The Collaborators is a novel about a novel. The book in question is called Dancing the Brown Java, volume one of a sprawling epic set in Resistance-era France, and perhaps the greatest French work since Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage to the End of the Night.1 The reader doesn’t learn too much about the content of this new masterpiece over the course of Pierre Siniac’s book—certain episodes of the plot are sketched out, a sentence or two is read by some character, critics praise the “little music” of its prose—for it is the events that swarm around it, the violent and even absurd machinations Dancing the Brown Java sets in motion, that constitute the almost 500 pages of this work.
It becomes clear early on that Dancing the Brown Java is an atypical book, not in some metaphysical or metafictional sense (like Borges’s “The Book of Sand”), but perhaps more as a MacGuffin, a mysterious force driving the action and leaving dead bodies in its wake. The Collaborators opens with an episode of Book Culture, a TV show dedicated to the literary arts.2 Jean-Rémi Dochin and Charles Gastinel are the stars of the evening, brought on to discuss Dancing the Brown Java, their critical and commercial hit. The two are an unlikely pair to have spawned a great work of literature: Dochin spent his life as an unemployed drifter, while Gastinel worked as a puppeteer until he became so fat his stage burst one day as he was performing beneath it. And as for being collaborators? They are decades apart in age and hardly seem to like one another . . .
Well they don’t and they aren’t. We learn very early on that Dochin wrote the book alone. Somehow, Gastinel involved Dochin in a murder and is now using this as blackmail so that he may live his dream of being a famous and esteemed author; imagine the Devil so admiring Faust’s intellect that he forced a deal on the poor scholar just to get a byline. And this is not the only time Dancing is tainted with blood. After it is published, any critic that plans on giving it a bad review quickly finds himself3 permanently incapacitated before a bad word about the novel can appear in print.
And if these weren’t mysteries enough, there is one more overarching head scratcher: how could anyone even write a good word about Dancing the Brown Java? The majority of the novel follows Dochin as he works on his magnum opus, and his opinion of his own prose is consistently low:
“I picked up one of my books, opened it, and once again discovered my pointless prose, my thick-headed wordplay, my malformed sentences trudging painfully over the page, my shallow, police-report behaviorism, my inane descriptions, my lovely syntactical screw-ups poking out here and there like weeds, my dialogue straight out of a dimestore novel or a TV series . . . Line after miserable line . . . I paged through the book, a strange weariness coming over me. The flatness of the thing hit me square in the face, just like a cream pie, only some joker had replaced the custard with cement. Talk about empty intellectual calories! I was already sure of it, and now the book in my hands made it clear as day: this was the best I could hope for, I’d never do better, never rise above this ocean of blather, this mountain of commonplaces, this forest of clichés.”
Why would someone with such a low opinion of his writing even try to get it published? The answer is Ferdinaud Céline, owner of an inn where Dochin ends up living for several years while he works on his book, and progenitor of the French title of this novel.4 A former bookstore owner, she becomes Dochin’s lover, mother, and the most avid fan of his work, maniacally pushing him to finish his book as she prepares a typed manuscript for the publishers. She has Proust on her bookshelves, so obviously she can recognize good writing, right?
Of course people, like works of literature, are never quite what they seem, and as facades begin to fall away at the end of The Collaborators, Siniac shows how deception can operate on both a literary and a real level. But I should qualify this: The Collaborators is itself a work of deception, but of the simplest kind: it is a thriller, a mystery novel. At the pure level of plot things are not as they seem, and we as readers get caught up in this and relish being led along to a surprising, twisting, and unexpected conclusion. Yet there is little more.
Siniac lampoons the literary community in his novel. He presents the silly politicking of publishing a book, of making it a success; critics savor their ability to destroy a new writer simply for its own sake, to feel important and relevant in a world where they are mere leeches. The bullshit of academese that plagues literature is hilariously mocked as a panel praises Dancing the Brown Java on Book Culture:
“So captivating, so blistering, so masterful in its descriptions, it’s terrific!, it’s tremendous!, so utterly new in its suggestivity, so irresistibly piquant in its paroxysmal sub-quintessenciation of the unsaid and the sub-experienced, in the neo-Brechtian parody of the context and the underlying depths of style.”
Unfortunately, this is easily the best line in The Collaborators, and it comes about twenty pages in . . . Again, this is a book about deception: Dochin is deceived about his ability to write and about the motivations of his friends. On another level, there are the deceptions of the publishing world. The public is deceived into thinking Dancing the Brown Java has two authors, but there are broader and more structural book culture deception as well: authors given paltry advances by publishing companies, critical jargoneers swarming around literature like piranhas at the smell of blood . . . Yet the world of publishing and all the apparatuses that feed off of it are impermanent. Written culture has evolved over thousands of years and will continue to do so with the advent of e-books and online distribution. And as in any hierarchical power structure people will be tricked, swindled, and abused. But this does not touch on the deceptive essence of literature, on its power to make you think that it is important, that the people you read about are in some way real, that it has some inherent meaning. This is essential to literature as an art, but it is the non-essentials clustered around this art that Siniac touches on. And he does so in a highly enjoyable fashion. Look no further for a brainy thriller about a topic rarely scratched by the genre . . . but if you recognize that life is more than a series of plot twists, stick with a real Céline; you’ll be satisfied with something more like Dancing the Brown Java than The Collaborators.
1 Available from New Directions. Siniac’s act of describing the greatest new French novel rather than writing it himself reminds me of the song “Tribute” by Tenacious D.
2 Can you imagine such a thing being popular here in the U.S.?
3 According to this book, there are no important French literary critics that aren’t men.
4 Ferdinaud Céline