Friday, 3 April 2009

The Book of Flights - J.M.G. Le Clezio

Read: December 2008

The Book of Flights in one tweet sized chunk:
Like being hit over the head with a thick philosophical tome, The Book of Flights is experimental, strange, and impossible to call a novel.

“Literature, in the last analysis, must be something like the ultimate possibility that presents itself of playing a game, the final chance of flight.”

Like most people around the world, I had never heard of Franco-nomadic writer J.M.G. Le Clezio before he was made Nobel Laureate in 2008. I remember reading the press release and heaving a great big sigh, knowing that there would be customers wanting to buy his books and unable to appreciate that they were just not available. I found Wandering Star still in print in the U.S. and ordered that in and otherwise had to stand there and inform disbelieving customers that none of his books were in print in the U.K. It was all a bit of a pain.
And yet, there was something exciting about this unknown winning such a major award. I eagerly anticipated the inevitable release of the backlist, particularly when columnists started writing about his nomadic style, his interest in cross-cultural interaction and the search for freedom. Then, from the moment I saw the cover of The Book of Flights, and read the synopsis, I knew I wanted to read it. The premise is an intriguing one: a young man seeks to escape the claustrophobia of a nameless modern metropolis, in the process celebrating and questioning both the freedom of life, and the craft of writing itself. I went home and started reading immediately.
And what a disappointment it was.

The Book of Flights is a dense, difficult to read novel with a disrupted narrative, awkward plot, strange authorial intrusions, and copious philosophical ponderings. It is a book all about the power of words: the claustrophobic ways in which they shout out from advertising; the expectations loaded upon them; their transient inability to explain our surroundings. At times it reads like stream of consciousness poetry, at times like medieval monks chanting, at others it is just powerful words placed one after another to shock and overpower you. It is a book designed to disorientate the reader.
The plot, what little there is, follows Young Man Hogan as he flees the crowds and words and expectations of a nameless necropolis. There is a song by US singer-songwriter Bright Eyes called ‘Light Pollution’ which forced its way into my head during the first chapter of The Book of Flights and remained entrenched there throughout the rest of the book. It is the last verse particularly, which seems to encapsulate the atmosphere perfectly.

“And all at once he saw the dust
And heard every tiny sound
Got in his truck and turned around

Drove out through the crowd and the cops
Drove out past that centre mall
Drove out past that sickening sprawl
Out past that fenced in gold

And maybe he lost control
Fucking with the radio
But I bet the stars seemed so close
At the end.”

The Book of Flights is a celebration of freedom of expression and adventure, a crazy swelling journey across continents and societies, seeking out some place where the world cannot follow. The strange thing is that in terms of themes and ideas The Book of Flights is exactly the sort of book I enjoy reading. It is thoughtful, and deals with the nature of writing, the urge to travel, the claustrophobia of modern life. Many of these ponderings are worth thinking further about. They have a timeless quality. For instance:

“The really extraordinary thing about any revolution is its capacity to make people want to live for something more than just earning money, to make them conceive of life in terms that go beyond the old mathematics of earning and spending.”

The problem is just reading it is too little like reading a novel and a little too much like being hit over the head with a big thick tome of philosophical ramblings. Le Clezio is well aware of this – he even mentions it in the self-criticisms of the book which intersperse the narrative. This is an archetypal work of 1960’s post-modernism. It is – damned with feint praise – experimental. I cannot imagine there are many people who would enjoy reading this. If you are good at excavating the good from the turgid then there are things to interest you, just don’t expect these to include a plot, characters, or any emotional resonance. Well, not until the lovely simple image upon which it ends. An ending which I have stolen as the long sought final line of my half written novel.

“In the village filled with this atrocious peace, Young Man Hogan waited for the bus.
Real lives have no end. Real books have no end.
(To be continued.)”

5 out of 10

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