Deaf to the City by Marie-Claire Blais (Overlook: $16.95; 224 pages)
Rafters rate rivers on a scale of 1 to 6; the higher the number, the more rigorous the trip. A 1, 2 or 3 means a generally pleasant float through gorgeous scenery with frequent stops for rest and refreshment; 4 includes thrills and splashes, 5 is white water, rocks and rapids all the way, and at 6, even the experts are in trouble.
The same scale works for the stream-of-consciousness novel. At 1, 2 or 3, you're observing the characters thoughts and becoming involved in their problems; at 4 you're genuinely concerned and even identifying; by 5, you're fighting at their sides; at 6, you're spinning out of control, drenched, chilled and thoroughly exhausted when it's all over.
"Deaf to the City," originally published in French by a writer twice awarded Canada's major fiction prize, is a 5 1/2. By the end of the book, you'll have a healthy respect for Blais' power and verbal facility, though you may not feel up to tackling another one of her novels till you've fully recovered from the demands of this one.
For one thing, Blais' characters are in desperate straits. Most of them are holed up in the Hotel des Voyageurs, a seedy establishment in a decaying section of Montreal, managed by Gloria, an earth-mother figure who also works as a stripper in a grind house called "Infini du Sexe." Gloria's son Mike is suffering from a brain tumor, though when the novel begins, he's still able to baby-sit for his little sister, JoJo, and help with the lighter chores around the place. Judith Lange (The Angel), is a philosophy instructor with a particular professional interest in people contemplating suicide.
Judith is inevitably drawn to Florence, who has checked into the Hotel des Voyageurs to do away with herself after being abandoned by her philandering scientist husband. Old Tim is a pathetic Irishman profoundly attached to his equally derelict dog, also named Tim.
They have been inseparable for so long "you could no longer tell which one of the two was at the end of the rope; the one with the logger's jacket or the one with tattered fur and unsteady gait, both were hungry but once on the bench they would share the crumbs of the same sandwich, they would watch the woman together, their desires coming through in identical fashion, two muzzles dripping with drool," and so on without a full stop for too many pages to count, though there are thousands of commas, semicolons, dashes, question marks and italics.
Whirling down this torrent of consciousness ( stream is too tranquil a word), we spin in and out of many minds; Judith's, Florence's, Mike's, Gloria's and both Tims'. We're also swept into the heads of Judith's mother, little JoJo, Mike's older sisters Lucy and Berthe and Gloria's lover, an ex-convict named Charlie; with occasional sudden swerves into the thoughts of several transients who are staying at the hotel for an hour or two.
Without that useful, essential full stop, you can be in extremely rough water before you're sure who's thinking what, though sometimes the literary and artistic references are a clue. Golden-hearted Gloria, the stripper, is probably not the one alluding to Kirkegaard, Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec. That would have to be Judith, the philosopher, or Florence, the suicide, who had enjoyed a rich social and cultural life before her desertion.
Young Mike, whose frightful illness seems to have given him clairvoyant powers, is a party to all these thoughts, a device which provides a tenuous connection among the various stories; the Hotel des Voyageurs itself supplying the major locus.
An intrepid and impassioned writer, Blais requires an experienced audience up to the relentless demands of the voyage. Despite the fact that the translation sometimes seems strained, the imagery is stunning. The emotions are intense and the anguish is continuous--no respite till you tie up for the night.