February 2010

Michael Schaub

fiction

The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection by Martin Page, translated by Bruce Benderson

There are, I guess, worse ways to get dumped than by a message on an answering machine. A text message would be pretty bad. A Hello Kitty e-card. A singing telegram. But the answering machine message breakup is a particularly painful kind of romantic torture -- not only does it means you've been dumped, but it also means you're one of the 12 people left on Earth who still uses an answering machine. The only way it could be even more humiliating is if the person dumping you is someone you weren't dating, someone you've never even met.

That's the premise of Martin Page's The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection, the French author's second novel to be translated into English, after the 2004 American publication of How I Became Stupid. Virgil is a young Frenchman living in Paris, working at an advertising agency, and getting dumped on a fairly regular basis. He lives in a dreary apartment building where he's the only tenant who's not a prostitute, and sees a psychotherapist on a disturbingly regular basis. He comes home one day to find an answering machine message from a woman named Clara: "I'm sorry, but I'd rather stop here. I'm leaving you, Virgil. I'm leaving you." He doesn't know her, immediately becomes convinced that he's going insane or dying of some rare brain disease, and generally freaks out, hounding his therapist, canceling his utility and telephone accounts, and trying to figure out what's happening to him.

You're forgiven if you're skeptical. The concept tends toward the absurd, the kind of plot that could veer dangerously close to overly precious and indulgent "existential treatise" territory, which generally is never a good sign. And the title is pretty terrible, though Page probably isn't to blame; the original French title was Peut-ętre une histoire d’amour (which translates, roughly, to A Love Affair, Maybe, which, come to think of it, isn't really that much better). Nevertheless, it would be a shame to skip this; while it's not an Earth-shattering accomplishment, it's a remarkably fun, unpretentious, and sometimes hilarious little novel.

The book wouldn't have worked, likely, if Page hadn't somehow made Virgil an oddly sympathetic character. There's no real reason he should be -- he's sarcastic to a fault, mopey, and neurotic in a sometimes annoying way. He initially plays the end-of-the-relationship-that-never-actually-was card to his advantage, letting his (exclusively female) friends take him to dinner and fawn over him; you can tell he's hoping to spin it to his advantage and get his comforters to go to bed with him. (Which doesn't work in real life. Or, um, so I've heard.) He complains about his unluckiness in love, but he seems to sabotage himself -- as one friend points out to him, "You choose girls who inevitably reject you, just so you can confirm your paranoid isolation." But he's funny and he's mostly well-intentioned, and the pain caused by the phantom breakup gives him a sort of pitiable sad-eyed puppy-dog appeal. He's also refreshingly non-ambitious, which is kind of charming in its own way -- he turns down (repeatedly) an offer of a promotion and a raise from his employer, an advertising agency called (in one of the thankfully few too on-the-nose moments of the novel) Svengali. "Virgil was sure of it," writes Page, "in life you have to do your best at not losing and not winning, at the same time. Putting this into practice is tricky, since both poles have strong powers of attraction."

There is some philosophical meandering in the pages of the book, to be sure, but it's not post-grad-student heavy-handed, it's light and entertaining and actually kind of fun. Page has a keen eye for setting; he has an obvious affection for Paris, but it's not fawning -- you can tell he loves the dark side of the city, the run-down streets in the poor arrondissements, the students and starving artists, even the hookers and their johns. And he does a great job of ending the story where it needs to be ended, with no tricks, no grand epiphanies or dei ex machina.

Mostly, the book succeeds because Page is so undeniably charming. It's sometimes harder to execute a light, funny, short book than a huge, melancholic epic -- but Page has the skill, and the charisma, to pull it off. Bruce Benderson turns out to be an excellent translator; he preserves the uniquely French charm of the novel without resorting to preciousness. The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection might not change your life, but it's an entertaining journey, and it will ring a bell with anyone who's ever been dumped. Not that I'd, uh, know anything about that.

The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection by Martin Page, translated by Bruce Benderson
Penguin
ISBN: 0143116525
192 Pages