Gordon Sheppard Interview with Bill Richardson on CBC Radio One
Original Air Date: 27 February 2004--21 minutes
Discussing Hubert Aquin and Gordon Sheppard's Documentary Novel, HA!  A Self-Murder Mystery
HA!  A Self-Murder Mystery by Gordon Sheppard [www.gordonsheppard.com]
"I[completed the book] in the belief that was an important work, otherwise I had been a bit off my rocker to have spent so much time.  And I knew that there had to be considerable final revision before the book became what it could be and there is that difference between something that is exceptional and something which is just OK and it's the old cliche, God is in the details."

"We met because I had long been intrigued by him [Hubert Aquin] as a writer. I read his first novel and his second novel. I tried to meet him at that time, that is 1968 or 1969 and he never showed up for the meeting which was a common occurance with him.  In 1976 a feature film [Eliza's Horoscope] which I had done with Warner Bros. starring Tommy Lee Jones was about to be released.  And I invited him through a mutual friend to a screening.  He came to the screening and that, as they say at the end of Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  We hit it off right away and soon I was proposing to him that he write the script for a feature film that I would direct and that I had the basic idea.  He agreed to do that and that started us on a constant series of meetings over the next few months where we were either discussing the feature film project or else just enjoying our company."

"I did spend New Years Eve with him and he was kind of depressed.  I suggested to him that if he wanted to get some perspective on his life in Canada that it might be a good idea if he went to Italy.  I'd just been there myself and I was reminded at how Rome in particular provided a perspective on the Western world because it was so full of excesses: so many newspapers, so many orgies, so many restaurants.  It was a place to go to have a long look at life in Canada. And indeed in February that's what he did.  He went to Italy and tried to get some perspective.  But obviously it didn't bring him around to embracing life."
John W. MacDonald
© 2004
Selected Quotes
   Take 2 of HA! by Gordon Sheppard:
    My collection of afterthoughts

"The beginning is the beginning only at the end"

    "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last."
    -Revelation  22:13

    "There is no refuge from confession but suicide; and suicide is confession."
    -Daniel Webster (1830)

    A recent conversation with Gordon Sheppard provides an unequivocal confirmation to me that what James Joyce did for Dublin, Sheppard does for Montréal.  Certainly, the reviews have been glowing thus far for
HA! A Self-Murder Mystery.  In 2003 the Literary Review of Canada (LRC) reviewed 128 books.  They chose HA! as one of five books that will have a "lasting significance" and a "profound impact".  It is noteworthy that out of the five, Sheppard's book is the only work of fiction.  Impressive laurels, indeed.  What follows below is my attempt to illustrate the book's structure, with quotes drawn from the book, and I how I see its significance as it specifically and overtly relates to Dante's Inferno and Joyce's Ulysses.  Wish me luck...  My well read copy of HA! has about 99 multi-coloured Post-it Notes strategically stuck on its pages.  Likewise, my copies of Inferno and Ulysses have not escaped the ubiquitous annotated sticky-note.

    In writing this essay, I hope to outline several topics.  I wish to attempt to explain why there is such praise for
HA!, why it had such an impact on me, and outline in some detail the book's influences as derived from Inferno and Ulysses.  I also wrote this essay as a follow-up to comments I made in November 2003 on my web site after reading Sheppard's book, HA!

    Browsing for books on my lunch hour, I almost tripped over the book (it is so huge) in one if the independent bookstores down the street from where I work.  I made the purchase and took it home.  I eyed it with childlike curiosity.  Its boards, a bright red.  Its dust jacket, a glossy black with a colourful patch of artwork with three blazing red characters sprawled across: "H-A-!".  I read it in marathon sessions.  Each page turning as quickly as the last.  There were many nights my wife, Julie, knocked on the adjoining bedroom wall to tell me to get off the couch and get to bed. (Sorry Julie!)  After the last page was turned, I then penned some quick comments on my site and also posted them on amazon.ca: my first 'review' to appear there.

    Now three months have passed since reading it and I still feel haunted by the book.  I resist the urge to place it on a shelf.  It still sits on my desk keeping company with the other books to which I often refer: dictionary, style manual, book of quotations, etc.  I usually mention the book to whomever I meet as it acts like an ice-breaker: "Have you heard of this book
HA! by Gordon Sheppard?"  The response is the familiar, "What?  Who?"  Recently, I attended an alumni gathering and asked people what they were reading.  Three responded nothing at all at the moment--too busy, one just finished "War and Peace" this summer (an aberration surely) and the other two were in the midst of the latest Harry Potter book.  One gentlemen, intrigued, mentioned that he would look up Sheppard's book.  A convert?  Or did he simply want to stop talking to me... Hmmm.  We'll see.

