The mysterious narrative transmutations in Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert threaten to disassemble the language once it has been read. A frustrating, demanding and ultimately fascinating exercise in experimental fiction, Mauve Desert is the story of one adolescent’s life colliding with the emotional landscapes that make up the storied lives of those living in the vast terrain of the Arizonian desert. In between and often within the text of these half-embellished lives, Brossard offers seemingly endless miles of conjecture, laid open like a lost highway. Published in its original French in 1987 (Brossard is a leading writer of Quebecois feminist literature of these last 50 years or so), Mauve Desert was translated for English-speaking readers in 1990 (by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood), where the novel would gain much praise within literary circles outside of French-Canada.
Brossard’s novel is a triptych of sorts, a dance of language bridging three narratives together so that they become an intimate and personal essay on the dereliction of linear storytelling. Mauve Desert is a novel of translations and transitions, in which one writer absorbs the work of another and then retells that same story with all of her emotional certitudes instated in the text.
Mélanie, the novel’s intrepid 15-year-old protagonist, steals her mother’s Meteor every chance she gets, driving off into the Arizona desert during the evening hours. As day turns to dusk (the colours tinting the sandy peripheries of the highway), Mélanie waxes poetically about the nature of her existence. In the undulating slips of the Brossard’s hot, golden prose, Mélanie manages an unequivocally subjective narrative on the experiences of love, life and loneliness. In her world, her mother Kathy and Lorna, Kathy’s live-in lover, dominate the homestead (a motel owned and run by her mother) with the ellipses of same-sex narratives circling in the psychic space.
Mélanie’s story is of her struggles to assimilate as a viable third member of the household, and of her casual but curious surveillance of Lorna’s domestic routines in the comings and goings of the motel. Lured and stimulated by Lorna’s unconscious strength and repelled by her own mother’s oneiric slumming, Mélanie forges her own path across the desert to the next motel, where she hangs out at the poolside with the vacationing girls (in particular, Angela Parkins, a possible love interest). Compressed into a heady, effusive monologue of feeling and belief, Mélanie recounts the mysterious back-and-forth of her existence until her story is upended on a dancefloor at the hands of an evasive drifter, whose revolver has been cocked and ready in the intersperses of Mélanie’s narrative. This narrative makes up the first third of the novel.
In fact, Mauve Desert, it is revealed, is a short novel written by Laure Angstelle. Laures’ search for the mysterious author of Mauve Desert makes up the second portion of the book. Her obsessive quest (revealed here as the complexities of a woman writer exploring the disparities of gender-specific narratives) leads her on a studied, inner journey of fantasized dialogue and debate with each of the novel’s characters, as well as their Arizonian habitat. Laures never encounters the elusive Angstelle, whose existence beyond the text of which she is credited to is subtly put to question. Instead, the translator traverses a mythical line of documented lives. In imagined conversations with Mélanie, Kathy, Lorna, Angela, and Laure, respectively, she conjures a parallel reality where any number of these fated characters are afforded opportunity in struggling free of their textual imprisonment.
The mystery of Angstelle’s abruption in Mélanie’s story is never solved and the one true mystery that is forged through Laures’ internal reflection of personal narrative is only deepened by this practice of narrative reconstruction. In this way, it is by no coincidence that the ellipses between author, translator and title overlap with deliberate cause; one may note the near similarities between titles and names: Maude/Mauve, Laures/Laure. Through Laures’ translation of text and story, her life and work become an integral stretch of the narrative fabric shared by Angstelle and her literary creations.
The novel’s third and final portion, Laures’ translation of Mauve Desert (retitled through her interpretive slant as Mauve, the Horizon), is a near line-for-line reproduction of Angstelle’s work. Because of Laures’ inability, to some degree, to remove her subjective experience of reading the novel from her own transcription, Mauve, the Horizon attempts to explain, in some indirect and secreted way, the mysteries presented by Angstelle’s original text. The murder at the novel’s end remains unsolved, but the mysteries behind that true narrative’s emotional impellents are related with a knowing and calculating eye. Angstelle’s scope of discourse is now subjugated by the all-pervasive judgment of a hovering, pansophical narrator who exists just outside the perimeters of Angstelle’s own gaze. Though Laures can never rule or truly shape the narrative as it is, her need for emotional clarity and narrative redress offers Angstelle’s landscape a new dimension with which to negotiate.
At once a Russian doll nightmare and an emotional inversion of gendered text, Mauve Desert continues to spin endlessly on the supplied context of this female-centric fiction. In 1997, American conceptual artist Adrienne Jenik designed an interactive software program on CD-ROM, a personal interpretation of Brossard’s novel. In Jenik’s imagining of Brossard’s world, participants are offered a first-seat experience of Mélanie’s travels through the desert as she muses existentially about her strange and composite life. Brossard herself has revealed the novel to be the text with which she relates most as a writer of female lives. Readers, whose chance encounters with this novel are slim outside of a Canadian or Women’s Lit course, will find themselves quietly compelled by the transient and ambiguous text – if they find the novel’s Promethean reputation to prove at all true.