Sort-of love story is slim and sad
In a novel, even a short one, we expect movement, change. Sometimes it’s in the story itself; other times it’s about character development; it can also just be about us, about being brought to a revelation through our experience of the work. Jean-Christophe Valtat’s “03’’ doesn’t have much of a story line. And its prose, characters, and insights, which are too often portentous and trite, fail to offset that deficiency.
In this novella, we are privy to the thoughts, remembered years later, of a nameless, immature French schoolboy in a small town as he finds an outlet from dead teenage conformity in an unexpected, secret, sort-of love for a fragile-looking girl with spiky black hair who is, and this is key, “slightly retarded.’’ Every morning they wait across the street from each other for their buses in an exurb where “those traffic lights at the crossroads . . . in my memories are always unwaveringly red.’’
The image is striking: two teenagers, alike in some ways yet polar opposites in others. But the book does not move much from there. The narrator watches the girl’s arrival with her mother each day, frozen in place for the perhaps 10 minutes it takes for the girl’s bus to arrive. And while he watches he is filled with memories and meditations on awkward and lonely scenes from his own life.
While he does become obsessed with her, his attraction to the girl is avowedly nonsexual. He wants to protect her; he gloats in being, he hopes, the only person who recognizes how beautiful she is.
Clearly the writing is meant to provide the thrills here, and as translated by Mitzi Angel, Valtat is certainly a bravura writer. The narrator’s thoughts circle in sentences that lilt and rock. He thinks, “[T]he more I wanted to identify with her, the more I identified with myself; and the more I tried to understand her, the less, necessarily, I succeeded.’’
Which leads to the book’s primary problem: Unhappy teenagers deserve their melodrama, but having to listen to all of the half-baked philosophizing and glib aphorism can get to be a bit much. When the narrator says, “everybody was a Russian doll of preserved abortions,’’ do you buy it or do you stop and giggle? Or take this observation:
“I’d prematurely hit on the ragged idea, stitched together as best I could, that sex was deeply connected to corruption, of both body and spirit, and that it violently held all the truth that should ever matter to any human being worthy of the name.’’
Also annoying, especially at the start, is the patronizing portrayal of the love interest as a “rough muddled draft of a child,’’ who is “[l]ocked in her state of unteachable ignorance’’ and will never grow up.
And it’s too bad, because when not pondering the Meaning of Life Valtat throws away stellar descriptions: a party where “the grown-ups talk and laugh, mouths full of salted peanuts,’’ a disabled child “waving good-bye by throwing up her arm, as if on a spring, her fingers held rigidly together.’’
Unfortunately, as the book progresses (or rather goes on) the vivid descriptions come to seem purposeless because the philosophical conclusions are so trite. The narrator realizes that he is as disabled, in his own way, as his love interest; in fact, he observes that “something in each of us was broken beyond repair.’’ Trite and impossibly inflated: In the end, that one skinny girl, still waiting across the street, becomes “the living effigy of everything we will never be.’’
Despite all that lyricism, the love interest remains opaque to the reader, and to the narrator. One wonders what she would think of him.
Danielle Dreilinger is a writer and editor in Somerville. She can be reached at email@example.com.