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The Mystery Guest

Grégoire Boullier, translated by Lorin Stein

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Guy gets a call from ex-girlfriend, inviting him to a party. It’s not even her party, but one being thrown by a friend of hers, an artist of some pretense who always likes to have somebody invited whom she doesn’t know—the mystery guest—and he’s supposed to be that guy. Is he upset that she just up and walked out on him years ago, “without a word of explanation, without a word of goodbye, the way they abandon dogs when summer comes,” only to call now out of the blue, rip open his long-festering wound and rub fistfuls of salt into it by the very nonchalance of her request? Well, yes and no; and it’s in the admixture of those two opposing answers that Grégoire Boullier comes up with the body of his crafty little memory tale, The Mystery Guest.

Boullier is a pretty sad individual at the time of this phone call in the fall of 1990. A writer of uncertain stability with few prospects and less ambition, he’s sleeping like a depressive in his Paris apartment and drowning in a sea of self-pity that only rises higher when his past comes crashing in. For all his misery about the world of possible humiliation which is opened up by the invitation—which he, like any good masochist, heartily accepts—he almost seems to see it as an opening, a possibility for limitless bottled-up rage finally to be unleashed. The book is a rant, in a manner, though humanely short and composed with impeccable precision and grace (Boullier may be furious, but he also has manners, and doesn’t want to assault or bore the reader), as may be expected in something published a decade and a half after the fact.

While time hadn’t dulled Boullier’s anger, it has given him perspective on the ridiculousness of his situation, one ably demonstrated in his obsession over how to dress for the party, and what to bring as a gift. He spins himself in circles talking about his attire, and his strange, comic predilection for not only wearing turtlenecks as undershirts but also talking about it nearly constantly in a self-castigating manner, even defining his new girlfriend as “the one who loved me despite my turtleneck-undershirts.” A more clear definition of schmuck would be hard to find.

Boullier’s nadir comes at the party itself, when he comes face to face with his ex, and he finds himself, against all reason, afflicted with a crushing desire for her to acknowledge his pain, to act as though it had all somehow mattered, to give him hope, whether for a rekindled affair or simply an apology, it wouldn’t matter. But as the lovelorn know, such things never turn out that way, one is inevitably crushed:

I’d already kissed her cheek, closing my eyes and clenching my fists and fighting the urge to seek her lips and find and open them and taste her tongue and lose myself there the way I used to do—and so to put an end to this charade I placed the bottle in her hands, saying, “From the mystery guest.” And I hope no one ever has to smile the way I smiled then.

The Mystery Guest should ultimately be a tiresome affair, even at its eyeblink-length, that’s hardly the case. Boullier is a sharp chronicler of the interior life, registering the multifaceted varieties of self-loathing and self-delusion as he navigates the tricky waters of doubt before, during, and after the party, where he not only fails to give his long-pent-up speech to the ex-girlfriend, but sees his showoff present (a ruinously expensive bottle of wine he obsessed over choosing and absolutely can’t afford) left to one side, unwrapped.

Even as Boullier charts every minute moment of his minor romantic foibles, reading universes of meaning into every jot, blink, and syllable, he somehow never becomes tiresome. While not the kind of book that is exactly going to linger in one’s mind, it is nevertheless a corrective to many more bloated such chronicles which forget the one thing that a energetic writer like Boullier never does: just because the narrator is miserable doesn’t mean the reader need be as well.

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.

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