Nelly Arcan’s Hysteric plumbs obsession
By Nelly Arcan. Anvil, 168 pp, softcover
Those familiar with the sad details concerning Quebec author Nelly Arcan (the former Montreal sex worker, who committed suicide at 36 in 2009) will sense a storyteller unhinged in the author’s second novel, Hysteric. First published in 2004 as Folle, the short novel is written from the point of view of a 29-year-old woman, also named Nelly Arcan.
Even disguised as fiction, Hysteric puts the in vogue confessional style into new light. The novel does just as much investigation on her other subject—her ex-lover—as it does on the subject of her.
Perhaps it’s a morbid undertaking for someone who easily compares lovers to clients, love to death, and pain to pleasure. Arcan’s fictional suicide note to her ex is packaged as a contemporary “De Profundis”, the accusatory letter Oscar Wilde penned from prison to a former lover.
Hysteric, with its second-person conjuring, offers a tour of emotional nightmares, insomnia, madness, and obsession. The analysis Arcan puts her fictional self through reminds us that clichés, no matter how simplistic, are just the surface of a deeper and much-needed emotional investigation or unravelling. The self-centred perspective, however, does offer universal truths about our lives, those we mingle with, can’t forget, want to love, kill, and love again. Like a torpedo of both pain and catharsis, the novel could drive readers into a manic frenzy as they navigate the private dregs of this once-vibrant love affair. You can’t help but hear a voice, determined to slush the pain around until nothing remains inside. “You couldn’t believe I had no idea what happened to the hundreds of thousands of dollars I made from my years of whoring,” the narrator writes, adding, “you saw a kind of self destruction; it was also an extreme form of cynicism toward capitalism…”
Hysteric is a raw stroke of wild love that explores desire and memory, fear and love, a novel that leaves the lights on for its readers, hurts as much as it haunts, and brings a much-needed philosophy to the genre of urban literary fiction.