‘New Tab’ by Guillaume Morissette
Fiction writers are not, in the main, natural community building types; we’re not urban farmers, or hardworking indie bands, or Dave Eggers. We’re people who can’t walk into rooms with other people in them and talk to those people without also watching ourselves walk into those rooms and talk to those people while evaluating it all harshly in real time, and a decade or more of that madness unchallenged tends to get you thinking, deep down, that your consciousness is just a bit more real than everyone else’s. That can be hard to shake, because it is self-reinforcing, since it’s writing the life you can’t stop reading like a story.
Most writers think there are maybe four or five other good writers, tops, and they’re all dead, and they go to used bookstores and run their fingers down the spines of books by those writers that they already own and think shit like “if only the people in this stupid city understood me like you do, Dostoevsky,” and unless neutralized by big cheques and critical high-fives in equal proportions, this kind of personality is not conducive to bigging up our peers. And—get this—the less successful we are, the truer this all is.
What I’m saying is that aspiring novelists like me are the last people who should be asked to write our impressions of the works of those a few rungs up the ladder from ourselves. So does saying all this horrible stuff constitute good form? Yes, because I am at this very moment reaching for the proverbial book reviewer’s hatchet, nice and sharp, and as a good Canadian and—to be completely honest—someone whose stickiest dream it is to be on the receiving end of one of these things before I die, the least I can do is acknowledge up front that there are plenty of reasons to think I’m just some envious shithead looking to elevate myself at the expense of a more successful stranger’s self-esteem, should you require any.
Everything I said just now also supplies good reason for why most novels about writers kind of suck. Because not only are writers essentially uncool and bad at being in any kind of moment, but when a writer makes a writer his hero, there are two things that can happen, and both are signs that the weight of all that consciousness has finally become too much. The first is that the writer sees this foolishness for what it is and makes something good out of it. Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station would be a fine example. The second is that the writer mistakes it for truth, the discomfort that comes with it for depth, and reasonably assumes that being a writer by definition makes you the bearer of a deep and fascinating self—the ultimate book star, in other words. I’d put Guillaume Morissette’s New Tab in this folder.
The novel concerns Thomas, a Montrealer who studies creative writing at Concordia, his roommates, other people they know, a few parties, a DIY backyard cinema in case you didn’t catch it was Montreal, and a boring job a lot of people would be happy to have. Thomas presents himself as one of these male protagonists who struggle against numbness, which I’ve seen in a lot of movies with good soundtracks. It’s a trope I have some issues with, because it seems contrived to imply that these fellows are actually deeply sensitive, so much so in fact that our shitty soulless world has brutalized them into this state, and by extension it’s the normal-functioning among us that are the real homunculi.
So we get a lot of monologuing about how he doesn’t like to use his phone as a phone, and is more comfortable Facebooking with someone across the room than lifting his gaze, and how parties fill him with anxiety, until he walks into an actual party and strikes up witty conversations with total strangers with an ease that reminds me of the coolest people I know. In a hungrier book, this might be a nudge to get you thinking about self-awareness or masks or any of the million ways consciousness makes ordinary life feel insane, but Morissette wants us to take Thomas at his word, as a guy whose social awkwardness is never noticed by anyone, and never causes him any actual problems.
Although the title implies a narrative concern with the effect soaking your brain in Internet has on your experience of standard embodied reality, in practice New Tab feels more like the numbed product of that kind of behaviour than anything more intentional. Any narrative seriously interested in commenting about online consciousness would probably want to play with the fractal quality of tabbing your way outward from an ever-dissolving self, but given how monochromatically New Tab pokes away at its single note, the “new tab” Morissette refers feels almost aspirational, the way Bing Crosby feels about white Christmases.
Despite constantly threatening storylessness, there are two situations that play out over the course of New Tab that are tasked to carry whatever shards of theme Morissette manages to dig out from under the chesterfield cushions. He wanders into a hazily-boundaried relationship with a girl named Romy, whose emotional terrain is still partially occupied by an ex living in New York. He also gradually withdraws from his job as a smartphone game designer, where he proves so disengaged he can barely manage a consistent level of hipster disdain.
Running parallel, these two storylines constitute an arc in the same way a slide in a playground might be said to, but the job scenario in particular dog-whistled at a whole new pitch for me, and here’s why: I’m the last person to argue in favour of a work ethic among bottom-rung corporate wage-slaves, but the idea that we’re expected to automatically applaud the old smart-guy-above-his-soulless-job trope like it’s some form of heroism is kind of insulting, not only because we’re pushing twenty years since Office Space dropped, but also because Thomas’s sense of entitlement to a paycheque that exceeds his monthly needs seems to extend to Morissette himself, to the extent that the narrative dissonance between the rarity of such a thing among Thomas’s peers and the way Thomas can barely muster the energy to sneer as he shrugs it off goes completely unacknowledged. It’s both boring and tone-deaf, and whiffs on the opportunity to ask rare-to-CanLit questions about the meaning of work to a generation deeply skeptical of capitalism, and chooses instead to nudge our ribs at the boardroom dumbassery. Guess what? Corporations don’t give a shit that we think they’re silly. The critique needs to evolve.
