by Jean-Philippe Baril Guérard
Éditions de Ta Mère, 2018
“I’ve never felt so involved with a story about the GPA of a guy I really hate,” reads one memorable Goodreads review of Jean-Philippe Baril Guérard’s second novel, Royal. If you’re prepared to say the same thing about the ins and outs of a fictional Montreal startup, then Manuel de la vie sauvage is the book for you.
The company in question, Huldu, is developing a series of chatbots that let people talk to loved ones who have died, first via text then, in a later iteration, using the latest voice technology. It’s an illusion, yes, based on data from past conversations, but why wouldn’t it work? After all, “we’re very attached to photos and they get us to react even when the person isn’t really there.”
Huldu is out to hack death. “A big mandate,” they concede.
The upside? “‘This is Gabriel,’ she says. ‘Gabriel died five years ago. We used his digital archives to build a chatbot for his friends and family. You can talk to him, if you like.'”
And then there’s the downside:
“When we look back in 50 years,” reads one newspaper article, “we’ll be able to point to the arrival of Huldu as the moment we lost our humanity.”
The stakes are high and, given the subject matter, it’s tempting to crack open the book expecting an episode of Black Mirror, “Be Right Back” in particular. That’s the temptation, but it’s more apt – and perhaps fairer on the novel and the author’s intentions – to compare it to a series of a podcast like Startup. Because we’re in the weeds of a tech startup. The app’s social implications are largely relegated to the background, as are the private lives of the three company founders we follow most closely.
This comes as less of a surprise if we view the three books as a trilogy, with no shortage of parallels and recurring characters in this parallel world of Baril Guérard’s creation. Sports and Pastimes focused on brunch, vacations, theatre, fine dining, and bad sex. Royal focused on a study environment where “you feel like you’re at the wedding of a colleague you don’t particularly like,” and here comes Manuel de la vie sauvage to zoom in on the workplace in 21st century Montreal.
What we’re served up is office life, complete with its fair share of stress and boredom. The hirings and firings, the lawsuits, the everyday details.
“One month later, we pass 100,000 users, not without a few technical hiccups along the way: the growth is beyond our expectations and we find ourselves having to upgrade our servers every week… which leads to more costs.”
Such details add authenticity but they also (knowingly) undermine the drama. This, after all, is a story we know will work out. It’s a success story, a how-to guide in novel form. The pleasure comes not from wondering if it will all pan out, but the narrative is weighed down with so much detail that the near-future premise becomes credible. The problem, I would argue, is that the novel is such a slow-burn that by page 170, just over halfway through, we’re only beginning to see what this new technology might involve.
It’s all deliciously cynical – what else would we expect from Jean-Philippe Baril Guérard? – and perhaps the biggest surprise comes from how character-driven the whole enterprise is, and this despite the author’s intention to focus less on the individuals and more on the business side of things. Because whatever the premise, whatever the near-future undertones, whatever the hyper-realism that gives the book the making-of feel of a documentary, it’s a testament to Jean-Philippe Baril Guérard’s skill as a novelist that we almost have to remind ourselves that this is a novel. It’s a novel populated by characters who feel and sound real, in a world that’s so realistic it seems almost overly familiar, virtually unremarkable even.
There are life lessons to be learned along the way, ranging from insights (“The problem with scruples is that they’re a luxury reserved for people who have unlimited resources. And resources are always limited.”) to platitudes (“It’s by losing ourselves that we forge new paths,” “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”) to self-indulgences as our narrator compares his idea to the “first flight by the Wright Brothers” and “perhaps the first human being striking two rocks against each other to light a fire.”
The exercise isn’t without risks, and the execution isn’t without flaws. The editorials in the newspapers and the government’s reaction come right at the end of the novel, almost an afterthought. But, to be fair, these issues are explored, or at least touched on, throughout. How else should the novelist have addressed them? By manufacturing a series of crises, a personal drama? What about the Camille episode and the lawsuit brought by Gabriel’s family? What about the data breach and its memorable consequences? Looking back, knowing what we know at the end of the novel, it becomes increasingly clear that these issues were addressed, not always explicitly, not always dramatically, but they were addressed throughout.
The novel’s first-person perspective limits our point of view, encouraging us to see events from the viewpoint of the company and its founders, and when combined with the book’s cynicism, a series of narrative techniques deliberately undercut and distance us from a set of not especially likeable characters (our narrator, for example, describes himself as “devastated” every time tragedy befalls him. The distancing effect created by the repetition – unconscious on the narrator’s part, no doubt very deliberate on the author’s – deprives him of any empathy the reader might have felt).
It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the book is best described as cold. It refuses to tug on the reader’s heart strings, holding its characters at arm’s length from us, mustering not quite enough emotion for page-turning drama and not quite enough questions for a thought-provoking argument.
Review by Peter McCambridge