Under the Stone (Sous Beton) is the first novel by Montreal-based author and artist Karoline Georges to be published in English translation. The novel (or novella, depending on your distinction between the two) follows in the long tradition of stories about the philosophical crises of a dystopian future. Like Orwell, or even some of Stanley Kubrick’s films, the future in Georges’ work is thick with allegory.
Under the Stone follows what can only be described as the awakening of an unnamed adolescent boy who resides in one of the thousands of tiny apartments in a megalithic concrete tower that houses what remains of humankind. With his father and mother—referred to as “the father” and “the mother”—the boy lives out a miserable existence in a tiny concrete dwelling where procedure and acceptance trump all else. The boy is directed by his parents to never question and trust in the “Total Concrete” of the tower.
The book follows the torturous existence of the boy at the hands of his parents and the societal structure that houses them. As time passes, the boy begins to depart mentally and then physically and spiritually from the reality that confines him. Georges’ depiction of the boy’s awakening is connected to the growth of an “inner eye”—the result of a questioning that breaks from his highly regulated existence.
Under the Stone is at times a shocking and violent vision. The residents of the tower are constantly shown images of people who were banished from the tower crowding around its base and devouring one another. In his review of the book for Canadian Notes & Queries, J.C. Sutcliffe makes a comparison between Georges and Hieronymus Bosch. The link to Bosch is particularly fitting considering not just the gruesome imagery but also the scale in which the images operate and how they serve a larger vision. Georges’ prose swiftly but surely relates specific horrors without dwelling on them, bringing to mind passages from Elfriede Jelinek—albeit these scenes are less frequent than the atrocities in Jelinek’s work. “But the concrete, the concrete was immutable. The father proved it every day. With his hand wrapped around my skull, he’d smash my forehead against the ground. You see, I can crush your brain with a single hand, but concrete endures all.”
Georges’ novel is, at least in part, a visual concept. Just as the boy has a limited ability to see and imagine at the beginning of the book, we proceed down the same path, imagining alongside him. Georges skilfully broadens the boy’s ability to see and we travel along with him, seeing more only as the boy sees more.
Perhaps the best comparison in understanding Under the Stone as a visual concept is to place it somewhere between Bruegel’s Tower of Babel and Bosch’s depictions of death and hell. The scale of both Babel and Bosch’s sprawling pieces are challenging to grasp as a whole and so the eye is drawn to details and scenes within the scene. Georges’ achievement is beginning at the scale of a detail and expanding steadily until the entirety of a horrifying scene is revealed. By starting small and expanding out, these scenes take on a strange, paradoxical beauty the more we see of them. In this spirit, the cover art shows us only a small detail. Designer Derek von Essen presents a concrete texture that literally echoes the only texture that the boy knows growing up, but also presents a detail that is suggestive of a wider context.
On the cover of the book is a quote from a review that suggests Georges may have created a new genre, “The Claustrophobic Novel.” I will leave it to other reviewers to assign generic classifications, but claustrophobia is certainly a large part of what is interesting and essential in Under the Stone. The novel is told in first person with continual descriptions from the boy about how he folds into himself and attempts to become invisible from his abusive father. When the boy finally experiences his awakening, it is a gradual expansion into an alternate way of being, an abandonment of his physicality in response to the expansion of his growing perception—something Georges explains as the “inner eye.”
One way of reading the boy’s awakening is to see it as the departure of an ordinary child from ordinary circumstances. Georges draws her character out of the mundane and hopeless, allowing him to ascend to a spiritual and almost omnipotent state. In this way, Under the Stone is an adventure of the mind, with a plot that follows the heroic triumph of the critical mind that dares to ask, “Why?” This internal adventure brings about freedom, but there is an unremitting praise of the critical mind that at times seems a bit self-congratulatory. The boy calls his awakening his “singularity” during the early stages of the changes that begin in his mind. “I sometimes thought that my singularity was an allergic reaction. A hypersensitivity to the father and the mother’s moods. Beneath the laws and rules implanted in the brain, beneath the ideas and concepts memorized by heart, my new eye allowed me to perceive an imbalance in the father and the mother.”
The societal structure of the tower, with its emphasis on stasis and routine, is perhaps Georges’ way of critiquing the suburban lifestyle. The decision to leave the main character and his parents unnamed leads to a generality that at times begins to chafe, but the continual description of “the father” and “the mother” and their way of being has the effect of feeling like a general commentary on what archetypical suburbanite parents are like. “I understood the futility of looking for something else. There was nothing but my minuscule dwelling, infinitely multiplied on innumerable storeys. Only the father and the mother behind each door. Someone like me, at each address.” The hopelessness of the family dynamic in the book combined with the generality of these figures feels like a sharp-edged attack. It is as though Georges is intent on pulling the curtains back and revealing the failure and horror behind the walls of typical suburbanite families, and in the process exposes stability as a dangerous myth.
Certain passages allude to the global decline of multiculturalism and freedom of expression. At one point the mother explains to the boy: “There was a time when freedom had been seen as the apex, the reason behind man’s constant toil and effort, the end point of evolution. And the mother would then cry silently. Look at the body, your own, for example, she’d murmur. If you free your cells, they can all go every which way—what happens then?” The father then explains that in the past everything was known and experienced and that this complicated existence. “It was impossible to distinguish between what was futile and what was important. The advancement of knowledge ended with the great tumult of total freedom of expression.” Georges creates a society that is post-knowledge, post-expression, and post-experience. One cannot help seeing some troubling connections to current post-truth politics.
The detached and sparse tone of the writing keeps Georges’ prose resistant to the stagnancy of overwriting. This is a relief, as the avant-garde details of the world created in Under the Stone could easily become heavy handed. The precision of the prose in the English translation is surely related to the work of award-winning translator Jacob Homel. But for some of the bulkier commentary that is at work within the family dynamic, the transformation of the boy in the final third of the book is wonderfully and imaginatively conceived. Rarely does an author so successfully create such an unimaginable space as where the boy finally finds himself. There are some shades of Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East in the scale of the author’s transcendent vision.
Under the Stone is a well-crafted and imaginative book that is as densely packed as the claustrophobic living quarters from which the story emanates. With such density it carries both ambition and baggage. There are few titles in Canadian literature that meet the same level of daring as Under the Stone while still managing to retain their balance.
Anvil | 152 pages | $18.00 | paper | ISBN 9781772140361