In the compact, claustrophobic stories of All My Friends, Marie NDiaye, the French novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt, explores issues of selfhood, consciousness, and memory. Here is a story collection of isolation, a point made painfully clear by the volume’s title story, where the narrator’s relations with his “friends” are at best ambivalent, caught between his desire to connect, understand, and love, and his need to preserve his isolation and pride. Remembering his wife and children, who abandoned him after he committed an unnamed crime, the narrator reflects:
My wife and children made an ally of my house, where they once lived, where they no longer live…. I must neither fear my house nor beg it to forgive me for being alone. I am the master of my house.
Objects become imbued with an uncanny consciousness, while NDiaye’s characters chafe against the facts of physicality, uneasy and even horrified by their own bodies and limited minds.The five stories in All My Friends work through a carefully controlled process of excision, and reading them is like being gripped in an exquisite vice. NDiaye’s characters are constantly failing to reach any insight into themselves or others. Their consciousness is like a thin film that obscures their inner lives far more than it reveals them. In “Brulard’s Day,” an aging actress fighting off the signs of failure that are painfully evident in her changing body and her cheap clothing sees her younger self around every corner, appearing from thin air to mock her. She is waiting in a hotel in the mountains for a lover whose defining feature is his absence, but the person who finally meets her there is not her lover but the husband who she detests for the many ways that he resembles her. Unable to love either her husband or herself, Brulard focuses on the unforgiving physicality of their existence, condemning the cheap loafers she is wearing and her husband’s faux leather jacket, convinced that these physical markers define a life more surely than love, dreams, or ambition.
In “The Death of Claude Francois,” the successful Doctor Zaka returns to her childhood home to visit Marlène Vador, an old friend (perhaps an old lover). Zaka and Vador are bound together by a childhood vow: to honor and remember the pop star to whose long-ago death the title refers. Only Vador, however, has kept her promise, turning her apartment into a shrine to him. Zaka means to show Vador the daughter who looks uncannily like her, but the girl goes missing from the grass outside Vador’s apartment complex. When she is finally found after a despairing search, her eyes are “shining with an enthusiasm and a gaiety she’d never seen before.” And without revealing the source of the daughter’s joy, the story ends.
While NDiaye’s persistent technique of excising and suppressing important information gives the stories their gripping effect, the same device, at times, opens up the narratives in such a way that they just barely skirt the surreal and the fantastic. At times this takes a turn for the nightmarish, as in “The Boys,” one of the most disturbing stories in this collection, in which a pair of country boys are sold as “companions” for rich older women. One boy sends pictures back to his family depicting his new life in pornographic detail that is so vivid it seems to leech all color and individuality out of the landscape of his home. The second boy, René, denies himself food, and dreams of being purchased himself, reflecting that, although he is desperate and ugly, he would even be willing to go for free. Seeing his father doing repairs at the house of his neighbors, newly enriched from the sale of their son, René tries to avoid his gaze, only to realize that “his father hadn’t recognized him, hadn’t even noticed him,” so completely has René succeeded in disappearing.
But the spareness of NDiaye’s storytelling also offers, at times, a surprising generosity to her reader, as when Doctor Zaka’s daughter, Pauline, appears as if out of thin air in “The Death of Claude Francois,” beaming with a joy that is completely unaware of her mother’s despair. In these moments the stories become love stories as much as they are of psychological collapse: not romantic love, but a compassion that offers the characters a tantalizing escape from their own mental prisons. Finding her daughter after believing she was lost forever, Zaka finally becomes aware of her daughter as a being with her own experience of the world, rather than as an extension of her mother’s ambition. In stories that are so often focused on pain, loneliness and confinement, NDiaye presents her readers with evidence of the vast, strange, unknowable world beyond the limits of her characters’ consciousness.