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Sunday, December 3rd, 2006
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The Mystery Guest: An Account

by Gregoire Bouillier

Crashing the Party

A review by Laird Hunt

Grégoire Bouillier's handsomely packaged American debut is neither novel nor memoir, but "an account." This little bit of play with nomenclature, which appears on the book's front cover, is symptomatic of the creative liberties taken in bringing Bouillier's book over into English. Indeed, given that there is nothing like "an account" printed anywhere on the cover of the original, and that translator Lorin Stein has clearly moved away from Bouillier's original L'Invité Mystère (by inserting chapter numbers, regularizing punctuation, doing away with photographs) rather than towards it, as contemporary translators have tended to attempt, the publisher might have aptly chosen to replace "an account" with "an approximation." Still, Stein has been candid about his adaptation into English of Bouillier's book -- a website devoted to laying bare the quirky methodology of his translation process has been launched (, and there is no doubt that the result of his efforts is appealing.

Here, in prose that manages to be both economical and gushing -- a combo inspired, Stein relates on his website, by Sam Lipsyte's Homeland, a book he worked on while wearing his editor's cap at FSG -- we get to eavesdrop on the pleasantly convoluted thought process Bouillier's narrator employs to think himself through the ramifications of an incident that has shaken him. One afternoon, he is woken from a nap by a call from the woman who broke his heart some years previously. She is calling not to explain her actions, or to propose a reconciliation, but to invite him to be the "mystery guest" at one of visual artist Sophie Calle's famous birthday parties (comprised of a guest for each year plus one -- the mystery guest, who represented the year to come). The entirety of the book is devoted to a nimble verbal negotiation between what Bouillier thought, felt and saw just before, during, and after, the party. The outcome of this negotiation is often hilarious:

All the same, I was feverish and uneasy and in a state of absolute heartache and helpless rage at the prospect of showing up at this party where I was clearly supposed to play the part of a sentimental curiosity, where I'd be a stuffed monkey -- where I'd be a dwarf to be thrown as far as possible so as to beat some dwarf-throwing record the precise nature of which eluded me. And I thought of Flint, Michigan, where the local directors of General Motors organized a big party as a consolation for everyone laid off after the "outsourcing" of some plant, and on the grounds of the mansion overlooking the town they gave the laid-off workers money to play living statues and hold poses while cigar-smoking men in tuxedos squired around women in silk evening gowns...
The Mystery Guest inscribes itself in a tradition of French internal exploration/excavation that runs through Montaigne, Rousseau, Proust, Michel Leiris, and many, many others who have questioned the fundamental notion that experience is what we have to say about it. As Bouillier, channeling Leiris, notes in a remark that might serve to comment on the success of The Mystery Guest, "one of the highest goals [of literature] to restore by means of words certain intense states, concretely experienced and become significant, to be thus put into words."

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