The Music Game would have shattered me when I was twenty-five. At thirty-two, this book still stings me like salt in a wound that hasn’t truly closed.
Originally published in French in 2017 and winner of several prizes including the prestigious Ringuet Prize, Stéfanie Clermont’s debut story collection The Music Game follows childhood friends Céline, Julie, and Sabrina, as well as an assortment of other twenty-something millennials, as they struggle against the cynicism that can feel like the only way to survive the twenty-first century. From Montreal, to the Quebec countryside, to Bay Area punk squats, to Ottawa, these young people try to maintain the ties that bind them together while grappling with personal crisis and the death of a close friend.
The linked stories that make up The Music Game read like a multi-vocal novel, at once individual lament and Greek chorus. The book is narrated by a group of characters who strongly suspect that this world can no longer hold life, “the one that begins in the stomach and explodes in the throat, in the eyes, between our legs, in our tongues that touch the sun” (13). Soul-crushing service jobs, artistic inertia, social alienation, and political disillusionment have the characters feeling already old, as Sabrina says in “The Employee”: “I felt as though I’d missed the boat and that underneath my appearance of freshness and health I was actually rotting away” (33). Worse, some characters believe they have done this to themselves. “I’m wasting my time,” screams something inside of the focal character of “Reunited”: “I am not the person I could be” (75).
The pain of being the author of your own stagnancy is all too present in The Music Game, and part of Clermont’s brilliance as a writer is that she just comes out and says exactly what so many of us feel in our twenties. She doesn’t tiptoe around it or try to allegorize. She puts words to the fears and the pain, like she stepped right into the pulse of it. And J.C. Sutcliffe has done an extraordinary job of translating this to English. It feels plucked from the mind of the author, and so is entirely faultless.
Clermont is highly inventive when it comes to style and narration, sometimes breaking the fourth wall so that the narrator acknowledges the story as a story. In other instances, Clermont has intentionally veiled the identity of the central character. Sometimes names or details give it away, but not always. Is this Céline, Julie, Sabrina, someone else? We don’t always know, and this is how Clermont forges the connection between these childhood friends, even as their lives seem to drift them apart: the experiences of one become the experiences of the others. And so we have a kind of collective biography of a bruised generation.
Also impressive is Clermont’s instinct for organization. The non-chronological story order allows for a weaving of the characters’ messed-up childhood experiences into their still-messed-up adulthoods in a way that suggests they are trying to make sense of their lives in the present, to figure out where it all went wrong. As Julie states in “The Black Dog,” “I am writing this story about my childhood to get my ideas straight,” but still she feels like “I’ve lied somewhere. There is a lie somewhere in my memories” (211). Efforts to link childhood-cause to adult-effect are subverted by some characters’ tendencies to not quite believe their own experiences.
The collection’s one sore spot is that, while most of the stories are utterly beautiful, a few feel like throwaways. This is particularly true of the shorter pieces, some of which are just a single page or paragraph long. In a book of stellar stories and novellas (as “All the Women I’ve Known and Loved” could properly be called), the shortest ones have the least impact. Other reviewers have described these stories as palate cleansers, but I’m unconvinced that the collection needed them.
This is because, for all the pain and disillusionment, the collection leaves the reader pondering the same question that keeps the characters awake at night: how do you keep hope alive? In stories like “The Portrait,” “Ottawa,” and the final, titular story “The Music Game,” each character gives us their answer: tenderness, connection, change. The collection’s overall ethos is perhaps best represented by the subtle gender transition of Sabrina’s partner, Jess. Though signalled by little more than a shift from “he” to “she” pronouns, Jess’ transition—and, more importantly, Jess as a person—“is proof that life doesn’t stand still: it grows and sheds its skin” (235). Self-reinvention, in other words, is always possible. You simply need to be open to it, and reach out, because someone will be there to reach back: “…every time someone found you, it was because you, too, had gone out looking” (89).
In The Music Game, Clermont has beautifully captured how it feels when you’re no longer sure if art and protest can save the world, but you think it can still save your friendships if only you could reach past the gulf created by your self-isolation and just connect with someone already. It’s that easy, and that hard.
The Music Game
by Stéfanie Clermont, translated from French by J.C. Sutcliffe
Biblioasis, 2022, 304 pages, $22.95 (trade paper)
Erin Della Mattia is a writer and freelance editor from Brampton, Ontario. Her work has appeared in The Puritan and is forthcoming in the fairytale anthology Sharper Than Thorns (July 2022). Follow her on Twitter @ErinDellaMattia and Instagram @erindellamattia.editorial.