“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book Review: Broken Glass

Broken Glass
By Alain Mabanckou
Soft Skull Press

Alain Mabanckou’s novel, Broken Glass, could be described simultaneously as a work of bleak comedy, a whirlwind tour of world literature, an experimental metafiction, and a postcolonial novel about the problems of contemporary life in the Republic of the Congo (which is not the same as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Mabanckou was originally born in the Congo, but received his doctorate in Paris and currently teaches French literature at UCLA in the United States. His books have won many awards in France, including the prestigious Prix Renaudot.
Despite the complexities of the novel, its premise is relatively simple. The novel’s narrator, named Broken Glass, sits in a Congolese Bar called Credit Gone West and writes stories in his journal that recount the lives of its various patrons. He begins by telling the story of the bar itself but this seemingly straightforward yarn quickly takes on absurd proportions, involving the President of the Congo; it is (of course!) also a parody of the Dreyfus Affair – a political scandal in France at the end of the 19th Century – which is invoked by alluding to Emile Zola’s famous response to this event (entitled J’accuse).
The stories of the Credit Gone West patrons similarly twist and turn in unexpected directions. Each offers the history of their particular calamities: they all tell horrific tales meant to explain how they have ended up in such dire circumstances. But they are all also unreliable narrators, who are very much responsible for their own tragedies. While the men of Credit Gone West (and they are mostly men) may have been subjected to injustice, they are also guilty of horrible acts.
Broken Glass has a great deal of fun with their hypocrisy, but as the novel unfurls and the reader learns more about his life, we start to realise that he is no different – and no better – than the men whose lives he has been recording. But his own unreliability is implied in his name; the name Broken Glass has multiple meanings – referencing both his sharp, jagged wit and his constant drinking – but most importantly the name suggests a shattered mirror, and the way Broken Glass presents everything is inevitably distorted, resulting in a constantly shifting irony (the name, here, is also a winking allusion to Aristotle’s concept of mimesis, or representation, in which art is meant to serve as a mirror of the world).
The ironic discourse of the book results in a nuanced portrayal of political issues within the novel, too. At one point, for example, Broken Glass exclaims that ‘we inherited these borders when the whites carved up their colonial cake in Berlin, so this country doesn’t even exist, it’s just a reserve, where the cattle die of famine.’ While this is certainly true, Broken Glass also makes this claim as a way of excusing his own inexcusable behaviour; in this sense, political commentary in the book can never be disassociated from the perspective of the speaker. The political critique in the book is thus always has a way of snaking back around and undermining itself (in one passage, for example, a Congolese man tells a story that reveals the hidden prejudices of a left-wing, bourgeois French couple, but after telling the story, he quickly goes on to attack his fellow Congolese in a gesture that Broken Glass himself terms ‘racist’. In this novel, nothing is ever exactly what it seems).
Ultimately, it is impossible to discuss this exceptional book without reference to its unusual linguistic style. Broken Glass is written in long, continuous passages without full stops (it does, however, have many commas and occasional quotation marks). Moreover, it constantly alludes to a diverse set of other literary texts, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Song of Solomon, The Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, and others. On this level, it is – to use a great cliché of book reviewing – an absolute tour de force of literary invention.
Ultimately, some readers may be put off the novel’s extremely bleak humour, its scatology, its unusual style, its complete lack of any affirmation of life, and its preference for Rabelaisian miscellany (humorous lists and wordplay) over standard plotting, but those readers are missing out on a phenomenal book. Broken Glass is an exceptional work of literature, which is simultaneously entertaining and disconcerting, but always absorbing.

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