IN CONCRETE, the recent novel by French Oulipian Anne Garréta, is an absurdist psychosexual satire about how a father’s dangerous mania for mixing concrete in the name of nonstop “muddernizing” — i.e., building, tinkering, fixing — embroils and threatens his wife and two daughters. Garréta’s novel is a charming tour de force of childhood adventure, positing fanciful tomboy spunk and punning humor as an antidote to deadening fixity and daddy fixations. Deftly balancing the literal and the imaginative, Emma Ramadan’s splendid translation from the French is funny, beguiling, and mysterious from first to last.
Publisher Deep Vellum calls In Concrete “a feminist inversion of a domestic drama crossed with Oulipian nursery rhyme” that “reinvents the novel form and blurs the line between spoken and written language in an attempt to confront the elasticity of communication.” Garréta celebrates that elasticity, adroitly stretching language like a midway taffy puller, and weaponizing it against monolithic male myopia.
Garréta’s novel follows the travails of two sisters who are being trained by their father in concrete construction: the tough, tender, and intrepid Angélique/Poulette, and the older, sweetly sassy, and bullish (but not always a bully) Fignole. Fignole is the uncanny carnival barker of a narrator, ever fond of declaiming her sororal stalwartness and contempt for “sissies”: “Concrete’s no job for sissies”; “Only sissies capitulate”; “Angélique and I never tire of bitch-slapping the bourgeois. It’s a sport more fun and more honorable than bitch-slapping sissies.”
Their paterfamilias, ex-con Jérôme-Daniel-Philippe Oberkampf, suggests a manic resurrection of the dead father in Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden (1978). His concrete obsession threatens tragedy when a janky contraption tumbles Angélique/Poulette into the concrete mix, encasing her in a quick-drying cocoon. Her mummified silence leaves Fignole the finisher, whose “finishes are infinite,” to retailor their tale, recounting their sisterly schemes and stratagems in a vivifying flood of allusive language. Much of the story involves their battling neighborhood bullies — a series of schoolyard yarns that stretch into epic catalogs and complex satirical meditations on the “lamentable triumphs” of warfare:
You have only to watch our father in action to understand the last two centuries of France’s military disasters, our grandpa declares. Berezina, Sedan, Bazeilles, the Marne, Verdun, and all those wars lost because of battles won in a magnificent surge and all those lamentable triumphs.
All those debacles, those victories that bleed and exhaust us.
Our bones piled up in sinister necropoles.
And mud and boards and tinkering — ingenious! — with shovel and pitchfork, and feet in mortar made from blood, shit, human carrion and vile vanity …
The father’s dangerous, clumsy, cyclopean concrete is ontologically onanistic, expressing a hard-hearted male desire to harden everything in sight and keep it that way — stay hard, boys! Concrete fixes the molecular matrix into a singularity; the solipsistic cement (semen-t) mixer threatens to blot out and smother our complex, wondrous, ever-changing Mother Earth.
Fignole’s narration is performative paronomasia, covering and converting her father’s concretization into a sprawling ivy of endless, irreverent, self-reflective, ping-ponging wordplay, a whippersnapper’s hypersexualized wisecracking. Her clever coinage for her father’s obsession — “muddernization” — suggests modernizing, covering in mud, acting like a mother, muttering, muddling. It appears variously as muddern, muddernity, muddernize, premuddernization, muddernizing, and, simply, muddy. Phillipe’s mudderous mayhem gets so perilous, so toxic, that his woebegone wife has to flee from “[w]ay way out in the sticks” back to town.
In Concrete is also a joyously scatological novel (one chapter is titled “Monstrous Scatastrophe,” another “Shit Creek”). Mud is wet cement, or wet shit, or both; concrete is an attempt to control excretion, to give humanity a durable platform to rise above its naturally shitty condition. One memorably disgusting scene shows the daughters saving their father’s eyesight by using their spit, for lack of water, to rinse his eyes of cement dust and powdered dung. Unlike Jesus curing the blind man with his spittle, the daughters’ frantic gobbing unglues their father’s eyes, only to embolden his mad drive: “Why is it that the more we try to muddernize, to yuppify, the more we crappify and wind up calcified up shit creek?” Fignole wonders.
Fignole’s scatological shitstream — including 33 variations on “shit” — is tough talk masking her chronic worry about going soft. She and Angélique/Poulette need to live up to their father’s dreams of muddernization by being tough and hardworking; they have to best the neighborhood bullies by becoming better bullies themselves, chivalrously defending a stray hen, a black girl, and a young boy. Their ultimate weapon? Cow pies — dry on one side, wet and smeary on the other:
When a lobbed dung bomb hits a foot soldier right in the kisser, the impact is instantaneous. He closes his eyes, closes his mouth, stops breathing. His hands drop the pitchfork, the pickax, the pebble. He starts frantically wiping himself, and the more he wipes, the more he spreads the crap. And the more crap he spreads, the less he dares open his eyes and the more he crashes into the rest of his regiment.
