Bordas, Camille. How to Behave in a Crowd. Tim Duggan, New York, 2017. F;8/17.
Sometimes I start a book and don’t like it, and then I get captured. Other times I get excited by a wonderful beginning and end up disappointed. This one was a kind of combo of the two: ordinary at the start, then some pretty exciting intellectual and emotional fireworks in the middle. Although in the end this French Mediterranean soup wasn’t quite fully satisfying, overall there was plenty to savour.
Bordas is writing in her second language: she’s French, and the brilliant and unusual family we follow through the story lives in France. But this isn’t French lit in translation, she lives in the US, writes in colloquial American English, and admits she has trouble with slang which, she tells us correctly, is nuanced, micro-regional, and in and out of style. Who would say “I’ll take a raincheck” seriously, who ironically, and who would never use an old shoe like that at all? Who would call someone’s hair “snatched”, and who would think it referred to a different part of the anatomy?
Our hero Isadore is twelve years old, and sees himself as the lame duck in a family of older academic geniuses. They all either have PhDs or are on their way to one or to writing a piece of serious classical music. Nerds, not devoid of social skills, just not the least bit interested (the girls are all gorgeous). “The only thing I was good at was holding my breath” Izzie says about himself.
His 13-year-old sister Simone effortlessly deconstructs everyone around her while maintaining the high opinion of herself necessary to prepare for the Ecole Normale Supérieure:
“… personality is overrated. I can only ever use the word as a joke. It’s a good thing to believe you don’t have a personality and a mistake to try to build one, I think. That’s how people become fake… I’m real and everyone else on the playground is fake”
One brother is a classical musician, the other a sociologist, both older sisters are in graduate school working on and presenting dissertations in arcane subjects. Mum is a straightup realist (“The memories you make as you get older… have a certain flatness. And a veil.”). Dad (referred to as “the father”) is absent, working at a slightly mysterious job that involves a lot of travel.
Until he dies. Then each family member grieves in their own way. Isadore starts running away from home, but always returns. On one of his escapes, he spends the night and has sex with an older girl who had come to visit his family on an exchange, and of course been humiliated by his sister. Although the sex isn’t that big a deal for Izzie it impresses his older brothers and others at school. A nonconformist like his siblings, Izzie connects at school with Denise, an outcast, eating-disordered, depressed and on medication, and viciously negative. She says of another boy in their class, “… there’s a bit of progress: last time he spoke to me, he looked at my shoes instead of his”.
But Izzie starts reading to his mother at night after the father dies because she misses someone to talk to. He befriends his oldest brother and helps him understand problems he’s having with his PhD thesis involving observations of his own family in grief. Sister Berenice remarks at one point telling Izzie to praise the other older sister “You’re the only person whose opinion matters to any of us anyway”.
Izzie, gradually growing more confident in his own significance, begins to reflect on and understand life’s strangeness, taking it in stride in a way that reminded me of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. I was also reminded of my high school years where, maybe in precocious anticipation of the later 1960s, we affected reflection and intellectuality as an approach to dawning realities about money, sex, selfishness, cruelty, and the banality of adulthood that our adolescence had protected us from. A picture of a different side of my youth than I saw in Thirteen Reasons Why.
Some of the reflection of characters (particularly the youngest sister Simone) in this story impressed me, after being bemused in the early pages by the humorous but jumbled ideas of 12-year-old Izzie. A preoccupation with pre-enlightenment Spanish science (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) illuminated my conviction of how chilly modern science fails to deal with experience. Simone talks about a funnel which “represents our lives” to illustrate narrowing choices that occur as one makes irrevocable decisions which as Frost would say “(make) all the difference”. Little by little, she says, “you get sucked to the bottom.”
Preferable, she thinks, is “melancholy” as it was used in medieval Spain. Not sadness, but “(throwing) away the meaningless parts (of a present experience) and writ(ing) better versions of it”. Using and in fact living in the imagination, in other words. The musician brother says of works of art “if you’re doing it right, the hardest thing to do for an artist should always precisely be the one he’s working on.” I wish I had the nerve to live like that.
But packed with that kind of insight, this story is also awkward. Izzie has a conversation with the oldest woman in the country and they disagree, he insults her, and she has a stroke. It’s comical in its exaggeration, but doesn’t have the same clarity about its role in the characters and story that the family’s insights have. PLOT ALERT Darkly deeply comical Denise is set up as suicidal through everything she represents and then indeed does herself in. END PLOT ALERT. Her relationship with Izzy feels like a loose end.
Bordas’s access to a reader (this one anyway)’s imagination is indirect: the goodies appear unannounced and don’t necessarily have much of a relationship to one another. She’s no stylistic Nabokov or Borges writing in her second language, and the plot and characters don’t pull together to leave a coherent dramatic impression for me. But there are enough delicious chunks in this bouillabesse that the indifferent mise en place and thin soup don’t completely spoil the fun.
7.9-8.8 (content is varied hence the range)/8.4.