Mile End is a novel in which nothing happens (except at the very end), or at least nothing which would merit any retelling. The plot, such as it is, unravels inside the depressed consciousness of the book’s unnamed narrator. As she moves though her constrained world – consisting of her apartment, a fast food restaurant, and the ballet school where she plays piano – the reader follows her dark train of thought into an abyss of psychosis.
The narrator’s bottomless, boundless cynicism is the foundation of the novel. No one who comes into contact with her is spared a sulky character assassination. Her father is “weak,” her mother is a “hypocrite,” her baby niece annoys her, and she absolutely despises her childhood friend. She doesn’t spare herself either. After all, a fully rounded depressive is also a self-loathing one.
Her famous father is particularly loathsome to her. His sad failure to love his family is matched by an equally pathetic need to be loved by the world. He occasionally calls his daughter to be reassured that his latest mini-series is brilliant, but he seems to care little about his daughter’s failing mental health. The same could be said of everyone else in her life. No one seems to notice the gradual disintegration of her mind, the increasing isolation, the ever-deepening depression. There is hope, however. Our despondent narrator might be saved from herself if she can just rebuilt a link to her past. She has long been told that she takes after her father’s side of the family, but an old feud has kept her from knowing them. In a final, sudden effort to salvage some scrap of her sanity, she decides to visit them and boards a bus to Quebec City. They will help her understand herself, she hopes, and maybe, at long last, allow her to feel a sense of belonging.
After 130 pages of this novel, however, the reader will have no such illusions. The meeting only reaffirms to the narrator what she has lost, what has been stolen from her by her father’s pride. These taciturn, overweight relatives remind her of herself, but it is too late. It will be impossible to rebuild a relationship with them after so many years. All is lost. She will forever be alone.
The question that has to be asked here is what such a novel has to offer the reader. Powerful books of this kind, like Hamsun’s Hunger and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, paint more than a superficial portrait of an unstable mind. They offer an unsettling, untarnished window into the subtleties of the psychosis itself. You finish those books with a palpable sense of what it would be like to be mad; you are, if only for a moment, gripped in the claws of their lunacy. But while Tremblay’s narrator harps on her unpleasant exterior, she never ventures any deeper. The narrator’s inner world remains something of a mystery throughout the book, and her actions are too mundane, too repetitive, to reveal the secrets of her psychology.
There’s plenty of misery here, but nothing we can really feel. mRb