Not a review of Laurent Binet’s novel The Seventh Function of Language

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I was a big a fan of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, so I was excited when I heard about his follow up, The Seventh Function of Language. I was especially excited when I learned that The Seventh Function took the death of Roland Barthes as its starting point and post-structuralism in general as its milieu. I audited the audiobook (translated by Sam Taylor and read with dry wry humor by Bronson Pinchot).

The audiobook is twelve hours. If it had been six hours I might have loved it. But twelve hours was a bit too much.

Wait. Sorry. What is the novel about though? you may ask. This is not a review and I am feeling lazy and not especially passionate about the book, so here is the publisher’s-blurb-as-summary:

Paris, 1980. The literary critic Roland Barthes dies – struck by a laundry van – after lunch with the presidential candidate François Mitterand. The world of letters mourns a tragic accident. But what if it wasn’t an accident at all? What if Barthes was murdered?

In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet spins a madcap secret history of the French intelligentsia, starring such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva – as well as the hapless police detective Jacques Bayard, whose new case will plunge him into the depths of literary theory. Soon Bayard finds himself in search of a lost manuscript by the linguist Roman Jakobson on the mysterious “seventh function of language.”

Kristeva! Eco! Derrida! All my childhood heroes are here!

So of course, y’know, I was interested. And I’m sure that the twenty-year-old version of me would have flipped out over Binet’s pastiche of postmodern theory and detective pulp fiction. But almost-forty me found the whole thing exhausting, a shaggy dog detective story with patches of the whole continental-philosophy-vs-analytical-philosophy debate sewn in with loose stitches.

The initial intellectual rush of what amounts to a Tel Quel fan fiction/murder-mystery/political thriller hybrid begins to wear thin about halfway through. Binet is smart and he’s writing about smart people, but the cleverness on display becomes irksome, especially when he’s drawing his characters’ big philosophical ideas in the broadest of strokes (Julia Kristeva arrives at her concept of abjection after a floating film on a glass of milk makes her ill).

Binet loves to cram his characters into social situations where they can wax philosophical (in the thinnest possible sense of that verb wax). The Seventh Function is larded with chatty cocktail parties where Kristeva and Foucault can toss out zinger after zinger. One of the novel’s centerpieces, an academic conference at Cornell, serves as an excuse for Binet to riff large (but shallow) on language philosophy. He even brings Chomsky and Searle to the conference to take on Derrida et al. (Binet also squeezes in a postmodern orgy here, in which Detective Bayard has a threesome with Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler). Such scenes are funny but baggy, overlong, and often feel like an excuse for Binet to show how clever he is. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the novel’s central protagonist worries that he might be a character in a novel).

Binet is more successful at channeling his characters’ intellects during the high-risk debates of a secret society called the Logos Club. The best of these debates showcase thought-in-action, as Binet’s characters deconstruct various topics. Still, as engaging as some elements of the Logos Club debates are, they drag on too long, and the Club’s connection to the political-thriller aspect of the plot is pretty tenuous.  Indeed, the novel is so loose that a minor character has to show up at the end and explain how all the elements connect for both the reader and detectives alike.

What’s probably most remarkable about The Seventh Function (despite the fact that it features a who’s-who of postmodern theory for its cast) is just how one-note the novel is. After all, it’s a mashup. As Anthony Domestico puts it in his (proper and insightful) review at The San Francisco Chronicle, “The novel is three parts Tom Clancy to two parts Theory SparkNotes to one part sex romp.” The Seventh Function of Language should be a lot more fun than it is.  And it is fun at times, but not enough fun to sustain, say, twelve hours of an audiobook or 359 pages in hardcover.

As HHhH showed, Binet is a talented author, and even though The Seventh Function didn’t work for me, I’m interested to see what he does next. It’s possible that The Seventh Function didn’t float my proverbial boat precisely because I’m the ideal audience for the novel. If anything, it made me want to reread Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulumbut The Seventh Function also reminded me that I read Eco’s semiotics-detective story as a much younger man—as a kid in my early twenties who probably would’ve loved Binet’s novel. So maybe I should leave well enough alone.

