A Life on Paper
By Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Small Beer Press
Reviewed by Gabriel Blackwell
Finnegan’s Wake’s famous last words merge with its first, taping its Möbius strip shut with an orphaned article only coupled in beginning again. However many times you cross that gap, thinking you might find something new, it is always but one surface. You travel in a loop. Cortázar’s Hopsctoch invites the reader to skip along, mapping one possible route in its printing and another in its introductory note: whether you take one route or the other, the words don’t change, new routes don’t appear. Queneau might have conceived of “One Hundred Million Million Poems,” but he only wrote ten. Set in type, the story or book immediately enters the world of the past: a dimmed and scarred synapse once literally electric, it lives for only so long as it is recalled in the mind of its reader. Life, it seems, goes on. For their readers, books and stories may or may not end with their last words, but those words define an endpoint nonetheless, a station beyond which service terminates. And though you’ll never see him request the stop, this is where Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud gets off.
In the story “A Room on the Abyss,” a young boarding student forgets he has learned to read and, remembering the skill, gets a peek over the edge of the title’s abyss. At first, though, far from fearing it, he exults in it:
[Fox’s] mother once showed him a book, written by a certain Mr. Fox, whose hero also has red hair and is named Carrot Top. Carrot Top is precisely what the young boarder’s bullies call him. So, elsewhere, in a world beside our own, he’d be the hero of a story? Perhaps one day, when he’s learned to read, opening the book like the door to the house where he was born, he’ll go home.
Fox perhaps Châteaureynaud (he seems to be a redhead gone gray), perhaps not, but eschewing the At-Swim-Two-Birds angle (books as doors, characters not confined by their pages), Châteaureynaud spends most of this collection not opening books but shutting them. The lives on paper here are sewn through the fold, bound, given their colophon and their last word. If these characters sometimes seem to treat endpapers and jackets as part of the manuscript, well, that isn’t exactly something we haven’t seen before, is it? No matter. If these characters refuse to die when they ought to, Châteaureynaud will simply have to kill them again. Unlike O’Brien’s unnamed student, Châteaureynaud is not interested in allowing his characters life beyond the page. Instead, he expends his energy making the lives lived in his stories more lively. A taxi driver finds a street that does not seem to exist and spends the rest of his life trying to revisit it. A man goes back in time to kill himself, exploiting the identity transformation loophole in the grandfather paradox. A severed head lives on after death, its executioner in a moral quandary as to the ethics of killing a man twice. A soldier wakes to find himself tattooed with the word “mortal,” the brightness of its hue waxing and waning with his circumstances. An apparent corpse trying to leave the cemetery with his grieving cortege is turned back at the gates. This is not life as we know it. Often as not, it’s not even life, properly speaking.
In a story like “La Tête,” with a manservant/nurse named Edgar and a patient named Riven (carefully spelled out and delineated by the errant vowel “i” evermore), Poe comparisons are anticipated, even mocked. Relatively forgotten as a humorist, Poe was as often serious as he was sober, which is to say, not often, but this is Poe shot through with an oddly cheerful crankiness more reminiscent of Robert Walser than “X-Ing a Paragrab,” or “The Balloon Hoax.” Poe’s occasionally corrosive acerbity doesn’t mar this collection—rather, the even tone is Walser’s “gentle and courteous bit of fun,” if death was the target. Death, implicit or explicit, lives in every single one of these tales. But it is not a death out to threaten with the void or worse of the beyond. If the death in these stories is a form of punctuation, most of them are run-on sentences. Still, like the last period (or lack thereof: Joyce’s “the”) of a story, though inertia may carry the reader some distance further, friction always carries the day.
Another, slightly more discreet homage to Poe (and, through its ever so slightly schizophrenic take on him, Walser), “The Pest” is a through-the-looking-glass look at “William Wilson” where we are never quite sure which side of the mirror we’re on. This is a position in which Châteaureynaud delights in putting his readers. See, for instance, “The Beautiful Coalwoman,” where we seem to have crossed over to the other shore long before the death of our hero, or “The Styx,” where we start with the death of the narrator and watch him as he tries to regain his place in his family, even while making his own funeral arrangements.
So many of Châteaureynaud’s voyages are Stygian, we begin to wonder about those that seem at first read not to be, as in “Sweet Street.” Having decades before experienced bliss there, the taxi driver of “Sweet Street” jumps at the chance to return. But as we suspect it will be, Sweet Street is changed:
Dora [the woman the taxi driver spent his one night on Sweet Street with] was dead. He wondered if he was dead, too. Were you ever sure? You lived step by step. What makes us think we’re alive and nothing’s happened is continuity. But as soon as that was shattered, you knew nothing, you could very well be dead and keep right on going same as ever for a while, like a ball dropped down a flight of stairs. It might bounce from step to step, but finally it was bound to stop.
A Life on Paper sends many balls down stairs, and it is Châteaureynaud’s peculiar gift to see them all the way to their terminus. His narrators, turning up their noses at the Joyce of “Araby” (an ending appropriated in “The Beautiful Coalwoman,” though, characteristically, with a corpse rather than a schoolboy), end their tales not looking forward or up, but down; his is not the epiphanic mode. There is instead something of the eulogy in these stories, memorials to lives only half-lived, daydreamed rather than experienced—“on paper,” as though they counted for less. If you haven’t much lived, perhaps it is only natural that you would want to cheat death. For some short period of time, anyway, Châteaureynaud’s characters do just that.