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The Anomaly US coverWhat is a genre? What is it for? In today’s hyper-marketised literary culture, it is tempting to respond that, first and foremost, a genre is a route to market: a label to attach to a product, so that audiences may find it. But these are also questions that in the “Western” tradition have kept critics’ fingers stained in ink for millennia, long before the commodification of the book. [1] In ancient Greece, Aristotle posited three genres: the lyric, the epic, and the dramatic. These came to be known as the “natural forms,” characterised by their respective focus on what in the nineteenth century Goethe expressed as enthusiasm, detachment and action. For centuries critics followed Aristotle in seeking to define genres rigidly, proposing fixed forms to which creative endeavour should properly adhere. At the end of the eighteenth century, the Romantics eschewed this as they did much else, replacing it with a not entirely helpful—but wholly characteristic—focus on individual genius, on the concept of great art as sui generis. Genre came to be seen as restrictive, narrowing, deadeningly conventional.

Enter, perhaps, Hervé Le Tellier, the current president of Oulipo—that largely Francophone literary movement whose members have since the middle of the twentieth century sought to create great art by producing limited texts. The Oulipian artist aims to arrive, via constraint, at work which is more creatively generative that it could otherwise have been. Where Le Tellier’s predecessors, such as Raymond Queneau or Anne Garréta often focused on manipulating text itself—in Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961), for instance, Queneau wrote ten sonnets with identical rhyming patterns and presented on a card split into fourteen strips, one per line, such that the reader could rearrange it in any shape they desired, while in the trail-blazing novel Sphinx (1986) Garréta set herself the task of refusing to gender either of her protagonists—Le Tellier has tended towards restricting himself modally: his novel Le voleur de nostalgie (1992) is a homage or tribute to the style of his fellow Oulipian, Italo Calvino; his critical work Esthétique de l’Oulipo (2006), meanwhile, investigates the linguistics, not merely the orthography (the lipograms or palindromes, for instance), of constraint.

In doing so, Le Tellier is the inheritor of that lively critical tradition which seeks to understand the forms of texts, and which Ann Imbrie suggests has reposited genre as expressing “human experience … though an identifiable form” (“Defining Nonfiction Genres,” in Renaissance Genres [Lewalski, 1986, p. 60]). The twentieth century played host to a wholesale reappraisal of the concept of genre, which sought to revise the Romantics without re-embracing the Aristotelian. The general direction of this work has been to detach genre from the Romantic and genreless ideal, instead emphasising the range and utility of genre’s various typologies. Genre has thus become a means of discussing the codes that pass between readers and texts, of the cues and clues that enable understanding. “[F]ar from being merely ‘stylistic’ devices,” the critic John Frow has recently offered by way of synthesising this turn, “genres create effects of reality and truth” (Genre , 2014, p. 2).

We begin, perhaps and at last, to approach the novel under review. The Anomaly is a million-selling, Prix Goncourt-winning, widely translated novel of Oulipo. It is a philosophical novel, a novel of ideas, a book that ends not with a bang but a calligraphic evaporation. It is, then, a paradox: wildly popular, it is also exactly the sort of “literary” novel that would ordinarily be read by only a very small number of fellow initiates. What alchemy has led it to such an unusual position in contemporary literary culture? Reader, it is genre.

The Anomaly’s constraint of choice is the generic. It proceeds, in alternating chapters that follow a range of different characters, through a series of settings and styles which evoke a range of popular fictional forms: the romance, the campus novel, the spy thriller, the crime story. These offer a series of familiar points of access to what is ultimately an experimental novel, reassuring the reader, even as the novel sends them plunging towards the unknown. Arching above all these various safety nets is a science fictional superstructure that in several chapters dominates: an Air France flight, carrying each of the novel’s characters plus 240 others, appears out of cloud above New York one day in June, and requests an emergency landing after experiencing a severe storm; the only problem is that the very same plane, with precisely the same passengers and the same crew, has already landed after a similar bumpy ride the previous March. The people on the June flight may be the originals—one character suggests that, if the phenomenon is similar to that of a photocopier, then one always retrieves the primary document after collecting the copy—or they may not be. But what either cohort certainly constitutes is the exact and inexplicable double of the other.

