June 2010

Alan Good


A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin

Suspend your disbelief and imagine that taxi drivers know their cities inside and out. Now imagine a French cabbie named Moe. He’s a born cabbie, the way Mickey Mantle was a born ballplayer. He knows his city -- you can see where that’s going. One day a man gets into his cab and gives a strange address: “Sweet Street, please. Number 42.” Moe is intrigued. He has never heard of Sweet Street. The man leads him there, but he keeps him so engaged in conversation that Moe doesn’t memorize the route. Sweet Street, it turns out, is not on any map, and no one in town has ever heard of it. It seems to exist in a parallel universe. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself there, buy some apples. “No apple in his memory could equal them except the golden ones from the Garden of the Hesperides, in a little book of stories from Greco-Roman mythology.” You can probably guess what happens next: he gets run over by a skateboarder in a pink tracksuit. He is revived. He drinks pear liqueur and plum spirits and dances with the skateboarder’s older sister. He cheats on his wife, but he doesn’t feel bad about it, nor should he. Everyone knows it’s not cheating if you’re in separate realities.

Moe finds his way home in the morning and gives a lame excuse to his wife, who seems or pretends to believe him. He searches for Sweet Street for years, but it’s not an easy place to find. I’m not describing a new Ricky Gervais movie; this is a story by the French author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud. “Sweet Street” is included in A Life on Paper: Stories, the first Châteaureynaud book to be translated into English.

Everything I know about Châteaureynaud comes from the back of the book and the letter from the publisher that accompanied it. I no longer have access to the letter because I wadded it up to play Paper Ball one night when my girlfriend and I were slightly drunk, and now it’s gone. I’m a power hitter. I must have knocked it into Sweet Street.

I avoided searching for information about the author because I didn’t want biography to color my reading. Some of the stories (this seems like a good time to mention they were all translated by Edward Gauvin) have appeared in publications like The Café Irreal, The Brooklyn Rail, and AGNI Online, but I hadn’t read them. I didn’t know what to expect. Ignorance is the perfect way to approach Châteaureynaud.

I can’t describe the feelings of confusion and happiness and awe I experienced while reading these stories, so I’m just going to make a transition by quoting the back of the book: “In many ways, Châteaureynaud is France’s own Kurt Vonnegut.” This is the claim that attracted me to this book initially. I saw it in an ad in Harper’s and thought, I’d like to read that. Strictly based on physical appearance, that claim might be true, but Châteaureynaud reminds me more of Charlie Kaufman, who probably reminds French people of Châteaureynaud. Some of the longer stories feel like the first act of a Kaufman movie. Châteaureynaud is also related to Kafka. “Écorcheville” calls to mind “In the Penal Colony.” The killing apparatus in the Kafka story is often seen as predictive of Nazi horrors. “Écorcheville” might predict the horrors that await us in the age of unfettered capitalism. More on that later.

Unfortunately, I can’t see there being a rage for Châteaureynaud the way there was and still is for Kafka, or the way there is for Roberto Bolaño. I prefer him to Bolaño, but the time for Americans going crazy over French authors, I’m afraid, has passed. Châteaureynaud seems aware of this: the unnamed narrator of “Another Story” says, “I am a writer -- a French writer, to boot -- two qualities worth less than nothing these days.”

People complain about the crass commercialism of Christmas, but that’s nothing compared to what happens in “The Excursion,” where The Sirens’ Isle (see Book XII of The Odyssey) has become a tourist attraction for the well-heeled. The world in which most of the stories are located has been heavily influenced by capitalists. There doesn’t seem to be any countering influence. If you’ve got enough money, you can buy or do whatever you want. You can fish for sirens, as the exceedingly well-heeled do in “Another Story,” or you can buy a mummified young woman (“The Guardicci Masterpiece”).

In “Écorcheville,” which is the only really horrifying story in the collection, three automated firing squads are set up around the city for people who wish to end their misery. When Orne, a man unlucky in love and business, learns of these public suicide zones, he is not outraged or frightened (or tempted); “he was unimpressed.” He thinks it’s a gimmick. He “had trouble seeing how an entrepreneur might make back his investment, cover his costs, and show any profit.” When he discusses the firing squads with his friends, there’s no talk about morality or public danger. They’re only concerned with practicalities: “‘Even if you don’t have a shotgun, a rope, or a sufficient quantity of sleeping pills on hand, you almost always have some cash or a credit card. And these machines take both forms of payment.’” (This is Orne’s uninterested love interest speaking.) “‘They fill a real need. With the basics settled, all that’s left is adapting to demand: price, availability, selection.’” I forgot to mention that this is also the funniest story in the book.

Écorcher is a verb with a few meanings: to graze, to fleece, to skin. I can’t think of a better word to describe what capitalism does. Écorcheville, or Fleece Town, is such a perfect capitalist society that there’s even a minor character named Homini Lupus. Homo homini lupus: man is a wolf to man. Some of us are sheep.

The stories in A Life on Paper are connected -- or at least some of them are -- but they’re not a collection of interconnected stories, like those in Jesus’ Son, that band together like Planeteers (Captain Planet, we need you more than ever) to form a novel. Châteaureynaud has created a universe full of characters, places, and events, but he doesn’t feel obligated to connect them. The action of one story has no bearing on the action of another story; characters and places simply exist, and they overlap on occasion.

A Life on Paper spans four decades of Châteaureynaud’s writing career. The earliest story was written in 1973 and into 1974, and the most recent in 2002. But the stories themselves cover centuries. There are stories set in “present times,” a story set during World War II, and one set in vaguely medieval times. Even present-day stories exist in pre-Christian times, as Greek mythology comes to life with sirens, the River Styx, and golden apples.

“Châteaureynaud is the author of eight novels and almost one hundred short stories,” we learn from the back of the book. To borrow a “creative writing” cliché, I don’t want to be told that information; I want to be shown. Some of Robert Walser’s books have only been made available in English in the past few years. Someone give Edward Gauvin some money. I don’t want to wait fifty years to read Châteaureynaud’s other books.

Châteaureynaud’s stories are disorienting, bizarre, mythical. The stories don’t end with epiphanies or a tidy wrapping-up. Some of the endings are abrupt, even unsatisfying; they feel more like a beginning. So what? A Life on Paper is fantastic in both meanings: it’s fantastic, as in strange, unreal, weird, imaginary; and it’s fantastic, as in absolutely fucking awesome. People will call A Life on Paper magical realism. A few will call it irrealism. I don’t care what you call it. I just want you to read it.

A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin
Small Beer Press
ISBN: 1931520623
256 pages