Sunday, April 27, 2014

Jöel Dicker: La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert

LaJoie: “Well, who do you suspect?”
Clouseau: “I suspect everyone.”
                  - A Shot in the Dark (Dir. Blake Edwards)

I am almost certainly the wrong person to review Swiss writer Jöel Dicker’s 667-pound page, award-winning polar, La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert (just published in English as The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair). With exceptions, I’m not a fan of the genre. But while in France last year I’d been intrigued by reading about the book’s attempt to recreate an American thriller and explore American society. I do like, with exceptions, those foreign novels that take on the U.S. as a subject, and the Edward Hopper painting on the book’s cover was further enticement. Anyway, within pages of starting Dicker’s galloping story, I’d resigned myself to finishing it. There must be a name for this syndrome: the compulsion to find out what happens despite a simultaneous impatience to be done with the thing.

A murder committed, a killer to be found - standard polar stuff - but a deliberate meta-fictional element buoys Dicker’s novel, as he makes it as much about the writing (and marketing) of a thriller as it is one itself.

The year is 2007. Marcus Goldman, a New York writer whose first novel has propelled him to stardom, finds himself with writer’s block. Desperate, he contacts his former mentor, Harry Quebert, author of an award-winning 1975 novel, The Origins of Evil, and visits him in Aurora, the seaside New Hampshire town where Quebert has lived quietly since producing his blockbuster. Yet despite Quebert’s encouragements Goldman returns to New York frustrated.

Months later Goldman’s agent calls and tells him to turn on the TV: Harry Quebert has been arrested for the murder of 15-year-old Nola Kellergan, whose disappearance from Aurora, that summer of ‘75 when the 34-year-old Quebert had moved there and written his novel, had attracted national attention. Nola’s remains, along with a bag holding the original manuscript of The Origins of Evil, have just been found buried on Quebert’s property, and Quebert, while denying culpability, admits to having had a relationship with the adolescent, his “muse.” One is almost obliged here to index a thought for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, especially since the writer’s liaisons with Nola occurred in a roadside motel of exactly the sort Humbert Humbert would have chosen.  

For 600 pages, Dicker takes us through an increasingly complicated investigation. Goldman installs himself in Quebert’s house while his friend awaits trial. Prompted by his desire to exonerate Quebert as well as by a publisher salivating over a book to capitalize on the scandal, Goldman takes the murder on as his topic and finds himself at last writing effortlessly while joining forces with an Aurora police officer to probe the case’s multiplying mysteries.

And do these mysteries ever multiply. Dicker’s convoluted plot puts increasing distance between the most obvious solution - that Quebert killed and buried Nola - and alternatives so exponentially proliferating that one can’t help but laugh. Nearly everyone in La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert is suspect; I half expected Dicker to turn himself in at the end.

As a novel about writing, La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert tosses off some amusing references to the writing life. Quebert, a manly-man writer in the vein of Norman Mailer, provides, in what serve as interchapters, writing “lessons” to Goldman that consist largely of kitsch boxing metaphors (“Raise your fists, take your stance, prepare yourself to fight…a book is a battle”). Quebert’s lawyer, in a humorous referential note, is named Roth. There's a reference to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. If I’m not mistaken, there’s also a nod to Dutch writer Harry Mulisch and his famous writing table in Amsterdam’s Café Americain. In any case, the American café that serves as Aurora’s social hub strongly resembles the New Hampshire cafeteria that figures in George Simenon’s Feux Rouges, and Dicker’s most evident model is Simenon himself, who, during his years in New England, traveled frequently along U.S. Route 1, to which Dicker tethers the action of La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert.

Dicker’s book comes across as both homage to and parody of mystery novels set in America. He seems mostly intent on reproducing such an American-style thriller, along the way providing a recognizable view of American alienation, paranoia, and especially the dynamic that turns tragedy into spectacle and violence into profit, while also aiming at that key fulcrum of American culture, the entwined tension between Puritanism and prurience. He lances numerous other American subjects, including, perhaps most successfully, the media apparatus ready to sensationalize the most heinous crime as long as doing so can produce a return. His portrait of the publishing industry is deeply cynical: the deadline that must be met if the Quebert affair isn’t to be swept off the news by the 2008 Presidential election; the teams of lawyers to handle potential libel issues; marketers rushing to create a buzz for the book; film rights negotiators securing a deal; professional ghost-writers standing by to “spice up the sauce” should Goldman fail to invent enough salacious detail.

Like fallen autumn leaves, the novels within Dicker’s novel accrete and overlap one another. Quebert’s published novel is haunted by the original manuscript version, while Goldman’s book-in-progress about the scandal, entitled L’Affaire Harry Quebert, nests within Dicker’s own book, which continues this playful game through to the acknowledgements page, where thanks are given to some characters as though they existed outside Dicker’s fiction.  Dicker also constructs his narrative of multiple texts, including excerpts from Goldman's manuscript and Quebert's novel, journal entries, letters, police reports, transcripts of recordings, newspaper clippings, even advertisements. 

