Pardon me, I was using the subjunctive instead of the past tense. We’re way past tents; we’re living in bungalows now. – Groucho Marx
What is the sex of angles? – Thomas Pilaster
The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster by Éric Chevillard, translated by Chris Clarke for Sublunary Editions, begins with a simple question: “Do we or do we not need to publish the works of a writer, be they rightly or wrongly considered important, after his death, when he has not expressed or wished such to that effect? Must we even forgo publishing them if he has expressed the opposite desire, demanding that they be burned? Why, in that case, we might ask, did he not take on the dirty job himself” Manuscripts don’t burn, and fruit flies like a banana. Following this setup, Chevillard delivers a diverse and hilarious collection of stories and fragments by the imaginary Thomas Pilaster.
Chevillard rose up with the 1980s Brat Pack of the Nouveau Roman, including the authors Jean-Phillippe Touissaint, Jean Echenoz, and Christian Gailly. These authors have reached the English-reading public most notably through the translations of Dalkey Archive Press and Bison Books at the University of Nebraska. Chevillard’s blog, L’Autofictif, ongoing since 2007, is a source of joy, silliness, and energy – thereby keeping him at the forefront of vibrant and important French literary criticism. And Chevillard’s fondness for the bon mot places him alongside that of another important silly author, Hervé Le Tellier. Contemporary novels from France, inspired by the tradition of the 20th Century avant garde, the Oulipo, the Nouveau Roman, often arrive in service of the terrific framing device; it’s a hipster “Thriving on a Riff”, where a list of remembrances, or fake pearls of wisdom, cascade into an almanac, a novel.
There’s the listless narrator too bored to leave the bathroom, or the novel written on hotel stationary. And contemporary American author’s take note, consider The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, celebrating this literature of parataxis, sideways allusion, and dissimulation.
So it’s no big surprise that this novel is wholly embedded within the spirit of a crowded literature of commentary. Thomas Pilaster is a work of ekphrasis and parafiction. Originally published in 1999, this work deals with the petty and misanthropic obsessions of 20th century writers. It’s canny writing, yet sweetly pre-internet. There are fragments of unpublished work, and references to a greater oeuvre by Pilaster. The narrator, another author, serves as a snarky Nick Carraway, less acolyte than peer. There are traces of a story, Pilaster’s doomed romance, within the notes on the embedded collected works. The collected works within Thomas Pilaster are various. They are genre experiments. But there is a thread of wit throughout the novel. An early “diary” contains commentary on life and love. There is a persistent word play, “A rafter of turkey’s taking off… Yes, it’s the flapping of the French flag.” A French madrigal, “stressed to the west of Brest.”
Within the collected works, “The Vander Sons Company” has the voice of an early modern detective story, recalling Simenon or Poe, with a distinctively Oulipian premise: one of three identical triplets has been murdered, each of the surviving brothers blames the other, claiming a different identity. “‘Louis!’ shouted one, but: ‘Henri!’ shouted the other in the same voice. A shocked silence ensued from this contradictory double exclamation. The two brothers stared defiantly at each other.” Each one claims the other killed the third. Its paradoxes read as a mathematical word problem unraveling, dissimulating, and trailing off in digressions. It’s exceedingly fun. “So Many Sea Horses” contains animal aphorisms. “The burrito is the offspring of the burro.” “Hunger sends the termite back into the woods.” And the bravado piece of the collection, a slapstick caper “Three Attempts at the Reintroduction of the Man-Eating Tiger Into Our Countryside” delivers on the promise of its sublime title. Modernism loves the tiger. Tigers populated Kafka’s dreams, and Borges found labyrinths in its stripes. In this Chevillard parable, tigers are the abyss. “The countryside is only truly the countryside when it’s populated by tigers…night is only truly night when it is haunted by tigers, man is only truly man when he is in the proximity of tigers.” Like Chevillard’s earlier novel The Author and Me, the imaginary editor of Thomas Pilaster mocks the 20th century misanthrope through the notes. And the bathos comedy of academia gets full treatment in “Lecture With Slides”, delivered against the encroachment of a certain desertification.
Like Volodine’s 2014 collection Writers, Chevillard has fun at the expense of the literary and the literal. Half the collection is punny aphorisms, while the other half features hapless obsessions of writerly life. And I laughed out loud consistently through this collection as Chevillard skewers books and the bookish. This zany installment is a welcome respite for those who can take a joke. Bon Voyage, say we.