Book Review: The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault

Note: I received a copy of this book from Hesperus Press (via Netgalley) for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review in any way.

Reading The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman so soon after reviewing a novel like You is a strange—and not altogether comfortable—experience. In the Author’s Q&A that accompanies the novel, Denis Thériault confesses that he worried readers would fail to sympathize with the novel’s protagonist—would, perhaps, even see him as sociopathic. And at two or three pages into the novel, I have to admit that I had similar concerns. I wondered: for the sake of the novel’s intriguing premise, for the sake of whatever insights it had to offer into the nature of identity and the power of the written word, could I temporarily quell my kneejerk discomfort with anything that remotely resembles stalking, manipulation, and romantic subterfuge? In the spirit of open-mindedness, I forged ahead, and am largely happy that I did so. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite stomach the second leap of faith the novel required of me—the acceptance of what was for me a jarringly discordant conclusion. That said, I suspect that the novel’s ending will likely prove as controversial as its subject matter, with some readers defending the aesthetic daring of Thériault’s abrupt, startling ending even as others wish he had kept the novel on a more even tonal keel throughout.

For the first 90-something pages, you might think of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman as a kind of reverse Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the hapless, unrequited lover adopts the voice of another rather than speaking for him. Bilodo, a 27-year-old postal worker, leads a solitary and mundane—if not altogether unhappy—life. His one “secret vice” (some might say his one indulgence) is his habit of surreptitiously reading the mail he delivers, thus vicariously experiencing the full array of lives he himself will never live. For all that Bilodo enjoys this “soap opera with multiple plots,” though, he is partial to one storyline in particular; in fact, he quickly becomes infatuated with one letter writer—a Guadeloupean woman named Ségolène, who exchanges haikus by post with a man named Gaston Grandpré. For the most part, Bilodo seems content to love Ségolène from afar, embellishing her freely within his imagination. However, when Grandpré dies suddenly in a car accident, Bilodo decides to assume his identity, moving into his apartment, studying his interests, and writing to Ségolène in his guise.

The gradual development of Ségolène and Bilodo’s relationship thus raises several interesting questions about the nature and malleability of identity. There is, of course, the problem of just whom it is that Ségolène loves, but there is also the question of who Bilodo himself is—the lonely postman, the crafter of haikus, or both at once? Does Bilodo in some sense become Grandpré, and if so, does he do so only when writing? Bilodo, an amateur calligraphist, has an undeniable “aptitude for slipping into other people’s words,” and in the midst of Grandpré’s apartment, surrounded by Grandpré’s possessions, he finds himself visited by quasi-supernatural inspiration as he writes, the words materializing on the page seemingly without conscious effort. Or does Bilodo take on Grandpré’s identity in a deeper sense still, whether by dint of Ségolène’s beliefs or through his own volition? The novel’s final pages suggest that the answer to this latter question is in some sense a yes, but they also leave much of the mechanics of the transformation up for debate.

Intertwined with this exploration of identity is an exploration of what it means to read. Bilodo’s avid consumption of the letters he reads is just the beginning; his relationship with Ségolène unfolds entirely via letters, but ultimately takes on romantic and even physical dimensions, as in the following passage:

Bilodo wasn’t satisfied: he couldn’t take the slowness of regular post any more, so he switched to express post. Ségolène followed suit; thus the waiting period was shortened. The exchange sped up, breathing turned into panting, but it still wasn’t fast enough for Bilodo, who began to post poems to the Guadeloupean woman without even waiting for her reply and was soon sending her a haiku a day. And Ségolène, too, began sending him haiku after haiku without bothering to wait for his. Almost every morning another letter from her fell on the doormat. The poems flew back and forth, fast and furious, without any chronological continuity now, yet still responding to one another in a peculiar way:

Flower of your flesh
Within its tender petals
lies a hidden pearl

Venture into the
Glowing warmth of me
Lash your body onto mine

I move towards you
Now you let me in
And all your mouth swallows me

You travel in me
you gaze upon my landscape
you swim in my lake

I travel in you
I reach the very centre
of your capital

Seaquake. I explode
deep inside of me
an inner supernova

Fiery tsunami
great surge of lava
I die everlastingly

Carried by the wave
I am nameless now
I am only a colour

Stars—shimmering spread of sails
the solar wind blows
to infinity

Clearly, both the substance of the letters and their increasingly frantic pacing are meant to mirror real-life lovemaking. It would, however, surely be a mistake to see in these letters simply an analogue to—or, even worse, a poor substitute for—the real thing. The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman offers, in some sense, a variant understanding of eroticism—one that is just as real and meaningful as physical sex, but one that unfolds entirely in the realm of language. Indeed, for Bilodo, the experience is more profound than anything he has experienced in his non-epistolary life, and the dismay he feels when Ségolène suggests they meet in person cannot be chalked up entirely to fear of discovery; Ségolène, he feels, is “endangering the perfect relationship they’d had until then.” It is tempting to write off Bilodo’s feelings here as petty immaturity—a sign that he is not emotionally equipped for the ramifications of a “real” relationship—but perhaps there is a bit more to it than that; who can read the haikus that Bilodo and Ségolène exchange without feeling that they represent an experience that is already complete, if rather unconventionally so? And all this is to say nothing of the sheer beauty of the language itself (there is a potent, violent need to that phrase “lash your body onto mine” that for me calls to mind some of Emily Dickinson’s more abandoned poetry).

Unfortunately, it was not too long after this gorgeous bit of writing that I found myself totally and irrevocably parting ways with Thériault. In the final pages of the novel, the story takes an abrupt turn, which—though thematically in keeping with the book’s interest in identity—is tonally at odds with what preceded it. To be sure, this kind of last-minute gear change can work—a novel like Mermaids in Paradise would be nowhere near as memorable without its unexpectedly bittersweet conclusion—but in this particular case, it comes off less as a daring swerve and more as a failure of imagination. Faced with Ségolène’s proposed visit, Bilodo can find no easy way out of the situation he has enmeshed himself in, and one gets the uncomfortable feeling that Thériault may have been similarly at a loss when it came time to elegantly unravel the knots he spent the novel tying.

Of course, in his Q&A, Thériault himself acknowledges that his plans for the novel’s ending shifted as the story itself evolved. Fair enough, and perhaps some readers will feel that the finale does indeed arise organically from the novel’s concerns. For me, though, the shift from gentle, plaintive whimsy to something close to horror was simply too much of a jolt. I like a sad ending as much as the next person (and maybe more), but only when it arrives with a little more subtlety.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman was first published in 2004. It will be published by Hesperus Press on February 1, 2015.

Buy it on Amazon.

Find out about it on Goodreads.



Filed under Book Reviews, Books I've Read (and Thought About)

4 responses to “Book Review: The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault

  1. A question: Did you request this book via Netgalley, or did the publishers offer to send it to you? I’d be happy to request books to review from time to time, but I’m increasingly wary of accepting unsolicited offers from publishers & authors…

    • No worries–I requested it! I’m not famous enough to get unsolicited requests 🙂

      • It’s hardly a reflection of the size of my readership, ha! I think publishers probably aim to give away a certain number of copies of new books, and I just happened to be a recipient of one of those mass emails on a handful of occasions. I’ve never tried to request anything from Netgalley, and I was just wondering how it works.

      • As far as I know, it’s entirely based on requests, but then, I’ve only requested a couple books through Netgalley–I guess it’s possible that once publishers know about you they might contact you directly?

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