Olivier Pauvert’s Noir — his first and only novel to date — brings nihilism, amorality, and fascism to a dystopian nightmare that manages to make the city of Paris seem less than pleasurable, and even downright frightening. Fans of well-written science fiction will be sucker punched by the direct prose that limns a suspenseful plot permeated with elements of splatterpunk goriness. If that isn’t enough, there is a dominant element of the metaphysical. After the protagonist discovers a gruesome corpse, he is arrested and then dies when the police van he is in careens off the road. He awakens to find that it is twelve years later and that he has not completely died but has returned as a ghost version of himself in the body of man who looks like he has Down’s Syndrome. Our protagonist remains unnamed, and we learn that it is necessary for him to wear sunglasses because, as he quickly learns, he kills any living thing that makes direct eye contact with him. While being chased by the National Militia, he discovers his power to kill with his eye contact:
The two dogs come over towards me, growling. I am not frightened any more, I’ve had enough. Let’s get it over with. I stare at them. The freeze, paralysed, whining. I take a step forward, they lie down on the ballast. When I reach out my hand to touch them they fall to one side, dead. I look up, no one. The dogs are well and truly dead, here in front of me. Their eyes are glassy. There’s white froth drooling from their mouths. I stand their panicking for a moment, turn round, turn back, no one anywhere. What happened?
Constantly on the run for his looks, and in search of the truth to why he is actually back as a Spirit — did he brutally kill and disembowel a girl and hang her from a tree? — he is protected by a black man who finds him sleeping in the métro. The man tells him that he has two hours before daybreak and that he must hide because he recognizes that he is a spirit. After he gives him shelter in his apartment for the night, he explains to our narrator why people fear him:
“I don’t understand any of this. What have I done?”
“I don’t know, that’s for you to find out. I don’t know very much about Spirits like you, and I hardly understand anything about their world. All I can tell you is that, for years now, people who look like you — the simple, the misshapen, the deformed and the ugly — are allowed to be seen: it’s forbidden. It would sully their ideal of Man’s body and soul. That’s why they’re hunting you down, too, that’s why they want to catch you. But you’re not like the Mongols they got rid of at the beginning. You’re like the ones that started appearing later, one of those spirits they value so highly. You need to be careful because they want you really badly. Keep your sunglasses on, be discreet and quick, because you don’t belong down here. Your time here is limited.”
And on the run he goes, stealing, killing those who threaten him and meeting Spirits like himself during his horrific journey to find the truth. As our narrator gets closer to his own truth, he delves deeper into the sinister tactics of the government. Reading as if it were Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate taken to the limit, Pauvert’s novel warns us of the perils of the police state and makes us wonder how close we are.
The plot is intricate and difficult to outline without giving away too much of the novel. But this is a true work of transgressive fiction. To speak of this type of fiction, there is the inevitable comparison to Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. But what is so interesting about these books is the version of the future they painted within the context of that era. Pauvert manages to give us a thrilling version of dystopia while adding a potent mix of the metaphysical and horror creates an engaging version of transgressive fiction that is relevant to our time in history.
Full of imagination, anarchy, and subtle political commentary, Noir is worthy foray into noir science fiction. You will be too involved with the novel to notice it’s messages about a political dystopia, but when you finish, the future will difficult to forget.