The Reality Effect

This appeared in FT Weekend on 13 May 2017:

The Reality Effect

The premise of Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language is a stroke of genius. Roland Barthes did not die following an accident in 1980; he was murdered. Jacques Bayard, a superintendent for the intelligence service — sworn enemy of “work-shy lefties” — is immediately put on the case.

Completely clueless (“Episteme, my arse”), Bayard recruits Simon Herzog, a young academic who teaches semiology, to act as his Virgil through the arcane world of Theory. It soon transpires that the great 20th-century linguist Roman Jakobson, famous for defining the six functions of language, had in fact discovered a seventh one. Barthes was in possession of a document revealing its potent secret: how to unleash language’s magical powers of persuasion. Such knowledge could turn anyone into the “master of the world”, which is why everyone — from Bulgarian spies toting poisoned umbrellas to President Giscard d’Estaing — is after it. The piece of paper has, bien sûr, vanished into thin air. In whose hands will it end up?

Binet’s bestselling debut, HHhH, about the assassination of Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich, was awarded the Prix Goncourt du premier roman. His new novel, also inspired by real figures, is a sort of post-structuralist whodunnit casting the semiotician in the role of detective. The first part of the book, set in Paris and featuring a roll call of intellectual luminaries, is pitch-perfect in its evocation of early-1980s French society — and contains hilarious, often polyphonic, set pieces. The scene where novelist Philippe Sollers pontificates about his work-in-progress while his spouse, philosopher Julia Kristeva, has a nauseous existential moment induced by the skin of milk floating atop his café crème, is a bravura performance. The picaresque plot begins to flag, however, when the two protagonists hook up with Umberto Eco in Bologna and at Cornell University, where Jacques Derrida is torn asunder by dogs and Sollers castrated.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that lang­uage, ceasing to be merely instrument­al, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.

Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).

The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”

Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.

One begins to wonder if Simon has not done a Proust: stepped out of the story at the end in order to write it with the benefit of hindsight. This would partly account for the choice of an anonymous present-day narrator piecing together past events. It could also explain some of the anachronisms — goths, yuppies, purple Dr Martens, crack cocaine — which may have been planted by the author as signs of an unreliable memory. The retrospective view provides a rich seam of dramatic irony as the characters’ forecasts prove invariably wrong. This is obviously its main raison d’être, but the time gap also signals a more fundamental distance, as though the ideas of Barthes or Foucault could only be integrated at the level of subject matter, no longer seriously engaged with. Or perhaps the narrative voice is language itself and Simon’s paranoia a manifestation of the novel’s growing self-consciousness. This particular enigma remains unresolved, which is as it should be if literature is understood as the invention of a voice “to which we cannot assign a specific origin”.

Although highly entertaining at times, The 7th Function of Language fails to live up to its title. Everything, including the most obvious allusions (like the ubiquitous Citroën DS that Barthes compared to a Gothic cathedral) is spelt out. After all, what is the point of a roman à clef if the author provides us with all the keys?