‘Breakneck’, a nihilistic and powerful novel of Nelly Arcan

‘Breakneck’ is the story of two women, Julie and Rose, both of whom are desperate to retain the sexual interest of a man named Charles. For many Canadians, its author Nelly Arcan, who died in 2009, is one of the best writers Canada has ever produced.

‘Breakneck’ is about a character named Julie O’Brien who is an article writer and documentarian. In the picture, Nelly Arcan, born Isabelle Fortier (1973 – 2009).

Nelly Arcan was the pen name for Isabelle Fortier, born in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in 1973. Arcan had a complicated life, she had a very sensitive, imaginative and vulnerable personality which, combined with her physical attractiveness (skinny, blonde, who looked like the classic Barbie doll) and the fact that she was born and raised in a very small town, may have caused her conflicts in the social interactions and in her persona.

Breakneck (originally titled A ciel ouvert) is her third novel. It was published in 2007 two years before her suicide. The two first novels Putain (2001) and Folle (2004) were controversial and portrayed Arcan’s experiences as an escort while she was studying literature in Montreal.

Breakneck is about a character named Julie O’Brien who is an article writer and documentarian. Julie is currently pre-producing a documentary about the fashion industry. During the planning she meets Charles a fashion photographer and his girlfriend Rose, a makeup artist who works with Charles in his photo sessions.  The story starts on a rooftop by a pool, in a condo in downtown Montreal. Julie is tanning while Rose is laying on a chaise-longue and identifying her as the woman with whom her fiancé was talking to the other day.  She perceives Julie as “very dangerous” for the stability of her relationship with Charles. Eventually, her suspicion will become reality and Julia will have an affair with Charles.

The characters and their problems

The three main characters in Breakneck have notable phycological issues. Julie is a filmmaker who is recovering from alcohol and cocaine addiction, a lonely and physically attractive woman in her thirties who knows how to play the “social game” for her professional career in the fashion world. The problem with Julie is that she has been empty since the beginning of her adulthood; she hasn’t found anything to really care about. She has been sailing aimlessly through life, just doing some work to make a living, partying and having meaningless relationships. Julie is tired of her life and her faith in people has completely vanished. When she interacts with Charles, a new “hope” in her life seems to arise.

Arcan was found dead in her Montreal apartment on September 24, 2009. She hanged herself.

Rose was born in a small town in Quebec in a house full of siblings, mostly sisters. He mother instructed her (using the population of her surroundings as example) that there are way more women than men in the world; therefore, a woman must put forth the best effort to catch and secure a male partner. This is the reason why her jealousy is so aggressive and her responses in this “competition” with Julie are so extreme.

Charles is also from a small town. Her parents divorced while he was a young boy. His mother took his sister and left him with his father, who started to suffer from dementia. He was a butcher and he needed Charles’ assistance to keep his business running. As the dementia was progressing, he started to lock his son (for whatever absurd reasons) in the “meat room” as a punishment. This affected Charles’ mental health and created a meat fetish in him.

Writer’s general point of view and style

Arcan uses these characters to develop her point of view regarding the human condition in contemporary life. According to Arcan, contemporary society is devoted to consumerism and to the concept of “individual freedom”, which intensifies anxiety and loneliness, and creates an existential emptiness. The artifice seems to impede any kind of mental equilibrium on these characters, distorting their perspectives about themselves and their surroundings. This fetish on the “artifice” ends up asphyxiating their lives.

At the same time, the author makes a parallelism with the weather: humidity, heat and wild changes in the atmosphere are described as “toxic” and artificial. The author seems to reveal to us that all the manipulation that has been done to nature has been in the praise of materialism and artificiality, just like the plastic surgeries that Julie and Rose have had multiple times during their adulthood.

Breakneck is a nihilistic and powerful novel. It is disturbing, honest and complex. But It is also reflexive and contemplative and offers a “dark perspective” on human beings which can be useful for us, as the readers, to understand better the complexity of negative experiences and the way they can absorb the human mind. The pace and the style of Breakneck could be compared with some of the novels by the great Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata, who also died by suicide and had a very nihilistic point of view on humans.  Kawabata created characters haunted by their unhealed mental scars, just like Arcan did in this extraordinary novel.

Original Title: A ciel ouvert

Author: Nelly Arcan

Published Date: 2007

Xphilo Liranzo
Journalist, freelance writer. Born in the Dominican Republic, lives in Toronto since 2016 and previously lived in Montréal for two years. Film analyst, novelist, author of two novels in process of editing. He writes reviews of movies, books, and music albums. He is also interested in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, history, sports, health, and well-being. He has some experience in filmmaking (directing and as a screenwriter). Passionate about languages, he is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He is also able to read and speak German (intermediate level) and Mandarin (Basic level). You can find most of his articles and reviews on his website: Xphilo.com