You know the world is really going to hell when you start feeling sorry for young people.
Even if you’ve completely given up on the idea of progress and don’t believe the political sloganeering about sunny days, there’s still much to be said just for being young, for standing on the edge of what we presume to be a long slide into happiness but which we only later discover to have been an empty promise.
That said, one does feel sorry for the young people we meet in the novels of Guillaume Morissette. Intelligent and good natured, they exist on the fringes of the gig, or precariat economy: part-time employees, part-time students, and part-time “creatives” (the term we now use to refer to authors and visual/digital artists) who have come of age during a time of great disruption. The Internet has replaced the cultural economy, reducing their work to the level of so much free content. Anxiety that one’s life is going nowhere has been a constant since the invention of youth, but in Morissette it’s less a cause for concern than an acknowledgement of reality. His hopeless millennials aren’t even trying to imagine a future. One suspects they would find it too depressing.
Like any organism, however, they have learned to adapt to their environment. And by their environment I don’t mean Montreal, the ostensible setting for The Original Face. Instead, they live, work, socialize, and hook-up online. It’s a testament to how at ease Morissette is in this cultural landscape that I didn’t even notice at first that instead of writing “he said/she said” to tag conversational passages, he uses “he typed/she typed.” The characters aren’t talking, they’re texting, and yet it’s still dialogue.
When Grace, the girlfriend of protagonist Daniel Kerry, suggests they enter into a long-distance relationship, she sells it to him by saying that nothing will really change since he already lives inside his computer so much. And she’s right. When they’re intimate in the flesh, the experience – it takes him longer than usual to get aroused, which he blames on the effects of porn – makes him feel as though he’s actually “in a long-term relationship with internet porn and cheating on internet porn with Grace.”
In similar ways, the screen world is constantly bleeding into what we formerly thought of as nature or reality. Sunshine hurts Daniel’s eyes, leaving him “vaguely yearning for a button that would allow me to lower reality’s brightness.” Rain? “Around me, fine translucent needles were coming down from the sky in a screensaver-like manner, as if they made up a detailed pattern obeying its algorithm.”
Such an effect has been with us for a while now and been much remarked on. In Douglas Coupland’s early (pre-Facebook and social media) novels he often talks about how television’s reality can be even better, as the song says, than the real thing. But reality is starting to show its age, leading to a changing of the ontological guard. In The Original Face, this is expressed as “Before the internet era, you had to look at reality more. Now, reality could appear underwhelming and you would barely notice, as what you truly paid attention to wasn’t reality, but what appeared on your computer screen.”
From television to computers, what has changed, aside from the size and ubiquity of our screens? At one point, Daniel actually does end up watching some TV. He’s visiting his girlfriend’s home in Newfoundland, which, as readers of contemporary Canadian fiction have learned, is a place almost threatening in its raw naturalness and the old reality. “I was so used to tall buildings obstructing my view that the sky in Newfoundland seemed dangerously low to me, like it was about to fall off itself.” Clearly the Rock’s light and space are putting the zap on his head. It’s the sort of hazard a young man, whose career limits him to a choice between living in either Toronto or Montreal, can easily fall into:
I was shocked how clearly I could see trees in the distance, like they were coming directly at me, like I was wearing 3D glasses. In the city, nature often seemed, to me, like an imaginary concept within a default reality of human beings, technology and buildings. Here, it seemed, maybe nature was the default reality, and human beings were the imaginary concept.
You have to like the hesitancy Daniel feels, and the placement of that “maybe.” A lowering sky might be fake news. Should he believe it?
It is while in Newfoundland that Daniel finds himself watching television. What strikes him most, initially, are the commercials.
For a little while, I watched television alone with Martha and found myself mesmerized by the commercials. I hadn’t watched television on a television in a long time, so the alternate reality depicted by the commercials, in which artificial human beings had extraordinary reactions to consumer products, seemed eccentric and fascinating to me. “Were TV commercials always like that?” I thought. “Maybe they were always like that,” I thought.