What results is much philosophising about the nature of the universe: what does the appearance of the aeroplane (and we learn later in the novel that it is not the first to split) demonstrate about the nature of existence? The brain trust assembled by the US government to explicate the emergency coalesces around the theory that the doubles could only exist in a simulated universe: that the simultaneity of two Air France 006s must indicate that the universe and everything in it is a program, running in the systems of an unimaginably more technologically advanced civilisation. The two flights are an experiment: what will simulations do when their simulated natures are revealed to them? How will they react?

Of course, the characters in The Anomaly are indeed simulacra, though not in the way they believe—they live inside a novel, not a computer. Perhaps this is why they are so blissfully unaware of how coded their lives truly are, how entirely limited they are to a set of expectations and regulations set not by themselves but by their author—indeed, by their reader. Take Blake, both the first character we meet and among the most rigidly generic. Blake is a sociopath with a talent for killing people effectively and undetectably; he is a contract killer whose earnings enable him to live an unsuspected double life in chic Paris as a restaurant owner and family man. He lives out his days in the barely believable chiaroscuro of noir: “Killing isn’t a state of mind,” we read, “it’s a leaning” (p. 3).

Blake’s first appearance is followed in short order by Victor Miesel’s. This underappreciated literary novelist and translator will be a familiar figure for anyone who has read one of the innumerable novels that exist about failed writers, and his own life resembles nothing more than the satirical Timothy Cavendish sections of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004)—itself, of course, a piece of generic play. Miesel’s underwhelmed, depressed, detached life is “mired in a horrible impression of unreality” (p. 21); our next protagonist, Lucie, is situated as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of an architect in his 50s who should know much better (“each [of his] pretty pronouncement[s] made their farewells all the uglier” [p. 31]); a man named David is receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis of a very familiar soapy kind (the doctor is even his brother), Joanna lives in a corporate legal drama (“do you know why I chose you above all the dickheads at Denton & Lovell?” [p. 64]); the Nigerian rapper Slimboy is simultaneously a figure from a Bret Easton Ellis skewering of celebrity and a tender Brandon Taylor novel about repressed homosexuality; the English academic Adrian Miller has pratfallen directly out of Lucky Jim (1957).

These introductions comprise the novel’s first part, and this opening phase of the novel concludes with the cast of characters, each plucked from a different genre, all with lives expressed according only to the codes of their specific literary ghetto, thrown together in a chapter titled “Spin Cycle.” They each board the fateful flight(s), and their registers are mixed together: Blake finds himself in a hangar with Miesel, Joanna with Slimboy; but the narrative drifts away from them (perhaps because to dwell too long on the crowd would require the breaking down of the generic boundaries that define its members, perhaps because Le Tellier is seeking to make a point about the impossibility of connection), and we begin instead to focus on the people seeking to make sense of their predicament (a Jodie Foster in Contact [1997], an Amy Adams in Arrival [2016])—their readers, perhaps. Predictably, many of those seeking to understand what has just happened reach to genre for ready-made scenarios:

A message buzzes on the cellphone of the man from National Security. He reads it and sighs.

“The president of the United States is insisting that the NSA check whether there was a Russian or Chinese ship near our Atlantic coastline on 10 March … that could have carried out a time travel experiment … ”

A peevish despondency washes over General Silveria. He leans his head against the window, gazes out over the hangar filled with harsh light.

“Where the hell did this plane come from?” he sighs. “You must have a theory, Professor Brewster-Wang?  Professor without a theory’s like a dog without fleas.”

