Hervé Le Tellier’s Anomaly – fun flight into the unknown
There must be something in the Perrier. French storytellers suddenly took Gallic existentialism into fabulist territory, but with good wine and a pretty decor.
In the recent novel by Antoine Laurain Vintage 1954, the inhabitants of a large Parisian townhouse are transported to the time of Edith Piaf thanks to a bottle of Beaujolais, while in Céline Sciamma’s spellbinding new film Little mom, a young girl befriends her own eight-year-old mother. And now Hervé Le Tellier flies away with The Anomaly, a story of transcendent turbulence, copied souls and more than a pinch of crazy Love, which won the Prix Goncourt 2020, the most prestigious literary prize in France.
The premise of this novel reads like a high level Hollywood pitch. An Air France Paris-New York flight lands at JFK airport in March 2021, carrying 230 passengers, after going through a terrible storm. Three months later it landed again. The same Boeing 787, the same passengers, at the end of the same four-legged journey. The CIA concludes that the mechanism of duplication was a monstrous cumulonimbus cloud on the east coast of the United States. The result: two sets of the same people.
The Passenger Manifesto allows for a fun casting of doubles. Among them, André Vannier, a successful architect in his sixties with a huge Haussmann apartment, and his young girlfriend Lucie Bogaert, film editor and single mother with a penchant for emotionally detached sex. There’s Blake, a hitman who runs a vegetarian restaurant, and Slimboy, a gay Nigerian afro-rapper. Among Americans, there is a traumatized child and a corporate lawyer. And then there’s Victor Miesel, a world-weary French novelist, who observes: “No one lives long enough to know how little anyone cares about anyone.
Miesel’s twin incarnations allow some digs on the Parisian editorial scene. After the first flight, he wrote a metaphysical bestseller inflected by Camus called The anomaly – the lowercase “a” remains unexplained – then throws itself from its balcony. Succeeding so late in the game is “a bit like having mustard finally served when you go to dessert,” notes its editor. But the second Victor is delighted with his semi-posthumous fame. It even revives her love life.
The different reactions to the phenomenon provide much of the comedy. Americans look to the Bible and the rack for remedies, while in France, the intelligentsia debates the situation on television, this country being “a country with a legendary concentration of media-savvy philosophers.” Religious leaders, politicians, mathematicians and various intelligence agencies all offer conflicting theories about the event, ranging from an act of God to terrorism. Most likely, however, is also most disturbing: that the duplicate flight represents a scratch in the veneer of reality, that humanity is experiencing in a simulation.
The second group of passengers are initially held in a military hangar, allowing authorities to observe “shifting anxieties in the oversized Petri dish.” Le Tellier wonders what each of us would do in front of his mirror self. His characters offer a variety of responses. The time lag between landings allows breakups, disclosures and deaths to occur in the meantime, creating unusual personal and practical issues. Can two wives share a husband? Should André rename his architectural firm Vannier, Vannier & Edelman?
In its assessment of the virtues of the real versus the virtual, the novel flirts with the current debate on the validity of the so-called metaverse. But he does it with the lightest of touches. Le Tellier juggles with dexterity between the theoretical and the comic. Likewise, Adriana Hunter’s fluid translation perfectly swings between French and American jokes, the personal and the universal, disparate characters and opposing timelines.
The novel’s unpredictable delivery – which includes song lyrics, interview transcriptions, and random typography – is guided by Le Tellier’s long-standing fascination with structural forms. Since 1992, he has been a member of the French cultural group Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) which encourages the use of constraints and artificial writing rules to reach new expressive heights.
Le Tellier’s previous novels have played with the idea of borders, tackling topics such as cryptology and infidelity. He used dominoes as the guiding principle behind the plot of Enough about love and created a narrative fresco from a series of short erotic stories in The Sextine chapel.
Although its waiting list is somewhat scarce, The Anomaly caused a sensation in France where Le Tellier has already sold more than a million copies. Its success at the Prix Goncourt underlines the difference between the European and English-speaking world of books. Such a playful novel – like an episode of The twilight zone co-written by René Descartes and Mel Brooks – would be an unusual candidate for the decidedly sober Booker Prize. The French, however, make no apologies in their appreciation of a fiery cocktail of magical thought, whimsical boredom and matters of the heart. The addition of Le Tellier to this growing subgenre is intoxicating.
The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated from French by Adriana Hunter, Michael Joseph £ 14.99, 336 pages / Other press $ 16.99, 400 pages
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