“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, March 15, 2011

Book Review: Coda

By René Belletto
University of Nebraska Press

Coda is the newest novella (or at least the newest that’s been translated into English) from acclaimed, French author René Belletto, who has written around twenty books, including novels, poetry and criticism, as well as a few screenplays. From the opening pages, we know that Coda is going to be an unusual book, since it’s epigraph, which reads, ‘From her lovely delicate hands/I take the book and I look’, is actually attributed to the very book we are reading. A reader unsettled by this unusual paratext will perhaps be even more alarmed by the exceptional declaration that opens the novel: ‘It is to me that we owe our immortality, and this is the story that proves it beyond all doubt.’
But at the heart of this 88-page novella is a crime thriller—albeit a strange one—that includes suspicious deaths, kidnapping, femme fatales, nefarious cults and psychotic killers. Setting off this most unusual chain of events, however, is a surprisingly banal circumstance: the protagonist returns home to find his daughter missing and a package of clams in his freezer that he does not remember purchasing. This packet of clams turns out to be his first clue in unravelling a great mystery, and more surprises and twists occur in this novella than would normally happen in a book five times its size.
But this, of course, is the point. Despite its flirtations with the mode of the thriller, Coda is ultimately an avant-garde work that betrays an inheritance to the nouveau roman, a post-World War II movement in France that often combined experimental techniques with the detective novel. Coda, then, is laced with intentional absurdity and surreal moments that are reminiscent of the work of Cesar Aira (although it must be said that Coda is not nearly as strong as Aira’s best work). The protagonist is independently wealthy, for example, for the reason that his father invented a ‘perpetual motion machine’; these machines, however, aren’t truly capable of perpetual motion, although their unusual mechanisms are visually intriguing, leading people to purchase them for decorative purposes.
            The mystery at the heart of Coda is ultimately ‘solved’, but Belletto leaves other big metaphysical questions intentionally open (I mean this in the most literal possible way, but can’t explain it better without ruining the book), and the final gesture of Coda, befitting its title, is one that returns us to the beginning, making the book a sort of fictional ouroboros. Here, Belletto’s plays with the notion of perpetual motion introduced earlier and raises significant questions about the narratives we tend to construct around our lives.
            But for all of its experimentation and madcap absurdity, Coda is, by and large, simply an entertaining book to read (provided, of course, that you aren’t the sort of reader who is put off by experimental, French fiction). For all of its engagement with philosophical concepts (the end of the novel, in particular, seems to recall Blanchot’s writing on death), this is surprisingly light and easy to read novel, which revels in its own pulp-y gestures and strange twists and turns.

Recommended If You Like (R.I.Y.L.): Cesar Aira, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, books by authors associated with the nouveau roman.

This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters program.


Cookie said...

Would JL Godard's Alpahville be a cinematic example of a nouveau roman?

Emmett Stinson said...

Erm, good question? Certainly, there's a lot of overlap between the French New Wave movement and the nouveau roman. Alain Robbe-Grillet, for example, wrote screenplays for and even directed one movie that could be considered New Wave films. But, on the other hand, both the descriptors 'New Wave' and 'nouveau roman' are pretty vague terms applied by the contemporary media, rather than being actual movements or avant-gardes per se. Claude Simon, for example, was seen as one of the writers of the nouveau roman, but his (excellent!) novel, Flanders Road, for example, bares pretty striking stylistic resemblances to William Faulkner, who's neither French nor New Wave . . . I'm ultimately not an expert on French culture of this (or any other) era, so I couldn't really say, but I will note that there seems to be a much bigger overlap between novelists and filmmakers in France. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, for example, is both a filmmaker and novelist, and Belletto has done screenplays, so there's a continuing cross-pollination of forms in France that's kind of unimaginable in the U.S., Australia and the U.K. (and no, Dave Eggers writing 'Where the Wild Things Are' does not count). Thanks, and I encourage someone who knows more to answer this better than I have!

Daniel Wood said...

I'd argue not. In fact I'd argue that "a cinematic example of a nouveau roman" is a tautology. It is an essential property of the nouveau roman (at least as theorised by Robbe-Grillet, if not always practised by him) that it makes an issue of literary form. In other words, as I understand it, it is an essential property of the nouveau roman that it must, first and foremost, consist of words on a page, with all the inherent perspectival abstraction and ambiguity of signification that that implies. In terms of cinema, I'd say that the closest you could get to the nouveau roman is a cinematic avant-garde that takes inspiration from the nouveau roman or that seeks to do for the cinema what the nouveau roman did/does for literature; but to suggest that there might or could ever be a cinematic version/example of the nouveau roman is I think, by definition, a step too far. The nouveau roman was/is an attempt to accomplish things with literature (primarily, although not exclusively, with what we now call focalisation) that cannot be accomplished in other artforms because other artforms lack the very literary features that the nouveau roman utilises.

To my mind (that is, based on my viewing habits) the closest thing you might find to the "classic" nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet (La Jalousie, Dans le labyrinthe) would be something like the opening shot of Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I mean the long shot taken from Bauby's perspective as he awakes in hospital. Once that shot cuts away to another shot, though, and especially once the film gets into highly structured flashbacks, it moves away from the nouveau roman.

Then again, Robbe-Grillet especially is so open-ended in some key parts of Pour un Nouveau Roman that I'm sure someone will say I'm completely off the mark.

Emmett Stinson said...

Thanks, Daniel--and I'm more than happy to cede to your (clearly!) more informed understanding of this. I'd also agree that it's hard to imagine the opening of a book like Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers could be rendered in anything but language...

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