New Tab by Guillaume Morissette
At first, I hated Guillaume Morissette’s writing. I didn’t like the way he flaunted sadness. I didn’t trust the way he put ironic distance between himself and his own anxiety with self-deprecating charts. His online presence soured my view of his poems and short stories. Despite all this, I decided to read New Tab (Véhicule Press) anyway, and found it both hilarious and sincere. His comedic side comes out in lines like, “Internet porn didn’t judge me” and, “name a time of the day and I have eaten cereal at it.” Self-reflection scatters the book between the protagonist’s sexual failures, social anxieties, and workplace depression in the form of status updates. New Tab is a narrative of self-transformation within the everyday life of a twenty-something (pushing thirty-something) Quebecker.
But why should I suddenly change my mind about Guillaume Morissette? It’s true that his poetry reads too much like Facebook vignettes, but I’m ready to accept that this is an issue of personal taste. His novel, on the other hand, is lucid and sympathetic, and manages to integrate actual social media habits as well as plot points based on actual Montreal trends into a text which functions believably as a site for character interactions and development.
Thomas, Morissette’s protagonist, moves from Quebec City to Montreal where he works as a video game designer and attends Concordia part-time. His job is primarily to develop smartphone games. He lives in Mile End with a group of young anglophones who put on film screenings in their backyard and raise money selling beer without a license.
Morissette and Ars Poetica
Conveniently, Morissette includes an ars poetica in the pages of New Tab by which one might compare his poems with the novel. Once Thomas finally loses interest in his job, he spends most of his office time writing poems and halfheartedly trying to get fired. He explains his relationship to poetry along the same lines as his work:
“Video games and poems had a lot in common. They both tended to take themselves seriously, without caring whether or not the player or reader would be accepting them on those terms. In the story mode of any Call of Duty, part of the pleasure for me came from making fun of the game as I played it, for taking itself so seriously.”
It’s not a stretch to think that Morissette writes poems the way he reads them: without taking them seriously. New Tab is peppered with gestures of ironic distance, but I would hesitate to say the novel doesn’t take itself seriously in any way. At the heart of New Tab is a story about remaking one’s own identity through a new language and culture spoken in terrifyingly complete sincerity.
Morissette’s workplace satire pales in comparison to his self-critical insights, though it uses a wealth of insider knowledge about the industry. Thomas’s parallel existence in the world of young, creative, and unemployed Anglos is handled more sincerely, and as an alternative to a tedious and predictable career and suburban middle age.
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Morissette and Language
Interestingly, Morissette plays with Thomas’s francophone upbringing as well, and offers those inherited traits as yet another comical alternative to unemployed anglo ennui. By the end of the novel, Thomas gets into an argument with roommates over money. The rent is overdue and the hydro gets shut off until they pay $2100, which only Thomas, with a salary, can afford. They’re rescued from the back rent, but in the process Thomas is gripped by the same attitude toward money troubles that he hated in his parents. Thomas is unable to shake this vestige of a middle class upbringing and fit into the perpetually broke and tenaciously housed lifestyle of Montreal’s hipper anglophones.
He feels “like an alien in both English and French.” In the linguistically fluid 21st century Montreal, Morissette has created a new way of framing the linguistic divide. French is the language of careerism, family life, and conformity. English, on the other hand, is the language of bohemianism, spontaneous living, of “being broke but partying anyway.”
At the office, Thomas’s boredom and cynicism replace the anxiety that overtakes him at the series of loft and house parties he attends. In one meeting, he is completely indifferent to his embarrassing lack of insight into his current project and he walks away professionally unscathed. Compared to his life as an anglophone student, video games are both financially and socially safer, though at the expense of any possible self-fulfillment.
Anxiety is a necessary part of Thomas’s self-transformation. He deliberately seeks out a life more precarious and nerve-wracking than the one he led in Quebec City. In his flight from professional tedium and middle class expectations, Thomas accepts that a life without anxiety isn’t worth living.