6 September 2009

Eric Chevillard – Au plafond / On the Ceiling

Eric Chevillard's Au plafond (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1997 / On the Ceiling (trans. Jordan Stump, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000)) is odd: a young person, frightened of the outside world – so much so that he curls up into a ball from it – is prescribed, by his family doctor, an inverted chair to wear on his head so that he can walk straight. This he does, but he meets a great number of problems, such as discovering the limits of his existence with such an increased height, how to avoid elderly people wanting to sit on this extension of himself, and sheer prejudice: how can such an outsider survive, find fellow beings to relate to?

One of the unnamed narrator's new friends is Kolski, who was originally so smelly because unwashed that almost everyone avoided getting anywhere near him. Apart from the narrator, of course, who finds someone suffering from the same public rejection as himself. Soon, the pair find a disused refridgerated warehouse, and the cleaned-up Kolski hangs about – bat-like – on meat hooks.

Assorted oddball friends join the party, and soon they all move in to the house of the parents of Méline, the narrator's girlfriend. As the parents aren't ideal folks to live with, the group of friends move to the ceiling, where life not only looks different, but much more convenable. What's going on here?

To his translator Jordan Stump, Chevillard 'is fascinated by the imperous need we all feel to make life bearable, and by the lengths to which we are willing to go in that pursuit'. It's the world that's out of joint, and Stump enlarges on this by mentioning Chevillard's Le Caoutchouc, décidément (1992), in which, among other things, there's a plan to shrink the pain-sensitive area of the human being to the size of an eye to reduce the extent of pain, or, as in Pre-histoire (1994), a plan to re-create a paleolithic cave in which to live protected from the outside world. Interesting stuff. Why hasn't this kind of writing caught on in England, I wonder? Why is the USA more interested in experimental writing? OK, we know the answer, don't we?

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