Daniel Kerry, protagonist of Guillaume Morissette’s third book, The Original Face, is stranded in a creative drought. Twenty-nine years old, he’s spent months “just passively staring at my computer screen like it was some sort of hypnotic lawn ornament.” Broke and feeling profoundly out of place among the young Montreal artists he gets drunk with, he wonders if moving to Toronto will shake things up.
The only problem is Daniel’s girlfriend, Grace, who understands his neuroses and doesn’t want to leave Montreal. He worries that she will be upset if he breaks up with her, but fortunately, Grace totally gets it. He decides that he really likes her after all. Would a long-distance relationship be the worst thing in the world? At some point, he also decides to quit drinking. Sobriety, he explains, feels like a “secret weapon.”
Things don’t improve for Daniel in Toronto. He gets a job but quits on the first day. He gets stressed because Grace is pressing him to earn a living. He finds work as an ESL teacher. Eventually, he regrets his decision to relocate. He returns to Montreal and moves in with Grace. He gets a full-time job he doesn’t like at a company that specializes in search-engine optimization. He goes out with friends and does mushrooms. He and Grace get cats. His friend Jane invites him to exhibit some art in a show with her. He does, and he feels good about it. His friend Eloise asks him to do a show with her in New York. While he’s attending the opening, he misses his bus back to Montreal and doesn’t bother to tell his boss he won’t be back. He gets fired. He has a fight with Grace. She wants children, but he’s not sure he does, because of climate change. She tells him things aren’t working anymore. He wonders if he’s better off alone. The end.
Clearly, Morissette is not particularly interested in plot—if by plot we mean a series of events linked by something more than chronological sequence. In Daniel’s world, time passes, things happen, more time passes, different things happen. Consider the following characteristic passage, which takes place after a show:
A few minutes later, Elliot, Jane, Grace, Roberto, Ashlyn and I all stood in a semi-circle in an alley outside the space, sharing weed. We chatted for a while, then I realized that the drug was hitting me harder than I thought it would. I zoned out, found myself focusing on Grace’s nose and then on Elliot’s nose, imagining the noses detaching themselves from their faces, challenging one another to a duel, a kind of sword fight.
“Grace, I completely forgot to tell you,” said Ashlyn. “Congratulations on passing physics.”
“Thank you,” said Grace. “I did it! My final mark wasn’t even that bad. I was so relieved when I saw my grade and I realized that I hadn’t failed. I can finally
apply to physical therapy.”
“That’s so great,” said Ashlyn.
“Whoa, look at the moon tonight,” said Jane, pointing at the sky. “It’s so bright and badass.”
There are whole chapters of this kind of banal transcription, which Morissette occasionally punctuates with clever-sounding aphorisms: “when I am dead, take my ashes and make a computer with them,” or “wondering if my internet presence was only giving me the illusion of career progress, instead of actual progress.” While the writing is occasionally funny (and I should note that Morissette can be funny), it feels an awful lot like raw material he never bothered to integrate organically into the text.
If one were generous, one might call it realism; after all, this is what day-to-day life is like. But where good realist writing illuminates the world, showing us things we are inclined to look over or forget, there is very little enlightenment of any kind to be found in The Original Face. The author might well argue that this is the point—that the whole novel is an exploration of the formlessness of existence. As we learn from Daniel, the original face is a Buddhist concept that refers “to the face you had before you were born, before your parents were born, back when you were nothing.” The notion of being “nothing” is key for Morissette. Daniel experiences himself as a kind of blank slate where ambition or appetite should be, and his great struggle lies in coming to terms with his own desire for self-erasure. He at once envies Grace for her well-adjusted attitude about life—her appreciation for friendship, work, and family—and views it as suspect. Because he can’t bring himself to invest in these things himself, he floats through life trying to find space to make his “post internet” art, which seems to mostly consist of manipulated video sequences based around gifs and glitches and is also about a complicated relationship to nothingness.
The problem with that line of reasoning is that there’s a difference between art that is about boredom and ennui and art that is itself boring and enervating. To be sure, the self-as-void has been the source of much excellent literature. Chekhov’s exquisite “A Boring Story,” for example, portrays a man struggling with his own growing absence from himself in the months before his death in ways that are startling and profoundly human. One thinks of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which presents a very fine, funny, and moving portrait of a character who refuses to play along with capitalistic rules. We could also talk of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, in which the protagonist, Ulrich, experiences himself as a void, completely shaped by the expectations of the world around him.
