Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Mystery Guest

It is 1996 and I am in Taiwan staring at two very comfortable flannel shirts that I have removed from the depths of my drawer. To prevent any hazard, I have placed them on a pile of red clay on the edge of a construction site. I am a little worried about snakes – it is night, but still warm, and I spotted a viper or two on the road.

My plan had been to burn the shirts, but I was wussing out. There was the issue of the snakes. There were the cops; if somebody reported a fire in a construction site, I’m not sure that I would be able to persuade the cops that my motives involved a certain misplaced romantic flair rather than, say, a penchant for insurance fraud. Minimally I’d probably have to try to bribe somebody, and given my recent record of failure in all things, it all just seemed like it could go horribly awry.

Is it even necessary to recount the events that led me to abandon my two best flannel shirts on a construction site at the edge of Taipei? Suffice to say that she had liked them, at one time had worn them frequently, but now was neither wearing them nor returning my phone calls. In retrospect, I would say that I wanted to be unhappy. I had wanted to see these events as operatic tragedy, wanted to justify the time and energy I had devoted to her by making myself a hero in this grand drama. I think even then I knew that this was a bit silly and self-absorbed – burning clothing was over-the-top, even for a Tristan wannabe.

I would not have wanted to date me at that time, and fortunately for all concerned, nobody did until I returned to the States and plunged into a couple of more disasters until she finally became she -- this woman I used to date whom I wish well but have no great desire to see. At last report she’s married with a kid and working for a non-profit in Washington, D.C.

I wouldn’t want to date Gregoire Bouillier either, but if I were, for example, stuck in a five hour line to get a visa, or enduring a dull train ride, or just going out to dinner, I’d love to have him along. I think he’s funny, brilliantly aware of his own self-absorption. In the first couple of chapters of The Mystery Guest, I remembered myself in Taiwan, living as an amateur shaman – how I sought portents in newspaper accounts of cross-strait relations (“One country, two systems”); how I read with optimism the movements of enormous, puffy clouds; how I surmised that each moment of silence might itself be a profession of love. I was the Delphic Fucking Oracle. Except, somehow, for all my attention to detail, for all my arts of divination, I missed the most obvious sign of all – that she wasn’t calling me.

But what if she had called? Would I have been any less twisted? And who on earth was Michel Leiris? According to Wikipedia, he was a second-rate surrealist. And this is the sign, at the opening of The Mystery Guest, on which our noble narrator (he of “sartorial neurosis”) pins his hopes. He had been suffering the delusion of the jilted, that he had “gotten over” her, moved on, made her a her. The phone call doesn’t rekindle a spark, it unveils his self-deception even as he continues to spin:

But I had gotten over her disappearance and nobody was going to say that her reappearance did me in. I refused to give up; I wanted to understand, and while I stood there clinging absurdly, instinctively to this desire – to understand – as my sole support and the last vestige of my humanity, it hit me. She’d called on a Sunday afternoon and she’d left me in the middle of the afternoon, also on a Sunday. Coincidence? Hardly. From that moment on, I knew I couldn’t possibly be dealing with a coincidence. I knew bigger things were afoot.

I found that section hilarious on first reading, and I find it hilarious now. But it strikes me on a second read that bigger things are indeed afoot, just not in the way that he imagines them. For this birthday party that he attends with his ill-fated bottle of wine (the paperback edition has a photograph of the wine bottle, also excerpts from Sophie Calle's The Birthday Ceremony, newspaper headlines, etc.) is itself a kind of performance-art piece, as is the tizzy that our poor mystery guest finds himself launched into. I guess I disagree with Keifus that this is an example of somebody taking an ordinary story from life and getting it published. This story is extraordinary, in the way that Bouillier will move from a state roughly equivalent to my life in Taiwan to a completely different way of viewing the events of the party. Even Michel Leiris gets readjusted.

It’s rather like something else I learned in Taiwan, about a way to read poetry. If you don’t understand an ancient poem, my friends explained, just memorize it, and let age do the rest.
My favorite part is the section where he leaves the party. There is this grand bouquet of flowers, and our noble narrator is managing to lose himself in the bouquet, when she appears:

…her eyes were fixed on the bouquet, and without looking up, hardly moving her lips, she murmured that roses were the only flowers she could bear to see cut, and immediately I felt all misapprehension that, to that moment, had characterized my presence drop away.

For now, weirdly, the fix is in. All this reading of portents can come to something in addition to its intrinsic uproarious hysteria. What made the book funny for me is that the narrator is constantly mistaken about the way he is evolving, yet he evolves anyway. It tracks mixed emotions that flash in milliseconds. It reminded me of Nick Hornby, of the way his characters are also self-absorbed and obnoxious, and yet they change, and their changes are earned; they come in the natural course of things, through their own logic of being themselves. In contrast to your average romantic comedy, in which the act of falling in love changes you.

Poppycock. Nothing is more narcissistic than being in love.

Addendum: mrs. august wishes to point out that, although she had never heard the story of the shirts, one of her first acts was to banish flannel from my wardrobe.