 

 

 

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An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part I)

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, new from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails.

If you live in NYC (or feel like traveling), you can check out the book launch for William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion this weekend, hosted by Coffman and Lukes (4:30pm at the 11th Street Bar).

This is the first part of a two-part interview.

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Biblioklept: How did William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion come about?

Daniel Lukes: The starting point would be the MLA panel I put together in January 2011, called “William T. Vollmann: Methodologies and Morals.” Chris’s was the first abstract I received and I remember being impressed with its confidence of vision. Michael Hemmingson also gave a paper, and Larry McCaffery was kind enough to act as respondent. Joshua Jensen was also a panelist. I kept in touch with Chris and we very soon decided that there was a hole in the market, so to speak, so we put out a call for papers and took it from there.

One of my favorite things about putting together this book has been connecting with – and being exposed to – such a range of perspectives on Vollmann: people seem to come at him from – and find in his works – so many different angles. It’s bewildering and thrilling to talk about the same author with someone and not quite believe you are doing so. And I think this started for me, in a way, at least as far as this book is concerned, with reading Chris’ MLA abstract.

Biblioklept: I first heard about Vollmann in connection to David Foster Wallace (Wallace namechecks him in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”). A friend “loaned” me his copy of The Ice-Shirt and I never gave it back. When was the first time you read Vollmann?

Christopher K. Coffman: I first encountered William T. Vollmann’s work about ten years ago. At the time, I had just finished grad school, and as my dissertation work had been focused on aspects of modern and contemporary poetry, I had let my attention to contemporary prose slip a bit. When I realized this had happened, I starting reading a lot of recent fiction. Of course David Foster Wallace’s books were part of this effort, and I, like so many others, really developed a love for Infinite Jest and some of the stories in Girl with Curious Hair. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on the timeline, but my best guess, given what I know I was reading and thinking about at the time, is that in my reading around DFW I discovered the Summer 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction with which Larry McCaffery had been involved, and that the interview with DFW in that issue–along with the WTV materials themselves–woke me up to WTV and his work. I can’t say enough about how important Larry’s championing of WTV has been, and continues to be. Of course, one could say that about his support for so many of the interesting things that have happened in fiction during the past three or four decades. His interviews, his editorial work, the part he played with the Fiction Collective …. the list of the ways that he identifies and promotes some of the best work out there could go on for a while, and no one else that I know of has done it as well as Larry has for as long as he has. Anyway, as I was pretty much broke at the time, my reading choices were governed in large part by what I could find at libraries or local used bookstores, and The Ice-Shirt was the first volume I came across in one of these venues. I was already a huge fan of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon, and the entire Seven Dreams project very much struck me as a next step forward along the trajectory those books described. As a consequence, I immediately started tracking down and reading not only the rest of the Dreams, but also everything else I could find by WTV.

What about The Ice-Shirt that really won me over, aside from my impression that this was another brilliant reinterpretation of the historical novel, is that WTV was clearly bringing together and pushing to their limits some of my favorite characteristics of post-1945 American fiction (structural hijinks of a sort familiar from works by figures like Barth and Barthelme, a fearlessness in terms of subject matter and the occasional emergence of a vatic tone that reminded me of Burroughs, an autofictional element of the sort you see in Hunter S. Thompson). Furthermore, as a literary critic, I was really intrigued by two additional aspects of the text: the degree to which The Ice-Shirt foregrounds the many ways that it is itself an extended interpretation of earlier texts (the sagas on which he draws for many of the novel’s characters and much of its action), and the inclusion of extensive paratexts–the notes, glossaries, timelines, and so forth. In short, this seemed like a book that united my favorite characteristics of contemporary literary fiction with a dedication to the sort of work that I, as a scholar, spend a lot of my time doing. How could I resist? It took my readings of a few more of WTV’s books for me to be able to recognize what I would argue are his other most significant characteristics: his global scope and his deep moral vision.

