In Marie Darrieussecq's fable, a young Parisian becomes positively porcine
by Elizabeth Schmidt
PIG TALES: A TALE OF LUST AND TRANSFORMATIONS, by Marie Darrieussecq. Translated from the French
by Linda Coverdale. The New Press, 151 pages, $18.
You have to hand it to Marie Darrieussecq. At 27, she's written a first novel
about a woman who turns into a pig in end-of-millennium Paris -- and
Darrieussecq, a literature professor, has accomplished this without being
overshadowed by, or even really nodding to, her great modern forebears. Her
metamorphosis, for the most part, doesn't resound with ominous political
parallels (à la Orwell), and it couldn't be farther from Kafkaesque
angst. Its considerable achievement lies in its pigheadedness -- its
determination, it seems, to tell a story for story's sake, and not for the sake
of some grand political or psychological allegory.
Telling this story straight, as it were, is no small thing, considering how
much outlandishness it encompasses. For instance, the unemployed young narrator
finds her job options expanding when her body begins filling out in delectable
ways: she goes from a B cup to a generous D, her rump and thighs become firmer
and fuller, and her skin takes on a pink glow. These early manifestations of
piggishness turn out to be great aphrodisiacs, and she finds work in a shady
beauty boutique/"massage" parlor where she soon has a devoted list of
high-paying male clients.
But then she gains too much weight, no matter how much she diets, and the men
who used to worship her and bring her flowers (which she couldn't help eating)
stop coming, replaced by thugs who behave like barnyard animals. Her periods
get out of whack; she starts growing four new nipples; her back hurts when she
tries to stand up straight; and coarse, transparent hairs begin to grow all
over her body. Her schoolteacher boyfriend throws her out, and she descends
into the Paris sewer.
This is pretty far-out stuff, and yet what makes the book compelling has less
do with these spectacular antics than with the strange and sometimes vexing
dissociation between the horrifying events of the plot and the narrator's prim
voice. She begins her story with a disclaimer, an apology, and a warning:
writing her memoirs from a safe mud patch in the forest, she's sorry that the
publisher who finds her book will have so much trouble reading her
"piggle-squiggles" and that her memory doesn't work very well, and she entreats
the reader "to pardon the impropriety of my words. Unfortunately, however,
there will be a great deal more impropriety in this book, and I beg all those
whom it might shock to please forgive me." Most of the book's bawdy and violent
sex scenes are described with a kind of stiff, highly embarrassed formality.
The hurried, ladylike voice encourages one to look the other way or speed along
-- which, as Darrieussecq well knows, is a kind of protesting-too-much
narrative trick that makes a reader all the more keen to get at what's so awful
Early on, the narrator (who doesn't have a name) is too afraid to ask her
mother for money for a Metro ticket, so
to get through the turnstile I was forced to squeeze up against some man.
There are always lots of them waiting around for girls at the Métro
turnstiles. I definitely felt that I'd made an impression on the gentleman --
bluntly put, much more of an impression than I usually made. I had to wash my
skirt discreetly in one of the changing rooms at Aqualand.
This scene, obscured somewhat by her discreet description, shows sleazy men in
the underground, waiting to rub up against girls who can't afford to pay for
Metro tickets -- a suggestion of bush-league prostitution that reaches the big
time when she begins work at Perfumes Plus:
In general I found my clients charming, cute as could be. They were growing
increasingly interested in my derrière, that was the only problem. What
I mean is -- and I urge all sensitive souls not to read this page, for their
own self-respect -- that my customers had some peculiar predilections, some
completely unnatural ideas, if you follow me.
Here, of course, there's a whiff of a morality tale: this poor girl suffers
enough because she's become a pig (what could be more humiliating for a
working-class girl who tries so hard to be a lady?) -- and yet, the hardest
thing about the indignity turns out to be the men, who see in her a unique
opportunity to release their inner beasts.
The book begins to unravel when the narrator emerges from her sojourn in the
sewer to find her country in political turmoil. She trots into a party for the
emergent dictator, a Jean-Marie Le Pen type who's gotten a mandate to purge
France of all immigrants and sees our porcine friend as the perfect "hayseed"
model for his healthy France; she winds up as his poster girl and his favorite
party toy, and through him she meets her one true love, a werewolf.
Much of the last third of the book reads as a heavy-handed political farce.
The pig and the werewolf hide out in different parts of Paris, trying to escape
the new militant faction of the SPCA -- perhaps Darrieussecq is actually poking
fun at Orwell. But in the end, our narrator is no political animal. The
dictator's gone mad and been institutionalized, and we're left in the hands of
a pig who's run off to the forest to write her memoirs.