White by Marie Darrieussecq
It's a sad fact but I can't help thinking if Marie Darrieussecq was a man her profile as a writer of true, original and startling literature would be bigger than it already is and instead of being celebrated as one of the most important writers we haven't heard of (as she recently was in the Guardian) she would simply be heralded as one of the most influential voices of our generation. There, I've said it. But I'm not the first:
“She makes all those daring young men of letters look very tame indeed.” (Glasgow Herald)
Like her compatriot Michel Houellebecq she manages to appear beyond the current tide of crass commercialism eking its slimy way into the modern literary novel - like Houellebecq she is ahead of most. Unlike Houellebecq she receives nothing like the coverage he does.
White, published over here by Faber & Faber, is Darrieussecq's fifth book to date and it is simply masterful; its detached, unhinged narrative is a joy to read - albeit a rather difficult, challenging joy. Such prose styling is probably the reason not that many people have heard of her in this country, flimsy poetic books by French authors not really being our cup of tea. I say "our" through gritted teeth, of course. I always have. White is a beautifully written book, it is the type of book that doesn't get written in this country, or in America for that matter, and if they do, they never get taken on by a publisher as it would be far too risky, but in France Literature tells a different story. Thankfully. Each crafted sentence, down to each perfected caesura, is quite special, quite dazzling, and quite, if you would allow me, ice-white pristine. Yet again, in spectacular Gallic tradition, this is a flimsy but dense book. It has more literary oomph per chapter than most other books published together in one horrid homogenised lump - and the beauty behind this marvellous achievement is that Darrieussecq simply manages to make it all look so damn bloody easy, her prose seems effortless in construct. Isn’t this what all writers should aim to achieve? I believe so.
Set in 2015, White tells the story of Edmee and Pete, two engineers on a remote research station in Antarctica. Part love story, part esoteric thriller, part treatise on human emptiness and longing White serves as a vast existential canvass in which Darrieussecq delivers all the stark intricacies of individual emotion and reaction - and it is a stunning mode of philosophy. Take this wonderfully chilling snippet:
“If black is the absence of colour, the backdrop to the stars, what’s stretched across the frame of the universe, then white is the fusion of nothing.” (Pg 111).
It is this ethereal nothingness that Darrieussecq is interested in, both Edmee and Pete are running away from their respective tragic pasts, they pass through into a realm of whiteness, of nothingness, each possessing their own existential dilemma they try to cleanse themselves of whatever demons exist within. Both empty, both desperate, little by little, and out of nothing, they are drawn together. It is a nothingness in which sound takes on different meanings (mostly transcribed onomatopoeically by Darrieussecq from the crunch of snow under foot to the rattle of the generator in the camp), in which thought and memory hang heavy in the dazzling emptiness of the surrounding desolate landscape - a landscape that mercilessly cuts into the narrative, that takes over everything in its brilliance; a glaring landscape that dominates, as it has done for the last how-many-millions of years, each freezing shade of white slicing through the book on every page like an iceberg tearing through the hull of a ship. There is only one thing that dominates this astounding world and it is above, below and beyond: white. In fact: nothingness.
Rather tellingly White, is narrated by the ghosts of explorers past whose varied lives where taken away by this relentless landscape; these omniscient narrators, of whom there are countless, oversee every nuance of Edmee and Pete’s burgeoning relationship, they draw the reader into the story, they are as much the story as Edmee and Pete’s past is, they are the landscape, the ever-changing ice-flow, the grim reality, the cold, the chill, the whiteness.
Darrieussecq, again like Houellebecq, is interested in the fusion of elementary particles adrift in a universe bereft of meaning. If we view Edmee and Pete as two random particles adrift in this obfuscating universe of white nothingness then Darrieussecq’s vision, like the ice particles that have helped to form it, becomes transparent in its tangible lucidity. We begin to see through this, otherwise impregnable, wall of white nothingness and without it slowly melting away it somehow crystallizes into a larger meaning we can understand - that we, in fact, can touch as well as Edmee and Pete can. Within this once pointless landscape Edmee and Pete begin to form a shared meaning, this fusion begins to form, it becomes plausible, it begins to fit the larger picture (which, one presumes, White is really about) and when there is a catastrophic power failure in the camp all becomes clear; proving it is worth hanging on to the bitter end of this stark, atmospheric, rather beautiful little book - because when two elementary particles eventually meet, after the initial fusion, there is almost always an obvious reaction that follows.
Yet again Marie Darrieussecq has created a landscape that is unlike any other work of fiction published in the last five years - just like she has done with every novel she‘s ever written. Part scientific reasoning and, to reiterate, part esoteric thriller, this achingly sad love story is a magnificent book that deserves more attention and, hopefully, this awareness, unlike the forming of the Antarctic landscape contained within it, isn’t that long in the making.