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DISINTEGRATION

Emmanuelle Richard

(Éditions de l’Olivier, 208 pages, 2018)

  

She cannot recall the exact moment when things fell apart. She is now a published author no longer tormented by the need to justify her existence. Yet she cannot forget where she comes from: the bleak childhood in the gray Parisian suburbs, the dull and hardworking life of her parents, the endless series of mind-crushing odd jobs. There are many like her who know what it means to eke out a living mired in the never-ending state of precariousness—today’s new face of poverty. What turns such a person’s shame into hate? At what moment does anger overstep the boundaries of personal history and becomes a powerful indictment of a larger state of affairs?

Disintegration opens at a birthday party in an equestrian center. The nameless narrator and two of her friends celebrate their eighteenth birthdays. Her parents had originally planned something simple, but the party was co-opted by the other girls’ wealthy parents and turned into a grand affair. Filled with a distress that she cannot yet fully articulate, the narrator escapes the party and ends up in a brief and awkward sexual encounter with a stranger. She is new at this, but there will be many more occasions in later years when “the desire of the other [is] enough to trigger [her own].”

In Paris, she lives with roommates she abhors: the entitled progeniture of filmmakers, photographers, and other professionals of culture. She works in a men’s clothing store, and takes courses at the university vaguely hoping that a degree will provide her with something tangible. Eventually she settles with a young man in a comforting and stifling domesticity that does not keep the disheartening grind of daily survival at bay. All along, she writes. She meets a famous filmmaker to whom she had sent her first book and who miraculously responded. Nothing will come out of this striking encounter but, for the first time, she feels “seen.”

Covering a decade of her life, the novel tracks the narrator’s internal evolution from a diffuse sense of social alienation to an all-encompassing class hatred. At first, it is only a matter of escaping the stigma of what she describes as “familial melancholia.” “I fantasized,” she says, “mastering the codes of a variety of social groups so to be able to circulate in each of them without belonging to any.” But her experiences lead her to a breaking point where she can no longer sustain the neutral attitude she had adopted toward the privileged. How can she come to term with her seething rage and all-consuming hatred?

Richard’s indignation toward the mechanisms of social oppression and power relations never feels didactic. The incendiary energy of her prose and the uncompromising lucidity of her observations bring us up close to the violence of situations that she condemns. She never fails to point out the circumstances in which her own assets—as young, female, and blond—operate to her advantage. The narrator claims to have looked, without success, for something—a collective, an organization, a reinvented family—someone to tell her what can be done differently. She may not have found it, but Richard certainly speaks to the reality of “those who dreamed of being and those who are.”

 

Emmanuelle Richard, born in 1985, has written two previous novels: La Légéreté (Editions de l’Olivier, 2014) and the acclaimed Pour la peau (Editions de l’Olivier 2016; Points, 2017), which won The 2016 Prix Anaïs Nin as well as the 2016 Prix Marie Claire for the best novel written by a woman.