‘The Original Face’ by Guillaume Morissette

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Ben Wood

A quick Google search for “koan” yields as the top result a Wiki page in the series on Zen Buddhism. This is a good starting point for Guillaume Morissette’s second novel, The Original Face, about an Internet artist named Daniel whose problems of love, work and art resemble the kind of deferred adulthood that is symptomatic of his generation (yes, this is a novel for millennials).

The questions he’s asking himself are at once relatively trivial and monumentally existential, insofar as they can be satisfied with an answer, but, because nothing is really at stake, any answer will do: Where should I live? What should I do for a living? Why make art? These questions take Daniel from Montreal to Toronto to New York as he wonders if he should continue making art, whether he sees a future with his girlfriend, Grace, and if the money earned from his various low-wage jobs is worth the displeasure they cause him. It’s like a post-adolescent Bildungsroman in the style of a Twitter essay. Which is to say, the pacing is fast and the attention given to each point short-lived.

Morissette borrows the title of his novel from a Zen Buddhist term that refers to the idea of a true self. The allusion to Daniel’s dilemma is clear, but the debilitated attention span of an Internet-soaked life prevents him from meditating on the non-duality of subject and object hinted at by the question asked in the koan of the original face, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?”

Sitting on my bed, I tried to visualize my “original face,” but couldn’t picture what “nothing” looked like. All I could see was the colour black, with my thoughts reverberating inside my head like a gong.

For Daniel, Zen Buddhism is sanitized of all religiosity to the point of new-age philosophy—that opiate of the millennial masses—and so his search is not really for his original face but for something else, an idea more familiar (and secular) because it informs our online existence: authenticity.

That the title of the novel works when pulled from its Zen Buddhist roots is no surprise, and it is not an accident. Continuing with themes explored in his debut novel, New Tab, Morissette refines his engagement with a non-duality of a different sort—the online and physical worlds. Though Morissette is no longer writing about a writer like he did in New Tab, he is still interested in writing about the creative process and what fuels it.

Daniel’s art practice has him perennially unemployed. His employment status is made a central theme of the book on the jacket, where it’s described as a “novel about the gig economy.” But gigging implies some sort of freelancer, which Daniel is not. In fact, when he does have a job, they are or, at least can be, long-term: at Chapters or at a design studio. He flirts with getting a career, or, maybe as a starting point, a stable job when he moves to Toronto—“a city of grim productivity and career opportunities,” and an attempt at growing up. Neither his move nor his job provide any sort of enlightenment, but his meagre earnings have the advantage of allowing him to fly to Newfoundland with Grace to meet her family. Grace has the patience and forgiveness of someone who knows what she wants out of life and hopes her boyfriend will eventually want the same things. He occasionally gives her reasons to be hopeful, but like his move and his attempts at gainful employment, he isn’t able to comprehend how the “traditional” life of career and a family could make him, Grace or anyone happy. Most of all, there’s the underlying concern that he certainly couldn’t have both his art and a future with Grace. At one point, his friend Eloise asks him of his art making,

“Can you imagine yourself doing anything other than what you’re doing now?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Probably not.”

“Then, there you go,” said Eloise.

Despite this being the dilemma of Daniel’s young life, this exchange typifies the level of attention he devotes to his problems. As short as a tweet and as automatic as scrolling through your feed. A cursory glance before your attention is diverted to something else.

The story is told in short, numbered episodes. More philosophical than religious, these koan-like passages—which can be several pages or a single sentence—underscore the futility of Daniel’s logical questioning of his and his friends’ sources of happiness. They also clue the reader to the possibility that Daniel many not be looking to achieve enlightenment but maybe just some way to accept his own state of confusion and unknowing. Which, actually, may just be the most Zen thing he could do.

His attempts, however, are hindered by the numerous filters through which he and his friends experience life: Adderall, weed, alcohol (which he does temporarily give up), reality TV. But worst of all is living in the Internet age, where identity and self-worth is quantified and publicly displayed through likes and followers and retweets. Morissette doesn’t provide deep analysis of this idea. He keeps Daniel’s thoughts short and direct. But, like the conversation quoted above, they are only superficially simple and are best considered as departure points for meditative contemplation, much like the question of the original face.

I watched my post about the video accumulate Likes on Facebook. “112 Likes,” I thought, reading the number in my head. “I am 112 Likes,” I thought.

It’s okay to explore your inner life like it’s a bottomless pit.

Or, as another example, early on, when every person around a table takes out their phones to capture their friend’s birthday surprise, Grace says, “I wish the camera on my phone wasn’t broken…. I miss Instagram.” To which Daniel answers: “I don’t know,” I said. “I think we’re okay. I feel like this moment is being over-documented right now.”

Which sounds like something that your most obnoxious friend would say, as they briefly glance up from their phone before tweeting about their wry comment on over-documentation. To be sure, Daniel is obnoxious, and also sardonic. But he doesn’t offer further judgement or expand upon his comment, and even if he wanted to Morissette’s writing style wouldn’t allow for it. The narrative is immediate and moves fast, full of wry metaphors, and is principally concerned with documenting what happens and not with the capturing the interiority of the characters (despite what the title may suggest).

So for all of Daniel’s obnoxiousness, his comment at the restaurant is a reminder, if we really needed it, that documentation is not examination. Despite our insistence upon capturing so we can better remember moments of our lives, what we examine is not the content of our lives, but the appearance of them. Filters to make it look better and emoji when we lack the language to describe it.

The problem for Daniel is similar: he worries more about the appearance of his life than his experience of it, as though living out his life online places the physical world at a remove. But for Daniel there is not one without the other. And his questions, then, might just be like those in a koan, meant to stimulate meditative thought without ever arriving at an answer.

Esplanade Books | 244 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1550654783

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Ben Wood

Ben Wood is a writer from Winnipeg and is an associate editor for The Winnipeg Review.