The Original Face
Véhicule Press, 2017.
$19.95, 231 pages.
“Post-internet art often employed a nostalgia-as-novelty approach,” explains Daniel Kerry, the narrator and protagonist of The Original Face, Guillaume Morissette’s follow-up to 2014’s celebrated New Tab. The key words are indeed novelty and nostalgia, but Morissette reverses his protagonist’s priorities: his approach here is novelty-as-nostalgia.
The Original Face is all about the new—or so it seems. In fact, it mourns a time when the new was actually new: “I thought about the late-1990s and making a website for the first time,” says the narrator and anti-hero, Daniel. “How freeing and exciting the internet had felt back then.” The novel’s vision is aimed backward. Set at a time when the internet is everything, it pledges its allegiance to the continued relevance of the traditional novel.
In New Tab, the tension between new and old takes the shape of a satisfying ironic reversal: Thomas, a video-game designer, finds his path in good old-fashioned poetry! Less obviously metafictional, The Original Face avoids such easy distinctions, keeping its exploration of creativity and art squarely in the digital realm. Its artists do internet art, and Morissette does them the justice of allowing them to be serious about it. Art, for them, is far more than just a lifestyle. Not that they aren’t full of doubt; throughout the novel, Daniel can be found “convincing myself I was a ‘good artist’ while also knowing how pointless it was to be one.” In the end he wonders: “What if art wasn’t a career after all, but just a hobby I felt comfortable dumping infinite hours into?”
Daniel’s quandary, which is by no means new, is directly linked to his conflicted self: “‘I don’t think I’ve ever wanted inner peace,’ I typed to Eloise on Facebook Chat. ‘Inner warfare just seems so much better.’” The novel’s opening lines will seem very familiar to readers of New Tab. But Daniel’s “inner warfare” is real, and unsettling. This psychological torment has its analogue in the narrative’s prevailing mood and central division between the new and the known. Compared with the earlier novel’s rather benign confusions, Morissette’s new novel is less funny, its irony more cutting, its outlook less sympathetic. “The future, as usual, seemed dark,” says Daniel, channelling Beckett. The future never really brightens for him.
The Original Face still covers familiar ground. Its setting is more varied than that of New Tab, moving from Montreal to Toronto and back, with excursions to Newfoundland and New York, but it is still essentially a Montreal novel. Characters have the familiar listlessness and yearning for significance. Morissette captures their lives and foibles deftly, like the sober guy at the party; he’s got that watchful eye that makes it slightly uncomfortable to be friends with a novelist. Too self-conscious to enjoy their ample freedom, the characters drift from bar to party to bar to student flat, work uninspiring day jobs, resent parental offers of support, do drugs not for fun or escape but for relief from social awkwardness, insomnia, inertia, and pervasive anxiety. They are keenly aware of global warming and racial inequality. They know Google and Facebook are probably exploiting them, but what makes them quake is the prospect of disconnecting: “Spilling water onto a laptop is all it takes for me to reconsider my entire life.”
For all its familiarity, The Original Face reveals a more serious side of Morissette. Less successful as a novel and less enjoyable to read than New Tab, The Original Face still manages to be more impressive. This second novel may disappoint those seeking Morissette’s signature self-deprecation and humour, but it will repay those hoping for clues of his possible future as a writer. The novelist is discovering his powers, apparently not quite where he’s found success so far. It is an uneven book, but its unevenness suggests not a writer running out of steam or ideas, but a writer gathering his powers, figuring things out. Only the next novel can show whether this is true, but the promise is unmistakable.
At first glance, The Original Face is a simple book “in a good way,” to quote Daniel’s pet phrase. It reads easily, making few demands on our attention. But the simplicity is deceptive: this novel is ambitious, reaching beyond its grasp. Morissette discards the deadpan comedy and mild satire of New Tab in search of a new form of expression, something truly “post-internet,” yet lasting and meaningful. For readers, the novel’s subtle complexity is likely to translate into a complicated response, an oscillation between frustration and respect that will be evident throughout this review.
While New Tab was about the life of 20-somethings in Montreal circa 2010, The Original Face is fundamentally about art, its value, its function, and its future; though its explorations are mostly covert, they’re worth the closer read. What is an artist who’s stopped updating his Tumblr? More so than New Tab, The Original Face belongs to the growing family of autofictions concerned with artistic aspiration and doubts, notably Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and Rachel Cusk’s Outline.
