Quebec writer Stéfanie Clermont book “The Music Game”: The voice of a new ’20s lost generation in a world of dead-end jobs
“Here was a new generation … dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald at the end of his debut novel, “This Side of Paradise.” When that book was published, in 1920, the author was 23 years old. Gertrude Stein was more than two decades older than Fitzgerald when, around the same time, she distilled his notion into a pithier, more famous assertion, telling fellow modernist Ernest Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation.”
In her debut fiction, Montreal writer Stéfanie Clermont locates a 21st Century equivalent to the 1920s’ “lost generation” in a group of young people trying to find meaning and connection in a world of dead-end jobs, unaffordable housing, and romantic disappointments. “After coffee, my existential crisis started,” laments Sabrina, who, like her creator, is an Ottawa-born Montrealer. When she suffers her post-caffeine crisis, she is in San Francisco, visiting her gender-fluid lover, Jess, who lives in a squat with a ragtag group of anarchists, artists, and bohemians.
The squatters position themselves in opposition to the “Google employees and tapas-eaters” they blame for neighbourhood gentrification; mostly white, they refer to area Blacks as “folks from the community.” Sabrina, who ends the book returning to her parents’ home in Ottawa after breaking up with Jess, begins it working at a fruit stand in Montreal’s Jean Talon Market, where she makes so little money she is sometimes forced to feed herself by dumpster diving.
Yet Sabrina is aware of all the benefits of living as a young person in Montreal. “The people I know who’ve moved to the country hardly read at all anymore,” she says. “The only things they read are Margaret Atwood or ‘The Big Mushroom Guide.’” The quip highlights Sabrina’s acerbic humour, which is often employed as a defence mechanism to keep the depredations of the world at bay.
And there is no shortage of suffering on the part of Claremont’s characters. In addition to Sabrina, there is Céline, who lives in a cramped apartment with Kat and her daughter, Ruby. The roommates are forced to listen to the arguments from the apartment above between Cassandra and her abusive boyfriend, Raphaël. There is Julie, who suffers from depression and the violent ministrations of her stepfather, who once locked her in a closet as punishment for some unspecified transgression. And there is Vincent, who works at a 24-hour convenience store, and whose story ends tragically.
Clermont sets these overlapping narratives largely in Montreal and Ottawa and slides in and out of different perspectives, employing a first-person narration for Sabrina’s and Julie’s sections and close third-person for Céline, Kat, Cassandra and others. She also engages in a fashionable blurring of generic lines between a novel and a collection of closely linked stories; the various entries, assembled out of chronological order and told from disparate points of view, nonetheless cohere into a single, overarching narrative.
A sensation in Quebec when it was first published in 2017, and appearing in a fluent translation by J.C. Sutcliffe, “The Music Game” inhabits a liminal space between different bodies, psyches and geographies. Its characters can display the worst hipster traits — turning up their noses at Bruno Mars on a café stereo while genuflecting at the altar of Godspeed You! Black Emperor — and genuine insights into their inner selves and the nature of the world around them. If they share undeniable commonalities with lost generations before them, they are nonetheless, in Clermont’s hands, rendered specific and unique.
Not that it matters much in the end. One imagines the author peeking out from behind the scrim of her character when, late in her book, she writes, “I’m not asking you to like it. I’m not asking you to be my target audience. I’m going to target whomever I want. I’m going to shoot who I want.”
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