    In any case, I  feel compelled to put into words some of the thoughts I got after reading--to expand on some the (trite) comments one usually reads in current book reviews--however accurate they may be: 'Remarkable!  Sophisticated!  Fabulous! Outstanding!  Astonishing!  Extraordinary!  Magisterial' even...Wow!  Yes, these are words used to describe this book.  I am also guilty of stealing from the lexicon of these book reviews with a 'Unique!' here, and an 'Impressive!' there.  Simply put, the book deserves more depth of thought than this type of encomium seen in review snippets, however useful in book marketing.

And so I begin:

    After a second, closer reading of
HA!, it was incumbent on me to read some selected cantos from Inferno.  With these passages in mind, and almost a few hundred pages into HA!, Sheppard illustrates the form of the book.  Like Joyce's Ulysses, based on Homer's The Odyssey, HA! is an ingenious adaptation of Dante's structure of Hell--a nod to Montréal and its prominent geographic feature, Mount Royal.  A interpretive diagram is conveniently provided for our navigation throughout the nine circles of Hell contained within Dante Alighieri's encyclopedic poem, The Divine Comedy. (p.273)  Hubert Aquin's suicidal act, consequently, relegates him to the 7th Circle and the 2nd Ring (Violence Against Self).  Dante goes on to say:

       When the exasperated soul abandons
           The body whence it rent itself away,
           Minos consigns it to the seventh abyss.
        It falls into the forest, and no part
           Is chosen for it; but where Fortune hurls it,
           There like a grain of spelt it germinates.
        It springs like a sapling, and a forest tree;
           The Harpies, feeding then upon its leaves,
           Do pain create, and for the pain an outlet.
(Inferno, Canto XIII)

    Knowing the Dantean influence, by going to section VII.ii on pages 591-93, we can expect the (obvious) outcome: The chapter is titled "Tuesday Morning March 15 1977".  This is the
deathday of Hubert Aquin.  Knowing this about HA!, Sheppard gives us vital clues to understanding the novel's parallel to Dante's Inferno, Aquin's final act, and ultimately where everything and everyone figures in the story.  Voilà!

    In the next section, VII.iii, without a doubt my favourite part of the book, Sheppard continues to bring us into the literary depths of Hell by staging an 'old-fashioned Irish wake" for dear Aquin.  Gordon Sheppard acts as commentator.  This is absolutely fantastic reading!  Trust me--you will want to real aloud this section for full effect.  Dante initially makes an appearance and among other statements, he tell us about Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo and the parallel refers to, of course, Aquin's affair with his mistress MM (aka 'Christina'.  Her last name is never revealed in the book.  But if you read the published reviews, it is mentioned).  Not impressed by Dante's speech, one character shouts out from the crowd at the wake, "What's all that got to do with soooicide?... "Ya, we're here for suicide." (p.653)  This is Sheppard's way of bringing a sharp focus back to the story--not just the gruesome bloody bits as the 'public' is accustomed to seek out.  He does this, in my opinion, masterfully.  More of the story of MM and Aquin's relationship is revealed and deeply discussed in section IX.i of
HA!.  According to the plan, this figures in Inferno's "9th Circle, 'Fraud': Betrayers of Kin". (p.273)

    On a Joycean literary tangent,
Ha! resembles, yet surpasses, the story-telling literary techniques employed in James Joyce's novel Ulysses.  It can be argued that Sheppard takes HA! A Self-Murder Mystery where Joyce left off with his epic genre-bending form.  It is Sheppard's homage to the great artists, musicians, and authors and their works.  Almost like a defence lawyer who represents Aquin's self-crime in the afterlife, Sheppard presents his findings to the jury/reader with curious melange of sound bites, photos, artwork, statistics and just about everything under the sun.  Legally speaking, this is the discovery process.  Sheppard has a great task at hand.

