a review by Pablo Strauss
In Grande plaine IV a drifter named Alexandre Bourbaki (like the author) sets off with his dog Argentine to get away and find a new place to do his thing – write, draw, enjoy the peace and quiet. On his second attempt he lands in what has all the trappings of the perfect town. But as with most perfect things, all in Mailloux is not as it seems. Bourbaki becomes embroiled in the lives of the employee at the laundromat/internet café and her boyfriend, who is suffering from a bad case of entropy.
“Road trip” might more meaningfully describe this quirky book than “fiction.” Like any worthwhile expedition Grande plaine IV take us to unfamiliar places with plenty of detours, and shows us familiar things in a new light. A steady patter of big thoughts on small things passes the time:
Characteristics of an authentic poutine stand:
1. Horizontal sliding order window
2. Picnic tables on grounds (gravel or packed dirt)
3. Vinegar bottles at pick-up window and tables
4. Above all, no indoor dining area
Those found in violation of any of the above precepts may have their certificate of authenticity revoked.
The plot moves rapidly and holds together. There are Pynchonian shenanigans but the cleverness, ballasted by honest enthusiasm, doesn’t veer too far into preciousness. Every bit as enjoyable as Bourbaki’s sly observations are his drawings, some of the book’s finest moments.
The whole is dreamlike, out of time. Think back to a road trip you’ve taken. (For me: 1997; a Mercury Meteor; Tyler, Silas, Claire, Lynda; Gaspé and Nova Scotia; tapes and coffee; laughter and some arguing too since having it all figured out isn’t easy, even when you’re 20.) Grande Plaine IV is a bit like that road trip, funny and sweet, clever and heartfelt. Young. And like any trip it ends and routine breaks back in, leaving us with memories, photos, a notebook, and a good line or three. ≈
From Grande Plaine IV
by Alexandre Bourbaki
≈ translated by Pablo Strauss
WELCOME TO MAILLOUX
I knew I’d like Mailloux right away. It may only have been 50 km from Lac Penché, as the crow flies, but the two towns were worlds apart in pretty much every way. If I hadn’t seen the sign driving in I would have put the population at no more than 1,000. There must have been people tucked away in basements, in work camps. Crawling thick like earwigs under the patio furniture. Or maybe they’d just inflated the numbers to get some grant for dying regions.
Fields gave way to forest here. The mountains weren’t just part of the landscape, they were part of the town. The logging industry had been in a serious slump for years, but Mailloux had embraced tourism: there were B&Bs everywhere, cafés and art galleries, restaurants and boutiques. Nothing felt forced or fake. It wasn’t like driving through a film set. And there weren’t any obnoxious flashy signs or big chain stores.
Just to make it all more picturesque there were a few run-down streets with old cars up on blocks and toothless old people sitting out on their balconies. Dig too deep and you might discover that the potholes were dug by local craftspeople, the stranded cars had never been driven, the old coots had fake gums, and the whole thing was funded by Heritage Canada.
The town’s sole hotel was out of my price range. So I ended up at the motel. It was right downtown, but completely invisible from the main street. You drove in through an archway between a restaurant and an abandoned office building. On the other side was a parking lot, and then the motel proper.
A hidden motel is highly unusual. An oxymoron really. In Quebec, like everywhere else in North America, motels sprung up in the 1950s. They were a by-product of the flourishing car culture, the luxuriant flora of the new highway networks. The rule was that they had to be visible from inside a speeding car. Their survival depended on their ability to attract the very customers whose velocity impaired their vision. Enter those giant, goofy, brightly coloured motel signs we know and love. But the motel in Mailloux was hidden, and flanked by buildings at least twenty-five years its senior, meaning that it always had been.
The motel’s name, barely visible in the afternoon light, was inscribed on the archway.
Just three cars in the parking lot. Buildings all around sheltering the motel from street noise. The only sounds were the neon sign buzzing, the wind whistling in the leaves, and, somewhere out back, water running.
My dog Argentine leaped out onto the asphalt and we headed for the office. The owner was leaning against the doorframe. He beckoned us over. Argentine bounded to meet him, wagging her tail like she was greeting an old friend. I whistled at her and called but she wasn’t listening. The guy didn’t even bat an eye when she started licking his hands and sniffing his crotch. He seemed to enjoy it, patting her gently on the head. It calmed her down right away—a first. After a while the manager finally looked at me.
“Sorry about the dog. She isn’t very well trained.”
“No problem. We like dogs around here, as you can see.”
“Do you have any rooms?”
“Not rooms. Units.”