In Concrete celebrates childhood adventure, youthful imagination, spunk, and moxie — humor as an antidote to the father’s encompassing cyclopean idiocy. But Fignole’s crawling strangler fig of calembours and amphibology cracks through the father’s concrete world, surging against entropy:
Entropy goes hand in hand with klutziness, like the chicken and the egg and vice versa. Like Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter. Like syphilis and parish priests. Like manna and the desert.
Entropy is the quagmire of empire, when you can no longer escape, empirically and in situ.
Entropy is simple, says Poulette: entropy is our father.
In Concrete’s well-tempered Oulipian conglomerations of cheeky polyvalent puns always leave the plot clearly in focus, making it less baroque and more accessible than its touchstone text, Finnegans Wake (1939). Joyce even describes his fallen hod-carrier everyman Tim Finnegan (“the late cemented Mr T. M. Finnegan R.I.C.”) in ways that seem to point toward In Concrete: “He, selfsufficiencer, eggscumuddher-in-chaff sporticolorissimo, what though the duthsthrows in his lavabad eyes” and “comming nown from the asphalt to the concrete, from the human historic brute, Finnsen Faynean” and:
Bloody certainly have we got to see to it ere smellful demise surprends us on this concrete that down the gullies of the eras we may catch ourselves looking forward to what will in no time be staring you larrikins on the postface in that multimirror megaron of returningties, whirled without end to end.
Both Finnegans Wake and In Concrete are resurrection novels. From Dubliners (1914) to Ulysses (1922) to Finnegans Wake, Joyce moves from Michael Furey, buried too young by love and consumption, to the vanishing Stephen Dedalus, whose God is a shout in the street, to, finally, the resurrected Tim Finnegan. Similar to the Wake’s verbal briar patch, which famously claims that “the words which follow may be taken in any order desired,” In Concrete is a fluid, “inconcrete” novel fixed to concrete narrative axes that are entwined with concatenations of meaningful wordplay. Garréta transforms Churchill’s famous quip about Russian otherness — “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” — into a liquid trope for her whole bundle of familial dysfunction, dubbing the story, variously:
• “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enema”;
• “History wrapped in a fiddle inside a guerrilla”;
• “Hysterectomy wrapped in piddle inside smegma”;
• “Trickery wrapped in spittle inside a militia”;
• “Cliturgy wrapped in a diddle inside a chinchilla.”
The associative chains lead away from patriarchal rhetorical control toward a female sexual autonomy that is also capable of self-mockery: anticipating, deflecting, deflating any male complaint of hysteria, deceit, or onanism. Here, the enigma — the other — is men, and what to do about them.
In Concrete’s crisis, with aggressive strategist Angélique/Poulette trapped inside a patriarchal cocoon of mommy-fication (“crystallized in her concrete”), offers a key link to Garréta’s celebrated earlier novel Sphinx (1986), with its genderless protagonists. (Deep Vellum released a translation of Sphinx, also by Emma Ramadan, in 2015.) If Stephen Dedalus wants to awaken from history’s nightmare, while Tim Finnegan is infinitely reawakened through a “commodius vicus of recirculation,” then Angélique/Poulette needs to be roused from a mechanical, pedagogical patriarchy, the same malign influence that, in Sphinx, engenders the narrator’s apophatic quest for love. Yet Sphinx’s conclusion is shockingly, murderously male, and malign.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, after Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle, the beast leaps to its death, immediately replaced by the raucous, mocking, Teumessian vixen, which is itself quickly transformed into a marble statue: restricted and tightened — sphinxed, we might say, for the Greek root of “sphinx” means to “draw tight,” to cinch, to strangle. Jung wrote that, while Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s childish riddle, he cannot solve himself because the Sphinx is the self seen through the inescapable prison of the mother imago. Hence, Ovid’s resurrecting the Sphinx as the vixen. Jung also points out that intellect, the father’s influence on the daughter’s logos, is fearful and dangerous, precisely Garréta’s concern in In Concrete, where Philippe’s potentially fatal influence is also so solipsistic as to be absurd and ineffective. Hence, the novel’s linguistic duality, its absurd punstream endlessly suggesting the most serious human matters.