    A probably more appropriate description is that Sheppard acts as a modern day Sherlock Holmes--questioning the witnesses and if the responses are not clear, more questions are asked to get verbal clarifications.  This conversational technique enables very difficult concepts to be understood quite easily.  Unlike James Joyce, Gordon Sheppard used currently available technology such as the tape recorder and the word processor to incorporate the subtle nuances of these conversations.  They are a common technology, in today's terms, that was then unavailable to Joyce.  One gets that sense that these interviews flow very easily thanks to these devices.  Despite the ease of transcription of the spoken word, these conversations, however, are artfully edited such that they carry the story seamlessly from chapter to chapter.

    One question that might arise at the start of the book: How do you get into heaven?  Well, Da Vinci's
St John the Baptist, the patron saint of French Canada, points the way.  Flipping to the end of the book provides a work by Rembrandt: a vision of The Archangel [Raphael] in flight.  Through skillful and imaginative use of various literary techniques he proves the case for Aquin's admittance in the end.  Aquin is 'home' free as it were.  This is the story of Aquin's odyssey after all.  The angel motif is seen and presented along the journey.  Even on the copyright page it is stated that the novel is copyright by "O-zali Films Inc." "(O-zali means "angel" in the Abenaki Indian language)" (p.viii)

    The dust jacket, inspired by the artwork of Mark Rothko's "rough-edged rectangles", also has a connection to the pantheon of characters within the book who ended their lives.  Rothko committed suicide on February 25, 1970.  According to Sheppard, Rothko's artwork has had a spiritual effect on him.  This is evident in the artwork depicted on
HA!'s cover.  It was inspired by a conversation between the author and Jacques Languirand. (p.331)  Discussing the esoteric consequences of Aquin's suicide, Languirand speaks of the astral light that may be visible when a spirit moves through the various astral planes after death. Sheppard speculates that "it sounds like something out of the Kabbalstic creation legend where the Divine Light is stored in a Vessel that bursts--and its shards, permeated with sparks of the Divine, are scattered throughout the Universe." (p. 331)  Not unlike Aquin on his last day on earth.  This esoterist view is an interesting contrast to Jean Éthier-Blais' comments on death: "All deaths are deaths, be they suicides or heart attacks.  Everything stops--and it's either a great darkness or a blinding sun." (p. 81)  Even as a consequence of this esoteric conversation, Sheppard makes the meaning exoteric--likely to be understood by the general public.  We are thus enabled with sufficient knowledge to gain yet another perspective on the suicidal act no matter how arcane.  Note also that in Ulysses, Leonard Bloom speaks of this very subject:

"Reincarnation: that's the word.
  --Some people believe, he said, that we go on living in another body after death, that we lived before. They call it reincarnation. That we all lived before on the earth thousands of years ago or some other planet.  They say we have forgotten it. Some say they remember their past lives." (p. 64,
Ulysses, Joyce)

    Examples of non-traditional literary techniques as seen in novels are playfully used.  Sheppard even dabbles with the graphic novel form--albeit only on one page with an eight panel comic strip of a conversation with Hubert's son. (p.598)  Like Nick Bantock's recent  Griffin & Sabine series of books, there are envelopes and postcards affixed for us to read.  Primary evidence per se.  They no doubt personalize, thus internalize the reading experience of the life and death of Hubert Aquin.  One could imagine if Joyce lived in 2004 with all our current multimedia and other electronic content at his disposal... Would he still be even writing novels in the traditional codex form?  Sheppard speculates that "in
Neige Noir Hubert speaks of the decline of the written word, and suggests that the audio-visual is taking over." (p.68)  Indeed, as Sheppard envisions at the very first 'soundscape',  this book is to be a "made-for-Internet docudrama, to be accessible on the Worldwide Web on  a pay-per-episode basis." (p.iii)  See my question on the last sentence of this essay.

    I do not consider these comments as an example of scholarly comparative literature.  As such, I certainly run the risk of creating oversimplified conclusions--conclusions Gordon Sheppard took 26 years to make.  The examples are mainly drawn from Joyce's novel
Ulysses.  Nevertheless, here are examples of what I think are overt parallels between the texts.  Wikipedia.org: "Ulysses was written over an eight-year period from 1914 to 1922 and chronicles the adventures throughout Dublin of Leopold Bloom during an otherwise unremarkable day, June 16, 1904."  Similarly, HA! was written over a 26 year period from 1977 to 2003 and chronicles the adventures throughout Canada, Quebec, and 'particularly in the city of Montreal' of Hubert Aquin leading up to an otherwise unremarkable day, March 15, 1977.  Joyce's last page signs off with the places where the novel was written: "Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921.  Sheppard, too, ends HA! with: "Montréal-Hollywood-Toronto-Montréal 1977-2003". The book is probably more aptly described as a whydunit rather than a whodunit.  The fact that Chapters-Indigo currently shelves the book under the 'Mystery' section is a testament to a lack of understanding of HA!.  Hugh Kenner says of Joyce's Ulysses, "we [now] know to call Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal 'satires', but new readers were led to think the former a travel-book, the latter a projectors's pamphlet, and had to reorientate themselves forcibly some pages or paragraphs later." (p. 3. Ulysses by H. Kenner)

