THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, by Laurent Mauvignier | Translated by Daniel Levin Becker
If I start by calling Laurent Mauvignier’s “The Birthday Party” a psychological thriller, understand that this means what you probably think it means, but also something else. It means a nail-biter plot, but also a focus on characters’ interior worlds so detailed that at times I forgot there was a plot at all. It is psychological, on the one hand, and a thriller, on the other, as if the book were two books at once.
I’m reminded of the opening 10 pages of Christine Montalbetti’s “Western” (2005), which proceed in such telescopic detail that you could easily fail to notice that what is being described is a cowboy sitting on a porch. Or Robert Pinget’s “The Inquisitory” (1962), a 400-page whodunit in which it’s never made clear what the “who” even did. Though otherwise quite different from one another, these books share Virginia Woolf’s belief that life is as much a matter of small things as big things, that life exists as much in its “myriad impressions” as in its major events, and that literature ought to as well. It is precisely because genres like westerns, mysteries or thrillers traditionally rely on high drama and plot twists that filling them up with small things — the mundane details of a moment, the minutiae of human consciousness — can be so evocative and strange.
“The Birthday Party” is more serious about its genre than these other novels: not an ironic thriller, but one that truly thrills. But it is equally interested in how the sensational and the mundane confront each other, in literature and in life. The story is set in a tiny French hamlet with the desolate name Three Lone Girls Stead, where a middle-aged farmer, Patrice, lives with his wife, Marion, and their young daughter, Ida. Next door lives Christine, a 69-year-old artist who long ago escaped Paris and the art world to live as a hermit with her dog, Rajah, and who now acts as something like an aunt to Patrice, and a great-aunt to Ida. There is also, in the hamlet, a vacant house, a barn and an old stone church. The mood is more grim than bucolic. The isolation seems creepy. As the novel begins, everyone’s preparing for Marion’s 40th birthday, unaware that strangers are going to arrive, and a dark past will violently intrude upon their insulated world. The suspenseful plotline that emerges relies on surprising turns and the revelation of characters’ secrets, which is why I won’t say any more about it.
Long before that plotline begins, “The Birthday Party” announces itself as a book of characters and, most remarkably, of sentences. Mauvignier writes wonderfully winding sentences — meticulously translated by Daniel Levin Becker — that zoom in on his characters’ thoughts and feelings in painstaking detail, like busy organisms digging into a moment in time. The prose wanders, gathers up perceptions, then returns 10 or 20 or 50 clauses later with more of the world in tow.
A more typical example would be five times longer, five times more winding, and the effect is immersive, a constant shuffle between observations and reflections, narrator and character, the eye and the mind. As with sentences by Proust or Henry James, the piling up of clauses does two things simultaneously: It builds a rich linguistic and psychological universe, and it slows down the narrative action, the plot stretched out to fold in more life, the events deferred to make room for more minutiae. In “The Birthday Party,” this push ever deeper into characters’ thoughts and perceptions can be intense, or just plain tense — like a film in perpetual close-up. At more suspenseful moments, it can also feel at odds with the novel’s momentum, bogging it down. But there is something else going on.
A major theme of “The Birthday Party” is how the drama that we’ve come to expect only on movie and TV screens sometimes crashes into what we think of as our “normal” lives. This is disorienting not just because these dramatic events are unexpected, but because we experience them in human time, which is much slower than theatrical time. The big things are engulfed in small things, and rather than speeding toward a conclusion, we just keep inching along.
In “The Birthday Party,” the sudden appearance of danger in the otherwise dull emptiness of Three Lone Girls Stead is so disorienting that the characters are rendered virtually helpless by it. All of this is “a bad dream” or like “images from those shows.” A character “plays back the film in his head … to picture a beginning, a middle and an end.” It’s not just that dramatic things are happening, but that everyday life suddenly feels scripted. For the villains, too — as they become characters, their own interior worlds laid bare — everything feels inescapably staged, like a “performance that two duettists have gone to great trouble to perfect over long months, so that the speed, the effects, are synchronized and almost choreographed.” When ultimately this “performance” stops going according to plan, and the events of “The Birthday Party” turn in earnest toward their harrowing conclusion, the novel maintains its depth, its scrutinizing slowness: a real-time study in crippling self-consciousness, the fragility of normalcy and the reality of violence.
Martin Riker’s new novel, “The Guest Lecture,” was published in January.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY | By Laurent Mauvignier | Translated by Daniel Levin Becker | 454 pp. | Transit Books | Paperback, $18.95