Hygiene and the Assassin

Dear CF,

I went into the tub this morning to warm up before heading out for a day’s work and ended up reading all of Amelie Northomb’s first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, in one sitting. Or bathing, I guess—isn’t “a bathing” so much more expressive as an interval of time? Anyway, when I looked up, the water was cold and the morning had gone, along with all my good intentions.

Amelie Northomb was twenty-five when she published Hygiene and the Assassin back in 1991. [Warning: this contains spoilers.]

I’m having trouble processing that. This little 167-page book takes on Nobel laureates and misogynist authors, dismisses Hegel in a one-off, offers a counterfactual prequel to Nabokov’s Ada or Arbor, and pulls a Charlie-Kaufman-in-Adaptation-esque move in which it capitulates to the conventions I thought it was subverting. It wraps up the phallic iconoclastic swordplay we’ve come to expect with astounding nineteenth-century melodrama. Love and Freud don’t win, but their essential relevance is reestablished. The supporting character is part Fate, part Harpy. She’s the journalist and the murderer. She pricks the author’s prick, reduces him to a heap on the floor, suffocating under the weight of his anti-aesthetic layers, makes him crawl. Is it a reclamation of sentimental fiction? Is it a defense of female readership? Is it ultimately a failure?

Whatever it is, it’s fun to read.

It’s one thing to make your first book a novel that sends up a generation of Norman Mailers, which this one does. He’s too easy a target. Pugnacity is stupid, and tackling it is fun but uninteresting. It’s something else entirely to structure your first novel as a battle of wits between a fat sick old Nobel laureate who has written twenty-two novels and the journalists who interview him. Her first book is about an author’s last book. Her literary launch is about his search for literary closure.

It sounds so boring, doesn’t it? So drearily meta. It isn’t. I’ve been mulling over what you said about high vs. low art. You wished for cakebait, delicious cake that seduces, something different from the theoretical tortures metafiction means now. (Borges! Calvino! Look at your works, ye mighty, and despair!) Somewhere along the way META ate storytelling up and barfed it back and invited us over to lunch. (For an example, look no further than the latest Joshua Cohen story in the Paris Review. It’s called “Emissions.”)

Seriously, though: it’s gotten to be enough to have two vast and trunkless legs of stone without the shattered visage. Just gesture at the created thing, metafictioneers; it’s okay if it’s always already destroyed and never made any works at all. That’s the point. It’s a statement. God.

The opposite pole, which is almost as depressing, is the INCREDIBLY UNAMBITIOUS story that shouts its modesty, lives just next door to mundanity, borrows a cup of sugar from it and dyes it pink. (Ahem.)

If I sound grumpy, it’s because it’s been a long time since I finished a book in a freezing tub and lost my plans for the day because a book was just that absorbing.  Most short stories I read offer the same pleasure as a mildly amusing joke.

I feel like I should explain here that I came up with a slightly different metaphor for the kind of art I want; the analogue to your cake, although I love me some cake. You want cakebait that paves the way to Vatican arcana. I think I want to be seduced by the arcana and be surprised by cakesnacks. I want to dissect an owl pellet and be delighted by the mouse-skull I find inside. It’s the Catholic in me; you can’t want food or entertainment for it’s own sake, you need a morally sound pretext like eating Christ.

This is why I taught a “Bowels” unit and a “Vomit” unit last semester.

Anyway, I think Amelie Northomb has what it takes to satisfy us both: she offers delicious cake cleverly disguised as metabarf. Her protagonist, for example, is Pretextat Tach.

Tach is an author, misogynist, misanthropist. Of the war in the Gulf: “All those stupid little soldiers have a hard on. You have to give them the opportunity to ejaculate, otherwise they’ll get pimples and they’ll go home crying to their mommies.”

Of young people:  “attractive, nimble, stupid, and nasty.”

Of women: “have you ever seen anything uglier than a woman? What a senseless idea to have breasts, and hips—I’ll spare you the rest. And then, I hate women the way I hate all victims. A filthy race, victims. If we were to exterminate them altogether, perhaps we’d have peace at last, and perhaps at last the victims would get what they want, which is martyrdom.” He goes on:

Women are inferior to men, that goes without saying: all you have to do is see how ugly they are. In the past, there was no bad faith. No one tried to hide women’s inferiority, and they were treated in consequence. But what we have nowadays is revolting: women are still inferior to men—for they are still just as ugly—but they are being told that they are man’s equal. And because they are stupid, naturally they believe it. Yet women are still being treated as inferior: salaries are merely one minor sign of this. … You have to admire the bad faith of the system: take an ugly, stupid, nasty, charmless slave and make her believe that she is starting off with the same opportunities as her master—when in fact she has only a quarter as many. Personally I find it appalling. If I were a woman, I would be sick.

