All My Friends. By Marie NDiaye. Translated by Jordan Stump. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2012. 140 pages. $14.95.
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It’s been long-held that literary realism serves to rouse the reader’s compassion. John Gardner’s widely read The Art of Fiction prescribes a style of storytelling predicated on humanism; writers are taught to render their characters’ worlds “sensually available” and imaginatively comprehensible for readers, as if one of fiction’s main goals were cultural reform: to convey a deep conviction in human virtue and to deepen the reader’s capacity to love others. Some writers have embraced the challenge of redeeming literature’s most despicable class, a category that includes working-class drunks (Carver) and suburban cheaters (Cheever), as well as self-absorbed fuckheads (Denis Johnson), misogynists (Updike), and murderers (Dostoyevsky). Not to mention Nabokov’s masterpiece Lolita, in which the pedophile Humbert Humbert is actually made sympathetic. It’s often said that writers bear the responsibility of humanizing others, in effect strengthening human bonds. This bond, between the reader and fictional characters, is considered so important that outside of literary circles, many readers use their personal attachments to evaluate works of fiction, thus propagating the thrill of connection.
French author Marie NDiaye steers clear of these values in her innovative story collection All My Friends. As the recipient of several of France’s most prestigious literary prizes over the last decade, including the Prix Goncourt, NDiaye will surely change the conversation on “likeable” characters and clear, clarifying narratives. All My Friends breaks all the rules that leave readers contented and happy. NDiaye’s characters are perversely misguided narcissists and her stories—unstable, ambiguous, jarring—play out the terminal uncertainty of our contemporary experience.
All My Friends comprises a mélange of meandering episodes that have no firm plot, but which end on jolting, cruel notes. Across five stories, NDiaye exposes the depravity of her characters, generally trapped and ineffectual misfits and misanthropes. Her characters suffer appalling humiliations until, in desperation, they prove themselves capable of tremendous violence towards others. In mesmerizing scenes of psychological breakdown, these characters achieve impressive transformations—rising in stature as they wreck the lives of who else but all their friends. In “Brulard’s Day,” an aging actress, Eve Brulard, dispassionately watches an intruder destroy the only possession her estranged husband has left in the world—and does nothing about it at the very scene that was supposed to promise the couple’s reconciliation. In “All My Friends,” a retired schoolteacher named Werner spends over a decade quietly humiliating his former student Severine, whom he has hired on as his maid, for no ostensible reason except to teach her a lesson. In “Revelation” we listen to a woman berate her son and treat him “little better than the dog of the house” for being “not so much insane as stupid, appallingly stupid,” moments before she intends to abandon him on a roadside (136-137).
Some readers may want to pity these characters for their precarious situations; but however pitiful they are, they swiftly knock down readers for their sympathies. NDiaye is at pains to discourage any soft attitudes towards her characters, who lack the least bit of moral decency needed to be deemed “relatable.” In All My Friends, survival in harsh, ruthless environments necessarily compromises one’s dignity. NDiaye’s characters are despicable because they lack the imagination to widen the circle of light on the stage of their concerns. Their moral dilemma is always the same stark choice between survival and dignity; their inability to imagine other alternatives prevents them from surviving with dignity. But their debasement should resonate with readers intensely, for their experiences underpin modern human drama. It can’t be denied that shameless self-absorption, the willful inability to perceive the self realistically, is celebrated in today’s culture. Marie NDiaye is simply writing from the confused aftermath of our solipsistic experience.
