A Mortifying Turtleneck No Cure for Heartache

The mind plays tricks on us when we look for logic in matters of the heart. “Such are the loopholes that reality offers us from itself,” writes Grégoire Bouillier in The Mystery Guest, a perversely satisfying memoir, translated from the French by Lorin Stein. The book traps us in the overactive, lovesick mind of a man driven a little crazy by the sudden end of a relationship. More than a little crazy, actually, but he’s also very funny, in a despairing sort of way. At a party he tells a woman he’s “currently an expert in the cruelties of existence,” and then glares at her “defiantly … past caring whether I looked like a moron or not.” We can thank him for not worrying about looking like a moron, as it makes this memoir—about the arduous alchemy of turning meaningless, painful experience into something sensible—very amusing.

Mr. Bouillier begins his story in September 1990, “the day Michel Leiris died.” (Leiris, a French ethnographer associated with the surrealist movement, is considered an influence on Mr. Bouillier, whose award-winning 2002 memoir, Rapport sur Moi— Report on Myself—has not been translated.) It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Mr. Bouillier is in bed, asleep in his clothes—“Cold and oblivion were all I was looking for at the time”—when a phone call wakes him up and he finds himself groggily chatting with the woman who walked out on him years ago. Though he’s imagined this moment many a time, foreseeing a tearful reconciliation in which she begs for his forgiveness and he’s gracefully magnanimous, it seems that she has not called to finally explain why she abandoned him (“the way they abandon a dog chained to a tree”). Instead, she asks him for a favor: She wants him to come to a birthday party for a contemporary artist named Sophie Calle. He would be this year’s “mystery guest,” as per Ms. Calle’s birthday tradition, “and that was the reason, the one and only reason, for her call.”

This opening segment is pretty wonderful, as Mr. Bouillier’s mind races through all the scenarios that might have led this woman, this unnamed romantic specter, to call him. (“How I yearned for this moment!”) Simultaneously, he’s horrified that she caught him asleep in the afternoon, and he struggles to hide the fact, though his “drowsy-sounding” voice is “soft and gummy.” (It’s words like “gummy” that draw attention to the artful precision of Mr. Stein’s translation.) Once he discovers the reason for her call—just an invitation to a party—his feelings veer from rage to something like euphoria and then back again, until he settles on a single conclusion: “The rest of my life depended on that party.”

Anyone whose anxieties tend to buzz in the ear, creating a din that makes it impossible to act unself-consciously, will enjoy this slim volume. Mr. Bouillier is looking back and poking fun at himself, but the events are captured with a raw immediacy, making his parade of humiliations feel fresh and profound. He expounds at length on the “sartorial neurosis” he acquired after his girlfriend left him: turtlenecks as undershirts. He wears these shirts because they’re revolting, he says, but no one really seems to care. Not even the woman he’s dating sees the true significance of his clothing: “[It] would have made me feel so much less burdened and alone, would have meant such a sharp rise in the value of her affections, if only I’d known that she loved me with open eyes. But no, she saw no secret meaning in my layered look.” How endearingly, empathetically absurd is his insistence that every action, every decision, have such heady ramifications. The company of a woman who accepts his turtlenecks effectively makes him feel even more alone. Woe is the man whose layered look is misunderstood.

Given the shape of his despair, Mr. Bouillier’s actions are often vengeful, pre-emptive strikes against the low expectations he presumes everyone has of him. His preparations for the party have thrown him into a tizzy of paranoid speculation (“Was she bent on my complete and utter annihilation? Was the whole thing some kind of plot?”) and find him agonizing over what to give as a birthday gift. After endless deliberations, he decides on a bottle of 1964 Margaux, a wine that’s well beyond his means, chosen as an extravagant shield against the narrowing, judging eyes of the party’s guests. “I wanted to sacrifice everything, I wanted to shame them as I climbed up on the pyre. We’d see how haughty they looked then.”

Sure, Mr. Bouillier’s neurotic self-indulgence can get a little annoying, but he keeps his voice light and his book short (unlike, say, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, which is about twice as long and relentlessly dark). When Mr. Bouillier enters the party, where he believes all the secrets of his last relationship will be revealed, his awkwardness is poignantly recognizable: “I took off my coat with the air of a man who knows how to take off his coat wherever he happens to be.” Perhaps we all always take off our coats in this way, waiting for others to call us out as the frauds we truly are.

The party is the real meat of the memoir, making up the longest of the four chapters. After that, the final chapter feels a bit hasty and underwhelming, but it doesn’t detract from the strength of The Mystery Guest. Grégoire Bouillier confirms that while the fruitless pursuit of life’s many secrets may be tragic, conducting this search while bitterly swaddled in a turtleneck is delightfully ridiculous.

Emily Bobrow is an editor at Economist.com.