On the trail of obsession...
Any novel which features the UL tearoom has definitely got my vote. There’s something so wonderful about that place. The UL, full of academics and, in termtimes, students in various degrees of stress, offers really only one place to drink a cup of tea and eat the packed lunch before rushing back to a reading room. The atmosphere is somewhere between a strangely Communist canteen and a National Trust café. Don’t ask me why that mixture, but it feels distinctly communal and worthy at the same time.
Ah, I’ve been sidetracked.
To get to the point, Patricia Dunker’s first novel Hallucinating Foucault begins in the UL tearoom. The initial encounter between the PhD student and future girlfriend takes place there, or rather outside it smoking. This is a meeting full of clichés: PhD student has only just noticed “The Germanist”, as she is called throughout, but she has been watching the PhD student for weeks.
I don’t know why, but I’m going to have to admit something at this point which was completely my fault and which sullied my reading of the first sections of the novel. About 10 pages in my brain decided that the main character was a woman.
There was only something like one pronoun in the first few pages and I missed it. However the PhD student is a man and yes the relationship with the Germanist is a clichéd as first predicted from the chat-up line he uses. I don’t understand my disappointment at the main character being a man. Possibly it was due to my anticipation of the novel linked with the one-dimensional characters and plot at this point in the story. At any rate, I found the central relationship from the start quite implausible.
However, given the force of homosexuality in the novel, it is pretty key that the male PhD student protagonist prove attractive to the fictional writer Paul Michel. So I was wrong in my interpretation at the start, and it clearly couldn’t have been any other way. I did wonder though upon reaching the end, no spoilers I promise, whether the author had intended to make it ambiguous for a little while at the beginning…
To return to a review in a sense: I found this a strange novel that reads like a thriller and not the Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) that it is. Madness also features heavily, and the text is littered with Dunker’s clearly excellent knowledge of Foucault. My knowledge of French 20th-century culture is so bad that I actually had to Google Paul Michel to assure myself that he was fictional. I think that proves how brilliantly he is portrayed.
The novel tackles questions of relations between texts (intertextuality being such a clumsy way of saying this!) and the writer-reader dynamic head on, taking these questions to their ultimate, extreme conclusion.
Given the progress down to the south of France later on, I was distinctly reminded of another coming-of-age story full of questions of mental health I read recently set on the Mediterranean - Tender is the Night. I’m sure Dunker is aware of the clichee of that part of the world being somewhere people retreat to and heal themselves.
So some advice on reading this: do not expect anything verging on realism, even though the text itself seems generally realistic. Do not expect all plot twists to be believable. Enjoy the clever philosophical questions and the questioning of sanity and obsession.