I’ve been intrigued by the contemporary French writer Eric Chevillard ever since Francois Monti called him “France’s foremost absurdist” in The Quarterly Conversation. And then, when I went to France, it seemed that his books were everywhere, and I even saw them in student bookstores as assigned reading in classes.
So now I’ve finally made good on my will to read Palafox, one of two of Chevillard’s books to have been translated. (He’s written 15 or so of them.) This one was done in 2004 by the critic (and translator) Wyatt Mason, where it joined The Crab Nebula, that one in 1997 in Jordan Stump’s translation for Bison Books.
In The Quarterly Conversation, Francois characterizes Chevillard’s aesthetic as, in part, “rambling about an absurd idea until the cows come home,” and this is indeed what he does in Palafox. The idea here is a creature called “Palafox” that is indefinable because he (we at least know that much) never exists in the same state for very long. The book seems to exist simply to describe his exploits and those of some humans who try to keep him as a pet and study him. Yet the whole thing is shot through with continuous nonsense and illogic. The book simply leaps from one strange set-piece to another, seemingly at random, until Palafox finally meets his demise.
The book opens with Palafox’s chicken-like hatching on the dining room table during lunch. Like everything about Palafox, his birth seems to come from nowhere for no reason. There is no mention of eggs on the table other than the one Palafox is born from, and, in fact, Chevillard makes it sound as though Palafox’s egg is conjured from the table conversation: “The war was mentioned, then the conversation turned to a looming marriage, and then to eggs when Palafox burst out and in.”
What manner of beast Palafox is is never made clear, and, in fact, the descriptions of him constantly contradict each other, frequently in the same paragraph and even in the same sentence. Thus, for instance, we learn “One morning at dawn, he made his cry heard, which is to say, a sort of chirping, or more of a meowing, or more of a barking, or more of a lowing, well, that’s almost it, a roar, or more exactly a trumpeting, yes, that’s the word, a sort of chirping.” You can get a sense of the logic of Chevillard’s book from this sentence–note how he seems to be leading you in one direction, with all of those “more of/more exactlys” appearing to narrow down the definition of Palafox’s cry, before the whole edifice is undercut by the return to “chirping” at the end.
This book is full of such easy reversals and leaps of thought (at one point Palafox resembles an insect; at another he eats a couch; at another, he wins first prize in a dog show), yet it would be wrong to call this narrator unreliable because the word doesn’t have any meaning when dealing with a book like Palafox. There is no reliable or unreliable narrator here because there is no evidence that anyone or anything in this book feels any need to obey the laws of sense or rationality. The terms reliable and unreliable simply don’t have any meaning in the context of this book.
For instance, let’s go back to page one:
The day comes, though, when one can non longer grow in one’s egg. Palafox was running out of room. Around the table, by contrast, they maneuvered through more comfortable confines, each too far from the other to land a fork accidentally in an eye, bottles serving as buffers too. The war was mentioned, then the conversation turned to a looming marriage, and then to eggs when Palafox burst out and in. Nonetheless, while extending an arm, Maureen could have easily and unambiguously gouged out her father’s eye or that of her future husband for that matter . . .
Why on earth would the narrator let us know that Maureen and company were sitting close enough to gouge out one another’s eyes where there is absolutely nothing to indicate that they would ever do such a thing? There is no sense to it–the fact that they might gouge out each other’s eyes is one of those “facts” that generally goes unsaid, just as the facts that they were sitting close enough to stomp each other’s feet, or scream into one another’s ears, or eat each other’s food. It’s just an incidental detail, just to let you know, and it’s completely unnecessary to say 99.99% of the time. Only in the rarest situation would you imagine that tablemates would do something like this, and even in that .01% of the time, when the fact that tablemates might gouge out each other’s eyes is pertinent, such a fact probably wouldn’t need stating because the tension would already be clear enough.
Palafox is full of strange detail such as this, detail that might mean something or nothing. For another example, take this string of sentences:
There aren’t many performing fleas left, Olympia notes. Generally speaking, the quality of primary education isn’t much to speak of these days. Most nine-year olds can barely read. Then there’s the question of recruitment, Algernon observes. I don’t have an explanation but there seems to be a stunning paucity of fleas these days, even though the blood of our fathers, which used to delight them, still flows through our veins.
If you look at it from the right angle, it almost makes sense; something about the blood of the fathers that they fleas should still like having to do with the recruitment of the military, which perhaps is dependent on the state of education in France. All throughout this book, there are moments like this where you are tempted to impose some sort of sense on it, because sense seems ever so close. But I think when reading Palafox one must resist the temptation of sense, for that would be to take the book on our own terms instead of the book’s. Or, to put it another way, what to make of a sentence like: “To butter a bovine, we drive the thought out of mind, Palafox on the other hand cultivates it when it comes, he makes a single mouthful of the bee and its honey, the chicken and her egg, the grape-picker and his bunch.” This sentence makes some sense in the context (Palafox is rampaging over a farm), but I can’t imagine another context in which it would ever make sense. It only works insofar as it’s a part of this book, and so any reading of it should work solely on the level of logic within Palafox, whatever that logic may be.
I am not precisely sure what I think of Palafox, because it is an exceedingly difficult book to summarize or to impose a reading on, but I think the book has something to do with seeing sense as a relative phenomenon. Just because something makes sense halfway through chapter 2 doesn’t mean that that same kind of sense is going to hold up in chapter 3, or even a little further on in chapter 2.
I think the book also says a thing or two about the kind of fun that can be had with book in ways other than the typical ones–plot, characterization, etc. The fun to be had in Palafox is more along the lines of that spark of pleasure found in a well-aimed cutting remark, or in that spark of insight when, after looking at a painting for 10 minutes, you suddenly realize you’ve just seen something (but then immediately wonder if what you’ve seen was really there).
This book has been called a part of non-realist fiction, and this seems to be a decent, if perhaps too broad category. The book, to my mind, is a playground for a stylist to see what he can do with a toy he’s named “Palafox”; it’s a book meant to be entertainment in a way that books normally don’t entertain. If there is any deeper meaning, or if anyone could give a reading of the book as a whole–I don’t know. I’d certainly like to see someone try.
As a final coda to this, I’d like to ask if anyone knows of recent books in American fiction that try to do anything along these lines. This certainly isn’t the kind of book pushed in American publishing, or even many American MFA programs.