Friday, August 01, 2008

The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier

There are some books that I fall in love with because of character and voice (Owen Meany, The Giant's House, Harriet the Spy) but there are a handful of books that generate a different sort of love in me that runs even deeper. I think it's a more personal reaction to the feeling that the book creates--a sense that the world is big and strange and a little bit magic--the kind of feeling that one gets most often as a child. Franny and Zooey is that kind of book for me, as is Wind, Sand and Stars... and now so too is The Mystery Guest. Which is not to say that this short memoir by a vulnerable Frenchman who is invited to be the "mystery guest" at a famous artist's party by an ex-girlfriend who deserted him many years ago in a brutal way (that he seemed to deserve) is going to last as long as those books (who knows?) but that it generated a feeling of wonder in me that was really pleasing to find again. The book's strength is the author--a man who has taken to wearing turtlenecks all the time even though he hates men who wear turtlenecks--and his willingness to admit to how high the stakes are in seeing this ex-girlfriend again. And somehow in telling his own odd story he makes it okay to be human and frantic and a little bit weak--and in fact finds the beauty, the wondrousness, in those very qualities. Beginning writers often make the mistake of thinking a sense of universality comes from creating characters who are undefined (the better to fit your own shape into) but this book is a good example of how the exact opposite is true. I bear little resemblance to this author--not in life experience, not in philosophy, not in nationality, gender, etc etc--but he rendered his experience so clearly, so specifically, that it felt like my own. You want readers to recognize the truth in what you describe, not to have to insert their truth into it.

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