Where Randomness and Madness Reign


Detective fiction and theory have a surprising history, one that I sometimes use to rationalize my childhood love of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. And I’m not alone: T.S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, and G.K. Chesterton were obsessed with popular mysteries. We like whodunits, Bertolt Brecht thought, because our lives are filled with structural problems and social contradictions that aren’t caused by single agents. Crime-solving sleuths, people like Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew, help us put back into place a system that no longer functions: it’s only in detective fiction that we start with a bunch of evidence, follow it rationally to a conclusion, and, in the end, apprehend a villain. Reading detectives, the thinking goes, helps us do what we can’t normally: piece together fragments, forming something coherent out of the madness.

Or at least, traditionally. Enter, then, Laurent Binet’s newest novel, The 7th Function of Language, a madcap sharply irreverent French theory mash-up that’s part mystery and part satire, by the Prix Goncourt winning author of HHhH. The new book turns Roland Barthes’s accidental death in 1980 into a murder investigation set against French intellectual life. With a cast of characters that includes Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva with guest appearances by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Umberto Eco, and John Searle, it’s no surprise Binet’s book is way more dizzying than most detective stories. What is shocking, though, is how it manages to respect the theories and mock the theorists all at once.

The question that prompts the book is simple: who killed Roland Barthes and why? On the case is Bayard, a grumpy inspector who’s more than a bit impatient with the posturing of French intellectuals (who can blame him?). Simon Herzog, his sidekick, shares more than initials with Sherlock Holmes; he’s a young semiology instructor brought on to help decode and interpret the case’s signs. Together, they navigate a blindingly bizarre and often raucous set of worlds: picture a chase scene through a gay sauna with Foucault, Bulgarian secret agents with possible ties to Kristeva, drug-riddled parties after the infamous Derrida-Searle debate, and even a Logos Club competition, which is the kind of intellectual fight club that Plato wishes he would have invented.

What the troublesome twosome learn along the way is that Barthes, just before he died, was working on the so-called (fictional) seventh function of language: the ability—first introduced by linguist Roman Jakobson—of language to persuade, convince, and seduce. In the novel, French intellectuals and politicians like socialist president François Mitterrand and his one-time opponent Valéry Giscard d’Estaing are all after the function for themselves.

But all of this —deciphering the mysteries of the seventh function and figuring out who killed Barthes—isn’t why you keep reading. Sure, mystery propels the book forward, though we’re certainly not going to get the clean resolutions Brecht thinks we want: The Seventh Function revels in a world where randomness and madness reign.

What really drives the book is Binet’s irreverence—Philippe Sollers is a loudmouth dandy, Foucault masturbates to a Mick Jagger poster, Umberto Eco gets urinated on by a stranger in a Bologna bar. All of this might lead you to think of Binet as a writer of long-form libel. But Binet’s cheek is grounded in a serious familiarity with and respect for the theories, if not the personalities, he uses to populate his book (a lot of the anecdotes are non-fictional, and he provides in-depth treatment of the philosophies at hand.) I bookmarked a page with titles of talks from a Cornell conference;  Searle’s giving one called “Fake or feint: performing the F words in fictional works,” while Spivak lectures on “Should the subaltern sometimes shut up?”

For all its lightness and raucous humor, The 7th Function can sometimes feel a little heavy handed, especially when it comes to the blurring of fiction and nonfiction.“ Life is not a novel,” the book begins, and a few hundred pages later after I’d started to ignore the self-aware interruptions of the narrator, the semiologist-sidekick Simon Herzog himself starts suspecting he’s in a novel, one by “an author unafraid of tackling cliches.” Maybe Herzog’s paranoia and distrust are the result of reading too much philosophy. I couldn’t help but feel, though, that the narrator was wearing brass knuckles spelling out “postmodern” and trying, repeatedly, to punch me in the face.

In spite of this, what’s most shocking is that Binet’s novel works, although perhaps more to draw attention to our mad, mad world than to help reconcile us to it as Brecht hoped—for that, we might need more than the fictional seventh function of language.

