The Global Phenomenon With The Long Title

harry quebertDo you ever feel that the nectar of hype comes in a poisoned chalice? Back in October 2012, a novel written by a 28-year-old Swiss man that had been awarded a couple of prestigious French literary prizes caused the most immense stir at Frankfurt, its one-man publisher selling the rights to over 30 different countries (with the book to be translated into anything between 32 and 37 languages, reports vary). People at the fair called it a global phenomenon but couldn’t quite remember its name, referring to it in their excitement as ‘the French novel with the long title.’

And then I imagine the publicity mill went into overdrive and comparisons with Roth, Franzen and Bellow were bandied around, and inevitably it all went downhill from there. Reviews of the English translation by Sam Taylor have been decidedly mixed, with the American ones the most caustic. ‘It’s the sort of novel you recommend to a grieving friend or coworker out on jury duty—somebody with temporarily disabled critical faculties trying to forget who or where they are’ the New Yorker said sniffily. But if they weren’t expecting Roth or Bellow, then I should think those on jury duty were pretty glad to have it.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a slick and entertaining piece of literary fun with mirrors, set in an appealling Twin Peaks landscape. And so long as we don’t get any more carried away than that, no one is going to have their expectations hurt. The narrator, Marcus Goldman, is a young writer whose first novel has been an outrageous success. Once he’s run through a ton of royalties and sucked up enough syrupy recognition to feel bilious he finds himself on deadline for a second novel without a single idea in his head. Facing humiliation and a nasty law suit, he decides to visit his much-loved college mentor, Harry Quebert, in his seaside home at Goose Cove, New Hampshire. It doesn’t do a great deal for his writing, but the reunion is good for Marcus’s soul. He was a callow and cunning youth, too hooked on achievement to understand the notion of quality, but Harry knocked some sense into him (literally, in the boxing ring). And it’s Harry’s career as a celebrated novelist that Marcus longs to emulate.

However, not long after this visit, Marcus receives the stunning news that Harry is in prison. A body has been dug up in the grounds of his house, the corpse of Nola Kellergan who went missing thirty-three years previously. Alongside her in the grave is a manuscript copy of Harry’s most successful novel, The Origin of Evil. Hop back to August 1975 when Nola disappeared and we find out that she was having a passionate love affair with Harry that provided the inspiration for his novel. Worse still, Harry was waiting for her in a hotel room further up the coast that night but she never showed; they were intending to elope to Canada, for Nora was only fifteen and they both rightly feared scandal and jail.

Steadfastly refusing to believe in Harry’s guilt, Marcus returns to Goose Cove to undertake his own investigation. He’s known to the locals and he has Harry’s memories to guide him. But he’s also at the centre of the media storm, another famous face to add to the mix, and his editor and agent are leaning hard on him to turn out a book on the murder case as fast as he can. We are of course reading the book – or some version of it – that Marcus will eventually write. Except that this book in our hands includes all manner of revisions as twists and turns develop in the investigation, theories come together and then fall apart, and characters are unexpectedly seen in a new light. If you appreciate the metatextual level, you’ll enjoy the subtleties of Dicker’s plotting, but you don’t have to look at it like that. In a straightforward way, it’s a clever piece of crime fiction that keeps you guessing throughout its 600 pages.

Given that Joel Dicker clearly likes a bit of irony, I hope he doesn’t mind that his homage to a certain kind of American noir story is probably designed to annoy a lot of American readers. There’s all that metatextual stuff, and then a 15-year-old femme fatale (though how we see Nora changes constantly across the book) and then a whole bunch of archetypal characters. There’s a gruff and aggressive detective (who mellows), a dodgy rich businessman and his maimed chauffeur/henchman (quality of life destroyed in a random attack by thugs one night), a social-climbing café owner and her hen-pecked husband and Marcus’s crazy Jewish mother, who inhabits her role to such a degree of intensity that she makes no sense whatsoever. It may be no more than coincidence, but the contemporary French novels I’ve read in the past ten years or so seem quite comfortable with archetypes. Amélie Nothomb, one time star of the French literary firmament said in interview that

when we create we’re totally in tune with this creative pole that’s full of archetypes and which is, in fact, totally ridiculous, but perhaps also at the origins of life.’

I thought that was quite an interesting statement, but you’ll know where you stand on it. There’s also rather a lot of cringe-inducing aphorisms concerning the art of writing. For instance: ‘If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.’ But this is a narrative designed to be read fast, and if you zip past them at the right speed, they barely register at all.

So, let’s have a last look at the credit and debit sheet. If you want finely-drawn characterisation, exquisite sentence creation and no Lolitas, then this is not the book for you. If you like clever plotting, pacy storytelling and enjoy satires, homages and parodies, then it’s well worth a try. But whatever you do, don’t let the hype guide you; no good will come of thinking Jonathan Franzen might have written this.


