The A26 – Pascal Garnier

The A26I guess it’s customary for me to begin my reviews by writing about the genre in which any given book functions, but darn it this one has me stumped.

Stylistically The A26 borrows from mid-Twentieth-Century hardboiled noir; stuff like Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon.  The writing is often cynical, curt and metaphor-heavy, characterised by an unsympathetic portrayal of gruesome violence.  In fact, many of the narrator’s observations are so close to something Philip Marlowe would say that they can only be viewed as appreciative nods in Chandler’s direction.  Where The Big Sleep equates bodies with heartbreak:

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

The A26 follows suit with the slightly less eloquent:

They say there is nothing heavier than an empty heart; the same is true of a lifeless body.

Of course this specific reference to Chandler may just be an idiosyncrasy of the translator (I don’t have a French copy (or a French speaker, for that matter) here for comparison); but needless to say there’s definitely a noir-esque tone that pervades the prose.  Acts of violence are described with a glib matter-of-fact-ness, and when the writing does become more lyrical, it’s always with a snarky undertone and dark sense of poetry:

The countryside, accustomed to low skies and drizzle, looked ill at ease in its Sunday best.  The bricks were too red, the sky too blue, the grass too green. It was as if nature felt embarrassed at being so extravagantly made up.

These stylistic proclivities, coupled with the story’s bodycount and focus on social outsiders, should make the act of genre classification an assured thing, right? It’s a noir. But once you’ve read a few chapters, and you start to get to grips with the actual plot, things don’t seem quite so clear-cut.  The A26 has murders, sure, but it’s not about the murders, per se; there are no procedural or detective elements, and without meaning to sound dismissive of noir and its pulp roots (of which I am much-enamoured), The A26 just seems too… literary.  It’s a novel about the strange hinterlands between spaces – both physical and figurative – and the inevitable fallout that ensues when people try to bridge the gaps between, for example, the rural and the urban, past and present, love and hate, life and death.

This thematic pre-occupation with boundaries is made readily apparent in the book’s opening chapter, a metaphorically loaded scene that sees Frenchwoman Yolande staring out at the world through a tiny peephole drilled in the wall of the boarded-up house that she never, ever leaves.  Yolande believes that World War II is still on-going, and that all of her neighbours are ‘boche’ informants.  She is cared for by her brother, Bernard; a retired rail worker obsessed with the construction of the ‘A26’, a major road (and obvious metaphor for death) slowly impinging on their rural community.

Yolande and Bernard have lived in this old house – separate and hermetic – for decades, and the real substance of this book is found in the ways these characters react when the outside – illness, neighbours, the new road, technology, the present – begins to push against and trespass their borders.  It’s as much an investigation into solitariness, love and desperation as it is a forensic examination of the circumstances surrounding some particularly imaginative murders.

So might we just call it Literary Fiction with noir tendencies, then? Well, no, because to do so would be to perform an almost sacrilegious disservice to another of the book’s defining traits: The A26 is really, really funny.  It’s so funny that (you could probably argue) calling it anything other than a Black Comedy is to decidedly miss the point. The blogger WinstonsDad is correct when he likens the book’s premise to the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is comedy to be found in the new road, with all of the traffic and metaphors it brings with it. But WinstonsDad’s second comparison – that the siblings of The A26 evoke the reclusive brother-sister duo Edward and Tubbs from the T.V. show The League of Gentleman – is much closer to the descriptive mark.  The comedy is decidedly a gallows humour; Garnier’s descriptions of a bic biro being used as a murder weapon are gruesome, but also very funny.  And the humour isn’t exclusively violent; between the book’s murder sequences the comedy is frequently scatological and sexual: preposterous in a way that’s reminiscent of medieval fabliaux (a genre of writing that emerged from Northeast France – and I imagine it’s no coincidence that The A26 is set in Picardy).

But in order to stop the novel descending into abject farce, which would bathetically undermine the book’s more serious concerns for loneliness and mental illness, much of The A26’s grotesque comedy is undercut by, well, stuff that’s just genuinely grotesque: grotesque in a way that provides some nice tonal variance, but also establishes a disconcerting and genuinely unnerving tension.  Somewhat predictably, then, this leads me onto another of Pascal Garnier’s genre appropriations: horror fiction.  Converging with the noir-esque narration, the literary concern with boundaries and the book’s strange sense of comedy, are some passages that wouldn’t be out of place in Lovecraft or Ligotti:

Always at the end of this dream, however, his two halves would be wriggling on either side of the track and would manage to stick themselves together again.

Or:

Something had smashed on the floor, her bowl half-full of red wine.  Some creature going past no doubt.  They were everywhere.  You couldn’t see them but they were there, nibbling, scrabbling, gnawing at even the very shadows.

And this description of a rictal grimace is absolutely a reference to Georg Heym’s The Autopsy:

On the mattress the exposed corpse gave a toothy grin.

But much like the other element’s I’ve discussed, the horror isn’t prevalent enough to warrant labelling the entire novel as such.

I could go on and on: the changes that Bernard undergoes when he realises his illness is terminal could encourage me to read The A26 as a kind of late-life bildungsroman.  The quasi-incestuous nature of the siblings’ relationship make me want to tag the novel as a love story (albeit a dark, twisted one); and the neighbours’ investigations into the strange murders almost (almost) make this a piece of straight-forward crime fiction.  But simply listing verbatim all of the different literary genres that Garnier has appropriated, though providing some glimpse of the book’s aesthetic, doesn’t really offer, in itself, any kind of critical understanding of the work.

So, why, then, is The A26 such an obvious smorgasbord of so many disparate genre conventions?  Well, as I understand it, this blurring of genre borders acts as a deliberate structuralist reflection of the book’s actual plotting and themes.  Bernard and Yolande have spent decades trying to erect walls (both physical and figurative) around themselves, but their efforts are ultimately proved futile as their borders are all breached with violent inevitability.  Within their tiny house, Bernard and Yolande’s approach to life seems divided: he is obsessed with death, she insists that “Nothing [is] ever supposed to stop” – but even this distinction is proven to be permeable, as the novel’s denouement so powerfully demonstrates: both characters choose the same path, regardless of their individual approaches to death.

The A26 is a warning against hermeticism, blockades and isolation: an illustration that the borders we so unthinkingly put up – even those literary distinctions between genres – are in fact unstable and transient.  The proper word for this rejection of boundaries and certainties is probably “modernism” and this, it seems, is the best label for the book: at least it’s better than the bullshitty genre compound “Horror-fiction-literary-black-comedy-noir”.  But the fact remains that whatever you do decide to call The A26, the book is absolutely fantastic.

Tomcat