French writer and professor Jean-Christophe Valtat has published two previous novels, Exes (1997) and the recent Aurorarama (2010), as well as a collection of short fiction. The experimental novella 03 tackles adolescence and its discontents.
The Story: "From the bus stop across the street, it was hard to tell, but suddenly I understood, seeing the passengers in the van that picked her up every morning, that she was slightly retarded." Thus opens the compelling--if because only imagined--relationship between the unnamed narrator, a French schoolboy, and the even more anonymous girl as the boy watches her for a few minutes each day before the two go their separate ways. Recalled from a distance of years and presented in one paragraph, 03 is heavy on teen angst and brooding (Joy Division and the Smiths are sheer poetry for the narrator) and examines warts and all (mostly warts) the timeless stew of hormones, indecision, and earnest romanticizing that defines an adolescent hell in 1980s small-town France. Ah, young love.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 96 pages. $12. ISBN13: 9780374100216
Hipster Book Club
"The final product is a book that's a unique and insightful, albeit slim and occasionally flawed, rumination on youth. 03 is a mix of beautiful and soiled thoughts presented in an unformed mess of confusion and truth." Kyle Olson
"[Valtat's] book is at once Proustian and anti-Proustian: childhood and adolescence minutely, lyrically, philosophically examined, only to be given a contemptuous failing grade. ... It is a risky and ambitious book, though it does not seem ‘experimental' as such, in part because it is so grounded in the real, in the boredom and self-aggrandizement of being a teen-ager." James Wood
"Judging by the number of alienated adolescents moping through its films and literature, France must be a fountain of disaffected youth. ... Some of [the protagonist's] monologue, which takes place entirely in a single moment at a bus stop, manages to ring true and leaven all that seriousness." Keith Staskiewicz
"[The novel's] prose, characters, and insights, which are too often portentous and trite, fail to offset that deficiency. ... Unfortunately, as the book progresses (or rather goes on) the vivid descriptions come to seem purposeless because the philosophical conclusions are so trite." Danielle Dreilinger
Any book tagged as "experimental" runs the risk, fairly or not, of limiting its intended readership. Valtat's 03--at under 100 pages, as much a sketch as a fully formed portrait--is one of those books, combining elements of the French nouveau roman and an aimless, philosophically inquisitive "story" that calls to mind the plotting of a Seinfeld episode more than that of a Dickens serial. A powerful, quirky study of adolescence, even if some scenes misfire when they slip into melodrama and "half-baked philosophizing and glib aphorism" (Boston Globe), 03 nonetheless showcases Valtat as a risk taker and a lyricist, a trait no doubt even more evident in the original French. Valtat's recent Aurorama, a Steampunk novel set in the Arctic, has been well reviewed.