    James Joyce is initially invoked in section 0 of the prelude via Aquin's novel: "The exiled James Joyce walked his native city as a blind man." (p.3)  Joyce's influence, among other authors, to Aquin (being blind in one eye himself) is omnipresent.  This influence is mentioned in Aquin's fourth and last novel,
Neige Noir. (p.26)  Akin to Joyce, Aquin made a comment in 1965 that he wanted to write in "English because he was "so fed up with Québec and Québec literature". (p.78)  He did not follow through with this tack however and it is explained that taking this route would be tantamount to writing in obscurity.  Jumping somewhat ahead in the book a better formed opinion of the theme of exile in Joyce's style is presented in a brief excerpt of Aquin's La Fatigue Culturelle du Canada français 1962. (p.497)  In this extract we see how deep the influence was.  Quite extraordinary, really.

    Further on in section IV, Sheppard puts a Holmesian magnifying glass to the original and inspirational character of
Odysseus (aka Ulysses) and presents a brief primer to the reader. (p.263)  Several pages later, Joyce's Ulysses influence is fleshed out and brought into focus on pp. 276-277 where he presents a Saint Thomas Aquinas style-like connection: in that the style of writing which involves "a question and answer format".  Not unlike in the format of HA! and Ulysses.  Section V presents the reader an insight to another motif seen within the books.  They mention the use of the symbolic number nine (9).  In one conversation with Andrée and Sheppard we are made aware of another convergence of Aquin's literary influences via Joyce's Ulysses and William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.  For example, Sheppard speculates that Aquin may have known "that in the so-called "Scylla and Charybdis" episode...the ninth episode...Stephen Dedalus...notes that it took nine deaths in Hamlet to avenge the murder of Hamlet's father." (p.347)  Sheppard goes into more detail in this "Scylla and Charybdis" chapter at the end of HA!. (p.842-43)

    Be aware how the number nine figures throughout the book.  For example, how much money was in Aquin's pocket at the time of his death? (p.15)  How old was his son at the time of his death? (p.841)  I did see a curious omission of the Beatles song,
Revolution 9 from their White Album.  Perhaps it did not figure prominently enough.  One other reference was made to another Beatles album, though, in a different context.  Also on a Greek theme, there are references to a popular Greek restaurant in Montréal a few times where Aquin dances the bouzouki.  Also there is a  reference to Ithaca, the home of Ulysses. (p.515) 

    Furthermore, as in
The Odyssey and Ulysses, HA!'s main characters are the Father, the Son, the Wife/Mother and the Usurper (in this case female - MM - rather than male).  According to Kenner, "In one of the Homeric structures usurping suitors are despoiling the substance of Ithica and laying siege to Queen Penelope's affections, so Telemachus sets off in quest of his father.  In Ulysses, Mulligan plays the usurper in Stephen's intellectual kingdom, Boylan the usurper in Bloom's marital bed." (p. 28, Ulysses by H. Kenner)

    In the book's next section there is a small passing reference to another Joyce novel, "
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man".  This reference occurs when Sheppard interviews Jaqueline Prud'homme, Psychotherapist.  She has "two portraits (photos) of Hubert: a portrait of the young Hubert..." (p.388)

    James Joyce is mentioned again in context a few pages later when, during a dinner with Andrée, Hubert and Marguerite (the author's wife).  Sheppard "remarked that today was the anniversary of Nora Joyce's death..." and also we see the convergence of the work of Dante: as "Hubert went on to remark that today was also the anniversary of Dante's exit from Hell and arrival in Purgatory in
The Divine Comedy..." (p.393)

    In section VI after viewing a nuclear mushroom cloud (p. 409), I sense that Sheppard likes the play on words of this 'doomsday' image as on the next page Hubert is raising a toast in honour of 'Bloomsday'-- referring, of course, to the anniversary of the date James Joyce's
Ulysses took place in 1904. (p.410)  [Incidentally, it will be the hundredth year anniversary this June 16, 2004.]  Quickly the narrative goes to a rather neat stream of consciousness riff making another allusion to a "Joycean echo...". (p.411)  At the end of which is another use of the angel motif. (p.414)  (Have you ever been to the 'Tam-Tams' in Montréal at the foot of The Monument to Sir George-Etienne Cartier?  Fun!)

