Jean-Christophe Valtat: 03
Published: October 6, 2010
By Jean-Christophe Valtat
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; paperback
About halfway through this pamphlet-sized novella consisting of a single paragraph, its teenaged male narrator laments about trying—and failing—to articulate what’s going on inside him, comparing it to “the feeling I was trying to coax out of myself the way you might squeeze a toothpaste tube you’d decided to roll from the bottom up but that, distracted, and in a rush, you finally ended up pressing any which way.” Jean-Christophe Valtat, the author of this breezy, poignant work, doesn’t possess the same roadblock between his thoughts and words, as nearly every single sentence of this 84-page rumination feels precisely placed. Part confession, part speculation, and entirely levitating, 03 captures the thoughts of a teenager who lives just outside Paris in 1984 as he sees and momentarily falls in love with a girl across the street. She’s waiting for her school bus, and he guesses she is about the same age he is. And she’s retarded.
It’s a mental condition for which the narrator notes the “accidental poetry in naming a human being with this quality of latency or absence, like a clock left behind in an empty room, a page someone forgot to rip out of a calendar, the walking embodiment of jet lag.” In her, he sees his own social otherness, and through his admittedly solipsistic reveries, he wonders about the nature of fitting in, the albums of the Cure and Joy Division, generational ennui, the lie of childhood being a place of innocence and wonder, before arriving at the ordinary revelation that every life is a series of minor catastrophes and Pyrrhic victories, that “[s]omething in each of us was broken beyond repair”.
What’s so engaging about 03 is the metaphysical playfulness with which Valtat’s narrator swims through his thoughts. His is not the glib, self-satisfied voice of a Holden Caulfield, nor the cynical seriousness of the myopically self-conscious. Instead, he’s old enough not to believe everything he’s been taught but young enough to hope that it’s all eventually going to get better, even though he’s seen enough of life to fear that it’s probably not. Don’t mistake 03 as a belletristic portrait of young adult angst; it’s an artful reverie that dances between the resilience of youth and the disappointments of average adulthood.
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