Taking the plunge

The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle

A review of The Heart Is An Involuntary Muscle by Monique Proulx

Published on October 1, 2003

The Heart Is An Involuntary Muscle
Monique Proulx

Douglas & McIntyre

I was lying alone in the dark recently when an old Roy Orbison tune, “Falling,” came on the radio, reaching across time and space to stir up ideas and emotions. While the Big O’s voice coloured the night blue, I pondered the words we use to describe that age-old, distinctly human experience: falling in love. As the title of the song would suggest, the key word here is falling, a term my thesaurus equates with sinking, slipping, nose-diving, stumbling-in short, losing control. When you look at it this way, it sounds a bit scary.

At least that’s how Florence, the 25-year-old, super-cerebral heroine and narrator of Monique Proulx’s latest novel, seems to perceive it. Though on some level she longs to connect romantically with Zeno, her colleague and would-be lover, she is ruled by fear, and unconsciously sets up barriers. As a web site designer, Florence is typical of her generation, experiencing life through the filters of modern technology; e-mail and voice mail serve as buffers, making direct contact with other human beings almost obsolete. Occasionally, she meets up with Zeno in the Greek restaurant they’ve chosen as their unofficial headquarters to discuss business, but whenever things get too heated emotionally, she simply “logs off.” Once crisis cracks open her resistance, though, she begins to bloom-a process which is a pleasure to witness.

In the meantime, a heightened sense of vulnerability renders her allergic to any mode of letting go. Everything from imbibing alcohol to surrendering to the power of a persuasive book leaves her feeling hung over and defenseless. When a line uttered by her dying father leads her to read a novel by one of Zeno’s favourite authors, Pierre Laliberté, she is deeply troubled by her inability to put the book down: “That which I feared most had come to pass,” she says. “I lost everything. My self-control, my freedom.” Overcome with emotion, Florence finds herself wondering, “how can words on paper be transformed into heat and violence?”

Good question. While Monique Proulx has borrowed the form of the mystery novel, and her main plot consists of uncovering the true identity of the elusive Pierre Laliberté, we can’t help but feel that her underlying motive was to explore the theme of writing. Referring to one of Pierre Laliberté’s books, Florence says, “Presenting the story in a schematic form explains nothing, because the plot is no more than a brass plate upon which to serve the main course, and the main course is wild emotion carried along by the words themselves.” In Proulx’s case, the main course is delightfully seasoned with acute observations on the ways of wordsmiths.

Her insights are often profound, underlining the sense of wonder and curiosity writers typically possess. And while a less skillful author might sound pretentious while exploring this territory, Proulx’s self-deprecating sense of humour saves her. Gina DaSilva, a writer whose web site Florence must design wryly points out, “Writers are no more neurotic than you are. It’s just that they hold up their neuroses for everyone to see.”

Gina’s reference to neurosis suggests that there is something dark and dangerous about the writing process, that it somehow constitutes a form of transgression. It’s probably no coincidence that Florence later mentions artists, criminals and the mentally ill in the same breath: “During transitions, depressive personalities sink into depression, criminals into crime, and artists worthy of the name into illuminations that will shake their lives and those of others.”

Overall, Proulx gives the sense that writing is a worthwhile journey, but that it entails following an unbeaten path that can lead well beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. As an act of transition, it threatens to cause growing pains similar to those experienced by Florence, and “casts [you] into vertigo, the only space infinite enough to hold all [you] do not know.” Writing, Proulx seems to be saying, involves taking a risk, much like falling in love. It demands giving up control, taking the plunge, and letting go of that old involuntary muscle-the heart.

Kimberly Bourgeois  is a Montreal-based writer/singer-songwriter. Visit her at kimberlybourgeois.com for news about her music and writing projects.



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