After reading about the news of Aquin's death, we see another passing allusion to Joyce--this time from Finnegans Wake.  At the end of reading the newspaper, Sheppard repeats the French word 'quoi' (what) seven times.  "He lifts the lifeswand and the dumbspeak... followed by "Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoi". (p.429)

    The first and last sections of the Koré LaGrenade interview (pp. 459-469) are without punctuation--a deliberate echo of the Molly Bloom chapter in
Ulysses - to suggest that Koré played the same muse-like role in Aquin's life as Molly Bloom did in Leopold Bloom's.  Sheppard gives the reader the clue for this in his resumé of Ulysses. (p.277)

    Continuing with my legal metaphor, just past the mid point of the book in section VII.i we are presented with more evidence in the form of 'files'.  The last one being the witnesses to be heard from post-mortem: just two of them being Joyce and Dante among others. (p.590)


    The act has been committed.  The word "Amen." (p. 613) is in fragments on the page as are bits of Aquin's brain must have been that day.  Sorry for the gratuitous mention of that but it is fitting I believe.  An end of sorts.  Interesting to note that the in the original French edition
Signé Hubert Aquin, Sheppard used a torn up photo of Aquin to convey a similar metaphor as he begins each section of that book.  Also, refer within HA! as to how the word 'amen' can be used.

   As I mentioned, Sheppard's wake scene does not disappoint.  The Master of Ceremonies introduces the dead authors played by actors.  Joyce, patch and all, is present to pay his last respects by reading a passage from Ulysses.

"- They  say a man who does it is a coward, Mr Dedalus said.
- It is not for us to judge, Martin Cunningham said.
- Mr. Bloom, about to speak, closed his lips again."

Joyce then leaves the stage with a brilliant line of alliterative narration: "Pleased with the plaudits, Joyce puckishly picks a panting partner from the pandemonium and pilots her to the floor to party up a sturm." (p.637)  Sheppard, acting as commentator, then gives the details of Joyce's own death.

    Continuing with other Joycean references, I see one even in Hubert's suicide letter to his wife, Andrée.  Perhaps it is a stretch, and involuntary but you can decide:

"I kiss you, I kiss you infinitely.  Be happy.  Do not forget that Emmanuel will be that much happier if his mother is radiant, blooming." (p. 696)

    As in a fair trial, all evidence shown in court is presented clearly as to facilitate the presenting of the case.  The same is true of Sheppard's masterwork in the direction of this epic crime.  All present witnesses tell their side of the story as they know it.  We also have the smoking gun--literally and figuratively.  The author teases, pokes and prods the reader throughout the work (you may not know it either).  An example I can give is a part from a 'soundscape' that just begs to be understood and contextualized.  These soundscapes act as a musical prelude to each chapter.  These montages foreshadow the upcoming events in each section.  Here is one of my favourite examples:

...Wellington's Victory by Beethoven, played with such brio as an anonymous dog shows his appreciation by barking up a storm in the Dis ... Dis... Distance. (p.726)

    Don't know what in the Hell this means?! (Pun clearly intended.)  Neither did I when I first read it.  But after a closer and clearer third, fourth and fifth reading, the secret is revealed:  'Dis', other than in Roman religion, the male god of the underworld, is an overt reference to Cantos VIII and IX where the 'Gate of the City of Dis' and the 'City of Dis' are introduced.  The barking dog, similarly, is another implicit reference to an episode within
Inferno :

Behind them was the forest full of black
            She-mastiffs, ravenous, and swift of foot
            As greyhounds, who are issuing from the chain.
         On him who had crouched down they set their teeth,
            And him they lacerated piece by piece,
            Thereafter, bore away those aching members. (Inferno
, Canto XIII)

Quoting from the notes at the back of my
Inferno edition:

    "125. Some commentators interpret these dogs as poverty and despair, still pursuing their victims.  The
Ottimo Comento calls them poor men, who, to follow pleasure and the kitchens of other people, abandoned their homes and families, and are therefore transformed into hunting dogs, and pursue and devour their masters." (p. 234 Inferno, Matthew Pearl, ed.) 

