Dan Brown Meets Roland Barthes in ‘The Seventh Function of Language’

Laurent Binet's over-the-top amalgam of the airport conspiracy thriller and the French intelligentsia poses a simple question: can high theory be thrilling?

The Seventh Function of Language
Laurent Binet
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Aug 2017

Because of its construction, Laurent Binet’s second novel, The Seventh Function of Language, seems primarily interested in one question: What is the most absurd way to spin the death of the late literary critic Roland Barthes? Even those familiar with Barthes’ work – most likely The Lover’s Discourse, ammunition for highfalutin collegiate sad-sacks – might not know that he died following a random car accident, in which he was hit by a laundry van, dying a month later following a protracted battle with injuries from that incident. Binet, a University of Paris literature professor with a healthy imagination, sees intrigue where others might only suppose unfortunate circumstance. In Binet’s vision, no ordinary van collided with Barthes. Caught in a tangled web of associations that links professional semiotics with the election of Francois Mitterand, Barthes found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time – exactly the right spot for a laundry van to plow through.

The Seventh Function of Language takes the historical fact of Barthes’ death and twists it into a dizzying series of corridors, where the obscurantism of French literary theory intertwines with the backdoor dealmaking of French politics. The result is a unique genre amalgam that the book’s dust jacket markets as “a brilliantly erudite comedy that recalls Flaubert’s Parrot and In the Name of the Rose—with more than a dash of The Da Vinci Code.” In other words, with The Seventh Function of Language, Binet crafts the first literary theory mass market paperback novel. The content is the stuff of advanced English seminars; the form borrows from the kind of paperbacks that line the shelves of airport bookstores. The novelty of this union gives The Seventh Function of Language a clear selling point. Theorists like Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva don’t just peddle abstruse philosophy in university lecture halls: they’re also part of a transnational conspiracy that involves not just standing in front of lecture halls, but also those making hard political choices in unseen rooms.

With this genre mish-mash Binet positions himself to answer a dilemma set up by the author Benjamin Percy. In his essay volume Thrill Me, Percy begins his exploration of fiction with the tried-and-tired distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction”. Percy entered his MFA program without really knowing that bifurcation, and had spent much of his life consuming “genre” fiction, a style for which most MFA programs harbor disdain. “If I am a product of anyone,” writes Percy, “It is writers like Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Richard Matheson.” In graduate school Percy faced “the institutionalization of creative writing” in academia, where realism reigns. He immersed himself in the world of literary fiction when doing the work of the MFA: “I sold many of my dragon and ghost and robot books… and used the in-store credit to fill the empty space on my shelves with Andrea Barrett and Joan Didion and Rick Bass and Harry Crews.” Percy learned from those authors, and grew to appreciate how literary fiction got him to approach writing as a “mechanical inquiry” to better construct his stories.

But after awhile, awash in the realist mode endemic to MFA programs, Percy realized something: he was bored. “My classes, while very valuable to me, taught me to fetishize sentences and theme and character. Nobody ever used the word plot, as if it were something rank or forbidden.” Percy’s colleagues avoided anything that might smack of genre fiction, “the ultimate insult in so many creative writing programs”.

Thrill Me is a riposte to the genre/literary dichotomy. For Percy, literary prose can communicate gripping stories worthy of a comic book — Frankenstein exists, after all – and “genre” tales benefit from the careful, often microscopic attention that a sentence-centric approach allows. Rather than “genre” and “literary”, Percy argues, we should adopt a simple yet encompassing distinction: “Stories that suck” and “Stories that will make your mind explode with their goodness.” Key to the latter, the style to which all writers – “literary” or not – ought aspire, is a piece of advice given to Percy by his teacher, the author Barry Hannah, who said to Percy after being asked how to improve his writing: “Thrill me.”

The Seventh Function of Language, whether it knows it or not, is an example of this exact fusion of genre and the literary, and an ambitious one at that. While myopic focus on sentences can produce utterly dull fiction, French literary theory for most will commit the sin of being downright incomprehensible, perhaps even willingly so. In one of the novel’s most uproarious moments, the young academic semiotician Simon Herzog comes on to a woman with the pickup line, “Let’s construct an assemblage.” Crazy people rambling in sentence fragments of charged codewords are the fuel of conspiracy novels, but the oddball literary theorists of Binet’s novel are a step above that. When the lead police detective assigned to Barthes’ case, the curmudgeonly Jacques Bayard, finds himself in a lecture hall where Foucault – Binet’s rendition of a conspiracy peddler – is ostensibly teaching about sin, the policeman finds himself exposed to thoughts like this:

Between this system of law that governs actions and relates to a subject of will, and consequently the indefinite repeatability of the error, and the outline of the salvation and perfection that concerns the subjects, which implies a temporal scansion and an irreversibility, there is, I think, no possible integration…

Bayard is confused, and those not privy to the argot of the French intelligentsia will be too. By framing high theory in conspiratorial terms, Binet undoubtedly satirizes it, even as he evinces his deep knowledge and admiration for the subject. In another comic sex scene – there are more than a few of them in this novel – Binet has Judith Butler, a rising graduate student in this tale, shout out, “Now you feel my performative, don’t you?” The conspiracy thriller structure brings out the inherent comedy and absurdity of high theory, in such a way that even those who will never thumb a page of Discipline and Punish or Gender Trouble can enjoy the comedy.