Its closest kin, to my eye, are a novel that is over 20 years old—Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story—and a recent film featuring puppets—Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. Both are in a completely different league from Morissette’s novel. Still, the malaise pervading The Original Face recalls Anomalisa’s dystopic take on contemporary existence. And, like Davis, Morissette explores artistic devotion and misgiving in a weary voice suggestive of moral and psychic exhaustion. The comparisons may seem strange, since Davis’s novel and Kaufman’s film have nothing to do with the internet. Well, in a very real sense, neither does The Original Face.
Unlike New Tab, a pretty traditional coming-of-age story, The Original Face carefully—even studiously—frustrates generic and modal expectations. Spanning approximately one year, the two novels have comparable durations, but The Original Face has a more ambiguous trajectory. It is generically promiscuous—as resistant to commitment as Daniel. It’s a romantic comedy that ends too late. It’s a coming-of-age story that ends too soon, before we can tell if or how Daniel might have grown. It’s an odyssey, but Daniel’s homecoming finds him unmarked by his travels, unchanged by experience, righteously believing that failing proves his integrity. It’s a quest whose object of desire is granted too easily, then taken away without any sense of loss. By favouring moments of illumination (however dim) over plot and event, it reads more like a short story than a novel—but occupies over 200 pages.
This generic shiftiness is coupled with a narrative constantly interrupted by long scenes of dialogue (in person or online) and, more disruptively, mundane fragments that read like entries in a diary or writer’s notebook. A representative sampling: “What is art except being the real estate agent of your own neuroses”; “Cut myself while shaving and went to a job interview looking like I was recently attacked by a crab”; and “A kind of capitalism that didn’t involve enslaving your users.” These fragments may irritate some readers, but they have an important function that goes beyond holding up a mirror to Daniel’s empty days. I’ll return to this point momentarily.
More subtly, the novel is riddled with individually-pointless but cumulatively-vital anecdotes. Most recount minor social mishaps and party accidents; those who remember their university years as a grab-bag of hilarious or poignant moments will know what I mean. One of these incidents occurs while Daniel and the rest of an uninspired bachelor party head to a strip club after taking mushrooms:
Walking down Parc Avenue a few minutes later, Roberto spotted a dog tied to a pole near a convenience store across the street. Wanting to pet the dog, an inebriated but high-energy Roberto crossed the street in a cavalier manner, apparently not realizing that he was running. This terrified the dog, which reacted by barking loudly and aggressively at him.
That’s just about it. The incident serves little purpose other than to punctuate an unremarkable evening. But combined with other such moments, it provides texture and liveliness largely missing from Morissette’s utilitarian prose and, more significantly, offers a crucial insight into Daniel’s psyche: these events occur mostly between places, when characters are drifting from one bar to another, from someone’s apartment to an art show, from a party to bed. We recognize that when Daniel is not alone at his computer, he is most in his element in the city’s open spaces—when social interactions are diffuse and limited to close friends. In the scenes that take place at parties, bars, and cultural events, the narrative moves inward, into Daniel’s alienated thoughts.
“Why did I do drugs?” he wonders at a party. “This is so mediocre.” This attitude characterizes his approach to most activities, other than working on his art and watching his cat. No wonder he finds with the Original Face—a Zen Buddhist notion of “becom[ing] nothing”—so “strangely hopeful.” Nothing is all you can hope for when you’re as self-absorbed and self-hating as Daniel. “I am a respected scholar in the field of my own problems,” he quips, illustrating the novel’s rank humour. Tongue-tied in social situations, he is fluent on the topic of his hang-ups, an unnerving trait. His poor girlfriend Grace must submit to it again and again and you can’t help wondering, along with Daniel himself, what awful experiences she must have gone through to make him seem tolerable in comparison.
In a decisive argument, Grace finds herself in the absurd position of explaining why she wants to go out for dinner, to which Daniel responds:
You know I don’t care about food all that much, so going out for food just feels like a waste of money to me. . . . I go along with it because I like seeing you happy, but it always feels like there’s a part of me that’s just sitting there resenting my dumb expensive restaurant food. I don’t know why you want me to go with you when you know it’s only fun for you.