Sphinx and In Concrete both warn and war against structure, stricture, petrification, and premature burial — death in life. Sphinx buries four bodies, one in a septic tank, two in a cemetery, one in a frozen Amsterdam canal. Its narrator, DJ, plays various roles — scholar, criminal accomplice, pied piper, lover, mourner, hierophant, psychopomp, and author — but their quest requires them to become a sacrifice, too, and by writing their own story, they also become the impossible voice from beyond the grave.
DJ’s narration reveals Camus’s The Fall (1956) to be a key reference for both Sphinx and In Concrete:
I appear to myself in the guise of the hero of that 1950s novel entitled, for reasons I no longer remember, La Chute. A pure soul, all grandeur in a heroic mask, suffering and cheaply acting out the sublime in a chaotic confusion of good intentions and pious lucidities. However, something of my true self remained: the intimate sensation I derived from these passions, soon shattered by the aftertaste of falling out of love.
The strange sensation of always feeling as if I were at the dreadful edge of some imminent break. […] By distancing myself from the world, I was squandering my destiny: such was the malediction of recognizing the world’s infamy but not allowing myself to spit in its face.
In The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence reflects on the pervasive, withering nausea of humanity’s self-humiliation, thus presaging In Concrete:
Have you at least heard of the spitting cell, which a nation recently thought up to prove itself the greatest on earth? A walled-up box in which the prisoner can stand without moving. The solid door that locks him in his cement shell stops at chin level. Hence only his face is visible, and every passing jailer spits copiously on it. The prisoner, wedged into his cell, cannot wipe his face, though he is allowed, it is true, to close his eyes. Well, that, mon cher, is a human invention. They didn’t need God for that little masterpiece.
What of it? Well, God’s sole usefulness would be to guarantee innocence, and I am inclined to see religion rather as a huge laundering venture — as it was once but briefly, for exactly three years, and it wasn’t called religion. Since then, soap has been lacking, our faces are dirty, and we wipe one another’s noses. All dunces, all punished, let’s all spit on one another and — hurry! to the little-ease! Each tries to spit first, that’s all. I’ll tell you a big secret, mon cher. Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.
A daily last judgment seems the epitome of premature burial.
Sphinx and In Concrete examine the fear of imprisonment, premature burial, corpse concealment, assault, exile, and funeral rites — all mirroring the problem of social restriction and sexual oppression, the male burying the female, the father smothering the daughter, the psychic, social, and corporeal imprisonment in words, in language, in identity, in concrete. The primal horror of being buried alive — taphephobia — informs countless tales since antiquity, from the Odyssey and Samson’s tragedy in Book of Judges to Beckett’s Happy Days (1961) and Genet’s Funeral Rites (1948). The narrator (“the fuck who suffers”) of Beckett’s How It Is (1961) spins his entire “rich testimony” while crawling “alone in the dark in the mud” to reach his sad conclusion: “silence no answer die no answer DIE.” Poe satirized the phenomenon in several stories. In “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), Montresor (“my treasure”) uses brick and mortar to triumphantly immure his nemesis Fortunato (“the lucky man”) in his family crypt, while the psychosomatic narrator of “The Premature Burial” (1844), whose fear is self-actualizing, seems “cured” at the end of his auto-suggestive condition, though his retelling signifies reexperience.
Angélique/Poulette’s concrete mummification recalls, specifically and wonderfully, Cash Bundren in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930). From her deathbed, Addie Bunden watches her son Cash build her coffin, a psychic premature burial that is later transferred back upon Cash. When he breaks his leg, his reckless father Anse, in a rush to dispense with Addie’s burial and acquire new dentures and a new wife, has Cash’s broken leg encased in wet concrete, to the astonishment and rage of the doctor:
“[D]on’t tell me it ain’t going to bother you to lose sixty-odd square inches of skin to get that concrete off. And don’t tell me it ain’t going to bother you to have to limp around on one short leg for the balance of your life — if you walk at all again. Concrete,” I said. “God Amighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family.”
In response to Angélique/Poulette’s accident, the bullish Fignole — “I’m the bull,” she boasts — becomes both matriarch and patriarch, feigning daughterly devotion while pursuing emergency measures. She identifies with “a magnificent Charolais bull whose majestic and grotesque balls skim the grass along the road,” while Philippe is a pantomime Christ, “a scarecrow in bloody rags, crowned with barbed wire.” Fignole is a bull her father does not recognize, who could gore him but instead shows love, while the grandmother (as in Sphinx) comes to save the day. In both novels, the trouble is men’s machinations. Garréta’s solution is to trace a trailing woodbine of liquid (i.e., non-concrete) language, to save a sister from Sphinx-like fixity through “unmolding and restoration,” wherein retelling is not petrification but regeneration.