Do you know that feeling we have when we know where a book was going, and we know it could have worked – but it simply didn’t? I feel that about your novel Incest (2017) translated by Tess Lewis (L’Incest, 1999). Trying to be experimental while never giving up control over what the experiment should mean: this seems very much like a recipe for failure.
The main protagonist, our narrator, is a single mother and writer also named Christine Angot. When the book begins, she is suffering a mental breakdown, after a seemingly tumultuous lesbian love affair. This is her descent into hell, and we are in the middle of it with her. “In her head there was a kind of sound, she floated completely”
The prose is frantic and circular, revolving over the narrator’s obsessions. She seems to be delirious at times, and we immediately feel that there is trauma hidden behind her incongruous responses to her affair. As the book progresses, her mumblings grow increasingly fragmented and wild. She repeats words randomly, giving them new meanings, and constantly changes perspective, mixing the remaining characters until they become indistinguishable – her daughter, her ex-husband, her ex-girlfriend become one and the same amorphous instance of herself. Time and chronology are also fragmented: at one point, we no longer know what is past and what is present: she seems to be continually ending her relationship with her girlfriend, and then getting back again. The narrator sounds like a person in the middle of a manic episode: locked in her mind, frantic, but with no way to escape (in fact, she compares her mental isolation to having “locked-in syndrome”). We’re still watching a woman fall apart: “her mental world is one of morbid imprisonment.”
Her manic episode ends as abruptly as it had begun: the narrator suddenly seems to stop for a moment to watch herself from a distance. It is here that we first notice that she is writing a book as much as she is living her story – so much so, that it becomes unclear where the story ends and the book begins. In an attempt to pin down her thought patterns, our narrator explores, in short vignettes, several psychoanalytical categories – as if in a prelude to an essay on her own pain. However, despite making use of seemingly technical terms, those are defined by the narrator through her own perspective and her own life story. Her ‘personal taxonomy’ is, as she claims, an ‘incestuous’ one: terms like schizophrenia, paranoia, sadomasochism, suicide, homosexuality, narcissism and perversion mingle with each other and become elements of her paranoid pattern of thinking.
As if she were undergoing a psychoanalysis session (or standing before a confessional), the narrator describes the trauma behind her current relationship crisis, and forces herself to relive her painful experiences. At the centre of her rumblings, the point around which everything revolves over and over, is the fact – hinted at throughout the book – that, when she as a teenager, our narrator was sexually abused by her biological father (she calls it an ‘incest’), whom she did not meet until she was fourteen years old. As she does with the other characters in this book, when the narrator talks about her father, the figures of the abuser and the victim/ the seducer and the seduced are intertwined, and later become indistinguishable. For the narrator, it is not always clear who seduced or abused whom. “It is very hard loving someone with whom love is impossible”
The only thing she knows is that this ‘incest’ shaped not only every relationship she has had so far – with her girlfriend, her ex-husband, even her daughter -, but also her own thought patterns; it has affected her way of thinking and of deriving meaning from her experiences. “I connect, I associate, everything relates, that’s what I call my incestuous mental structure.” She believes to have an ‘incestuous mind’, prone to making odd associations between disconnected ideas and events (as the ideas of giving birth and having sex with a woman, for instance). “I associate things others don’t associate, I bring together things that don’t fit together.”
Our narrator assumes too many roles at the same time: she is the one ending the relationship, and the one getting dumped; she is the one living her crisis in the present while at the same time talking about it as if it belonged in the past; she is at once the writer and her own writing subject; she is at the same time the psychoanalyst and the patient, she is her best and worst reader.
That’s an artifice that mirrors back the interweaving between fiction and memory that infuses your work. It reads almost like you were performing an incest through incestuous means, blurring all the lines. The core of the pact you offer to the reader is not on of truth (fictional or nonfictional), but of doubt. The idea of ‘incest’ is both your object and your method – materially and formally, truth is betrayed and consent is ambiguous. Writing and performance, as well as fiction and nonfiction, become indistinguishable. “There is no partition, everything touches, nothing is untouchable (…) I’m not making this up. The brain cannot be divided into separate parts. It’s not that I’m missing something upstairs, as the saying goes, it’s a house without walls (…).”
I like this idea, and I can see where you intended to take your book. However, for me, you never really got there in the end. The overarching idea of ‘incest’, in this book, works better when it is explained than when it is actually carried out. You seem to be more focused in exposing it than you are in actually putting it into practice. The novel almost reads like you were urging us to look at you, not at what you are doing. You are not so much challenging social and literary taboos, as you are reproducing, enacting and thereby exploiting them.
I imagine it must be hard to try to be experimental while also wanting to make very clear to the reader what the experiment is all about. As your narrator’s thought patterns are on full display, so is the machinery of your book. We can see through it, but the act of reading it and crossing it through feels almost like visiting an open-air museum – we cannot touch anything, but we are on a guided tour where everything must be explained; we can read the labels and understand what it is all about, but we feel nothing. The book machinery might have gotten rusty after being repeatedly exposed under wind and rain; or it might have become tired of having to ask for excuses and explain itself out so many times, over and over.
“I would have licked her like mother cats, mother dogs do, if the doctors hadn’t been there watching.” – Christine Angot, Incest
“It was no passion, it wasn’t love, it was an encounter and we used up all its charm.” – Christine Angot, Incest
“No, not hatred, not love, not indifference, it’s my father, not forgiveness, not indifference, nor love of course: acknowledgement. He didn’t acknowledge me, but me, I acknowledge him.” – Christine Angot, Incest
“Muzil told me how completely the body, once it’s delivered into the web of medical treatment, loses all identity, is bled dry of all history and dignity.” – Christine Angot, Incest
“A colorless day bland A sharp feeling of missing you and yet I don’t move I don’t take a single step towards you (There’s no punctuation at all. No limits, the metals are mixed, fusion, mixture, no commas, no periods.) A day like all the others without you A colorless day bland day like all the others without you A colorless day bland A sharp feeling of missing you and yet I don’t move I don’t take a single step towards you (There’s no punctuation at all. No limits, the metals are mixed, fusion, mixture, no commas, no periods.) A day like all the others without you A colorless day bland A sharp feeling of missing you and yet I don’t move I don’t take a single step towards you I listen and know that you are in me I can feel you move in my stomach It’s my stomach that speaks to me most clearly about you I let myself be carried away I want the risk of loving of this particular love with you so unique and sometimes so intimate along with the terrible lucidity that comes with it I am proud of you proud of myself with you, of the love you bring me but is it meant for me this love The words your words are they meant for me If just once I felt I was born of real love” – Christine Angot, Incest
“I’ll describe my insanity through a sudden insight. I was barely conscious of it until the previous page.” – Christine Angot, Incest
“That’s all. Writing is not choosing your narrative. But taking it, into your arms, and putting it calmly down on the page, as calmly as possible, as accurately as possible. So that he will turn over in his grave yet again, if my body is his grave. If he turns over again, it’s because I’m not dead. I’m insane, but not dead. I’m not completely insane either.” – Christine Angot, Incest
About the book
- Archipelago Books, 2017, tr. Tess Lewis, 160 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1999
- Original title: L’inceste
- My rating: 2 stars
- This book was kindly sent to me by Archipelago Books for review.