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.