Monday, May 29, 2006

Carrere's razor

Emmanuel Carrere’s unnerving novella The Mustache (1986) begins with a husband asking his wife:
What would you say if I shaved off my mustache?

She ignores him, knowing he’s not serious. On a whim, he goes ahead and shaves it, but his wife acts as if she sees nothing different. She then refuses to acknowledge that he has ever worn a mustache. His friends and coworkers, as well, seem to see nothing different about his clean-shaven face. He starts questioning himself. Are they putting him on? He did have a mustache, didn’t he?

Within less than a hundred pages, the missing mustache has led the man, step by unexpected step, to the point where he can’t be sure that anything in his life is what it seems. His wife disagrees with him about where they were two nights ago. She swears they didn’t vacation the previous year in Java; he’s sure they did. Is she putting him on for some nefarious reason? Is she losing it? Or is he?

Carrere, who recently published a biography of Philip K. Dick (under the magnificent title of I Am Alive and You Are Dead), is working in territory Dick mined for his Time Out of Joint (1959), in which a man reaches for a light pull in his closet, only to be confronted with a switch, the first misfire in a slow unraveling of his whole world. There are elements of Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), too, once true paranoia begins setting in. But whereas Time Out of Joint is ultimately a variety of sci-fi, and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte resolves itself as a gothic thriller, The Mustache is more interested in the questions such losses create. How reliable is memory? Can it even be said to exist if it’s not shared with anyone? Without corroboration, there’s simply never enough evidence to prove any memory:
One should always hold on to everything, never overlook the slightest bit of evidence. Like that animist tribe in the village where they’d bought the blanket. The tradition was disappearing, but they’d been told that once upon a time, the inhabitants fastidiously collected their fingernail clippings, their excrement, their hair—their facial and body hair as well—everything that was a part of them and that would allow them to enter the gates of paradise in one whole and unmutilated piece.

In the United States, The Mustache is packaged with another Carrere novel, Class Trip (1995), which deals with similar questions from the perspective of a young boy, in similarly creepy fashion. The boy in Class Trip is young and insecure enough to be constantly overwhelmed by his manifold fears of the unknown in everyday life, whereas the man in The Mustache has replaced those fears with the confidence, acquired by most capable adults, that he has the elements of his life under control. Carrere wants us to entertain, at least for a couple of hours, the unsettling possibility that the boy knows better than the man.

He succeeds, at least with me: the night after I read the first thirty pages of Class Trip, I had several very creepy dreams. Maybe I should only read Carrere in the morning, leaving the nightstand to The Bedside Book of Birds.

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