Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Translated from the French by Mitzi Angel
The unnamed narrator of Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03 is a seething mind. His thoughts, which comprise the novella’s uninterrupted, paragraphless soliloquy, obsess over such topics typical to any teenager: parents, school, ennui, alienation—the sort of lugubrious subject matter dealt with at length in padlocked diaries hidden beneath pillows or in the bottom of closets. What saves 03 from similar hormone-stricken confessionals is the curious eloquence of its narrator, who pronounces his mordant judgements upon the world with a strange combination of frustration and delight.
His muse is a girl he sees every morning across the road from his bus-stop, who he realises is ‘slightly retarded’. His attraction to her is complex, and he spends much of the book delineating, in lyrical passages, just how he has manufactured his feelings towards his unlikely idol. I use ‘manufactured’ advisedly, as the narrator openly admits that he doesn’t find the girl alluring out of any ‘natural emotion’ (quoting The Smiths’ “Nowhere Fast”) or sexual desire, but through a conscious effort on his part to create, in her, a symbol of rebellion against society and progress. This does not stop the narrator from calling what he feels ‘love’, but it is an intellectual love, an ideological love, as well as an original spin on youthful narcissism, since much of the girl’s appeal lies in her perceived similarity to himself.
No matter how much the narrator might rail against his dull suburb, Montperilleux (whose “facades grazed the eye like gravel against the knee”), or the parties he’d spend “glancing anxiously around the room, a smile plastered to my face like a dirty Band-Aid that had come half unstuck and that must soon be torn off in pain”, or even the world he lives in: “a bad copy of the original missing illustration and I was sure I was one of the mistakes you had to spot,” such targets are only parentheses, corpses powerless beneath his mortician’s knife. His true enemy, the source and object of all his resentments, cannot be so easily dispatched with an acid aside: the slow but steady passage of time itself.
The narrator sees something horrific in the relentless march of years, since with each one that passes he gets closer to entering the world as an adult, a world he considers indifferent at best, at worst, openly hostile. If the traditional Bildungsroman charts a course from innocence to experience, 03 describes experience retreating, searching for an innocence that can’t be found. Trapped as a Holden Caulfield, the narrator yearns to be a Billy Pilgrim. And so he sees in the girl across the street a refutation of time, an extended childhood, a ‘delay,’ a ‘latency or absence, like a clock left behind in an empty room, a page someone forgot to rip out of a calendar, the walking embodiment of jet lag’. His own potential that time destroyed has not yet been quenched in her:
“So while she was waiting there, frail to no end, like a signpost when they’ve torn off the sign, I saw all these possibilities in her that had become impossible, and I projected onto her fragility the immense waste of talent I was forced to observe every day in my closest friends and suffered a little bit too readily in myself, a waste that filled me with a vengeful bitterness and pride at having salvaged or developed a talent that would allow me to forget, even at the moment of giving up on them, my own irreparable limitations which, as they tightened within me, grew and grew.”
The above sentence is typical of the book: long and qualitative, as if treading water in time’s river, each additional detail trying to ‘delay’ a little longer. Time and disability emerge again and again as Valtat’s primary themes, no more concisely expressed than in one of the narrator’s anecdotes, “a young retarded boy asks his teacher if she wants to know the time, and without waiting for her reply he unzips his fly to reveal a watch he has strapped around his penis”.
03 sees Valtat consistently managing to snatch originality from the jaws of cliché, composing a brief but ruthless enfilade against such received ideas as ‘youth’ and ‘disability’ out of what is, essentially, yet another unrequited love story. The digressive, sometimes downright chaotic, thoughts and opinions he bestows upon his narrator originate from a sensitivity to the world that is, nevertheless, refreshingly lacking in sentiment. 03 has no saccharine sachets to offer; its prose stimulates as only straight black can.
The novella closes after a span of only a couple of minutes, but takes a couple of hours to read, and in that sense, the narrator has indeed won a small battle against the clock. But the victory is pyrrhic at best; the girl across the road is finally collected by her institution’s van, leaving him standing alone at his bus-stop, and deprived of their inspiration, his thoughts cease. As we come upon the final sentence, it is up to us to decide if time doesn’t also stop in the white silence after that last full-stop.