Marie Darrieussecq shot to literary fame in France when her bestselling debut, Pig Tales (1996), was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt. Featuring a woman who turns into a pig, the novel earned Darrieussecq a reputation as a surrealist writer in the tradition of Kafka, and many of her subsequent works have involved fantastical elements and a dreamy, drifting prose style. Her two most recent novels, however, are rooted in the real, and narrated in a crisp, clear, present tense. Translated by Penny Hueston, both All The Way (2010) and her new book, Men, are about the same woman, Solange.
All the Way was shot in close-up, focussing on the minutiae of Solange’s sexed-up adolescence in small-town France. In Men, the camera never leaves the boom. Solange is now in her thirties and living in Los Angeles. She acts in movies with Matt Damon and George (Clooney, although we never hear his surname — a stroke of comic genius), but she isn’t a star. We first meet her falling for a Cameroon-born Canadian actor called Kouhouesso, ‘a man with a big idea’ — specifically, to direct a period version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. ‘She sank into his gaze to follow the river with him.’
The novel tells the story of Solange’s obsession with Kouhouesso, who frequently makes her wait for days at a time before returning texts or calls. When he’s not lecturing Solange about western misconceptions of Africa, all he can think about is getting to Cameroon to shoot his film; insofar as the novel echoes Conrad, Kouhouesso is both Marlow and Kurtz.
The narrative voice is compellingly confident, and the Hollywood material handled with humour and conviction. But too much is seen from above, in summary, like the story-board for a romance novel with literary aspirations:
In an apocalyptic sunset, she took the car and fled to Olga’s. They talked all night long, girl talk. The next day she drove aimlessly around Los Angeles. Her tears flowed over the intensely blue sky, into the dust of that month of December.
Speech is frequently, frustratingly, reported.
What Darrieussecq aims to bring to the tired template of a passionate woman fixated on a difficult man is the complexity of a mixed-race love affair. She manages a few subtle observations, but more often the treatment of this difficult subject is slightly clunky — especially when set beside other recent examples, such as Peter Ho Davies’s account of the Chinese-American experience, The Fortunes, or Paul Beatty’s coruscating Man Booker shortlisted satire, The Sellout. The major problem, though, is her relentless use of a single mode — summary from on high — which takes us from LA to Paris to the Basque country to the film shoot in Cameroon (George plays Kurtz) with almost no variation.
At the start, Men feels deft, funny and exhilaratingly swift, but it ends up seeming thin: and when you reach the novel’s punchline, you can’t help thinking it would have been better off — like Heart of Darkness — as a novella.