In the middle of a cold Sunday afternoon, a thirty-year-old Frenchman sleeps on the sofa in his darkened Paris apartment. The phone rings. He picks up the receiver and hears the voice of the woman who left him four years earlier without a word of explanation. None is forthcoming: after four years of silence, his vanished lover has simply called to invite him to a friend's birthday party. Thus begins The Mystery Guest, a brief but spirited romp through the jungles of masculine insecurity.
The story unfolds quickly, as the narrator obsesses about the failure of his old love affair, about the reason for the sudden and strange invitation, and about what birthday present he should bring his unknown hostess. In an extravagant and futile gesture that should make perfect sense to anyone who has ever been dumped, he splurges on a bottle of 1964 Bordeaux that costs more than his rent: “Yes, if they wanted my blood, I thundered to myself, I'd give them vintage blood, and a very good vintage at that, and they would drink it in remembrance of me–and wasn't Christ himself a model mystery guest?” Later in the story we learn that our hero has no sense of smell, and that his hostess is a conceptual artist who never opens her birthday presents, instead filing them away for use in some future installation or book, she isn't sure which.
Grégoire Bouillier, in real life a French book editor, plays himself in the novel. As rendered in Lorin Stein's deft translation, his voice conjures an unholy marriage of Nick Hornby and Paul Auster: imagine a laddish, neurotic bookworm adrift in a sea of signs. Bouillier works a dizzying range of literary and topical references into his narrative, frogmarching us through French Symbolist poetry, Native American ethnography, Nabokov, Artaud, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a brief but telling riff on the vainglorious Lebanese Christian warlord Michel Aoun, whose performance in Lebanon's civil war inevitably reminds the narrator of his romantic predicament: “I had nothing to look forward to but disaster and humiliation and more bitterness. I was like that general Aoun, shouting defiance from the rooftops of Beirut long after anyone could see it was in ruins.”
Bouillier's tale peaks at the birthday party, a vivid and often funny set piece in which the narrator gets drunk, insults his fellow guests, fends off an unwanted sexual advance from an older male writer, and in the end finds both redemption and the solution to his personal mystery. I won't give that away, but it involves a bouquet of roses and a line from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Literature, muses Bouillier, “was always getting invited into human history.” The author's central insight is basically therapeutic: by the end of this delightful book, his alter ego is ready to live on because he has finally made sense of his past. And Bouillier's characters find happiness when their lives achieve the coherence of good fiction.