Laurence Leduc-Primeau's In the End They Told Them All
to Get Lost
Reviewed by Marcie McCauley
(Originally published in French in 2016)
(QC Fiction, 2019, translated by Natalia Hero)
Readers meet Chloé through an overheard conversation that she has with the brown stain on the wall of her room. Not worth a proper noun, she thought: “I didn’t think I’d give you a name when I first got there.” Then it moved – so she named it Betty.
“You need a sharp eye to notice; I watch you all day long,” Chloé says. As if her powers of observation are remarkable, compared to Betty’s distractible nature as a stain on a wall. As if Betty might not even have noticed Chloé.
Their relationship is neither committed nor thriving. Chloé has recently drawn a line in black felt marker around Betty’s shape, but it’s not like she’s put a ring on it. Chloé insists Betty stay with her. “Don’t act all innocent,” she says: “None of that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ business, that’s over now. Done. Understand?”
But readers don’t understand. Neither on the first page of In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost, nor on the last. And the effort to understand is thwarted by Chloé’s determination to forget. Her relationship with Betty is the most important one in her life because she wants to forget everything outside those four walls.
Readers aren’t even sure where those four walls are. “You have to go where life doesn’t smell like the thing you’re trying to forget,” Chloé explains. The book jacket describes the setting as an “unnamed country in South America.” It doesn’t seem to matter to Chloé which country she inhabits. She is preoccupied by “how much you have to go through before it becomes impossible to recover.”
Readers assemble the clues and Buenos Aires is a possibility: the plethora of heladería – ice-cream shops – and night clubs, the Galpón theatre and Luna(r) Park, protests against the mining industry and a flu epidemic, with a city market and zoo. (The focus on animals throughout In the End… resonates with the author’s debut French-language work, Zoologies.) At the photography exhibit Chloé attends, the images of abandoned spaces also suggest Buenos Aires (these haunting photographs could be of areas like San Andrés de Giles, Villa Epecuén, and Hotel Edén).
Even with a proper noun, however, questions remain. Is it “Lunar Park,” like the Bret Easton Ellis novel of that name, in which characters are like second-selves named after their real-life counterparts (including a parody of the author’s literary success and his friend, novelist Jay McInerney, in a story preoccupied with past losses and sorrows)? Or is it Luna Park, like the stadium in Buenos Aires, the tightest link to a proper name for this city? Chloé has questions too: “At first, when I saw the letters, I didn’t understand. They’re arranged all crooked, the R in Lunar has basically fallen off. Makes the whole thing even quirkier.” Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Because Chloé spends most of her time in a room with Betty, where “there’s nowhere to be except in bed,” this could take place anywhere. Many tensions, fractures and catastrophes (real or imagined) fill the first hundred pages: a collapsed ceiling, a trapped fly, a buried army of terracotta soldiers, “blazing infernos, ambushes, deaths,” pollution, dams of sticks, ghosts, bitten cheeks, and an electrocuted rubber duckie. Waiting in line, a number called out isn’t mumbled, but “massacred.” Even descriptions of ordinary elements suggest instability and claustrophobia, with a voice “like a roller coaster scattered with laughter,” and a bus that “spits long streaks of black smoke that enters through the open windows and envelops the passengers.”
More important is the not-naming. In the same way that Chloé debated not bothering to name Betty. In the same way that readers are never properly introduced to Chloé but meet her through interactions with others (including the likes of Betty), until she eventually comments that Chloé is a “name that goes unnoticed, not one that evokes miracles.” When she visits the photography exhibit, Chloé admires a particular image of a chair in an industrial wasteland: “The picture is infinite. Full of a void that scratches away from the inside, that sucks me in and, strangely, soothes me.” She is embraced and consumed and absent.
Approaching the novel’s halfway mark, Chloé can share this observation with readers: “Naming things, or people, sort of makes them belong to me. The more I stick words onto the things that surround me, the more their outline becomes clear to me.” By that time, readers have accepted Chloé’s reticence. In one reading mood, her disconnect might leave some readers too removed from Chloé to care about the gap. In another reading mood, readers might feel compelled to close the gap themselves.