As for your also having begun reading WTV with The Ice-Shirt: It’s an interesting coincidence to me that we both started with that book. I have always assumed that most people start into WTV via either the prostitute writings (which have a sort of underground cachet by virtue of subject matter) or Europe Central (which is of course the book that got the most mainstream attention), but here we both are with The Ice-Shirt. WTV has indicated he sees it as under-realized in certain ways, but I am still quite fond of it, even in comparison to some of the later books. Continue reading “An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part I)”

Laurent Binet’s HHhH Is a Thrilling Intertextual Adventure Story

View of Prague — Oskar Kokoschka

The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.

–Cormac McCarthy, interview in The New York Times, 1992.

Novelist’s personal genre. For all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.

–David Markson, The Last Novel, 2007

I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel.

–Laurent Binet, HHhH, 2010 / English trans. by Sam Taylor, 2012.

. . . it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is absolutely true.

–Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990.

From the current (18 April 2014) Wikipedia entry for Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH:

HHhH is the debut novel of French author Laurent Binet. It recounts Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during World War II. It was awarded the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman.

The novel follows the history of the operation and the life of its protagonists – Heydrich and his assassins Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. But it is also interlaced with the author’s account of the process of researching and writing the book, his commentary about other literary and media treatments of the subject, and reflections about the extent to which the behavior of real people may of necessity be fictionalised in a historical novel.

The title is an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (“Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich”), a quip about Heydrich said to have circulated in Nazi Germany.

If I were the narrator of HHhH—which is to say, if I were a version of Binet, a version that I might describe (and am describing, I guess) as Binet-the-writer-performing-Binet-the-author-performing-Binet-the-author-as-narrator-narrating-the-author-trying-to-write-HHhH (awful description)—if I were the narrator of HHhH I’d probably now dole out a droll little chapter about how the gesture I’ve just committed (lazily using Wikipedia to summarize the novel and prefacing that lazy summary with a few citations that might make cribbing from Wikipedia seem, I dunno, clever (which I do not think said cribbing is))—If I were the narrator of HHhH I might riff on how what I just did  is the result of some kind of 21st-century paralysis induced by an overload of information combined with a deep sincere genuine honest-to-gawd love for my subject.

Or maybe I’d just claim to be writing an infrareview.

Has this been a bad start?

I think HHhH gets off to a bad start, but I could be wrong.

Maybe you should judge for yourself, dear reader. Here is its first paragraph:

Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

Actually, rereading it now, this seems like a perfect start, although I’ll admit it stalled me on the first few attempts. I mean, that’s a bit alienating, yes? Names, dates, places—and then a shift to Kundera, the immediate assault on fiction? But it fits, in retrospect. Maybe this is another way of saying that HHhH, despite a difficult first few chapters (What is the book aboutWhat is the book?) quickly becomes thrilling, engrossing, a cerebral spy novel, a study in power and terror, a love letter to Prague, a moody bit of flanerie, at times—and mostly an intertextual adventure yarn that shouldn’t work but does, that succeeds wildly.

In chapters that are often short, punchy, and precise, Binet spends much of the first part of the novel building the character of Reinhard Heydrich, “‘the Hangman,’ ‘the Butcher,’ ‘the Blond Beast.” Binet’s Heydrich is fascinating but never sympathetic, a psychological portrait that Binet draws in spite of himself. The author’s radical ambivalence is evident in two early consecutive chapters, which are worth sharing in full, I think, as they illustrate both Binet’s prose as well as his program. Chapter 16:

Little Heydrich—cute, blond, studious, hardworking, loved by his parents. Violinist, pianist, junior chemist. A boy with a shrill voice which earns him a nickname, the first in a long list: at school, they call him “the Goat.” At this point in his life, it is still possible to mock him without risking death. But it is during this delicate period of childhood that one learns resentment.

