Apparently it’s now possible, forty years after the first release of The Book of Flights, to see experimental fiction—like Marxism, feminism, political protests and disco—as a mildly embarrassing historical quirk. That at least was the angle taken by journalists after French Novelist J.M.G. Le Clezio won the Novel Prize for Literature last year. Like American writers William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, Le Clezio become known in the sixties and seventies for writing so-called impossible fictions: the plot-less, character-less, non-serious, self-referential iconoclastic frame-breakers that tended to make unwary readers heave their editions across the room. However, in the late 1970s Le Clezio’s style shifted. He started writing in an increasingly linear, referential style; and like Woody Allen’s “early, funny ones,” French readers seemed to prefer these recent, clearly plotted novels. Before he won the Nobel Prize it seemed like these works might be his legacy.
Let’s hope not: the angry, bored, frustrated rants, as well as the utter disregard for novelistic tricks and marketplace plotting all make The Book of Flights a welcome interruption. If it has a plot, then The Book of Flights is about Young Man Hogan and his flights across the landscape, through cities and towns. One night, he sleeps with a prostitute. In another scene, he watches a small boy play the flute. He wanders through the desert, towards a receding set of mountains. He notices, in a generic city, the excess of cars and electric signs: “The whole lot talked at once, emitted mute cries, underlined, exhibited, spat. There was no peace. One was inside an erupting volcano, caught up in the gouts of magma, or in the centre of an electric storm.”
But to pretend to sum up The Book of Flights with these small, barely connected scenes—these insincere fragments of plot—is obviously misleading. The better part of the novel is made up of the narrator’s intermittent rants, his novelistic licks of fury and disgust which interrupt Young Man Hogan’s flights. For example, nearly a hundred pages in the reader is given three pages of insults: “Slob! Cocksucker! Chiseller! Fourflusher! … Chippy! Sow! Whoremonger! Liar! Liar! Liar! Etc.!” You might reasonably think, yeah, well, y tu mamá también J.M.G.; but The Book of Flights, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is not just an extended exercise in reader-hatred and alienation.
Let’s go back to those insults, especially that final “Etc!” This is the “etc” of a writer who has come to see the tricks of novelistic narrative as a lame circus feat, as clowning. “It was 1912, or else 1967, or 1999,” we are told early on. Later, “All this happened in Lybia, or else in the Gobi desert, in the year 630, 1966, something like that.” Yeah, he’s saying, something happened, somewhere, sometime, whatever. Le Clezio, when writing The Book of Flights at least, seems to be both suspicious and bored of the usual pleasures of generic narratives. Think of it this way: The Book of Flights is narrated by a narrator disgusted with narration. So, maybe that list of insults is aimed at the stereotypical bourgeois reader or consumerist drone; but it’s also aimed at the writer himself, at the writer disgusted with the tired tricks of his art. These narrative flights, then, these interruptions and disruptions, are also existential flights. The writer is terrified of stillness and the shape of the book mirrors his scattered mind.
The flights of The Book of Flights then are flights away from stillness and the everyday. There are literal flights from cities; but also flights of thought, imagination and desire. Le Clezio, we are reminded at every angry interruption, every narrative thread left dangling, is both bored and disgusted by contemporary life, by the mindlessness of domesticity and the ennui of city living, consumer culture, property and material prosperity, of socially acceptable desires and tastes. He has, I suppose, the familiar 1960s desire to quit, to drop out, to seek out a better way of being. In both life and art, he fears the system that limits his thoughts, desires and experiences:
Why do I never give the names of the places, or the people? What am I afraid of? System, repulsive system is there, lying in wait for me. It wants me to kneel down, or raise my fist. It wants to teach me to possess houses and cars and, of course, women. I want no part of it. I have nothing.
This is, admittedly, an infuriating and disruptive book. As Martin Amis said of Ulysses, you don’t curl up with The Book of Flights. And looking back, it is possible to see in The Book of Flights characteristics of whatever era this was, this era of Gravity’s Rainbow and JR, this era of post-beat screams and hysterical fictions. Those who scorn the pretensions and play of such books, who find them too hard, too weird, too unusual, too wanky, should probably skip The Book of Flights; and even those accustomed to post-sixties tricks might find this translation lacking in poetry (something Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, has in abundance). Some of the scenes he abandons, moreover, scream for expansion: it can seem arrogant, the way he uses and abuses his own narrative talents to fuck with his readers.
Yet it’s worth spending some time with The Book of Flights. For one thing, although aligned with the obvious (though pointed) silliness of seventies and eighties postmodernist writing, this novel is notably sincere. The writer wishes to stop pretending, to point out the strings of the puppeteer, to admit to manipulation, to confess. “I wish I wrote the way one speaks,” he writes, “Behind all the papers, behind all the photos, there is a universe which I know well but which I am never able to rediscover.” This is not just a casual desire to enter the real world: this is an obsession, the panic of a man who suspects that he cannot think in another way, that he cannot escape the trajectory of his life, the limits of his culture and history. Note again the sincerity in passages like this: “Can anything be more wretched than writing for one’s own self-pleasure? […] Who cares about my mother, my life, my birth, my gastric troubles! Acting so sincere! What nonsense!” This is an anxious novel, anxious even of its own anxiety; but within this familiar self-consciousness and alienation there is a cry of distress and disgust more effective and affecting than most books with actual plots and characters and endings.
For many, though, this will be no defence: for whatever reason, the easy charges of elitism, self-indulgence and wankiness seem to stick. It’s worth asking, however, why any form of novelistic experimentation today—especially any novel that explicitly links such experimentation to ‘radical politics’—is automatically considered embarrassing, ridiculous and out of date. For these early novels of Le Clezio, winning the Nobel Prize probably doesn’t help.
As everyone knows, literary awards, like other committee-based prizes for art, are generally hypocritical. They bring into fiction what the best fictions implicitly contest: bureaucracy, censorship and marketing. The Nobel Prize tries it’s best to avoid these epithets, but you get the feeling that the narrator of The Book of Flights, if called, wouldn’t have accepted such an award—would, indeed, have considered such awards representative of the very thing the western urbanite needs to flee. When Thomas Pynchon accepted the National Book Award in the seventies, he sent a comedian to give his acceptance speech. He also had a streaker. Le Clezio, by some accounts, gave a good speech. I assume he said angry things about wars and American presidents. Oh well. At least this prize means that The Book of Flights, which probably wouldn’t be touched by any mainstream publisher today, finds its way into bookstores. This is a good book, read it, etc.