Daniel tries so hard to seem considerate, but there’s no mistaking his egocentrism for sensitivity. “I like seeing you happy” is a beautifully back-handed way to talk about oneself—an art in which Daniel excels. Grace’s enjoyment of things Daniel doesn’t care for is, in his words, “fucked up” and “selfish.” He tells her so, believing like too many righteous young men that honesty excuses tactlessness. Novelists have no obligation to write likeable characters, and Morissette apparently sees no reason to do so with Daniel. There’s actually something inspiring about Daniel’s unpleasantness—Morissette commits to it with steely resolve, and it’s refreshing.
Daniel is not admirable and definitely not lovable, but his mania for making art is fascinating. Morissette does a good job of depicting this obsession without overplaying his hand. Throughout the novel, Daniel regards friends, food, a salary, sex, and love as inconveniences; they are minor annoyances that get in the way of his work. In New Tab, art was therapy; it was productive, helping Thomas overcome his social anxiety, fear of sex and commitment, and long-regretted decision to spend his life in video games. This narrative is satisfying, for better and for worse. For Daniel, art is also an escape—but not at all in the productive and socially-acceptable ways it is for Thomas. Art is an addiction.
Daniel has an addict’s single-mindedness, which is both chilling and, perversely, noble. Morissette recalls the futile intransigence of Milton’s Satan or Breaking Bad’s Walter White—characters who scoff at redemption and regret nothing, even though it gains them nothing. Daniel knows what would be good for him: “give up art entirely, give up on social media, marry Grace.” He may lack the eloquence of Milton’s Satan and the drive and resourcefulness of Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg, but shares their obstinate resignation. He is doomed, he knows it, and he won’t back down.
Readers shouldn’t have to like Daniel, but a question remains: why do Daniel’s friends like him? What do they see that the reader doesn’t? By liking Daniel so implausibly, his fellow characters compromise themselves as characters. The compromise is especially hard on the female characters. Jane and Eloise, members of Daniel’s artist community, supply the novel with its smartest lines, and Grace is its moral centre. But because these three central female characters constantly have to deal with Daniel’s inadequacies, they have little more to do in the novel than play the woman-with-a-heart-of-gold. Daniel lacks initiative, so their function is to make him speak, socialize, find work, and emote. They even manage his artistic career; every show he does is organized by Jane or Eloise, who invite him to participate.
The women’s agency may be part of the novel’s salutary feminist conscience. “The traditional male ideal is totally useless in contemporary society,” says Jane. “We don’t need buffed up warriors.” If so, it is a strong rebuke against Daniel, whose haplessness forces women into caregiving roles. Daniel is not a “buffed up warrior,” though he is, aggressively, a worrier. Nor is he one of the “reasonable, emotionally mature human beings” Jane would prefer. Unfortunately, the novel indulges his ego, giving far less attention to Jane and Eloise than they seem to demand. As for Grace, she supposedly talks a lot and well. Talking is her art-form, Daniel reports. Yet she never gets to demonstrate her skill. She has her share of dialogue, but as for her ability to charm and amuse—we have to take Daniel’s word for it.
Daniel’s word—or, rather, his way with words—is another troubling aspect of the novel. Morissette’s writing provokes the question of whether these oddities reflect Daniel’s personality or a limitation of the author’s style. Drunkenly crossing the street, Roberto runs “in a cavalier manner.” The weird phrasing is typical of this novel—fitting but frustrating. Similarly, Daniel tries to avoid a fight with Grace by speaking “in a calm tone.” Five pages later, he placates her “in a warm tone of voice.” Characters chat “in a relaxed manner,” ham it up “in an entertaining manner,” and get testy “in a threatening manner.” Whatever the intention, this simplistic writing style is a risky move, because it reads like sloppiness.
Daniel is quite eloquent in dialogue. Why is his narration so wooden? In New Tab, that style made more sense. Thomas is a Francophone who lives and writes in English, so the translation from emotion to expression is inevitably muddy. But in The Original Face, Daniel is an Anglophone. This might be part of Morissette’s attempt to move beyond the very autobiographical nature of his first novel. But Daniel protests too much, referring to his “broken French,” so often it’s hard not to start psychoanalysing.
The generous explanation is that such quirks are a product of Daniel’s cyborg consciousness. He is so thoroughly soaked in the digital that he “tried to imagine living [his] life without a computer, and it felt the same as trying to imagine living without a central nervous system.” Daniel interprets fellow humans, and himself, as computers: “A bored version of the NSA,” “a robot,” “a drone.” His desire to end a conversation with a co-worker triggers an image of “moving a cursor over his face and selecting Force Quit > Conversation.” Visiting an art gallery unsettles him because “it seemed strange to encounter an object of desire in real life, almost as if I wasn’t sure how to interact with it without the screen between us.”
