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Breakneck

by Nelly Arcan; Jacob Homel trans.

When Rose Dubois and Julie O’Brien meet on an apartment rooftop during a sweltering Montreal summer, they find they share the same compulsion about achieving impossible physical perfection. Now in their thirties, each fights the inevitable onslaught of aging by frequenting the gym and going under the surgeon’s knife. Having acquired perfect breasts, unlined foreheads, and plump lips, the women’s preoccupation with alteration has become more of a fetish than a quest for self-improvement. They both strive to be objects for male consumption with no real attention paid to themselves or their own desires. Ultimately, their submissive tendencies attract the attentions of the same domineering man: fashion photographer Charles.

Anvil Break Neck coverAs Rose and Julie battle for Charles’s affection, he reveals himself to be a perfectly destructive force bent on consuming what they have artificially created. Nelly Arcan gives us the benefit of Charles’s ugly inner monologue, one that regards women as a combination of parts and holes to be debased, invaded, and conquered. Charles is ashamed of himself for his near inhuman want, yet indulges it readily, downloading cropped images of breasts, lips, and hips for arousal and never really seeing women as fully human. As Rose and Julie compete for his attention, they eventually come to understand the meaning in that commonly used kink phrase “the submissive holds all the power.” The trio revels in a twisted breed of love that, though harmful, is a perfect fit, though it leads to an inevitable, final form of obliteration.

Breakneck is above all else an anxious novel, swimming in an excess of intoxicants and physical extremes, bouncing back and forth between personal improvement and destruction. It is “troubling and filled with pleasure” – a phrase one of the women uses to describe her developing romance with Charles. Arcan’s frenetic, even disturbing prose – here in translation by Jacob Homel – mimics the book’s title, strong-arming its reader into an intense philosophical examination of vanity and excess. What risks coming across as a shallow narrative benefits from the incredibly thoughtful introspection that has come to define Arcan’s unique world. The late Quebec writer readily understood the all-consuming depths of what we often wrongly deem as superficial.