‘Iknow no problem,’ the White House head of Psychological Operations says in Hervé Le Tellier’s delightfully confounding thriller The Anomaly, ‘that can resist the absence of a solution.’ She could easily be talking about the novel she’s in, which poses problems designed as much for the writer’s pleasure as the reader’s, problems that might have an infinitude of solutions, not one of which is quite right. In fact, the Psy Ops chief is herself an attempted solution to a problem: the problem of how to write amusingly, yet studiously, about the impossible. Is head of Psychological Operations at the White House a real job? It doesn’t matter. The Anomaly needed one, and so it came into existence, along with a contract killer, a suicidal novelist, an exasperated general, an ageing architect, an American president and a traumatised child, as well as many other colourful characters, implausible situations and metaphysical conundrums.
Le Tellier is the author of dozens of previous books spanning multiple genres and forms, and is a long-standing member of Oulipo, the French experimental-writing collective that revels in constraints – the more arbitrary, the better. All novels, of course, are experiments, but the thing that separates a thriller (or any other form with its own section in the bookshop) from ‘literature’ is whose constraints carry the most weight: the market’s, or the author’s. In The Anomaly, Le Tellier aims to have it both ways: to accept the parameters of a fast-paced, pulpy political sci-fi thriller, and to experiment to his heart’s content. He appears to have succeeded in the market, to judge by the words on the cover: ‘the one million-copy international bestseller’ (and ‘winner of the 2020 Prix Goncourt’). But is the book a success on its own terms?
It opens with a series of vignettes: snapshots of various characters and their whereabouts between March and June 2021. Blake is a restaurateur who hides his true vocation from his family: he’s a hitman with an unconventional backstory (not a psychopath haunted by childhood trauma, just a guy who’s good at murder). Victor is a novelist for whom success is always just out of reach; it finally comes with a slim, philosophically minded, dashed-off novel, published to massive acclaim a few weeks after he takes his own life. Lucie is a thirtyish film editor, vexed by her complicated entanglement with an older man; André is the older man, an architect living in fear of losing his romantic prize. David is dying of cancer; Sophia is protecting a dead frog that has come back to life. Joanna is a corporate lawyer who has taken on an unscrupulous client to raise money for her ailing sister; Slimboy is a Nigerian YouTube star, fearful of his country’s anti-gay bigotry.
There’s a particular anxiety that comes from reading a novel which stacks up an excess of third-person perspectives in its early chapters. The reader tends to get nice and comfortable with the first one, then to feel startled but intrigued by the second. The third arrives to mild concern, the fourth to outright worry, the fifth to irritation. Are you supposed to be keeping track of all these people? By the sixth or seventh, you assume you’re not, by the eighth you wonder if this is some kind of joke, and by the ninth or tenth you’re certain it is. The Anomaly stops at around a dozen – or as many as twice that, depending on whether or not you count the secondary and tertiary characters whose point of view the narrative frequently and opportunistically lurches into for a paragraph or two.
I’m ordinarily annoyed by this mode in fiction, but Le Tellier provides us with a wry, self-referential authorial omniscience that justifies it, deftly switching the narrative from person to person, location to location. He also gives us Victor, the authorial stand-in, whose bestselling book is (of course) called The anomaly (lowercase ‘a’) and who later will be revealed to be writing (of course) the capital ‘A’ Anomaly that you’re reading. Like all writers, Victor loves to surrender ‘to the fascination of lives other than his own … Three characters, seven, twenty? How many simultaneous stories would a reader consent to follow?’ Get it? That’s what Le Tellier is doing!
Wait – Victor, Victor. That sounds familiar. Isn’t he the one who died? No, that’s David. No, wait – David is the cancer guy, Victor throws himself from a balcony on page 24. Then how is he … ? Never mind. I’m getting there.
What do these people have in common? They were all on the same international flight, Air France 006 from Paris to New York, on 10 March 2021. Trapped in a freak storm, battered and shaken, the plane barely escaped intact, and this close brush with death casts a shadow over the lives of the dozen (or two dozen, or whatever) characters we’ve met. But – and here’s where the thrills come in – the same plane also emerges from the same storm a little less shaken, a little more intact, three months later, a Doppelflugzeug carrying duplicates of everyone on board. Rerouted to an air-force base in New Jersey, the second plane is immediately surrounded by the FBI, the CIA and the US military, and its confused passengers are subjected to days of interrogation and counselling before they’re at last told what has happened. They are then introduced to their others: the versions of themselves who landed back in March and have been carrying on their lives as normal.
