Review

The Original Face

by Guillaume Morissette

Esplanade Books, 2017

The deadpan, world-weary voice we loved from New Tab is back. In The Original Face, a novel about the gig economy, this time it’s Daniel delivering the withering one-liners, directed more often than not at himself.

It opens with “‘I don’t think I’ve ever wanted inner peace,’ I typed to Eloise on Facebook Chat. ‘Inner warfare seems so much better,’” a sentence that’s crying out to be quoted in every review. But the followup is almost equally good, coming one sentence later. “It didn’t feel good or bad, but neither, like a tree.”

Self-deprecation? Check. Offbeat references that somehow just work? Check. Yep, we’re in a Guillaume Morissette novel all right.

The air-conditioned Starbucks seems “weatherless, like a kind of non-season.” The future, “as usual, seemed dark.” Daniel is a freelance web designer, “which sounded okay, but essentially meant ‘70% unemployed.’” He’s also a “new media artist,” spending “the past few months deeply uninspired, unable to come up with anything, not even a simple tweet, just passively staring at my computer screen like it was some sort of hypnotic lawn ornament.”

Browsing the internet brings calm, “like a meditation retreat,” and we follow Daniel as he half-heartedly looks for work, member of the “easily distracted generation” that he is. The biggest change from New Tab, despite the obvious similarities in voice, is the emphasis on relationships, and The Original Face could almost be described as an exploration of the relationship between 29-year-old Daniel and Grace, who’s 32.

“She was more extroverted than me, seemed to feel energized around people, enjoyed talking and socializing and living her life unironically. […] We both tended to say ‘I am sorry’ a lot, were always trying to out-apologize one another, as if our relationship was a kind of BDSM in which the safe word was ‘sorry.’”

Every page is a delight, the text reading like an entertaining inner monologue: fun and poignant and empty at the same time. But just as everything begins to feel perhaps a little too similar to New Tab, thoughts turn to leaving Montreal—and Grace—behind and heading to Toronto.

“Every four years or so,” Daniel explains, “I always end up doing something drastic to fuck up my life. It’s like the Olympics of poor life planning.”

There’s something vaguely deadened and robotic about the writing (helped by an insistance on always saying “I am” in full, never “I’m”), which is perfect for a “financially impotent” character whose entire life is about going through the motions in a like-obsessed world in which religion has been reduced to “The Lord is my whatever.” And there’s perhaps no better setting for going through the emotions than Toronto, “a city of grim productivity and career opportunities, the perfect environment in which to rediscover your inner adult,” a place where even the surroundings aren’t giving their all:

“I stood outside and looked at the sky, which was moonless and uneven, a kind of patchwork of every cloud available on short notice.”

And so Daniel finds himself “massively alone” in Toronto, browsing his life away, and “surviving by living like an insect, eating nothing but tofu, peanut butter, ramen noodles, dollar store ketchup, bread, or rice.”

“Jobs are a place where you lie about having a personality to get money,” he learns. A job in a call centre, complete with “beige walls, claustrophic lighting, outdated training computers,” leads to three main thoughts:

  1. “Please don’t tell anyone I work in a call centre.”
  2. “This is a new low point in my life.”
  3. “Let’s just get through this. At least they’re paying us.”

“This is such a depressing waste of time,” he concludes. “This isn’t my life. My life is going nowhere working on art stuff. How do I get back to my life?”

The joke doesn’t wear thin. Sure, there’s no real progression in the plot, but that’s a device not a failing as Daniel continues to turn in circles, his repartee with the reader as reliably self-deprecating as it is delicious. The tone is more jaded than cynical and Daniel and his artist friends have plenty of interesting things to say about the world around them, too, especially when it comes to surviving as an artist and a freelancer, wondering if Spider-Man is secretly a story about pursuing a career as an artist (“the more time Peter spends as Spider-Man, the more impossible it is for him to do his day job properly”) and pointing out that this isn’t The Hunger Games: someone else being successful doesn’t mean that you’re not.

“‘How long can I really keep up this freelancing thing?’ I thought. ‘It’ll be fine just as long as my health never fails and I am a robot,’ I thought,” words deserving of a Post-It note of their own at the top of every freelancer’s monitor.

As with New Tab, The Original Face is insanely quotable (“Staring at my own Tumblr account, I absent-mindedly looked for the ‘Unfollow’ button.” … “I began to feel as if my anxiety was having an orgasm.”). The imagery is often depressing if not outright depressed, but there’s also something lovely and just right about it, a friend “distant and forlorn and unreachable, like a dying star,” for example.

A trip to visit Grace’s family in Newfoundland injects some action into the proceedings (“I sensed that Grace’s family was observing how Grace and I were interacting as a couple, making me feel like we were performing ‘being a couple’ in front of them, as if our visit to Newfoundland also doubled as an advertisement for our relationship.”), although is seems all too natural near the end of the novel for Daniel to confess to wanting nothing out of life, no desire to live somewhere nicer, have a kid, put some money aside for when he’s older, that kind of thing.

“‘Don’t bash nothing,’ I said. ‘Wanting nothing from life is a perfectly valid option.’”

The Original Face, it seems, is precisely what happens when you want nothing from life, a novel that describes not just a state of mind, but its consequences too.

“My own future laughed at me,” comes as perhaps the only possible conclusion. Quirky, if a little bleak.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Peter McCambridge