Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier!

Synopsis: This book is not fictional. The events described took place in the life of author Grégoire Bouillier. This memoir was his attempt to "tell not the story of [his] life... but what [his] life had told [him] and what [he] thought [he'd] decoded of its language," and that's precisely what he does. The Mystery Guest tells the story of Bouillier's failed relationship with a woman (never named) who leaves him 5 years prior to the book's start without warning, explanation or any contact UNTIL she phones him an invite to a birthday party, at which he will be eponymous the mystery guest. Sad and honest hilarity ensues as Bouillier tries to piece together WHAT IT ALL MEANS.

This book may be at first frustrating for the active reader. Don't miss the forest for the (seemingly) gnarled trees. The Mystery Guest delivers on both a micro and macro level if given the chance to find its footing. There is the temptation to give up before the book wins you over, but the prize is well worth the journey.

Most of the more critical notes I'd taken about The Mystery Guest were irrelevant by the book's end. At first, Bouillier's memoir appears to be carelessly assembled - yet perceptive and insightful. The constant use of the phrase "as they say" to qualify assertions and justify the use of idioms tires the reader quickly, until it becomes evident that it's all to an end. Deferring to some imaginary "THEY" as if the speaker's own opinions aren't alone valid, reads as tentativeness, but what begins as an annoying tic becomes a purposeful style as it mimics the speaker's vacillation between unflappable certainty and unmitigated panic. When within the span of a sentence, images and tones contradict themselves, it's simplest to attribute the perceived fault to sloppy writing or translation, as I was too quick to do; when in the progression of a line, the speaker, who , because this is a memoir, is indistinguishable from the author, alternately describes his iron resolve and paralyzing insecurities, it's difficult not to appreciate the careful construction of what you're reading. It's not unlike marveling at people who spend lots of time and money to appear not to care about their appearance... a delicate art that can easily go wrong and is applauded when successful.
"No doubt this [the decision to wear only turtlenecks] was magical thinking on my part...; these turtleneck-undershirts erupted into my life without my noticing until it was too late and I was under their curse. You could even say they'd inflicted themselves on me..."
The speaker's decision to wear only turtlenecks (The Mystery Guest dedicates long passages to Bouillier's expressing his distaste for the kind of man who layers turtlenecks - before his admonition of becoming just that type of man) goes IN A SINGLE SENTENCE from being described as active and artful to something passively endured. But, a few lines later the speaker explains that when in pain we often "spend our lives... disappearing behind what negates us," just as each of his assertions on the previous page seem to cancel the other.

This illustrates The Mystery Guest's charming method of explaining away its chaos, which, only naturally, is also the speaker's aim throughout the story - to explain way the chaos in his life, to "' illuminate certain matters for [him]self at the same time as [he] makes them communicable to others'". Bouillier tries to rationalize the irrational, assign agenda to pain and chance, cope through logic, make sense of the injustices he doesn't understand. Every event, pertinent or irrelevant, is manipulated in Bouillier's mind to advise his predicament: the death of writer Michael Leiris, the launch of the solar shuttle Ulysses, characters literary and mythological - all in existence solely to lend themselves to Bouillier as needed, to be alluded to and used as foils against which the magnitude of his pain could be measured. All the while, the reader grapples to piece together how all of the disparate elements in The Mystery Guest could possibly work together congruently. Yet by the end of the book, absolutely everything is as it should be.

Just as, in his book, Bouillier can't always forgive the self-serving narcissism and tendency to project he possesses when recognized in others, I at first found it difficult to dismiss the book's mechanics in favor of seeing the big picture - until it was handed to be on a platter... in a bow.

Once I was able to zoom out and enjoy the book as it's intended, I found a lot to love in The Mystery Guest. Dark thoughts described as "grinning fiends" and "old familiars" threatening to "sully [Bouillier] with their banality" were reminiscent of Montaigne's "chimeras and imaginary monsters" brought on by idleness that he hoped to "record ... in writing... to make [his] mind ashamed of them." The way Bouillier attempts to capture every impression and emotion accurately recalls To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, who (incidentally?) plays an important part in Bouillier's memoir. The Mystery Guest's goal was to "record the atoms as they fall upon the mind... however disconnected and incoherent in appearance," and make sense of them - a goal Woolf defined as paramount in 'Modern Fiction'. I could relate to the speaker's self-doubt and imagine myself behaving similarly if in similar situations. I could sympathize with the perfect and pithy descriptions of the flawed logic of a lover scorned (who can't???) and the hyperbolic hilarity found in the most acute pain.

Before I'd finished it, I was prepared to rip into this book mercilessly - and more importantly - prematurely.... but whatever flaws you may THINK you've detected in The Mystery Guest turn out not to be flaws at all. They all lend themselves to the very human telling of Bouillier's imperfect dealings with the world around him.


Kudos to Bouillier and Stein.