Remain Vanishing: Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
Montreal is a character in Mandel’s first novel. It made me want to go home.
Welcome to Autofictions, where I review contemporary fiction and share more about myself than anyone needs to know.
In this edition: Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel.
It’s been 10 years since I left Montreal for New York. I didn’t plan on reading a book largely set in those two cities on that anniversary, but the étoiles so aligned.
Earlier this year, after much equivocation, I picked up Emily St. John Mandel’s much-celebrated, accidentally prophetic Station Eleven. I’m always hesitant to read a book or see a movie I’ve heard too much about or been interested in for too long. I’ll never forget the damp squib that was Under the Skin (the book is so much more worth your time). But Station Eleven lived up to the hype. I devoured it, then moved on to Mandel’s enchanting Sea of Tranquility. I’ve been making my way through her bibliography ever since.
Last Night in Montreal is Mandel’s first novel, and while it covers a whole lot of territory in North America, significant portions take place in two of the three cities I’ve called home. It’s not speculative fiction, like her most lauded novel, but there’s an artful detachment to the prose that foreshadows the unsettling futures of Station Eleven and (parts of) Sea of Tranquility. It’s uneven, the way many debuts are, but affecting. Mandel packs so much depth of feeling into a plot that could easily have been a milquetoast contribution to the Girl in the Window on the Train with the Tattoo canon.
Lilia, around whom the book’s action revolves, has spent most of her life on the run. Abducted by her estranged father as a child, she has continued to live out their transient existence in early adulthood, abandoning cities and lovers in increments of six months or less. “I wish to remain vanishing,” she writes in a motel room Bible as a child. So she does, long after the private investigator on her case has stopped tailing her.
Eli, meanwhile, is waiting for something interesting to happen, when he happens upon Lilia. Shortly after meeting in a Williamsburg coffee shop, they move in together: he, working on a thesis about dead languages, well past its due date; she, leaving only the barest fingerprints on the world she inhabits with him, right up until the day she goes out for the paper and never comes home.
Michaela, in Montreal, is Lilia’s inverse: physically rooted but fatherless, abandoned well before her father actually disappears. He had vanished into his work even when he was physically there, engrossed in his pursuit of a girl taken from her mother’s home one frigid night.
The three characters’ lives entangle in Montreal, where Eli pursues Lilia after she abandons him; where Michaela promises to help fill in the blanks Lilia has blotted out from her childhood; where Eli comes across Michaela tightrope walking between two balconies and is drawn into the shared history between the two women.
Mandel is adept at sketching characters’ interior lives in only the faintest outlines yet with total believability. It may not be clear why Eli is so disaffected, but he’s in his early 20s, which might be reason enough; it’s easy to see why the enigmatic Lilia, so far removed from the predictability of his life so far, is irresistible. Lilia, and later Michaela, may embody elements of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or Manic Pixie Dream Go-Go Dancer), but those clean edges are eroded by trauma, the contours of which are familiar to anyone with less than a postcard-perfect childhood, even if the particulars—few of us, I’d imagine, spent a decade on the run from a dogged PI—are not.
With a similarly deft hand, Mandel makes the characters, for all their emotional and historical entanglement, barely glance off one another; united at a single moment in time, they never quite touch. Don’t we all have those people—the ones who mattered so much so briefly?
For all its thrills, what stayed with me the most from Last Night in Montreal was its portrayal of my hometown. It tickled me to look at my city through the book’s lens. Downtown Montreal, where the three characters converge, is a bone-chilling maze of squat buildings housing an eye-popping number of strip clubs. (When you grow up with it, you learn to mostly tune out the neon silhouettes and the posters of danseuses nues on every other block.) Bleakly cold, vaguely underworldly, glamorous in a seedy sort of way; it’s not how I generally perceived my city, which is more colorful and alive than all that, but I can buy it. Especially for someone like Eli, who has parachuted into the dead of winter, wanting only to return to the psychological and (relative) meteorological warmth of Brooklyn with Lilia.
I could quibble with the details—there’s no such thing as an English-only school in Québec; the metro doesn’t run all night; Québécois French is hardly a dying language—and I often did as I was reading, because I can’t turn it off. But Last Night in Montreal feels true. About the city, and especially about the people who pass through our lives briefly but make an indelible mark. You may leave them behind, but they never leave you.
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