Novels can do a myriad miraculous things, but they can’t do everything. For example: it’s impossible to faithfully represent human consciousness on the page. There are better and worse ways to make the attempt—David Foster Wallace’s footnotes being a remarkably successful example—but the enterprise is doomed to failure. Humans don’t, for one, think only in words; we also think in pictures, in temperatures, in moods. And even if we did, there would be little more than novelty value in faithfully recording every piece of stray language that floated through a person’s brain. Even an author with no respect for narrative has to contend with the limits of the reader’s attention span.
This news is neither big nor bad; after all, carefully reproducing the noise inside a human skull is certainly not a primary—or even secondary—goal of many excellent novels (Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is a recent example; his characters, even his teenagers, are shockingly convincing, despite the author’s fairly traditional formal choices). But it is worth mentioning because it is a primary concern—and a primary player in the downfall—of Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03, which takes the form of an 84-page paragraph, the interior monologue of a brilliant but bored teenager stranded in a French suburb without a car or even a scooter (“sexual prostheses,” he calls them) to motor away in.
The prospect of inhabiting the mind of the adolescent male—even for only the length of a novella—is not necessarily a pleasant one, but Valtat’s unnamed protagonist is no hormone-addled meat-head. He listens to Joy Division; he wonders about the potential benefits of having deaf parents; he ponders the significance of naming an institution for the disabled “flowering rock”; he obsesses over a “slightly retarded” girl.
It’s this last which consumes most of his thoughts. Every morning he sees his beloved as each waits for a different bus, separated by “a few dismal meters of asphalt road, which looked the same from both sides but which clearly pointed in two opposite directions.” He watches her, schemes various ways to actually meet her. Descriptions of her eyes abound: they are “black as the inside of closed fists,” “two fingers … punched through a paper mask.” Slightly more disturbing is the image that emerges of her body: she is “thin as could be”; “her jeans, meant for seven- or eight-year-olds at most, yawned and creased around an intangible absence of buttocks”; “hips or breasts … would have been overdecoration on a body like hers.”
Still, the narrator is no pervert; he wants no sexual contact with her—though he acknowledges, with disgust, the possibility that others might. Instead he is drawn to her fragility, her vulnerability her purity. He wants to protect her, to be her “sole and watchful guardian.” She is his refuge from the world of adults—a world in which he has found success, but not happiness.
In this sense she is perhaps the manic pixie dream girl par excellence: a girl quirky enough not to be mainstream but not too weird to be adorable, who exists only to save the (usually obnoxious) male protagonist from self-generated ennui. She’s the Natalie Portman to his Zach Braff. Only in this case, the archetype has been carried to its disturbing but nevertheless logical conclusion: This girl actually has no personality, no desires, no ambition of her own, because she has the mental capacity of a child.
Problematically misogynistic elements of this imaginary love affair aside, it—and the largely dubious philosophical musings interwoven throughout—plays out on the page as more confusing than disturbing. The reader’s discomfort is soothed by narrator’s self-awareness (he calls himself a “toad” at one point) and his genuine—if narcissistic—empathy for her (he identifies with her inasmuch as she is “a reflection of [his] own failure to fit in”).
It’s the author’s commitment to a weak sort of stream of consciousness that ultimately makes the novel a tedious, if short, read. Preserving all grammatical conventions save the paragraph break creates far more problems than it solves, stilting the style rather than freeing it. Transitions are jarring or ham-fisted or both; the weaknesses in the narrator’s arguments are more glaring; lovely moments of revelation are jerkily arrived at; its impossible to find a good place to put the damn thing down.
One begins to wish two thing: that it was shorter, and incorporated into longer text—a digression rather than the main argument—so that the success of the entire endeavor wouldn’t rest so heavily on one formal maneuver. Certainly there are phrases to be savored and saved. Describing his frustration trying to find a good record in his boring town, the narrator explains, “it was preordained—as if by a kind of plot to make you give up hope—that you wouldn’t find anything that lifted a corner of the veil within a hundred kilometers.” His neighborhood is “a hostile suburb, with its looping roundabouts, its homes with façades that grazed the eye like gravel against the knee.” He correctly diagnoses adolescent “team spirit” as something “which sometimes makes ‘Hitler Youth’ seem no more than a tautology.”
It’s these snapshots that stay with you, long after the narrator’s mediocre musings on spontaneous feelings, childhood’s facile “innocence,” adolescent suicide and sexuality have faded. You want to remind yourself that he’s just a kid, that he’s necessarily an amateur. It’s a perfectly good excuse for the narrator; the author shouldn’t be allowed to get off so easy.