The (Un)Real World

The Anomaly
By Hervé Le Tellier
391 pp. Other Press. $17.

Chalk it up to supply chain issues or an initial print run in the US that significantly underestimated demand, but you cannot find “The Anomaly” anywhere right now. Unless you’re into e-books, that is, in which case, well, good for you, I suppose, but you’re also missing out, because looking for the physical (i.e. the “real”) book in actual brick-and-mortar bookshops makes up a big part of the joy of reading … at least for me.

Let it be noted, though, that even that soul-sucking behemoth and epitome of all that’s wrong with capitalism known as had this on backorder for weeks as well.

So why exactly is everyone so desperate to get their hands on this book right now? I believe it’s because, following what have been two incredibly trying years, we’re eager to get our hands on fiction that allows us to escape into a reality that appears to be more confounding and, possibly, more bereft of meaning than the one we’re currently living in.

Now you can rest assured that, unlike most of the reviews you’ll find by critics in The New York Times and other publications that should know better, I will not be overtly giving away the reality that our characters suddenly find themselves thrust into in “The Anomaly.” What I will say, though, is that this “fictional” reality may, in fact, be more real than many people think (and has been cited as a possibility by many notable figures in the scientific community).

But here’s the gist of things. At some point pre-pandemic, the French author Hervé Le Tellier had one great, Don DeLillo sized idea that all but guaranteed — without him having even written a single word — that Netflix, HBO, Amazon, or some company willing to drop millions of dollars on the rights to said idea would come knocking. And they will, because this really is a great idea, sure to become the latest binge-worthy hit for whichever company ponies up the cash.

Now, I haven’t read much contemporary French literature, if “literature” is the right word for this, but there are some curious things about “The Anomaly” that struck me, aside from the aforementioned idea.

Firstly, do French novelists typically name-drop this much? By which I mean, is it normal for a French author to include 30-some-odd pages in which Stephen Colbert interviews one of their characters on The Late Show, written from the perspective of the very real Stephen Colbert? It’s not just Colbert either. Elton John, French President Emmanuel Macron, and many other real figures appear and are given lines in “The Anomaly.” I don’t think I’ve ever read an American novel that’s really done anything like this.

Though he isn’t ever addressed by name, Donald Trump is here too, all too obviously, and it’s this thin-veiling of the “real” that I’m more used to seeing.

Secondly, do French writers really write the way that Le Tellier’s fictionalized novelist, Victor Miesel, writes here, or is Le Tellier poking fun at what he perceives to be French literature’s pretensions? I can only speculate, but some of the lines that are cited from this fictional writer’s novel, also, curiously enough, called “The anomaly” (for some reason the “a” is lowercase) are cited with seeming reverence by the characters in Le Tellier’s “Anomaly,” but sound so obtuse and overwrought as to be laughable.

The oyster that feels the pearl knows that the only conscience is pain, in fact it is only the pleasure of pain.

The coolness of my pillow reminds me of the pointless temperature of my blood. If I shiver with cold, it means my pelt of solitude is failing to warm the world.

Umm … brilliant writing? Yes, according to the fictional French public depicted in this book, who turn Miesel’s “anomaly” into a huge hit soon in demand around the world.

Or, perhaps, these lines sound much, much better in the original French. For as Clémence, Miesel’s editor, explains to the author late in the novel, “Your book’s coming out next week pretty much everywhere…Superfast translations…are sometimes less accurate.”

As you see, I am writing around the central conceit of “The Anomaly,” but I don’t find these points any less interesting or any less integral to the main point.

What we’re faced with in “The Anomaly” are two worlds, the fictional world Le Tellier is presenting us with and our own world, which only appears different at first glance. When you look closer, you start to see echoes of our own world across these pages, not just in the characters that exist in both worlds, but in the despair and dysfunction that permeate both as well.

Which world is real? Which world isn’t? Are both real? Or — more frightening yet — are neither?

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