He pointed toward his office and in we went: fake wood-panelled walls, an imitation pleather armchair, a metal desk that must have weighed a ton, a Pepsi clock running a good twenty minutes slow. His desk held an antique phone with clear and red buttons for different lines and a tired old Rolodex shedding its cards. We had a seat. He looked me over for a few seconds without saying anything. A far-off radio played an old song by some long-forgotten crooner.
“We have weekly and monthly rates, if you’re interested.”
It was like he was reading my mind. Before I even had time to answer there was more.
“It’s quiet around here, if it’s peace and quiet you’re after. No one to key the side of your car.”
This guy didn’t miss a thing! I didn’t have the feeling he was lying, exactly, more like he wasn’t telling the whole story about this so-called peace and quiet. I looked around, through the window, searching for some sign of funny business. Nothing, just the usual mix of quaint, boring, and ugly.
“You know, Boss, I don’t rent rooms to just anyone.”
“Yeah, I guess. But…”
“I’m going to give you No. 11. She’s at the very end. You’ll only have one neighbour.”
“And may I ask what brings you to these parts?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m trying to get away.”
“What do you do?”
“For your records?”
“Me too. What do you write, Boss?”
“Stories. Short stories, novels.”
“I draw, too. I wander around. Travel. People watch.”
The manager was looking at me with a bit of a smirk. Suddenly he leaned back in in his chair. The springs creaked. He reached back behind his head and grabbed a key out of the cubbyhole. He dropped the oblong blue plastic key fob, marked No. 11, on the desk. When I took it in my hand it was as if I were signing a contract, agreeing to abide by the rules of a game I didn’t know anything about.
“Need anything for your dog?”
“I left in a bit of a hurry.”
“No problem. There’s a pet shop a few minutes away. I’ll go a bit later.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’d love to. We can go together.”
“It’s just that…”
“I mean Girl and me.”
“Her name is Argentine.”
“Think she really cares, Boss?”
He got up slowly, as if he enjoyed torturing the poor springs in the chair.
“Let’s go have a look at your room now. Coming, Girl?”
Argentine jumped up and ran after him.
Everything in my room was old but seemed brand new, like the set of a movie painstakingly assembled by a team of 15 decorators and set dressers who’d spent half their lives on eBay chasing down long-lost treasures: turquoise sheets of melamine for the kitchenette, a shiny Chrysler air conditioner, coloured blown glass ashtrays, hand-made wood blinds, a stuccoed ceiling, paintings by someone’s nice aunt Jeanine, Paulette, or Irène…
The back window looked out on a grassy yard with a tiny, kidney-shaped pool. Then there was a drop down to the river. It looked pretty far away from the parking lot. On the other side of the river a first row of houses concealed a dip in the land: the truly hidden part of Mailloux. All you saw was mountains against the sky. Not the majestic Rockies but the good old Appalachians, whittled away by time. They weren’t too big and weren’t too small; just right.
I liked this town. It was quiet. The landscape was nice to look at. The river was my good news for the day. I’d found what I was looking for.
I stood at my door enjoying the view of this new world that was now mine: a partially asphalted parking lot, a few decrepit walls on the upper floors of the neighbouring buildings. The rooms and the reception were in an “L” shape. In front of each of the 11 rooms sat a differently coloured “Solair” chair. They formed a pattern that didn’t seem quite random. There was a narrow walkway along the dark passage that led to the rest of town. Crossing through was like an initiation rite. You came out born again, into the full light of day. I’m exaggerating obviously. A bit.
One of the rooms had an open door. A man came out. He stood still for a few minutes on the sidewalk to light a cigarette, then waved to me before heading out through the passage.
On one side of the passage was a restaurant, whose front was on the main street. Its name and vocation were written on the window.
Happy to serve you since 1953
Beside the restaurant was a real old-fashioned grocery store, complete with vintage pop ads. This wasn’t some corner store supplying the Holy Trinity—beer, smokes, lottery tickets. No, these guys had fresh produce, a little organics section, local products, lovingly dusted cans. It was a throwback to the world before supermarkets. And Mailloux was full of little stores of all kinds, as if some sort of mercantile mania had taken hold of the population. Some of the results were, to say the least, creative.
On the other side of the street was a laundromat/internet café called Lavez lavez! There was a coffee shop/bar called Les Copains whose sign said “Lady welcome!” One only I guess. There was a barber (Mario’s) and a hairdresser (Mariette’s). A notary’s office, an artist’s agency, an electronic parts store, an organic pet food store, the town lamplighter’s office, a Chinese restaurant, a model store, and a few more.
