While it’s rare, there are some friends you make during your childhood that you keep for the rest of your life, and The Music Game (304 Pages; Biblioasis; translated by JC Sutcliffe), the first novel by Stéfanie Clermont, is a story of this kind of friendship. Primarily set in Montreal, the novel follows Céline, Julie, and Sabrina—three French-Canadian friends with differing life trajectories. Though this winding and unconventional novel often reads more like a collection of linked stories, the sum of it feels in conversation about the millennial experience in contemporary Montreal.
Among the group, Sabrina deals with racism and the elusiveness of government assistance while struggling with unfulfilling service jobs, such as fruit-stand attendant and waitress. She considers herself a revolutionary, attending protests and standing against capitalism and the mainstream, all the while navigating a tumultuous relationship with her long-term, ever-transforming boyfriend, Jess, and eventually living in a punk squat in the Bay Area. Céline, who comes from a wealthy family, also considers herself a revolutionary. Her privilege, which she often remains ignorant of, gives her more freedom to not only attend protests but volunteer at centers for sex workers, too. She later drops of college and travels, determined to change the issues which plague her friends and her country.
Meanwhile, Julie, who pursues a career as a tattoo artist, feels a strain in her friendship with Sabrina and Céline. Unlike them, she chooses not to follow an antiestablishment path. Her challenges lay more in dealing with the effects of her parent’s divorce. She grows distant from her father, while her mother begins dating an unscrupulous man.
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At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to a quiet place at the end of Rue Ontario, a once peaceful spot that the trio and their friend Vincent spent time in: “we napped in the long grass, sad and alone or surrounded by friends and drunk on sunshine.” After Vincent kills himself there, the group begins to see the place in a different light: “this place without a name had become the place where a friend had died.” The Music Game details the way memories and experiences begin to mean something different to us as we progress from early adolescence to adulthood.
Clermont does this by presenting us these three friends at varying stations in their lives, through alternating points of view and in unchronological order. Sometimes the narrator is unnamed, other times we are provided small clues as to which one of the friends may be narrating the chapter. Despite this variation in perspectives, it is the strong individual characterization of these women through poignant imagery and evocative language that is the constant driving force of The Music Game.
So is the idea that these characters who were once passionate and determined to change the world have grown disenchanted in face of realizing they alone cannot affect the issues plaguing their capitalist and racist society. That they ever thought so they begin to see as youthful folly. Sabrina, while at an unemployment office in Quebec hoping to claim benefits because her dead-end jobs can’t support her, thinks:
I regretted all my bad choices, all my days wasted wandering all over and lounging around that had brought me here, to the job centre, forced to present proof of my poverty and to “try to lift myself out of it,” forced to admit that I was getting older without becoming anything, forced to take off the rose-coloured glasses that had allowed me to interpret my meanderings as life-enriching experiences, forced to see these meanderings for what they were, detours off the right path, excuses for not simply putting one foot in front of the other and getting ahead in life, idiotic self-sabotage.
The Music Game delves into the nuances of life-long friendships, portraying its varying periods of closeness and of losing touch and reconnecting. It also addresses themes of domestic violence, racism, sexual abuse, and shifting family dynamics with the same close detail. Here’s how Clermont depicts what can be interpreted as one of the characters leaving an abusive relationship:
“And then one day it happens. I do it. One day I plow into you hard. I see your legs flailing. I see you turn blue, then confess. You have the nerves of a child. Hot lungs. You don’t scare me. Your pains are nothing but little pricks. I turn myself into marble and stay like that. You cry, I overwhelm you. I turn your weight into feathers. And then I leave. I sleep, one hand on my stomach, uncomfortable on the Greyhound seat but at peace.”
Although the trajectories of its protagonists are left un-concluded, leaving us with only a hope they will find the healing they desperately need, Clermont’s novel reminds us of the resilience of lifelong friendships and how they can triumph over the darker aspects of life. Any time a group of close friends reunites, even after a period marked by trauma, there is the possibility of finding solace by simply reconnecting with those who knew you when you looked at life through a more innocent lens.