As enriching and clever as these referential, meta-fictional elements are, none of this goes terribly deep, and I found myself wishing this massive entertainment had been of Simenonean brevity. Like the formula mystery novels that Dicker appears to parody - if my occasional sampling of them gives any indication - La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert relies heavily upon plot, and, even if this is a particularly clever example, it thinly bridges key plot points with prose that can at times be arid, plodding and redundant. What’s more, the passages Dicker invents for Goldman’s In Cold Blood-style work, L’Affaire Harry Quebert, and for Quebert’s own The Origins of Evil, come across as mundane – perhaps (one might hope) as a satire of American literary tastes.

At one point, Harry Quebert bluntly tells Marcus Goldman:

You’re a writer, let’s say…a modern writer. You please readers because you’re young and dynamic…and trendy. You’re a trendy writer. And that’s that. No one expects that you’re going to obtain a Pulitzer Prize; they like your books because they’re trendy, because they’re diverting, and that’s okay.

I couldn’t help but feel that Dicker’s book was exactly this: trendy and diverting. And that’s okay. For all of Dicker’s cynicism about the book industry and the values of the reading public, ready to snap up anything titillating, he has managed to produce a book that, while exposing the dynamics that produce such works, is also one itself. It’s a nifty trick - after all, he got me to buy and read his novel - and, as he must have hoped, he’s taken this bit of performance art all the way to the bank: La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert has become an international success. While I’m tempted to mumble, “Quelle déception!” as the French do when disappointed, I have to admit a grudging admiration for the cleverness with which I've been so thoroughly suckered. Can a movie adaptation be far behind?


  1. I just began this book yesterday, with strict admonition from Penguin who sent it my way, not to reveal a review until May 27 when it will be officially published in the U. S. I haven't read your review carefully, because I want to come back to it once done, but I will share a few thoughts that occurred to me while reading. Namely, this author is clearly 28. I'm not sure if it's the translation, or the trite lines (which seem to be coming with an alarming frequency as I approach the middle of the book), or his immaturity, but this book ceased working for me about noon today. We'll see if it redeems itself, for as you say, there is something about wanting to see what happens even if it means slugging through piles of crap.

    Only, you said it much better.

    1. Bellezza - I guess the book hasn't yet been published in the U.S., but I saw it on Amazon and remembered that I'd drafted a review last year, thus this rather fluffy post (in lieu of others I've not had time to write). I wouldn't begrudge Dicker his age - after all, lots of young writers have produced outstanding work - and I'm not even sure that some of the "trite lines" aren't something of a put-on, a parody of such writing. But there are a lot of them, and I do wish he'd found a way to trim this book down to a couple hundred pages at most. If nothing else, though, Dicker got me to go back to Simenon and read one of his "American" novels, Feux Rouges. Now that's a work worth reading.

    2. Thanks for the recommendation of Feux Rouges.

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  3. I too am fascinated when aspects of America are thoughtfully evaluated from a non American perspective.

    On the other hand, when I was younger I was a lot more impressed with over the top cleverness and a bit sensational then I am now.

  4. Just finished this book, all 640 pages, which has to be about the most disappointing book I've read in years. Contrived, and boring, I don't think I can even write up a review about it. Certainly not a review as eloquent as yours.

    Still not sure why it was so lauded in Europe...compared to the translated books I've been reading for the IFFP, this was just plain awful.

    1. I don't think I can even write up a review about it.

      Not to worry - I expect there will be piles of reviews, and I'm almost sorry to have added to that accumulation . If you get around to reading any of Simenon's "American" novels, though, I'd be curious to know what you think. At least in those the characters tend to behave like actual human beings.

  5. Well, I have a little more breathing space today so I thought I'd drop by and read your review of the Dicker. There's probably a pretty good novel buried in here, but at 600+ pages the whole thing now sounds rather bloated. Love your thought at the end of the opening paragraph:

    There must be a name for this syndrome: the compulsion to find out what happens despite a simultaneous impatience to be done with the thing.

    Is there a name for it? If not, let's make one up.

    I really do think one of the guys in my book group is going to choose this when his turn comes around in a month or two. He's down for October/November, so Harry Q may end up being my winter chunkster. One good thing has come from your post, mind. I know I've made a great decision in buying Simenon's Feux Rouges/Red Lights following your recommendation in the comments on my Three Bedrooms in Manhattan post. Perhaps I could persuade Philip to pick a Simenon instead? :)

    1. I'll put some thought into a name for that phenomenon after I've had another cup of coffee.

      And yes, by all means, try to get dear Philip to pick Feux Rouges instead of the Dicker. It'a lot shorter and your book club will, I predict, like it a lot more. If he insists on something contemporary and big, you could steer him to the Ariel Winter trilogy The Twenty Year Death, which is almost as long as the Dicker and also contains a Simenon homage, but is a great deal more entertaining.