Longueuil sagas

Helen With A Secret and Other Stories

A review of Helen With A Secret And Other Stories by Michael Delisle

Published on April 1, 2003

Helen With A Secret And Other Stories
Michael Delisle

The Mercury Press
$17.95
paper
149pp
1-55128-100-7

Family, in Michael Delisle’s Helen with Secret and Other Stories, serves as a sticky repository of expectations, apprehensions, and confidences. Like a disillusioned renegade archivist, Michael Delisle surrenders his chronicles to natural processes, as if seeking a new ideal in fascinatingly decayed sagas oozing juices.

The sordid and the hilarious make unorthodox bedfellows in stories such as “Jane Soucy” and “Clan.” Jane Soucy, favourite aunt, nibbles pinches of raw hamburger meat and lords over slimy Little Lake Magog, which, like the warmed-over tea served at Sunday family gatherings, Delisle describes in French as “opaque.” The story functions as a fantastic time-comprehension apparatus. Pulped out of spurious news items, little-documented everyday practices, and skeins of gossip, entire lives can here be speed-read in condensed format. With the exception of the Little Lake Magog sea monster, the characters are in this fashion commendably delineated.

“Clan,” too, brilliantly explores the debris of time. At his grandfather’s funeral, the narrator receives his legacy in a Zellers bag reeking of horse: nothing but yellowed clippings from South Shore periodicals! The horror! This poor character’s grandfather has burdened him with writing a “sort of municipal saga” of Old Longueuil that will showcase their ancestors. The story delightfully devolves into a bittersweet, funny/sad escapade in which the narrator attempts to divest himself of his legacy of ephemera.

Michael Delisle succeeds best when tempering the pathetic with the comic. While “Shades of Grey” and “Helen with a Secret” perform stunning feats of time travel, they tend toward the maudlin. The latter is marred by Helen’s cutesy bits of free verse. “Javex,” on the other hand, toxically disinfects against the sentimental with a content so revolting that it becomes ridiculous. Delisle delimits his character, Marie-Johanne Beaudin, by enumerating the authors she reads (and dismisses as too easy): Lautréamont, Bataille, and Duras. This self-conscious referencing, particularly of Bataille, actually renders farcical the absolutely abject acts and atmospheres that Delisle depicts. As possibly the first Bataille spoof, “Javex” is utterly over-the-top. mRb

X. I. Selene is a Montreal writer.

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