The Bourgeois Blues
translated by Linda Asher
Seven Stories Press, $23.95
Elizabeth, the protagonist of Yasmina Reza’s new novel — the mysteriously titled “Babylon” — seems to have the perfect life. She lives in a spacious apartment in a fashionable quarter of Paris. She is well paid as a patent engineer at the Pasteur Institute. Her husband is a respected math professor, and her friends are a collection of interesting, if slightly eccentric, haute bourgeois. What’s not to love?
When Elizabeth decides to throw a dinner party, however, an unsettling aura seems to hover over the proceedings. This comes mostly from Elizabeth’s first-person narration, the perceptions of which carry a razor-like intelligence — though they are often cruelly unforgiving. “That evening the millstone was Georges Verbot. He eats, he drinks, he never helps out, and he doesn’t talk to anybody.”
Her relations with her husband, it soon becomes clear, have taken on a dull numbness. “I’m happy with my husband,” she protests. “He loves me even when I look bad, which is not at all reassuring.”
Elizabeth grows irritated with her sister for spending most of the evening on her cellphone, though she approves of the source of her distraction — a sadomasochistic affair with a farmer: “I thought she was absolutely right to grab at this cockswain-cocksman guy . . . right not to worry about the jovial ex-husband, about proper behavior, while there was still time.”
The only one who seems to fare well in Elizabeth’s eyes is Jean-Lino, a rumpled, charismatic neighbor from her building. Jean-Lino enjoys a tempestuous relationship with his vegetarian jazz singer wife — during the party he taunts her by flapping his arms like wings when she asks if the chicken is free-range. Still, the narrator is unusually forgiving of Jean-Lino and his chaotic life, and the reader spends the first part of the novel suspicious that there may be an affair brewing — or already consummated — between the two. Soon, however, we learn that it is not Jean-Lino to which she is attracted, but rather the chaotic intensity of his life — a provocation for her own stultified bourgeois existence.
Clearly Elizabeth is in the midst of a full-blown midlife crisis. In addition to having become addicted to the beauty products of Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow, Elizabeth, 62, seems inordinately preoccupied with her vanished youth. “We were young. We didn’t know it was irreversible.”
But it is not apparent how dire Elizabeth’s despair is until the party’s aftermath. Amid the detritus of the evening — Elizabeth and her husband have decided to leave the mess till the next day — the doorbell rings. It is Jean-Lino. He needs a drink, he says, slumping into a chair. His wife, Lydie, is dead. There was an argument, he explains; he has killed her. Furthermore, he needs someone to help him stuff her body into a suitcase so she can be removed from the apartment. Will Elizabeth help him? Yes, comes the remarkable reply. She will.
Though an accomplished novelist, Ms. Reza is most noted for her plays “God of Carnage” and “Art,” both of which enjoyed long runs on Broadway and major film adaptations. Anyone familiar with her work knows that she is a master of the literary set piece. In “Art” a blank white canvas wreaks havoc amid the absurdities of the New York art world, while in “God of Carnage” a fight between two children on a public playground sends their respective parents into a night of hysteria and emotional violence.
In “Babylon” we have a body and a suitcase, which launches the story into a policier in the spirit of Georges Simenon — though this section of the novel is less alluring than the first. In fact, it is Ms. Reza’s dissection of Elizabeth’s malaise that is the real detective work here, and she renders it in a taut, unsparing prose style that is both exacting and unsettling.
How well “Babylon” resonates will have much to do with the reader’s tolerance for what one might call the “bourgeois blues.” For some, Elizabeth’s angst could be dismissed as a first-world problem, while others, I suspect, will identify profoundly with her existential crisis.
“I thought, So how come no tattooed guy with a whip turns up in my life? I felt finished, out of the game, fit for putting together little suburban parties with family and ultra-conventional folks. I’m irritated with myself for thinking that way.”
There’s no doubting Ms. Reza’s powers as a novelist. At her best, she can remind one of no less than Albert Camus and Joan Didion (those bards of 20th-century despair). Writers may endure more than a twinge of envy at how effortlessly the author flits from successful playwriting to prose. It just ain’t fair.
But then — as the protagonist of this darkly compelling novel would have commented — what is?
Kurt Wenzel’s novels include “Lit Life.” He lives in Springs.
Linda Asher, the book’s translator, lives in Sagaponack.