Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Tuesday, September 21, 2021: Maximum Shelf: The Anomaly

Other Press: The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter

Other Press: The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter

Other Press: The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter

Other Press: The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter

The Anomaly

by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter

The Anomaly is an ambitious, unclassifiable novel from Hervé Le Tellier, centered around a philosophical puzzle while dabbling in the page-turning realm of thrillers, science fiction and more. It won France's prestigious Prix Goncourt, and is perfectly suited for an English-language release, thanks to its globe-spanning cast of characters and wide-ranging satire, which takes aim at a thinly disguised former president, among others. The events of the novel are set in motion when a Paris-New York flight arrives for seemingly the second time, resulting in two identical sets of passengers. Naturally, this provokes a top-secret emergency as governments and scientists scramble to reckon with what this duplicated flight could mean, while the passengers face the frightening implications of their own doubles. Le Tellier explores the concept of doppelgangers in the grand tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and Dostoevsky, as a way for his characters to encounter themselves, to reconsider their lives and their sense of identity.

The novel quickly introduces us first to Blake, a contract killer, with the line: "Killing someone doesn't mean a thing." The Anomaly thus seems to begin in the mode of a thriller, following Blake as he stalks and kills his targets for money. This introduction is indicative of how Le Tellier uses his highly varied characters to explore different genres. We soon meet probabilities expert Adrian Miller, who was responsible for developing protocols for government responses to a variety of disasters, including one that he never expected to be used: protocol 42. Soon, he is summoned to be part of the government response to the duplicated planes and their passengers, taking the novel into the realm of science fiction as he seeks to explain how something like this could have happened. Other characters have much more grounded concerns, including Slimboy, a Nigerian musician hiding the potentially dangerous truth of his homosexuality, and Joanna, a Black American lawyer caught up in an ethical web. Le Tellier uses these characters to swap and meld genres, approaching his premise from a variety of angles. This variation in tone and approach keeps the novel feeling fresh and unpredictable in ways reminiscent of books like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which also seeks to look at common human problems from the complementary viewpoints of wildly different people.

The titular anomaly poses both personal and metaphysical problems for Le Tellier's characters. The duplicate flight arrives months after the first, meaning that the first set of passengers have moved on with their lives in the interim, sometimes reaching crisis points or even dying. One newly arrived version of a character can be briefed on the cancer that his other self discovered too late; another, an author, learns that his doppelganger committed suicide after writing a despairing book that became a postmortem phenomenon. Things are even more complicated for those whose doppelgangers are still living, as they must decide how to parcel out their lives and their jobs, figure out relationships with non-duplicated significant others and, in the case of the contract killer, deal gruesomely with his equally dangerous doppelganger. Meeting one's double also serves as a disturbing look in the mirror for many characters who find themselves morally troubled or disappointed with their lives.

Le Tellier focuses on his characters' personal problems while also zooming out to look at the effects the anomaly has on a global scale. The crass ways in which a metaphysical problem is translated into politics provides a prime opportunity for satire, as does the idea of complex scientific concepts like wormholes having to be explained to an unnamed U.S. president who is not difficult to identify: "The American President sits open-mouthed, showing a marked resemblance to a fat grouper with a blond wig." The novel excels at juxtaposing high and low, situating thinly veiled insults at "The American President" with heady discussions of real, contentious science and philosophy. A roundtable with religious leaders, for example, threatens to devolve into farce and name-calling as their internecine conflicts and orthodoxies get in the way of discussing what the anomaly means for concepts like the soul. The scientists charged with figuring out the most likely explanation for the anomaly come to an unnerving conclusion, the majority deciding that the anomaly is explicable only if the universe exists inside a computer simulation--a controversial, much-debated idea in our real, non-anomaly world.

The Anomaly does not seek to provide answers to these questions, but to multiply the questions endlessly, challenging readers' understanding of their own lives alongside the characters in the book. As well as an entertaining narrative, Le Tellier has gifted us with a surprisingly detailed thought experiment, one that playfully undermines and puts into question all the basic institutions and assumptions undergirding contemporary life. --Hank Stephenson

Other Press, $16.99, paperback, 400p., 9781635421699, November 23, 2021

Other Press: The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter

Hervé Le Tellier: How Do You React When Faced with Yourself?

(photo: Cathy Bistour)

French writer, journalist, mathematician, food critic and teacher Hervé Le Tellier has published 15 books--stories, essays and novels--including All Happy Families and Electrico W. The Anomaly (Other Press, November 23, 2021), translated by Adriana Hunter, is the winner of France's prestigious Prix Goncourt. The novel draws from thrillers and science fiction to tell a page-turning story with a heavy philosophical bent, centered on an unexplainable anomaly during a plane fight that produces two seemingly identical sets of passengers.

