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The Boston Bibliophile: "Complicated and nuanced."

Date: Feb 20 2013

So, I've read two of Amélie Nothomb's books in the past (HYGIENE AND THE ASSASSIN and TOKYO FIANCEE) and loved the first and was kind of lukewarm on the other. I think Nothomb is one of those writers whose every book is a little bit different and whose only consistent feature is that they always contain the unexpected.

Her latest to appear in English, LIFE FORM, is more like HYGIENE in that it's about a conversation, but rather than be in the same room and confront each other with violence, the speakers in LIFE FORM converse via letter. Set in the present day, the characters are Amélie Nothomb, a writer, and Melvin Mapple, a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq. Mapple is a fan of Amélie's and reveals his secrets to her over the course of their correspondence. Amélie is a life-long letter-writer who makes a habit of writing back to her fans. But she doesn't quite know what she's getting herself into with Mapple.

Melvin is morbidly obese. He says that his overeating is an intentional form of protest against the war, that what started off as a response to trauma transformed itself into an intentional provocation of the military, and that he's been heralded by his compatriots and joined by some of them. Amélie responds by encouraging him to think of his project, and his body, as a kind of work of art.

Nothomb's book raises a lot of issues. Obviously there are the issues around fat acceptance, complicity in validating dangerous and life-threatening behavior and the obesity epidemic in the U.S.  The book brings up responses to war and the damage war inflicts on soldiers, which makes it an interesting bookend novels like Billy Lynn's LONG HALFTIME WALK, or Kevin Powers' THE YELLOW BIRDS, even Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's THE WATCH. But then there are lots of other issues, too, like issues around authorship, the difference between truth and fiction, what makes a work of art. Because Melvin isn't being completely honest with Amélie and it's worth asking if his performance represents a kind of authorship, or if you can just dismiss him as a liar.

I kind of love this book. It's edgy and weird and asks some difficult questions, and it has a very bizarre and surrealistic ending- the sense of a new story beginning, a story to which all we have read is mere buildup. The characters of Amélie and Melvin are complicated and nuanced. Amélie narrates but since we are seeing the story through her eyes it's worth asking if the story she's telling is any more more or less made up than Mapple's. I don't know. It's a really odd little book, but one bound to raise a lot of questions and stick with you for a while. It's definitely renewed my appreciation for Nothomb.