Dalkey Archive Press’ French Literature Series had somehow slipped under my radar until recently. Luckily, a burgeoning obsession with the Benoît Duteurtre’s work lead me to the series and to my first foray into it: Jacques Jouet’s Upstaged. Since Dalkey Archive has a pronounced academic slant and never fails to put out interesting literature, I was expecting an entertaining read punctuated by an essay or commentary. That’s exactly what the book delivered.
Going Out to the People, a play written and directed by Marcel Flavy, is only a couple of minutes into the second act when there is a knock on the dressing-room door. Actor Nicolas Boehlmer is finishing his cigarette and getting ready to go on stage and keep playing rebel leader Théodore Soufissis, so he distractedly invites whoever knocked to come in. A few seconds later, Boehlmer is stripped, gagged, and tied to a chair. The man responsible is dressed for the part and quickly makes his way to the stage, replacing Boehlmer and bringing chaos and confusion to everyone in the play. Later, the entire night is recounted by the assistant director, who informs us the stranger has been nicknamed the Usurper and wonders about the motivations for the attack.
Short, fast, and funny, Upstaged is a narrative about identity, an exploration of the politics of art, and a strange homage to the classic sentiment that the show must always go on. Because the narrator’s voice is engaging and the humor is concentrated in less than 70 pages, this is a light read that makes for a great treat between larger works. However, there are some elements that readers should be aware of before digging in. For example, as translator Leland De La Durantaye explains in the book’s very informative afterword, Jouet was part of Oulipo, a French group of authors who wrote fiction using constrained writing techniques. The result is a story that leaves every important question unanswered. This lack of resolution might not be for those seeking fiction that provides closure. Also, the author puts touches of politics and sex into the narrative, which only serves to amplify the number of possibilities and obscure even further the Usurper’s motivations.
While a sexual encounter, tension, violence, and mystery are all bubbling at the surface, there are a few smaller elements that make Upstaged an enjoyable read. A great instance is the attention given to the alteration of the play’s timing, which causes a disruption in the actors’ psyche and speaks volumes about the importance of both practice precision and the ability to improvise on stage. Also, memory plays and important role throughout the narration, but one that is overshadowed by the fact that no memory is anchored in knowledge.
Ultimately, Upstaged is as much about theater, recollection, and politics as it is about the aesthetics of Oulipo. There might not be a satisfying conclusion, but learning why there isn’t one just makes the reading that much mysterious and engaging.
About the reviewer:
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Gutmouth (Eraserhead Press) and a few other things no one will ever read.