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Vaudeville!

by Gaétan Soucy, Sheila Fischman, trans.

The time is a 1929 that never was. The place is a magical New York where the Order of Demolishers is tearing down buildings and the demolished are looking for shelter wherever they can find it. At a demolition site, Xavier, a young apprentice Demolisher, finds a little casket with a talking, singing female frog inside. He takes her back to his tenement room, and it looks for a while as if she will be his ticket out of his troubled life if only he can work her into a vaudeville act.

But all is not as it seems in Gaétan Soucy’s third novel, which is sometimes very funny and sometimes creepily prescient. Though it recalls a famous Warner Brothers cartoon, the frog is not a cartoon character transplanted to a novel nor is Xavier the immigrant from Hungary he thinks he is. It turns out he is not even Xavier, but a creature just as unnatural as the devastated landscape left behind by the Demolishers.

Soucy has spent a lot of time in Japan and began the novel in Nagasaki, site of the second A-bomb detonation in 1945. The civilization of destruction he describes in Vaudeville! is completely concordant with the one that developed nuclear weapons, while the New York he paints resembles the pictures taken near Ground Zero after Sept. 11. Subplots like the one telling the interwoven stories of a pretty hairdresser and a bed-wetting super-macho Demolisher add to the novel’s complexity. The ending, as Soucy’s fans have come to expect, is surprising, disturbing, and weird.

Sheila Fischman, who did a spectacular job translating Soucy’s The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches and Atonement, doesn’t quite transmit the atmosphere of Vaudeville! Soucy’s linguistic inventions read as almost normal and everyday in French, not strangely out of focus as they do in this translation. But the novel is a must-read for anyone who likes teasing apart mysteries and considering the might-have-beens of history.