Over on the other channel, Thomas sleeps with Romy once, is vaguely more down than she, tries to figure her out, and when she starts with the mixed messages, he can’t even rouse himself to have a conversation about it with her. The scenario feels real, but carries all the narrative weight of your third-least successful relationship, because it barely has an impact on Thomas’s emotional life. He goes in expecting nothing, receives almost as little, and just carries on. And hey, maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s why we should be sad for Thomas–because this is presented as the primary relationship of the one and only novel devoted to his life, which could be Exhibit A of why Thomas is an emotional ghost. But in that case, shouldn’t it hit harder than it does? We’re supposed to believe that Thomas actually suffers.
New Tab opens with Thomas checking out the Facebook profile of a prospective roommate and feeling challenged by the guy’s profile. “I wanted him to be ten thousand years older than me and still a mess and still thinking things like, “I’m the shittiest person alive,” on a regular basis,” Thomas tells us, setting up his character as one whose anxiety and self-loathing makes most of his decisions for him, and going by his internal monologue, he’s miserable.
“I didn’t understand how anyone had self-confidence, seeing how we were constantly with ourselves, constantly accumulating dirt on ourselves, constantly witnessing our own flaws, humiliations, defeats,” he muses at one point. It’s an observation worthy of a novel, except that he squanders it by not having the courage to show the actual consequences of carrying around that kind of poison in your head.
Thomas doesn’t behave like someone who feels this way; he has friends, makes new ones, has sex and a social life on fast-forward and a better job than anyone around him, and at no point is he unable to get out of bed or stop weeping or harming himself. I’m not implying that pain doesn’t count if it doesn’t cripple you, but for a reader to buy claims of your character’s insecurity, your character should probably act insecure, especially when it’s set up as his sole characteristic.
None of the conflict in New Tab—minimal as it is— is character-derived. The girl Thomas likes is wishy-washy, not because of anything he appears to do or say, but because she’s twenty, flaky, and hung up on an ex. He doesn’t fail at his job because he’s useless, but because he ultimately feels superior to it. When his apartment has the power shut off, it’s because other people screwed up the payments, and Thomas is the only one with the finances to have the power restored. The rest of the novel is just an extended hangout. Because Thomas’s sense of his own suffering is constantly—if unintentionally—juxtaposed against his blatant lack of actual struggle, all you come away with is the conviction that Morissette himself isn’t aware of how inflated that sense seems.
In other words, almost everything New Tab has to say for itself suggests that Morissette is far more interested in creating a vector for his clever observations about student living than in exploring any of its ostensible themes, be they digitally-mediated relationships or anxiety or even good old-fashioned twenty-something confusion. Which is why Thomas’s issues can feel so true as he describes them and yet be essentially ignored as soon as they would interfere with the kind of identically clever conversations Morissette would prefer his identically witty and interesting characters to be having.
The result is a character without much character, a conveyance to transport Morissette’s quips to parties. A lot of the book feels like an attempt to use the requisite first-person alienation to disguise a story that’s about how cool a bunch of Montreal kids are. Why else devote so much real estate to their DIY backyard cinema, which is about as fun as looking at someone else’s party pics on Facebook? Morissette seems torn between the desire to write about his kind of people having his kind of fun, and the nagging suspicion that a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel is supposed to be pretty angsty.
As a stylist, Morissette is laid-back and unfussy, and keeps the novel moving along at an easy lope, which makes New Tab a comfortable read, at least until the lack of tension makes the choice seem lazy. He prefers his sentences short and wry, and leans on his way with an aphorism to provide the payoffs another writer might seek through drama or lyricism. In this way, Morissette is refreshingly quotable, not for the laboured poetry that makes our national literature sometimes feel like a resource-state for the book clubs of the dinner party set, but for pithy darts generally aimed at the navel.
Lines like “The more I thought about it, the more I felt like my age was a number that represented how bad I felt about my age,” or “My approach with women was like stacking blocks really high in Tetris while waiting for a straight line that might never come,” are funny, even proverbial in their self-deprecating wisdom, but they come from Morissette himself, not his character. This is more or less forgivable, on the grounds that these moments feel like the true purpose of New Tab. Less so when the same feeling applies to the dialogue throughout, which regardless of speaker, is presented with a dictionally identical irony-laced smarm that makes conversation sound like an opportunity to advertise their wit, which would be great if these characters were intended to come across as complete fakes instead of just a bunch of authentically cool friends.
So what do we take away? Ennui as theme isn’t enough to prop up a novel, especially when it turns out to be more of a pose than anything else, and emotional discomfort is less a sign of depth than just of a heartbeat, and the evidence strongly suggests it’s more fun to be a hipster than to read about one. New Tab has no shortage of wisdom or ideas, just of the drive to apply them to anything other than a Facebook wall. Guillarme Morissette is, like his hero, a funny, observant guy who maybe just needs to go through a bit more before he’ll have a story to tell, and speaking as someone several rungs down the ladder, I wish him a speedy ascent.
Esplanade Books | 212 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1550653724