Mile End is solidly a novella, coming in at 142 pages. It was published in 2002. The title refers to an area of Montreal called Mile End, which is known as “a hip, laid-back area with an artsy vibe and multicultural roots. Old-school bagel shops, Greek eateries and Italian cafes mix with stylish restaurants and buzzing brunch spots. Indie shops selling records, books and vintage clothes are found throughout the area. . .” You may not realize as much, though, because our narrator, an unnamed fat woman, who mainly frequents the same Chinese restaurant/cafe. She is not “hip,” nor is she apt to follow retro trends. Basically, the novella is about a fat woman who dispassionately plays piano, has an uncaring lover, and tries to position herself carefully within her family.
Lise Tremblay’s novella arguably falls into postmodernism, specifically minimalism. For those that don’t know, what that means is:
“The characters in minimalist stories and novels tend to be unexceptional. Generally, the short stories are ‘slice of life’ stories. . . . Minimalist authors hesitate to use adjectives, adverbs, or meaningless details. Instead of providing every minute detail, the author provides a general context and then allows the reader’s imagination to shape the story.”
That feeling of “lack” in the story is prominent in Tremblay’s writing. Often, her narrator makes proclamations without clarification. She points out, like all fat women, she hasn’t eaten since breakfast, drops food on her clothes, is a clown, likes winter, has sparse/limp hair, and sweats over nothing. Now, because I am specifically reading fat women to find positive representation, I’m conflicted by what Tremblay has written. While she does capture the experiences of many fat people, there isn’t much positive about the narrator. I haven’t decided how I feel about that. Sometimes the narrator is cruel to herself, at one point claiming she is a whale, but for the most part she is matter-of-fact about her body, which I personally found comforting. It’s not often I see someone like me on the page.
Additionally, the character notes how her body fills spaces, which is another way Tremblay shows a fat person on page without polarizing her (monster/hero). The narrator stretches her legs to give her body the space it demands, she can’t buckle the seat belt in a car, she doesn’t fit in regular bath tubs, she turns red and breathy when putting on her snow boots, etc. While many readers may see these examples and feel negatively, I also felt like Tremblay was capturing the experience of living in a fat body.
Fat is a family issue. It is passed through generations and can even be what visually holds a clan together. The narrator’s father is famous. Upon seeing him on the cover of a magazine, the narrator notes, “My father is gaining weight again, a lot; soon he’ll be back like his brothers, like me, nice and round and pink. The thought must frighten him to death.” When she hit puberty, the narrator started to grow round like her father’s family, and fat is a sign of “moral laxness” to him.
Notice the difference between calling herself a “whale” and “nice and round and pink.” Her self-abuse likely comes from society, but also her father’s opinions. Throughout, the narrator mentions how she doesn’t want to change. Her job is to play piano at a ballet studio where she notices the newest ballerinas often are taken away in ambulances after passing out because they haven’t been eating, which, she asserts, will certainly lead to losing a kidney. The narrator never envies the dancers their thinness, and when her lover, a fat man, tries to diet, she claims, “I’m not interested in being saved.” I loved this — her words imply thin people are saved in a religious sense, while fat people are evil. That’s not for her.
The father’s family — all fat — is represented by the “little white house” in which he grew up. There’s also what the narrator “carries” in her fat: her father as a boy, stories she cannot tell, the world’s inertia, passion, her father’s family, and her soul. The fat storage and house are a minimalist way that forces readers to fill in the gaps of what the narrator’s body means in relationship to her family, herself, place, and society. It’s not explained for readers, and some people may find that frustrating.
Lastly, there are some translation issues, which stand out because the sentences don’t entirely make sense. Here is an example that makes it look like Gail Scott used Google translate: “I beckon to the Chinese guy, and am served another long expression in a brown china cup, very heavy.” Sometimes a word is missing: “His sisters and mother are dressed their fancy holiday clothes.” The prepositions become a problem: “She’s been lulled asleep by the saccharine music of the shopping centers where she spends too much time in.” To be fair, the whole book doesn’t read this way, but when Scott gets her translations wrong, they’re obvious.
Overall, I would recommend this book. Although minimalist, it’s also realistic, complicated, and makes you think more about existing in fat bodies. A good companion book would be Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger.