By sheer chance, I recently found myself reading two horror novels in which the act of writing played a significant part: Patrick Senecal's 5150, rue des Ormes and Alan Judd's Faustian The Devil's Own Work. 5150, rue des Ormes juxtaposes the journals of Yannick (being held hostage in the titular house) and Maude (the fervently Catholic wife of the man doing the hostage-holding) against an intermittent third-person objective narrator; The Devil's Own Work's first-person narrator tells the story of the fate of his friend, a bestselling novelist, in thrall to a strange manuscript and the woman (or demon) who guards it. Both novels produce some of their skin-crawling effects from the increasingly obvious discrepancy between the hopes vested in writing (to keep oneself sane, to impose order on chaos, to create art, to express the secret self...) and the actual outcomes for the ever more beleaguered writers. Initially, I was going to write about the two novels together, but 5150, rue des Ormes decided to take over this blog post.
Spoilers ahoy, so the rest goes below the fold. Beware! Long entry ahead!
Perhaps because I'm a UCI alum, my (inappropriately) amused response to 5150, rue des Ormes was "Wow! A deconstructionist's dream!" Jacques Beaulieu, the paterfamilias, is a moral absolutist who charts the world in terms of the "juste" and "injuste"--a binary opposition symbolically manifested in the black/white pieces in chess, a game Jacques plays obsessively. His subjectivity is bound up fully in his identification with absolute justice, which he both channels and is: "Tu vas mourir parce que la Justice l'a décidé," Jacques screams during his first execution. "Parce que je l'ai décidé! Moi! Moi! Moi!" (184) Or, even more bluntly, "N'implore pas Dieu! C'est moi, Dieu, ici!" (183) Although many can be "juste," only Jacques and his literal or intellectual progeny are privileged to embody and enact the rule of justice on earth. This, for Jacques, is quite literally the Law of the Father (has anyone seen my Lacan?): it is his father who teaches him to value justice above all else (39-40), and it is as a father that Jacques seeks to pass his ritual practices to the next generation. He tips over into murder after his first son is stillborn, which he blames on the doctor; like his Catholic wife, Jacques is heavily invested in causality, with the added fillip that all causes are embodied in persons. (That is, something must have caused his son, an "innocent" , to die; that something must be a someone.) At the same time, Jacques professes to loathe physical violence, so that his executions (as well as his abusive assaults on his wife) are accompanied by acts of extreme mortification that clearly parody saintly asceticism (he slashes his fingers, walks on broken glass, and so forth). As the arbiter of all justice, who can ordain punishment for his own transgressions but himself? Jacques' repeated bloodying of his own body, however, also recurs in his attempts to reinvent his daughter Michelle as the son he failed to have (signaled by the untranslatable use of masculine pronouns and adjectives) and, ultimately, in the taxidermy chess set he constructs in the basement, with the dead "juste" (e.g., Maude's parents) as White and the "injuste" as Black. That is, Jacques transforms Justice from the metaphysical to the physical--the personification becomes a person (himself), just as good/evil demand their own embodiment. And Jacques' creepy chess set suggests the extent and limit of his power: he can repurpose corpses to represent the powers of Justice and Injustice warring against each other, but the results are still grotesque and inanimate; for Jacques, all people are potential objects instead of potential selves. He deforms, instead of forms.
The reader only accesses Jacques through the third person or the diaries, however, so that he is always mediated to us via another voice (and thus never gets to be the supreme "I" he claims to be); Maude and Yannick narrate themselves through their journals, both of which prove deeply inadequate to the task at hand. Maude's journal is as much spiritual self-examination as it is a secular diary, and whereas her husband fully asserts his selfhood in the act of delivering "justice," Maude does so by reflecting on her precise role in the divine plan. For her, the diary is initially an unmediated mode of speaking to God in private; later, as she becomes more and more aware of Jacques' projects, the diary substitutes for the confessional. But as she concludes her first entry, she begs for a sign: "Envoie-moi un signe, Seigneur, un signe qui me dira ce que je dois faire, un signe qui révélera la pureté ou la noirceur de cette éventuelle rencontre" (35). This moment anticipates later revelations about Jacques' binary world view ("purity" and "blackness"); it also suggests her willing subordination to a divine power whose "signs" she must decode before she can choose. It is perhaps no accident that she is a passionate reader, for her universe is composed entirely of potentially momentous signs. At the same time, where her husband seeks to claim God's ultimate subject position for himself, Maude can understand herself only in relational terms--in relation to God, to her husband, to children. Excited by her first (and ultimately tragic) pregnancy, Maude declares that "une femme n'est pas vraiment femme tant qu'elle n'a pas d'enfant" (85)--to be a woman is not, by her very definition, to exist in and of herself, but to reproduce. As a bemused Yannick realizes, Jacques and Maude are virtually parodies of the stereotypical dominant patriarch and subordinate woman (Yannick repeatedly wonders at how out of time Maude seems)--yet another unstable binary.
The difficulty for Maude, then, turns out to be the sheer proliferation of uncertain and self-contradictory signs, none of which can be reliably decoded. In her final journal entry, a suicide note addressed to God but read by both Yannick and Jacques, she records that Yannick's presence led her finally to full self-awareness--the continuation of her theme--but when he offers help and then, succumbing to Jacques' game, retracts it, she finds her initial belief that he was heaven-sent to be in error. "[I]l était l'envoyé du Diable" (329) she scrawls, suggesting her ongoing entrapment in the world of yes/no, good/evil, God/Demon, and so on. Yannick's instability is the last straw that breaks the camel's back of her patriarchal world-view: abandoned by both men and her male God, and unable to maintain her one-way devotion to her mentally disabled daughter Anne, her sole self-motivated choice in the narrative is suicide. Once her narrative system collapses, she cannot reconstruct the fragments into any coherent alternative that would escape the trap of either/or. She opts, that is, for silence--a choice that anticipates the fates of both Jacques and Yannick.
If this were a deconstructionist exercise, then, Yannick at first seem to be a disruptive third term unsettling the characters' belief in a stable world of opposites. Significantly, Yannick is entrapped by sheer chance: he falls off his bicycle when he swerves to avoid a cat, asks Jacques for help, and then accidentally discovers Jacques' latest execution-in-process. Yannick is understandably bewildered when Jacques denies that he has any intention of killing him (17), but accident is what saves him: "Hein, que c'est pas de ta faute, le jeune?" (17) In other words, Yannick is a problem, but because he did nothing wrong, he remains on the side of le juste. Nevertheless, Yannick's accidental presence automatically troubles both Jacques' and Maude's worldviews, which rely heavily on intentional causes in order to remain operative. It is no accident--so to speak--that the accidental Yannick is also the character who most explicitly turns to writing in order to self-consciously impose narrative order on otherwise inexplicable events. As he reflects, rereading his own text, "Je me sens plus maitre de moi, plus en paix, comme un homme perdu dans le désert qui a trouvé un oasis" (81). In that sense, Yannick at first appears to be the only character aware that his selfhood depends on a system--the act of writing up his experiences in confinement--that he has created for himself. And yet, this self-consciousness is also his weakness; where Jacques and Maude craft their worldviews out of transcendent absolutes, Yannick can only turn to films--whether classics like The Seventh Seal or contemporary horror--as the best analogies for his situation. Eventually, his own prose begins to erupt in disorder, whether by recording his own maniacal outbursts (175), decaying into repetition (204), or, when he finally discovers what's in the basement, momentarily collapsing into fragments (213-16, 226). (At one point, his words separate out into their component letters .) Ultimately, it should come as no surprise to the reader that Yannick is seduced by the logic of Jacques' own game, to the point that he manages to leave the house and yet chooses to return: "Je vais le battre," Yannick tells himself, "Pour lui montrer que j'ai raison" (253). Yannick, the supposedly disruptive third term, succumbs to the allure of the fixed oppositions (here, between reason and irrationality); beating Jacques Beaulieu at chess means not subverting Jacques' system, but proving its rightness. The game's ritual repetitions overload his ability to master himself through the act of writing--now, he can master himself only by mastering Jacques.
