Ahhh… absurdism. It’s so damn European! Think Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett (o.k., so he was Irish), Franz Kafka, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s a genre that includes classic books like The Myth of Sisyphus, The Stranger, Waiting for Godot, No Exit, Rhinoceros and now, The Investigation.
The Absurdist genre – in all its forms – is a commentary on the ridiculousness of the human condition. It also, interestingly, involves an unexpected amount of physical comedy. (The French fascination with slapstick and Woody Allen baffles me, by the way). The Investigation is pretty much a textbook example. Whether this is a strength or weakness is really a matter of personal taste.
The plot can be quickly summarized. The Investigator has been sent to investigate the Enterprise. Multiple impediments are put in the way of his investigation, placing him in one preposterous situation after another. This continues until the end of the novel, at which point the Investigator (and the readers) question the protagonist’s sanity. Suddenly, he is transported into a surreal landscape where he speaks to a God-Surrogate, who in turn reinforces the characterization of an un-caring (at best) or impotent (at worst) higher being.
All fairly standard in the Absurdist’s ouevre.
Claudel delves deeper into the genre/philosophy – not just speaking about the absurdity of life in general, but like Camus exploring the subject of suicide. The Investigator has been sent to the Enterprise to investigate an unusual high incidence of suicides among the workers. As the Investigator’s mission is thwarted at every juncture we begin to see why death might seem like a viable option. (And if you find my constant use of “the Investigator” annoying, this it nothing compared to the book).
Meanwhile, as the philosophy and plot thickens, Claudel introduces us to a cast of eccentric and memorable characters. The Giantess, the Policeman, the Watchman, the Founder… to name just a few. My personal favorite is the Manager.
The Investigator, not daring to disappoint the Manager, nodded his head.
“Of course you know . . . . Oh, this is all so . . . But I’m wandering!”
He clapped his hands, sprang up nimbly, danced a few steps, caught one foot in the thick rug, and almost fell. “Look at me!” he cried. “I have resources, don’t I? I’m not on my way out, not yet, despite my age! What do you think?”
The Investigator was getting weaker. His armchair had turned into a great mouth that was gradually swallowing him, and he found the man before him, who was jumping around like an athlete warming up, even more disturbing than the Policeman in the Hotel.
The Manager began to do entrechats, up-and-down bounces, long leaps. He piroetted and ran to the back of the room, where he made the sign of the cross, took a run-up, and charged at his desk, over which he attempted to jump and which he nearly managed to clear, except that at the last moment, when he was suspended in the air, his left foot struck the massive black marble inkwell and he crashed heavily against the glass wall.
While no expert, I’ve read a fair amount of Kafka, Sartre and Camus. Maybe that’s why I felt a sense of déjà vu as I read The Investigation. The Chaplin-esque situations the Investigator finds himself in aren’t cliché. Some are even very funny. Unfortunately the ideas and themes that Claudel is working with… I feel like I’ve heard/seen them all before. It reminded me of a production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, starring John Goodman, which I saw years ago at the Delacorte Theater. The play is Wilder at his wackiest. Goodman was brilliant and loud. All through my reading of The Investigation I kept remembering that play, its overblown comedy and heavy-handed (yet still incomprehensible) biblical references that in many ways overshadowed the plot. Like Wilder’s play, this novel is saved by incredible writing. Claudel’s style and Cullen’s translation are lovely, truly lovely. The fact that I continued reading long after I knew I’d heard this story before is testament to that.
Philippe Claudel is a gifted author. His prose is light, entertaining and fresh. His imagery is vibrant and cinematic. The situational comedy is good. Which makes what I’m about to write so puzzling. Things became interesting – at least for me – when the character of the Psychiatrist was introduced. I believed that we would be forced to take a hard look not just at the society through which the Investigator was moving, but also at the kind of man that society inevitably creates.
And then, suddenly, Claudel veers off. Chucks the whole thing out the window and… well… remember how LOST ended? Yeah. Something like that.
So, despite the novel’s originality and Claudel’s obvious talent, when the ending of The Investigation arrives it does so with a resounding (and uninspiring) “Click”.
Publisher: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 385 53534 2