All My Friends is a book of short stories by French author Marie NDiaye. The second book released by Two Lines Press – a new publisher associated with The Center for the Art of Translation in California, – it is translated by Jordan Stump. I’d heard many good things about NDiaye, and Stump seems to have an affinity for translating unusual narratives, so I was looking forward to reading this book.
Which makes it hard to admit that on first reading I found the collection somewhat disappointing. The five stories are not linked, but they share a common theme – the main character’s inability (or is it unwillingness?) to connect with reality. All five are written in the first person and each narrator drags the reader further into the rabbit hole of psychosis. Because our perception of what is going on is so severely limited and dependent on a series of unreliable narrators, many of these stories are disorienting. NDiaye makes little effort to distinguish between what is reality and what is delusion. What breadcrumbs she leaves are sparse – small, easily overlooked clues as to what is actually going on.
The first story, “All My Friends”, is about a retired teacher stalking a former student. The student is now his housekeeper. His obsession with her dominates his life and defines his remaining relationships. She, in term, loathes him – and seems to take a kind of sadistic pleasure in tormenting him with her disdain. At least that’s what he believes. The situation, as these situations tend to, crumbles. The final scene is chilling… but a bit confusing if you think too hard about what triggered it.
“All My Friends”, along with two of the longer stories in the collection: “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day”, are particularly challenging. The narratives are fragmented. and at times difficult to follow. These short stories read as exercises, character sketches intended to be absorbed into a larger work (a novel perhaps) at a later date? They lack emotional weight as stand-alone stories. These narrators are so unreliable – their memories and perceptions so distorted – that it is impossible to believe anything they say.
I became increasingly suspicious… not to mention a bit paranoid. I did not trust these people, but they were all I had.
And that’s what makes this collection so brilliant. We are shown the world and events only from the narrator’s perspective. And that perspective is a bit skewed – to say the least.
Jimmy’s dog ran towards her, leapt up, dampened her cheek with a hearty lick. For the few seconds that the dog’s eyes were level with Brulard’s, she had the brutal feeling that she could see her own anxious soul reflected of submerged deep inside them. The dark mirror of the dog’s pupils seemed to be showing her not her own miniaturized face but something else, unexpected, inexplicable – as if, Brulard told herself at a loss, her appearance had suddenly changed beyond all recognition, or as if the dog’s incomprehensible black eye were reflecting Brulard’s true, secret being, of which she herself had no notion, which she couldn’t describe, even on finding it thus revealed in the gaze of that pitiful creature.
The remaining two stories are less complicated, but equally rewarding. They’re also easier to summarize than “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day” (which, though convoluted, are still wonderful) . In “The Boys” we meet René: an awkward, teenaged boy who spends all his free time at a neighboring family’s farm – the Moers. On one visit he witnesses the mother selling her attractive, younger son. Though this event will ultimately tear the family he idolizes apart, René becomes convinced that this is the path down which his own happiness lies. Things, needless to say, do not go as planned.
René, as a character, is fascinating. As you learn more about his life you realize that in his family he is the golden boy. René’s mother gives him the best food at dinner. His brothers and sisters admire him. But his family circumstances are very different from the Moers’. René’s family appears to survive at the edge of starvation. His mother is a prostitute for the migrant laborers in the area and all the children have different fathers. And so his vision of himself waivers between grandiosity and soul crushingly low self-esteem. Remove the strange circumstances this story places him in and René could be any young man-boy with a high opinion of himself that he has done little to justify.
In “Revelation” NDiaye switches from the son to the mother. A woman takes her mentally handicapped son on a bus ride with the intention of abandoning him once they reach their destination. This is a very short story, only six pages long, and focuses entirely on the mother’s emotions. At first she tells us of how she hates her son. How he annoys her and how she mistreats him at home. “He’s unbearable, she sometimes thought. And also: he seems not so much insane as stupid, appallingly stupid.” Yet, we are told -
She was angry with herself for that. This son was not cruel. His capacity for meanness had waned even as the mother’s aggressive rancor grew. She realized that her despair and her rage were fueled by nothing other than the progressive disappearance of those emotions in the son.
The mother, like all the characters in these stories, is self-absorbed. She is concerned with events only in how they affect her, and as she sits next to her son she does not think about what will happen to him. She has already begun the process of re-shaping the narrative in her head. This son becomes the only son who understood her. She is abandoning him because he is driving her mad, but once he is gone she will love him because of the loss her represents to her.* She will make the most of the situation and will miss him as much as she previously despised him.
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2013)
ISBN: 978 1 931883 23 8
*Children, as a rule, do not fare well at the hands of adults in Ms. NDiaye’s world.