The Transformative Power of a Sick Playlist: A Reading of Michelle Winters’ I Am a Truck

by Erica Osko

Of the novels on the Giller Prize shortlist, I Am a Truck certainly has the most catching title.  With a bit of research, I learned it’s the debut novel by New Brunswick-based Michelle Winters, who wrote it entirely in the evenings while working a full-time job. Inspired that a first-time novelist using an independent publisher made the prestigious shortlist, I had to read it. I found it an unintimidating book with just enough intrigue to keep it moving at a steady clip. It’s compact (only 176 pages), but complex and mysterious, offering alluring themes of personal freedom alongside questions of performed femininity and masculinity.

The book is unconventional; although Winters’ prose is in simple English, the character dialogue features a mixture of English and untranslated French, a possible deterrent for readers without any background in French. The story comes together like a puzzle through the fragmented perspectives of multiple characters, and Winters opts for a detached and limited authorial voice, which makes the story arc a bit befuddling. As a reader, however, the experience of witnessing the puzzle come together is very satisfying. You could probably finish it in a single evening, but a second or third read is necessary to catch the subtle character developments that are hidden behind Winters’ deceptively simple writing. What sticks out to me is how Winters uses music to drive and influence Agathe’s (the protagonist’s) character development. The book is an intriguing examination of a woman’s self-discovery and exploration of her own gender and sexual identity through rock and roll.

The novel takes place in the rainy, rural Maritimes and focuses on the secluded romance of Agathe and Réjean Lapointe. As the only French speakers in their English-speaking town, the lovers are isolated and totally absorbed in each other. They appear madly in love, their favourite phrase being  “il n’y a que nous” (there is only us), but Winters drops subtle clues of latent dissatisfaction. They are firmly entrenched in their conventional spousal roles, but imaginative role-playing in the bedroom is central to their relationship. Winters describes a game they play where Agathe takes on the more powerful role of “truck driver” and Réjean, the “trusting hitchhiker.” Though their active sex life should indicate a happy relationship, they consistently stray from traditional masculinity and femininity in their games, suggesting that though the lovers seem content, both desire frequent escapes from their daytime gender roles.  

Agathe and Réjean initially have only one source of disagreement: music. Réjean drives his beloved Chevy Silverado, playing mellow French folk music at a barely audible volume, while Agathe lusts after the muscular histrionics of rock and roll, an enticing and somewhat illicit connection to the Anglophone world of which Réjean has little knowledge. Though his music is gentle and quiet, his disregard for Agathe’s preference suppresses her emotions, turning his unassuming music into an oppressive force for her. Agathe seeks to escape through a long-distance fascination with a stranger, an army man who loves rock and roll and sings Aerosmith to her through the window of his Ford F-100.  

Agathe’s seemingly cushy domestic life turns upside down after her husband’s sudden and unexplained disappearance. As Agathe mourns the loss of her lover, we learn that Réjean, the central figure in her life, although linked to her sense of comfort and contentment, dominated her very identity. After he disappears, Winters reveals that important parts of Agathe’s personality are undeveloped. Agathe graphically imagines herself squeezed inside the last sandwich Réjean ate, a scene that literally speaks to how her individuality was consumed by her married life.

It is an excellent strength of Winters’ writing that, by not providing much authorial commentary and letting the events unfold at their own pace, she allows the reader space for introspection.  I found myself growing somewhat repulsed by the intense nature of Agathe and Réjean’s earlier attachment, the unhealthy quality of which was not evident until Agathe is left alone to struggle with her suppressed identity. However, I also found it difficult to pinpoint exactly what was unhealthy about their simple and insular marriage, where the only crack seemed to be differences in musical preference. It is only in retrospect that the reader can see something far more troubling behind Réjean’s persistent disregard of Agathe’s interest in rock and roll.

As it becomes apparent that Réjean won’t return, Agathe makes her first stab at independence. She gets a job at Stereoblast, a local electronics store, where she meets Debbie, an irresistibly energetic woman who is passionately in love with rock and roll. Under Debbie’s influence, Agathe treks through her grief with Nazareth, Heart, Kansas, and Bruce Springsteen in her ears. She uses the pounding beats to drown out her grief, but she fears the slow love songs, preferring not to remember the love she lost. Then one evening, she re-encounters the mysterious army man who enticed her when she was still with Réjean. He sings “When I’m With You” by Sheriff to her at a bar, and the tragic, sexy “BAY-bay-eeyay-eeyayay” causes her to think differently about her marriage, wondering if the army man possesses “a certain amount of abandon” she and Réjean never had.

“When I’m With You” is a turning point for Agathe. The song evokes the rise and fall of her relationship with Réjean. The lyrics “I never lived for nobody, but I lived for you” embody the tension between Agathe’s fading relationship with Réjean and her emerging independence. “I lived for you” echoes Agathe and Réjean’s favourite expression, “Il n’y a que nous,” but Agathe cannot yet grasp the message of self-reliance and determination in the lyrics “I never lived for nobody.” However, this song becomes the initial catalyst for Agathe’s emotional resistance to the domestic role she had always known. Ironically, while “When I’m With You” is about falling in love, what Agathe absorbs is more in line with the rebellious spirit of rock and roll music in general. She begins to rebel against Réjean’s memory.

Rock and roll encourages Agathe to become more self-reliant, somewhat appeasing my own 21st-century feminist sensibilities. For example, when the army man sings, his apparent independence entices her; he sings passionately, but not for the attention. “[It’s] just for him,” she observes. However, there is still something discomforting about Agathe’s new awakening. Observing the army man’s “abandon” encourages her to seek independence from her formerly entrenched domestic role, but her focus on his abandon also suggests she is becoming deceived by the reckless fantasy of rock and roll, one that places narratives of freedom and passion above all else. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics in “Born to Run,” a song Debbie and Agathe enjoy together: “I gotta know how it feels/ I want to know if love is wild/ Babe I want to know if love is real.” The wild love he sings about is unrealistic romanticism.

So while Agathe develops a proclivity for blasting music and spinning donuts in Réjean’s Chevy, the reader might question whether this is another personal crisis, a relapse to adolescence. Even when Réjean suddenly returns at the end of the novel, Agathe rejects him to chase after the army man, suggesting she would instead pursue fun than work on fixing her marriage. In this way, the rock music urges Agathe through a phase of personal discovery and rebellion post-Réjean, but Agathe still has a long way to go before she fully integrates her identity as an adult woman.   

As I read  I Am a Truck, I realized that Winters might be purposefully playing with her readers’ expectations by alternately denying and confirming their assumptions of what Agathe should be like as an independent woman. My expectation as a feminist–that Agathe should transcend her unhealthy reliance on Réjean–was challenged since, in her freedom, she took on the traits of a rebellious teenager. The ending, where Agathe boldly pursues the army man, simultaneously satisfied and unnerved me. I was glad she was no longer culturally isolated but concerned that her recklessness might lead to further destruction. Winters ends the novel without revealing whether Agathe runs off with the army man, returns to Réjean, or settles down on her own. This ambiguity caused me to interrogate my conceptions of gender identity and freedom.

I would encourage anyone reading I Am a Truck to pay close attention to how music shapes Agathe. Winters’ musical references inspired me to listen to Agathe’s songs for myself, interpreting the lyrics in light of her transformation and also contemplating how they have influenced me. I came to understand Winters’ writing as a collaboration with the rock artists she references, so I encourage those reading along to consider how music, and perhaps art in general, shapes and influences our lives, for better or for worse.

Banner photography courtesy of Gilbert Sopakuwa.

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