In fact, the truly disruptive figures in the novel are not the men at all, but Jacques' two daughters, Michelle and Anne. Michelle, who will go on to become the Red Queen of Senécal's Aliss (which I discussed a few years ago), already disrupts her father's scheme by her gender: instead of passing down the lessons of justice to a son, he must make do with the daughter whose gender he literally attempts to reword. The Law of the Father must give way to something else entirely, and that something else, she tells Yannick, is "[l]e pouvoir d'etre libre" (199)--free, as she goes on to say, of absolutely everything. Grasping that her father's rules are merely fictions in their own right, Michelle embraces the possibility of absolute amorality: instead of good/evil, there is merely action without any greater meaning than the joys of action itself and the advantages action brings. For obvious reasons, this makes Michelle far more dangerous than her father, as her penchant for violence is entirely unrestrained (she breaks Yannick's leg, murders two men, and is responsible for the death of a third). As Yannick anxiously reflects, she emanates "[l]e noir du vide" (199), of the empty abyss; his fear of/desire for Michelle prompts him to sexualized fantasies of control which eventually result in attempted but utterly failed rape (303). Whereas her mother embodies one end of the stereotypical feminine continuum (the Good Mother, the Angel in the House, the utterly passive wife, etc.), Michelle is at the other (the ungoverned and ungovernable female monster). The deadliness of moral absolutism explodes into an even deadlier amorality.
Jacques thinks he can slot Michelle into his own projects, but neither he nor Yannick can make sense of Anne--indeed, both men are terrified of her. Anne is, to some unknown degree, developmentally disabled as the result of one of her father's brutally abusive moments (he attacks Maude while she is pregnant), and therefore a walking reminder of the violence he enacts but also rejects. Anne is all the more frightening because so entirely unresponsive; on the rare occasions when she does do something, the characters are left scrambling to interpret her behavior. What does it mean that she watches Yannick steal a knife? Or that she leaves dead animals on her sleeping father? Her apparently empty gaze, which seems to look without intention and to witness without understanding--or, again does, it?--calls both Jacques' and Yannick's sense of self into question. Michelle's moral abyss reappears in Anne as what initially seems to be perfect emptiness, embodiment with no subjectivity whatsoever. And yet, when she sees her dead mother transformed into one of Jacques' chess pieces, she finally erupts into some kind of nascent identity: "je comprends qu'elle hurle," Yannick writes, "dans un abominable silence" (351). Shrieking (silently) as she attacks her father, Anne manifests an elemental, nonverbal understanding of wrong that she cannot systematize. By the same token, Anne's silence and unreadable emptiness, which resist any attempt to ascribe definite intentions or motives to her actions, make her, like Michelle, a figure for that which cannot be assimilated to the father's (or Father's) absolutism. (One could put Yannick and Jacques on one side, Michelle and Anne on another, and Maude as the "cross" between the two--the woman who awakens to the impossibility of moral absolutism, yet cannot reject the system in the end.)
Significantly, the only character who survives the novel with the ability to use language is Michelle, who regards all systems as manmade and therefore contingent. Jacques, in terror, murders Anne, only to realize that he has murdered an "innocente" (353) and, therefore, has violated his own system; he collapses into total silence, destroyed by the implosion of his supreme position. (God is, apparently, quite dead.) Yannick, entrapped in turn by the logic of the chess game that he can no longer finish, is himself silenced quite gorily by Michelle, who castrates him. Even the non-psychoanalytical critic can't help noting the implications: without his phallus, the once-obsessive writer seems shut out from language altogether. The absolutists collapse into the emptiness that both had feared in Michelle and Anne, reduced to empty mirror images of each other (the last we see of them). Only Michelle is left capable of making a move, figuratively speaking: the oddly-positioned, bloodied chess queen she leaves as her signature on the chessboard tells the psychoanalyst that she knows the rules, "mais qu'elle ne les suit pas" (364).