Incest by Christine Angot

Paperback
Expected publication: November 7th 2017 by Archipelago Books (first published November 18th 1999)

A daring novel that made Christine Angot one of the most controversial figures in contemporary France recounts the narrator’s incestuous relationship with her father. Tess Lewis’s forceful translation brings into English this audacious novel of taboo.

The narrator is falling out from a torrential relationship with another woman. Delirious with love and yearning, her thoughts grow increasingly cyclical and wild, until exposing the trauma lying behind her pain. With the intimacy offered by a confession, the narrator embarks on a psychoanalysis of herself, giving the reader entry into her tangled experiences with homosexuality, paranoia, and, at the core of it all, incest. In a masterful translation from the French by Tess Lewis, Christine Angot’s Incest audaciously confronts its readers with one of our greatest taboos.

JEEZ – W.T.F. did I just read???

The novel closes powerfully–I will say that. Over and over again, the narrator compares herself to a dog. She feels so ashamed of her actions–that she may have even thought she liked her actions at the time, and even now in retrospect–that she compares herself to a dog as someone she loves leaves her:

“It wasn’t his brains I was sucking, do you realize, I could have had very handsome men, I could have loved Nadine’s movies, I could have spent Christmas Eve with you. Either had very handsome men or been with you. But no, you see, Marie Christine. You’re leaving tonight, we canceled the tickets to Rome. You’re going to be with your family, I’m weeping like the dog I am, you don’t celebrate Christmas with your dog. Dogs are stupid, you can get them to suck on a plastic bone, and they’re stupid, dogs believe you. They don’t even notice what they’re sucking on. It’s horrible being a dog.”

There were moments when I thought, “Whew! Might not make it through this one! This stream of consciousness makes me want to slap her and tell her, ‘Sit down and be quiet!'”

This novel was characterized not only by the graphic nature of the relationships described here (incestuous fallacio inside of a church confessional anyone??) but by the chaotic stream of consciousness Angot used to give us her story. Honestly, I both expect and respect that this stream of consciousness is probably what it REALLY sounds like in our heads when we are distressed like this–so unnerved that we feel we’re really bursting out of our heads, seams popping us undone like a shoe two sizes too small. So, Christine Angot shows IMMENSE talent in being able to convey that so effectively. I will give her that. I decided to push through a bit longer and there were moments of gleaming, shining narration that took my breath away–whether for good or bad reasons you can be the judge, but I’d argue that the ability to do so at all can only be all good, no matter the road we took to get there.

“Drinking, to get control, I had to call her two hundred times in those anxious days. It’s normal. And at night. You stop, that’s it. It happened yesterday. I stopped it all. I don’t call anymore, I don’t love her anymore…But the last forty-eight hours, I spent them crying, telephoning, running around, delivering letters, running to get a taxi, the taxi wasn’t going fast enough. I stopped, but not on my own: she said stop. She couldn’t take it anymore either. I begged her for one last weekend. To do the thing I never do, to lick, I can say it, I hoped to be revolted by it for good.”

For me, it wasn’t that the subject matter here bothered me–I have a strong stomach for the taboo and love reads that push all of my limits. It was the author’s method a stream of consciousness that at times maddened me (fitting, perhaps) and at times impressed me. I want to experience the inner thoughts of a manic, yes–show me that!–but I do not want to live inside of those thoughts at that high a frequency of mental vibration for an entire 200 pages. Ultimately, I was too compelled to skim through the read because of this manic narrator’s voice, and for that I give the 2*, though there were definitely some shining moments to be found within these pages.

I could say, “Full review to come” but I think that’s probably enough for now, don’t you? Not even sure how to rate this one, but I’m leaning toward 2* at the moment. Will get my bearings and then possibly reconsider… 🙂

The cover art, though is absolutely exquisite. So simple and yet so beautiful, so telling.

