February 2007

Melissa Albert

fiction

The Little Girl and the Cigarette by Benoît Duteurtre

The smoker of the infamous cigarette in Benoît Duteurtre’s slim satire The Little Girl and the Cigarette is a child-hating addict. He’s an unambitious epicure, a pleasure-seeking snob. In other words, a committer of crimes against society. He lives in an unnamed city, a place where public smoking is outlawed, children are king, and stop lights multiply like rabbits on the corners near grade schools. He and his beautiful, common-law wife have nevertheless perfected a guiltlessly pleasurable arrangement. They fill their time with food, sex, and sleeping in, when he’s not putting in time at his marginal job as a technical adviser to the city’s mayor.

The mayor, on the other hand, is a friend to children, a wily humanitarian whose innovative measures thrive on hype regardless of outcome. His offices are home not only to businessmen but to children -- in a saccharine celebration of young life, he’s given bands of kids and their partisan keepers the run of the building. To the smoker’s continuous horror, his workplace is chockablock with snot-nosed, candy-sticky, self-satisfied rugrats, performing dance recitals in the doorways of conference halls, accepting strawberry Pez from nervous employees, and, in the case of five-year-old Amandine, catching the nicotined narrator with his pants down (boxers up), sitting on a toilet, blowing cigarette smoke out of the window he jimmied open with a screwdriver. Still holding the tool, he drops his cigarette out the window (and onto the head of a passerby) and demands she leave. Passing the tiny girl in the hallway a minute later, he mutters “Idiot!” hoping the “psychological pressure” of adult rage will seal her lips. Though naively trying to forget the incident, he’s called into HR a few days later, where he’s accused of luring the child into the bathroom.

The rapid degradation of the man’s life from this point is unnerving, and the machinations and cold logic of the legal system he’s up against are as twisted and implacable as something from the pages of Kafka. It’s made immediately clear that his guilt is assumed (“Children never lie” is the maxim of the Chief Police Inspector), and the richly twisted possibilities of a man and girl alone in a bathroom stall are enough to whet the appetites of the lynch mob that flocks around the case. He is informed that the child will, with the help of a psychologist and an “aging Lolita” of a mother, recall the full, gruesome extent of his crimes. An epidemic of “abused” children quickly steps forward, and the narrator is sent to jail. Even there, child molesters are at the bottom of the food chain, but he has the dubious luck of being taken as prison-wife by 330-lb. Lulu, a Buddha-faced misogynist with a penchant for upper-class white men.

Meanwhile, the accused’s wife on the outside has secured him a lawyer: Maren Pataki, fresh from her successful defense in the hottest trial in recent history, that of condemned man Desire Johnson and his final cigarette. In truth, Desire was the artless master of his own defense: minutes before his execution for killing a cop (a crime he never confessed to, but heartily condoned), he asked for a final cigarette. Due to a recent jail-wide smoking ban, there are laws on the books that both grant and deny Desire’s request. This loophole cows the prison bureaucrats and stays the execution. What follows is a media circus and a marketing coup for General Tobacco. When Desire finally gets his cigarette, it’s in a flower-filled meadow one mile from the execution chamber, installed by General Tobacco and staffed by two guards in gas masks. Prior to enjoying the cigarette -- which does not contain grass, contrary to his request -- Desire plucks a bouquet of wildflowers from the hastily planted meadow. Then, as seen by countless TV viewers, he uses the flower fronds to spell: Long Live Life.

In the wake of this disingenuous display, his execution is called off. He becomes a major celebrity, a laconic superstar. Maren Pataki, as it turns out, was simply the court-appointed lawyer lucky enough to get stuck with him. A stunningly mediocre person, she’s nicknamed “Sudden Death” for her knack in speeding clients from courtroom to lethal injection. When she realizes the child-fondling smoker hasn’t got any tricks up his sleeve, she tires of his case and gives up. He’s left alone to face a ludicrous mock trial, a “Children’s Court” meant to psychologically heal the 14 youths he’s allegedly groped. The prosecutor is an eggheaded twelve-year-old whose defense is based around the moral lesson of a Mickey Mouse cartoon. The defense lawyer is a braided goody-two-shoes, and when he can no longer stand her halfhearted argument, the accused stands and gives vent to a profane, hedonist’s manifesto. The children are fascinated but unmoved. He’s sent back to prison.

Beaten down, sick of the waiting game, he decides to go out with dignity in the only way Duteurtre’s warped world has left him: he requests that he be allowed to sacrifice himself for one of the contestants on Martyr Idol. One of the more heavy-handed elements of this farce, Martyr Idol is a weekly Internet broadcast masterminded by the terrorist group “John Wayne’s Conscience,” the six contestants of which are a highly diverse cross section of hostages (the missionary, the journalist, the profiteer). They’re forced to sing, dance, and answer trivia questions, and at the end of every month, someone is voted off the show -- the parting gift being a separation of their head from its body. Surprisingly, the narrator is granted his unlikely request of a trade, and is delivered into the hands of a better or worse fate than that planned by his countrymen.

The trumping of sense and sanity at the hand of spectacle and mass hysteria is chilling, and spooky parallels can be made if you care to make them, but the book suffers by forcing the reader to spend most of their time in the brain of the unbearably precise and self-righteous smoker. Though perhaps that’s the point -- hateful as he is, he wanted only to be left alone. But despite a life spent strictly in the pursuit of personal pleasure, he ends up dancing for terrorist web cams somewhere in the Near East.

Though ridiculous, with a narrator too misanthropic to be pitied, The Little Girl and the Cigarette is nevertheless a fascinating, albeit frustrating, fable of the terrifying power of public opinion.

The Little Girl and the Cigarette by Benoît Duteurtre
Melville House Publishing
ISBN: 1933633123
188 pages