A Review of Guillaume Morissette's The Original Face
Review by Angus MacCaull
The title of Guillaume Morissette’s second novel, The Original Face, refers to a Buddhist concept. As the narrator Daniel explains, it’s “the face you had before you were born, before your parents were born, back when you were nothing.”
Daniel works as an artist and in various entry-level jobs. He lives largely without money. The book opens with him in Montreal five months into a new relationship with a mature student named Grace when he’s seriously considering moving away from her. Should he return to the fringes of society to afford his art practice? Or should he pursue a safer career for the sake of Grace?
At different points, Daniel interprets the concept of the original face such that he gets opposing answers to his questions about a future with Grace. The “nothing” of the original face could be the ascetic life of the artist or it could be the banality of a normal life. But he doesn’t settle on either option. The book ends with Daniel puzzling over the idea that the true meaning of the original face is found in silence. Then he concludes, “My own future laughed at me.”
As an author, Morissette succeeds in offering an ethnography of sorts. He shows us the lifestyle of a certain kind of twenty-something in Montreal. And Morrissette also shows us how this kind of person, who like Daniel travels around for his art, might live in Toronto or New York (and what they think of places like Newfoundland). We find many well-described scenes about how to survive without money in a city (walk places, sneak alcohol into bars) as well as fairly insightful scenes about the monotony of boring jobs and art parties.
But, in my reading, Morissette fails to find a story in this lifestyle. Daniel’s central problem feels more like a personal anxiety than a driving conflict. It’s not even clear what motivates Daniel to do art or what he likes about Grace herself. This leaves the narrative to rely on the simple passage of time punctuated by running jokes (about, for example, angry wrestlers or default guy friends). The effect is something akin to a sitcom. There are lots of episodes without much character development.
Two aspects of the book provide clues for why it feels this way. The first is the how The Original Face is laid out. Its four chapters are broken into sections ranging from a single word to thousands of words. This kind of layout isn’t necessarily a structural weakness. But the temporal, spatial, and psychic distances from the main narrative often shift in a short section or a series of short sections followed by a longer section with a more continuous unfolding of events. For example, Chapter Four, “Delusional Artist with Bad Full-time Job” opens as follows:
What if art wasn’t a career after all, but just a hobby I felt comfortable dumping infinite hours into, something I could never be bored of that solved the problem of what to do with my life?
I wasn’t sure how to tell people I had turned thirty. It felt like giving them bad news.
Cut myself while shaving and went to a job interview looking like I was recently attacked by a crab.
“They love the giant window,” said Grace, who was curled into a ball on our living room couch. It was the third week of February and Grace and I were living together in a single bedroom apartment […]
The last section quoted goes on for much longer. Then the pattern repeats. Again, in my reading, it seems that Morissette is trying to patch together chunks of words that don’t really have a point of view separate from what the author thinks about various things — which is to stay that they don’t yet have a story in them.
My second clue that the words have been gathered together as a novel before the author has found the story is the way Morissette compares things. In many cases, when he has his narrator Daniel draw an analogy or offer a metaphor, one or both sides of the comparison feel off. For example, from the second paragraph of the book: “I didn’t feel good or bad, but neither, like a tree.” When I imagine feeling like a tree, I imagine feeling rooted, or weathered, or in bloom. Morissette, however, seems to be suggesting that both trees and Daniel feel indifferent. In my reading, this shows neither an understanding of trees nor of how to start a story. But my main point is that Morissette’s lack of facility with comparisons throughout constrains him from showing us how his characters really feel or what their world feels like.
Setting aside these weaknesses, The Original Face does provide a smooth reading experience. It shows evidence of a curious mind and a concern for important themes. In his next book, I hope Morissette offers characters whose non-original faces have more at stake.
Angus MacCaull has recent or forthcoming writing in Prelude, filling Station, Eunoia Review, The Town Crier, Ricepaper Magazine, and CV2. He lives in Nova Scotia with activist Annie Chau and their son Spencer.