by Alexie Morin
Le Quartanier, 2018
One eye that doesn’t give a shit about the other: on Ouvrir son coeur by Alexie Morin
Walking into a bookstore, I sometimes feel like I get a kind of nausea just thinking about how many books are published every year or how all the interesting books I am being offered right now will be replaced by another batch of all-new interesting books within a few months, if not weeks. Because of this brutal competition for attention, books sometimes feel a little desperate in their marketing, shouting insane hyperboles at you (“A once-in-a-lifetime staggeringly brilliant novel – Gary Shteyngart”) or using made-up words like “unputdownable,” as if being unable to put a book down was a good thing (What if my arms get tired?). One of my favourite novels I’ve read in 2018, Ouvrir son coeur by Alexie Morin, published by Le Quartanier last fall, takes a different route. Instead of a generic plot summary written by a bored marketing person or committee, the back cover features a note written by the author that addresses the reader directly, demonstrating the book’s vulnerability without revealing too much. “This is a book called Ouvrir son coeur,” Morin’s note reads. “The topic of this book is shame.” It’s a “show, don’t tell” kind of strategy, but applied to marketing for a change, an approach I found so refreshing that it instantly made me picture a world in which all consumer products were using vulnerability as a marketing strategy (“This is a product called Minute Maid Orange Juice. It was made out of the very best oranges we could find, plus a few other ones that looked kind of iffy, but we didn’t have the heart to throw them out because food waste is terrible, so we used them anyway. All the oranges that were used to make this product are trying really hard to please you.”) I ended up impulse-purchasing Ouvrir son coeur, then I tore through it like Garfield eating a lasagna.
Last fall, two articles with essentially the same premise, which is that the next “great Canadian novel,” whatever that means, may originate from Québec, were published back-to-back in national publications, first in The Walrus, then in The Globe and Mail. While it was nice to see a fresh call for more titles by Québec writers being made available through translation, it also felt like the authors of both articles were viewing Québec literature a little too much like a mystery box, like an alien tree that somehow grew in their backyard and may or may not end up gifting them the “ideal” book they seem to be seeking. It felt strange to be reading, around the same time the two articles were circulating online, a genuinely great Canadian novel written by a Québécois author, but one that wasn’t at all the type of book the authors of both articles seemed to be pining for (something like a novel of society that critiques power). In Canada, the Franco and Anglo literary worlds often feel out of sync. Books are published in French, discussed, handed awards, etc., but by the time they come out in translation (when they do), the Franco literary world has already moved on so that it can discuss another batch of new books. The same is true for English novels, whose translations generally come out in Québec a year or two after their peaks in the Anglo literary world. To achieve a unified concept of a “national literature” in Canada, you almost need a kind of double vision, like putting on cheap paper 3D glasses so that you see two different colours at the same time. It seems sad to think about how in the Anglo literary world, we usually wait for a translation to come out to talk about books by Québécois authors, then we’re disappointed when the translated book fails to receive media attention or find its audience outside of Québec. Why do we do that? Why not start the hype train early?
By Ouvrir son coeur (“Opening Your Heart”, in English), the author means confiding yourself to someone, telling someone your private thoughts. This book is not a fast-paced thriller or a dystopian fantasy novel about a magical boy from Ireland who has to save the world from an evil pharmacist or something, but a study of what it means to grow up as a social recluse, to be made to feel regularly inadequate, to be doomed to live an internal life that’s so strong yet seems impenetrable to the outside world, to be permanently trapped in “the hermetic stone cylinder” of your mind and to be condemned to relive in your head small but devastating humiliations from childhood that continue to find their way into your adult life. The novel sometimes feels like watching a person who’s trying to puzzle her youth back together, analyzing it like it’s a crime scene. “Is it possible to be traumatized by nothing?” the author asks herself at one point.
Though the novel feels, for a reader, much closer to nonfiction than it does to fiction, Morin is often suspicious of the distortion that writing creates (“Writing is an exercise of transformation and simplification at the end of which lies death and solitude”) and the limitations of memory, which is “already a form of storytelling.” The author writes, “I stared writing this book thinking my memories would be waiting for me like clothes in a wardrobe. […] Every time I tried to write this book, it ran away from me, then I abandoned it. Do I have the right to write about her, to write about me, when I’ve forgotten so much?” In terms of genre, I am not even sure I know how to classify this book. Is it a memoir because the material explored is largely “true” or is it a novel because the author admits being unsure of her own memories and seems dismayed by how much she’s forgotten? Many authors would turn a project like this into a semi-autographical novel, but here, this ambiguity becomes part of the fabric of the book, which I admire.
The novel loosely follows the narrator, Morin, and her childhood friend Fannie, who both have physical challenges that set them apart from other children early in life. One, Fannie, was born with a heart defect that constantly puts her near death’s door while the other, the narrator, has severe convergent strabismus in her left eye. Fannie is a golden, miraculous child who’s beloved like a kind grandmother while the narrator has a hard time fitting in at school and relentlessly worries about talking too much, about saying the wrong thing, about having failed cryptic “tests” others laid out for her. When the girls come together, the games they play have a morbid subtext as they use the imaginary world as an environment in which they can explore the uncertainty of Fannie’s condition, picturing what “going on a long journey” would feel like. The narrator ends up mystifying her parents by asking them beautiful, unanswerable koan-like questions like, “If life after death doesn’t exist, how can I be conscious?”
