by Patrick Senécal
translated by Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli
Quattro Books, 2012
Pick up Patrick Senécal’s Against God and be prepared to read it from cover to cover in one sitting, all one hundred or so breathless pages of it. Not just because it’s a gripping read, but also because it can be challenging to find a spot to put your bookmark.
This is a book that turns the whole concept of structure on its head and, as other books have done in recent years, stretches the simple sentence about as far as you could ever imagine. Other than a few line breaks here and there for reported speech, this book reads as one continuous string of words and commas. On more than one occasion, in fact, I found myself thinking about Mark Twain’s famous musings on Germans diving into sentences and emerging from the other side of the ocean, verb in mouth.
There is a point to all of this unconventionality. Against God is the story of a nameless man, who has just lost his wife and children in a car accident. In the first few pages of the book, the reader is privy to the man’s final phone conversation with his family, and the whole thing reads, well, like a normal conversation. It is only when the fateful knock on the door comes an hour later — and two police officers bring the news that throws the man’s whole life into turmoil — that the endless flow of words begins.
- Okay. I can’t wait to see you.
- Me too.
and it all starts when you go to the front door only to be confronted with two cops who look at you as though they’re carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, they ask you your name and your answer doesn’t make them feel any better, their faces just get even longer, so you wait […] and finally you ask what’s going on…
The constant flow of words, almost a stream of consciousness, that follows succeeds in drawing the reader instantly into the nightmare the man suddenly finds himself living. The reader bears witness first to his disbelief and indifference, which rapidly gives way to self-blame, self-punishment, destructive behaviour, and eventually extreme acts of violence.
Tormented by how something so tragic could have happened, it isn’t long before the man starts to tempt fate. He drives home from having told his best friend the news…you drive fast, extremely fast, and then there’s the cement wall on the curve getting closer and closer, but you don’t slow down, but you don’t turn, your expression hardens, you clutch the steering wheel… gorges himself to the point of vomiting all over the kitchen island, sets a roaring fire in the fireplace, and then leaves the house to spend the night in a hotel… you don’t close the fire screen, coat, boots, then out you go, leaving the front door wide open… only to return the next morning to find nothing stolen, vandalized, or burned.
Tempting fate — letting go of his cousin’s wheelchair on a ramp and watching it roll its way into oncoming traffic — gradually leads to waging a full-blown war on chance. Chance, in fact, is what seems to lead him to a bar where he meets Mélanie, a woman who seems to be suffering just as much as he is.
So where does God fit into all this? The man is not only waging a war on chance, it seems, but on God himself. Religious references abound throughout the book — think crucifixion and parting of the waters — ultimately manifesting themselves in physical violence against a priest.
It isn’t all dark, however. There are moments of humour, such as when the man bombards the reporters camped outside his front door with snowballs. Lashes of irony too, such as when the man robotically hooks up his sleep apnea machine before going to bed, recalling the doctor’s words: My advice is that you get the machine. It’s a bother, but it’s good for you. It increases the odds of you having a better quality of life. How absurd this seems now that his wife and children are dead.
By breaking down the barriers of traditional sentences, Patrick Senécal offers the reader a unique perspective on what it must feel like to lose those who are closest to you, and how rapidly a respectable citizen can lose his grasp on reality and descend into chaos. Read Against God and you’ll want to put it down out of sheer mental exhaustion, but be unable to do so since the narrative keeps drawing you in, deeper and deeper into the downward spiral of the story. When you’re done, you’ll marvel at the twist in this book’s tale and feel a strange sense of satisfaction that you managed to read the whole thing without hyperventilating. In fact, you might even want to catch your breath and start reading it all over again.
Review by David Warriner