Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
For more than a century, writers everywhere have been influenced by Franz Kafka’s remarkable short story, The Metamorphosis. So, it is not surprising that Kafkaesque themes of surrealistic transformation and social alienation permeate David Clerson’s collection of short fiction, To See Out the Night, as they have many earlier works of fiction. What stands out in Clerson’s work is how well he frames these themes in captivating prose.
To See Out the Night was published in French in 2019 under the title Dormir sans Tête (Héliotrope). The collection comprises twelve short stories. All have varying degrees of fantasy, some bordering on magical realism. All are centred in Quebec.
There are three stories I liked best.
The opening story, “The Ape Within,” epitomizes the theme of social alienation, prevalent throughout the book. Louis, a university-educated parking attendant, turns a blind eye when a homeless man seeks refuge from the cold in an underground heated garage. When the man then defecates and smears feces all over a Mercedes, Louis is fired. At this point, Louis gradually withdraws from society, doesn’t bother to look for a new job and eventually loses his apartment. All the while, he senses an alien being growing inside him—an orangutan—and assumes the habits of this primate. He ends up in the back alleys of Montreal, scavenging for food and seeking shelter amid bags of garbage. His eyes grow dark and deeper, and he like, the orangutan, faces his inevitable extinction. The relationship of homelessness to an increasingly de-humanizing, materialistic society, which rejects acts of kindness and sides with the wealthy against the destitute, is deftly depicted in the story.
Clerson takes up again the theme of being underground and marginalized in “City Within.” His protagonist, Pascal, explores a multi-level subterranean world beneath Montreal. Crawling through a low-ceiling passageway, he comes across Camille, the only other human in the endless empty rooms. Camille is not an explorer, like Pascal. Rather, she is the “owner” of the forsaken kingdom beneath the city’s surface and asserts her ownership while offering Pascal ephemeral companionship. Gradually, his fantasy world and companion displace all motivation for his regular job typing subtitles to film clips, and he enters the underground maze for one last time. The story combines both realistic descriptions with an imaginary urban Hades and etches out Pascal’s character against the unlimited expanse and uselessness of this netherworld.
In “The Dog without a Head,” Clerson addresses unconditional love between humans and animals and the uniqueness of communication. The protagonist, Clara, receives a headless dog as a present. While a headless dog would revolt most of us, the young girl embraces it with unwavering affection, and gradually everyone else is won over to the deformed creature. Most importantly, the dog having no head and therefore no sight, hearing or sense of smell communicates with the girl though a sixth sense, an uncanny ability to feel human emotions. Throughout this story, I kept wondering what metaphor the author was seeking in making the dog headless. I am still pondering that. One sign of quality fiction is the ability of authors to evoke among their readers, emotions over logic and curiosity over explanation. In “The Dog without a Head,” Clerson does just that, and in spades.
For the most part, Clerson is a storyteller of escapism: flight from the banality of life, social and economic obligations and the prescribed view of existence. He is an accomplished writer, with two critically acclaimed novels already to his credit, both of which, like To See Out the Night, launch odysseys into in-between worlds where the conventional perspective on existence is twisted to offer a breath of freedom from the mundane.
The translation of Clerson’s latest book by Katia Grubisic is a relatively fluid narrative written in good prose. Occasionally, it is encumbered by the choice of seldom-used words.
To See Out the Night is published by the QC Fiction imprint of Baraka Books.