The book unfolds in fragments (some are fairly short, others take up several pages) that are organized in what feels like a kind of superb disorder, as if this story couldn’t be told linearly, from point A to point B, but had to be recounted in “emotional time” by following different threads and memories instinctively, regardless of where they lead. We start with a book launch in present-day Sherbrooke, then we move backwards in time to the author’s childhood in Windsor in the Estrie region of Québec where we read anecdotes from childhood, then high school, then we’re in university, then no wait it’s back to the book launch, now here’s a poem, then we return to high school, now we’re at the book launch again, etc. Reading the novel, I felt in awe of Morin’s ability to resist linearity and weave in different timelines without ever making me feel lost, like watching someone play five games of Jenga simultaneously without any of the towers ever collapsing. It’s possible that the novel’s oddball but enjoyable structure is due to a painful memory from childhood that’s shared about midway through the book. It’s almost as if Morin couldn’t tackle this memory directly and first needed to build up her strength and stamina by approaching it from different angles, like climbing Mt. Everest and going up and down the mountain several times so that the body can get used to various altitudes before the summit can be reached.
Besides Ouvrir son coeur, there’s another expression in French that perfectly encapsulates this book: “Un autre regard,” which means a different perspective, another way of looking at things. Because of her eye, the narrator is rarely told she’s pretty and doesn’t receive a lot of positive validation for her physical appearance, so she ends up developing a different relationship to her looks than many girls her age around her, allowing her to see what others can’t. This is literature of the outsider, an artful antisocial novel.
Shortly before high school, a physical altercation involving the narrator and an acquaintance tears the two friends apart. “I regretted how this incident likely destroyed my friendship with Fannie forever, but I never regretted the punch itself,” Morin writes. The narrator spends the rest of her formative years largely by herself, choosing to withdraw from people to observe them from afar, forming “a series of memories in which [she is] not present.” She loves to read, draw and write, but hates feeling stupid, as she worries she doesn’t have anything to offer the outside world beyond her intelligence. Her ADHD goes undiagnosed for a very long time. Her eye condition gives her “the power of repulsion,” which helps her keep others at arm’s length, but also causes emotional pain (“Every time I was photographed, it felt like being hit in the chest.”) She mistrusts and fears others, then feels ashamed of this fear. Over time, she becomes moody and defiant (“I was complicating everything, judging everyone and everything, and doing the opposite on purpose”), the kind of person who feels a little bit like a thunderstorm. If you grew up as a social outcast, Ouvrir son coeur will probably deeply resonate with you as the novel shows how an anxious teenager can blossom into an assertive intellectual that nonetheless retains the ability to magically revert into a puddle of anxiety at any moment. In the sections of the book that take place during the narrator’s adult years in Montreal, we see how this legacy of anxiety, inadequacy and emotional turmoil make her desires frequently contradictory, almost paradoxical. In one scene, she runs into an acquaintance who knew her in high school. She fears he’ll bring up how she used to be back then, but he acts like he’s forgotten and can only see the person she is now. Feeling frustrated that he’s not acknowledging their shared history, she brings the topic up herself, then immediately wonders why she just did that.
Personally, I’d love to see some sort of national survey of anxiety levels amongst writers, just to see how many writers out there are simply people who suffer from daily anxiety, tend to overthink things, etc., and for whom writing is a more efficient form of communication, a way to record what you wish you could tell people in your life but can’t because anxiety, negative self-talk and the general anarchy of being alive keep getting in the way.
When you live in a city like Montreal, it feels like everyone you meet is from somewhere else. Every time you’re introduced to a new person, you end up explaining where you’re from, which sends you right back to your origin point. You spent your formative years dreaming of escaping your roots, then you move to a new city where you’re always talking about them. People around you usually lack a frame of reference to truly understand what your hometown was like, but they tell you that it sounds quaint. You tell them that your high school years were a gauntlet, that you’re lucky to have been amongst those who “made it out,” who “turned out okay.” Not everyone you remember from high school “turned out okay.”
Repeated failed social interactions can produce a fundamental fear of being alive. You start to think you’ll never fully figure out how to be a person in the universe, that the best you can hope for is maybe experiencing success and riding a wave of self-confidence for a little while before you inevitably end up getting in your own way again. You learn to cherish repetition instead of trying new things, because repetition, while unexciting, produces a predictable outcome. You resign yourself to spending most of your time alone not because you want to, but because it feels like your safest alternative. One problem with spending too much time alone, though, is that it can make you recede into yourself, pull away from the real world, just a little bit, so that you can cocoon yourself in your mental world. It’s a change that happens slowly and gradually, like drowning in invisible quicksand, so you barely notice it. Then one day, something happens that requires your full, immediate presence and you realize that you now have a hard time leaving the cocoon. When the narrator is told of Fannie’s death, she’s troubled by her own lack of reaction. She tries to fake it, but the faking somehow feels even more unbearable. “I tried to say things like, ‘Oh my god,’ but it just made things worse,” Morin writes. “I couldn’t bear to hear myself talk.”
We all wish we could go back to childhood to give the past version of ourselves what we feel we lacked, but a novel like Ouvrir son coeur asks: What exactly do we find when we look back on unresolved formative experiences, on pain? Maybe we find that our feelings have held remarkably steady (“The farther back in time I go, the rawer my emotions are,” Morin writes. “In the end, they boil down to a fear of disappearing, a fear of being abandoned.”) or maybe we find that all those original feelings of bitterness, of anger, of confusion, of deep incompatibility have somehow dulled or evaporated over time, so now all that’s left is a kind of love, a deep appreciation of the imperfect people who have marked our lives and our imaginations in some form or another.
Review by Guillaume Morissette