Upstaged by Jacques Jouet

Upstaged ★★½☆☆
A Novel by Jacques Jouet
Translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye
2011 / 96 Pages

The Setup: Two minutes into the second act, there is a knock on Nicolas Boehlmer’s dressing-room door, just as he’s smoking his last cigarette before having to go back on stage . . . and, without thinking, he says,“Come in,” still in character. He quickly finds himself bound, gagged, and stripped by a man who appears to be his mirror image: costumed in the same wig, make-up, and clothes. Nicolas is powerless to prevent his usurper from going out and playing his role—with increasingly ridiculous consequences. Is this “upstaging” the act of a depraved amateur? Sabotage by a rival? A piece of guerrilla theater? A political statement? Whatever the cause, Nicolas and his fellow actors soon find their play—and their lives—making less and less sense, as the parts they play come under assault by this irrational intruder. (from the hardcover edition)

Jacques Jouet’s Upstaged is a short novel (regardless of the length of the project the author refuses to label any of his works as being a novella) that documents the events surrounding the performance of a play that goes wrong, but in the process becomes something far superior in quality when compared to its original form.

Moments before the second act of Marcel Flavy’s Going out to the People an unknown male referred to only as “the Usurper” enters the dressing room of one Nicolas Boehlmer, ties him to a chair, steals his costume, and then takes his place on stage. Boehlmer’s role in the production is a crucial one. He’s supposed to be playing the part of rebel leader Théodore Soufissis who had formerly been best friends with the President of the Republican Council. Once the President took office however, for reasons unexplained, he exiled Soufissis. Unbeknownst to him however, the rebel has managed to disguise himself and remain within the republic and is preparing to confront his former ally.

The Usurper manages to disrupt the entire second act through what are at first subtle acts of sabotage that eventually escalate into obvious attempts at derailing the performance which culminate in a hilariously shocking ending. It’s at this point that the Usurper makes his exit, disappearing into thin air just as quickly as he had appeared from it, before the start of the third and final act commences. Befuddled the cast must pick up the pieces, in some cases swap roles, and go on with the show.

Upstaged isn’t a bad piece of fiction, but it is a frustrating one, and in the end translator Leland De La Durantaye’s afterword manages to steal the show, shedding light on both the author and his body of work.

It turns out that Jouet is a member of the Oulipo, a French group comprised of mathematicians and writers whose aim is to create new pieces of fiction using constrained writing techniques. A constraint could be that something is forbidden or that a certain pattern must be repeated throughout the work. Wikipedia lists several examples of Oulipoian constraints, here is but one:

S+7, sometimes called N+7 Replace every noun in a text with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary.

For example, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago…” becomes “Call me islander. Some yeggs ago…”. Results will vary depending upon the dictionary used. This technique can also be performed on other lexical classes, such as verbs.

The Oulipo are of two schools of thought when it comes to these techniques. In some cases the constraint is revealed at the same time as the published work becomes available so that readers can see how the work was built around and informed by the rules that were imposed on it. In other cases, like Upstaged, no information about the constraints employed in the creation of the work is given and the reader is left to sort things out for themselves and to form their own conclusions.

This is where my frustration with Upstaged comes from. On the one had it certainly is fun puzzling over what the author may have been toying with in regards to the rules that were imposed upon the creation of the piece, but on the other hand without a clear answer being available one could drive themselves mad in an attempt to understand what is virtually undecipherable without the proper roadmap to serve as a guide.

While Upstaged is a fast, somewhat interesting read, the story being told ultimately gets upstaged by the mystery surrounding the constraint that was adhered to during its creation. Sadly, if you put the novelty around the way the story was written aside, what’s left is a work that neither dazzles nor disappoints, but instead occupies the precarious space in between. It’s neither great nor awful. It just is.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.