Paris, city of light-heartedness
FICTION: LAURENCE MACKINreviews This Is Life By Dan Rhodes Canongate, 422pp. £12.99
AURÉLIE RENARD is a young art student in perhaps the most idyllic city for young art students: Paris. In a desperate ploy to create a meaningful final-year project, she throws a stone into a crowd to randomly select someone to follow, draw and document for a week. As methods of random selection go, this seems on the aggressive side, and instead of gently tapping a would-be muse she cracks a baby on the head. What should happen next would involve the police, some stern words and perhaps a brief court appearance, but instead, in a matter of minutes, Renard finds herself with one week and a baby, and the plot to Dan Rhodes’s latest novel is up and running.
The improbably named French child, Herbert, is one of a number of catalysts in Rhodes’s breathless book. There is also Aurélie’s best friend, Sylvie, who unintentionally breaks hearts at about the same rate as she smokes cigarettes, and rarely leaves the house without her gun – par for the course for perennial heartbreakers, apparently. There is Aurélie’s Prof Papavoine, weary to the bone of students looking to “subvert the zeitgeist” with their arrogant artistic approaches. There is Eric Rousset, an erotic-cinema owner who is about to have his life transformed by the greatest art sensation since the Left Bank was in its pomp, Le Machine, who takes over the cinema to install his latest show.
If this all sounds improbable, that is because it is. Rhodes’s plot is not merely unlikely but so preposterous that in many other writers’ hands it would have readers flinging their books at walls in frustration. But Rhodes is sharp, witty and endlessly clever, and, as the plot deftly sidesteps from the ridiculous to the sublime and back, there’s little that isn’t charming along the way.
On the strength of this novel, Rhodes appears to be a jaded, if unreformed, old-school romantic. It’s as if his characters believe no good can come of relationships, but they are powerless to resist their hearts, so they might as well get on with it. (We are in Paris, after all.) When Sylvie falls in love with the son of a pair of Japanese tourists – based purely on a photograph and their descriptions of him – this barely seems unusual. After all, “Sylvie didn’t subscribe to fashionable notions that in order to love somebody you need to know them. Love, she knew for sure, was stranger than that.”
If Rhodes has an axe or two to grind, he does it in good humour. He is perhaps best known for his 2003 novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, and Anthropology, his collection of 101 101-word stories. In 2003 he was included in Granta’s prestigious list of best young British novelists, and after the publication of his second novel he announced that he was retiring, having had his fill of the publishing world.
Happily, he hasn’t carried out the threat and has published several books since.
It is perhaps from these experiences that we are given Jean-Didier Delacroix, a 24-year-old arts correspondent for a major newspaper. (There is no higher calling.) “Parents leaning over a newborn’s crib will barely even dare to hope that one day their child might become an arts correspondent for a major newspaper,” Delacroix reflects to himself on a particularly incisive day. Delacroix is brilliant, with a mind like a steel trap and a beautiful girlfriend, a “foul young woman of 20 – arrogant, scowling and stone cold, and this suited him very well. She was his type.” Later on she strides into the room, “a tower of perfect skin. She looked at him as though he were a dead spider in a bowl of soup. ‘What a woman!’ he thought. ‘What a day! What a life!’ ”
This, though, is still an Englishman writing about French mannerisms, but again the digs are smart and mocking rather than xenophobic, and some targets prove too tempting to resist. “President Bruni-Sarkozy” makes several appearances, popping up at press conferences to deny he is planning to invade Spain or having an affair with one of his ministers, while his wife flutters in the breeze beside him. It’s another witty turn in a novel packed with them.
This is a preposterous plot soaked in the kind of joie de vivre that any of us who have never lived in Paris associate with the city. Like a visit there, the best thing is to simply get lost and enjoy the colourful atmosphere rather than try to rationalise every detail.
Laurence Mackin is an Irish Times journalist and arts blogger