And Chapter 17:

In Death Is My Trade, Robert Merle creates a novelized biography of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, based on firsthand accounts and on notes that Höss himself wrote in prison before being hanged in 1947. The whole of the first part is given over to his childhood and his unbelievably deadening upbringing at the hands of an ultraconservative and emotionally crippled father. It’s obvious what the author is trying to do: find the causes, if not the explanations, for the path this man would later take. Robert Merle attempts to guess—I say guess, not understand—how someone becomes commandant of Auschwitz.

This is not my intention—I say intention, not ambition—with regard to Heydrich. I do not claim that Heydrich ended up in charge of the Final Solution because his schoolmates called him “the Goat” when he was ten years old. Nor do I think that the ragging he took because they thought he was a Jew should necessarily explain anything. I mention these facts only for the ironic coloring they give to his destiny: “the Goat” will grow up to be the man called, at the height of his power, “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.” And the Jew, Süss, will become the Great Architect of the Holocaust. Who could have guessed such a thing?

Throughout HHhH, Binet-the-narrator repeatedly voices his concerns for spending so much time on Heydrich; these anxieties are frequently tethered to other texts (as we see both in the first paragraph of the novel, and in the first line of Chapter 17). It’s not just that the Nazis in particular were such fastidious record-keepers (“The Nazis love burning books, but not files”); it’s also that WWII has arguably produced more literature—narrative entertainment!—than anyone could hope to wade through.

But Binet-narrator assures us he’s waded, especially into territories where Heyrdrich might show his yellow head. Blazoning an often truculent anxiety of influence, the narrator of HHhH reflects and opines on numerous Nazi narratives, from Kenneth Brannagh’s role as Heydrich in Conspiracy to Rutger Hauer in Twilight of the Eagles (adapted from a Robert Harris novel, it sounds like a ripoff of PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones to William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Binet also lards the novel with historical documents, like journal entries, newspaper records, excerpts from speeches, etc., along with rumor and speculation. He often crams a story or an anecdote into HHhH that he claims has no business there, like the (apocryphal?) tale of a soccer match between occupied Ukraine and the Nazis:

. . . none of the main characters of Operation Anthropoid is involved, so theoretically it has no place in my novel. But one of the great advantages of the genre is the almost unlimited freedom it gives the author.

This kind of bait and switch is characteristic of HHhH, and it should be annoying as hell. But for some reason it isn’t—just the right amount of restraint? Just the right note of ironic dissonance? I’m not sure. Binet’s earnest pleas that he wishes to do justice to the reality of his characters can become overbearing at times, but the earnestness is tempered in a kind of postmodern distance. But maybe I brought that with me. (Although of course the reader bears some responsibility, especially in such an intertextual reading).

Binet-as-narrator pleads at the gaps in history:

My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur. Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision.

But of course the rhetoric here, the language itself, is a contrivance, a making, a bit of artifice—a decision. And, near the end of HHhH, exhausted from witnessing, from channeling that witnessing:

Worn-out by my muddled efforts to salute these people, I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds, those thousands, whom I have allowed to die in anonymity. But I want to believe that people exist even if we don’t speak of them.

Binet-as-narrator overestimates his powers if he thinks that he allowed those anonymous deaths. But his creation does not stink of hubris.

No, what happens here—and gosh darn, I’ve really failed to describe it adequatley—what HHhH ultimately offers is the very thing it sets out to deconstruct: A ripping, gripping adventure yarn. The final sequence—I really want to just lay it all out here, now, but c’mon, spoilers! You should read this book!—the final sequence deserves more than the review-hack cliches I’ll rest on here: Breathtaking, spellbinding, engrossing, thrilling, etc. Just wonderful, and Binet knows it, stretches it out, repeatedly gnashes and wails that he doesn’t want it to end, and for good reason—it’s really damn good.

I listened to Audible’s unabridged version of HHhH, narrated by John Lee (and then reread sections at night on my Kindle). Lee’s been a dealbreaker for me in the past (I barely made it through his narration of Martin’s A Feast for Crows and gave up on his take on China Miéville’s Kraken), but his evocation of the narrator’s voice here is perfect—intelligent, slightly ironic. Perhaps it helps that Binet is unequivocal about his characters’ voices (which are rare in the novel)—he’s always pointing out, Hey, look hereI’m the ventriloquist! I looked forward to the narrative in my commute and often lingered over chores to listen longer. Great stuff.

