Reviewed by John Delacourt
“Universal Bureau of Copyrights” is the first work of Quebecois writer Bertrand Laverdure’s to be translated in English – in this case, masterfully so by Montreal poet Oana Avasilichioaei. That this is actually Laverdure’s fourth novel says more about the divide between anglo and francophone literary culture in Canada than it does about the work of the poet-novelist Laverdure, who has established himself as a significant presence in Quebecois letters with his award winning work and with his blog Technicien Coffeur. Jay MillAR’s imprint BookThug, with its mandate of “extending the tradition of experimental literature,” is one of a few select publishers here in Canada with the vision to currently narrow this divide, providing a writer of Laverdure’s talent with the opportunity for a readership his work richly deserves.
“Universal Bureau of Copyrights,” billed as “part poetic narrative, part sci-fi dystopian fantasy,” has Laverdure mining a vein of storytelling that reaches back beyond sci-fi to the works of Rabelais and Sterne, in which the narrative is foregrounded as a performance. Laverdure defamiliarizes the banal with his startling imagery and an assured touch with similitude, while he takes abrupt detours from the plot points that would lead to any conventional attempt at dramatic focus.
Laverdure’s unnamed protagonist goes from one absurd, puzzling encounter to another as his body undergoes a series of unsettling transformations. In one chapter he is in Montreal, having a prosthetic leg fitted after a vicious squirrel attack, and in the next he is inexplicably in Brussels, at a bar with a young woman discussing the work of the performance artist Valie Export – while a “charming blue mascot,” Jokey Smurf, lurks nearby. Similar to an early Murakami novel like “The Wild Sheep Chase,” there is a noir-ish sense of menace developed through this series of misadventures, because we soon realize that what is occurring is part of a spectacle carried out for the amusement of others:
“I see the exhaustion return to my host’s eyes. Again feel fatigue in my jaws. Not a good sign. I’m stressed out. Then I regain my self-control. These utilitarian characters, these video game clowns don’t deserve for us to dwell on them too much…”
Beyond what plot there is, the “video game clowns” in Laverdure’s world are also being put to use in the service of allegory and social satire, betraying a trenchant critique of our current cultural moment.
As the title suggests, that critique concerns authenticity and identity in a world where there is a distinct sense of cultural exhaustion, as the rapacious big data overlords at the Universal Bureau seek out the intellectual property rights of “every earthly grain of sand.”
“Our shareholders – the Temp.Cop in our jargon – are the initiators of our gestures, behaviours and actions … To be in possession of oneself is impossible because several people buy stock options on our destiny right from our conception.”
The character is finally decapitated, but authenticity, and actual agency over one’s fate are the ultimate casualties in the world of the “Universal Bureau of Copyrights.” Laverdure’s Swiftian eye for the savage ironies revealed in the amusement addictions of the Hive Mind provokes a new kind of laughter in the dark.
The Universal Bureau of Copyrights is published by BookThug,