Many of the pieces in Châteaureynaud’s singular collection of 23 select stories from the last thirty or so years–translated here for the first time into English by Edward Gauvin–feel as if they might have been written by an Argentinean, or an American, or even a Japanese fabulist writer. Certain of them seem to echo work by such luminaries as Borges, Poe, and (Kôbô) Abé, while yet maintaining their distinct originality. And, like the work of the aforementioned authors, these tales seem to transcend national boundaries. They are universal in their paranoiac viewpoint, their Cartesian-defying weirdness, their willingness to see the world as a place in which a severed head might start talking in a doctor’s office (“La Tête”), or in which a street that no one seems ever to have heard of, and that does not appear on any map, can be visited when a certain gentleman enters a taxi driver’s vehicle one dark night and directs him to it (“Sweet Street”).
In the story “Unlivable” the narrator moves into a new home, only to find that all of the furniture, fixtures, and even the plumbing, are made of marble, while in “The Styx” a man who had experienced dizzy spells only the day before visits his doctor for an unspecified ailment and is told, point blank, that he is, in fact, already dead. In another tale, entitled “Écorcheville”, we learn that there are machines in which a toy firing squad–a row of little iron soldiers–has been designed to deliver the “coup de grace” to any self-appointed victim who places coins into the machine’s slot, and that the machine will also neatly dispose of the body after the deed has been accomplished.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of manifestations of “the uncanny” in this odd and varied collection. While Châteaureynaud does not write about vampires or zombies, he comes pretty close in “The Guardicci Masterpiece”, a story in which the narrator buys a mummy from a taxidermist, only to realize that it is quite alive and has been singing to him (I won’t give away what happens when girlfriend-meets-female-mummy). In “Icarus Saved From the Sky” a man sprouts wings and, though himself deeply ashamed of them, his girlfriend seems to love him all the more for his deformity and becomes indignant when he threatens to have them surgically removed (again, to spoil the ending would be unfair to the reader of this review). There are some grotesque moments in the collection as well. “The Peacocks”, set in the countryside in America, is a nihilistic tale of excess and cruelty, and is somewhat graphic in its depictions of death. In the title story, “A Life on Paper”, we learn how an obsessed father had taken and developed a dozen photographs of his daughter for each of the 7,750 days she’d lived (that’s a total of 93,284 photos, in case you weren’t counting). The narrator, we sense, is just as enthusiastic, nay, obsessed with the collection as the father before him had been–this has the effect of leaving the reader feeling uncomfortably implicated, and makes this story one of the most subtly creepy works in the collection.
While some of the narratives are unabashedly surreal, or horrific, others delve more into fantastical or mythical realms, such as “The Beautiful Coalwoman”, in which a knight encounters a lovely but dangerous temptress he knows in actuality to be a 100-year-old witch, but then succumbs to her irresistible charms anyway, with predictably unfortunate (for him) results. “The Excursion” has a mythic quality to it, and shares with another story–ironically and metafictionally entitled “Another Story”–allusions to a common trope from Greek mythology that I cannot set down here without spoiling it for the would-be reader.
One element that links these seemingly divergent pieces together, apart from their reveling in the unusual or uncanny, is that many of them may be considered more as vignettes than fully “fleshed-out” stories, though I’d quickly add that, despite their modest length, even the shortest pieces do manage to feel complete and, therefore, satisfying. The longest narrative in the collection, “The Bronze Schoolboy”, is only 20 pages in length, while most of the stories are much shorter than this; the opening vignette, “A Citizen Speaks”, for example, is only two pages long, while the remaining longer stories never exceed 12 or 13 pages at most. For this reason, the collection will perhaps appeal especially to those who enjoy their fiction short and concise, not to mention intense and decidedly peculiar.
If you are a reader who insists on “realistic” settings and situations, or on traditional story arc and characters with whom one can empathize, you should probably stay away from this collection. If, however, you as a reader are interested in dream-logic, fantastic situations, the unexplainable and/or macabre. . .this volume delivers again and again. Thanks to translator Edward Gauvin and Small Beer Press, selections from this unique and eclectic writer (winner of the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt in France) can now be enjoyed in the English-speaking world.