FEBRUARY 22, 2016
IF YOU’RE LOOKING at contemporary France from the outside, by means of the distorting prism of media, you could be forgiven for understanding Paris as a city structured entirely around two conflicting poles. On the one hand, you have the Fox News view of the City of Light turned lawless City of Darkness, a warzone overrun by fundamentalists and dotted with “no-go” areas of hard-core Islamist control, run by Daesh-inspired imams. On the other, you have the vision of the city propagated by films like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, where the city and its heritage exist primarily as a plaything for white, Western elites who spend their never-ending vacations squandering trust funds on lavish meals and illicit affairs while pursuing kitsch quests for the Lost Generation.
The real Paris, as experienced by the vast majority of the French capital’s 2.2 million inhabitants, is considerably more mundane than these polarities suggest. Paris can be a place where extremes collide, as they did, shatteringly, at both the start and the end of 2015, but it is not a city of extremists. For the most part, Paris is a place where radical differences coexist. Watchwords generally include tolerance, cooperation, and “just getting along.” These efforts might not always take place harmoniously, not even necessarily completely respectfully (as the worrying support for the political extreme right in France demonstrates), but most people are, as they are in London, Tel Aviv, and Seoul, just trying to get by, and live their humdrum lives as modestly as possible in the context of the machinations of late capitalism. Belleville, a district in the northeast of the city, is a perfect case in point — it has a large Chinatown, but is also home to significant Jewish, Arab, and Berber populations, living cheek by jowl as they have done for decades, all contributing to the unique, vibrant texture of the local community.
Jérémie Guez’s Eyes Full of Empty is worth a read, perhaps not for any reinvention of the crime fiction genre, but for the acutely drawn window it provides on the contemporary metropolitan French experience. Originally from the Sables d’Olonne seaside town in West France, Guez is an emerging voice in French detective fiction. At 27, he has already received two high-profile literary prizes, and become known for his exhilarating evocations of the underworld in North Paris districts such as Belleville and the nearby Barbès. Coming from the provinces, one suspects, gives Guez an outsider’s perspective on the metropolis.
Eyes Full of Empty brings these districts to life through the eyes of Idir, a young man fresh out of prison for assault, now working as an underworld fixer, part private investigator and part muscle for hire. Idir was raised on the fringes of Paris by an Algerian father, and his ethnicity automatically raises the shadow of the French colonial war with Algeria. This conflict, which played out between 1954 and 1962, is a bit of a taboo subject in French daily life, but has proven productive nonetheless for the contemporary cultural imagination. Guez doesn’t tease out the hidden legacies of this dialectic of oppression and resistance as well as other writers who’ve tackled the tensions between French and Algerians — Didier Daeninckx’s Meurtres pour mémoire (1984), for example, is a classic of modern, history-infused crime writing. Instead, he casts Idir as an outsider character, alienated from both white, mainstream French society and from his religious and family roots.
Guez’s novel presents two main narrative threads for Idir to untangle (and he does, of course, eventually discover their disturbing intersections). He is on the hunt for Thibaut, the missing brother of a high-profile media mogul, when he is asked by an old criminal connection for his help in tracking down a suspiciously important stolen car. These investigations lead Idir deep into an after-dark Paris — drugs, violence, and extreme sex all have their parts to play in his investigations. Nursing his bruises and his hangovers, Idir is also drawn uncomfortably close to the breakdown of the relationship between his school friend Thomas and the stunning Nathalie.
The tone is set perfectly in the novel’s arresting prologue, three short pages that assault the reader with drug use, bowel movements, prison violence, racial tension, and nihilism as our narrator marks his birthday watching the 2001 World Trade Center attacks on television in prison: “I wish the planes had crashed here. For once, something’s going down; I’m not about to miss out. Happy birthday, my ass. They can all go fuck themselves.” Despite, or perhaps because of, these brutal tendencies and his taste for caustic asides and deflationary put-downs, Idir is credibly sketched and likeable — although his habit of bursting into tears at inopportune moments seems like an odd tic designed to add artificial character depth.
Idir makes for a unique contemporary casting of the classic private dick: he needs the cash, possesses a rudimentary ethical worldview, and is unable to avoid — particularly when it comes to romance — getting personally implicated in the cases he takes on. Unlike Philip Marlowe, a white man in a white-male-dominated world, Idir experiences the conflicts of a second-generation Algerian in France. He is caught between the pressures of his family, religion, and comrades from within his shady local underworld community and the white, moneyed bourgeoisie who push work his way. Like Marlowe’s, Idir’s talent lies in crossing the invisible boundaries that separate the coexisting strata of his metropolitan society. But Idir’s mobility is less graceful than his literary forefather’s and his transgressions into chic bourgeois milieux cause race-based unease. On crashing a slick party with his collaborator Cherif, Idir remarks of the host, “He doesn’t look happy to see us. I try to explain what our grubby faces are doing at a party that seems as private as it does swanky.”
Guez is clearly fond of Raymond Chandler, but the delicacy with which the author evokes Idir’s liminal status in the context of a violent world also recalls a more contemporary writer, Sabri Louatah. Louatah’s tetralogy Les Sauvages, yet to be published in English translation, similarly evokes a contemporary French experience where the protagonists navigate between a white social hierarchy and a younger generation raised by immigrant parents. As with Guez, the characters prepared to collaborate and cooperate endure while inflexible reactionaries — white or Arab — inevitably provoke damaging friction. Despite such literary resonances, and its author’s ability to spin a compelling yarn and create a character who scuffles pleasingly through a recognisably-drawn world, Eyes Full of Empty isn’t quite articulate enough in its social critique to stand with the likes of Thierry Jonquet, Jean-Patrick Manchette, or Jean-Bernard Pouy in the unofficial pantheon of contemporary French detective fiction. Whereas these writers use the process of detective work to discuss issues like poverty and consumerism, Guez seems most concerned with evoking Idir’s swagger and the vicarious delights of brutal violence as his protagonist descends into the Paris night.
In this way, Guez has a striking and recognisable aesthetic, but it is perhaps from within French filmmaking, rather than writing, that Guez’s most obvious creative precedents emerge. Idir’s underworld recalls those evoked in films such as Jacques Audiard’s bullish Un prophète (2009) and the murky French banlieue life sketched in popular TV series such as Engrenages (Spiral, 2005–2014). Given the uncompromising brutality of both the underworld Idir investigates and the manner of his expression, I’m also reminded in particular of the provocative and uncompromising style of early films of bad boy French film director Gaspar Noé, particularly his notorious Irréversible (2002).
Paris starts 2016 still trying to come to terms with the most upsetting year in its recent history. Its inhabitants are still edgy, but trying to get on with their lives. Many Parisians have turned to the literary classics for comfort: Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast have become bedside table staples. Those outside Paris interested in getting a feel for the contemporary climate could learn a great deal from Guez’s exhilarating work.