There’s a way to act when you’re alone, another state of being when you’re in the company of your closest friends and then there’s how to behave in unfamiliar situations. How to Behave in a Crowd, a novel by Camille Bordas, challenges this idea by isolating a young boy within his family – a group of caricatured older siblings and parents – and acquaintances with issues that make it unlikely that they can close the gap to true friendship. Within these relationships, the reader is left to decide which of these is the real “etre”, the French state of being for the narrator, Isidore, the youngest son in the family. Whether because of their culture or their unconventional parents, Dory’s five siblings are all high achievers and both speak and are spoken to like adult peers to their mother and the man they all call “the father”. Since the family history is being told by its youngest member, we get a very biased perspective of the story where the narrator’s views are mostly influenced by the person he is idolizing at the time. For a big part of the novel, this influence is his sister, Simone, older by a year and a half but eclipsing him in terms of accomplishments. So while the narrator isn’t necessarily weak, his views are easily swayed as he absorbs advice from just about everyone around him, to show not just who he is but to reflect his environment.
How to Behave in a Crowd is almost a self-help book, with the long paragraphs typical of an instructional read, as each member in Isidore’s crowd shares their own ideas on what is, indeed, proper behavior, from the detached, lofty position they have created for themselves away from the therapeutic couch where Isidore tries to work out his problems and learn how to behave.
The author cleverly used a young narrator who we can hear from but also forgive for his part in the story. The satire is very well expressed and there are laugh out loud moments in a book that is peppered with witty and clever comparisons between characters that show the nature of both in very comical ways.
The children used foul language that might be typical of their laissez faire French upbringing but that will probably shock anyone else, especially since the narrator is only eleven years when the story begins and he is the one reporting it. Over the course of the novel, the vulgarity got progressively worse although it became evident that the author merely intended to show how the characters used whatever means to prevent intimacy, even with the reader.
The novel is almost equal parts tragedy, comedy and drama. While several deaths are mentioned, however, the tragedy is not in the loss of these characters but in how the survivors’ lives go on almost unaffected by these events and in their description of how life is measured by the deaths that punctuate it. So what begins as the setup for a tragedy, and includes all the requirements for it, instead reads like the parody of a tragic framework that receives comic reception. This, then, achieves dramatic effect, the children acting and reacting, describing their lives in very emotionally distant ways, with their mother playing a part she appears to still be auditioning for.
In explaining the deeper meaning behind this fictional tale, the author makes many connections to literary and scholarly works, not least of which is her explanation of the German V-effect where the audience is invited to view the performance in a voyeuristic way instead of building intimacy with the characters. In this reference, Bordas ties in all the clues littered around the book, using scenes from Isidore’s childhood to explain his later behavior, like the therapist drawing on the juvenile experiences being described patient on the couch, and using them to show him why he is the way he is.
This novel was blurbed by fictional masters like Zadie Smith and George Saunders and is quite deserving of its early praise. My only hesitation in recommending it is that while this is a novel about children, it is in no way suitable for a young audience because of the graphic descriptions and mental disorders that are discussed that might be triggers for anyone grappling with similar issues.
- I received a free copy of this book from Blogging For Books in order to complete my review.
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