Pascal Garnier’s book Boxes opens with the illustrator Brice moving from Lyon to St Joseph, a village in Valence. It’s November and Brice is miserable and “furious with [his wife] Emily for having left him helpless and alone.” In time, we learn that Emily, a journalist, fell in love with this house two months earlier, and even though she’s absent, Brice has continued with their plans to move.
All Brice could recall of that visit were fragments, like those which come back to you from a long-gone dream. It was dark, and he was hungry and tired. The estate agent, squeezed into his cheap little pinstriped suit, had followed them round like a poodle and, since he had no sales pitch, turned on all the electric light switches-clickety click-to prove that everything had been redone.
That quote is a perfect example of Garnier’s style and bleak, darkly humorous vision. We see the estate agent, plump, pitifully eager and hopeful that he will make a sale. There are no personal details about the estate agent, the colour of his hair or eyes, and Garnier couldn’t care less about his marital status–he’s just a pathetic sad little man on his hamster treadmill, desperately trying to make a living.
But back to Brice… Garnier gives us a few pages of that special kind of hell … moving from one home to another–underscored by Brice’s thoughts that he made a mistake.
Now stone walls and ceilings weighed down by enormous beams were leaning in on him, menacingly. It was extremely cold, and dim like in a cave. He opened the blinds in the dining room and living room, but the dishwater-coloured light which poured in did nothing to warm the atmosphere. It was like being in an aquarium without the fish.
‘A burial plot for life, that’s what we’ve bought ourselves.’
The move “put an end to ten years of a life so perfect that it seemed it would last forever.” But the house in Saint Joseph was Emily’s choice and Emily’s project, and so Brice is going along for the ride. But where is Emily? Clearly he expects Emily to return and their happy married life to continue. The big question becomes … where is Emily? Is she dead? Has she left Brice, a man clearly teetering on the edge? Emily’s parents call occasionally to check to see how Brice is faring alone, and there are some badly connected phone calls from Emily. The story behind Emily’s absence is slowly pieced together over the course of the novel.
Author Pascal Garnier also wrote children’s books. It’s not easy to mesh Garnier’s dark novels with the children’s author side of his career, but perhaps Brice is Garnier on the other side of the mirror. Brice creates the illustrations for a series of Sabine novels and now loathes the fictional child, the fleshy author who created her, and children in general:
Children are ogres, vampires. You only have to look at their young parents–the mothers with their dried-up breasts, the empty-handed fathers–to grasp the sheer greed of these merciless cannibals. They get us in the prime of life and ruin our secret gardens with their red tricycles and bouncy balls that flatten everything like wrecking balls. They transform our lovers into fat women, drooling blissfully as they feel their bellies, and turn us into idiots numb with exhaustion, pushing supermarket trolleys overflowing with bland food stuffs. They get angry with us because they’re midgets, obliging us to punish them and regret it. On the beach they play at burying us or dig holes to push us into. That’s all they dream of: taking our place. They’re ashamed of us, are sorry they’re not orphans, but still ape us horribly. Later they ransack our drawers, and become more and more stupid as their beards grow, their breasts grow, their teeth grow. Soon, like past years, we no longer see them. They’ll reappear only to chuck a handful of earth or a withered rose on to our coffin and argue over the leftovers. Children are Nazis; they recognize only one race: their own.
Boxes is not my favourite Garnier novel. Plot wise, Boxes seems weaker than the other Garniers I’ve read, but the malicious joy found here resides in Garnier’s unique world vision. The picturesque village, for example, according to Garnier, is something grotesque and diseased; from one central house, the village appears to have spread “developing like secondary tumours.” There is one hilarious section involving Brice’s opinion of Meccano, and it’s a perfect example of Garnier’s skill. The passage sums up the author’s way of capturing the collective disappointments of humankind as we struggle to survive in this merciless world.
Boxes is a story of madness and just what happens when one vulnerable person meets someone who is deranged. It’s a topic touched on in Garnier’s Islanders–a story in which two functional (or semi functional) people connect and descend in a self-destructive spiral- a folie à deux.
For those interested, I’m listing Garnier novels in my order of preference, and that means that some have to go towards the bottom of the pile; but even the bottom of the pile is damn good.
Cleopatra Loves Books reviewed Boxes
Translated by Melanie Florence
Review copy/personal copy