Renegade Political Fiction: ‘The Revolutionaries Try Again’

- | 1

In one of my favorite sequences of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, you see an editor splicing film offset with shots from the footage being cut. Normally, when we watch films, we take a series of unrelated shots and project causality between the images. Vertov, along with other montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, wanted to interrupt this process, forcing us to come to an overarching picture out of conflict and collisions. Simple narrative just couldn’t be revolutionary.

In The Revolutionaries Try Again, debut novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas writes renegade political fiction that would have made Vertov proud. Stream-of-consciousness and meta-fiction meet radio plays, phone conversations, and spliced up pop-lyrics. The tone varies as often as technique: pages and pages of interior monologue with no punctuation, enough em-dashes to look like line divides, sections entirely in Spanish, references to ABBA and The Exorcist alongside Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortázar. You’re never directly informed about what counts as revolution and who in particular is trying to achieve it. Instead, The Revolutionaries Try Again dissects a decade of Ecuadorian austerity and idealism through often jarring and always stunning literary montage.

Cardenas’s novel centers on three alumni of a Jesuit school in Guayaquil: a writer, a bureaucrat, and a playwright. Antonio left Ecuador over a decade ago for Stanford and is writing a memoir about a crying baby Jesus. His best friend Leopoldo, left behind in Guayaquil, takes a job with the pro-austerity government. As the novel begins, Leo has just persuaded Antonio to return to the city, and together they’re supposed to help a friend run for office, which never really happens. Meanwhile, we get oblique connections to their poor classmate, Rolando, who with his girlfriend Eva attempts to rouse people to action by staging a series of radio plays.

But all of this feels like an aside, and whatever revolution we thought would be staged isn’t.

No political campaign, no people taking to the streets. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is just as much an attempt to sort out why telling feels so futile: as a writer, as an undocumented migrant, as a person. Rolando never tells Eva that his sister was almost raped while working as a fifteen-year-old maid. Eva never tells Rolando about how her brother was abducted during her youth. Instead they have imaginary dialogues with the siblings they love but don’t speak to, replaying conversations that can’t, and won’t, happen. Nor are they alone. Leopoldo and Antonio are extremely close friends, but don’t have an easy emotional intimacy. Antonio dreams up, time and time again, what it will be like to see Leopoldo for the first time in over a decade, thinking about what he might like to say but won’t. What’s the point, the suggestion is, of recounting things when things can’t be adequately characterized by words?
To search for the source of his impulse to return to Ecuador by revisiting the night the baby christ cried was pointless, Antonio thinks, just as it’s pointless for him to teach English to immigrant women at El Centro Legal for one measly hour a week, photocopying pages from an ESL book at the last minute and hoping they would smile at him in gratitude, knowing he was fooling himself into believing he was being useful— if all the NGOS and nonprofits of the world ceased their activities, Antonio had asked a British art critic during their first date, would anyone notice?
Many things in the book are described as pointless: Antonio’s baby Jesus story and his tutoring, but also Rolando’s radio plays, Jesuits serving the poor (and, for that matter, the very existence of the lord above), and the unrealized political campaign that brings Antonio back to Guayaquil.

But what Cardenas does so adeptly in his debut novel is highlight conditions against which feelings of pointlessness emerge in the first place. Economic, political and social violence are senseless, and render us unable to tell neat linear narratives about injustice and protest. We’re left with montage, one that resists neat stories about revolutionaries taking on their oppressors, left with weeping statues of baby Jesus, rape, false accusations, and economic sanctions.

Amidst violence, one worries that words too will be twisted and appropriated to serve other ends. But silence is too easy, as Alma reminds Antonio: “I did say you’re an imbecile of course everything’s pointless we’re all going to die doesn’t matter we’re still here/ I’m still here.” That injustice may be here for a long time, is all the more reason that Cardenas’s book should too.