The Boston Phoenix
August 28 - September 4, 1997

[Book Reviews]

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Some pig

In Marie Darrieussecq's fable, a young Parisian becomes positively porcine

by Elizabeth Schmidt

PIG TALES: A TALE OF LUST AND TRANSFORMATIONS, by Marie Darrieussecq. Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. The New Press, 151 pages, $18.

You have to hand it to Marie Darrieussecq. At 27, she's written a first novel about a woman who turns into a pig in end-of-millennium Paris -- and Darrieussecq, a literature professor, has accomplished this without being overshadowed by, or even really nodding to, her great modern forebears. Her metamorphosis, for the most part, doesn't resound with ominous political parallels (à la Orwell), and it couldn't be farther from Kafkaesque angst. Its considerable achievement lies in its pigheadedness -- its determination, it seems, to tell a story for story's sake, and not for the sake of some grand political or psychological allegory.

Telling this story straight, as it were, is no small thing, considering how much outlandishness it encompasses. For instance, the unemployed young narrator finds her job options expanding when her body begins filling out in delectable ways: she goes from a B cup to a generous D, her rump and thighs become firmer and fuller, and her skin takes on a pink glow. These early manifestations of piggishness turn out to be great aphrodisiacs, and she finds work in a shady beauty boutique/"massage" parlor where she soon has a devoted list of high-paying male clients.

But then she gains too much weight, no matter how much she diets, and the men who used to worship her and bring her flowers (which she couldn't help eating) stop coming, replaced by thugs who behave like barnyard animals. Her periods get out of whack; she starts growing four new nipples; her back hurts when she tries to stand up straight; and coarse, transparent hairs begin to grow all over her body. Her schoolteacher boyfriend throws her out, and she descends into the Paris sewer.

This is pretty far-out stuff, and yet what makes the book compelling has less do with these spectacular antics than with the strange and sometimes vexing dissociation between the horrifying events of the plot and the narrator's prim voice. She begins her story with a disclaimer, an apology, and a warning: writing her memoirs from a safe mud patch in the forest, she's sorry that the publisher who finds her book will have so much trouble reading her "piggle-squiggles" and that her memory doesn't work very well, and she entreats the reader "to pardon the impropriety of my words. Unfortunately, however, there will be a great deal more impropriety in this book, and I beg all those whom it might shock to please forgive me." Most of the book's bawdy and violent sex scenes are described with a kind of stiff, highly embarrassed formality. The hurried, ladylike voice encourages one to look the other way or speed along -- which, as Darrieussecq well knows, is a kind of protesting-too-much narrative trick that makes a reader all the more keen to get at what's so awful or distasteful.

Early on, the narrator (who doesn't have a name) is too afraid to ask her mother for money for a Metro ticket, so

to get through the turnstile I was forced to squeeze up against some man. There are always lots of them waiting around for girls at the Métro turnstiles. I definitely felt that I'd made an impression on the gentleman -- bluntly put, much more of an impression than I usually made. I had to wash my skirt discreetly in one of the changing rooms at Aqualand.

This scene, obscured somewhat by her discreet description, shows sleazy men in the underground, waiting to rub up against girls who can't afford to pay for Metro tickets -- a suggestion of bush-league prostitution that reaches the big time when she begins work at Perfumes Plus:

In general I found my clients charming, cute as could be. They were growing increasingly interested in my derrière, that was the only problem. What I mean is -- and I urge all sensitive souls not to read this page, for their own self-respect -- that my customers had some peculiar predilections, some completely unnatural ideas, if you follow me.

Here, of course, there's a whiff of a morality tale: this poor girl suffers enough because she's become a pig (what could be more humiliating for a working-class girl who tries so hard to be a lady?) -- and yet, the hardest thing about the indignity turns out to be the men, who see in her a unique opportunity to release their inner beasts.

The book begins to unravel when the narrator emerges from her sojourn in the sewer to find her country in political turmoil. She trots into a party for the emergent dictator, a Jean-Marie Le Pen type who's gotten a mandate to purge France of all immigrants and sees our porcine friend as the perfect "hayseed" model for his healthy France; she winds up as his poster girl and his favorite party toy, and through him she meets her one true love, a werewolf.

Much of the last third of the book reads as a heavy-handed political farce. The pig and the werewolf hide out in different parts of Paris, trying to escape the new militant faction of the SPCA -- perhaps Darrieussecq is actually poking fun at Orwell. But in the end, our narrator is no political animal. The dictator's gone mad and been institutionalized, and we're left in the hands of a pig who's run off to the forest to write her memoirs.

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