Ouch!  The latter interpretation is more appealing I'm sure you'll agree.  Also, I never read a more euphemistic definition of adultery than following pleasure [in] the kitchens of other people...reminds me of a scene from the movie
Fatal Attraction!

    As in all great mystery novels, red herrings abound.  Again, to cite wikipedia, similarly
"Ulysses is highly structured; what Joyce does is to make that structure invisible until one searches for it."  There are clues and references within the text that have absolutely nothing to do with the "obvious story" of Aquin's suicide at all.  This may seem absurd to say, but this is what the reader is presented.  Paradoxically, without these clues and sub-textual references, the story could make for a rather flat read.  This could not be further from the truth.

    The news articles, images, quotes and maps jump off the page and shout "Please Read Me!"  These are the other 'characters' in the book.  You cannot discount them as merely footnotes.  This seemingly extraneous eye candy is used throughout the text:  Why these images?  Why are they placed and sized the way they are?   Why is this person or event mentioned?  (My favourite photos are of the slyly manipulated images of Aquin who appears in two movie roles. (p.560, p.742)  On the journalistic parallel of
HA! and Ulysses, Smith emphasizes, "... there is the chapter relating to Mr. Bloom's hour at the Evening Telegraph office.  To create a journalistic atmosphere, apt headlines are suddenly thrust at one in the midst of a confused medley of thoughts, sounds, and mental images.  The turmoil of the average newspaper office was never set forth to better advantage. (p. 68 Smith, A Key to Ulysses)  The fact of the matter is that the reader does not have to have any prior knowledge of, Joyce, Hubert Aquin, their works, their time, or even the historical context.  But it obviously helps!  I find myself picking up my Modern Library Edition of Ulysses once again--reading the new Matthew Pearl edition of Dante's Inferno, searching the Internet for other resources, going to the public library, and so forth..  I even took my wife out to see the National Arts Centre's production of Shakespeare's Hamlet at the end of January.

    However, all this background information is presented by Sheppard carefully and intentionally to us as we need to know it.  It is accessible to the reader as may not be the case for a reader of Joyce's work today.  What we make of the material evidence is up to us in any event.  Sheppard clearly shows respect to the copious material and even more so to the reader.  In an ideal world, with a ton of money sunk into the book, there would be color photos and text, no copyright infringement laws to deal with and a DVD CD-ROM included at the back cover.  If
McSweeney's can do it with their issue 11, why not here?  The technology is readily available.

    Whereas Joyce's work was initially banned in the US, for example, Sheppard's novel will certainly not merit such an egregious reaction in a publishing industry with an 'anything goes' mentality.  DBC Pierre's
Vernon God Little is a case in point.  Even in book reviews, there seem to be no limits, as we so infamously read in Tibor Fischer's review of Martin Amis's Yellow Dog.  However, a novel primarily concerned with a quasi-taboo subject as suicide and somewhat glorifying it as a work of art can be construed as a form of self-imposed censorship.

    Will readers be willing to accept it at face value as a work of fiction?  Perhaps our collective public morals deem suicide as a cowardly way out (as pointed out at Joyce's wake reading) and thus prematurely dismiss the book on those grounds.  So why should the public read a work so focused on the subject?  The reason is simply that the story and the history contained within demands much more from us.  To turn our backs to the subject is tantamount to sweeping our past under the rug.  One 'quick' read of the book, however, will surely give supreme satisfaction as a work of fiction.  Why else read, right?  Those who like more will certainly turn to the book again and again, as I do, and look for the hidden treasures and reasons as to why Sheppard takes us on such a compelling literary journey.

    If it is commonly considered th
at Ulysses is the greatest work of the 20th Century, then does it necessarily follow that HA! is  the greatest literary work at the beginning of the 21st?  Certainly this is too early for such high praise for a living author.  Time will tell.  Just where does the book belong in the traditional canon of Western Literature?  I will leave this question up to the academics.  In the end, the brave publication of HA!, by McGill-Queen's University Press, raises the bar that much more for any author creating a work in this genre going forward.  In the end, Gordon Sheppard's attempt to decipher the mystery of Hubert Aquin's suicide may be a mystery that may never be fully resolved.  He certainly left the reader plenty of clues to ponder for many, many years to come.  I hope that this essay provides a springboard for you to jump from and dive into this book and into the mystery of learning.  Is it crass of me to wonder as to who will buy the film/web rights from Gordon Sheppard to make HA! The Movie?  (HA! HA!)

