Mid-way through Christine Angot’s pioneering, genre-bending novel, Incest—originally published to shock and acclaim in France in 1999 and newly translated into English by Tess Lewis—Angot’s lover laments, “I think of love and I feel invaded.” Angot is known for using the facts of her life as the basis for her fiction, and it seems that to love her is, indeed, to invite a kind of invasion. (She was sued for literally “pillaging the private life” of a different lover’s ex-partner in her 2011 novel Les Petits). The line also evokes what it feels like to be immersed in Angot’s most taboo work, a cyclone of language and raw emotion that explores, among other things, an incestuous relationship with her father. There’s the sense that things—traditional narrative structure, linear time, and so-called “healthy” boundaries, to name a few—have been breached. It probes at ideas and emotions that feel untouchable. I think of this book, and I feel invaded.
The first and longest of the book’s three sections, titled “No Man’s Land,” drops us into Angot’s free-associative thought-spiral during the aftermath of her breakup from Marie-Christine Adrey, sometimes referred to as X, sometimes as MC or MCA, in a seemingly defiant nod toward protecting the innocent. After dating for three months—or in Angot’s phrasing, after having temporarily “contracted” homosexuality—some unexplained event has caused a rift. Angot copes by calling Marie-Christine incessantly to dissect their relationship, and ruminating on scenes from their time together in dizzying prose. “A lack of balance doesn’t scare me, there are others who can’t cope. Like her. People like her. Who have limits. I have none. Her, she has them. Me, I don’t. She can’t stand it. When things get so…neurotic.”
This neurosis is palpable throughout “No Man’s Land.” Certain images and trains of thought circle through the narrative like a carousel: lyrical, visceral descriptions of sex with Marie-Christine; mentions of Angot’s daughter, Leonore, who she often linguistically conflates with Marie-Christine (“I call Leonore Marie-Christine and I call Marie-Christine Leonore.”); Marie-Christine’s dog, Pitou; mysterious hatred for a woman named Nadine; water lilies, in an explicit homage to Charles Péguy’s theory of repetition: “It’s not the last water lily that repeats the first, it’s the first that repeats all the rest and the last.” The implication, of course, is that there’s some root to this apparently rootless turmoil, a first water lily that is only clarified by the ones that follow. The cyclical presentation of images in meant to provide understanding, but only in retrospect. More than once, Leonore is described as “the last water lily,” and the question naturally becomes: what, or more precisely who, is the first?
The answer doesn’t come as a shock, since the title never shies from being taken literally. The second section of the book, titled “Christmas,” starts to reexamine what came before in a more linear fashion, detailing the trigger that led to the unraveling of the narrator’s relationship with Marie-Christine. It hinges on Marie-Christine’s last-minute decision to spend Christmas at her cousin Nadine’s house, a change of plans that leaves Angot feeling abandoned—the makeshift family is forsaken for biological ties. Images from the first section begin to gather more context and depth: with disgust, she describes Marie-Christine’s loyalty to Nadine as that of a “lap-dog,” for example.
Interspersed throughout this section are elaborated clinical definitions of various psychoanalytic terms—paranoia, hysteria, madness. She links homosexuality and incest by citing them both as examples of “structural perversion.” When she defines madness as logic’s other, the non-linear jumble of events that comprised the first section comes to be seen, paradoxically, as a carefully constructed expression of insanity.
The third and last section (also the shortest, comprising roughly 50 pages of the book’s 200) finally takes us into the eye of the storm, and relates details of the incest that animated the previous action. Called “Valda Candy,” it’s what Angot is told to spit out before engaging in sex acts with her father, which she did periodically from the time of their first meeting when she was 14 until she was 26. The narration morphs into something more focused and urgent, bordering on lucid, which underscores her lament for the coherent self that could have been, had the incest not taken place:
It wasn’t his brains I was sucking, do you realize, I could have had very handsome men, I could have loved Nadine’s movies, I could have spent Christmas Eve with you…But no…I’m weeping like the dog that I am…Dogs are stupid, you can get them to suck on a plastic bone, and they’re stupid, dogs believe you. They don’t even notice what they’re sucking on. It’s horrible, being a dog.
It can take patience to stick with Angot through this structurally perverse expression of suffering. Early on, she describes calling Marie-Christine 200 times in the span of a few days “to see if she loves me to exhaustion, as she claims.” At times, the reader feels similarly tested when trying to make sense of the repeating images and narrative chaos. But submitting to the logic (or illogic) of Angot’s world ultimately gives the thrilling sense of having melded with another consciousness, since it requires an almost complete abandonment of your own—in another nod to incest, this book often feels like its own referent.
Given this utter singularity, to call it a novel, or even a work of autofiction, feels reductive, though I’m not sure of a better term to describe the book’s rolling boil of playful, poetic tangents, psychoanalytic definitions, and biographical details that can be verified by a quick Google search. But the very paradox inherent in autofiction—something that simultaneously announces itself as both true and false, so as to expose the limitations of both labels—makes it a fitting categorization for a work that revels in inconsistency, contingencies, and the self-aware dissolution of structural conceits.
Another label that inevitably comes to mind when considering this book is “confessional.” The word has come to have a pejorative slant, used to strip first-person accounts—particularly, first-person accounts written by women—of art and intention. But Angot’s writing reclaims the confession as a radical act—spiritual, even. The word captures her fevered desire to write as a form of absolution: “How I went insane, you will understand, I hope. And if it’s not enough I’ll write more books.” By performing her insanity, she forces us to make it our own, to taste the plastic bones that we suck on. At its core, Incest is a true testament to the subversive power of literature, in that it transmutes the violation of incest into connection with the reader. It the ultimate narrative and biographical paradox, it makes redemptive the thing that destroyed her.