There are certain strains of cannabis, which, when vaped, stretch the experience of time to include the distant past, so that one feels they have relived entire lives in an action as brief as washing one’s hands. When one returns to reality, a reinvention has occurred. Polar Vortex, the new novel by Shani Mootoo, and Resilience Is Futile, the debut memoir by Julie S. Lalonde are examples of such insular dreams. Each of their central figures must shed their past to confront the realities of their present; the experience involves navigating a mental obstacle course.
Polar Vortex opens with a nuptial dream. Priya, the protagonist, dreams of Prakash, an old friend whose visit shapes the arc of the narrative. In the dream, Prakash is in traditional Indian wedding attire, “a cream-coloured kurta, the neck and cuffs of the long silk shirt trimmed in gold thread.” He is waiting for his bride in the canopied bed, where Priya joins him in place of his new wife. “[H]e is holding his penis, i take hold of it, can hardly breathe … someone draws back the hanging cloth of the canopy … i leave through a side door, looking behind me, he remains reclined, no evidence in sight of interrupted pleasure.”
The novel unfurls in one day, mostly in the lakeside home of Priya and Alex, a lesbian couple awaiting the arrival of Prakash. Written in the first person, the narrative allows us to swim in Priya’s thoughts: vast chunks of internal narrative relay scenes from the past, which features Prakash prominently. We learn of his intimate companionship with Priya during their undergraduate years, when he pursued her persistently even though she had told him she was a lesbian. We learn of the myriad ways he had been like “a brother” to her as he cared for her after a breakup with her first girlfriend. We also learn of their shared outsider status due to their race: she a Trinidadian-Canadian, he a Ugandan-Canadian; both torn from their ancestral homes in South Asia.
Such a triangle in a domestic drama may be a trope, but in Mootoo’s hands it sculpts a deeply intersectional portrait of desire, where entire lives are kept from flowering in the present because of the compartmentalization many immigrants experience. For example, Priya hides from Alex a stack of pictures – images of her family and Prakash. This act of concealment is strange, considering that many couples initiate commitment by introducing family background and friendships.
Just when we begin to tire of Priya’s intricate webs of prevarication, Mootoo – a masterful storyteller – reminds us that a first-person narrator is always unreliable. Halfway through, the novel is jolted by a MacGuffin and another voice. Taking cues from Theory by Dionne Brand and By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham, Polar Vortex makes no compromises in conveying the grip of the past on its heady and sensuous cast of characters, all of whom sing their song, as if they were the frozen swans of Lake Ontario that Priya and Alex encounter thawing out after the polar vortex has finally passed.
The past also haunts Resilience Is Futile, a memoir about a 20-year-old woman who was stalked by her ex-partner for over a decade. We follow Lalonde through her late teen years, when she fell in love with Xavier, and beyond into their breakup, his increasingly threatening behaviour, and the inequities of the legal system, which fails Lalonde due to systemic misogyny.
Anyone who has been stalked or experienced abuse or co-dependence will know that fear often masks itself as pity and sympathy for the abuser, to the point that it becomes impossible to know how one truly feels. The struggle to tell one’s own story becomes a matter of survival. Lalonde makes no compromises in telling her story. The generosity of her writing is evident not only in the stark clarity of its prose but in the admissions she makes. For example, Xavier repeatedly disrespects her boundaries when she attempts to move out, calling her a “dramatic bitch” for telling the cops about his stalking. She says: “I wish I could tell you that I hung up on his ass and called the police right away. I want so badly to tell you that this violation unleashed a deep rage inside me. But I can’t. … I hung up. I didn’t notify the police. I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I got into my car and went to meet Xavier.”
Lalonde captures these moments of silencing, giving as much weight to her shame-fuelled decisions as the later journey of uplifting self-respect and sovereignty. These confessions convince us of the complicated, nuanced realities of being stalked, many of which are often dismissed as romantic or charming by those who are not privy to the fear they elicit.
Ultimately, Resilience Is Futile is more than a story about being stalked. It is a memoir about unlearning how to love those who have hurt us and learning to love ourselves.