Tach is unpleasant. That’s not the point. Male artists are permitted unpleasantness, and Northomb anatomizes this phenomenon by creating the most unpleasant “genius” on record. Tach is a genius who dismisses explanations as pedestrian even as he boasts about his mastery of logic. He calls himself the only kind person he knows as he devastates everyone around him. He refuses to be predictable, yet structures his life according to a purely reactionary system.

Is he sounding familiar? A long time ago I wrote this (in reference to the Julie Powell scandal where the Internet was disgusted that she cheated on her husband even as it defended Polanski):

While narcissism in male artists gets painted as brilliantly iconoclastic or even excused—Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso were just raw, ready to sacrifice convention (read: their partners) for the sake of great art, Roman Polanski anally raped and drugged children but made great movies!—women are severely punished when their desires or demands cross the line of the reasonable and prudent. (My God!!! Julie Powell cheated on her husband!!!)

Tach is the extreme version of the firecracker: the genius who believes he transcends the conventions, outgrows society’s boring and backward and becomes a glorious monster (in the old sense of the word: a sign, a demonstration) possessed of truth. Northomb’s psychology is so good. The first half of the book is basically a farce (done entirely through dialogue) in which Tach methodically exposes and devastates takes real pleasure in destroying the journalists who come to him with their tape recorders, eager to get some bon mots for their articles.

Here’s how Tach gets rid of one who persists in asking him about his diet:

“In the evening I have a fairly light meal. I’m perfectly happy with cold dishes, such as rillettes, solidified fat, raw bacon, the oil from a tin of sardines—I don’t like the sardines very much, but they do flavor the oil, so I throw out the sardines and save the juice, and drink it on its own … Good heavens, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Please continue.”

“You don’t look very well, I assure you. Along with that I heat up a very fatty bouillon, prepared ahead of time: for hours, I boil cheese rind, pigs’ trotters, chicken rumps, marrowbones, and a carrot. I add a ladleful of lard, remove the carrot, and let it cool for twenty-four hours. In fact, I like to drink the bouillon when it’s cold, when the fat has hardened into a crust that leaves my lips glistening. But don’t worry, I don’t waste a thing, don’t go thinking that I throw out all that delicate meat. After I’ve boiled it for a long time, the meat gains in unctuousness what it’s lost in juice: the chicken rumps are a real treat, the yellow fat takes on a lovely spongy texture  … What is the matter?”

“I … I don’t know. Claustrophobia, perhaps. Could we open a window?”

“Open a window, on January 15? Don’t even think about it. The oxygen would kill you. No, I know what you need.”

“Please let me go out for a moment.”

“It’s out of the question, stay where it’s warm. I’m going to make you one of my very own Brandy Alexanders, with melted butter.”

Upon hearing this, the journalist’s livid complexion turned bright green: he went off at a run, bent double, his hand on his mouth.

The poor journalist ends up recording himself retching into the bushes. Tach’s fiction gets described by one hapless journalist as “emetic.” Another journalist reports to his colleagues that Tach is “like a slimy intestine! Smooth as a liver, as blown up as his belly must be. Perfidious as a spleen, and as bitter as a gallbladder! Just the way he looked at me, I felt as if he were digesting me, dissolving me in the juices of his totalitarian metabolism!” Earlier, Tach reports that he stopped writing at age fifty-nine (he’s eighty-three in the novel), and that all the books he’s published in the interim are the result of  “emptying my drawers,” which is a joke I can’t help but love. I mean, my dissertation is about reading and eating, which means shit isn’t just hilarious, it’s also important.

Here’s another edible explanation in which Tach devastates metaphor with metaphor and nested simile:

“No, Monsieur, metaphors are not cooking—syntax is cooking. Metaphors are bad faith; it’s like biting into a tomato and asserting that the tomato tastes like honey, and then eating honey and saying it tastes like ginger, then chewing on ginger and saying the ginger tastes like sarsparilla, and at that point…” (22)

I’m quoting at length here because I want to; that’s how entertaining Tach is, even though the meta-sieverts on that passage are through the roof. When was the last time you read an intellectual’s theories and were entertained?And Northomb gives us not one, but two! The female journalist who takes Tach to task outmatches him. I won’t say what happens—suffice it to say that they both emerge changed and victorious. There isn’t a clear defeat, there isn’t a clear endorsement of either character’s position; it’s a conversation in the best sense of the word, a performance of the dialectic it dismisses. Mutual reading, mutual reading.

On the subject of reading, one of the deep pleasures of the novel is Tach’s solution to the problem of the brilliant author cast before crappy readers, “consumed” by the masses. He  says to one befuddled journalist that the “nec plus ultra of refinement is to sell millions of copies and never be read.” He argues that “there are a great many people who push sophistication to the point of reading without reading. They’re like frogmen, they go through books without absorbing a single drop of water…. Those are the frog-readers. They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life. I am so terribly naive. I thought that everyone read the way I do. For I read the way I eat: that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all. You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or caviar; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau. … the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state.”

Lovely, no?



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