“Sports et divertissements,” a review

by Jean-Philippe Baril Guérard

Éditions de ta mère, 2014

Two-thirds of the way through Sports et divertissements, our narrator is doing voiceover work for a soap ad. She’s being paid $10,000 (to be confirmed by her agent) for two hours’ work and she’s finished after 19 minutes. But now she has to wait for her work to get the green light. She picks up a book to help pass the time.

“The book I’m reading isn’t especially good. It’s a self-conscious novel, a pastiche of Ellis, about trashy young people who live a life of ennui, who get everything so easily, who don’t know what to do with their surplus of free time, and so they set about destroying everything around them with their cynicism.” Sports et divertissements is, of course, about the very same thing. But this cameo, as pleasing as it is, takes up no more than a paragraph. A nod and a wink and we move on. Far from a high point of the novel, the reference is one of a series of not-so-veiled barbs at our narrator’s lack of insight. But she is so cynical and scathing, and Jean-Philippe Baril Guérard’s writing is so nailed-on perfect in capturing this version of 21st century Montreal (think Geneviève Pettersen meets Guillaume Morisette), that we don’t just forgive her limited point of view: we wallow in it.

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Every minute spent in this anti-hero’s company is a delight. There are dizzyingly great drunken scenes, there’s cocaine, orgies (“The pool filter had better be in top shape — it’s going to have its work cut out”), spiked drinks, illegal border crossings, unfastened seatbelts, bad sex, a suicide, and more bad sex (“At least he came. My pride is intact.”). And yet as readers we demand more. More! we shout as we bounce from excess to excess. Let’s see just how far we can take this.

The trio of young actors who make up the main characters are still best known for starring in a children’s television program. Their unspoken but religiously observed mantra is Who gives a fuck? Who gives a fuck between parties and work and cocaine and getting at least four-pint drunk every night?

The dialogue is flawless and barely a page goes by without a pithy maxim, more often than not a sad reminder of our Facebook-obsessed society bent on instant gratification, one-liners for the empty, modern age.

“I glance at my phone. I scan the news feed, check for messages, refresh, look at photos, check for messages, refresh, go back to the news feed, check for messages, refresh, refresh, refresh.” At times, it’s hard not to think of Guillaume Morisette and New Tab. But while Morisette’s observations on modern life in Montreal are quirky (“Why would the universe go through all this trouble to create planets and physics and everything else, just to make the weather outside so shitty?”), here the narrator’s tone is almost always at least cynical, more often scornful and contemptuous.

“To be an actress, you need to be likable and to like people. I’m spiteful and I hate everyone. No exceptions.”

Underground bars, expensive restaurants, and indie concerts are the backdrop to a ton of slangy, cynical, irony-laden exchanges. Our narrator goes to brunch for the fun of being served by wannabe actresses forced to waitress to make ends meet. But even her favourite restaurant has lost its appeal“Everything is perfect to look at. No complaints. But it’s all so boring. […] Even the best things become tasteless after a while.” As the lamb tastes of metal and the wine like cheap fruit juice, she’s reduced to faking her food orgasm.

In fact, each chapter title is a list of things that ultimately give her no satisfaction, activities that at first glance appear to be a roll call of perks for glamorous young things in the city: brunch, vacations, theatre, cocooning, fine dining. Aside from the disposable income and the daily hangovers, though, emptiness and unfulfillment is all around.

At his film’s premiere, her talented friend David can manage nothing better than “a parody of a cliché of a pastiche of a run-of-the-mill Quebec movie, a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy.” Her smiles are forced, more than one person reminds her it wouldn’t hurt her to be a little nicer, and she can’t get away from “the feeling that there’s a cosmic void beneath my skin,” “the never-ending retch of contempt” that she feels.

Sports et divertissements points a flashlight at the modern world of the up-and-coming twenty-something in Montreal. Throughout it is painfully clear that our narrator could be in better need of a mirror to hold up to herself and her own shortcomings rather than criticizing everything and everyone around her. But it’s so much fun — and her putdowns are so delicious — that it’s hard to tear ourselves away from her twisted view of reality. Better to unfasten your seatbelt then, and sit back and enjoy the ride.

Review by Peter McCambridge

Now available in Aimee Wall’s translation as Sports and Pastimes from Book*hug Press

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