If this is the sort of thing Morissette is attempting, he falls short for the simple reason that his narration leaves no room for ironic distance. The Original Face does a very poor job of convincing me that Daniel’s problems are anything more than those of a self-absorbed young man who has spent most of his life insulated from life’s sharp edges. One of the book’s high points comes when we’re told about how Daniel opened the refrigerator door to get the tin of cat food, opened the tin so he could feed the cat while the cat meowed, and then walked into the other room and told his girlfriend that he had fed the cat. If Daniel is struggling with a desire to be nothing, his version of nothing is indistinguishable from a life of lower-middle-class white privilege.
Born in 1984, Morissette is what has come to be called an “old millennial,” someone in the upper range of the generation born between the early eighties and late nineties. For the record, I am only four years Morissette’s junior, which places me directly in the middle of the millennial pack. We were the first to come of age with the internet; for us, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, and other social media platforms are not simply tools, but rather play an active role in shaping how we understand identity. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that as millennials become novelists and poets, the world they portray and the stories they tell touch on the role these new technologies play in how people imagine themselves and connect to others.
For his facility in doing this, Morissette has been lauded. The Original Face earned accolades from Quill & Quire, Québec Reads, and the Montreal Review of Books, and an approving comparison to The Great Gatsby in a profile for The Montreal Gazette. Most of these reviews glossed over the less salubrious aspects of the novel, singling out Morissette’s occasional witty zingers and ignoring the punishing blandness of the vast tracts of his prose. The singular refrain is that Morissette has written a serious novel about millennials and the difficulties they face: the gig economy, a moribund financial outlook, climate-change anxiety, etc. I suppose in a world where millennials are routinely derided for their breakfast choices, acknowledging that the problems millennials face are not entirely of their own making is enough to warrant praise.
The problem is that The Original Face feels so painfully millennial at times that one is forced to wonder if it isn’t an elaborate practical joke. It’s not just that the novel is littered with millennial stereotypes—young people who hate working, social-media neurotics, commitmentphobic sexuality, cheap anti-establishmentarianism, internet irony, narcissistic pop art, an obsession with self-expression—it is that the novel is made up of little else. We spend over 200 pages in Daniel’s head, but we don’t get any real sense of who he is. His personal history is a bare sketch, his motives are opaque even to himself; the only thing holding the story together is Daniel’s own bafflement in confronting his list of non-problems. As a millennial, Daniel’s world is intimately familiar to me. I know all about the self-loathing brought on by spending an entire Friday night on Twitter, I recognize the social anxiety, I have felt the pleasure of quitting a soulless job. I, too, have been drunk with artists in Montreal. This is just the furniture of modern life. Anybody can write about these things. The challenge is saying something fresh about them.
The new novel betrays many of the flaws that Katie Heindl flagged in her savaging of his Morissette’s 2012 poetry/fiction mash-up I Am My Own Betrayal. In her review, Heindl took him to task for his “lazy, woe is me, whiney perspective” and rhetorically asks how entitled Morissette must be “to think [his] redundant experiences or the failure to interact sincerely with the people around [him] warrants a short story.” Alas, The Original Face simply continues to chronicle the experiences of a creative urban dude whose life sounds suspiciously like the protagonist of Morissette’s 2014 novel, New Tab. Any differences are cosmetic: New Tab’s Thomas is enrolled in a creative-writing program and works as a video-game developer, whereas Daniel is an artist. Both move in Anglophone Montreal’s bohemian circles; are by turns anxious, depressed, and numb; don’t much enjoy things; and generally lack any real curiosity about the world or the people around them.
As millennial writers come into their own in Canada, and other parts of the English-speaking world, trends are starting to emerge. Morissette’s writing epitomizes the worst excesses of a certain millennial strain: insularity, incurious self-involvement, and stylistic immaturity—a style, that is, conceived in the chat rooms of the alt-lit movement and whelped in chapbooks. Those interested in this particular kind of writing might more profitably consider the work of writers such as Stephen Thomas or Jay Ritchie, both of whom are more elegant stylists than Morissette, even if they share his penchant for performative glumness.