This may seem a trivial observation at first, but it underlines what is in fact a big shift from one model of reality to another. Of course there’s advertising on the internet, but we’re barely conscious of it. What’s going on is something more subtle and sinister. As this is, among other things, a novel of ideas, a friend of Daniel’s explains:
“I don’t know if you’ve ever read David Foster Wallace,” typed Eloise, “but he has this essay where he talks about television and people who have been marketed to all their lives. We’re even worse than that. We’re not just being marketed to nonstop, we’re being given the tools to market ourselves. We live in a dystopia of marketing. Social media is a weapon. . . .”
“Thank God I wasn’t raised in this era,” Wallace said near the end of his life, when he took possession of a new computer. “Digital = abstract = sterile, somehow,” he wrote.
And it gets worse. We know from McLuhan how tools change the toolmaker. This is a process that the digital revolution has accelerated. As we look into our screens they are looking even deeper into us: searching and scanning, collecting our data, and very much changing us in ways that we’re complicit in. Hand-in-hand with technology, we are fashioning new selves.
Or not a self, at least as that word has traditionally been understood, but an image or brand. Today we are both the commercial and the product. As writers (of novels or blog posts), we write advertisements for ourselves. We become those same “artificial human beings” that mesmerize Danie: the shiny happy people of Instagram, internet “influencers,” or YouTube stars. The author is now a fiction, his life being real only in an economic sense. In his book The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu explains how the process works using the example of Facebook, which originally offered users “not a fuller and more ordered ‘social’ life but something even more alluring: an augmented representation of themselves.” Such artificial human beings are only a form of advertising or propaganda for billions of personal brands, and there are no longer “any limits to our dissimulations”:
Facebook had supposedly replaced cyberspace with something more “real,” but what it created in fact was just another realm of unreality, one that, on account of looking real, was more misleading. Here was a place where friends always congratulated and celebrated; where couples did little but eat at nice restaurants, go on vacation, or announce engagements or newborns; and where children never cried or needed diaper changes or hit each other. On Facebook, all happy families were alike; the others may have been unhappy in their own ways, but they were not on Facebook.
But wait! There’s more. We don’t just fashion our Facebook profile: our branded, virtual, artificial, reified, monetized self. Facebook, in its most McLuhanesque mode, fashions us. As Daniel observes, we accumulate “Likes,” therefore we are. An early Marxist would have a field day with the kind of feeling that Thomas describes in Morissette’s first novel, New Tab (2014):
It felt like I was trying to use social networks as a way to prototype myself. If I posted something online that was witty or depressing in a funny way, I received positive reinforcement. If I posted something that wasn’t fully thought out or only made sense to me, I received no reinforcement, which was negative reinforcement. I wanted to fine-tune myself, reject all parts of myself that didn’t produce positive feedback.
It’s in such a way the internet creates not only an art but an artist in its own image, speaking its own debased, utilitarian language with its echoes of cultural Newspeak. Art is content. The artist is a creative. The audience are eyeballs. The appreciation of art is attention. With regard to the latter, The Original Face begins with an epigraph from Brian Eno: “Attention is what creates value. The question is: is the act of getting attention a sufficient act for an artist? Or is that in fact the job description?”
It’s hard not to feel there has been some significant falling off in describing the purpose of art being the mere getting of attention. Authors, however, cannot afford to be judgmental (and critics, I might add, even less so). By effectively branding herself on Instagram, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur sold over a million copies of her first book of poetry, making her possibly the best-selling Canadian poet of all time (“my book would never have been published without social media,” she later said). Dubbed one of the new breed of “Instapoets,” she vaulted to fame after posting pictures of herself lying in bed with period stains on her pyjamas and sheets. That’s not poetry, but it is the sort of thing that gets attention. And, as James Franco (actor, director, screenwriter, compulsive selfie-taker) wrote in the New York Times, attention is the only game in town.
. . . a well-stocked collection of selfies seems to get attention. And attention seems to be the name of the game when it comes to social networking. In this age of too much information at a click of a button, the power to attract viewers amid the sea of things to read and watch is power indeed. It’s what the movie studios want for their products, it’s what professional writers want for their work, it’s what newspapers want — hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power. And if you are someone people are interested in, then the selfie provides something very powerful, from the most privileged perspective possible.
