I am an ominous dream: Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening For Jupiter. QC Fiction, June 2017. Xavier’s sections translated from the French by Arielle Aaronson; Hollywood’s by Madeleine Stratford.

I enjoyed Quebec publisher QC Fiction’s The Brothers (reviewed here); Listening for Jupiter by Pierre-Luc Landry – out next month – is an engaging, highly original addition to their list. The blurb calls it ‘magical realism with a modern, existential twist’. That doesn’t do it justice: despite the elements of surrealism, it seems firmly rooted in some kinds of reality – several kinds simultaneously.

Landry, Listening for JupiterLike Patrick McGrath’s Constance (reviewed here last month)the novel consists of two main alternating first-person narratives: the first is that of a student with the unlikely name Hollywood, initially living in Montreal, where a weird meteorological phenomenon has brought ten months of unseasonable ‘everlasting summer’ weather, and ‘brutal’ sunshine (25 degrees Celsius ‘last February’ and ‘no ground frost in over a year’; forest fires rage in in Quebec). He’s not an assiduous student, and shows more interest in the beans he’s planted in the graveyard where he works part-time, and in the main passion of his life – music (there are frequent references to his favourites, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.)

The second is that of Xavier Adam, a pharmaceuticals salesman based in Toronto, but whose job – which he hates – takes him from London to Bilbao to New York. His passion is films. In his parallel universe, there’s the opposite kind of freak weather phenomenon: the western world is gripped in an ice age of ‘endless winter’ caused by ‘a depression of unheard dimensions’. A TV weather reporter says

it’s difficult to talk about this storm in rational, scientific terms.

The same could be said for this novel.

Xavier, like Hollywood, is in ‘a state of unhealthy melancholy’; he feels ‘alienated from the rest of the world’. His life lacks meaning, and takes place in anonymous hotel rooms and conference halls. His routine on entering these places is to disengage:

It’s a habit of mine, and whenever I’m in the mood for a little tragedy, I just switch off like that – somehow it seems to suit my lousy existence.

Death seems a welcome prospect; he flirts with it. ‘Nothing much gets me going other than food, booze and DVDs’, he tells his work partner. He uses bland TV shows like an anaesthetic:

to help me forget that there’s no great misfortune to blame, nothing to explain my beautifully blasé attitude.

Both men have difficulty sleeping, and rely on pills to nod off: both of them dream, and in their dreams they meet. The novel traces their separate, converging trajectories through their respective bleak, joyless worlds towards their destiny: a meeting in some zone that may or may not be located in any kind of reality.

Interspersed with their converging narrative arcs are Hollywood’s enigmatic free-verse ‘unauthorised’ poems (whatever that signifies); ‘I am an ominous dream’, one of them ends.

There are also Xavier’s anguished journal entries; typical examples:

Feeling alienated from the rest of the world. Also a need to examine the existence I keep doubting…

 

By day I skate circles. In every sense.

The only person he has to talk to about this angst is the ‘weird guy’ he meets in his dreams. They’re oneiric soulmates.

Hollywood has his own ontological doubts. These are exacerbated by his dismaying disclosure that he believes  he had his heart surgically removed and replaced with a ‘little machine’. As a consequence he suffers from frequent cramps and unsettling spasms of pain. At such times he’s inclined to ‘check [his] pulse or whatever.’ That characteristically flippant ‘whatever’ is symptomatic of Landry’s ability to make the abnormal – even downright surreal – seem quite acceptable.

During one such episode Hollywood loses his equilibrium:

It was as if nothing, in itself, truly existed: the objects around me, the things I was still doing, the music…It all looked and felt a certain way because of how my brain perceived it. If I ceased to exist, if I stopped breathing, what would become of it all?

The final narrative element consists of sections titled ‘After the sandman’, when some kind of omniscient voice reflects on their dream meetings, commenting enigmatically (if they disappear then meet again, who knows where or how, ‘what difference does it make?’) During these meetings, they question themselves whether they’re really dreaming, or are these moments reality, and the ‘real’ world is the fantasy? ‘I’ve stopped trying to understand,’ says Hollywood when their meetings culminate in Montauk, Long Island. The Montauk sections represent yet another possible dimension of reality.

