Joining the ranks of two renowned Montreal experimental writers, Nicole Brossard and Gail Scott, Amanda Marchand succeeds in creating a bizarre yet starkly beautiful cross-genre work of art with her first book.
A product of the Concordia Creative Writing program and equipped with an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, Marchand recently finished a two-year residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts. Her work as a photographer lends a distinct image-based perspective as witnessed by the paintings, graphs, and other visuals placed throughout the book.
Without Cease is, quite simply, a literary version of music sampling - the beat sounds familiar; an old song instantly recognizable by the rhythm, yet not the piece we know or expect. Marchand has created a voice of her own built on the words and themes of her feminist intellectual predecessors. She draws from both literary and visual figures, from Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein to French feminist scholar Helen Cixous to Canadian artist Betty Goodwin. (The rather obscure title of this book is actually taken from a 1988 painting by Goodwin.)
There are only three characters in Without Cease and they interact in a kind of somnambulistic dance. There is June, the protagonist, a girl-like figure "who only wants to exist but is imaginary, though if she were real this is what it would all seem like pretty much." Next is an animated red chair that acts of its own accord (" it sits at the desk working…with a hammer and some wire, it bangs away at two large wheels, attaching them to its front legs"). The third character is a man with a monocle who is at once a father figure, a lover, a friend, and a betrayer.
In some ways this is Marchand's version of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. June is the modern day Everywoman, a female Albion. She is at times a little doll, at the mercy of larger forces "always hovering on the brink of a bridge to anything just barely beginning." She is also Experience, a broken woman, running from the malevolent male presence, in a clinic with her legs in stirrups as a doctor performs an abortion. She is everywhere, ubiquitous among us, inside us.
Marchand's subject matter is in the same vein as her foremothers from the 1970s, delving into the murky realm of identity politics and the creation of the female self. How do we talk about this self, or express this self that is shaped and moulded by social conventions? Thick with symbolism, mixing myth, autobiography, and poetry, the book attempts to deconstruct and re-construct the idea of what it means to be, and therefore what it means to tell one's story. What is a story? What separates the story from the teller, the audience from the stage? June both reads herself and writes herself - in one scene, she stumbles upon a book only to discover she is, in fact, its author. "For a while June is not sure whether she loves or hates the book. She is compelled certainly." She is aware of being looked at and looking at the same time, of "being on stage in a strange poem."
In the interplay between real and imagined, Marchand satirically blends stage directions (What June does in the dark), film scenes (" How to Write a Hollywood Screenplay"), novel paragraphs ("The Way A Story Would Go"), and bits of biography. These fragments are connected by the three recurring characters, as each scene features them in a new triangle. The scenes range from exquisitely crafted poetic verse to the Theatre of the Absurd. It takes some patience to understand just where the author is going - there is no plot - but that is the reader's challenge. As June observes about a compelling stranger, " He is a magician, a cowboy, an actor, the shiftshape itself!" An apt description of Without Cease.
Jessica Ticktin is a freelance writer based in Montreal.