A monthly series profiling cutting-edge creators of all stripes with ties to Montreal.
“I don’t know if you should take this too personally, I typed. It sounds like she hates your Facebook, not you.”
“If God was real, he would technically be an overworked, underpaid freelancer.”
— The Original Face (2017)
Those two short sentences alone epitomize many of the things that make the work of Montreal author Guillaume Morissette resonate so powerfully with readers. Among them: zeitgeist-tapping humour, pointed takedowns of late-stage capitalism, nods to a debilitating cycle of social anxieties, and razor-sharp musings about relationships mediated by technology. Because yes, “it’s complicated” doesn’t come close to describing the mental minefield the generation best known as “Millennials” has faced since entering both adulthood and the workforce.
Following the release of New Tab (2014), his brilliant debut novel about a 26-year-old video game designer’s online and offline attempts at getting his life on track, Morissette’s acclaim has expanded considerably beyond the Alt Lit community that first embraced him. The picture he paints of a cohort of young adults dissatisfied with the hand they’ve been dealt, insecure about connecting with others and performing multiple versions of themselves online is not only mega perceptive, but also very prescient in anticipating the issues that are now gaining mainstream traction as the 1% keep filling their coffers, Facebook privacy scandals make the rounds and AI threatens to render us all expendable.
We won’t dwell on what’s already been said about Morissette: that he moved to Montreal from Jonquière (by way of Quebec City), that he was previously employed in the video game industry, and that he happens to be a Francophone who writes in English. Over chats at his tidy Plateau apartment and indie art space Oro, where Morissette teaches a weekly fiction writing workshop, we delved into the playful canvases adorning his walls and windowsills, the mix of reality and invention that went into his sophomore novel, The Original Face, and the worrying plight of our generation.
Tell me about the repurposed paintings that decorate your flat.
A lot of the stuff I have was picked out from the garbage. This couch, that table – my ex-girlfriend had a knack for finding things people were throwing out, and her instincts have rubbed off on me. Now, when I see garbage on the side of the road, I get excited. The first week I moved in, I went to a second-hand store, picked up random paintings and decided to repurpose them. It became this fun hobby: taking something meant to be neutral, pairing it with language that’s completely disconnected from it, and seeing this interesting juxtaposition. And also just making it my own! ‘Disappointment is a great teacher’ comes from Zen Buddhism. Some sentences I came up with because they made sense to me that week. Others are pulled from the general ecosystem.
You’ve talked about how your reality-adjacent novels pull from your own experience. What draws you to crafting characters and situations that have one foot in reality and the other in fiction?
The main question I’m always interested in is: what is now? Drawing from reality feels natural to me because it’s a conduit to examine issues I’m interested in and the takeaways from such things. Instead of merely listing, for instance, that my characters went to karaoke, I want to explore why they did that in the first place. Why does karaoke resonate so much with people of our generation? I also try to apply that to technology, social media, freelancing, and any other question that seems interesting to me. Even if the reader can’t relate to specific details, perhaps they can relate to the takeaway.
In both New Tab and The Original Face, your male protagonists are wrestling with a grab bag of early-adulthood anxieties. They also embody a very un-alpha kind of masculinity. Where does that come from?
The preface to this is that I don’t have a very strong connection with my dad. Growing up, that led me to subconsciously look for other male figures. What I got was what was around me: The Simpsons and Fresh Prince, but also Raiden and Final Fantasy. I wasn’t well versed in literature as a kid. Video games were the medium I felt closest to. I learned to escape from the real world into my imagination, because I felt safer there. It became this thing where video games would provide me with lots of imaginary material to think about – especially video games from the Super NES era, because of the console’s limitations. A lot of the plot was not defined and you were left to fill in the blanks.
So video game heroes and villains played a part in shaping your understanding of masculinity?
Video games allowed me to work through my anxieties around being a man. But I still felt as though these role models were either flawed or the very traditional, buffed-up warriors who use violence to solve their problems. I couldn’t find a model that suited me, so I had to borrow left and right, experiment, and figure out where my sensibilities lied. In the end, it was the Internet – being able to post on forums without having to reveal who you were – that truly gave me the freedom to experiment with my identity.
We’re obviously talking about a more innocent time before surveillance, data mining, and the performance of online identities, right?
