Asylum Theatre

Vaudeville!

By Eleni Zisimatos Auerbach

A review of Vaudeville! by Gaetan Soucy

Published on April 1, 2004

Vaudeville!
Gaetan Soucy

House of Anansi Press
$38.95
cloth
440pp
0-88784-6947

Vaudeville!, set in New York City just before the stock market crash of 1929, opens in the sinister setting of a demolition site. We meet Xavier X. Mortanse, a young apprentice demolisher from Hungary. He stands in contrast to his boss Bernie Morlay, self-styled “Philosopher of the Sands of Silence,” who presides over a disturbed crew. We also encounter arsonists, creepy impresarios, and a mad scientist addicted to morphine.

Xavier is a lone observer with a sensitive body, spirit, and epigastrium. He contemplates how “one must respect food, which regenerates our flesh and bones, and try to understand its language.” Xavier, in the midst of chaos and despair, discovers a miraculous performing frog, Strapitchacoudou – a sign for the unnatural throughout the book. Xavier further discovers a terrible truth about himself and struggles with his pain and deformities, asking the existential question, “Where do people come from?…They come from the night.” After painful revelations, Xavier reaches a “demolished” state of humiliation and resignation, as he descends into an infernal “underground.” References to his makeup as something “unnatural” and “distubed” are counterpoised by Soucy’s description of Xavier’s humanity as he weepingly smiles at a puppy.

Pathos for Xavier intensifies as he struggles with the journal that documents his origins. The larger question of madness, as an aspect of chaotic human engagement, and the apparent “freakishness” that is often part of existence, overwhelms the stable and the ordered. The book’s focus is on transformation, instability, chaos, violence, and corruption. But Soucy, although casting many horrors throughout the novel, recognizes the light of the human spirit, even though despair in the face of madness is poignant. The odds of overcoming experimentation with the human body, spirit, and psyche in a corrupt world are nil in Xavier’s case. But even if people do come from the night, there could be something life-nurturing in it, like the warm darkness of a mother’s womb. Xavier does not know this kind of darkness, but another, more disturbed one that alienates him from himself, and causes him to create fiction about his life.

Expertly translated by Sheila Fischman, Vaudeville! displays myriad instances of violence and transgression, and explores the distinction between what is real and what is madness. At its centre, the novel presents the rawness of a demolished spirit, of anxious longings and the search for absolute love and belonging. It also reflects aspects of the capitalistic system that was a driving force behind the notorious vaudeville theatres like the Palace in New York in the 1920s. As show-pieces, the vaudeville acts were among the earliest instances of spectacle in the US, where audiences observed the often bizarre and extraordinary. The characters in the novel are embroiled in a similar “spectacular” world. This book, with its gripping reach into the human psyche, will hold the reader’s interest to the very end. mRb

Eleni Zisimatos Auerbach is co-editor of the poetry journal Vallum. She was nominated for last year's National Magazine Awards in poetry

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