Elizabeth Levallois is a “cultural journalist,” as she glibly puts it in the first few pages of Tristan García’s debut French novel Hate: A Romance. A chic Parisian intellectual and arbiter of the fashionable, Elizabeth believes in pills, has been called “pretty” enough to believe it, is a self-professed bitch, and has terrible taste in men. Of all of these qualities, the last is the most important for us, as it is Elizabeth’s willingness to surround herself with destructive personalities—and then meticulously recreate them in print—that drives Hate’s central narrative. “I’m Willie’s friend, Doumé’s colleague, Leibo’s lover,” Elizabeth flatly explains early on, naming the main characters of the book. The three men and one woman began as friends and lovers in the elite cultural circles of Paris in the ’80s only to emerge from the tumult of the ’90s as culturally iconic enemies, trying with varying levels of success to destroy one another’s lives.
Hate: A Romance is a bold, ambitious, provocative novel told in the mode of long-form narrative journalism, and it’s to García’s credit that we soon forget about him entirely. As the narrator Elizabeth explains to us early on, Hate comprises her reportage—pieced together from her interviews and memories, from transcripts and excerpts. The book serves partially to critique the cultural battles of the ’80s and ’90s in Paris, revealing the sex and personal disputes that lurked behind public politics and nasty, contrived intellectual debates. But the book’s primary objective, Elizabeth says, is to restore the biography of her dear friend William Miller. The prevailing public image of William, we’re told quickly, is a grisly one—a shallow, volatile “public intellectual” with a known history of purposefully infecting partners with HIV.
When Elizabeth meets Willie, she’s already a fixture in Parisian intellectual society, along with her colleague Dominique (or “Doumé). The two journalists write about parties, music, art openings, literature, and high society for a handful of small, hip Parisian magazines. In short, they’re snobs who write about that catchall “culture”—a role that Elizabeth clearly both loves and abhors.
Elizabeth first encounters Willie with the intention of writing about him for a magazine. A teenager from the countryside, Willie comes to Paris with passionate ideas on literature, music, philosophy. (He adores Spinoza, for instance, and namedrops him constantly.) But by the time Elizabeth meets him, he’s homeless, drug-addled, and rambling to anyone who will listen. Their meeting does not go well: Willie smells and looks terrible, is basically a junkie, speaks incoherently. And yet, she finds something beautiful and alluring about him; he possesses a kind of punk charm, an attractive recklessness (perhaps psychosis). It’s that rough, naïve beauty that convinces Elizabeth to bring him into her life, to clean the boy up.
Dominique, too, is drawn to Willie, who is several years younger than him. Like Elizabeth, he takes Willie under his wing, brings him into their elite circles. Practically overnight, the odd pairing becomes a devoted couple, and for the only time in the book—practically a blip in the narrative—they have a surprisingly content relationship, lasting five years.
Then the AIDS epidemic hits. It’s not entirely clear who is first infected—and the question becomes a key point of contention in the novel—but both Doumé and Will are diagnosed with HIV just as the outbreak hits the cultural fore. For a number of reasons—including how the HIV diagnosis affects them—they break up, or, more accurately, declare war.
“The eighties were a cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics, and Western homosexuality.” Elizabeth is making fun, a bit, but it’s all too serious to Doumé and Will. Doumé starts an organization to raise awareness about safe sex in the gay community and distribute condoms. Will, outraged for reasons that don’t entirely make sense, decides Doumé must be stopped—and he founds his own counter movement, built on promoting unsafe sex. To Will’s faction—whether or not he believes his own rhetoric is unclear—safe-sex campaigns deny gays the right to express the part of themselves that makes them unique, that makes them important and culturally significant. It’s as provocative as it is intellectually suspect, and it propels the volatile, bipolar Will onto the national stage. He becomes a media phenomenon.
Much of this exposition, might I add, is revealed fairly early in the book—and Hate, then, charts the duo’s slow, public, political escalation of hostility. As this feud plays out, Elizabeth maintains her reportorial detachment, even when she’s caught in the crossfire. But she’s not without opinions; much of the book reads as elaborate deadpan, and Hate’s characters can be comically earnest. There’s the sense that, while intensely serious, Elizabeth also realizes that they’re completely ridiculous. But the detachment can also be frustrating; why does she indulge, for instance, in exposition about specific superfluous political debates if she does find them ridiculous? Why not just say so, and move on?
One explanation, perhaps, is that Elizabeth does not want to adulterate her elaborate piece of journalism by inserting too much of her life, or her opinions, into the story. But she does run the risk of alienating her reader. At times the very human figures of Doumé and Will even become obscured by the political debates that roil around them. They’re powerful political icons, and yet they stop existing as people.
Ultimately, though, the story is a human one. Elizabeth—or should I say García—reminds us that the politics of sex, no matter what the intellectual foundation, are still about the physical human body, about individual people at their most private and primal. By inserting themselves into a public debate about sexual politics, Willie and Doumé give over their personal lives to become political fodder.
Late in the book, with the Internet in full-swing, Willie asks for Elizabeth’s help in creating a webpage. It appears, like many things with Willie, at first like a harmless request. At this point, Will and Doumé are both known figures in French intellectual society, their bylines appearing in alternative weeklies, their books on store shelves, their faces on talk shows and news programs. On a low-tech Web site, Will posts thirteen photos of Doumé. The photos are utterly private, most of them nude or during sex, all taken during their relationship many years earlier. The captions William provides are, somehow, as malicious as they are clearly nostalgic: “This was before Dominique got in bed with the government,” he writes of a Polaroid of the two men engaging in oral sex.
“Everyone in Paris had seen it,” Elizabeth says. “I couldn’t imagine how [Doumé] must have felt when someone told him to take a look at what was on the Web.” And Elizabeth, ever the journalist, presses Will, asking him if he understands what he’s doing, if he feels some remorse as he destroys what’s left of Doumé’s life:
I said, “Do you realize, Will, that since it’s on the Web everybody’s going to see it?”
“Oh, Liz, the Internet is so over. It’s done. You have to keep up. It’s ancient history.”
And then, “There’s no joy to the past, it’s always sad, even when it used to be joyful. It only proves that the past is shit. The best you can do is forget.”
This short chapter—which could stand on its own from the rest of the book—is succinctly devastating, an example of the book at its most successful. The passage reminds us (or, in the fictional world of the novel, reminds those who remember Will and Dominique) that before they gave up their personal lives to political movements, they were normal people. The photos Will posts are all personal, even domestic, and have no political meaning until Will reinterprets them for his political purposes. To everyone else, the Web site is simply the gossip of Parisian intellectuals; but Elizabeth shows that the feud between the two has nothing to do with politics at all. For a moment, from the commotion of the political and cultural movements that had been waging war on their behalves for a decade, William and Dominique emerge again as human beings; as to two lovers absorbed with jealousy, nostalgia, and anger; as two people that never quite got over one another.