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Book Review: The End of Eddy

By (May 2, 2017) No Comment

The End of Eddy

by Édouard Louis

translated from the French by Michael Lucey

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, a novella by Édouard Louis (born Édouard Bellegueule) was published in France in 2014 and now arrives in an English translation by Michael Lucey and bearing a killer of a blurb: “The End of Eddy is lean and poignant and masterfully tells the tale of growing up gay, poor, and bullied,” says no less an eminence in the gay-lit scene than Edmund White, who then caps an egregious exaggeration with an outright lie: “No one has told this story as eloquently.”

White has no doubt read virtually every published variation on the story of growing up gay, poor, and bullied, and he’s also written one that most readers would consider the finest example of its kind. Calling a flaccid and self-indulgent debacle like The End of Eddy “lean and poignant” would be a grave enough mistake coming from some random hyperventilating book-reviewer who’s here today and off tomorrow trying to jump-start another Henry Green revival. But for this turgid, self-pitying Hallmark card of a novella to be called “eloquent” by the author of A Boy’s Own Story bespeaks a deeper problem. If a writer of great gay fiction can call The End of Eddy great gay fiction, then something is rotten in the state of gay fiction itself.

The book is Édouard Louis’ autobiography of his boyhood and youth – which, since he’s 24, is the story of his entire conscious life. He’s a shy, sensitive thing at school, so he’s picked on by other boys. They call him names. It bothers him, and he memorializes it in overwrought prose and wraps up the overwrought prose with a fortune-cookie insight:

You’re the faggot, right?

By saying it they inscribed it on me permanently like stigmata, those marks that the Greeks would carve with a red-hot iron or a knife into the bodies of deviant individuals, people who posed a threat to their community. Impossible to rid myself of this. I was shocked, even though it was hardly the first time someone had said something like this to me. You never get used to insults.

He and his few friends furtively explore their sexuality, including an incident with a filched X-rated film:

He had a videocassette in his hand, a pornographic film A porno movie I stole from my dad, he doesn’t know it, ’cause if he did he’d kill me for sure. He suggested we watch it together. The other two, my cousin Stéphane and Fabien, Bruno’s other neighbor, agreed. I, on the other hand, didn’t want to. I said it was impossible, we couldn’t do that. I added that it seemed weird to me, and even kind of perverted, for guys to watch a porno movie together.

In response to this objection, Édouard’s cousin comes up with an idea. You’ll just never guess what it is – unless, that is, you’ve ever read a single coming-of-age story before, or seen a coming-of-age movie, or read a coming-of-age memoir, or ever gone through any variation of puberty yourself, or ever known anybody who has:

My cousin then made a suggestion as if he were amused by it, in a voice just playful enough that if we reacted badly, he could claim to have been joking, that his suggestion had been meant as a joke, that he would never seriously have gone through with it, but also with just enough seriousness and authority in his tone that we would understand that he actually meant it, suggesting that we all masturbate together while we watched the film. There was a moment of silence. Everyone was observing everyone else, trying to figure out how to react. No one wanted to risk giving an answer that set them apart, or made the others laugh at them.

The suspicion immediately falls on translator Lucey for some of this stilted, droning garbage-prose, but no: the original French is every bit as bad. And the prose is the least of the book’s offenses. Even in well under 200 pages, Louis manages to cram faux profundity, portentous melodramatics, and boring predictability into every scene, every character, every hackneyed plot development, and the only slight glimmer of amusement derives from the author’s grating solemnity – on every page, you’re certain that he’s certain that he’s breaking new narrative ground, when in fact all he’s doing is advertising the fact that he hasn’t read any gay fiction, and maybe any fiction of any kind, in all of his quarter-century on Earth. You keep expecting him to say “Now I’m going to have one of my characters remember things – I call it a flashback.”

All of which is lamentable but not earth-shaking; young novelists tend to do a small list of very predictable dumb things, including over-freighting their prose and mistakenly believing their recently-completed teenage years are in any way interesting. Re-inventing the literary wheel through hubris or simple ignorance is one of those dumb things, and with any luck, Louis will someday look back on this novella with healthy embarrassment.

But what explains the hype? Adam Haslett calls The End of Eddy “remarkably visceral.” It isn’t. Laird Hunt calls it “heart-crushing, soul-stabbing, astonishing, exhilarating.” It isn’t. Justin Torres calls it “revelatory, queerly tough, as intellectual as it is impolite.” It isn’t. This is a drab, by-the-numbers memoir of a gay youth that was neither particularly brutal nor particularly touching nor in any way distinct, and yet here it is drawing early superlatives from writers far, far more talented than its author. And if it goes on to receive the book-review equivalent of a ticker-tape parade down Broadway, it’ll be a familiar pattern: last year, the same thing happened to Garth Greenwell’s competent but overwritten novel What Belongs to You, which likewise received waterfalls of operatic praise (Edmund White – him again – called it a “masterpiece”) when it, too, mostly just earnestly re-invented a story as old as gay fiction itself, in which an effete snob picks up rough trade in a suitably colonial setting and they fail to hit it off.

It hints at a larger problem with what “gay fiction” even is anymore or should be, what its purpose or heart is in a 21st century that’s seen gay marriage legalized by court order in the United States and gay men hurled from rooftops – on camera – in Mosul. If gay fiction is going to fix or even address the problem of its own identity, it’s going to need more urgent work than these golden oldies being churned out by tense young men and flattered by tough old critics who ought to know better.

In the meantime, Édouard Louis should probably prepare himself for a very warm American welcome.