**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Archipelago Books, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Christine AngotFrench novelist and playwright, she is perhaps best known for her 1999 novel L’Inceste (Incest) which recounts an incestuous relationship with her father. It is a subject which appears in several of her previous books, but it is unclear whether these works are autofiction and the events described true. Angot herself describes her work – a metafiction on society’s fundamental prohibition of incest and her own writings on the subject – as a performative (cf Quitter la ville). Angot is also literary director for French publishers Stock.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 

Hardcover, 192 pages
Published February 2nd 2016 by Hogarth (first published October 2007)*

Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…”

 

Wow, what can I say about this one except “wow.”

The Vegetarian by Han Kang was everything that we love about Korean and Japanese literature and art—and that’s exactly what this work was: art. Here you will find what we have come to know, to love and to expect from authors in this genre who write in this vein: the vibrancy, the subtle magical realism, the commanding usage of words and the elusive, sinister nature that is unique to these works—all embedded within an established culture of history and mores that has survived and developed for millennia longer than most others.

        The Vegetarian read with a delicious ominousness that was as subtle as a shadow, like a breath at your neck. It was that subtly that made the read so taunt and disquieting, and there was a strange, magical realism to it that almost read like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (no shock there, as they both seem to have been influenced by Kafka). As a work of short literary form (it’s under 200 pages), it was unusual, among other reasons, in that it was told from three different perspectives with almost no perspective from the novel’s subject, Yeong-hye. We see how her vegetarianism, which later leads into a kind of manic catatonia, affects first her callous and at times sexually abusive husband, then her brother-in-law who becomes completely enthralled with her sexually because of her Mongolian mark, and her sister who is the last one standing when Yeong-hye’s psyche begins to peel away.

In addition to the serious topics that The Vegetarian brushed up against: the effect of cultural mores on women, body image, conformism, familial ties and abuse, and, of course, mental illness that ultimately culminated in a way that I could never reveal without spoiling it for you—this was also a tale of family dysfunction. It was a tale of familial ties that were severed painfully, of violent confrontations and realizations, of physical and emotional starvation, and a parable about the woman, the vegetarian, at the center of it all.

          The Vegetarian was sensual, and it meandered toward its climax in a way that was both unsettling and prophetic. It was allegory elevated to the highest level of art, raised to the level of surrealism. The change in tenses and POVs worked well. And even this technique, this simple process of sentence-writing that we learn in grade school, was elevated: the tenses of sentences shifted noticeably, particularly the closer that it came to dénouement, a jolting but brilliant allusion to this descent into mental illness and personal violence, which added to the mystical element of this novel.

Han Kang produced a work, his first to be seen here in the U.S., that was so unhinged, so mystifying, that at times it would slither from your grasp. I had to sit and reflect on several of the passages for a few minutes—not because they were ill-written, but because they were both profound and often just outside of my immediate mental grasp, and that was a wonderful thing. It was an effect that I look for in modern-day writing—that disquietingly ungraspable moment.

“Yeong-hye’s voice, which came to her while she was suspended in that halfway state between sleep and wakefulness, was low and warm at first, then innocent like that of a young child, but the last part was mangled, a distorted animal sound. Her eyes snapped open in fright, and she was stung by a waking hatred the likes of which she’d never felt before, before being thrown back into sleep. This time she was standing in from of the bathroom mirror. In the reflection, blood was trickling from her left eye. She quickly reached up to wipe the blood away, but somehow her reflection in the mirror didn’t move an inch, only stood there, blood running from a staring eye.”

The Vegetarian was unconventional. It broke away from the molds that we find ourselves encumbered in with typical fiction. Here you will not find the typical “rising action, climax, falling action” formula that we’ve become so accustomed to, that we’ve grown to expect and to lean into, though we know how it’ll all end in the end. Honestly, this read left me a little speechless, so you’ll have to excuse the less-than-customary word count here. Definitely, take that as a compliment in the highest sense. 5 stars. *****

 

*The cover used here is not the cover that was released in the U.S., but it is one of the most BEAUTIFUL examples of cover art that I have ever seen, AND it more accurately portrays some of the themes in this novel (much better than the U.S.-released cover art).