Monday, May 26, 2008

The Mystery Guest

For those of you who have never worked in a bookstore, which, owing to the rapid decline of a once vigorous industry, must be most of you, there is a process in the book business know as 'returns'. One of the oddities of our trade is that you can actually return much of your merchandise to the publisher if things don't pan out quite as well as you'd hoped. And in fact, this works to the publishers' advantage as well, because a buyer is much more willing to try something unknown on spec than if he or she had to shoulder the whole risk.

But after a certain interval, inventory must be brought under control and some books, a great many in fact, must go back to their places of manufacture. The period they have to make it in the cold, cruel and increasingly indifferent world shrinks steadily--in our store, for instance, this generally means about six months. Mostly we pull blithely and unfeelingly--it's a tedious and not altogether happy job, and we want to get it over with. But every once in a while, you see something that you really haven't had a chance to get to , and you save it out of the pile, and decide you'll read it, and then maybe help promote it in some way. Usually, you don't end up reading it any more at that point than you did when it first came out, but every so often a book will jump to the top of the pile in this way.

Hence, The Mystery Guest: an account by Gregoire Bouillier. It's a very slim volume, so not at all taxing, and put out by Mariner Books with a gold cover and what I think of as a sort of Jazz age font, which, while attractive, doesn't necessarily work to its benefit because it is a little hard to read. It is an account for the most part of a very specific evening in the writer's life, though the build up to and consequences after are a large part of the text. The author receives a call from an old love who had dumped him without giving him a single reason. Now, out of the blue, she invites him to be the mystery guest at an annual party for someone else. She doesn't even refer to the break up. The author writes an extensive, absorbing analysis of his state of mind as he prepares to attend this party, and what happens next.

If you have ever read Thomas Bernhard, and like him, I am pretty sure you will like this. And there is a little bit about changing a light bulb that I expect to stick with me for the rest of my life, although I would like to talk to the author about his theory on this. But he is French and this is a work in translation, so that is probably impossible. Sacre bleu!

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