L’Anomalie by Hervé Le Tellier review – thrills of high concept | Fiction in translation
In the first chapter of this novel, a hitman says to himself: “No one realizes how much hitmen owe Hollywood screenwriters. But how does the author know? The throwaway joke, along with a shameless obsession with verbally recreating and name-checking the streaming TV drama’s staging, is typical of the book’s effervescent playfulness. Hervé Le Tellier, after all, is the current president of Oulipo, the French “workshop of potential literature” whose old masters included Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. And what he did here would delight his ancestors with its paradoxical character: he wrote a bestseller oulipan, a Goncourt prize-winning novel which has already made a million copies on the continent.
Each chapter in the book’s first section features a different actor, mostly French or American, in a different novel or television style (expertly handled in Adriana Hunter’s clever translation). After the contract killer Blake, we meet a writer, Victor Miesel, then the editor Lucie, the architect André, the musician Slimboy, Sophie, six years old, and her frog, the lawyer Joanna, and the mathematicians Adrian and Meredith. Victor’s story is a hilarious and tongue-in-cheek satire of the Parisian literary scene: his two successful novels are illustrated in the titles The Mountains Will Come to Find Us and Failures that Missed the Mark, while he “also translates entertaining best-sellers into English that reduce literature to the essentials”. status of minor art for minors”. (He starts working on a book called The Anomaly, because of course he does.)
Other paintings are by turns amusing and touching: Slimboy is a Nigerian pop star who wonders if he can come out as gay; David is diagnosed with aggressive cancer; André and Lucie were once an object but no more. Adrian and Meredith flirt tipsy at a staff party at MIT, where “there’s tequila in the Turing Room, in the closet behind the markers.” Here’s Meredith considering Adrian: “For a statistician, he’s a dreamer. He has green eyes that make him look like a number theorist, even though he has long hair like a game theorist, and wears a logician’s little steel-rimmed Trotskyist glasses and the old T-shirts holes of an algebraist.
It’s been a bravura 100 pages of emotional or comedic intros and complications before the conceptual inciting event happened. Air France flight AF006 from Paris to New York emerges from the turbulence of an unexpected thunderstorm when air traffic control is diverted, and is redirected to a secret military base. Why? Because it’s the exact same flight that once landed at JFK after coming out of a storm three months ago. Not just the same flight number, but the same plane, with the same people on board. And guess what connects all the characters we’ve met so far. There are now two copies of Blake, Victor, Lucie, Joanna and everything else – except for Adrian and Meredith, who are instead taken to consult with the US government on what this might mean, while the intruders are held captive. in a Hollywood movie. hangar.
Eventually, the confidence of the assembled brains (you would have thrown Jeff Goldblum into a plan) decides that the most likely explanation is that we all live in a simulation. Not like The Matrix, where humans are real but enslaved by machines; instead, we are nothing more than computer programs ourselves, running in a vast simulation overseen by an alien civilization of unimaginable technological capabilities. Boffins explain this by referring to the Oxford philosopher “The Simulation Argument” by Nick Bostromthough something very similar was a pan-galactic religion known as “The Truth” in Iain M Banks’ sci-fi universe.
If this is the truth, however, what does this sudden duplication of a plane full of people mean? Maybe it’s a test, the characters assume. How will humanity know if it has failed? As the intelligence and military types vie for the draw, the rest of the novel follows the characters as, in different situations, they encounter their doppelgangers. Would you share your life with the person who also thinks you are? Would you claim them as a long lost twin? Or should they disappear?
After a suitably playful ending, we are left with a post-echo, a fictional feat informed by other fictions. Le Tellier describes a world flattened by the unbearable lightness of representation (where some still remember a time “when too many photos had not yet killed the photos”). Is he making a sneaky case that the great Netflix god has become the default way for us to interpret the world? In any case, it seems normal that the screen rights to the novel have already been sold. From television came the Anomaly; on television should he return.
L’Anomalie by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter, is published by Michael Joseph (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.