In Jean-Christophe Valtat’s dazzling English-language debut, 03, a lyric from The Smiths’ Nowhere Fast sums up the narrator’s attitude toward feelings: “And if the day came when I felt a natural emotion / I’d get such a shock I’d probably lie / in the middle of the street and die.” This belief that emotions, ones worth having anyway, are the result of conscious decisions, “long and involved tactical maneuvers,” underpins his tortured yet exquisitely expressed subjectivity—where the reader is deliciously mired for the brief, spellbinding duration of this single-paragraph novella, in which a man remembers his seventeen-year-old self’s obsession with a developmentally-disabled girl.
So his “special kind of love” for the object of his desire, a thin, pale, dark-haired “unremarkable little figure” of perhaps fourteen whom he sees each day being taken to her school bus, isn’t the result of a sudden piercing by cupid’s arrow. Our storyteller’s gorgeous, poly-clausal prose (translated perfectly from the French by Mitzi Angel) might be Nabokovian in its outrageously solipsistic stylishness, but his is not a helpless infatuation such as Humbert professed: it is a state he has deliberately brought into being in order that his “young retarded girl” can serve as the oblivious locus of his precocious philosophizing, of his adolescently intense angst, fueled by the frustrations of his humdrum suburban existence and assuaged by listening to The Cure and Joy Division (the year is 1984). This unnamed, untouched girl’s intellectual stuntedness, then, is seen as emblematic of his and his friends’ unrealized talents and “irreparable limitations,” her protected vulnerability the epitome of a childhood innocence that in reality doesn’t exist, and her perpetual asexuality a guarantee against the apparent (her suitor is a lonely virgin) and devastating irreconcilability of sex and sentimentality.
Also, because for this alienated teen so much of experience seems repugnantly fake, this “rough muddled draft of a child” symbolizes a unique taste of authenticity, since her arrested mind and inviolable detachment render her incorruptible. And to 03’s hero, everything—the society of his small town, religious faith, the behavior of parents, one’s very existence—is a big cosmic lie, a con, a counterfeit version of what is real and superior but elusively out of reach. He had arrived at this epiphany as a child at camp, when it occurred to him that his environment “was just an elaborate hoax, made up of actors and sets—I didn’t know whether to be more surprised by the scope of the thing (no doubt serving some secret purpose that was, unfortunately, beyond me) or by its low budget (which would explain the bad architecture and the extras’ general lack of talent) and even if I understood this wasn’t literally true, still it was a striking and conclusive glimpse of the fraudulence that surrounded me.”
Such ideas, which 03 is full of, read like a damning commentary on fiction itself, especially so given that Valtat’s authorial approach stands in explicit opposition to the typical narratives of life and literature, which exalt cause-and-effect, forward momentum, transformative connections with others, and ultimate resolution. His protagonist asserts his own unassailable emotional agency, his “story” takes place entirely within his own mind, and nothing, from his physical location at the bus stop to his secret love for the girl to his general despair over the business of life, alters between the first and last pages, making the title of the Smiths song he quotes, Nowhere Fast, even more apropos. If there’s any justice in the world—and of course, 03’s narrator would insist that there isn’t—this beautifully bitter little book will become as instantly classic as the work of Morrissey and Marr.