In Explosions: Michael Bay and the Pyrotechnics of the Imagination, translated from French by Aleshia Jensen, Mathieu Poulin has penned a captivating, whirlwind tour through film and philosophy, presented as a false biography of American filmmaker Michael Bay. At times vividly cinematic, at times intensely intellectual, and often sharply parodying one or both of these domains, Explosions lives in an off-kilter parallel universe that maintains the most interesting relationships to our own – what if Michael Bay, best known in our world for his big-budget action films that generally open to high box office profits and general critical disdain, was actually a philosophical genius far ahead of his time?
The structure of the novel references elements of both philosophy and film. Chapter titles such as “On the difficulties of piloting a space shuttle through an asteroid shower,” “On patriotism,” and “On attraction,” nod to the style of a dissertation, while the actual scenes described borrow heavily from movies. The opening chapter, for example, takes place entirely in space and describes the aftermath of a disaster as it is being captured by a camera:
Michael pressed the camera lens up to the window to capture a series of shaky but stunning images. [The spaceship] Independence was flying erratically as she spun inside a comet’s tail. Michael struggled to keep the shot in focus. Although the shooting schedule didn’t account for such unique circumstances, Michael was determined to make the most of it. He’d find somewhere to fit in the spectacular shots – if he survived till post-production. (9)
Explosions follows an extremely fictionalized version of Michael Bay through the production of many of his best-known movies – Transformers, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor, among others – adding trope-heavy chase scenes and in-depth discussions of various branches of philosophy into the narrative of his actual life. One memorable early scene involves Poulin’s Bay directing equally fictionalized versions of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence on the set of Bad Boys. Explosions reimagines the 1995 action comedy through the lens of négritude, a literary and critical movement led by Black francophone intellectuals in the 1930s. Reconciling these purported behind-the-scenes discussions with the actual nature of the movies released does produce some intense cognitive dissonance, but the book is so wholeheartedly committed to its central premise that it almost always succeeds in carrying us through the leaps between fiction and reality.
Many of the characters referenced in the book are loosely based on real people – Michael Bay, of course, along with celebrities such as Ben Affleck, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Sean Connery, while philosophers including Plato, Sartre, and Nietzsche all appear as characters as well. One of the few prominent original characters is Daphné, a Québécois woman who becomes a well-respected film scholar and is in a relationship with Bay for much of the novel. Along with providing a refreshingly down-to-earth counterpoint to Bay’s self-identification as a misunderstood genius and the fantastical nature of the rest of the novel, Daphné’s presence also lends exceptionally well to Explosions being read in translation – she keeps the novel firmly rooted in Quebec, even while its heart was always in Hollywood. One danger of translating a novel about American popular culture written from an outside perspective is that, in becoming accessible to many more Americans, it could have lost that sense of distance. However, because Explosions retains a handful of references to Quebec, primarily through Daphné, as well as a heavy influence from francophone philosophers in particular, it does an elegant job of resisting assimilation.
One of the most interesting aspects of Explosions is how it plays with our suspension of disbelief as readers. Some elements of the novel – such as the actual details of Michael Bay’s movies – are accurate and well-known in popular culture, while others – such as scenes where a film about space is actually being shot in space – are obviously false. However, where Explosions shines is in the middle ground between those poles – could it have been true that Michael Bay wrote an excellent essay in film school that one of his professors later used for a book chapter? Could he have actually been in a relationship with a woman named Daphné? Other readers may have a different experience, but for my own part, I found that this book’s sheer joy in living between the known and the impossible made me resist the impulse to search for answers beyond the confines of the page. When I came across a claim that seemed almost plausible, I often thought about doing some light research to see if it was true, but I always decided against it – Explosions is such a compelling false biography that it didn’t matter to me whether the real-life Bay had actually gone to school where Poulin said he did, or if his parents were actually named Jim and Harriet. The only thing that mattered was that it was true within the confines of the book.
Jensen captures in English the text’s masterful depiction of a compelling false reality. While I never forgot that I was reading in translation, both due to the subtle remnants of French grammar and lexical choices retained in the text and because of the story’s overt references to its linguistic and geographic origins, it always felt elegantly handled, and never like a chore. One of the very few places where Explosions fails to convey the underlying reference in French is here:
The next morning Daphné and Michael took down the tent, laughed about how hard it was to get all the pieces into a tiny zippered bag, made toast on the leftover embers from the evening before, dumped the dishwater onto the fire to be sure it was out, then, after Michael had discreetly checked he still had the engagement ring he’d bought just a few days earlier, they left Corinth for the town of Lac-Mégantique, Quebec. (143)
When translating a Québécois text from French to English – particularly a book with an American protagonist – one particularly significant factor to consider is the book’s target readership. The book is now accessible not only to anglophone readers from Quebec and the rest of Canada, but also to American anglophones as well, who may not know as much about Quebec as the original audience. In this case, for example, Poulin is name-dropping Lac-Mégantique because of the rail disaster that took place there in 2013, when an oil-carrying train derailed and multiple tank cars caught fire and exploded in the town’s center. Dozens of people were killed, making it one of Canada’s deadly rail disasters.
When I – an anglophone from Quebec – read this passage, it was a gut-punch; of course Poulin would reference Lac-Mégantique, of course Daphné is from there, and the passing mention suits the tone of Explosions perfectly and adds a moment of well-earned gravitas to the book without disrespecting the still-recent tragedy by attempting to tie it into the narrative any more than it does. When I asked a large number of generally well-informed Americans if they had heard of the town, they all agreed they had not. The specific reference then would be lost on that audience. On the other hand, inserting a footnote, a stealth gloss, or another unobtrusive clarification would have likely disrupted a text already precariously balanced between fiction and reality.
Explosions is a thrilling read and Jensen’s sharp and lyrical translation lives up to the promise of Poulin’s excellent confidence trick of a narrative. The balance between a plot that frequently and deliberately jumps the shark and characters that almost universally take themselves and each other so painfully seriously is a difficult one to achieve in any language, and Explosions almost always succeeds brilliantly. The ending may be hit-or-miss for some readers, but in light of the rest of the book, it is well worth it.
Poulin, Mathieu. Explosions: Michael Bay and the Pyrotechnics of the Imagination. Translated by Aleshia Jensen. QC Fiction, 2018.