Of all the thinkers to emerge from France in the 1960s, Roland Barthes stands alone. Even among a generation of extraordinary genius — for starters: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Lacan — Barthes towers as a singular mind. Not only did he transmute the often-obscure language of critical theory into a literary beauty worthy of Proust; his work evoked a powerful Romanticism equally capable of seducing both dusty old professors and teenage lovers.
Barthes’s death was just as memorable as his life. After publishing A Lover’s Discourse and Camera Lucida, two of his most beloved and enduring works, an ascendant Barthes met his fate in the form of an errant laundry van. After a month-long coma, the great thinker finally succumbed in March 1980.
But what if this collision wasn’t an accident? What if this laundry truck was instead part of a wide-ranging conspiracy implicating multiple governments, powerful politicians, leading philosophers, and entire teams of secret agents? What if Barthes was in possession of a document of such immense power that it inspired murder? Such is the dizzying premise behind Laurent Binet’s frantic, Umberto Eco–esque The Seventh Function of Language.
Readers of Laurent’s tightly wound World War II novel, HHhH — an avant-garde page-turner about the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich — might be surprised to find in The Seventh Function of Language a very funny, very campy novel, a madcap entertainment fueled by the odd couple at its center. Soon after Barthes’s collision, the archconservative, proletarian police detective Jacques Bayard is called to the scene. He doesn’t know exactly why he’s there; he just knows that someone up high thinks this death is of the utmost importance. So he investigates, but faster than you can say “welcome to the desert of the real” this plain-dealing man becomes hopelessly bewildered by the bizarre world of discourses, signifiers, and esoteric theories he’s been thrust into.
Baffled, he heads to the University of Paris VIII, the beating heart of student radicalism, runaway cultural studies, and poststructuralist thought, where Bayard encounters Simon Herzog, an awkward grad student whose vast talent for semiotic analysis belies his meek exterior. The detective immediately enlists Herzog’s entirely unwilling participation in the investigation, and our odd couple is off, soon making stops at Michel Foucault’s gay bathhouse, Umberto Eco’s leftist-ridden café in Bologna (complete with neo-Fascist terrorism), and an absolutely surreal academic conference in Ithaca, New York, at which archrivals John Searle and Jacques Derrida vie to wipe one another off the face of philosophical theory.
The adventures of the proletarian police officer and the precocious poststructuralist would surely be enough to fill up a novel, but Binet gives his story one more delicious layer: as Bayard and Herzog struggle to piece the case together — with interludes from the French presidential campaign between ultraconservative Georges Giscard and socialist François Mitterrand — Binet introduces us to the shadowy Logos Club. Something along the lines of a Fight Club for rhetoricians, the Logos Club meets in underground, invitation-only locations where intellectuals duke it out over questions such as “the written word vs the spoken word” and “Is legal violence still violence?,” hoping to climb the ranks to become the Great Protagoras. For those who lose a fight, more than honor and rank is at risk: oftentimes, the losing rhetorician must stride over to the dissection table and have a finger neatly chopped off.
The Seventh Function of Language does not lack for audacity, and the scenes from the Logos Club rank as some of its most bravura writing. Giving over to a cockeyed energy, the bouts are the perfect embodiment of the quandary at the center of The Seventh Function of Language: either critical theory is a just a bunch of scholarly gobbledygook run amok, or it’s a transcendent conceptual framework that has conquered the world. One crucial face-off transpires over the question “baroque vs classical,” and it’s easily some of the best writing I’ve read this year, with the two contestants raging for ten electrifying pages, punching and dodging with everything from the history of Venice to the debate over Racine vs. Shakespeare to quotes from Baudelaire and Barthes and theories of Renaissance art. Another contest, this one a title fight against the Great Protagoras himself, is a masterpiece of ironic absurdism in which the contestants must strive to debate a nonsense subject that neither of them even understands.
As with the best titles in the paranoid-schizoid genre, The Seventh Function of Language is like a self-perpetuating top that’s capable of generating its own ludicrous momentum, never slowing down enough to topple over. Binet knows his terrain intimately, crafting fantastic parodies of the real-life personalities of his star intellectuals but also integrating their ideas and disagreements in thoughtful, lively ways (don’t miss the sex scene that brings new meaning to Deleuze’s “body without organs”). Both erudite and accessible, it’s equally a boon to lazy undergrads cribbing for a critical theory class and to their professors in search of a fresh twist on old ideas.
What comes of this hysterical caper is a serious case for why poststructuralist theory is relevant to an age fueled by the likes of social networks and right-wing faux-populism. The norm-breaking rhetoric now being used by mainstream politicians has made for a very practical case study in how invasive discourses can suddenly take hold of our reality. As a statement on critical theory’s abiding contribution to politics — and the role that intellectuals play in the rhetorical arms race — The Seventh Function of Language pairs well with the reality-changing linguistic feats we have lately seen. Binet’s accomplishment is to give this rich body of work a James Bond–esque makeover, both radiating a charismatic appeal and confidently winking at the very excesses that its detractors have tried to mock.
Ultimately, the premise that Barthes was murdered is the sort of paranoid conspiracy that immediately gets you kicked out of all sensible conversations, but the premise that Barthes was in possession of ideas powerful enough to kill over is the sort of risky idea that should make anyone say, “Tell me more . . . ” Binet has managed to draw the preposterous and the provocative together into a novel that has it both ways, putting completely laughable propositions into the service of important lines of argument. In so doing, Binet reaches back to the foundations of the modern novel — what is the Quixote if not an absurdist plot making a deadly serious point? — while showing that the old poststructuralist dog still possesses a lot of new tricks.