301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently


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Exit by Nelly Arcan (trans. by David Scott Hamilton)

There are three ways out of this novel: for the main character, the choice “to live” rather than commit suicide; for the author, the choice to commit suicide days after the book’s completion; for the reader, the fade exit after turning the last page.

Not that I’m suggesting it’s a novel from which the reader seeks escape. A story that begins with the intriguing “We’ve all thought about committing suicide” has to trigger at least a check of one’s honesty.

But while suicide may seem to be the main course on the table, it’s a distracter. The central character, Antoinette Beauchamp (her name a contradictory amalgam of executed naïve queen and “beautiful field”/paradise) thinks she is choosing to give up her life, but the reader sees that her real struggle is whether to be born into an autonomous existence at all. Her test takes place in the womb of possibility within which she arm wrestles the members of her allegorical family, none of whom encourages her to choose independence. The narrative is an elaborate satirical fable/parable, set close enough to realism (“Some time in the not too distant future…”) that its techno death fetish is seductively believable, a combination of the erotically forbidden and moral tale.

Paradoxically, Antoinette (“Toinette toilette” her mother inadvertently calls her) articulates her story clearly while at the same time sunk in a morbidity of drugs, vomit, alcohol, piss, defecation, and profanity—all presented sans euphemism: it’s a direct attack on her culturally feminized flesh (the “burqa of the body” in Arcan’s words). Antoinette has survived her big suicide attempt but has been rendered paraplegic in an ersatz chateau in les Cantons-de-l’Est—a chance at a designer death she earned by jumping through the rigorous hoops set for her by the mysterious company Paradis, clef en main, a business promising the ultimate exit experience if the candidate passes muster.

The narrative drive in the book is Antoinette’s history of escape from her mother and the other demon-driven characters via the maze of tasks leading her to the chateau. Apart from fleeing a mother obsessed with stopping time (another method of self-negation) it’s an uncomfortable reminder of how the fear/romanticism sales tool is used by religious institutions, governments, and criminal corporations to get us to believe true fulfillment always comes later. The drug buzz is in the pursuit of the happiness. It’s the great lie that is the book’s theme: a living death chasing an afterlife. How deeply ironic that the suicide inevitably sees death as a choice for a better ‘life.’ It’s the ultimate consumerism.

Of course the mother’s Faustian drug and cosmetics bargain inevitably fails. In keeping with the multiple paradoxes in the novel, it is the opportunity for Antoinette to choose to be reborn by living her mother’s death, not her own—a sober reminder that the only place one can live death is in life.

And despite the novel’s ostensible subject matter, in her own departure Nelly Arcan (whose real name was Isabelle Fortier) has left us a work that jumps with life-energy and humour, only very occasionally straying into sensationalist hyperbole.

Exit is given a lively colloquial Québécoise feel by David Scott Hamilton’s sure-handed and understanding translation of a novel that could have been written only in Québec. »

From subTerrain #61

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