Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mister Roger and Me

Last year, my friend Wendy and I went to the New Yorker Festival. The first event we saw was a panel discussion with the New Yorker's books editor and Jhumpa Lahiri, Geoffrey Eugenides, and Nicole Krauss, about what it meant to be a writer's writer. While the entire discussion was really interesting, one of the things I remember most was Jhumpa Lahiri talking about the power of the first novel. It is, she said, a book you write only for yourself, often for years, sometimes without anyone else knowing, and that kind of hard work and lack of outside pressure can make for a kind of purity. She went on to say that writer's writers were authors who were able to get back to the mindset of writing only for themselves, but I have to say that her idea that there is something pure about a debut novel (as opposed to tortured and agonized over, I suppose) has changed the way I read first novels. When I picked up Marie-Renée Lavoie's Mister Roger and Me, translated by Wayne Grady, I didn't realize it was her debut, but knowing that now makes me think Lahiri was really on to something.

Mister Roger and Me is set in Montreal in the early 1980s, and is the story of Hélène – although she would prefer you call her Joe – and her family and their neighbourhood. The story is told by the grown up Hélène (who is okay with being called that), and although there are a few times when she steps out of the timeline to reveal a detail about what happens in the future, the novel is a mostly linear account of her childhood, between the ages of 8 and 11. To begin with, I'll explain the name. Hélène is obsessed with a TV show on the Family Channel that features a young woman who, disguised as a man named Oscar, serves as one of Marie Antoinette's guards. For Hélène, Oscar is the absolute role model, and exactly the kind of man/woman she would like to be: brave, strong, in disguise. To begin her transition to an Oscar-type character, Hélène convinces people to call her Joe. She is quite disappointed by the lack of suffering and hardship in her life, but she does notice that her mom doesn't always have the money to purchase the necessary dinner items, so she lies about her age and gets a paper route.

Up at the crack of dawn, Joe makes her deliveries before breakfast, carrying the heavy sack up and down the streets of her slightly seedy neighbourhood. The bag is just heavy enough to cause her some requisite suffering, which pleases her, and during her route she can go over the latest Oscar storyline and imagine herself there too. Then, one morning, a man moves in next door. He's old, he's rude, and he spends much of the day sitting in an old chair in the driveway drinking beer. His name is Roger and Joe doesn't think he'll last long – that apartment, she says, is notorious for hosting tenants who leave in the middle of the night. Imagine her surprise, then, when, after her little sister drinks a bottle of Javex, her mom sends her to Roger for help. From then on, they have a truce, and a friendship, which is further cemented when Roger (who has been keeping an eye on her), saves her from being attacked during her paper route one morning.

The attack, and the attempted assault, shatter Joe's sense of security. She becomes so afraid that, after a week of delivering papers with her dad, she quits. Her next job is at the Bingo hall, and she plans three routes home, and then alternates them in no particular order. Just to be safe. Meanwhile, the French Revolution is gearing up and Oscar is discovering she may be on the wrong side.

The degree to which Joe fixates on Oscar – a detail not lost on her unforgiving older sister – grows as Oscar's life becomes more complicated. Not only is her role within the nobility and the royal guard looking less noble, but she is falling in love with her best friend, André, the only man under her command who knows she is really a woman. This complicates her stance as a man, and similarly causes Joe to feel the occasional wavering. As she grows older and her body starts to betray her, she is even more confused, especially as she looks as Oscar's sleek cartoon self, with nary a bump to give her away.

Joe's love of Oscar and ability to simultaneously believe she's real and also that, because she is fiction, she will have a happy ending is perfect, and Lavoie captures so well that sense that, as a child, your life is a kind of show or movie, in which everything is both real and pretend. In that time before we understand consequences in a real way, it's easy to get mixed up. Despite Joe's grown up responsibilities – working and helping out around the house – she's still a kid, and the maturity/childishness that Lavoie captures in Joe is so refreshing precisely because of how uncertain she is. It's rare to read a book centred around a child, who speaks like a child without being overly precocious or adult-ish. 

Mister Roger and Me was exactly what I wanted it to be when I picked it up. I wanted something entertaining and light, but not weightless, and Lavoie delivered. That I describe this novel as light is not meant to be a pejorative – maybe bright would be a better word – because truly, Joe is a character you enjoy spending time with. She is bold and young and desperate to experience the world. She is, in other words, a character who really lives on the page, and though she has ups and downs, her mood never tarnishes for long. She is a beautiful character, and one everyone should have in their lives.

Mister Roger and Me
by Marie-Renée Lavoie, translated by Wayne Grady
First published in 2010 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)

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