Well, a selfie, whatever its value or power, is no more a “real” presentation of self than a Facebook profile, which is something that helps place Morissette’s title in context. The Original Face is a doctrine Daniel borrows from Zen Buddhism referring to a core level of identity that pre-exists oneself, an ur-self that you had before you started to prepare all the faces you needed to adopt in order to meet the faces that you meet. It’s an old-reality face. Or, to put in the language of the digital native, it’s a pre-Facebook, pre-Instagram face. Daniel will later adopt the term for his art show, the guide for which asks “In a culture obsessed with selfies and identity, what is the Original Face?” It’s the sort of thing Thomas is looking for in New Tab as he observes his face while shaving, “looking for another face within the face.”The question of “what is the Original Face?” or if there is another face within the face in the mirror, is hard to answer when it comes to Daniel Kerry, because he’s so deeply embedded in the self(ie)-obsessed culture. He’s a drifter, renting rooms in Montreal or Toronto but with no fixed address. As with Thomas in New Tab, he’s also parentless. What I mean by that is not that he’s an orphan, but that mom and dad have both drifted out of the picture. He works where and when he can and lives among fellow millennials who do the same. He has no strong attachments to other people, including his girlfriend, and displays a profound lack of affect when it comes to just about everything. He uses drugs recreationally. He communicates mainly online and in his own head. That is to say, he talks to himself (thoughts are put in quotation marks).
The novel’s style matches this paradoxically rootless interiority. There is little in the way of structure or plot, but things happen. Daniel observes and sometimes offers commentary. More than anything else it’s the rhythm of the writing that takes over, and it’s impressive how assured Morissette is in this respect. His writing’s ease and transparency, its charm, topicality, informality and discontinuity, mimics the internet’s own narrative code. With enough talent you could write better than this, but you wouldn’t be as easily understood, even just on an emotional level, and your efforts would, today, seem more artificial.
I’d also hate to make it seem as though Morissette is a didactic political writer just by talking so much about contemporary issues. A book this enjoyable should not be reduced to social and cultural commentary. For one thing, he’s very funny. An account of Daniel’s misdirected and mercifully short-lived attempt at becoming a water-heater salesman is just one example of his precise and understated humour.
And yet one keeps coming back to that perverse and tragic sense of feeling sorry for the young.
They are the victims of the biggest bait-and-switch in history. The internet offered them the world and left them exhausted, “financially impotent,” and depressed. Virtual reality has replaced the real economy – even that of taxi-drivers and doctors – with a lottery, and as with all lotteries there are far more losers than winners. As Tim Wu chronicles, the original promise of the Internet was soon betrayed (remember “content is king”?), and “as so often in the history of the attention merchants, when competition mounts, the unseemliness mounts and the stakes plummet.” Believe it or not, things are going to get even uglier. But, of course, there is no going back. There’s a remarkable passage at the beginning of New Tab that gives some idea of the mess we are in.
This is how it felt: I still had some leftover youth, but by that point I had lived enough years, enough decades to feel like I wanted reality to go away for a while, make me miss it a little.
Reality was a kind of insomnia, always there, just there, annoyingly there, in my bed, at the park, inside every raccoon, behind movie stars in movie trailers, there, being, occurring, fluctuating, not telling me what it wanted from me, giving me the silent treatment, a kind of torture. “What?” I wanted to scream at it. Closing my eyes didn’t make it go away, because what I saw then wasn’t the absence of reality, it was only closed eyelids.
There was nothing I could do to hurt reality. I couldn’t set it on fire, couldn’t put it up for auction on eBay, couldn’t pump it full of helium and then wave it goodbye while driving away in a lime-green Jeep Wrangler. I couldn’t separate myself from reality. I would always be trapped within.
It was a terrible sensation, though only when I thought about it.
That’s how it feels. And what makes this cri de coeur so surprising is that the reality Thomas wants so desperately to escape isn’t, I don’t think, identified with any traditional understanding of what we mean by the “real world,” but rather refers to an artificial, screen reality. That’s what he feels trapped inside of: the reality that won’t go away, that’s there even inside his head. Meanwhile, the other, older reality has gone away. Or rather, we have abandoned it.
Either way, that great betrayal is behind us now. Trying to put it out of mind may be the best way to adapt.
—A CNQ Web Exclusive, December 2017