The Heart Is an Involuntary Muscle

by Monique Proulx
ISBN: 155054991X

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A Review of: The Heart Is an Involuntary Muscle
by Steven W. Beattie

Florence, the narrator of Monique Proulx's latest novel, The Heart Is an Involuntary Muscle, doesn't like novels. As she puts it, "In a 300-page book, there are always 250 pages too many. Reading books slows you down, it softens you, it wipes you out. When you open a book, a particularly underhanded book, you're neutralized for hours, the captive of this corpulent mass that isn't even true, a creation that some neurotic fabricated out of the worst of his neuroses, the better to unload it on you and get it out of his life." Distilled, Florence is bemoaning a deficiency of what Ray Robertson has called "the literary value of not being boring."
It is significant that Proulx takes 73 words to say essentially the same thing Robertson manages to say in seven. It is significant, too, that whereas Robertson's comment is sharp, pointed, and-not insignificantly- funny, Proulx's statement, placed in the mouth of her embittered protagonist, is plodding, overwrought, and devoid of anything resembling humour. It is a fairly accurate reflection, in microcosm, of the book in which it appears. At 359 pages, The Heart Is an Involuntary Muscle is at least 250 pages too long, and is packed with the kind of lyrical, contemplative, pseudopoetic prose that glitters like gold, but it's largely fool's gold, all surface veneer with no emotional substance beneath.
The novel opens with Florence attending the death of her father in hospital, a scene that is described in typically florid language:

"His icy hands steal the warmth from mine. His forehead burns like a furnace gone mad. The disorder within him has begun to unravel all that was so tightly wound. The parts of his being lose their coherence; each takes off in its separate panic. What part truly remains, what part can still receive my encouragements or prayers? I petition his feverish head, and from it issues the steady, shallow breathing of sedated sleep. I'm waiting for a miracle, and that's what I tell him. I am waiting for him to flick open his eyes and give me a fraction, a ghost of a look. I am waiting for him to blurt out my name in a voice both clear and filled with pain. Florence, Florence."

Following her father's demise, Florence encounters a figure in the hallway, dressed in the uniform of a doctor or a nurse, who tells her that he was present earlier that night when her father spoke one single sentence, which would turn out to be his last: "The heart is an involuntary muscle."
Soon after, her business partner, Zeno Mahone-with whom Florence is infatuated, although she refuses to admit it, even to herself-gives her a copy of the latest novel by Pierre Lalibert, a famously reclusive author with whom Zeno himself is obsessed. Florence reluctantly reads the novel, and is startled to find her father's final words included in the book's closing passage. She begins to suspect that the figure in the hallway was actually the mysterious writer, and sets out on a quest to find him.
Florence does encounter the elusive Pierre Lalibert again, and through her relationship with him she begins tentatively to slough off the self absorption she has given herself over to for so long. She reluctantly adopts a puppy, tries awkwardly to step outside of herself by spying on people in a public park and imagining their stories, and she eventually confronts her true feelings for Zeno. But Pierre Lalibert (note the dreadfully symbolic surname) remains something of a cipher, and Florence cannot decide whether he is genuine or simply feeding her a series of lies and stories.
There is a certain irony in writing in the first person about a woman who suffers from a kind of emotional paralysis while simultaneously employing a heightened prose that runs the colour scale from purple to ultraviolet. This irony is underscored by Florence's obsession with her father's final statement. Florence's heart, despite her best intentions, does act involuntarily, drawing her in directions-toward Zeno and Pierre Lalibert-that she'd rather not go. However, Florence seems incapable of acting on her feelings without first examining them in minute, often excruciating detail. This detail is conveyed in language that is artificially elevated ("I petition his feverish head") and replete with self-conscious puns and verbal tics ("when the near and drear draw nigh").
The result is that the experience of reading the book is somewhat akin to wading through a particularly dense swamp. Polysyllabic words abound where simpler syntax would have sufficed, metaphors and images are piled one on top of another until the reader feels trapped in a kind of literary quicksand. So, Florence's reaction when Pierre Lalibert takes her to sit outside at night near a field of bullfrogs:

"Silence now. Maybe he decided to keep quiet for good. I heard his soft breathing. Where has he traveled to, in what parallel universe is he floating, leaving me far behind? Though our respective warmths were almost touching, it was clear to me I was alone, stranded on this wooden reef. His instructions were incomplete; I had no idea what to do with the sky and the frogs, so absurdly twinned together. The silence was unbearable. I pictured myself very well, tiny and stiff and alone, lost in the immense blackness of this flooded wasteland, a poor tiny stiff little thing forsaken forever on the bench of existence while everything floats around me, blissful and ethereal. I pictured myself so pathetic that tears started to flow."

Or perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps the difficulty is not with the material itself, but with a rather awkward translation. I haven't read the French version of the book; perhaps the notion of being "forsaken forever on the bench of existence" is more vivid or euphonic there, perhaps in French this phrase comes off sounding less like a refugee from some jacked-up Regency romance. However, the same cannot be said for such awkward English renderings as the reference to "mass die-offs of goldfish" or the inexplicable "million-and-oneth time" (which, standing in for the more obvious "million-and-first time", hits the reader like a roundhouse to the jaw).
"How can words on paper be transformed into heat and violence?" Florence wonders. This seems the barrier that Proulx's novel is unable to breach; despite her most valiant efforts, despite the careful attempt to articulate her protagonist's emotional landscape, Florence ultimately remains a static figure, held at a distance from the reader, devoid of fire or energy. Ironic distance rules the day, but the net effect of the irony inherent in Florence's narration is to keep the reader at arm's length throughout the course of the novel. After becoming intrigued by Pierre Lalibert, Florence, that inveterate hater of novels, decides to read all of his books. In describing her experience with one novel, she says:

"One hundred times I found myself wanting to give up, one hundred times I goaded myself on. And then came the moment when I no longer needed goading. That which I feared most had come to pass. I lost everything. My self-control, my freedom. The book destroyed my willpower and moved forward on its own, carrying me with it like a soulless rag, with no resistance."

I know precisely how she feels.

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