Tim's Reviews > The Investigation

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel
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Mar 13, 12

bookshelves: reviewed
Read in March, 2012

Abominably bad.

The Investigation is an unabashedly philosophical novel (or is it axiomatic that a French novel would be philosophical?), and my view is that novels certainly contain ideas but should not be about ideas: they should be about people, actions, emotions.

The people in "The Investigation" are not people; they are roles, explicitly (and generically) titled: The Investigator, the Guard, the Psychologist, the Night Clerk (only one character is given even a name that rises above genericness: "the Giantess," and her name is jarring; only the author's insistence on her role -- a symbolic representation of the protagonist's mother -- makes her different. The Giantess as presented on the page is just a shrew with no special connection to the Investigator's mother, whom we never hear about in any event.

The setting is vague, unnamed, both geographically and temporally; it's most reminiscent of the Prague of Kafka's stories; indeed, from the first 10 or 20 pages, it feels like you're in the bowels of a Kafka story: surreal, foreboding, oppressive, nightmarish.

And the Investigator is in a nightmare. He works for "the Enterprise," Claudel's clumsy effort to represent the state, an omnipotent and unsettling bureaucracy that governs the world of the book ("'One way or another,' the Waiter had added, 'everything here more or less belongs to the Enterprise'"). He's come to this city, alternatively desolate and jammed with people, for the purpose of investigating an unusual number of suicides. No one at the Enterprise seems to understand his mission. He has immense trouble even securing a room for the night (he does discover the "Hope Hotel" -- but surely that name is a misstep on the part of the author; why give the Hotel an adjective when no one and nothing else deserves one? Of course he must be being ironic, but it's such a glaring discontinuity). Every step he takes is rendered impossible by bureaucracy, by pettiness, by obstinacy. He is in nightmare, and we're along for the ride.

Your dreams are surely interesting to you, but I can guarantee you that while I might listen politely and might offer an interpretation, your dreams will not be interesting to me. They'll never have the narrative clarity that makes for a good story (why they rarely work in books or movies). Claudel's nightmarish vision of contemporary society never has enough relevancy or narrative momentum to make me want to read it. (If I weren't writing a review of it, I would not have made it through 30 pages.)

And the fact that he asserts that this is a viable vision of contemporary society is the most egregious sin of this egregious book. I could accept this book (but I'd still hate it) if he'd been writing about Yugoslavia in 1984 (or 1954), or, say, the Soviet Union, or China in the 1990s. I could then understand this portrayal of the faceless, nameless, agnostic state, and the corresponding pettiness of functionaries like waiters (excuse me: Waiters, with a capital W) and Night Clerks and Policemen. But we live in an age of unbelievable abundance, and technology--the biggest sinner in Claudel's world--has made a million things better, not worse. (I'm not saying technology is purely good, but he's saying it is ruining human relations and running the state for its own good, not the good of others.)

"'I can't stand computers,' said the Policeman. 'Computers dehumanize relations.'" Really? Haven't computers and communications technology made the world infinitely more connected and afforded us infinitely more opportunities to relate to others. As the Guard puts it, "'Today's monarchs don't have heads, or faces, either. They're complex financial mechanisms, algorithms, projections, speculations on risks and losses, fifth degree equations. Their thrones aren't material thrones, they're screens, fiber optics, printed circuit boards and their nobility is the encrypted information that circulates through them at speeds faster than light. Their castles have become databases.'"

Again, there are surely unfortunate consequences of modern financial technology, but technology has done more to democratize the world than any force on earth (except for the idea of democracy itself). And that quote from the Guard demonstrates clearly that Claudel is speaking of contemporary life, and you wonder: What planet does he live on? (I'll allow as to how there's a certain poetry to that conceit, of financial technologists as monarchs.)

The book gets increasingly surreal as the action, such that it is, draws to a close, with the Investigator finally cracking under the strain of his ordeal and trashing his room at the Hope Hotel, "methodically laying waste whatever was intact in the room. Then he stopped, a little out of breath, but perfectly happy." It's a nihilistic view, that destruction is liberating (which it would be in a world that isn't free, but that's not the world Claudel is writing about).

In the end, that's what most disturbing about this book: that it seems to be written in the vein of Orwell, Huxley, and Kafka--the same style, the same sensibility, but in a world decades removed from those classics of dystopian fiction. I think Orwell, were he alive to do so, would read this book, spend a week in contemporary London or Paris and New York, and tell Claudel: "You're nuts." Claudel doesn't have an iota of subtlety in this book; he tells you everything; he shows you nothing (and you believe nothing about his characters, his world, his ideas; you don't care about any of them). The action is programmatic, polemical; the characters are types, representatives, not humans we might pity or envy or hate--or love.

Gregor Samsa, the antihero of The Metamorphosis, was human, despite being transformed into a giant insect. But the Investigator is nothing more than conveyance of an idea: "His aspect was as insubstantial as fog, dreams or an expelled breath, and in this he resembled billions of human beings."

I hated this book. But as I wrote those words, I wonder if my hatred isn't simply a recognition of something I don't understand. I don't think it; I think it's an egregious book that few people could possibly admire, much less enjoy.
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