“Julie delivered a head blow to his face.” A doughtier reader than I might have frowned here, tucked in his chin, and plowed on. But I, weak of mind, was stopped in my tracks. A head blow? To the face? What could that mean? The next line brought clarity, of a sort: “The girl’s hard skull struck the man’s chin, snapping his head back and causing him to collapse into a heap on the tiled floor.” Aha — so she head-butted him. Then why not simply write “Julie head-butted him in the face”? Why this mysterious “head blow”? Which I just googled, by the way, getting plenty of results for head injuries and heads blown off, but not a single one to suggest a blow caused by a head…
I’m being finicky, perhaps. On the other hand, being finicky is my job, and Julie’s head blow is not an isolated example, this NYRB Classics translation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1972 crime novel Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux seeming to derive its rhythms from neither English nor French, but from some invisible and possibly extraterrestrial third language. “Just around a sharp turn thousands of people were besieging stalls set up in the middle of the street.” There has to be a better way to write that. Or how about: “The Simca bounded after them.” The Simca is a car. Cars have wheels. Not legs, which would seem — unless you’re in a P. G. Wodehouse novel — to be a prerequisite for bounding. So loaded is The Mad and the Bad, in fact, with weirdo word choices and grinding locutions that it bypasses mere awkwardness and begins to feel quite genuinely avant-garde. “The boy came to his feet. His free arm described a quadrant in the air and brought the wooden dog down on the bridge of Julie’s nose.” A quadrant, eh? That’ll make you think. That’ll bump you out of your tedious readerly reverie, your bourgeois-consumerist attempt to lose yourself in the narrative. “A rooster crowed in a horrible way.” Suck on that, hypocrite lecteur.
The plot: an unpleasant millionaire, Hartog, plucks a young woman, Julie, from an insane asylum and presses her into service as a nanny for his nephew, Peter. Hartog has a disgusting personality, but he is famed for his philanthropy and employs a number of disabled people as his domestic staff. His embittered former business partner, Fuentes, drops by now and again to give him a good kicking. (“Call the doc,” said Hartog. “I have broken ribs.”) Julie has anger problems, substance problems, reacts badly to the word “police,” and she’s only been in the job a couple of days when she and little Peter get kidnapped. (“We are here to take the kid. There are two other armed guys around you.”) She does have great legs, however. Meanwhile, an ulcerated hit man called Thompson has been lurching from gig to gig, groaning and holding his stomach. Only killing and getting paid can make him feel better . . .
So things proceed, pulpo-experimentally. Manchette’s people are creatures of need and impulse, incurious about themselves, incurious about each other, jarring together in economic or predatory relationships. The straight world is a shapeless mass, barely worthy of description. “Along the way Julie and Peter passed students, mothers, old folks.” The human body is also a bit of a shapeless mass: a lot of sweating goes on, which produces some notable instances of translationese. “The sweat gathered like drool on his glistening curls.” “Sweat pearled at the roots of the seriously thinning hair on his liver-spotted cranium.” (Perhaps “scalp” instead of “cranium”? Just a thought.) It’s a vision all right — the carcass society, zapped into fitful animation by a live wire of criminality — but you can find it done a lot better, for my money, in George V. Higgins’s masterpiece bummer The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Or for that matter in the streamlined existential hardness of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, a number of which Manchette himself translated into French (I’d love to know what kind of a translator he was.)
A very Gallic prickle of literary antagonism comes off The Mad and the Bad. The blurbs on the back hail Manchette as “a decades-long hurricane through the Parisian cultural scene” (James Ellroy wrote that one) and novel itself as “a scathing critique of the excesses of greed and capitalism.” James Sallis, in his introduction, writes that Manchette was deeply influenced by Guy Debord and Situationism, that he believed in the potential of the crime novel to be “the great moral literature of our time,” and that his prose goes “skimming over polarized societies and forfeited lives, momentum never flagging.” All of this may be true. The Mad and the Bad certainly contains a massacre in a supermarket, an outburst in a church meeting, and a scene in which Julie turns the pages of Vogue magazine and thinks to herself, “What legs! What ecstasy! If only I could be a model . . . ” Julie and little Peter, fleeing their kidnappers, even go on a sort of chaotically violent Situationist dérive. But whether from the continual micro-alienations provided by the translator, or from some deeper frigidity in the text itself, this book left me cold. Slightly stunned by its badness, actually. As if by a head blow to my face.