The Anomaly is at its best in the short chapters following the military impoundment, as one after another the characters confront their alternate selves, their shocked and anguished children, their lovers and siblings. Arrangements have to be made, taboos overcome, property divided, custody established. Some happily partner up with their other selves, finding strength in numbers; others come into intense, even violent, conflict. Le Tellier delights in using this sci-fi conceit to explore the characters’ relationships to their own psyches. Insecurities are exposed, boundaries shattered, secrets uncovered. Sexual attraction suddenly feels corrupt, familial love burdensome.
Le Tellier’s prose, translated (wittily) by Adriana Hunter, is beautifully efficient and capable of quiet devastation, as in the scene where André, facing his double, suddenly realises that he is old: ‘He scours “his” face for the immutable seal of youthfulness that he sometimes believes he incarnates, but can’t find it. Old age is in every detail, like a straitjacket of filth.’ Or David’s wife, far from celebrating the possibility that her husband may have a second chance at a cancer cure, bitterly thinks: ‘No, it will be a second agony.’ These post-anomaly chapters are both the least ‘experimental’, employing traditional psychological-realist plotting and characterisation to elicit genuine emotion, and the most indebted to Le Tellier’s Oulipian forebear, Georges Perec, whose Life: A User’s Manual is a masterpiece of smart and unashamedly emotional character sketches intertwined by clever conceptual trickery. (‘Why walk in Perec’s shadow?’ Victor scolds himself at one point, right around the time it occurs to you that you’re reading a homage to Perec. ‘Why does he never break free of influences and tutelary figures?’) In these chapters we see the promise of Oulipo-style experimentation fulfilled: felt not calculated, playful not dour, self-deprecating not self-serious. The vignettes are enormous fun.
Also excellent are the overtly thrillery chapters concerning the event itself and the bureaucratic reaction to it. The plane’s journey into and out of the storm, with air traffic control jargon and shocked silences, is compelling, as is the narrative behind ‘Protocol 42’, the regulatory statute governing unexplained air-travel incidents. This comic subplot involves a pair of graduate students in mathematics whose paper on the statistics of disaster, assigned as a form of hazing by their tutors in the wake of 9/11, ends up as the basis of decades of secret government policy, eventually drawing them into the mystery of the anomaly. They come up with the most likely explanation for the doubling of the plane: the universe as we know it is a digital simulation, and the second plane is one of a series of experiments being conducted by an unfathomably advanced intelligence. (For a time, this hypothesis vanishes from the novel, and the attentive reader may fear that it has been forgotten or won’t pay off. Don’t worry – it hasn’t and it does.)
Less successful are the sections in which Le Tellier indulges in the cornier tropes of the thriller genre, though there’s no doubt he’s having fun with them even if the reader may not be. The chapters featuring actual heads of state, including an anonymised Trump, are overstuffed with expository dialogue and hammy satire. (And why the squeamishness about Trump’s name, when Le Tellier happily indulges in some free-indirect hurly-burly with Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping?) A cameo from a fictionalised Stephen Colbert proves pointless, as does the religious-extremist terror attack that concludes his plotline. And a chapter in which spiritual leaders debate the nature of the soul seems about as fresh as a day-old pastrami on rye served at a Borscht Belt comedy revue.
It’s not hard to imagine a less deliberately cluttered version of this novel, still exciting, that avoids some of the clunkier bits of literary kitsch, excises a few of the emotionally redundant characters and develops the inner lives of the remaining ones more thoroughly. Le Tellier seems to have imagined it too: this better angel speaks, in the book’s last chapter, through Victor’s editor, pleading with him not to do what Le Tellier himself has done. ‘Please, Victor, it’s too complicated, you’ll lose readers, simplify it, do some pruning, cut to the chase.’ Maybe Le Tellier even wrote this version of the book, the one the metafictional editor and I might have preferred. Maybe he published it! Maybe there are two versions of The Anomaly, identical up to a point, then divergent, and I simply drew the wrong straw. Or maybe there are many; maybe every copy is different. Maybe I am Le Tellier, pointing this out to you through a suspiciously laudatory essay. Maybe we are all Le Tellier. Maybe no one is. Think about it.