“Really sorry, right now I don’t have any fleas.” (p. 134) [2]

What is interesting about this exchange, of course, is the uselessness of the generic in terms of describing the real. The comparisons come thick and fast: Dr. Strangelove, Arthur C. Clarke, Interstellar, Star Trek, The Matrix, Black Mirror … they are all namechecked by those involved, waypoints on the route to understanding. But none quite do the job. The passengers, held in a hangar and interviewed by intelligence agents, are asked the questions included in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, forcing Victor—as aficionado of Spielberg—to demand, “What kind of idiot wrote this questionnaire?” (p. 157); yet later, as he seeks to make sense himself of the situation, Miesel finds himself scrawling in his notebook the line, “An attempt at exhausting an improbable place.”

Wait, no. Why walk in Perec’s shadow? Why does he never break free of influences and tutelary figures? Why, when he’s not afraid of being an impostor, is he just a little boy on a quest for accolades? (p. 171)

It’s impossible not to read something autobiographical here, from one Oulipian to another; but more importantly Miesel, too, is struggling to represent reality without reference to—without use of—the artificial. At another point, Blake—escaped from the hangar and tying up the loose ends of his improbable doubled life—reflects that “this setting … wouldn’t be out of place in the series Dexter” (p. 217), an almost too on-the-nose bout of self-aware self-referentiality. Le Tellier, too, indulges: at one point, agents listen into a conversation in a language they do not speak, and rely on autogenerated captions. These translate one character’s desire for a coffee—“Americano”—into a nonsense homophone, “A merry car, no?” This kink for homophony is quintessentially Oulipian, the most famous example of which is François Le Lionnais’s rendering of Keats’s “Endymion” (1818): “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” becomes, “Un singe de beauté est un jouet pour l’hiver” (“A beautiful monkey is a toy for winter”). We are all built of reference.

The Anomaly UK coverThe Anomaly is full of this reflexive stuff—we’re never clear if the novel written by the Miesel who landed in March, entitled L’anomalie, is also Oulipian, but it’s a fair guess—and of course there is a further flourish for the present reviewer in reading a translation of the original novel, from French to English. Adriana Hunter’s prose here is gloriously free-flowing—there is none of the awkwardness or rigidity that can come with translation. So apparently translucent is Hunter’s work, one would imagine this novel to have been written in English from the off—hers is a remarkably supple and convincing rendering. But we should not be fooled. In May 2021, Paris’s Maison de la Poésie hosted a roundtable featuring Le Tellier and nine of his translators, including Hunter. “You realize when you’re a writer that you don’t think of your translators,” confessed Le Tellier, though with this novel he produced a Google Doc against which all of them could ask questions and crowd-source solutions. Nevertheless, the event began with a reading of the novel’s opening line, “Tuer quelqu’un, ça compte pour rien,” and it quickly became clear that these few words alone were trouble enough; the compromises only pile up across the pages.

The Anomaly, then, is a tricky text for all sorts of reasons, many deliberate, some dependent upon whether a given reader has French, some to do with Le Tellier’s own oversights or mistakes (is it really so revolutionary in the hyper-narrativized year of 2022 for Miesel to wonder, on behalf of this and his own novel, “how many simultaneous stories would a reader consent to follow?” [p. 173]). Ultimately, however, its status as a textual conundrum emerges from its subject: ineffability. The question the novel seeks to answer—how does one represent the world, how might art approach radically different realities—is fundamentally science fictional, in the sense that SFF is as a genre not primarily about form or structure, but its thematic content, the sorts of questions with which the genre has come to be associated. [3] The Anomaly asks questions, and interrogates the nature, of reality. It posits universes and intelligences beyond our own (and our ability to represent them). This is the SFnal element which The Anomaly most employs: not rocket ships or wormholes, but the manner in which SF enables such unusually superposed considerations of the existential.

Le Tellier’s characters meet their doubles, and their reactions run the gamut: fellow-feeling, aggression, self-negation. In one memorable set piece, two are guests on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Le Tellier isn’t always at his surest with American culture, which, as the global hegemonic frame of meaning, is this novel’s dread gravity, and his distance from it can leave the novel occasionally mouthing bromides such as, “[t]here have always been two Americas, and now they don’t understand each other” (p. 278). The Late Show episode is great, however, for two reasons: Le Tellier more or less nails Colbert’s waspishly courtly persona, even finding a place for the comic’s improvisational training; and it ends with a producer intoning a line that might go for the whole novel, and which seems to me key to its approach to representation. “Fuck, this is good TV” (p. 294).

