Eva Crocker Reviews Stéphane Larue's The Dishwasher
Stéphane Larue’s The Dishwasher, translated from French to English by Pablo Strauss, explores the relationship between the cyclical nature of addiction and the toxic work environment found in the kitchens of many high-end restaurants. The novel follows Stéphane, a graphic design student, who accepts a dishwashing job in an expensive Montreal restaurant after gambling away his rent money. Stéphane finds himself immersed in a pattern of working long, gruelling hours in the dish pit, spending his money partying until daylight with his older coworkers, inevitably succumbing to the VLT machines in a dingy bar, then heading home to sleep briefly before his next shift.
For the protagonist, both gambling and dishwashing have a hypnotic repetitiveness that he finds intensely seductive. Despite the fact that he’s initially repulsed and exhausted by the work, he is able to lose himself in dishwashing in a way that he finds comforting. The author conveys the trance-like state the dish pit induces in Stéphane through precise descriptions of particular tasks that sometimes stretch on for pages. Paradoxically, these long passages, devoted to mundane acts like disposing of the boiled meat and bones left in a stockpot and then scrubbing the scuzz from its rim, are captivating. The narrative voice is consistently propulsive and acutely perceptive. Stéphane and the reader soon become intimately familiar with the series of tasks he’s required to do each shift, and this punishing and lulling repetition echoes how Stéphane continually returns to the spinning graphics of the VLT machines even though he understands that gambling is a destructive force in his life.
As he becomes more and more deeply embedded in his new lifestyle, Stéphane flagrantly neglects relationships and commitments outside of work, leaving himself nowhere to turn but to his macho coworkers and the greasy dish pit.
There is a huge cast of characters in this novel, a cast that grows as workers are hired and fired over the course of a winter. It is a testament to Larue’s deft character development that each member of this burgeoning cast is memorable and distinct. The large number of people passing in and out of Stéphane’s life emphasizes the rapid turnover rate in the restaurant industry, highlighting the precarity of this type of work. An older chef warns Stéphane, “When it’s the same low pay wherever you apply, you choose the place with the most status...Crazy schedule, crazy life. But you know, man: Bono ate at the bar once. So you convince yourself you’re somehow part of that glory. That’s what they get you with, instead of a paycheque. It’s the status.”
In addition to being a succinct condemnation of how ritzy restaurants exploit skilled workers, the older chef’s speech also foreshadows how the impressionable young protagonist will be sucked into a lifetime of being unfairly undercompensated for difficult work. This prediction is confirmed by the novel’s opening scene, which is set in the future and shows Stéphane cabbing home stone-cold sober after a kitchen shift, prepared to climb into his girlfriend’s bed, when he crosses paths with an old co-worker who cajoles him into going on a bender.
This scene introduces the novel’s cyclical structure, which resonates with the motifs of repetition that surface throughout the story, all working together to convey the momentum that traps Stéphane in a never-ending circuit of fast-paced, physically demanding work; excessive drinking; and an unhealthy relationship with gambling. The Dishwasher is a skilful illustration of how the combination of unusual hours, strenuous labour and low-wages can intensify a reliance on substances and other coping mechanisms that make it difficult to extricate oneself from an exploitative industry and draining lifestyle.
Eva Crocker is a freelance writer based in St. John's Newfoundland. Her short story collection Barrelling Forward was a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBTQ Authors and won the Canadian Authors’ Association Emerging Writer’s Award and the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction. Her debut novel, All I Ask is forthcoming from House of Anansi Press in 2020.