Gregoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest is surely going to end up on my Best of 2006 list. I read it yesterday, unable to put it down. It is a slim volume, a memoir, the second book by Bouillier, and the first of his, the only one at this point, to have been translated into English. In 1990, he gets a call from his ex-girlfriend who left him without a word five years earlier, not to apologize or even to mention the past, but to invite him casually to be the mystery guest at her friend’s birthday party. The book is Bouillier talking about his reactions after this call, his planning for the party, the party itself, and then the aftermath of it. It is a near perfect book. Bouillier gets all of the self-doubt, anger, and hope that anyone would experience in this situation down on paper so perfectly. It is charming and hilarious, probably in large part due to how pitiable a situation it is. And Bouillier makes some very lucid observations in such a gorgeous manner throughout the book, such as this one, which I must quote at length for you to get the effect:
Maybe that was what this Sophie of hers expected of the “mystery guest”: to arrive at the highest possible conception of presenthood. Could that be what she had in mind? And so I kept walking the streets and going up and down the avenues and looking in every storefront; but wherever I looked all I saw was merchandise and more merchandise and nothing of value except the value assigned to each thing in its turn by society, and nowhere I looked did I see any object that seemed to incarnate anything more than profit and gain, and in every direction lay all the commodities of the world expressing nothing so much as a degraded idea of The Gift, an idea contrary and, in a word, hostile to the idea of The Gift rightly understood, and the last thing I wanted was to arrive at that party bearing a gift that would shed its mystique the moment the colored paper and ribbon had been torn aside. And all at once I saw why our societies use gift wrap, not for the sake of surprise but rather to cover up the fact that The Gift is based on a lie, as we inevitably discover every time somebody gives us something, yes, and we open it and, after that microsecond when we expect the deepest fulfillment of our desire, disgust and sadness wash over us and we smile as fast as we can and say thank you, the better to bury our chagrin at never once in all our lives receiving something more than what we’d hoped for. And this evanescent boy, forever disappointed, remains incomprehensible to us. (33-34)
Bouillier also finds parallels between his story and the works of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and the Ulysses space probe. After receiving the call from his ex-girlfriend, he notes that it was on the day Michael Leiris dies, and that Germany was in the process of undergoing reunification, and various other historical events, which he was sure this call was situated in, that if Germany was being reunited, so was he with his ex. The logic is dizzying in its absurdity, but also extremely beautiful and, you begin to wonder under his sway, possibly true.