Is HHhH an infranovel? I don’t know because I don’t know really what Binet means by “infranovel.” It is an entertaining and smart take on a worn-out genre though, which is more than enough. Recommended.

“Finally, feverishly, I read this book that I would love to have written” (Vollmann’s Europe Central in Binet’s HHhH)

I, too, am transfixed—because I’m reading Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, which has just appeared in French. Finally, feverishly, I read this book that I would love to have written, and I wonder, reading the endless first chapter, how long he’ll keep it up, this style, this incredible tone. In fact, it lasts only eight pages, but those eight pages are magical, with phrases streaming past as in a dream, and I understand nothing, and understand everything. This is perhaps the first time that the voice of history has resounded so perfectly, and I am struck by this revelation: history is a prophet who says “We.” The first chapter is entitled “Steel in Motion,” and I read: “In a moment steel will begin to move, slowly at first, like troop trains pulling out of their stations, then more quickly and ubiquitously, the square crowds of steel-helmed men moving forward, flanked by rows of shiny planes; then tanks, planes and other projectiles will accelerate beyond recall.” And, further on: “Serving the sleepwalker’s rapture, Göring promises that five hundred more rocket-powered planes will be ready within a lightning-flash. Then he runs out for a tryst with the film star Lida Baarova.” The Czech. When I quote an author, I must be careful to cut my quotations every seven lines. No longer than seven lines. Like spies on the telephone: no more than thirty seconds, so they can’t track you down. “In Moscow, Marshal Tukhachevsky announces that operations in a future war will unfold as broad maneuver undertakings on a massive scale. He’ll be shot right away. And Europe Central’s ministers, who will also be shot, appear on balconies supported by nude marble girls, where they utter dreamy speeches, all the while listening for the ring of the telephone.” In the newspaper, somebody explains to me that this is an account of “slow-burning intensity,” a novel that is “more fantastical than historical,” the reading of which “requires a psychoanalytic listening.” I understand. I will remember. So … where was I?

From Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH.

I need to slam out a review of HHhH, which I loved.

Some Books I Plan to Read in 2013

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There are only a handful of forthcoming titles that I know about right now that I’m looking forward to reading next year: story collections from Sam Lipsyte (The Fun Parts) and George Saunders (Tenth of December), and a new novel from William Gass called Middle C. I’m also hoping Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child will finally get a US release, because I’d like to read it too.

There are a few newish books that I didn’t read in 2012 that I’ll try to catch up to this year—Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.

I do not currently possess any of these books.

I also look forward to reading Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, back in print again from Dzanc (who I am sure will get the copy I ordered to me any day now).

At the top of my list though are the books I’m currently reading: Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

Stuff I’ve been saying I’ll read for a few years now that I hope to get to:

Cortazar’s Hopscotch, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, and, at the top of the heap, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual.

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I have a few books by Thomas Bernhard that I’ll probably get into this year (when I feel called to a misanthropic monologue), and I’ll gobble up anything else by Barry Hannah that I can get my mitts on. I read William Gaddis’s “big books” last year, but I still haven’t read A Frolic of His Own, which I’ve heard is superior to Carpenter’s Gothic.

I’ll reread Moby-Dick this year (or at least listen to William Hootkins’s brilliant audio version) and I’ll probably end up rereading some book that I hadn’t planned to at all (this happened with 2666 and The Savage Detectives this year—who knows? I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow since college, and I haven’t reread Infinite Jest in full, and I’d love to go through Suttree again . . . ).

I dipped my toe into Finnegans Wake this year—I’ve found reading it on the Kindle late at night and then going through Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key the next morning is rewarding—and I’ll probably keep at it in 2013. Maybe I’ll make it to chapter 3.

But enough of my rambling—What books do you, dear reader, look forward to in 2013?