Both of them mysteriously fall into comas for weeks on end. An Albanian woman goes into labour in the street, and Xavier gallantly takes her to hospital. He becomes obsessed with finding her again when she disappears. She plays an increasingly important role (a catalyst of sorts, or a chorus; it’s notable that she’s an actor/dancer) as the novel moves inexorably towards its breathtaking denouement (in which nothing is really untangled; the threads are just rearranged impeccably).

Unifying motifs are that a TV documentary about Jupiter recurs, and shooting stars are frequently falling from the sky (one of several echoes of Camus). Some shatter on entering earth’s atmosphere and smash windows (and buildings) near to our characters. Jupiter and its moons loom larger for both of them as their quests converge. They listen for the planet’s radio waves. They scan the skies.

It’s an intriguing novel about the biggest of topics – the nature of truth and existence, the conditions for real human connection – which Landry orchestrates with ingenuity and dry wit into an offbeat kind of cosmic road-movie. I was about to say ‘dystopian’, but the ending precludes such an interpretation, despite the huge death-toll caused by the savage weather.

Listening for Jupiter has the spare prose of a ‘dirty realist’ like Carver, while the two central characters exude the restless, cool existential ennui of a character from Kerouac, had that other Canadian been able in a parallel world to read Murakami – there’s the same epistemological uncertainty.

Advance reading copy supplied by the publisher.

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21 thoughts on “I am an ominous dream: Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

  1. Not an author I’m familiar with — in fact, I’d never heard of him before your review appeared in my blog reader — but he does sounds intriguing. Cosmic road-movie makes me think of Hunter S. Thompson and his seminal novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

    • Maybe I overstated that aspect: its more Camus than Thompson. Just been watching Sens8 on Netflix which postulates a similar premise: simultaneous existence. I don’t normally go for this kind of thing, but this one somehow works.

    • Jacqui – QC Fiction is a new press from Montreal. We focus on new, young authors, brought into work by new, young translators. Listening for Jupiter is Landry’s second novel, the first to make it into English. Delighted to hear you’re intrigued – I’ll happily send you a review copy, if you like.

  2. This sounds absolutely irresistible, Simon!

    But, of course, it brings to mind that old “Twilight Zone” episode with Louise Nettleton — “The Midnight Sun.”

      • It’s actually Lois Nettleton (not Louise), so if your search by her name, it might lead you astray — sorry. It was one of the better episodes — when they were still only half an hour long. They packed so much into each one. And the shorter time frame fit the claustrophopic nature of the story.

        Meant to comment on the Murakami comparison. He’s a fav of mine, so I know I’ll enjoy it. My copy is coming soon!

  3. Thanks so much for the review, Simon. I really appreciate it. I’m curious about the Murakami parallels. I have to confess I’ve never read anything by him. Which one do you think would be best to compare with Landry’s style?

  4. I have just received a copy of this last week to review; I’m hopeful the magical realism bits won’t be beyond my understanding. (I’m used to that in Japanese fiction by now, encountering that, not misunderstanding it.)

    Quebec Fiction mentioned your fine review, along with a Tony’s Reading List with whom I have been blogging for quite some time. Now it is nice to “meet” you.

    • You too, Belleza. It’s not as weird as any summary tends to make it sound; each voice constructs it’s own logical world with quiet conviction. Coincidentally I dropped by your blog today, & have in the past. Interesting posts there.

      • Thank you, Simon, and I look forward to discussing this further with you when I’ve read it. My favorite part of blogging is the dialogue about books, even more than hearing about new ones.

        • I agree. I tend to write very few posts about new books, preferring a considered response to books I’ve taken from my shelves. I do buy newly published work (& occasionally have review copies sent to me, but this doesn’t often happen) but it takes me a while to get round to them – like J. Marías’ Thus Bad Begins, from last year. I look forward to reading your post on Jupiter

          • I was (am) crazy about Thus Bad Begins! While in some ways it reminded me of Orham Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, it was much more compelling. I still think about the characters Marias created and their situation in that novel.

            The “problem” with me reading what everyone else has, is I rarely know what those titles may be. I am such an eclectic reader, loving translated literature, classic, and thriller. Still, I try to give you a good response when I find one we share. (I need to read Listening For Jupiter soon!)

          • I hope to read Jupiter soon, too. I wonder if our views will coincide? I’m enjoying Thus Bad Begins, but my impressions so far that it’s not as compelling or exciting as the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy – still one of my favourite sets of novels of recent years.

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