With The Original Face, Guillaume Morissette takes GIF art to the novel
The Original Face, Guillaume Morissette. Véhicule Press (2017).
“I don’t think I’ll ever make anything that’s even half as cool as the moon,” says Jane, friend to protagonist Daniel, in Guillaume Morissette’s novel The Original Face. In Morissette’s narrative ode to life post-Web 2.0, the moon serves as a useful metaphor for both the quest for and the inutility of art. In an increasingly narcissistic world, how do you find concrete reference points outside your own worldview? And what is the point of creating something if the result will never match your ambitions?
In Zen Buddhism, the moon is also a metaphor for the Original Face, from whence Morissette’s novel gets its title. The moon/Original Face is what appears to the mind when clouding thoughts have been cleared away through the practice of meditation. Daniel stumbles upon the concept of the Original Face while browsing his roommate’s books on Eastern philosophy, and from there, it gradually comes to influence the art he ekes out between the soul-crushing side gigs that fund his ascetic lifestyle. The novel, Morissette’s second, follows Daniel for a year as he bounces from Toronto to Montreal, flits between underpaid jobs and unpaid art projects, and waffles between committing to his girlfriend, Grace, and choosing a life of artistic solitude.
The Original Face is a book about the internet, about the way we live our lives online, and in the hands of a less skilled writer, the Zen Buddhism/social media binary that Morissette sets up could become terribly overwrought. But this is not a novel about Daniel discovering that online life is vacuous and empty in comparison to the warmth of human connection one might foster in the “real” world. Rather, as the novel progresses, it suggests that life inside the internet is more real than life outside, or that reality is a fusion of the two. “I sometimes felt like some of my best friends were websites,” Daniel reports. Observing his surroundings at an art show, he thinks, “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.” If in Zen Buddhism the Original Face represents the nonduality of subject and object, then for Morissette this fusion is the seamlessness between analog and digital life. “Technology didn’t exist in our lives as a united, continuous entity,” Daniel reflects, “but as different layers of noise that we constantly had to harmonize.”
Morissette registers this blurring between the web and reality at the level of language. Throughout The Original Face, technological metaphors are repeatedly employed to register the strangeness of everyday phenomena. Stumbling home from a party after a bad trip, Daniel yearns for “a button that would allow me to lower reality’s brightness, like what you would find on a laptop”; after a particularly excruciating job interview he imagines moving a cursor over the interviewer’s face and “selecting Force>Quit Conversation.”
Daniel describes himself ironically as a “new media artist,” but we never learn much about what his artistic ethos actually is, which is perhaps the point. He eventually achieves a modicum of success with an exhibit focused on GIFs and glitch art. “Staring at the same GIF over and over again, I thought, could have the same effect as repeating a mantra in your head, allowing you to reach a deeper plane of consciousness.” A repetitive, radically presentist form, the GIF functions here as a kind of new media Buddhist koan. But Zen meditation for the Facebook era this is not. One of Daniel’s GIF pieces is titled “Memory,” which, as he opines in an earlier scene, is a lazy name for an art piece: “You could give any painting a generic title like Memory.” Daniel’s GIF exhibit isn’t the answer to the novel’s complicated questions about the meaning of life, it’s a joke about how sometimes art is just a glitch with an abstract title. Readers expecting the novel to resolve in a kunstleromanesque triumph of creative maturity are bound to be disappointed.
In The Original Face, then, GIFs don’t lead us any closer to a core of meaning. Rather, they provide a key to the novel’s form. GIFs work on social media because they are repeated constantly with small changes in context and framing. Similarly, Daniel goes through the motions of his life, with slight variations in work setting, gallery venue, social interaction, and relationship status. A GIF has no trajectory: it’s meant to be taken as a discrete unit of meaning. So too, perhaps, are we meant to take Daniel. This certainly makes for an interesting narrative experiment, but it sometimes made for a disorienting reading experience. Emerging from the novel at the other end, I felt slightly ill, as though I had eaten too many Sour Patch Kids in one sitting. Or like I had spent too much time on the internet.
Christina Turner is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral research focuses on depictions of international law and human rights in the work of contemporary Indigenous writers. You can find her essays and book reviews in Canadian Literature and at rabble.ca, where she also works as weekend editor.