What distances Chloé’s story further is her observation of time. As suits a character who is recovering from a loss, hours and days pass irregularly. At the beginning of the story, time moves slowly: Chloé stares at the wall and charts Betty’s developing selfhood. Readers observe details like the changing landscape of a roommate’s fingernail polish and recognize that more time may have passed than Chloé’s narrative suggests. And Chloé’s observation of these specific changes suggests that, in some other time, Chloé would have been investing more time and money in her relationship with nail polish than in her relationship with Betty. Even near the end of the story, Chloé feels, from one night to the following morning, like “time hasn’t moved at all.” In between, there is a sequence of vivid scenes, in which the passage of time is unremarkable.
Another way to mark time is via Chloé’s increased facility with the Spanish language. This progression could have complicated matters for translator Natalia Hero, but there is no additional disjointedness beyond Chloé’s natural disconnect. The novel makes an interesting companion for Xiaolu Guo’s 2007 novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, in which the narrator’s increased facility with a second language gradually offers new insights into a relationship that readers only partially understand because the narrator’s emotional availability is limited. Because In the End…’s narrative is fragmented – sometimes only a couple of sentences on a page – readers must invest more heavily to connect with Chloé than with Xiaolu Guo’s heroine.
Readers glimpse Chloé’s distant past (like when she “dreamed of being bulletproof” and regularly sniffed woodglue), her long-ago past (like the scars on her wrist), and the recent past of a man’s fingernails digging into her neck and shoulders. In the present day, readers witness the souring of Chloé’s relationship with Betty. Even in this small corner of the world, in this narrow span of time, “happiness leads to shittiness.”
Readers can assemble a scenario, following Chloé’s instruction to Betty to “notice,” but it’s impossible to fathom the dimensions of the pain she is navigating. Readers learn that Chloé has “trouble processing endings, goodbyes, loss,” but can only determine that her grievance is enormous from her own perspective; readers cannot determine the nature of her grievance in comparison to their own experiences, whether they would view Chloé’s ending/goodbye/loss as a disappointment or a tragedy. Chloé’s story is just that: Chloé’s story. And while it shapes every aspect of her present day, the emotive aspects of it remain in the past, so readers are as removed as Chloé.
The importance of mental health lurks and erupts in contemporary CanLit. Consider Anakana Schofield’s Bina (2019), wherein readers are constantly aware of the woman’s story that hovers behind the narrative, where it feels like she, too, is issuing a warning. In Ian Colford’s Perfect World (2016), also, the gaps are as important as the narrative thread, and the threat of violence hovers. The isolation that Felix endures in Devin Krukoff’s Hummingbird (2018) matches Chloé’s loneliness (and raises just as many questions as this narrative). And other contemporary Québécoise writers, like Audrée Wilhelmy and Mikella Nicol, are also exploring the intersection between vulnerability and daring, the visceral and the desirable.
I didn’t think I’d care when I first got here. But Laurence Leduc-Primeau cast out a line of letters, each attached to the next in a chain that hooked me into something like a story, until I stopped moving. Chloé asks, “What is it that keeps me stuck here, stuck nowhere?” and I had the same question, even fifty pages from the end. Maybe if I’d had to spend more time with In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost, I would have become impatient with the chaotic paralysis of it all. But all that “what’s innocent and who’s guilty” business is over now. Done.
Marcie McCauley's work has appeared in Room, Other Voices, Mslexia, Tears in the Fence and Orbis, and has been anthologized by Sumac Press. She writes about writing at marciemccauley.com and about reading at buriedinprint.com. A descendant of Irish and English settlers, she lives in the city currently called Toronto, which was built on the homelands of Indigenous peoples - Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg, Huron-Wendat and Mississaugas of New Credit - land still inhabited by their descendants.