Tuer le père (literally 'Killing the Father') is Amélie Nothomb's latest work, although Barbe-Bleue ('Bluebeard' as in the Charles Perrault story) will appear on 22 August: she turns one out a year in time for the rentrée, and has been doing so for twenty years. I've read all her books so far, and have been impressed (to varying degrees of course) with each one.
This novella has a framing device: the first and last brief scene (both on the same occasion in 2010) take place at L'Illégal Magic Club at Le Shywawa in Paris, and these are related by an observer called Amélie Nothomb. She sees everyone enjoying themselves apart from a 30-year-old man winning at poker, and everyone watching him apart from a 50-year-old man whose intention seem to be to disturb the younger man. On enquiring, she learns that the younger man is Joe Whip, and the other Norman Terence. And then the flashback starts.
The action begins in 1994 in Reno, Nevada, where Joe's mother sells bicycles. Joe, who doesn't like his mother's new boyfriend, is thrown out because she doesn't want to lose her new man.
Joe is only 14 and must find his own way in life with the small amount of money his mother sends him every month. But Joe's gift is magic and he can do amazing card tricks, so has no difficulty making money. He learns the tricks through videos, but a stranger tells him he needs a teacher. So Joe gets to live with the professional magician Norman Terence and his girlfriend Christina, who is a fire dancer from hippie parents whose ways she has partly rejected.
When Joe becomes madly in love with Christina he hides it from the couple, but saves his virginity for when he is eighteen, when Norman and Christina will allow him to go to the Burning Man festival, Black Rock, Nevada. Once there, Norman and Christina take LSD but Joe secretly hides his blotting paper in his jeans, and by pretending to feel sick at a night club he manages to be alone with Christina and have sex with her. Norman believes that this is Joe's way of killing the father he believes he had been.
After Burning Man Joe chooses, amicably, to leave his substitute parents to be a croupier in Las Vegas, but much to their chagrin he completely severs ties with them. It's only the day after Joe's twentieth birthday in 2000 that Norman will hear any more of Joe, who is accused of a huge swindle at the casino. That there is not sufficient evidence to convict him is believable, as is his having to pay the money back to avoid death by concrete, but it's the conversation Joe has with Norman near the end of the book that is too much to believe.
What devastates Norman is that Joe refuses to see him as a father, because the man he looks upon as his father is the stranger (mentioned above) who devised the poker scam, which was arranged five years in advance, and Joe hasn't seen the man since, apart from across the card table when the swindle took place. And it is this 'father' who went flying back to Belgium with the fortune that Joe made for him, leaving Joe a relatively paltry $40,000 tip (and incidentally leaving him to refund the full $4,000,000 to his boss). What reason could Joe possibly have for keeping this agreement after five years, and how could he have seen, and indeed still see, this stanger as a father? Well, of course, he's insane. Sorry, but this is just too easy an escape.
Finally, the reader is back at L'Illégal Magic Club, now with the character Amélie Nothomb fully acquainted with the circumstances about Joe and Norman, who has been following his 'son' wherever he goes for eight years, and will continue to do so until he gets 'justice': recognition as a father. Yes, he's gone mad too.
This book has themes common to many other books by Nothomb: obsession, psychedelic drugs, madness, etc. It didn't feel the same though, and I was drawn back to a sentence a few pages near the end: Maintenant, je découvre à quel point tout ceci était dénué de signification: 'Now I understand to what extent all this was stripped of meaning'. Quite. Normally the reader expects a twist with Nothomb, but this just seems twisted: this reader feels short-changed, although I only borrowed the book from the library.