Vanessa Salomon is an internationally successful translator. Clever, beautiful, privileged – ‘born in a trilingual household: French, English and money’ – she can indulge herself professionally with obscure, neglected books. About to embark on a forgotten nouveau roman by Alain Robbe-Grillet, she’s offered an irresistible assignment. A bestselling French novelist who is definitely not Michel Houellebecq wants to pay her an extravagant fee to translate his next book – before he’s written it. Vanessa accepts, and her life free-falls into a nightmare of dangerous, sadistic games, involving two possible Not-Houellebecqs, but which is the imposter? She herself is a very unreliable narrator.
Bad Eminence is the American writer and musician James Greer’s second novel. Gleefully masquerading as an action thriller, it’s a wild trip through language, literature and translation, which may sound a bit niche, but Greer is out to persuade you that reading is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. He can be extremely funny on a 16th-century Biblical mistranslation, and throughout the book erudition jostles with wordplay. I gave up making page notes when they threatened to overwhelm the margins.
Greer spins a wonderfully complex web, with Nabokov lurking in the pattern. He enjoys teasing the reader and sows false information among the genuine. Vanessa’s liquor of choice is ‘Singani 63, an eau de vie from the highlands of Bolivia’, and we’re given eight cocktail recipes. I assumed this was one of Greer’s conceits, until I found I could buy a bottle online for $50 including shipping.
Vanessa’s misadventures with both Not-Houellebecqs proliferate: faced with secret doors, false clues and peril she reluctantly rescues her estranged twin sister from kidnapping. Or so she thinks. Turn the page, flash forward and she’s pouring drinks for her loft neighbour (a real-life movie actress) to whom she’s recounting her tribulations – i.e. the book we’re reading.
Bad Eminence is definitely a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order. Death features prominently – ‘ask not for whom the bell tolls,’ Vanessa advises, ‘ask who do you have to pay, and how much, not to have it rung’. Despite all the Brechtian alienation, the end is unexpectedly touching. With the book’s title taken from Paradise Lost, a woman with great hair was unlikely to come out of things well. And that obscure Robbe-Grillet novel, Recollections of the Golden Triangle? If you read it, you’ll find it shares a lot with this one. Borges would have approved the impish circularity. Bad Eminence is not for all; some might reject its self-referential brilliance. I’ll be rereading, for the fun of it. And the margin notes.