-John W. MacDonald, January 2004


Alighieri, Dante. Inferno, H.W. Longfellow, trans.,Matthew Pearl, ed.,  Modern Library, 2003
Joyce, James. Ulysses, Modern Library, 1942
Kenner, Hugh. Ulysses, George Allen & Unwin, 1980
Sheppard, Gordon. HA! A Self-Murder Mystery, M-QUP, 2003

HA! is available online at Chapters.Indigo.ca  HA! is carried in bookstores across Canada, including Chapters, Indigo, Coles, Nicolas Hoare (Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa), Granville Books (Vancouver), The World's Biggest Bookstore (Toronto), The Double Hook (Montreal), etc.  The first edition of HA! numbers 2000 copies.  McGill-Queen's is currently seeking English language publishers for the US and the UK markets, as well as publishers for editions in all other languages.
   Take 3 of HA!
    Gordon Sheppard's HA!mazing Chronicle

A particularly prescient early review of James Joyce's Ulysses appeared in the New York Times May 28, 1922 written by Dr. Joseph Collins.  Its title: 'James Joyce's Amazing Chronicle'.  Reading Collins' review, I noticed how some of the passages parallel current reviewers comments of Gordon Sheppard's own work, HA!.  The comments in the Ulysses review somewhat mirror, in an opposite way, those of HA!'s.  I wish to explain some of these here as well include some other observations from reading of various commentaries of Ulysses.

    At the beginning of Collins's review he declares, "A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may understand and comprehend
Ulysses, James Joyce's new and mammoth volume, without going through a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it- even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it- save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.  It should be companioned with a key and a glossary like the Berlitz books.  Then the attentive and diligent reader would eventually get some comprehension of Mr. Joyce's message."  These same comments when applied to Sheppard's book can also apply--yet at the same time do not.  Hence there is a kind of paradox. 

    True, to fully grasp any well-written story, an historical and literary background is necessary.  However, Sheppard at least does provide many explicit clues for the reader for contextual purposes.  These clues are provided for a clearer understanding.  It is the author's raison d'etre for writing the book in the first place.  Perhaps more importantly, there are also key illustrations.  If some concepts or responses seemed unclear from the conversations, there are verbal and illustrative clarifications via follow-up questions and graphic side bars.  There are many concepts within that require this method to convey the ideas within.  Also they are crafted in such a way to be literary enough to make the story flow.  See the conversation with Jacques Languirand, for example.  As a reuslt, we do not feel like intellectual weaklings or feel 'out of the loop', say, when one reads portions of
Ulysses or Finnegans Wake in the twenty-first century.  We are academically spoiled with abundant commentaries, forewords, afterwords, essays, concordances, and exegetical tracts of Joyce's original work.  It's to the point where one almost does not even have to read Joyce's text to speak intellectually about it!

    Additionally, respecting prior knowledge of subject matter, Collins goes on to say, "An endurance test should always be preceded by training" but the next sentence is untrue with respect to
HA!: He goes on to say, "It requires real endurance to finish "Ulysses"."  (This is undoubtedly the opinion of  the new or uninitiated reader too.)  Many of the initial comments concerning Sheppard's book I have read center on how 'easy' it is to read--essentially the book being 'a page-turner'.  HA! is very accessible.  I have also made this comment in my own review.

    Sheppard's take on the life and death of Aquin is all encompassing.  Dr. Collins writes, "If personality is the sum total of all one's experiences, all one's thoughts and emotions, inhibitions and liberations, acquisitions and inheritances, then it may be truthfully said "Ulysses" comes nearer to being the perfect revelation of a personality than any book in existence."  This comment is true when applied to
HA! and some of the reviews that Sheppard's book has garnered.

