Roland Barthes was murdered.
If that line means something to you, if it shocks or surprises you, then you are the reader Laurent Binet is writing for in his newly translated novel, The Seventh Function of Language. This is important because unless readers are familiar with French literary theory, the linguistic turn and the culture wars that took place in Europe and the USA after 1968, they will have a difficult time discerning the myriad allusions and ironic commentary that pepper every page of the book.
The real Roland Barthes, the famous French literary critic and semiotician famous for works like Mythologies and Camera Lucida, was not murdered. He was struck by a van while walking not far from the university where he taught in Paris. An accident that was all too banal.
Binet’s Barthes, however, dies because he managed to gain possession of an apocryphal essay in linguistic theory: Roman Jacobson’s explication of the seventh function of language. What is it? How does it work? In the wrong hands, could it be dangerous? The mystery of the seventh function and the discovery of a secret society known as The Logos Club quickly overshadow Barthes’ murder and bring about the unlikely union of a fascistic detective named Jacques Bayard, and a left-leaning graduate student of theory and semiology, Simon Herzog.
Binet’s novel will call to mind Umberto Eco, who is also a character in the book, and his semiological mysteries The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, though Eco’s works are much more serious. The real Eco has a respect for the ideas and characters he writes about, even when he is rewriting history, a respect that is lacking in Binet, whose comic portrayal of theorists and past events is mostly flippant — by design. This is perhaps what is most problematic about the book because Binet’s impudence risks alienating the very readers his book will most appeal to: those who studied, admired and were inspired by the famous literary theorists that people the story.
Binet is not the first to turn a modern literary figure’s accidental death into a murder mystery. Berta Vias Mahou, for example, makes Albert Camus’ fatal car accident a political murder in They Were Coming for Him. And this allows Vias Mahou to explore the moral and political issues of the time, and to highlight Camus’ contribution to them. Vias Mahou’s book leaves you yearning to know more about Camus because it is an homage to the man.
The Seventh Function of Language, instead, is a postmodern pastiche of the ideas of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, and all of the other usual suspects many will remember from graduate school. While Binet does occasionally explore more thoughtfully some of the topics these theorists dealt with, such as the distinction between the written and the spoken word, the difference between semiotics and epistemology, the rhetorical strategies of Lacan, for the most part, he prefers crude humor to erudition. Unfortunately, the humor gets old quickly.
His characters are flat, the situations he puts them in are repetitive (mostly academic soirées) and vulgar, and his staccato style is gratingly monotonous. For example, at one party, Simon, the student conscripted to help the police investigation, finds:
Foucault jerking off in front of a poster of Mick Jagger, finds Andy Warhol writing poems (in fact, it’s Jonathan Culler filling out pay stubs), finds a greenhouse with marijuana plants growing up to the ceiling, even finds some well-behaved students watching baseball on a sports channel while they smoke crack, then finally locates Bayard…. He quickly closes the door, but he has time to see Bayard wedged between the legs of a woman he is unable to identify while Judith [Butler] fucks him with a strap-on, yelling: “I am a man and I fuck you! Now you feel my performative, don’t you?”
We had already met Foucault (the real Foucault was, of course, famous for his homosexuality, a predilection for S&M, and his volumes titled The History of Sexuality) earlier in the investigation, “caressing the head of the young man hard at work between his legs.” It was not really funny the first time, and 200-plus pages later, it’s still not very funny; it just comes off as cheap and obvious.
This pettiness, coupled with the choppy sentences, is bound to test even the most patient reader. There are 30 ellipses on page 111 of the novel; 16 on page 112; and 23 on the next.
God said: be fruitful and multiply… The rubber johnny… What an abomination!… Sterilized sex… Horny bodies that don’t touch each other anymore… Pfft… I’ve never used a rubber in my life… Wrap up my dick like some meat in a supermarket?… Never!
Binet does not discuss Barthes’ distinction between “readerly” texts (those which aim to please readers by way of linear narratives and easily-identifiable characters) and “writerly” texts (which are a pleasure for the author, but challenge readers by putting them to hermeneutic work). Regardless, Binet’s novel is an example of the latter. The French theory that Binet alludes to was always a bit too playful, and like it, Binet seems all too willing to amuse himself at his reader’s expense.
The novel is a bravura piece, to be sure. Binet knows the players and the period he is writing about expertly, but he fails to create a compelling or even humorous story. His characters are as predictable as they are unlikable, and the hodgepodge of context-less ideas thrown about scatters thought rather than awakens it.
The Seventh Function of Language is either a grand farce or more of what Alan Sokal famously called “fashionable nonsense”. Francophiles will undoubtedly want to decide for themselves.