I'm sure there are reasons involving the nature of translation and French-Canadian prose which might explain why Michel Tremblay's novel The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant makes such little use of line breaks, paragraphs and even chapters. My own hypothesis, however, involves Tremblay's creative intentions, that his book constructs not so much a narrative as a day, a neighbourhood, as life itself (see Woolf's essay "Modern Fiction", noting in particular, "Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores on the consciousness.") Life itself, you see, does not come with line breaks, and paragraphs, and neither do neighbourhoods, particularly those partial to scenes of chaos, cacophony and carnival.
Such is the kind of neighbourhood depicted in Tremblay's novel, the Plateau Mont Royal on the second day of May, 1942. The novel presided over by a Greek-style chorus-- Rose, Violet, Mauve and their mother Florence, unseen by all except cats and crazy people-- knitting booties on the balcony of a tidy yet apparently abandoned house: "We're here so that everything will keep moving ahead. What's knitted is knitted-- even if it isn't knitted right." And move ahead indeed everything does, as the rue Fabre awakens, its residents starting their days, niece and oncle in one particular house staging a race to the bathroom.
It is in this house that the fat woman lives, too old and too fat to be pregnant, but she is, risking her health. She's confined to a chair in her room, listening to the sounds of life inside her crowded apartment. She lives with her two sons, her husband and his mother, brother, sister, and her two children, and in such close quarters, tempers flare, dramas are enacted, bodies excrete, are washed, make love, and make life. The woman is ridiculed for the state she's in, for exercising a degree of agency in her reproductive life. Six other women on the street are also pregnant, but each of them are more burdened than blessed than the fat woman, who is having a baby just because she wanted one. Though this is also WW2, during which men with pregnant wives are exempt from the draft, French Canadian men in particular reluctant to fight a war for the English, or for France who they see as has having abandoned them.
The novel takes place over the course of one day, various plot lines connected by geographical proximity. Following the fat woman and her family, their various neighbours, including the two local prostitutes, and the fabulous cat Duplessis, all presided over by the knitting sisters. The story takes turns both hilarious and tragic, characters marvelously wicked and cruel, driven by whims, driven by passion-- there is everything here. Like life itself. The novel actually driven by life, or at least its promise, punctuated by baby kicks: "She rubbed her belly. The baby had just moved and her heart contracted with joy."
This is a political novel, written during a political time, but even more importantly, the novel is far more than that. It achieves universality even in its specificity, and I read it divorced from its context-- I don't know Montreal well, the history and culture of Quebec I know only in the vaguest terms. What remains, however, is a wonderful piece of Literature, which was not the sense I got from The Book of Negroes once its context was taken away. I did get such a sense from Mercy Among the Children, but that book never came alive to me the way this one did. The way Fruit did too, which was literary in spite of its accessibility, and whose simplicity might have obscured the various planes on which it worked. (I liked Fruit's ending, so terribly haunting, not at all what one would have expected for a book that was bright pink).
What counts against The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is that it's difficult, work to get into, though once I was hooked it was a pleasure. But reading did require a fair bit of revisiting, maps on the endpages, diagrams in the margins, there were several bits I did not understand, necessitating a rereading. But how engaging is that? A book that can't be skimmed over, that you have to work to get inside, but once you're there, you've earned it. The book is yours. So I'm going to go along with the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable, that Canadians are smart enough to be so challenged. That we get the kinds of novels we deserve, and so The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant would really be quite the compliment.
Final! Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads Rankings:
1) The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay (trans. Sheila Fischman)
2) Fruit by Brian Francis
3) Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
4) The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
5) The Outlander by Gil Adamson