Genre is good for more than lampooning in The Seventh Function of Language, however. Binet’s smartest move in plotting out this novel comes in his conflation of detective work and semiotics. Early in the novel, Herzog tells his class at the end of a semiological analysis of James Bond, “Polysemy is a bottomless well where we can hear an infinite number of echoes.” Just as one clue leads to another clue and then to another, semiology – the study of signs – comprises a multifarious network of symbolic clues, where one inevitably rabbit-trails to another. Initially, Bayard brings Herzog into the investigation to help him decode the language of the French intellectuals – his copy of Roland Barthes Made Easy proves woefully inadequate in that regard. But as the quest to understand Barthes’ death unfolds, Bayard and Herzog find themselves to be more akin than they ever thought they were. Both men follow the clues; one just happens to do so armed with a gun.

The primary result of Binet’s collapse of detective work and semiotics is comedy. Foucault aptly fills the role of the paranoiac, delivering diatribes that are at once insightful (“At the end of the day decorum is always the most effective means of coercion”) and outrageous (“the pimps of a dead system of thought who seek to make us breathe the stench of its corpse forever with their obscene sniggers”). The secret society central to the plot of The Seventh Function of Language, the internationally legendary Logos Club, fills the novel with equal parts intellectual insight and spot-on Dan Brown parody. Those who lose the private debates of the Logos Club, on subjects such as the superiority of the written to the spoken word, get their fingers cut off. A conference at Cornell later in the novel, which culminates in the academic equivalent of an arms deal being broken up by vicious dogs, includes some jokes that could only be dreamed up by someone who was once a graduate student in the humanities. There is a reference to a paper given by Gayatri Spivak entitled “Should the subaltern shut up sometimes?”

Yet therein also lies one of The Seventh Function of Language‘s biggest flaws. As much as the jokes hit their targets – Binet is nothing if not well-read – so much of the novel is occupied by superficially comic renditions of established academics. The Kristevas and Butlers of The Seventh Function of Language spout their theories, working them in to every conversation as if they were at a dissertation defense. These characters are built around pages cribbed from academic monographs, not personal details or backstory. Those who have read the works of these theorists will undoubtedly chuckle at the very least, but this strategy of Binet’s also instills a high barrier to entry for those not privy to the nuances and references of Barthes’ world. This further causes a thin amount of character development; only the foppish Herzog and the brusque Bayard have personalities of any depth. Of course, such is also true of the conspiracy thrillers to which Binet is indebted. Can anyone recall a Dan Brown character not named Robert Langdon?

Note: major spoiler ahead.

It would be easy to pass off the cartoonish characters of The Seventh Function of Language as a generic critique on Binet’s part, but in the end the conspiracy novel takes a backseat to the postmodern theory of Barthes and his ilk. The ultimate “twist” of the novel comes when Herzog begins to realize that he is in fact a character in a novel, a self-reflexive move that’s more Christopher Nolan than “The Death of the Author”. There are more than a few breadcrumbs leading up to Herzog’s revelation that guide the reader to Binet’s pulling out the rug beneath them. Early in the novel, while describing Barthes’ apartment, the (seeming) third-person narrator winks to the reader, “I’ll spare you the now obligatory copy-and-paste of the Wikipedia page.” A chapter featuring a discussion between Bayard, Herzog, and Gilles Deleuze concludes:

[Deleuze] downs the contents of his glass in a single gulp and, looking at Simon, adds: “This is as amusing as a novel.”

Simon meets his gaze.

Later on, with those final words of Deleuze’s perhaps in his mind, Herzog asks himself, “What would I do if I were in a novel?” Such metafictive thinking is perhaps unavoidable in a novel where Barthes, Kristeva, and Foucault all play roles. But for that very reason, Herzog’s discovery of his own fictional identity feels like a case of playing it safe, of opting for the classic pulling a rabbit out of a hat where a more stunning trick could have been performed.

In other words, the two ends of the spectrum that The Seventh Function of Language attempts to bring closer together – mass-market paperback thrillers and French literary theory – remain as far apart as they were at the beginning of the novel. The many comedic entanglements of lowbrow fiction and high culture theory prove compelling enough to sustain The Seventh Function of Language to its conclusion, but the thriller format that sustains Bayard and Herzog’s investigation ultimately proves a trifle where it could have been a more substantive interrogation of the concept of genre itself. Does the detective novel have something to learn from semiotics? Certainly. Does Binet’s union of those two genres entertain? Unquestionably. Can the world of high theory be thrilling – at least, in the same way that action movies and elaborate conspiracies get the heart racing? The jury’s still out on that one.

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