As a robot, rather than as a human, Daniel provides many of the novel’s most arresting moments. When a conversation with a stranger falters, he thinks, “I felt like I wasn’t dealing with her directly, but as if she had redirected me to her customer support service.” Observing Grace chatting with a friend, he feels “oddly mesmerized by Grace, watching her face update itself in real-time with various expressions, her facial muscles re-engineering her skin, her eyebrows folding and then unfolding, like pliable chairs.” For a man so linked to his devices, a certain procedural style makes sense.
Other explanations for the stilted style come to mind: it suits Daniel’s anhedonia, mirrors his constitutional uncertainty, and hints at some past trauma (he is estranged from family for reasons we never learn—thank goodness). And yet . . . all these explanations make sense, but they don’t settle the question.
These and other such issues will strike different readers as more or less of a problem. Those more likely to forgive will see character and style as not particularly relevant to the novel’s goals. The Original Face is a novel of ideas, and novels of ideas are rarely loveable—even more rarely unflawed. The novel must be judged for its treatment of ideas.
The Original Face is a Zen Buddhist concept Daniel encounters in a book (not online, significantly) and explains as “the face you had before you were born . . . back when you were nothing.” The concept appeals to Daniel, either because he is searching for meaning that Buddhism might provide, or because he misinterprets it as a justification for nihilism. You can read it either or both ways.
The Original Face supplies Daniel with a name and conceit for his art installation—as it does for Morissette’s book. So what is the Original Face in the age of Instagram? In the attempt to answer this question, Morissette shows himself at his most ambitious. Whether the ambition pays off is a more complicated question; the answer depends on how the reader conceives of nostalgia and novelty.
Morissette is one of the faces of “Internet literature.” But if The Original Face is internet literature, what distinguishes that category from “pre-internet” literature? Speaking to The Puritan last year, Morissette defined the genre as “literature that is heavily influenced by, or about, or reflects, the Internet.” Well, The Original Face is definitely a novel of the Internet age; characters spend a lot of time online and communicate as much through Skype and social media as in person. But, for the most part, the internet’s role in the novel could easily be adapted to the pre-internet age; websurfing could be replaced with magazine skimming and Facebook chats with phone calls. Eloise could be talking about the novel itself when she complains that “calling it ‘internet art’ is sort of missing the point. It’s more like, [internet artists] speak from a personal perspective, and that perspective just happens to include the internet.” Morissette shows his cards.
The internet registers most profoundly in The Original Face as something ubiquitous against which to react. Daniel has an ambivalent relationship with technology. In his more positive moments he may well believe “tech doesn’t have to be devoid of warmth,” as the promotional materials for his show proclaim. But, on the whole, Morissette’s perspective is less ambivalent; whatever Daniel may feel, the novel has little love to show for the internet. Warmth is in short supply in The Original Face, and what little there is owes nothing to technology. Eloise is once again the novel’s spokeswoman: “I am so ready to ditch post-internet art. . . . The whole scene is just a massive circle jerk. Post-internet is dead.”
The cult of novelty creates an ache for what matters, and what matters, in the world of The Original Face, is what isn’t quite so new. Caught in the World Wide Web, the characters yearn for an authenticity that the novel situates in one place only: offline. Offline is the moon over the Montreal skyline, or the dream of “moving to a forest and logging off.” This hunger for meaning and beauty IRL pervades The Original Face, confirming what New Tab suggested. Call it what you will—Alt Lit, Internet literature, new sincerity, post-post-modernism—it’s Romanticism.
This statement is not a reproach, nor is it praise. It’s easy to overstate the novel’s contemporaneity. Still, despite its focus on concerns of today, The Original Face is a rather traditional novel. As “a spiritual quest for the digital era,” Morissette puts faith in the Romantic idea of art as the new religion. Luddites won’t disapprove of Daniel’s realization that “I need fewer images and more real people in my life.” The novel shares more with portraits of the artist by James Joyce or Leonard Cohen than with texts more profoundly shaped by the digital, like Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box” and Marisha Pessl’s novel Night Film. Even Generation X, which is essentially pre-internet, is formally and aesthetically more in touch with the new realities of multiple open tabs, endless refreshing, and the bleak homogeneity of the world according to Google.
