I got a buzzy pleasure from hauling fast through Where We Going, Daddy? by Jeal-Louis Fournier and 03 by Jean-Christophe Valtat—both books, combined, couldn’t top more than 200 pages, yet what you get to do on a day when you read those books together is you get to answer Oh, nothing, just read two books when someone asks what you’ve done that day.
Here’s a sad admission but a true one: reviewing books is an activity that’s as dependent on mood as anything, actually maybe more dependent on mood than lots of stuff. Because how and in what mood you read a book is so significant, right? It seems that way to me. I think I like Jeanette Winterson, for instance, but I read the only book of hers I’ve ever read at a time during which the person who so like JW meant a lot to me, so I felt pretty well compelled to like the thing, and so the book was, right then, more than just the book (Gut Symmetries, if it matters). Last year, Shapton’s transcendent Important Artifacts…came at a moment when I needed to believe in a love story again, but I’d been, until that point, pretty unreasonably unwilling to believe in a love story, and, had the book come a month early, I may’ve not fallen for it. The point of all of that is just that, while we like to pretend that books are solid, impermeable things, are solid and of-themselves, they’re not only subject to the whims of good and bad readers, they’re subject to how we approach them.
All of which is a long build-up to saying that, though I burned quick through 03 and Where We Going, Daddy?, I didn’t quite get into either book as much as I’d’ve hoped, and, five days later, I’m not remotely sure if it’s really even got much to do with either book—it well could just be me.
The easier book to talk about is 03, Valtat’s first translated book, a novel/novella, and the thing reads not dissimilarly to Bouillier’s Mystery Guest—the lines are arching and long, aware and wide-ranging. We’re given an adolescent boy, standing at a bus stop, ruminating on the retarded girl he sees daily as they each wait for their busses. That’s really it—the book’s moment is grounded in that single physical interaction, and it’s traced for all 84 of the book’s pages (though we find out later that the whole thing’s recalled from some future, that the book itself is a look-back, with some mixture of fondness and the steely such-is-life that’s the hallmark of a certain sort of weary, learned adulthood [or maybe just Gallic adulthood]). What’s fascinating about the reminiscence, though, is how horrifically engaging it is—I set 03 down at least a dozen times, walking from it for a snack or diversion of some sort, but kept coming back. Why? Because of how the boy, in recollection, pieces and pulls at this notion of retardation—03 ends up being about not just youth and innocence, but about separation, about difference, about that adolescent moment at which we all begin to understand ourselves as fundamentally individual, different-from-each-other beings, therefore alone (and the echo of that alone cascades out years—at about ¾ through the book the reader realizes the spooking of that first understanding of solitude has stuck like scent on the book’s narrator). It’s an oddly compelling book. I still don’t for sure know how I feel about it. If you read it and think something, anything, about it, tell me. (For a decent/quit interview with Valtat, check here.)
The other book, and the harder of the two to talk about, is Where We Going, Daddy?, which is a memoir-ish thing about Fournier’s two handicapped kids. The reason the book’s hard is, for me, two-fold: first, the book’s publicity info was festooned with exclamatories—how it sold x-many hundreds of thousands of copies in France and Europe, was to-be-translated into y-many languages…which info I know isn’t quite as subdermally irritating to others as it is to me, but whenever I hear about how great a book is, how everyone loves it, I have a weird relationship to it (not because I don’t like liking popular stuff—I love liking popular stuff; at this moment, my favorite movie in the theater is presently hands-down the most popular and mney-making film in theaters—but because the relationship feels loaded, i.e. if I don’t like the book, it’s because I’m an idiot, because all those hundreds of thousands of people can’t be wrong, right? All those languages its been translated into—certainly everyone else is right and I’m wrong, correct?).
However, the second part of my distaste/distrust of this book is, thankfully, not about me at all, and is simply about the book: Jean-Louis Fournier’s the father of two supremely mentally handicapped boys, and this thin book is something of a chronicle of that fact, and the thorniness of that fact from the dad’s point of view. A book about mentally handicapped boys? Probably not anyone’s cup of tea, but one need no imagination to consider the audience for such a book, how heaving and prepared to tremble, how knuckle-at-the-ready for biting.
But this is not that book, not some goodness-through-struggle book: Fournier’s account is, in fact, critical, bleak, black-humored, and, most offensively (to this reader, anyway), wildly, wildly selfish. Lest you think that’s me saying the book is bad because of those traits, it’s not: Fournier’s not trying to write some Oprah-ish tome on the enduring love of all fathers, how parenthood’s difficulties and attendant joys are Always Worth It. It seems as if he’s tried (and massively succeeded) to write a book in which there are no pulled punches, in which the genuine experience of having handicapped kids is revealed. And so maybe that’s why this book so messed with me: it’s a crucible, significantly. Meaning what? Meaning your take on this book will likely be much more about you than it will be about the book.
Because, when I read this book, I was frustrated every time Fournier wrote about his cars (not often, but maybe five or six times), or about how he worked in TV (once, one time, it’s significant to the actual in-the-book events; otherwise, it just comes off as casually uppity, like someone unthinkingly mentioning his second home—which, let the record show, Fournier casually mentions, too). I didn’t mind this stuff because of the class-levels they denoted—I minded because they betrayed Fournier’s fundamental selfishness, which I found pretty unbearable.
And yet: it’s his book, is it not? It is. It’s his book. The man’s clearly old enough to make his own adult decisions—his author’s photo betrays a man looking solidly into his 60′s—and his two sons are no longer young, nor will they ever read the book (the book’s is a phrase one of his son’s constantly asked in the car). In other words: I can be pettily pissed that the book’s selfish, and Fournier-obsessed and -focused, but there’s no hint to the contrary—this focus is not, cannot, be negative in itself. It’s his book. It’s his story.
Again: that’s the dark side of this book. It’s far more mirroring than you may like from your books (for instance, the other European book I just read, One Day, the supposedly-big-deal summer novel [already being made into a movie], asks nothing as far as self-awareness-of-the-reader). That Neitzsche line, about the abyss staring back? Maybe this book. I couldn’t handle the staring, or couldn’t handle it well anyway. Fournier, for all his jokey I-didn’t-really-mean-it black-humor, still has offered a book in which he (generously? helpfully? bravely? daringly?) shines a flashlight on the darkest aspects of being a parent of deeply handicapped children. I guess what I can say is best about this book is this: it’s made me 100% unsure if I can, blithely and simply, kidless and unexperienced in all Fournier’s covered, offer nothing but a critique of this book. Maybe all it’s fair to say is that Fournier comes across as an awfully selfish man, and one who’s been through more than I can literally imagine, and say only that Where We Going, Daddy? will inevitably offer you something totally different than it did me.