NDiaye’s portrayals of narcissists are absorbing and highly compelling in their ability to provoke cringing reactions, but this realism doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding her enigmatic characters. Their imaginations are so grandiose that their behaviors, often left unexplained, are totally out of step with the world we know. NDiaye does nothing to resolve our alienation. She renders a universe of anomie, in which no one is deserving of compassion—like the opportunistic Madame Mour of “The Boys,” who has no qualms about selling her teenager to a city pedophile to cut a paycheck. Many of NDiaye’s characters, in addition to being depraved, show signs of mental illness. Some verge on being conspicuously insane. In a mesmerizingly dark passage, a boy who can’t be older than twelve or thirteen longingly describes his fantasies of sexual slavery. Rene envies his neighbor, Anthony Mour, whose body was sold to an older woman:
From time to time the memory of a naked Anthony raced through his mind, gilded, exultant, displaying his teeth (whitened?), his legs spread wide in a virile stance, index finger upraised before his lips (plumped with silicone?), and nose (reshaped, slenderized?), as if mischievously swearing the viewer to secrecy. […] But why shouldn’t she have two boys around her to… To do what? Rene’s head was gently swimming. To serve her, to show her off at her best, to ease her sorrows, to love her deeply? “I can do anything,” murmured Rene, gripped by an uneasy vainglory, a tremulous joy. He’d always known he could make a gift of himself. (77)
It’s extremely difficult to write about morally reprehensible characters—just as few people would voluntarily spend an evening with someone they find utterly despicable, most readers would avoid submitting to a similarly abusive contract in a work of fiction. That NDiaye succeeds in this project speaks to her mastery. In All My Friends, readers won’t even realize that they’re in the company of the enemy until the very last hour, which unquestioningly will leave them feeling debauched. With her powerful, elegant writing, NDiaye arrests our imagination with ambiguous images (are the dogs wrestling in heat, or is the little one getting torn apart?) that divert our attention to all the wrong details. Sometimes she quietly parodies literary clichés to set up false expectations. “The Death of Claude Francois” appears to be about a love triangle, but is actually about a woman losing control of herself. In “The Boys,” we’re are led to believe that we’re witnessing an adoption, but it soon becomes clear that the story is about something much darker.
Characters consistently misrepresent themselves, too, often withholding details about shameful, incriminating histories. In “Brulard’s Day,” Eve Brulard never mentions her desertion of her family until her estranged husband appears. In another story, the “Death of Claude Francois,” Doctor Zaka appears so prim and forthright in the initial passages that we don’t suspect foul play, even as she’s endangering her child under our watch. This is typical of NDiaye’s characters, who are capable of making good first impressions, though in hindsight, certain ticks should have warned us.
Unreliable though they may be, NDiaye’s characters are never deliberately deceptive; they can’t help themselves. They are at such pains to forget their traumas that often they’re as stunned as we are when their enemies turn out to be their closest allies, and friends, strangers. Meanwhile, we readers believe what we’re told, despite mounting evidence that something is amiss. These conditions inspire a sort of fleeting, backstabbing romance between NDiaye’s readers and the fictional characters of All My Friends. As readers progress through a story, we are made to realize that all our earlier ideas were wrong, and we gradually rediscover these characters in their many incarnations. We figure out too late that we had been rallying for the wrong people. As you can imagine, this effect can be quite disorienting on readers in pursuit of knowing, or “relating to,” a character. In this way, the story collection works like an enchanted house with a series of trap doors and floors that disappear beneath you, a structure whose dimensions were misrepresented in the plans. It’s not only that we feel duped; it’s that we feel the rules of our rational world have been upended. We might feel like the residents of a small Cleveland neighborhood who discovered that their local school-bus driver, the friendly jazz musician who made quiet appearances at backyard barbeques, Ariel Castro, had been holding three women prisoner in his home for a decade.
NDiaye designs her stories to foster misunderstanding. In an interview with The Nervous Breakdown, Jordan Stump, the translator of All My Friends, has said that NDiaye’s collection “adamantly refuses to give away the context that would make her meaning entirely perceptible.” Concealed within the elegant design of these stories are twisting plot structures, unreliable narrators who periodically suffer from amnesia, and a narrative lens so shortsighted that the reader’s vision is drastically obstructed. People and events seem to brush up against us and we can’t figure out whether these sensations should please or horrify. NDiaye steers us straight towards the terror of discovering that everyone, especially all our friends, is just a hairsbreadth away from being completely unfathomable.
Esposito, Scott. “New Directions in Publishing: Jordan Stump, translator of All My Friends, by Marie NDiaye.” The Nervous Breakdown. The Nervous Breakdown, 19 April 2013. Web. 3 March 2014.