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The Complete Review: "Nothomb pulls another clever novel out of her sleeves with deceptive ease."

Date: Dec 14 2012

LIFE FORM is again one of Amélie Nothomb's arguably autobiographical works (she alternates between these and her more fantastical inventions): except for the central character, "Tout est vrai, d'ailleurs, dans ce roman" ('Everything is true in this novel'), she claims. But, of course, one of her talents is in taking her reality and experiences and twisting them to her purposes. Here her fictional counterpart, the near-identical author Nothomb, narrates a present-day story, describing how she came to correspond with one Melvin Mapple who first wrote to her in late 2008, from Baghdad, where, he says, he's been posted for the entire six years of the war, a private in the US army. In real life Nothomb reportedly does correspond with many of her readers (postally -- "the Internet is terra incognita to me"), and Mapple read that somewhere and decided to give it a shot as well -- "I know that if anyone can understand me, you can" he writes in introducing himself.

The fictional Nothomb recounts the development of this mail-relationship, printing the letters they send each other and commenting on how events unfold. She does stick close to actual events, her story including her real-life book tours and related activities, as well as the current events of the day. Mapple may be invention, but her descriptions of her experiences with readers and her various many correspondents sounds convincingly authentic (right down to the teacher who brazenly sends thirty-five students' homework assignments for Nothomb to grade, claiming: "My students have read your books, so you owe them").

Mapple is a more unusual correspondent than most, and the fictional Nothomb isn't always sure how to handle him: much of the novel, right down to its ending, deals with her uncertainty about how to approach him. She admits that when she got the first letter: "I thought this was some sort of hoax", but everything seems authentic enough, right down to the Iraqi postmark. But even -- or especially -- when she's convinced of Mapple and his story he's a character she's not quite sure how to deal with.

It should come as no surprise to readers familiar with Nothomb's work that Mapple is a physically grotesque figure. He reports that the trauma of war has led him to constantly gorge; now: "Like a lot of American soldiers, I'm a bulimic who can't throw up." One hundred twenty pounds when he enlisted a decade earlier, he is already morbidly obese when he begins writing to Nothomb, and he continues to pack on the pounds.

Nothomb has had her own eating-issues -- recounted, most notably, in The Life of Hunger -- and several of her books also feature grotesquely distended figures; it's understandable that Mapple could see in her a kindred spirit. "Food is our drug, our safety valve," Mapple tells her, explaining why he doesn't want to change his ways or be cured -- but his obsession becomes ... all-consuming:

        In short, my obesity has become my life's work. I'm still working on it really hard. I eat like a crazy man.

The fictional Nothomb proves relatively understanding -- and perhaps misguidedly helpful, as in arranging for a gallerist to accept Mapple's undertaking as art.

Despite his corpulence, Mapple of course long remains a figure that is little more than what Nothomb can picture on the basis of his letters -- if not just a figment of her imagination, nevertheless not much more substantial. The insecure Mapple needs reassurance, too -- writing, for example:

        Thank you for writing that I exist for you, that's very important to me.

Mapple sends a picture of himself, which allows Nothomb to revel in descriptions of his grotesque glory, as Mapple is a figure who: "still had features, but you could no longer qualify them". (Nothomb is at her best with such descriptions of her misbegotten creations.)

If for much of the novel it's unclear what Nothomb has in mind in devoting so much attention to this man and correspondence she doesn't disappoint in the end. Unsurprisingly, things aren't quite what they seem. Mapple admits at one point that: "there is so little reality in my life", and one of the reasons he corresponds with Nothomb is to feel real. Mapple is a 'real' character in the novel, but of course the reader can also not help but notice that he is the (real) Nothomb's fictional creation -- and Nothomb handles this interplay between two tiers of reality as well as anyone.

Near the conclusion, her fictional counterpart finds herself in debate with herself, arguing in her mind that on the one hand: "Language, for me, is the highest degree of reality" -- while, of course, also recognizing (reluctantly ...) that the highest degree of reality is rather more real ..... Nothomb's story builds towards the fictional author confronting all her realities -- which she finally does in a beautifully turned conclusion, making for the most satisfying of open ends.

It's interesting also how the real Nothomb ties her story so to her real life -- even if she constructs Mapple onto and into it -- yet she so assiduously steers clear of modernity's other great reality. She admits that "the Internet is terra incognita to me", but then also goes beyond that, having Mapple admit to the: "sensation of unreality" that Internet-immersion creates. The computer is a dangerous tool of evil that leaves us losing touch with what is real; the writer who still "writes to her readers on real stationery" is grounded in reality. Ironically, of course, Nothomb's created realities differ from (computer-)'virtual' realities only in form.

While at first one may find Mapple undeserving of so much of Nothomb's attention, LIFE FORM gels very nicely indeed into a much more substantial work, as Nothomb pulls another clever novel out of her sleeves with deceptive ease.

-- M.A.Orthofer