Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Icky, Riveting 03
A swirling teenage monologue that's both disturbing and compelling thanks to the author's precision.
Last week I wrote about two French novels that have been translated recently into English: Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03, which was published last month, and Tristan Garcia’s Hate, A Romance, which is scheduled to come out in November. Both books are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and both take place in late 20th century France. They share an unusual origin story — two editors at FSG teamed up to edit and publish them after one brought the originals home from a trip to Paris — and I initially thought it would make sense to write about them side by side.
After looking hard for common ground beyond the circumstantial, I decided I couldn’t disagree with FSG editor Mitzi Angel — the translator of 03 and the publisher of Hate — when she told me in an e-mail that stylistically, at least, the two books are like “chalk and cheese.” So better, I think, to treat each one separately. Valtat’s this week; Garcia’s next.
03 above all is plotless: nothing happens on any of its 84 pages, which add up not to a story but a swirling internal monologue delivered by a tense young man who is infatuated with a mentally challenged girl in his town. It’s unclear how old the narrator is when he’s describing his crush — the back of the book says vaguely that the ordeal is being “remembered years later” — but the action, such as it is, takes place during the ’80s, while he’s in the 12th grade. His preoccupation with the girl develops over many mornings spent waiting for his bus to school and watching her intently while she waits for hers across the street.
Over the course of the one long paragraph that comprises 03, the bratty, nerdy narrator investigates the texture of his unlikely attraction to the girl, imagining what it’s like to be her and trying to figure out why he finds her so appealing. In the process he explains proudly how different he is from his peers in the suburbs of Paris and how much smarter he is than the grown-ups who tell him what to do. Basically, he’s a disgruntled teenager: a cynical and resolutely independent adolescent who listens to The Cure and Joy Division, who takes pride in seeing through societal norms, and who boasts of possessing an intelligence that is “determined to reject everything around it.” He makes jokes using skeptical scare quotes the way Hipster Runoff does, and the cold, proud knowingness with which he regards the world calls to mind Tao Lin. He is very impressed with how clearly he sees through the bullshit everyone else around him falls for, and he cherishes what he thinks of as his hard-won maturity.
The girl across the street looks to this charmer like someone living a real life — a human animal more free than him because she is unencumbered by the exhausting calculations that govern every one of his thoughts and feelings. At one point, he defensively rejects the idea that there’s such a thing as “spontaneous feelings,” which he believes are always “the outcome of long and involved tactical maneuvers.” That being the case, he reasons, why not try to “act as conscious, as deliberately, and therefore forcefully as possible”?
He admits toward the beginning that he is “drawn to her precisely for the chance to love a beauty that had no self-awareness and of which, consequently, I alone would be the sole and watchful guardian.” It’s an icky thought process, but you get the idea pretty quickly that this guy’s only really interested in the girl insofar as sizing up her deformities helps him understand his own. Toward the end of the book he comes right out and says it: “I wanted to turn her into an allegory for my own failings.”
A tiresome fellow, all told. But Valtat — who has written a new book in English called Aurorama that’s being published by Melville House this month — renders the character with force, invoking ideas and memories that are muscular enough in their specificity that following along with the narrator’s scattered thoughts is riveting, even if spending an hour with someone so salty and stunted is not your idea of a good time. You wonder as you read this book how, if, this wreck of a boy will change as he grows older. That you’re rooting for Valtat’s baby monster at the end of this unattractive stream of consciousness is a testament to the verve and precision with which the author built him.