    Lastly, respecting prophecy and Literary Review of Canada's (LRC) recent review (
FiveThat Will Outlast Us...) review that appeared this year.  According to Dr. Collins regarding the future contribution of Ulysses, he writes (with perhaps some hyperbole) "Finally, I venture a prophecy: Not ten men or women out of a hundred can read Ulysses through, and of the ten who succeed in doing so, five of them will do it as a tour de force.  I am probably the only person, aside from the author, that has ever read it twice from beginning to end.  I have learned more psychology and psychiatry from it than I did in ten years at the Neurological Institute." (Dr. Collins)  This brings to mind another of HA! comments where Laurence J. Kirmayer, Professor & Director of the Division of Social & Transcultural Psychiatry, McGill University writes, "Although I have worked in the field of cultural psychiatry and suicidology for close to 20 years, I came away from this book feeling that my understanding and appreciation of suicide, Québec and Canadian society and, indeed, the human condition had all been immeasurably deepened."

    Yet, I have to disagree with one of J.S Porter's comments that also appeared in the LRC's initial book review.  Porter declares, in an otherwise thought provoking review, that, "Sheppard is nowhere as exciting in his sentences as Aquin is in his."  A weak claim at best.  Porter goes on to say, "There is no sentence in Sheppard that compares with the syntactical electricity of Aquin's opening line in Next Episode".  Syntactical electricity?  This is not a competition I submit.  But here is another favourite line: "A farrago of Canadian flags flying from flagpoles framing Parliament Hill flip-flap a fooly folderol in the rain-drenched air." (p. 240

    "To enjoy Ulysses one must first read
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  One is then prepared to follow Stephen through nearly seven hundred kaleidoscopic pages where, flea-like, he appears and vanishes.  Furthermore, one must not skip a word.  What is set down in the early chapters will reappear, possibly in fragmentary form, later." (p. 23-24 Smith, A Key to Ulysses)  I could also say that to enjoy HA! one can, but not necesarily, read Sheppard's 1985 work Signé Hubert Aquin:Enquête sur le suicide d'un écrivain.  Written in French, it is the basis of HA! A Self-Murder Mystery.

    Like Paul Jordan Smith, I do not want to be remembered for just concentrating on the explicit similarities of a few novels.  It has been an interesting venture on my part, in any case.  On comparing
Ulysses to The Odyssey, Smith explains, "I do not want to push the comparison too far.  Nor is it essential that it should be.  Joyce has taken his favorite story for a frame-work and where that frame-work did not altogether suit him, he has made alterations.  As to the detail, style and theme, his [Joyce's] book is utterly different.  The centuries that separate the two works are sufficient to explain." (p. 54 Smith, A Key to Ulysses)  Sheppard's book similarly is such an inspired work.  He has written a creative book that adds to the body of (capital 'L') Literature and as such draws from the very best literary styles past, present and future.  By doing so, Sheppard leaves his own legacy for future critical scrutiny.

    On the reading of Ulysses, Smith writes:  "... when one has spent a two weeks' continuous reading of the book itself, one is forced to a realization of its formidableness and of the essential genius of the author.  Moreover, one finds that there is a story, compact, realistic and compelling.  Once one is immersed in the thing, there is not a dull page or paragraph." (p. 60 Smith, A Key to Ulysses)

-John W. MacDonald, February 2004


Collins, Dr. Joseph.  Review of James Joyce's Ulysses, 1922 New York Times. May 28, 1922
Joyce, James. Ulysses, Modern Library, 1942
Sheppard, Gordon. HA! A Self-Murder Mystery, M-QUP, 2003
Smith, Paul Jordan. A Key to the Ulysses of James Joyce, Covici Friede, New York, 1927, 1934.

HA! is available online at Chapters.Indigo.ca
HA! is carried in bookstores across Canada, including Chapters, Indigo, Coles, Nicolas Hoare (Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa), Granville Books (Vancouver), The World's Biggest Bookstore (Toronto), The Double Hook (Montreal), etc.  The first edition of HA! numbers 2000 copies.  McGill-Queen's is currently seeking English language publishers for the US and the UK markets, as well as publishers for editions in all other languages.
Montreal author, Gordon Sheppard heard on CBC Radio One with Bill Richardson [Friday, Febuary 27, 2004.]  HA! A Self-Murder Mystery under discussion.  If you missed it... LISTEN HERE.
Gordon Sheppard (1937-2006) passed away Sunday afternoon February 19, 2006.

Visitation will take place on Thursday, February 23rd from 2 to 5pm and from 7 to 9pm in the evening, and again Friday the 24th at 9am. All this will be at Espace Memoria on St. Laurent and Rachel in the downstairs space where Sheppard had his photographic exhibition of Watervisions last summer. The funeral will take place Friday 11am at St. George's Church on Peel and LaGauchetiere.