The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Exit by Nelly Arcan

Reviewed by David Boucher

Nelly Arcan

Exit. Anvil Press, 2011.

192 pp.


First published as Paradis, clef en main (2009), Nelly Arcan’s Exit (2011) addresses the issue of euthanasia. All of the themes that she pursues throughout her entire œuvre are found in this work: obsession with beauty, quest for eternal youth, loss of landmarks. Here, for the first time, the plot deals with anticipation: Exit can be classified as dystopian and describes a near future in which an underground enterprise, "Paradis, clef en main," offers a "made-to-measure" suicide to its clientele. Candidates are to be chosen following a series of ordeals imposed by the company’s committee. The main objective is to ascertain that the suicidal client truly desires death. Subsequently, the suicide is performed with dark professionalism: "Here at Paradis, clef en main, there are no second chances. If you change your mind at the last minute, or if the procedure fails, we will release you. Once you have regained your freedom, all communication between you and the company will be severed. Forever" (33).

The story chronicles the life of Antoinette Beauchamp, a paraplegic victim of the "false paradise" proposed by Mr Paradis, proprietor of the morbid company. Antoinette details all of her painful past experiences that have led her to seek suicide. From the outset, the reader grasps that her attempt was a failure. Her desire to end her life did not work, and she was left handicapped for life.

Sexuality plays a smaller role in the plot than it does in Arcan’s first novel, Whore, published in 2001 as Putain, and then in English in 2004. Instead, Arcan explores our relationship to death as individuals and as an increasingly secular world. Even if there is no explicit moral message at the end of it, the story seems to condemn euthanasia and, more profoundly, modern society, where death is trivialized. The places that Antoinette visits as she meets members of the company symbolically evoke the legacy of the 1960s: an exercise gym as a symptom of hedonism and contemporary narcissism, a strip club as a reification of free love, empty churches symbolising emptiness and past revolts against spiritual traditions. The name of the main character, "Antoinette”— combined with her desire to end her life like the guillotined Marie-Antoinette — is the key to understanding this subtle critique of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution: "I didn’t even know if I still wanted to die. But I was in too deep now. Out of the blue, an image that I had often pictured, and one that was frequently associated with my name, came flooding back to mind. ʻBy guillotine.ʼ ʻAn execution? Like Marie Antoinette? What a great idea!ʼ" (159).

As for the future (and its representation), it only appears in small and subtle details, essentially in the technological ceiling of Antoinette’s room. It truly reveals itself in the depiction of an advanced capitalist world (knocking at our door, if not to say already here and now…), where even death is for sale and where human relations are difficult, twisted, absent. For example, Antoinette’s relationship with her mother – a careerist, misandre, selfish, absent, inadequate woman who occasionally visits her room or spies on her through the spy-screen ceiling – indicates her postmodern condition. Antoinette’s monologues also point out the alienation of the youth of today and tomorrow: "There’s something wrong with human nature and the never-ending cat and mouse game we all play – running around, pursuing that object of desire, only to find that once the object is in our lap, it’s lost all its allure. Now that I was certain that I was going to die, my death seemed unnecessary" (171).


Overall, Arcan’s novel is captivating. As in her previous works, the story gestures toward a truth by capturing aspects of feminine psychology and, in this specific book, by means of Antoinette’s monologue as she recounts her ill-being and afflictions. The dialogues between her mother and her are also ghastly credible, since they reveal more than what is read, as well as addressing topics that we, as a society, muffle: essentially the despair of a young generation struggling with the loss of landmarks, and guilty of its own ingratitude, apathy, navel-gazing, all of those things which lead us not to paradise, but to our own individual hell.


David Boucher est doctorant au Département des littératures de langue française à l'Université de Montréal, où il enseigne aussi comme chargé de cours. Ses recherches actuelles portent sur les représentations du futur et du totalitarisme dans le roman d'anticipation français et québécois contemporain (Michel Houellebecq, Maurcie G. Dantec, Nelly Arcan, Antoine Volodine). 


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