Yes! There was something really freeing about growing up in the age pre-Facebook, pre-social media, where you could create an identity on a website forum, have an avatar or a user name and have it be totally divorced from you. It’s also around the time writing kind of kicked in for me, when I realized I might have some talent, even though I had never looked in that direction before. There was this darkly humorous French-language web forum around at the time called Le Webzine. Users were usually a bit older than me, and they would look at culture or pieces of media critically using humour, sometimes making points I thought were really good. In emulating some of these people, when I was 15 or 16, I figured out how to build an argument. And not having the pressure of fronting myself online really helped me develop my identity.
It’s interesting to hear you say that because you can also be quite critical of the Internet and its potential to tear us apart as communities. One of my favourite quotes of yours has you likening the social media experience to us “all having nukes aimed at one another’s heads.”
I mean, look: there’s definitely pros and cons to the Internet. The way it’s set up now, I think it’s much easier to find your niche. If you’re interested in teaching yourself about feminism or a million other topics, trying to figure out if you’re genderqueer, I would feel, growing up now, there are all these resources that we didn’t have access to back then. So I would probably have to do less trial and error.
That said, Twitter, for instance, feels designed as a tool for debate. Instead of using the reply tool to compliment one another, we’re more likely to take one thing in the context that best suits us to further our own brand. Shit-talking ideological enemies becomes a way for us to virtue signal, to prove to each another that we’re right, and to advance our cause. The problem with that is that reality is way more nuanced than what the Internet makes it look like. I’m really weary of this reality where we look at one another as 1s or 0s, like, ‘this person is good’, ‘this person is bad’, etcetera. I’m not sure that’s helpful when it comes to dialogue. Twitter’s solution to increase dialogue was to boost the character count, but we really just have more words now to yell at one another. It’s hard to argue that the yelling doesn’t at times have positive effects, but I feel like it can often, instead of creating allies, create angry gamers and white nationalists. The yelling taking place might be counterproductive to your goals. It’s this tricky balance, and there are no absolutes when talking about this stuff.
Straight out the gate, you knew you wanted the freelance grind to be a key component of The Original Face. In recent years, there’s been lots of talk about the plight of Millennials in the press – how we’re precariously employed and constantly having to reinvent ourselves in an economy of stalling wages. Do you think this spike in the freelance workforce might be the defining feature of our generation?
I think your answer is not so much freelancing but late capitalism. That’s the real defining feature, because it all stems from that. We tend to amass in these gigantic cities where rent costs 7 billion dollars a month. Our entire income is this rat race of ‘can I make it until next month?’ Late capitalism is really capitalism on crack, and it’s one of our key struggles. Personally, I’ve realized I enjoy living a more simple life, so in a weird way, there have been lessons I’ve learned through finding myself dissatisfied with normal employment. There have been some pros to making do with less, but there’s also something really worrying as we’re seeing automation introduced into the workforce, and generic desk jobs that you could once fall back on become threatened.
What I love about your approach to author readings is that you aim to facilitate conversations like the one we’re now having, which is more about the themes you’re bringing to light than the specifics of a book’s story arc. What made you decide to envision these ‘literary events’ differently?
There’s nothing wrong with the tried-and-true formula of a reading by an author, but I’m not sure it’s the only way we can talk about books. Ideally, you don’t just want a book to be a private experience where people are all like, ‘I was so moved by this character’, but rather a trigger for a broader conversation. There are only a limited number of alleyways I can delve into by way of the book, but I also want to discuss a lot of the questions I’ve brought up at readings. How do you guys use Facebook? How do you guys feel about freelancing? What are the pros and cons, from your perspective? We can then use the novel as a conversation starter.
You’re touching upon something I wanted to address: we often hear this sweeping statement that people our age and younger read less books than ever, as a result of spending so much of our lives tethered to screens. Were you thinking about that when shaking up the formula for author readings?
I mean, I don’t think it’s younger versus older generation. The real culprit, if any, is that the Internet right now is not very good to our attention span. It’s using extremely toxic tactics to get us hooked on social media websites. Even if you’re reading a book, it’ll always be in the back of your mind: ‘maybe I should check Facebook right now!’ My solution is this app called Self Control, which I worship. At the same time, I feel as though if you’re saying something that can be valuable to someone else, even if it comes in the form of an insanely long [Karl Ove] Knausgaard novel, I still want to believe there’s a way for it to pierce through. The two challenges are attention span and noise.
Interview and photos by Michael-Oliver Harding