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  • Jacob James Bews

A Review: The Second Substance by Anne Lardeux

Updated: Jan 19


As part of our review series, Jacob James Bews reviews Anne Lardeux’s The Second Substance (Coach House Books, 2022). Find a copy at your local bookstore, or online at Coach House Books.


Read the full review below.

 

In pursuit of revolution, you may peel open a dusty manifesto. Sink long hours into the principles and stages of social progress, categorized with musty numbers and subsections. Or, you may instead, run into an open field, the one behind the highway and grocery store, throw off your clothes, and fall into the arms of a lover, the hounds at your heels.

A tension emerges between the immediate needs of the body, of hunger and lust, and the slow needs of abstraction and plans.

Quebecois writer Anne Lardeux’s debut novel, The Second Substance extends the question Anne Boyer poses in her poem, “At Least Two Types of People.” In the poem, Boyer questions who rejects the norms of society, and asks "how does [one] come to have as one of its qualities the resistance of the world as it is?" She observes that there are people who are made of a second substance, a substance that makes one “repel” standardized, inherited conventions. Whereas those made of the first substance, easily absorb “regular social routines” and live in “comfort.”


A tension emerges between the immediate needs of the body, of hunger and lust, and the slow needs of abstraction and plans.

Lardeux's novel follows a group made of the second substance in contemporary Quebec, who “try to find freedom and build something new on the ashes of our petrocivilization.” The novel, translated from the French by Pablo Strauss, focuses on two women: one named and one not. The group of radicals occupy an abandoned gas station in the Quebec countryside. Antonia, a young girl, eventually runs away from the clandestine settlement. The Girl with No Name seeks a freedom of movement, of expression and bodily autonomy. The group puts on concerts, fucks eachother, feasts, sows seeds, and dismantles the highway piece by piece.


Sex powers the novel. The episodes of erotic encounters highlight the body’s desires, their trajectories intercepting prescribed roles. Each position of authority is saturated with libido. The most emblematic being a policewoman who teases her fellow male officers, and later plays a game of chicken with the Girl with No Name. The policewoman’s position as an arm of the law reaffirms the state, but she relishes the challenge to her role’s patriarchal nature.

Sex powers the novel. The episodes of erotic encounters highlight the body’s desires, their trajectories intercepting prescribed roles. Each position of authority is saturated with libido.

The Girl with No Name is the novel’s erotic engine. She sets out a programme of exploration, seeking new forms of sex. She freely associates romantic partners. She imagines extended erotic episodes between both men and women. The Second Substance rejects compulsory heterosexuality; it rejects the nuclear family. When Antonia runs away from the station and the group, the Girl with No Name must confront the opposition between her desire and “the world as it is.”


A melancholy tone inflects the novel’s revolutionary spirit. The Second Substance depicts radical acts lacking a mass movement—the kind of mass needed to truly challenge the rule of the few. Gas stations fuel the trucks of government just as before the characters’ small rebellion, and the rest of the province, citizens made of Boyer’s first substance, stay within their state-approved purview. The hope remaining, however, is that a good old fashioned strike could still destabilize any ruler.


Lardeux draws on film and literature to structure the form of the novel. An archipelago, The Second Substance’s islands comprise diary entries, film script, fantasy sequences, and authorial confessions. Some readers might bounce off of this kind of fragmented, loose storytelling, but I found it invigorating. Each genre and reference form a map of wider reading and art—a centrifugal force that spins you out towards Agnes Varda’s 1985 film Vagabond, the poetry of Marie Uguay, and Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding. The novel sets forth the “writerly” pleasure spoken of by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text, where the reader must contribute to the act of creation, rather than passively observe the story. You wade from shore to shore, encountering love and disillusionment, fueled by your pursuit.

An archipelago, The Second Substance’s islands comprise diary entries, film script, fantasy sequences, and authorial confessions.

Anne Lardeux offers nourishment and bitterness with The Second Substance. The energy of the prose stokes a flame, and the slowness of change tempers it. This is a novel for those who yearn, those who tire of digital cities, those returning to the body. Though the novel’s fragmented form mirrors social media, the shards of life drifting in the novel push you out of your chair. It should be read alongside online accounts of similar occupations, such as the kabane77 to which the book is dedicated.


The Second Substance remains inconclusive—the novel “prioritizes questions over conclusions. Any answers must be provided by the reader. But this clears away a path towards new forms—and in seeking the new, you may find yourself with, in the words of Anne Boyer, “a second, and almost blank-faced, reward.”

 

Jacob James Bews is a writer from Treaty 7 land, near Longview, Alberta. Currently, he bounces between Calgary and Mexico City, writing and reading all the time. He publishes horror movie reviews in his Substack, Blood Curds, and you may find him on instagram and twitter as @catmilkremedies.



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