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Ha! A Self-murder Mystery

by Gordon Sheppard

In this era of harsh commercial imperatives for publishing, there isn’t much room left for big risky novels, those encyclopedic monster-pieces like Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, works that try to capture modern life in all its luminous complexity. When such a book does make it to press these days, then, it’s a sign that the work was just too intriguing for the publisher to pass up, despite the commercial impediments.

This is indeed the case with Gordon Sheppard’s book, HA! A Self-Murder Mystery, an almost-900-page genre-busting beast and one of the most ambitious, and oddly compelling, Canadian works of literature I have read in a long time. The book is a novelistic treatment of the real life and death of Hubert Aquin, a Québécois separatist intellectual and respected novelist of the 1960s and ’70s. (Coincidentally, Aquin’s first novel, Next Episode, was chosen this summer as CBC’s Canada Reads winner.)

Sheppard, himself a well-known writer, artist, and feature filmmaker of that era, befriended Aquin in 1976, a year before the latter took his own life, controversially with the consent of his wife, Andrée. In the wake of the tragedy, Sheppard began a long process of conducting interviews with more or less everyone who had known Aquin, hoping to gain some insight into what happened. In doing so, he was able to delve deep into a life stranger than fiction, a life of separatist terrorism and weapons charges, of wild binges and secret sexual intrigues, of artistic desperation and bouts of crushing depression.

As its subtitle suggests, HA! is structured like an old-fashioned detective story, with Sheppard casting himself as an existential Sherlock Holmes. The analogy is not accidental – Aquin often mentioned his debt to Conan Doyle and frequently incorporated elements of the thriller into his own experimental, highly literary novels. Transcripts of Sheppard’s interviews, cleaned up and rearranged, work in this context as witness testimonies, presented alongside other “evidence” in various forms: Truman Capote-esque dramatizations; reprinted period newspaper clippings; long quotations from Flaubert, Joyce, and Dante; and images from the likes of da Vinci and Goya.

The resulting literary stew, while anything but conventional, makes for oddly breezy reading – improbably enough, HA! is a page-turner. Sheppard’s background in film may be a factor here. He has a screenwriter’s flair for addictive storytelling, piling on the plot twists and carefully building the narrative to an explosive climax. And the way he moves from an interview to a passage of fiction, for instance, has the same effect as a quick cut in cinema, grabbing our attention and forcing us to consider events from a new and disorienting angle.

The images and quotations in HA! also work on a deeper level. Aquin, as a serious artist, lived as much in the imaginary world of art as he did in literal Montreal. Given this, the inclusion of artistic works that influenced him give us a powerful sense of the creative landscape in which he moved, helping us grasp the reasons for his often otherwise inexplicable actions.

One of Sheppard’s central techniques in HA! is to fudge the line between Aquin’s real life and the imaginative world of art. This is most chillingly apparent in the startling contention that Aquin’s suicide was his final creative work, executed (the disturbing pun is intended) in the only medium left to an artistic and cultural revolutionary in a counter-reformational place and time.

With such claims, Sheppard forces us to ask deep, frightening questions about the toll that art exacts on the artist (and on artists’ friends and families). Aquin’s case is extreme, of course, but HA! suggests that every artist is engaged in a potentially destructive struggle, encompassing everything from the difficulty of making enough money to survive to the psychological toll of strip-mining one’s own life and relationships for creative raw materials.

These observations reflect back, self-consciously I think, on the book itself and on its author. In choosing to turn his friend’s life and suicide into literature, Sheppard also takes enormous risks: that he will bring pain to Aquin’s surviving friends and family; that he won’t get the story right; that he will sensationalize or trivialize, and so on.

But the strategy pays off, in no small part because it forces us to think deeply about these crucial artistic and moral questions. HA! is a harrowing investigation of some of the most profound and troubling aspects of the human condition. Readers used to the folksy mainstream of CanLit may balk, but this is a brave and important work that richly deserves our attention and discussion.