Because the genre The Anomaly ultimately chooses is the prestige television drama. This form has long since—like Le Tellier—cannibalised a range of popular genres to arrive at hybridised forms that contain a little unreal SF, a little hard-boiled true crime, a soupçon of soap, and so on. This proliferation of new generic forms—the way in which dominant genres can give rise at their fuzzy edges to new ones—is an important element of the contemporary understanding of how genre—neither natural form nor artistic dead-end—functions. Genres are not static, but dynamic. They generate new forms almost constantly. In The Anomaly, Le Tellier employs genre to demonstrate how this mirrors our own attempts to represent ourselves. How better to do so than adopt today’s primary expression of popular fiction: serialised TV drama? [4]

The novel’s central conceit, and the majority of its referents, are SFnal; its central questions, and final limitations, are redolent, too, of the genre; but its frame—the manner in which it makes itself plausible to us—is that of the television screen. If the genres in which the various characters live their lives are insufficient to the task of explaining the extraordinary circumstances they live through, their readers are at the same time beguiled and disarmed by these self-same familiar forms. Beneath all Le Tellier’s play, the novel’s central question—who are we (or, in fact, what are its characters)?—makes demands of all methods of artistic representation, and tests the limits of each. In this, The Anomaly is a self-consciously limited novel about the limitations of novels. On its final page, the text breaks down in the face of an event that is “difficult to describe”: the sentences on the paper break up and disappear, until there is only one character per line, the final three of which read “end.” It is a fitting close to a novel that asks whether it is possible not just to represent but access whatever reality in which we find ourselves. What is a genre? It is a code, a key, a legend. It is an attempt—incomplete, partial, and yet vital—to encompass a world.

Endnotes

[1] It is important to note the similarities and differences between this and other critical traditions. In one of the best comparative studies of fiction theory, for example, Ming Dong Gu has noted that, “contrary to the Western view of fiction as arising from epic and romance, traditional Chinese fiction theory considers fiction as evolved from street talk and popular gossip (“Theory of Fiction: A Non-Western Narrative Tradition,” [Narrative, 14:3, 2006, pp. 312-3]. This has serious implications for the development of genre in each tradition. Gu argues for the inter-relation of Western and non-Western critical forms, but also stresses the need for sensitive readings across cultures, giving the example of the utility and limitations of the Canadian critic Northrop Frye, whose “five fictional modes are derived from the entire history of European fiction in its poetic, dramatic, and prose fictional forms. [… But this] domination by one fictional mode to the exclusion of other modes is not to be found in the Chinese tradition” (pp. 331-2). Texts should be read in context, and this review makes no claims for universality. [return]

[2] Le Tellier seems to have assumed Donald Trump would win the 2020 presidential election—certainly his commander in chief does not resemble Joe Biden. “The American president sits openmouthed,” we read, “showing a marked resemblance to a fat grouper with a blond wig” (p. 162). The novel’s events take place, then, in an alternate 2021; proof, perhaps, that we do not after all live in quite the darkest timeline. [return]

[3] Focusing on a genre’s functionalities, rather than its surface features is commonplace in contemporary criticism. In suggesting that a genre can best be characterised by form, structure, and theme, I’m following in particular John Frow, for whom form describes the common shapes in which a genre appears – the novel, for example, or film—while its structure comprises the rhetorical mechanisms it most often deploys. Theme, of course, is self-explanatory: genres exhibit common concerns across a range of works—freedom or liberty in the Western, for instance, corruption and society in crime fiction, and so on. (See Frow, Genre, pp. 79-83.) Other schema are available. [return]

[4] Perhaps inevitably, a French television company, 247 Max, has optioned the novel and plans an internationalised adaptation. Recursive, nous? [return]



Dan Hartland’s reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
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26 Sep 2022

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