Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Review of The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier

[Part of the latest Wikifray book club]

Like many people who were once young, I've been stupidly lovesick, been stupidly hurt by it, and indulged in extensive fantasies, sprung from a reading (and television) habit, that imagined some indeterminate future context when the intensity of those feelings could be justified and explained. The faith in serendipitous opportunities for closure was harder to grow out of than any of the youthful affections that spawned it. What would happen if it actually came to pass?

The Gregoire Bouillier of The Mystery Guest has sufferred years of mild depression (with hairshirts and everything) from a sudden and unexplained breakup, and without warning his departed lover calls him: won't he come to a stranger's party? Indulging in literary constructs of epiphanies and chanced salvations is something that is a nice story, great as a novel, but troubling to see it presented as a memoir, and maybe I'm a little jealous that Bouillier proclaims to get away with it. It's like a student turning in suspiciously accurate results from lab equipment known to be tempermental. Boillier (both as character and author) appears to be smart enough to realize how hard he's fighting get the patchy data of the experience to agree with an acceptable narrative model. He actively hunts current events for a metaphor (hi, bacon) to fix to his effort, considering and discarding a number of random news items before he finds a reference-laden space probe as a clumsy theme. The literature-style resolution of his malaise manages to not only follow a familiar form, but he (evidently) finds a specific story as a link too. The sheer effort he takes to tack a narrative onto his life at least earns him self-awareness points.

As for my own tastes, I'd have appreciated it if he scored a few more irony points. I wouldn't say The Mystery Guest lacks humor--it's almost Seinfeld-esque in it's self-absorbed dissection of the daily traps of routine, of love, of society, of sleep, of entertainment--but he mocks himself only gently. He neither loves nor hates the absurdity of it, reaching instead for the comforts of a literary sense of completeness. I prefer my self-deprecation with a little more vinegar, myself. Maybe it's cultural, or maybe it's me.

M. Bouillier* is a man that's lost in a world of internalized words. It's the literary that seems real to him, much more than the reality observed by his senses. The only proper names encountered in the book are from literature, history, or contemporary art. (He seems to buy one shallow guest's idea that you're no one until published.) His memoir contains only two lines of dialogue, which occur more than halfway through, and which (intentionally) have the false tinge of actor's lines. Although this handful of words proves to be pivotal--Bouillier finally finds his epiphany in them (and in their specific literary context)--the rest is an unrelenting mental monologue that mirrors the actual events like color commentary, as though looking at reality through an extra-thick filter of consciousness. It's less a stream of thought, and more a continuous mental novelization his life. The din of his constant interpretation and self-analysis drowns out everything that's going on outside.** I can empathize with the battle between the external world and internal running commentary. So, I think, can most of the people reading this. I don't think there's anybody else I know who could have gotten away with recommending this book to me.

I recall reading some magazine editors opining that there's no set submission length for a piece, that a story should be exactly as long as it needs to be. Any longer of this internal harangue and Bouillier would have lost his charm. Any less-- Well, there couldn't have been much less. It's probably best read in a sitting, to best catch the rhythm of the ebbs and swells of the author's emotions. I had a few issues with the narrative voice. His guilty use of cliches (as they say) were tedious even though intentional (maybe that's something about translation?), but commendably, his memoir had enough doubt in it to seem honest, even if a little too forgiving and comforting. Bouillier reached hard for a script for his life and found one. It’s always nice to think that people do…but I don't think I believe in it.


*I love the French honorific.
**I used a similar description in a recent book review. It's different here, and yet not.

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