There’s an emphasis on character action in fiction that I’ve always found hilariously American. We don’t read for historical perspective, for philosophy, for abstraction or allegory or poetic language as readily as readers elsewhere. Instead, there’s something distinctly boot-strappy about our attentions. The sense that we follow a character through their various arcs and impacts on the world seems somehow inextricable from our belief in self-made millionaires, our shark tanks and injunctions to “be all that you can be!”
I’ve always found this fucked-up, not to mention boring. Aren’t the people with the most control over their own fates also the ones whose advantages render their opinions kind of dull? (Consider Joanna Rothkopf’s perfectly executed spoof on the New Personal Essay, which plays with all the ways its authors have been limited to a kind of contentless irrelevance.) When a character’s actions have clear impact, they can proceed as expected, with a level of clarity and understanding, and we can read for their honesty and determination, their foibles and their forthright self-reflection.
None of that makes for shit I want to read.
Thank god, then, for Marie NDiaye. Lauded in her native France, NDiaye has published dozens of acclaimed novels and plays (her earliest at age seventeen, and her most recent long-listed for the Booker.) Winner of the Prix Goncourt and the Comédie française repertoire prize, her austere prose and philosophical and existential inquiries about life at the margins might be said to follow Sartre and Genet, while her interest in post-colonial and French-African subjects, and above all the the meditative and performative insights of her work, suggest she traces that lineage very deliberately through Franz Fanon. Her plays and novels are fearless, brutal, and relentlessly deadpan. She writes about the totally normal lives of powerless women and the weird lies they deploy to survive those lives’ demands. Her elegant, shocking books focus on immigrants, hotel maids, waitresses and prostitutes. She suggests again and again the absolute scariest thing I can think of — that not only do we live in a time of incredible and widespread disempowerment, but that we fail to see how our “selves” and our relations with our loved ones are shaped by the ways we deny, lie, and otherwise scramble to bluff our way through it. The politics of her work are backed by her own life — she left France for Berlin in a gesture of opposition to what she calls Sarkozy’s “atmosphere of a police state.”
I’ve followed her work obsessively for years, after being totally entranced by Rosie Carpe. That novel alternates long, numb passages with a series of tactical moves across industries and international borders. In the process it reveals low-wage work within a complex of play-acting, alienation, familial dependence and life-endangering schemes. It felt totally real to life and it hit me, like a slap, with a sense that its wisdom had been lacking in every book I’d read up to that point. Rosie’s life isn’t much of a life, and however hard that is to swallow, NDiaye isn’t going to make it easier for the reader by imbuing her characters with some sort of fake moxie or class-climbing luck. Nor is she dumb; Rosie reflects constantly on how she has to turn her brain off, or tactically coax herself into a synthesized acceptance of her limited and damaging options. There’s something kind of metal about NDiaye’s insistence on walking us through these convolutions — some truth in all the lying and performing that feels badass, or punk, or amazing.
It is definitely “new,” and in her latest book, Ladivine (Knopf, 2016), her control of story has sharpened. The novel is out this summer in a dry, lovely translation by Jordan Stump. The story follows Clarisse, who hides her relationship with her mother, both pragmatically (by lying to her husband and child, changing her own name, disavowing her heritage) and by nursing a creepy, robust spite. In her disgust she mentally refers to her mother only as “the servant” — until, at some later, seemingly arbitrary point, she reverses her position and attempts to reopen her life. This embarrassment is everywhere; another character hides his southwestern French accent “as a precaution, on the theory that losing it couldn’t possibly hurt and might one day prove useful and because it made him secretly proud not to speak like his parents.” From another writer such schtick might be eye-rolling, But NDiaye’s nuance and slow-burn developments position it within the shame and grief of any inexplicable family feud, and within her expert depictions of the exasperating confines of low-wage labor, it all feels entirely relatable.
Then the bitterness builds to disaster. When a woman is murdered, the news of her death is delivered in fragments across several generations. I was struck while reading by the sense that Ladivine might be considered “crime writing” or “thriller” material if the narrative center had shifted — if the victim was anonymized, or if the story followed the investigative actions of some strong-jawed detective. Instead, NDiaye stays true to the paralyzed inaction we all inhabit so much more often, and with her flat, empathic depictions of her characters’ mental gymnastics as they struggle to live past the murder she achieves something like a creepy kind of heroism between the lines of that other story — a story which is, after all, with its triumph and justice is so much more boring, and so much less true.
Say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. What can be done within lives so restricted that the same thing is the only thing on offer? Here the mother is named Ladivine, as is Clarisse’s daughter, and all three of them are shown blowing from one miserable romantic relationship to another, working to support their men, and working themselves into knots in their efforts to control or blame or understand or otherwise preserve any hope their lives might change. What to do with structures that so absurdly replicate same story for poor women, ad infinitum? And if, as our own most-American F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Character is action,” who on earth are we when we can’t even act, when we find our hands tied and our thoughts all running wild?
NDiaye has been reviewed in the US as gloomy and depressive, and I love that — it’s completely accurate, and just as in the case of Clarisse and her mother, the aversion to her work seems to hit just a little too close to home. I prefer to think of her as a psychological horror writer, slightly camp. There is something giddy in the way she repurposes the limits of working class experience to deliver a profoundly scary story. Like an outtake roll of the testimony you don’t hear on Law and Order SVU, her inversions of crime noir convention tell the lie to fantasies of justice and blame. With relish she finds imagination in the ways her characters sustain themselves on almost nothing and in the lush rancor that drives them forward. Forget what actually threatens us, she seems to giggle ominously. What we trick ourselves into hating is a thousand times creepier.
Inset image courtesy of New York Times.