An imaginary game to play
A Fata Morgana, for those not in the know, is a superior mirage, which means that the optical phenomenon that’s occurring appears above the real image on the horizon rather than below it. Caused by a temperature inversion of warm air over cooler which combines with bent rays from a lower lying object, these mirages are constantly changing in appearance and tend to wildly distort the objects on which they are based, to the point of making them almost unrecognizable. This is sort of like what author Jonathan Littell does with characters, settings, and situations in his novellas. It’s a lot like it actually.
Swimming pools lead to mansions that lead to battlefields that lead to bathrooms and back again. Hermaphrodites, – heck, I’m not even sure that’s the right word, I’m not sure that there is a right word to describe them – displaced souls and doomed lovers navigate these ever shifting landscapes determined to fill the ever increasing, seemingly insatiable void created by their sexual desire. The strangest part, as if things need to get any stranger, is that each protagonist is calm, cool, and collected as they narrate their tale, as if everything occurring around them is completely natural and wholly expected.
Case in point: In the closing section of the collection’s opener Etudes, Littell methodically dedicates ten pages to one of the most horrifically important SAT-like questions that anyone is ever likely to encounter:
For him, then, two questions, that is question 1 the other or not the other, and question 2 her or not her. To these two questions four solutions, that is solution 1 him without her without the other, solution 2 him with her without the other, solution 3 him without her with the other, solution 4 him with her with the other. Now for him at this stage with the other out of the question and hence out of the question solutions 3 and 4, remain thus numbers 1 or 2, without the other with or without her, hence why not with, it wasn’t so bad, and it would be almost like before, except that in the meantime there would have been that.
Solution 4 by the way is repeatedly, and quite hysterically, referred to as “eating your cake and having it too.”
As Littell’s subjects go about their business of trying to lick, suck and penetrate every anus, mouth, and vagina they encounter (more often than not with heroically positive results) he infuses them each with a strange knack for introspection. It’s not enough to want to be filled or do the filling, they all have to acutely feel the humiliation and pain of knowing that any satisfaction that they derive from doing so will be fleeting at best. This of course propels them onward in a never ending cycle of conquest, the results of which are never more evident than in the closing novella An Old Story, where the pleasure felt from sex is appallingly equal to that which is derived from murder.
The moments not filled with some coupling of bodies or series of life-ending blows contain surprisingly stunning reflections on the positive nature of life. For example, at the start of In Quarters, the narrator gets overly annoyed with the throng of children that seem to be assaulting him from all sides, yet still stops to take the time to assess the beauty inherent in their youth. So what if he’s not quite sure whether one of the children is actually his or not, we can’t all be perfect, right?
Elegantly translated by Charlotte Mandell, what makes The Fata Morgana Books work is Littell’s unrelenting insistence to go “there” even if as a reader you’re never quite able to ascertain where there is exactly. Operating in a hypnotic, dreamlike world of infinite possibilities, Littell is free to explore not only the limitless nature of our sexual appetites, but also the very real, very raw thoughts and emotions that compel us to act upon them. The result of his efforts is a living, breathing, sublime collection of novellas that ignite the reader’s imagination and entices their most base of desires to grab control.
Go ahead. Eat your cake. Have it too.
The Fata Morgana Books
By Jonathan Littell
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Two Lines Press