The Anomaly

Herve Le Tellier’s The Anomaly, winner of the 2020 Prix Goncort and recently translated into English by Adriana Hunter, is a ‘concept’ novel in more ways than one. It is, first of all, based around one central, movie-pitch idea – a ‘what if’ which Le Tellier both begins and ends with. In addition, however, its form, too, is ‘conceptual’ – more conceptual than the average novel that is – as befits Le Tellier’s role as the current president of the Oulipo. The novel is divided into three parts: the first and last of 13 chapters, the second of 9 chapters. Each part takes its title from a line in in a Raymond Queneau poem. Its epigraphs come for a book written by one of its characters, Victor Miesel, called The anomaly – and they are exactly what we might expect from the pensées of a French intellectual:

“A true pessimist knows that is already too late to be one.”

There are references to Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and (for reasons which will becomes obvious) Romain Gary, the only writer to have won the Prix Goncort twice (by publishing under another name as the prize only allows one win).

If this makes the novel sound solipsistic then nothing could be further from the truth. Its literary references are either tongue-in-cheek or all but invisible, and certainly not necessary to enjoy a novel as gripping as any thriller. Of course, this is in part because Le Tellier is also writing across a series of genres – including thriller and satire – in short chapters which focus on one of his many characters. The novel opens with the hired killer, Blake. We learn about his first and latest kills and, incidentally, about a recent flight from Paris to New York which was “so terrifying he thought his time was up.” He is reading a book by an author he spotted on the flight – Victor Miesel who takes centre-stage in the next chapter. Here we learn about the flight in more detail:

“…the plane plummets in yet another air pocket, and something in Victor suddenly snaps, he closes his eyes and lets himself be sloshed every which way, no longer trying to anchor himself. He’s turned into one of those lab mice that’s subjected to violent stresses and eventually stops fighting, resigned to dying.”

We soon realise that the event which links all the characters is the turbulent air flight as Le Tellier introduces us to them one by one: Lucie, a French filmmaker whose relationship with Andre, thirty years older, is coming to an end; Sophia, a seven-year-old girl who is terrified of her father; Joanna, a black lawyer defending a dubious pharmaceutical company; Slimboy, a gay Nigerian singer; and David Markle, the pilot, who has terminal cancer. That there is more to it than a shared near-death experience, however, is clear from many of the chapter endings when police or FBI arrive three months later (everything is meticulously dated) looking for the passengers. One exception is Miesel: since returning to Paris he has been writing:

“Over just a few weeks, a gramophonic Victor Miesel fills hundreds of pages…”

When he finishes his new book he sends it to his publisher and, “overcome by a piercing anxiety that he cannot identify” he falls / jumps (it is left deliberately ambiguous) from his balcony to his death. The book is The anomaly which goes on to become a best-seller.

In the first part we also meet Adrian Miller, a mathematician at Princeton, who, after 9/11, had been part of a group tasked with detailing responses to possible air incidents. When their report is submitted, they are asked: “What if we’re confronted with a case that fits none of the situations covered?” As a fan of Douglas Adams, he names this scenario ‘42’ (parts of the protocol are also borrowed from Close Encounters of the Third Kind) in the firm belief it will never be needed. Not so: he has just received a message on his bullet-proof phone to tell him a car is waiting outside.

Only at the end of the first part does Le Tellier reveal what has happened to provoke such a response (look way now if you don’t want to know – though the book’s blurb reveals this in its first sentence) – Flight 006 lands safely on the 10th March, and then again on the 24th June. Not simply the same flight number or the same plane but the same pilot, passengers and crew: a duplicate of the original, or perhaps the original which has been duplicated. Whichever way round, the fact is there are now doubles of everyone on board.

The novel’s second section details the experience of the June passengers, taken to a military base and held there while a team of scientists and philosophers attempt to work out what has happened. They are not immediately told that three months has passed since take-off, nor that they already exist elsewhere in the world. Both scientific and philosophical explanations are kept light, but it would be naïve to think that they were not also serious. In the final section the March and the June passengers are brought together with varying consequences, and the novel’s conclusion is retrospectively obvious, though still one I didn’t see coming.

The Anomaly is Oulipo at its most entertaining – a compelling read which is impressive both as a literary feat and as an example of speculative fiction. Hopefully its accessibility will not detract from Le Tellier’s achievement.

Tags: ,

7 Responses to “The Anomaly”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This sounds wonderful Grant! I’m a huge fan of OuLiPo but I’ve yet to try Le Tellier – must read this!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve always been a bit daunted by the prospect of trying anything in the Oulipo style/vein, but you’ve made this sound relatively approachable – and VERY intriguing, I might add. Once again, I am reminded of some of Saramago’s fiction with the use of doppelgangers/doubles. A fascinating review, Grant!

  3. Julé Cunningham Says:

    This is a book I’ve not been tempted by – until your terrific review. It’s now on my TBR list.

  4. Cathy746books Says:

    I really enjoyed this one – very clever and insanely readable!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: