When the great Quebecois novelist Hubert Aquin shot himself in the grounds of a suburban convent, he could not have imagined that his death would precipitate a vast documentary fiction, written en anglais
by a friend, un anglais
no less. HA!
is just that, an 800-odd page account of Aquin's death and times, compiled by his sometime collaborator, filmmaker Gordon Sheppard. Aquin was one of the great cultural figures of the Quiet Revolution, and English Canada has never had anything like him: a novelist/mystic/critic/terrorist/dandy/martyr to call its own. By comparison, his contemporary Pierre Trudeau looks like a dowdy provincial dimwit. In HA!
, Sheppard attempts to give us the measure of the man and his works, and to argue that Aquin's suicide was his greatest artistic accomplishment.
HA! is a hybrid leviathan, part postmodern fiction, part CBC docudrama, part Royal Commission Report. Sheppard calls the book a montage, and stuffs it with all manner of things--paintings by the Old Masters, extended quotations from the Western canon, photographs, postcards, letters, newspaper clippings, a dreadful comic pastiche of Shakespeare, souvenirs of Sheppard's film Eliza's Horoscope, song lyrics, transcribed soundscapes, and the like, all supplied in the name of "context" and the creation of a "multi-media environment." HA! appears to have been built rather than written; it takes its cue from McLuhan's Mechanical Bride, but now she has run to promiscuity and fat.
The result is a mixed success. The interviews with Aquin's circle--his widow and his ex-wife, his friends, lovers, admirers, and professional contacts--are the most consistently interesting element of the book, and they benefit from the inclusion of other documentary materials. Anyone with an interest in Aquin, his works, Quebec politics, or the French language in Canada will find much to ponder here. Many of Sheppard's more extravagant flourishes, however, are naïve and self-indulgent; the more that Gordon Sheppard the character intrudes into HA!, the more irritating his book becomes. HA! raises more issues than can be addressed in a brief review. It is a paradox of a text: theoretically challenging but aesthetically unsatisfying, a monument to Quebec erected in English, an immense film in the form of an immense book, an experimental work that is profoundly conventional in its formal tactics. It may well be remembered as the fanfare that inaugurated the decadent phase of Canadian postmodernism. --Jack Illingworth
--This text refers to the
"HA! is a harrowing investigation of some of the most profound and troubling aspects of the human condition... a brave and important work that richly deserves our attention and discussion." Quill and Quire
"HA! is a truly incredible book. You are unlikely to find many that will even come close to it." Geeta Nadkarmi, Between the Pages