October 2006

Shaun Manning

nonfiction

The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier

An obsessive, free-associative romp through one man's psyche at a particular place and time, The Mystery Guest is at once beautiful, grating, humorous, and pathetic. It's the sort of narrative that makes one laugh at his own imperfections, and want desperately to make sure he doesn't ever come off as muddleheaded as the persona Grégoire Bouillier puts forward in his latest memoir.

Five years after Bouillier's girlfriend left him, inexplicably, without a word, the struggling author wakes in the middle of the day to the sound of a ringing phone. Having not heard from this woman in all the time since she had disappeared, the narrator is shocked when she does not allude to their past or attempt to explain her actions; rather, she's called to invite him to a birthday party, as a “mystery guest” representing her friend's year-to-be-lived. Bouillier accepts the invitation before having a chance to consider the consequences, and immediately sets his mind to deciphering the hidden meanings and messages of this enigmatic invitation. Eventually, the time of the party arrives, and Bouillier is beset with further doubts, riddles, and impossible obstacles.

Bouillier has written a thoughtbomb, a race from one neurosis to another, punctuated by the sort of  logically dubious decisions people are wont to make when they know they need to “get it right” but can't begin to say what that means. As a result, he gifts a bottle of wine he can't afford, dons turtleneck undershirts he finds repulsive, and manages to offend anybody who deigns to speak with him at the artist's birthday party. To make matters worse, the bottle of wine is never to be opened, the guests succeed in humiliating the narrator, and Bouillier never gets his cherished moment of reconciliation. In the end, Bouillier does sort out the mystery of the invitation -- or at least he believes he's discovered this obscure truth. He is, after all, a rather unreliable narrator, given to wild conjecture and overly-complicated theories. But there is something encouraging in Bouillier's return from the abyss, as he begins to root his behavior more soundly in what can be observed rather than what might possibly transpire.

Bouillier's circular, rambling eloquence brings to mind the erratic prose of Jack Kerouac, as does his charming but hopeless main character. Those who find the idea of watching a guy stumble through life, one moment of despair leading into another, infuriating or depressing will be frustrated with Bouillier's actions leading up to the party; but for those, on the other hand, who can sympathize with a man who tries through every method he knows to take hold of his life once and for all, who embarrasses himself but keeps plodding on anyway, who desires nothing more than to make sense of his circumstances, The Mystery Guest holds an engaging internal adventure. There is something of Bouillier's obsessiveness in everyone; the thing that will determine a reader's enjoyment of the book is whether she can put up with this sort of navel-gazing for 120 pages straight.

The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374185700
120 pages