Reviewed by Ian Wolff
Every once in awhile, a writer of fairly nondescript talents suddenly blossoms into a remarkable breakout sensation. Philippe Claudel is one such writer. While his oeuvre is fulsome, consisting of a succession of well-crafted if harry-potterish-cum-dystopic-historical-allegory novels, it is fairly humdrum. You’ve been there: a landscape vaguely resembling WWII French countryside. Perpetual state of war, village murder. Purple prose. Rivers flowing, clouds lumbering across the horizon. Dead bodies found on the shore. Journals. Tapestries. Rundown chateaus. Investigations.
In his new novel, The Investigation, Claudel departs from the predictable. Few things are more satisfying than to watch a writer throwing off her shackles. Published by Doubleday’s Talese imprint and translated from the French language by John Cullen, The Investigation is about interrogation by the inept, a thoroughly timely topic. Our hero would prefer not to. And yet he’s required by circumstance to engage in this topical nightmare. The Investigation is one of the most exciting novels since Molloy and, while it’s firmly rooted in the Kafka camp, it’s like the Kindle version of a Calvino script. Early in the novel, Claudel writes:
“No vehicle passed. No pedestrian. He’d been forgotten. It wasn’t the first time. Eventually he turned up the collar of his raincoat, grasped the handle of his suitcase, and resolved to walk across the square to a bar before he got completely drenched. … The Investigator was neither very thirsty nor very hungry. He simply needed to sit down someplace before betaking himself to where he was supposed to go. He needed to sit down. To assess the situation.”
Bolaño would celebrate this book as the work of a visceral realist. It’s as of the body as it is of the mind: “Hobbling, bent in half, his thighs hard and tense, he headed for the vending machine. The skirts of his coat trailed the floor, and he tripped on them twice, almost falling both times, but the sight of the display behind the machine’s glass front sufficed to make him forget his pains.”
You might call Claudel’s novel a lighting rod: it gathers so many febrile threads to it, as if demanding to be fried. Unabashedly Marxist, you can almost see Sartre in the corner, swabbing his fighter’s cut brow and wafting smelling salts under the punch-drunk pugilist’s nose. It is so modern, yet immediately antiquated. It is now and before. Think Francis Bacon assaulting you with prose. A frightening proposition. It channels Melville’s Bartelby:
“As it happened, they waited a long time. After a while, finding that the silence and smiles had their limits, the Manager—who was sitting beside the Investigator, in the other armchair—initiated a conversation by assuring his guest that his meal would arrive momentarily. Then he said, “Suicides? News to me…I’ve been kept out of the loop, no doubt. My Co-Workers know it’s best not to cross me. Suicides, imagine that! If I’d been aware of them, God only knows what I might have done! Suicides!…”
If Cormac McCarthy had graduated from the Sorbonne with a degree in Philosophy, we’d be in business. Deleuze, Badiou, even Baudrillard are jealous. If they could have been scriveners, they would have written The Investigation. But they are men of ideas. So is Claudel. Yet he has a propensity for prose. Read his earlier books: By a Slow River, Brodeck’s Report. He loves the sound of his voice and his dystopic imaginary. He’s almost clubby in that regard. Shamelessly derivative in the spirit of some of our best writers. But The Investigation is a departure for him. Like Occupy, which Deleuze and Baudrillard were buried before but which Badiou lived to see, it is schism in hegemony. It is a pure exercise of self-perpetuating imagination. It’s a leap-frog of the mind based on rhetoric, one idea and scene following another purely on the basis of creativity, Scholastics be damned. Claudel hits the reset button and we’re again faced with the blank screen of lost memory. We’ve been here, we’ve read this book, and yet it’s new and fresh. These are the talents that are hard to put your finger on. Quixotic. Or they’re a slug that you don’t want to put your finger on, even though it’s so slow moving it temps you to touch it. Rare but essential. Sticky yet precise.
Translated from the French by John Cullen
Nan A. Talese, July 2012