29 thoughts on “The Global Phenomenon With The Long Title

  1. Exactly. I was a little disappointed with this one (I read it in French and was suprised it won so many prizes). I enjoyed the satire and metatextual stuff, but a lot of the writing was very pedestrian and cliche-riddled…

    • Well that answers my question about whether it sounds better in French! The writing of the love scenes was possibly the worst – I wasn’t bothered by the rest but Nola’s dialogue… ouch.

  2. The Jonathan Franzen comparison whether accurate of not was enough to put me off, let alone the onslaught of increasingly shrill pre-publication publicity. Your elegant summing-up is quite persuasive but I think I’ll give this one a miss. Thanks for reading it for me!

  3. I avoided this one, partly because of the hype. It’s a typical pattern…the classic example is Gautam Malkani’s 2006 debut Londonstani. It was the talk of Frankfurt, massive 6 figure advance, was talked about as the new White Teeth, and then went on to poor reviews and almost no sales. It’s a terrible thing for the author to be burdened with such ridiculously high expectations, and Malkani has yet to publish a follow-up 9 years on.

    • Now that is exactly what I mean. That poor man – nine years indicates a response that must have bordered on trauma. It would be better to be mildly ignored until you really did have a worthy hit on your hands. It’s just cruel to a debut author.

  4. My shoulders collapsed in despair when you said “noir” and “femme fatale”. I know it’s a failing in me, not the genre, but I absolutely cannot bear reading/watching noir. Veronica Mars is as close as I can get. :p

    • There are things that instantly put me off a novel too – cancer narratives, for instance. I simply cannot go near them. I guess the most useful thing is just to know what we’re dealing with, so we can avoid if necessary!

    • Yikes, I can only imagine how this stood up in comparison to Nabokov…… No, there was a lot about this book, and especially the writing in places, that wasn’t good. I didn’t mind the archetypes so much as I was okay with them being used kind of ironically – though there could have been more irony, in all honesty! But I wasn’t expecting anything from it, and I read it not aware that it had won prizes – I’m sure those things would have altered my opinion, if I’d had them to mind while reading.

      • I didn’t mind the archetypes either, and just let myself go with it, while becoming more and more amazed that it could keep getting worse and worse! It was an unforgettable read, that’s for sure.

  5. I hadn’t given this novel much thought before now, but your excellent review leads me to think that I might have a lot of fun with it. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that one of the guys in my book group is going to choose Harry Q when his turn to pick comes around in a month or two. We’ll see!

    • Well, I didn’t know it had won all those prizes when I read it, and I really didn’t have any particular expectations for it. That did help. If I’d been given it on the grounds it was the best book I’d read all year….. I can see that would have provoked a very different response! We are definitely in agreement that the publicity has gone overboard here. 🙂

  6. I read it, resenting it for most of the way. I found it about 200 pages too long, with a few clever ideas surrounded by a sea of mediocre writing. The metafictional elements provide some mild interest, but not enough to live on. As I wrote when I reviewed the book, I almost have to hand it to Dicker for having set out to write a successful bestseller that is nothing more than that. It’s a bit of performance art aimed at pointing out rather obvious commercial aspects of the publishing industry – and at suckering readers – but as performance art I found it even less interesting than the mass-produced paintings of Mark Kostabi. About the best thing I can say about it is that it got me to read Georges Simenon’s Feux Rouges, ten times the book at one quarter the length.

    • If you are the same Scott who used to have a blog that featured a lot of French authors, then no, I would not have recommended this to you. Antoine Volodine, perhaps. But not this.

  7. I was sent a copy of this and it has been sitting on my shelf every since. I think I am allergic to books that are over hyped! I was the last person in the known world to read ‘Watership Down’. That proved to be a mistake but I think my ignoring of this might have been better judgement. One for the charity shop pile, I think.

    • Certainly don’t attempt to read it with the hype in mind. I did enjoy it, especially the puzzle parts of it, but one’s own instinct is usually pretty accurate, I find, and generally worth following!

  8. Heh, long titles are like a viral disease. It began several years ago with nonfiction subtitles, there was even an article about it in one of the big book pages, and it has apparently jumped species and is now spreading through fiction!

  9. Read a novel by the translator Sam Taylor instead! He’s interesting and unusual and I hope his deserved success as a translator doesn’t stop him writing any more.

  10. I don’t really have any comments on the book, but this sentence of yours is the best thing I have ever read: ‘Do you ever feel that the nectar of hype comes in a poisoned chalice?’

    I very much do!

  11. Where have I been? I hadn’t even heard of this one, but then I have never read Jonathan Franzen so maybe I would not have been the right audience anyway? I do feel for authors who just want their books to be well received and sell but then for whatever reason the selling takes on a life of its own and an author is criticized for something he may never have actually intended–if you know what I mean. Not sure if this is the case here, but it sounds like for all the criticism it wasn’t such an awful read in the end. I suppose if all else fails, the translator often gets the blame….

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