MJ Holec Reviews New Novels by MP Boisvert and Christopher DiRaddo for EVENT 50/3

two novels by Christopher DiRaddo and MP Boisvert

MJ Holec Reviews:

MP Boisvert, Trans. Monica Meneghetti, The Fifth: A Love(s) Story, Caitlin Press, 2021
Christopher DiRaddo, The Family Way, Esplanade Books, 2021

Our contemporary media landscape remains, for the most part, saturated with mono-normative narratives—plotlines that ultimately conclude with the ‘happily-ever-after’ promised by romantic, monogamous love. While queer folks have always had to imagine ways of living outside traditional ideas of a ‘happy’ life, even queer LGBTQ+ tales tend toward this predictable climax. When they do appear, poly narratives often function as a foil to the monogamous couple. Working against these prescriptive norms, MP Boisvert’s The Fifth: A Love(s) Story and Christopher DiRaddo’s The Family Way expand the structures of love by offering visions of family that disrupt notions of romantic exclusivity, kinship based on blood and the lesser value of platonic intimacy.

Translated into English from its original French in 2021, The Fifth explores the dynamics of a polyamorous community living in Quebec. Simon, Alice, Camille and Gayle live mostly harmoniously together as a ‘Family of roommates’ whose relationship structure is described as ‘a triangle with a line extending from one of the corners that’s kind of unrelated to the rest—a nameless polygon.’ Alice is the ‘hinge,’ dating Simon and participating in a sexual-romantic relationship with the couple, Gayle and Camille. The story begins when Eloy, Alice’s ex-boyfriend, moves into the shared home, introducing an unpredictable element into their carefully constructed community.

The form of Boisvert’s short text likewise disrupts conventions. The narrative is told alternately from each character’s perspective and switches occasionally into a script format. The constant transition between viewpoints leaves the reader slightly disoriented. The characters appear, disappear, blend into one. As one character begins to take shape, they recede, lost in the oscillation into another mind. Late in the text, Simon daydreams about a future with Eloy in which ‘[their] love would be like a novel, the kind Alice loves so much, the ones featuring monogamous bliss and many children.’ Here, love in a conventional novel is associated with monogamy. In choosing to centre polyamory, The Fifth is thus unconventional in terms of both form and content. Boisvert’s story refuses to act as a normalizing force; it doesn’t offer a handbook for polyamory, nor does it present polyamory as just another way to live. As the characters slip away, the reader never gains access to the Family’s intimate world. The text functions instead as a disruptive piece that leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

Thus, the reader is positioned with Eloy, a newcomer, an outsider, a figure of the mainstream. The Family expects to be judged by Eloy, yet he slowly comes to accept and love each of his roommates. Eloy’s relationships in the poly unit are mostly platonic, except with Simon. The Family is held together as much by non-sexual friendships as by romantic intimacies; Eloy says of his friendship with Camille: she is ‘my favourite roommate, the one I’m not attracted to but still consider my girlfriend somewhat.’ Even as Eloy is accepted by and accepts his new community, he ultimately surrenders to society’s expectations of the individual. Before he leaves, he explains to himself that his relationship with the Family is the only thing keeping him in the city and that this isn’t enough; he notes that polyamory ‘doesn’t put bread on the table.’ In this way, Boisvert’s text offers an important commentary on the structural impediments to living a poly life. Eloy’s decision to leave reflects the very real challenges of polyamory within an individualistic, neo-liberal, mono-normative society; when Eloy chooses to pursue a job—‘I’m useless without a job’—rather than continue to rely on the collective financial, emotional and social stability of the Family, he accedes to the demands placed on the individual under capitalism.

In her 2020 monograph, Polyamory, Monogamy, and American Dreams: The Stories We Tell about Poly Lives and the Cultural Production of Inequality, sociologist Mimi Schippers posits two essential questions to consider when analyzing media that represents polyamory:

What is the text saying about poly relationships and happiness, morality, and living the ‘good life’? In its representation of poly relationships, does the narrative do cultural and ideological work to maintain and legitimize social inequalities along the lines of race, ethnicity, nation, religion, class, gender, and sexuality or does it challenge them?

