedes a pseudo-haiku about a paper jam; a micro-biography of Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs is followed inexplicably by a childhood story about Plamondon listening to the Beatles with his cousin, Luc.

Of course, this is the point: the only way to appreciate Express’s most frustrating qualities is to read them as an eschewal of conventions like linearity, plot, or character development meant to dissolve Weissmuller and Rivages into a conceptual statement on the futile search for meaning among raw data. However, this approach is undermined by the fact that there is nothing new about Plamondon’s stylistic choices, and also by his failure to develop any through line – narrative or conceptual – beyond a superficial level.

The only constant in Express is a tone of self-assured subversiveness that falls somewhere between a Michael Moore film and Adbusters. In one chapter, the narrator recounts being thrown to the ground by aggressive guards soon after landing at J.F.K. airport, then lists the unalienable rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence, and ends on a note of heavy-handed irony: “Welcome to America.” Much like its “innovative” aesthetics, the politics of Express are played out.

Reviews-December_Hungary-HollywoodExpress_CoverBy contrast, Montreal author David Clerson’s novel, Brothers, reads like an ancient story about the future. In breathless, sensory prose, two nameless brothers roam the dreary hills and marshes around their clapboard house, salvaging whatever washes up from the dark and menacing ocean.

Aside from the tidewrack they recover and sometimes trade for food in town, the brothers know only what their aging mother tells them: that their “dog of a father” – a literal dog – washed up one day and is now gone; that the ocean from which he came is full of unfathomable dangers; that after giving birth to the older brother, their mother shaped the younger one from his severed left arm, which is why both boys are disfigured. When their fishing line pulls up a dead dog, the brothers interpret this as a call to set out on a makeshift boat in search of their father.

Clerson marries the deadpan tone of magical realism with the repetitive, incantatory quality of oral storytelling. Certain phrases – like “dog of a father” – appear again and again, and some narrative details change with each retelling.

Aspects of the landscape simultaneously evoke a fabled past and a dystopian future; the creatures purportedly living in the ocean include turtles with shells the size of islands, which echoes similar imagery in Hindu and various American indigenous mythologies, and two-headed fish, which, along with the boys’ own disfigurements, suggest a post-industrial, post-nuclear environment.

While the brothers can feel like composites of familiar protagonists (Adam, Oedipus, Odysseus), the stripped-down quality of the prose keeps the novel’s connotative heft from becoming too cumbersome. Clerson’s sparing use of pronouns foregrounds the concrete differences between places and characters. The first major change of setting, for instance, is marked halfway through the book by the first explicit mention of the colour yellow.

By using timeless techniques to distill various traditions into a singular, satisfying story, Brothers offers a genuine example of literary innovation.