Between experiment and distemper falls the shadow, and there we are in Eric Chevillard’s mordant dusk, expected to laugh too. In The Crab Nebula (1993), a man called Crab is likely going insane and decides to go with it, and as he goes, Beckettian questioning (“How to proceed, and where to begin, to begin what?”) veers into humor by turns sophomoric and revelatory (“Killing yourself is like beating down an unlocked door”). Sight gags rule On the Ceiling (1997), about an unassuming revolutionary who wears a chair on his head, softening the blow of the already oblique social commentary. But the persistent funnies of Palafox, written in 1990 and recently translated into English, are something else. Just skirting wit and the visual, bald and useless, they’re too integral to be easily disposed of and too disconcerting to avoid. Most arise from confusion over the classification of a rare beast, Palafox, who inexplicably hatches from an egg at the breakfast table of former British ambassador Algernon Buffoon.
In a send-up of competing narratives (“It’s all a question of point of view”) and objectivity so pure it won’t discriminate, the experts kick off the confusion. Professors Zieger/Ziegler (ornithologist), Cambrelin (ichthyologist), Pierpont (entomologist), and Baruglio (herpetologist), provisionally suggest that Palafox is a bird, a starfish, an insect, and a snake respectively. (How else to explain his beak, crest, antennae, fins, wings, tail, and stinger?) There are some laughs in the subsequent glut of contradictory description, but by page eighty or so, after he’s been a croc and not a croc (a crock?), in size “close to a fat wasp or a little cheetah,” and weighing “nine tons” and “two hundred tons,” etc., it’s like watching a guy with Tourette’s work through the last hour of dinner with his fiancée’s parents—excruciating or perversely funny, depending on your human quotient. Meanwhile there’s a war going on, which is noted at times for plot’s sake—when the Buffoons are forced to take sanctuary farther from the fire, or when the neglectful yet painfully fastidious narrator (whose habit it is to “remind” us of things never tendered in the first place) comes out with something like, “We are at war, lest we forget.” (He’s also prone to elaborate on the literary conventions he employs and proffer jarring analogies like “With certain game, it is awkward to use the same strategy, as with killing one’s grandmother.”) All the while Palafox is variously prodded and exploited, running amok (“Neither drought nor hurricane ever caused as much damage”) and made scapegoat for the historical sufferings of mankind, only to land in a beauty contest (for dogs, I think): if he wins, he lives. He wins, “approaching as best one can the ideal of the breed,” but at his society debut, he “blows his entrance” by decapitating Madame Franc-Nohain’s beloved Scottish terrier and otherwise making havoc, till someone squashes him, juicily, against the wall. Buffoon and co. have already debated the merits of cooking him (“inedible”) and selling him piecemeal at premium prices. Eschewing bourgeois notions of wartime practicality, they decide to stuff him (tears fall on the page, literally).
If this were the only book Chevillard ever wrote, one couldn’t say he wasn’t precocious, but The Crab Nebula proves him a major talent, a worthy descendant in the Beckett-Bernhard line. Maybe Palafox is his Watt, the work of a writer-in-progress—distractedly ambitious enough to occupy a place in the roster of bad dreams—whose antagonizing pleasures some gray morning may find their way into your bloody heart.