I became aware of Laurence Cossé a few years ago, when her novel A Novel Bookstore was first published by Europa Editions and widely marketed in U.S. bookstores. The premise of that novel is fascinating: a group of book snobs decides to open a bookstore that sells a) only novels and b) only novels that have been recommended by a panel of novelists who are deemed “great” by the owners of the bookstore. Consider the many levels of elitism involved in that premise. And just in case this premise doesn’t seem dramatic enough to support a novel, pretty soon the panelists who choose the novels start getting murdered. I mean, I always knew that being a book snob was dangerous, but I thought that “danger” in this case meant that there was a distinct possibility that I would end up quitting my job and becoming a bookblogger and spending all day long muttering to my cats about the spelling errors in Wichita. But apparently being a book snob is really dangerous. As in, that-kid-I-picked-on-back-in-second-grade-for-not-being-able-to-read-is-waiting-outside-my-window-with-a-chain-saw dangerous. Yeah, I’m paying attention.
Ultimately, though, I ended up appreciating the premise of A Novel Bookstore more than I enjoyed its execution (although, since she used the titles and authors of real novels, I ended up keeping my copy instead of giving it away after I read it because it is a veritable treasure trove of contemporary fiction – much of it European and therefore previously unknown to my Borders-biased eyes). But the originality of its premise made me want to read the author’s other novels, only two of which – An Accident in August and A Corner of the Veil – are available in English.
In An Accident in August, Cossé once again takes on an ambitious premise: the life of the person who was driving the Fiat Uno that was grazed by the speeding car in which Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed were killed early on the morning of August 31, 1997. If you don’t remember the particulars of the accident (as I didn’t before I read this novel), the Mercedes containing the princess and al-Fayed was speeding in order to evade a car full of photographers. As it approached the Alma tunnel in Paris, the Mercedes approached a Fiat Uno at the entrance of the tunnel (usually described as the “slow-moving car,” the Fiat was in fact traveling at the speed limit). The Mercedes swerved at the last minute, grazed the Fiat, then lost control and began to spin, hitting a pillar in the center of the tunnel at high speed, killing the Princess, al-Fayed, and Henri Paul, the chauffeur and badly injuring Trevor Rees-Jones, who was traveling with the couple as a bodyguard. As far as I know (and as far as the person who wrote the book jacket of Cossé’s novel knows), the driver of the Fiat Uno was never identified.
Cossé picks up the story where the known facts leave off. She imagines that the driver of the Fiat is Lou, a twentysomething restaurant employee who works in Paris but lives in the suburbs with her boyfriend Yvon. Stunned by the accident, Lou keeps driving – in what strikes me as an entirely plausible example of the fight-or-flight reflex taking over – in spite of the fact that she knows on some level that she should stay and “help” the people in the Mercedes. (Thoughts in my head as I read: At the time of the accident, Lou did not know who was in the Mercedes. All she knew was that some daredevil psycho in a Mercedes appeared out of nowhere in her rear-view mirror and crashed spectacularly into a pillar in a tunnel in the middle of the night. As a woman traveling alone in the years before cell phones were omnipresent, as far as I am concerned Lou was perfectly in the right to flee the scene. She certainly shouldn’t have gotten out of her car. But apparently French law expects more heroism from the average person than I do.) When she wakes up the next morning and hears the news of the accident, she begins the convoluted process of trying to hide her identity as the driver of the Fiat – and the novel proceeds from there, with creepy auto-body mechanics and nosy co-workers and kidnappings and electrocutions and hair dye and lots and lots of time spent on trains.
Cossé’s narration is extremely efficient – efficient in a way that I was taught to admire above almost any other quality in fiction. Lou’s past life is as much of a mystery as that of a Hemingway protagonist. I didn’t count, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there is not a single complete sentence of backstory in the entire novel – a phrase here and there, yes, but not an entire sentence. And ‘backstory’ is a word that I was taught to say with my teeth bared, snarling. But underneath my educated exterior, I don’t really agree. I like backstory. I like knowing characters intimately. I like Hemingway’s novels and stories for their language, but I don’t like feeling like his protagonists are no more than cardboard cutouts – and I am happy when I read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and his other late stories when he backs off a bit on his journalistic style. At the beginning of the novel, I can sympathize with Lou because I can imagine myself in her situation – forced to act on instinct and adrenaline, even when her gut reaction contradicts what she knows she is “supposed” to do. But as the novel progresses, I have less and less patience with her because I don’t understand her choices. I am still interested; but the reasons that I am looking for to explain her choices are never supplied. Lou’s life outside the context of her current situation is absolutely opaque. We know nothing about her family except that she seems to have an unpleasant relationship with her mother. She seems to distrust and/or dislike Yvon for reasons that his actions never support. She quickly proves herself an excellent liar. We know that she hates her given name (Louise) and will not answer to anything except her nickname, and although it is hinted that she usually lives her life by a tight routine, she also seems to have no qualms about abandoning her home and her job and her boyfriend and simply starting over.
As far as I can tell, there are two possible readings of Lou’s character. The first is that while she really has not done anything terribly wrong on the night of Diana’s accident, she has done something else wrong at some other time in her life and is trying to avoid the police and the press for that reason. No evidence is given to support this theory definitively, but plenty of Lou’s actions suggest it: the fact that she lies and uses a false name so easily, the quickness with which her brain generates a variety of plans to go on the run, her terror of having her picture taken (“It’s like dying for me. Like being torn from myself, like being emptied out” ). While this fear echoes Diana’s own determination to evade the paparazzi, it also suggests that Lou has either experience with aggressive photographers or a good reason to fear them.
The other possibility is that the trauma of her experience in the tunnel sets off some kind of innate guilt within Lou that is not necessarily connected to any of her actions. I know that I have felt this way: someone’s wallet goes missing and you immediately expect it to turn up in your purse, or you pass a cop car and immediately panic, saying to yourself, I don’t THINK my trunk is full of gagged naked ten year-old Somali sex slaves, but who knows? Maybe I just forgot.
It has something to do with original sin. That or the superego – I keep getting those two confused.
Either of these options is psychologically realistic, and either could make for a very compelling novel. But unless I’m seriously missing something, the ending of the novel really doesn’t commit to either option, and Lou is as much of a mystery as she was in the opening scene – or more so, since in the opening scene her gut reaction to the collision in the tunnel makes perfect sense. I think there are probably some readers out there who would find this ambiguity fascinating, but I don’t. I enjoyed trying to fit the puzzle pieces of Lou’s character together during the first half of the novel, but I wanted her motivations to start to come clear in the second half, and they didn’t. I felt as if I were watching a shadowy figure in a security video monitor instead of a literary protagonist whose actions should make sense to me on some level.
If you’re reading this review and think the novel sounds compelling, then by all means, seek it out and read it. It’s well written with crisp, precise prose, and I’ve left out enough of the details from the novel’s dramatic middle and ironic ending so that you’ll have a suspenseful experience reading it. And maybe you’ll find some subtle clues in the details at the end of the novel that do suggest Cossé’s intentions for Lou’s character – I was frustrated by the time I reached the end and may have missed something. But if character is your primary reason for reading fiction – and if you’ve already been-there-done-that with the Hemingway-style protagonist – then I tend to think you’ll find Lou as disappointing as I do.
But by all means – read the book and let me know.