“I need a medical certificate saying that I’m alive so that they can turn the electricity back on at my place. It’s a long story.”
So entreats Virgil, the hero of Martin Page’s sweetly amusing novel The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection, of his long-suffering shrink. Virgil is a navel-gazing thirty-one-year-old who lives in Paris, works as an advertising copywriter, and always dresses in corduroys, check shirts and V-necked sweaters. (One vividly pictures a nerdier Louis Garrel.) He’s an older but not much wiser version of Antoine, the neurotic twenty-five-year-old scholar-protagonist of Page’s hugely successful debut, How I Became Stupid. Both characters, in attempting to swim against the prevailing tide and avoid prescribed routes to fulfillment—emotional, intellectual, or financial—grapple with various philosophical conundrums. Is ignorance bliss? Does stasis prevent suffering? Is convention a useful guide to life? Through the ultimate enlightenment of his heroes, Page seeks to confer a similar edification on the reader; his books, as such, read less like conventional novels than high-brow parables, fizzy cocktails of Alain de Botton, Albert Camus, and Woody Allen.
While How I Became Stupid’s Antoine seeks to achieve absurdity by repressing his natural erudition and trying “to shroud his brain in stupidity,” Virgil has absurdity thrust upon him. We’re halfway through the short narrative when he asks his psychiatrist the abovementioned favor, the hilarity of which epitomizes the surreal tone of Discreet Pleasures. What has just transpired is not exactly a long story, but it is a bizarre one: on returning home from work, Virgil listens to a message on his answering machine. It’s from Clara, who says that she’s sorry, but she’s leaving him. Only Clara isn’t his girlfriend—he’s met her only once, so briefly that he can’t even remember what she looks like.
Virgil’s first assumption is that he must have been romantically involved with Clara, and forgotten about it. Such a monumental lapse of memory, he reasons, must mean that he is suffering from a fatal brain disease. So he swiftly winds up his affairs, closing his utilities accounts, canceling subscriptions, and giving notice on his apartment lease. This rather hasty conclusion is not out of character for Virgil, who is a hypochondriac; he regularly updates his will in reaction to “disturbing” symptoms, and so is unconvinced when, following a CAT scan, a doctor tells him that nothing is wrong:
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t joke about this kind of thing.”
“Can I get a second opinion?”
“I’m a doctor,” she said with a smile, “I’m not interpreting sacred texts.”
What follows is a light-hearted meditation on the famed psychological benefits of winning a second chance at life, as well as an investigation into another, less well-documented experience: enjoying the perks of getting dumped while suffering none of the heartbreak. Virgil’s friends, all beautiful and fragrant women, dote on him, buying him dinner and patiently engaging in lengthy conversations about his favorite subject, himself and his troubles. Quickly, though, the game palls: “He wasn’t made for lying. What’s more, he didn’t like the way his friends talked about Clara. They didn’t know her. Out of loyalty to him, they were being unfair to her.” That the reader accepts, and is even charmed by, this train of thought is a testament to Page’s deftness in creating Virgil, a character so resolutely quirky and charismatic that we can’t resist following him on his dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) adventures, even as they take a still more antic turn in the second half of the novel.
Understandably preoccupied with solving the puzzle of Clara’s message, Virgil sets out to track her down. “I’ve decided,” he announces, “to win her back.” And so the novel evolves into a tale of suspense—will the elusive Clara ever be brought to account for her actions?—and an entertaining inquiry into the reasons for Virgil’s persistent bachelordom. Not that Page is interested in offering general theories on contemporary romantic mores: Virgil is no everyman, and his intense fear of commitment—manifest in his bizarre, girlfriend-repelling precaution of living in a building with a porn theater on the ground floor and hookers in every other apartment—has a unique root cause. His parents are circus performers, and Virgil grew up watching his blindfolded father throwing knives at his mother, who was attached to a “spinning target”:
“Virgil spent his childhood witnessing this potentially homicidal spectacle. He was divided between the terror of seeing her die and shame about her displaying herself in front of audiences often composed of friends from school and their parents.”
Understandably, Virgil is convinced that his parents’ profession has horribly screwed him up, but with the advice of his closest friend, a voice of reason, Virgil realizes that he is responsible, too, for some of his romantic mishaps. His feelings toward Clara, he comes to understand, have turned obsessive because he cannot idealize or over-imagine her, because there wasn’t a single clue, “not the slightest particle or pigment that he could have used to create a portrait.” The stymieing of his typical projection proves unexpectedly invigorating: “Clara’s invisibility had more meaning and consistency than the other women’s visibility.” By gazing into an empty space, he can finally begin to learn the truth about himself.
One of the many triumphs of Discreet Rejections—whose translation by Bruce Benderson is particularly unobtrusive and faithful—is that, for the reader, the exhilaration of these psychological epiphanies is undiminished by the intentionally unrealistic plot. On the contrary, Virgil’s ludicrous predicaments function as Kafkaesque catalysts to revelations more far-reaching and profound than those generally triggered by quotidian experience (at one point Virgil even winds up in a jail cell accused of a crime he didn’t commit, surely a nod to The Trial).
But unlike in Kafka, Virgil’s involuntary upheaval will in the end free him to be happy; by invoking the Absurdist tradition of his canonical predecessors, Page offers, by explicit contrast, a more optimistic world-view. Just like Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger, Virgil is offered a promotion at work and baffles his boss by not accepting, insisting that the increased salary “doesn’t mean anything to me.” But Camus’ hero is driven, or rather not driven, by plain apathy, a belief that change is utterly pointless, while Virgil refuses the promotion only because his well-worn survival strategy is to cling to stability; he is only too aware that life is prone to transformation in all manner of meaningful but terrifyingly unpredictable ways. So the real gift of Clara’s message from out of the blue is its recipient’s joyful discovery that “he was capable of acting and changing,” since, as the novel’s deeply satisfying conclusion states so very un-nihilistically: “Virgil’s life had undergone some shake-ups worthy of the birth of a new world. Explosions, collisions, the forming of new stars had taken place.”