Told in the form of one long paragraph, all while its nameless teenage narrator stands motionless at a bus stop, waiting to be picked up for school, Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03 is a slippery, engrossing little novel. It picks up with the boy’s realization that the girl he’s taken to observing at the stop across the street is “slightly retarded,” and from there casually winds through everything on his mind—disgust at the small town he lives in, the meaning of his favourite Joy Division song, and everything in between—before landing right back where he started. The book moves in a circle; distance is travelled, but your usual forward progression is nowhere to be found.
But everything, eventually, comes back to this girl. We’re told she has spiky black hair, no curves of any kind, and eyes “like those of a heroine in a Japanese cartoon forced open onto the real world.” She never notices our narrator, so he’s free to gaze upon her from across the road and pontificate at length and in depth about what his attraction to her means, and why he feels it in the first place. Does she remind him of his own lost childhood? Or is it because her simple-mindedness is the one thing an intelligent mind like his is, ironically, unable to understand?
The narrator is precocious even by precocious standards—readers will likely either adore him, or want to throw him under the bus he’s waiting for. He has an automatic disdain for almost everyone and everything around him, the kind of premature cynic who makes a sport of calling adults on their bullshit and cooks up standard-issue teenage epiphanies like, “everything in short, was just an elaborate hoax, made up of actors and sets.” Sometimes he revels in his own turns of phrase; he describes looking at this girl “across the cold magma frozen into tarmac by the organized disaster called society”—which sounds, alarmingly, like something out of my old high school notebook. The boy is clever, in other words, and smart, but not smart enough to realize the limits of cleverness.
Despite its length, 03 carries with it the intellectual weight of a much-longer book.Valtat is able to both spin an entirely believable world out of his self-absorbed teenager’s inner monologue, as well as connect his story to all kinds of cultural signifiers. The narrator has some Morrissey in him, but also traces of more troubled figures like Lolita’s Humbert Humbert and Dostoevsky’s Man from the Underground. Part of his attraction to this girl is that she’s far from pretty in the usual sense (see: Humbert’s definition of “nymphet”), and part is that he knows he’s miles above her intellectually—yet that intellect is also what makes him unable to act. He’d rather overanalyze things in his own head, spinning his wheels in elaborate fashion, instead of going over and saying hello, or even waving.
So much is implied, but nothing is fully explained. I’ve read 03 twice now, and many of the boy’s tangential thoughts have already slipped away again. But when they’re as eloquent, funny, occasionally frustrating, and incisive as these ones are, you won’t mind hearing the teller repeat himself.
Translated from the French by Mitzi Angel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $13.95, paperback
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, October 21, 2010)