In the window of an arts supply store I found, in between some real eyesores, three tiny reproductions of Guido Molinari’s Mutation sérielle verte-rouge. As a deuteranomalous trichromat I have ambivalent feelings toward Molinari, a mixture of admiration and frustration. I feel like I’m missing out by not seeing the same thing “normal” people see.
The sign was done in mismatched Letraset letters and looked like one of those ransom letters cut out from newspapers you find in cartoons or detective novels. This one said:
At first glance the town looked like an idyllic mix of stuff for tourists and locals, but things deteriorated a few blocks down. The streets got all cutesy, lined with trees and benches and gas lamps clearly designed to produce an oh-so-gentle light that wouldn’t get in the way of the stars. Someone—the local tourist office, the planning department, the Knights of Columbus, whoever—was working hard to create an impression that Mailloux was more than just a town to drive through.
≈ ≈ ≈
The dining room at Claude’s was practically empty. I picked a table by the front window so I could watch what was going on outside. The streets weren’t exactly thronged but the people looked all right—not too styled up like in the city, but not total hicks either. Everything was simple, tasteful. Again I felt I’d found a good place to stay for a while.
Back home I was in for a shock. The motel office door was wide open but no one was there. I could hear Argentine barking somewhere out behind the hotel. It’s weird hearing someone you know when you can’t see them. I felt like some sort of specter haunting my old stomping grounds, surrounded by my loved ones but unable to make contact. A sinister fog rose from the river. I felt the desolation engulf me.
Two huge Molinari reproductions hanging behind the counter caught my eye as I opened the door of the laundromat/internet café. For a second I imagined turning right around and finding another broadband provider, with less of a taste for modern art, but the cashier, who was lost in her book, finally met my eye. She looked up slowly; tortoises must move like that when they lift their sticky heads out of their shells. Her expression was funny. It might have meant “Get the hell out of here, loser, I’m in the middle of a chapter.” Or maybe “Wow, a customer.”
I walked across the store, determined. She kept staring.
“Is it a conspiracy?”
“All these Molinari reproductions. The same ones are in the window a few stores up.”
“Yeah, Petit works there.”
“Petit. My boyfriend. He words for Mr. Grumbacher. But they aren’t actually the same paintings. There’s Bi-sériel, vert-bleu and this one, Mutation tri-violette. You got something against Molinari?
“Not at all. It just seems like a bit of a strange coincidence.”
“It’s not a coincidence—Petit works there.”
“Plus it seems weird seeing Molinaris here.”
“Well you haven’t seen the last of them, know what I’m saying?”
“No, I don’t.”
This relationship was off to a shaky start. She seemed to be in a hurry to get back to her reading.
“Can I use one of your computers?”
She rummaged around in a drawer and got me a card.
“Sit wherever you want.”
“Thanks. And can I ask you one last question?”
I pointed at the reproductions behind her.
“What exactly do you see in it?”
“Strips of colour, right? Isn’t that what you see?”
“Yeah, but maybe not the same ones as you.”
“That’s… your name?”
“No. It means I’m slightly colour-blind. I’m Alexandre.”
“I’m Beatrice. I’ll give you a good rate for the internet. The last customer who asked about the paintings wanted to know if we sold them by the yard.”
With that she got back to her reading. I couldn’t see what. I like knowing what people are reading. That way I can strike up a good conversation and keep my foot out of my mouth. If this young woman happened to be reading The Secret, or The Secret of the Secret, or The Secret of the Secret of the Secret, for instance, I would want to put my poker face on. Or else she might catch my look of dismay, and I could wave my cheap rate goodbye.
The laundromat/internet café was on a street corner, fully windowed on both sides. During the day, when the machines didn’t fog up the windows, the light poured in. There were a dozen computers where you could connect with the rest of the world. I turned one on but didn’t log on right away. I like to keep the rest of the world waiting a bit. I tell myself there might be something happening right now, and I can keep not knowing it a few minutes longer. Good news or bad.
I jotted down some notes in my notebook. Writing on paper isn’t the same as typing on a computer; it’s a different relationship. I write much faster than I type. I develop my ideas without thinking of how to organize them. While I write a sentence the next one is gestating in the background. Sometimes ideas telescope outwards. The text is always marked by everything that hasn’t been written yet, it “carries its drafts” as Jean-Pierre Vidal wrote in a somewhat far-fetched analysis of Boris Vian’s L’Automne à Pékin. The computer lets me put everything in order. I rewrite, polish, fine tune. Sometimes I cut, but more often I move things around. Could there really have been such a thing as civilization before cut-and-paste? ≈