A playful and macabre narrative tour de force, structured like a matryoshka doll, Impurity weaves a complex web of interlocking narratives in multiple voices and a variety of forms. The bestselling author Alice Livingston is dead, leaving her philosopher husband, Antoine, dealing with a legacy towards which he has felt increasingly estranged. Confronted with his wife’s much reported disappearance, Antoine revisits their past relationship: open and liberated on the outside, but constrained and even deviant on the inside.
We are happy to share the excerpt, below, from Larry Tremblay’s new novel, Impurity, translated by Sheila Fischman.
Why does he work himself into such a state? Antoine waits nervously for the journalist’s arrival. He has vacuumed the living room and cleared up the dirty dishes in the kitchen. Claire Langlois arrives on time. He figures that she’s at most twenty-five. He shows her into the living room, offers coffee. She comments on the paintings on the walls. Finds them interesting. Whenever someone describes something as interesting he forms two conflicting hypotheses: either the thing in question is worthless or the person who drops the hollow remark knows nothing about the thing in question. Antoine grows tense. Still, he can’t help commenting on the young woman’s dress. Elegant. He’s just paid her a compliment. The journalist tackles the first question:
“We know that Alice Livingston liked to surprise her readers. She had a gift for creating banal situations that start slipping imperceptibly toward dark, tormented zones. Her characters, at first so approachable, I mean, so much like us, always end up taking on complex meanings. Did Alice resemble her characters?”
Langlois’s question surprises him. Banal, yes, he agrees with that. His wife’s novels exploit the banality of feelings, the well-oiled delicate machinery of minor dramas. He believes sincerely that in a few minutes he could jot on a scrap of paper the quintessence of an umpteenth novel by Alice: a woman, happy, beautiful and desirable, a professional, with a husband and children, dies of cancer when she has just taken a lover. Question: would the woman have survived if she hadn’t cheated on her husband? Or even more mundane: a happy man with wife and children, a prominent and sought-after profession, a hefty bank account, dies in a plane crash when he is on his way to meet another, younger woman. Question: was he really happy? Antoine often wondered why his wife didn’t write for television, the ideal planet for her characters.
“Was Alice Livingston anything like her characters?”
The journalist has just repeated her question. Why should he tell this young woman the truth? Why should he share her life story with a stranger who’d just landed in his living room with her notebook? Because, in fact, the question involves him. He spent twenty-two years with Alice. Was their shared life a hidden tragedy or the unruffled happiness of an uneventful life?
“Actually, I’ll go back to the introduction to your question. I don’t think that over the pages, Alice’s characters build up an excess of contradictions with the goal of telling readers about some complex realities concerning humankind. Instead, I would say that her characters are increasingly simplified in the course of the action, until they resemble just anybody.”
“Interesting. Over the years, did your wife start to resemble just anybody?”
The young woman’s question rattles Antoine. He scratches his head, realizes it’s a gesture that will not escape the journalist’s eye. He takes a slow sip of coffee.
“In her eyes,” he thinks, “I’m less than just anybody. The husband of the famous woman, tragically dead.”
“What can I tell you? A character in a novel will never have the complexity of any living being. Life is mystery in the pure state. You can’t go further. The rest, you understand, is a little like dust in the wind.”
“You teach philosophy, I believe?”
“Yes. In a college.”
“Interesting. Your wife once created a philosophy professor, in The Great Upheaval, if I’m not mistaken.”
“It wasn’t in The Great Upheaval?”
“Yes. But that was a literature prof.”
“Ah … I imagine that your wife’s work, like any great work, is largely autobiographical.”
“You can imagine that.”
“There’s a lot of interest in her last novel, A Pure Heart. Her publisher, Louis-Martin Vallières, talks about a significant change in her approach. He talks about a book that’s more personal, more intimate. Instead of the usual five-hundred-page doorstop, Alice Livingston is offering readers a brief story, punctuated by numerous dialogues. Can you talk to me about it?”
“I haven’t read it.”
“No? That’s rather surprising.”
“I’ve always read my wife’s novels once they were published. Often, only months later. I didn’t even know the title of her last one; I’ve just learned it from you.”
“Did she ever talk about any creative anxieties?”
“Alice didn’t have anxieties.”
“Did she have a foreboding about her death?”
“Not at all.”
“I sense that you’re on the defensive. I realize that it’s still very hard for you to talk about your wife.”
Antoine says nothing. He wishes that he knew what he has genuinely felt since Alice’s death. He can’t.