With regards to the first question, Boisvert’s text pushes the bounds on what kinds of lives can be ‘good’ and ‘happy.’ In fact, Eloy’s decision to leave the Family in pursuit of a career is the foil to happiness. The answer to Schippers’s second question is more varied. Camille’s experiences as a trans woman are explored in the text (although her initial portrayal as hyper-sexual raises questions about which kinds of trans representation are helpful and which are harmful), but other identifiers such as class, race and politics are mostly absent from the text. While it isn’t fair to ask one short text to address every social issue, it is worth thinking about which ideological norms The Fifth challenges and which it does not.

Schippers’s framework for approaching poly texts similarly opens a discussion into how Christopher DiRaddo’s The Family Way engages critically with normative ideas of family and relationships. Set in Montreal and revolving around a community of middle-aged gay men, the novel follows 40-year-old Paul as he agrees to be a sperm donor for his lesbian friends, Wendy and Eve. Spanning more than 400 pages, DiRaddo’s text veers opposite Boisvert’s relatively slender one. Employing dialogue and action-driven, first-person narration, The Family Way has a diary-like quality, which allows the reader to feel intimately connected to Paul. However, there are moments when this intimacy feels excessive as Paul relates important and mundane details alike. Even so, by so fully inhabiting Paul’s everyday life, the novel functions as a chronicle of a life less often represented.

Despite its conventional form, the text portrays Paul’s story in a way that resists monogamous ways of living. The normative forces that affect queer relationships are represented and critiqued in Danny, Paul’s close friend who is obsessed with the traditional nuclear family—with finding an exclusive partner with whom he can reproduce ‘what [his] mom and dad had when they were alive.’ Danny is characterized as possessive, vulnerable and willing to commit to whomever will have him. In contrast, Paul and Michael’s relationship is more open, healthier and more stable. Paul’s decision to be a sperm donor and eventual uncle figure for his friends is never a point of tension with his partner Michael, which productively expands the novel’s vision of family. Throughout the text, Paul and Michael move toward a version of polyamory with Leo, a man they meet while on their annual vacation to Provincetown. In the narrative’s imaginary of what both a family and a relationship can look like, The Family Way redefines a ‘happy life,’ demonstrating its attainment through relationships that fall outside hetero and homo normative ideals.

Left unexplored in the novel is Paul’s privilege in having the choice (due to his class status, race and gender) to leave his political activism in the past. In his middle-age domesticity, Paul is nostalgic for his former radicalism, musing, ‘I thought back to that time in the nineties. How much chaos there was in those days. Alan, my work with Pride. I was so active then, so angry. I felt like a domesticated animal now. All that rage was in the past, and the world was a different place.’ In this moment, Paul reveals his yearning for the political fervour he has left behind and the way he used to find community by embracing his otherness and challenging the status quo. But the factors that determine who can become a ‘domesticated animal’ and who cannot remain mostly invisible to Paul. He understands the changes in his life as an inevitable product of age rather than as a sign of privilege.

At the same time, Paul mourns the fact that his alternative family structure doesn’t fit into the nuclear family. He says, ‘I was doing the most traditional thing one could expect, I was having a child. But once again I felt different.’ Now his ‘difference’ is presented as something regrettable, rather than as a source of community. Despite the fact that he is fulfilling society’s normative expectations—he is in a serious relationship, having a child and succeeding professionally—Paul still feels his otherness. This novel, like The Fifth, suggests that fulfilling expectations does not inevitably lead to a ‘happy life.’ The ending to The Family Way leaves the reader with a hopeful sense of Paul coming to terms with a new, poly community.

The poly, queer experiences that The Fifth and The Family Way explore—determining family ties for oneself, creating relationship structures outside society’s ideals and navigating queer identity in 21st-century Quebec—are significant and invaluable representation. Ultimately, both texts are odes to non-conventional families, to the queer folks creating community, to chosen family, to disruptive love.

—MJ Holec