The Original Face says a lot about the potential for internet art, but it isn’t especially interested in fulfilling it. For all its mentions of programming and video games, the novel’s form, style, and plotting reveal very little about the internet age.
So blessed be Guillaume Morissette for writing in the past tense! The present tense was once a daring, innovative device in fiction, particularly in first-person fiction, but it is now so conventional that it has become a default. As a novel of the present moment, The Original Face could easily have gone in for this affectation. Morissette knew better. The old can be new again.
No wonder Daniel finds inspiration not in technology but in the failure of technology. His art is made from glitches in video games, because “technology, I thought, was always at its most fascinating when it was about to reach its breaking point, and a glitch could be used to express how odd regular, everyday life sometimes felt.” This description occurs early enough in the novel to feed the impression that it’s a meta moment, a glimpse into Morissette’s method and aesthetic. As Daniel explains: “I didn’t view glitches as flaws, but as special occurrence. . . . What I wanted, I thought, was to capture a glitch that could make you feel less alone, a glitch you could enter, a glitch that encompassed within it all of time, space and consciousness.” It is an intriguing prospect: what would a novel written on this principle be like? Maybe something like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a novel narrated in almost algorithmic cycles of repetition by a protagonist far more mechanical than Daniel. But, as it turns out, it wouldn’t look much like The Original Face.
I wouldn’t normally fault a book for not having a different style, but Morissette gives such tantalizing glimpses of what might have been. Daniel describes another internet artist’s work: “a painting that had been created using several algorithms, each set of instructions adding a new randomized layer of paint. One way to interpret these pieces, I thought, was as a representation of technology itself, how technology didn’t exist in our lives as a united, continuous entity, but as different layers of noise that we constantly had to harmonize.” There are precursors to such a technique—Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, Ali Smith’s There But For The, Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo, Cancelled—and these provide a glimpse of how well such a form could have worked for The Original Face.
One notebook-type entry late in the novel reads, “Had a dream in which I clicked on a hyperlink and it led me directly into another brain.” It’s an intriguing image, offering a glimpse of the kind of narrative Morissette might have written. But the author’s thematic concern with multiplicity could never work alongside Daniel’s dominant first-person perspective. This “dream” must remain a possibility—or maybe the basis for a third novel. New Tab worked so well because it mined the individual psyche; The Original Face, which has different priorities, tries to but can’t transcend that intimacy. The artwork Daniel describes employs “several algorithms” to get at the fragmented multiplicity of modern life; Morissette’s novel, by contrast, is limited to one algorithm only: Daniel.
Thankfully, Morissette knows Daniel’s limitations too well to let his narrator determine the nature of his novel. His use of fragments is especially effective. The technique is nothing new, but it works beautifully in The Original Face. More than that, it plays a significant role in illustrating the novel’s ideas. My first impression was that the fragments were an attempt to mimic hyperlinking and the micro-texts that make up so much “content” online. But it soon becomes clear that the novel is against the notion of art as “content” and writing as a “content strategy.” There’s no reason to think that fiction (or any other art) can adapt to the post-internet era only by mimicking digital platforms.
Instead, fragments suggest an attempt to evacuate as much content as possible from “the endless scroll that was now everyday life.” The idea is not to mimic the fullness of the internet, but to imagine an alternative form, a serene emptiness. This emptiness is how the Buddhist notion of the Original Face informs the novel’s method—the state that has been likened to the moon appearing from behind the clouds of thought. The novel finds clarity when the main characters get high and sit together on a roof, looking not at their phones but “up.” Daniel continues, “After a few seconds of silence, it dawned on me that we were finally doing it, were finally all observing the moon together.” Does The Original Face grant Daniel perspective on life and art, or does it just give him a convenient excuse to disengage?
Morissette is wise not to provide a firm answer. By holding back, he suggests that his novel—and more grandly The Novel as an art—remains an open question, a set of possibilities, not a closed book. Morissette’s intervention is not new, though just as necessary now as ever. A hundred years ago, literature’s rallying cry was “Make it new!” In the acute now-ness of The Original Face, the cry is less catchy but more poignant: “Making it new is easy, but how do we make it matter?” Morissette asks the same old question, but it is always timely.
Daniel Aureliano Newman is a critic and writer living in Toronto. His poetry and fiction appear in The Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review, and Prairie Fire. His academic book, Modernist Life Histories: Biological Theory and the Experimental Bildungsroman, is forthcoming.