It’s almost beside the point to note that this well-wrought translation of the pseudonymously published L’Empêcheur retains the wry, didactic quality of the original French, because any reader will readily discern that the novel’s strengths and problems long precede the English version.
Many readers will finish The Parachute asking themselves why it should be called a novel at all. With no developed setting or characters and a sluggish narrative drive, this odd little book brings to mind the rather outmoded word “treatise.” Written as a monologue delivered by an unnamed consultant to the board of directors of the world’s largest multinational footwear company, it progresses in long expository chunks, broken only when the speaker pauses to sip water, munch finger food, or answer questions we don’t get to hear. Although Dumontais builds in a few digressions – usually the delivery of warnings to an inattentive “Mr. President” or “Madam,” the only named characters in the book – they quickly become repetitive, as the speaker switches from wry misanthropy to self-righteous didacticism and back again, never adding a third tone to this repertoire.
When The Parachute works, it’s as non-fiction. Taking as his central premise that the consumer, and not the automobile, is the most significant invention of the 20th century, the speaker outlines his strategy for ensuring the continued growth of the footwear industry in a world where decreasing wages threaten the middle class with extinction. As he rambles his way to a solution, expounding on many issues crucial to today’s global economy – branding, cheap labour, disposability, privatization – his smug certainty at the ease with which our desires are manufactured becomes infuriating. This is the book’s most effective tactic. The case against corporate dominance will be familiar to many readers, but in building the argument ironically, in the voice of the multinational advocate, Dumontais almost taunts the reader toward activism, making passivity seem not only ridiculous, but dangerous.
So don’t be fooled by the visions of blissful freefall its title may conjure; though clever, insightful, and at many moments frightening, The Parachute will not appeal to the escapist in anyone.