Thomas, for example, is also preoccupied with aimlessness and the difficulties of contemporary masculinity, but his lean, minimal prose allows his protagonists’ numbness and confusion to come through more affectingly. Where Morissette’s prose often gets bogged down in meaningless stage business, Thomas makes every sentence contribute to the sense of alienation his stories are about and engender. Consider this marvellous ending to his story “The Man Who Wouldn’t Leave the Park”:
He looked around the kitchen, at this space they had made together. Broad knives on the magnetic strip on the wall. Freshly laundered tea towels folded over the stove’s handle. A section of a burnt crust on the floor, below the toaster. This room would be here forever, he thought, but neither of them would be in it.
It’s a story about the life cycle of a relationship, and, as such, it’s pretty ordinary fare, but the way Thomas gives his list of ordinary domestic objects weight and momentum and then drives them into the spartan simplicity of that last sentence, with its clean, monosyllabic rhythm that scans like poetry, where it reaches its dreadful terminus. I am not particularly interested in stories about the romantic entanglements of young, urban people, but at least Thomas gives me something stylistic to chew on.
Fortunately, this is not the only way of being a millennial on offer; the far more mature and challenging work of writers such as Spencer Gordon and Jon Chan Simpson appropriate and wrestle with millennial culture in much more nuanced, thoughtful, and entertaining ways, while the recently released and forthcoming short-fiction collections of Camilla Grudova and Paige Cooper push the formal and stylistic envelope in new and surprising ways. But what makes these writers noteworthy, and, I hope, representative of the direction in which this generation is moving, is their ability to synthesize a vast range of influences into something that is both completely new and of its moment, and which serves as a commentary on the traditions that birthed it.
It isn’t of foremost importance that Grudova is drawing on twentieth-century European Gothic tropes blended with magical realism, feminism, and horror or that Simpson is channelling hip hop, folk tales, Asian diasporic politics, and Hollywood thrillers; what matters is that, in both cases, stories and novels become little laboratories for meaning, where ideas and images and archetypes can be banged together to produce a vital, illuminating spark. If there is anything that marks this generation off from our elders, it is the levelling and dissemination of culture the internet has made possible. There is no longer any meaningful debate to be had about “high” vs. “low” culture, underground contra mainstream. Literary nationalism feels as distant and unreal as the Cold War. Everything is available, and everything is material. Millennials don’t fight about aesthetics; we fight about politics and morality, which leads to forms of fundamentalism and pedantry that will, I’m sure, look just as tired and ridiculous to future generations as anxieties about the dangers of pulp fiction do to us.
What distinguishes Grudova, Simpson, Cooper, and Gordon (and this is not an exhaustive list) is what they do with their material. In their work, genre, style, and tradition create a sense of the world and its possible alternatives; they marshal their influences to expand and extol and damn, to share and to undermine and, finally, crucially, to communicate. When I read a Cooper story, “Vazova on Love” for example, I feel I have been transported into a strange country, a puzzling one, sensuous and potentially hostile, and I know she will reveal something to me if I stay very focused. With Morissette, I feel like I’m on a Greyhound bus stuck next to a stranger bent on recounting, in great detail, everything he did over the Christmas holiday.
Let me end with one further example by way of conclusion. Gordon’s debut story collection, Cosmo, hinges on a strange little piece called “Frankie+Hilary+Romeo+Abigail+Helen: An Intermission.” It’s less a story than a series of short bios of teen film and music stars from the late nineties and early 2000s. Stylistically, Gordon plays both with the detached language of the professional bio and the dry data presentation of an internet wiki. But he is also playing with our assumptions about what culture counts as Culture and why. By treating the lives of now moribund teen celebrities—surely one of the most derided and pathetic by-products of pop culture’s tireless grind—with a sense of dignity, he invites a reckoning with the vacuity of most human accomplishment and with mortality itself. Gordon ends the sequence by breaking the pattern and giving us a bio of Helen Keller, which feels both ridiculous and absolutely perfect; when we get to the emotionally devastating last paragraph, it feels inevitable and totally surprising. It’s a clever and provocative piece of writing, and I find myself returning to it over and over again to remind myself of how it works and why.
Thinking about it now, it makes me excited to see what this generation will accomplish when it hits its stride. And it makes me hope Morissette, on his next literary outing, will be moved to catch up.