by Guillaume Morissette
Véhicule Press, 2014
Can happiness and self-esteem be photoshopped? Probably not. And, even if they could be, chances are Thomas might not even try. Thomas is a videogame designer, stagnating in an admirably accurate version of modern-day Montreal.
“Mid-twenties and not insane and drama-free” is how he describes himself, although from very early on there is the unmistakable “feeling that my life was going around in circles, and slightly faster each lap.”
At the start of the novel, he’s looking for a room to rent, for someone “to teach [him] how to have sloppy bed hair that randomly looks excellent.” He wants to move to Sweden and change his first name to Knut. He gets to work “late enough for people to notice but not late enough for them to complain,” surrounded by people who “looked like they would be climbing the corporate ladder until they ran out of oxygen.”
He has no default romantic attachment to his French Canadian culture. In fact he is taking a creative writing class at Concordia and has begun to see switching to English as his primary language as “just a practical way” to reinvent himself.
He’s quirky. He thinks things like, “Why would the universe go through all this trouble to create planets and physics and everything else, just to make the weather outside so shitty?”
Throughout, the comparisons are seldom anything less than first-rate. Exercise feels “like a question in some sort of made-up language” to his body, chili looks “like beans and the colour red,” tofu is “a meat-like sponge,” in one drunken episode the room keeps moving around, “getting away from me, coming back, as if homesick.” The novel is impressively well-written, the tone consistently in the sweet spot between unconventional and bang on the money. Even his penis is eloquent: “Push forward, move forward, always forward,” it whispers.
Titles for poems I wanted to write:
– I THINK ABOUT THINGS EITHER WAY TOO MUCH OR NOT NEARLY ENOUGH — ALCOHOL MAKES ME LESS CONCERNED ABOUT MY HAIR — ALL MY RELATIONSHIPS ARE AMBIGUOUS RELATIONSHIPS — I AM SORRY YOU ARE A POEM, POEM — THE PLURAL OF “DESIRE” IS “DISTRESS” — DON’T MAKE ME RETWEET MYSELF — I DID LAUNDRY IN OCTOBER, IT’S NOW JANUARY — I TAKE ANYONE HAVING SEX WITH ANYONE AS A KIND OF REJECTION
Given the author’s penchant for taking risks, some of the landings very occasionally feel less sure-footed, particularly in dialogue. Sure, the characters’ voices can seem similar, interchangeable even, but more often than not there is a rhythm to the back-and-forths that an episode of Community would be proud of, and the similar voices and expressions only help add to the impression that this is a portrait of a whole group of friends, a portrait of a city.
Like everyone around him, Thomas feels as though he’s “constantly on the computer, constantly producing content, constantly going nowhere.”
“Work was a no-emotion zone for me, a place where I disconnected from pleasure entirely. […] If video games were ‘escapist fantasies,’ then what I was doing felt like escapism from escapism, some meta form of escapism.”
(Great) technology metaphors — perhaps not surprisingly in a novel named New Tab — are everywhere: Every week feels “like a botched copy-paste of the week before it”… there are nights of “serious drinking on fast-forward”… the weather has experienced “some sort of glitch”… you get the idea.
The result is a touching portrait of life in Montreal as so many of us know it today. Morissette’s is a unique voice, but at the same time it’s the voice of a generation, the voice of our generation. And so, when Thomas finally meets someone “with bed hair that randomly looked excellent,” we’re just as excited as he is.
Review by Peter McCambridge