Garcia’s Hate: Gossip for Intellectuals Done Right

Leon Neyfakh | August 9th, 2010

"Hate: A Romance" by Tristan Garcia

Hate: A Romance is told from the perspective of a journalist named Elizabeth who spends the best years of her life writing pieces for magazines in Paris. This is how she describes it early in the book:

“I covered ‘culture,’ that is, everything and nothing. I had my little supplement. I went out, I kept up with the scene. Television was my first beat. It’s how everyone starts out. I’d go hear shows, indie rock shows, to compensate for the shit I watched on TV. I did trend pieces, I wrote up the latest thing. It leaves a funny taste in your mouth. You smell death in the life all around you, and all the while you keep waiting for something new. I did ‘fashion,’ too, naturally, and ‘books’ every now and then. If we were sitting across a dinner table and you asked me, I could tell you what people were talking about; I couldn’t tell you how much else, but I knew what was current.”

Holy moly. At the end of the chapter she drops this:

“In this world some people are distinct individuals while others are no more than paths of transmission. At my age, the signs are unmistakable: I belong in category two. I have my work cut out for me.”

Hate: A Romance, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing in translation this fall, is by Tristan Garcia, but you’re meant to regard it as having been written by Elizabeth. That’s the frame: Elizabeth has written a historical account of what was happening in Paris during the 1990s and early 2000s and that is the book we’re reading. It’s to Garcia’s credit that one barely thinks about him — or the translators, for that matter — while reading it.

The book is Elizabeth’s memoir, sort of, except that it’s not really about her, but three of her friends— the dangerously charming punk William Miller, the conservative intellectual Jean-Michel Liebowitz, and the AIDS prevention activist Dominique Rossi — and how they destroyed each other’s lives. These three guys, in Elizabeth’s telling, are historical figures: separately and together, they were responsible for shaping their era. They captured people’s attention. People cared what they thought.

William is the magical genius in Elizabeth’s universe, her favorite by far. They meet when they’re about 20 years old because she wants to do a story on him. At this early stage, he is an inarticulate, shy gutter punk who wanders around muttering about all the projects he is planning. Elizabeth befriends him and stands by his side as he transforms — unconsciously, of course — into an icon worshipped by “somewhat marginal people.” William turns himself into a careening spectacle: a glamorous, inscrutable figure who rails against AIDS prevention activists for trying to talk him and all other young men into giving up their freedom, a.k.a. using condoms. When William, a master bullshit artist, writes a book and achieves a new level of fame, “Technikart and most of the magazines and ‘avant-garde’ fanzines hailed the emergence of a new voice.”

Dominique is one of Elizabeth’s colleagues early in life — the two of them covered nightlife together and interviewed famous people. At the beginning of the book, she introduces him to William, thus setting off the pair’s five year turn as an “old-fashioned couple.” During this time, more and more people start dying of AIDS, and Dominique, who is HIV positive, gradually trades in his glamorous, old life as a club kid for a consuming role as a community organizer who promotes safe sex. After he and William break up, they become bitter enemies, both obsessed with making sure the other one and everything he stands for is forgotten by history.

There is a third friend, Jean-Michel Liebowitz, whom Elizabeth dates on and off for about a decade while William and Dominique carry on their war.  Liebowitz is a professor of strong convictions who begins his life on the left but finds himself, as he gets older, taking unmistakably conservative positions. He rails against cultural relativism, pop music, promiscuity, and what he perceives as the left’s knee-jerk affection for any and all minorities. He is a public intellectual; he writes books for the popular press and appears on television. But he considers himself a philosopher, and as we learn early on, he has contempt for Elizabeth’s line of work. “He was always going on about the unfashionable, the ‘nonmodern,’ the old days,” Elizabeth recalls. She stands for the opposite of all those things, she knows: “each new fad supplanting the last.” Liebowitz makes fun of her sometimes, saying that when finally his books became fashionable, she’ll have no choice but to embrace his views because it’s all she is “programmed” to do.

It is a story about ideas told through the people who had them, and the emotions, grudges, and ambitions that informed the things they believed and wrote. Typical gossip for intellectuals, in other words.

Elizabeth has her own disdain for journalists. At one point she makes fun of the credulity with which feature writers and critics respond to William’s unserious, self-promotional book. Elsewhere she laments not being able to talk to Liebowitz because she is “not an intellectual.” Still, you never get the sense that she ever takes any of that stuff much to heart. She knows from the beginning how Liebowitz feels about her work, but it doesn’t make her want to do it any less. This is significant insofar as her book — again, we are pretending Hate is her book — amounts to a long, expertly paced magazine piece, one written by an attentive, well-sourced journalist who has great affection for her subjects. Though there’s plenty of first person in the book, it’s essentially a reported history, complete with interviews and scenes and props and anecdotes — killer devices, all, which come from a playbook that you don’t often see being used in novels. Tristan Garcia has applied the storytelling techniques native to fun, middlebrow journalism and used them to tell a fictional story. The framing device — ”this is a book written by a journalist” — is not just an excuse; it actually informs the book’s style.

In the introduction, Elizabeth says she has written the book for William — to rescue him from obscurity and to correct the conventional wisdom that he was never anything but a vapid, reckless buffoon who deliberately gave people AIDS in order to get attention. But William’s memory is not the only thing being rescued in Hate. The other is journalism: Elizabeth, for all her cynicism about the profession, has written an immersive and deeply felt piece of magazine writing. It is a story about ideas told through the people who had them, and the emotions, grudges, and ambitions that informed the things they believed and wrote. Typical gossip for intellectuals, in other words. Also, a decisive defense of the form.

The book is about death, too, and what happens to people who spend their lives trying to be influential when they’re no longer able to make noise — how their mark on the world is registered, remembered, and above all forgotten. William cuts right to the heart of it when his book of nonsense is published to rave reviews and Elizabeth says to him, “Not bad, Will, you’re a writer now.” “No, Liz,” Will answers. “You don’t get it at all. I’m a motherfucking text.”

Elizabeth does get it though, and she knows what she’s doing when, barely 30 pages into the book, she quotes an aging Dominique looking back on the “joie-de-vivre” of gay life before AIDS. “When you’re defining your own era, you’re not aware of it, you think you’re building a future,” Dominique says. “Then one day you realize that this future you’re building is just something that people will look back on one day as the past, as something past and gone. That’s what it means to live out an era, a time, a moment. All of a sudden — yes — it ends.”