At certain points in the book, scientists attempt to explain the titular anomaly to laypeople, often relying on the real-world simulation hypothesis, which proposes that we are all living inside a computer simulation. How important was it for you to try to approach the anomaly as a realistic scientific concept?

To explain that people split into two, you have to appeal either to magic or to a rational explanation. I did not want a moral tale, a fairy tale. I shy away from the fantastic, the supernatural. It was not a question either of engaging in a creation of worlds, like Tolkien, but on the contrary to be anchored in contemporaneity. If I cheated with that, it was lost. The simulation theory is not a "crazy" theory at all. In a recent article published in the journal Scientific American, there is about a 50% chance that it is true. We have to reason according to Ockham's razor principle, named after a 14th-century philosopher: the simplest sufficient hypothesis, even if it is implausible, must be preferred. 

The novel obviously does not take place in a specifically French setting, but are there parts of the book that you think might come off differently to an American audience than to a French audience?

Yes, there is probably no "Frenchman" any more than there are "Americans." There are French people, all different, and Americans, all different of course. The character of the Christian fundamentalist Jacob Evans is very foreign to us, France being a rather atheist country, just as we imitate (rather badly) the American talk show.... But the book was designed to capture this strangeness of the world, these differences between peoples. There are even chapters written (mentally) in English, and the translator realized this.

I'm curious how many of your own authorial concerns you voiced through the character of Victor Miesel. I'm thinking particularly of a passage where Victor wonders "how many simultaneous stories would a reader consent to follow?"

How do you react when faced with yourself? I decided to write a real novel, with a spectrum of reactions to be assumed each time by a different character. We go from deadly confrontation to collaboration, through hatred, indifference, accommodation, fraternity.... Which character is best suited to take on one of these reactions, to don the toga that says "assassin" or "friend"? That defined my characters.

I looked for a range of ages, quite consciously: I chose men who were slightly older than the women, so that [th e women]would represent modernity, a more active way of acting than the men. I also wanted to deal with many themes, like racism, hidden homosexuality... and also to travel the whole planet. 

Did having such diverse characters allow you to explore multiple genres in the same book? The hitman's sections, for example, read more like a thriller than other sections.

Yes, and that's absolutely the point. To build a novel with eight voices (and even more), you have to transform yourself into your own reader. Not abandoning your authorial project, and projecting yourself into an external reading, imagining what can stop you, make you lose the thread, and cross the obstacle with you, thanks to construction devices, before erasing the traces of this construction.

Eight characters was enough. I eliminated some. It was too much, it became a process. An old lady with Alzheimer's who was happy to share childhood memories with herself. A young rebellious teenager, who calms down because he sees himself stuck in rebellion! 

There's an element of satire to the book, particularly in regard to "The American President," who feels very familiar. When approaching targets that have been as heavily satirized as Trump, do you feel motivated to try to skewer them from a unique angle?

Trump is a special case. He is a character even more than a politician. If I caricature him, it's because I need to. He plays the role of a Beotian, of an ignoramus, and this allows me to be didactic and to explain to a reader more complex issues without losing the energy of the narrative.

Are there depictions of doppelgangers in literature or other media that influenced The Anomaly?

I have always wanted to deal with the question of confrontation with oneself, the impossible lie, identity. The theme of the double has been present since Amphitryon, and of course in Hoffman's tale, Doppelgänger, but never in the form of a real confrontation between two identical beings. I wanted to propose, through multiple characters, an exploration of a range of possible reactions.

In Dostoyevsky's work The Double, if Goliadkin ("our hero") sees a double appear and disrupt his life, this is not the case for those around him, who only find a vague resemblance and are hardly surprised by his presence. The double becomes an affair between Goliadkin and himself, a paranoid journey. Virginia Woolf's Orlando is rather a crossing of the centuries by an androgynous character. If The Anomaly is, by its form, a novel that plays with the codes of pop culture, one could very well write a pastiched form in the style of Borges, in the style of Cortázar. 

What kind of research did you undertake to make sure you captured characters like Slimboy as well as you capture, say, Victor Miesel?

The story of Slimboy is the result of the fusion between a real news item, in fact several, which all took place in Nigeria, and the life of a homosexual friend from Ivory Coast, who had to leave his country to live his sexuality in France. He is one of the few who asked me not to mention him in the "acknowledgements" at the end of the novel.

For the other characters, I took also a lot of documentation. Really a lot....

Have you had any reactions to the book that surprised you since its initial publication? I'm curious whether any practical or ethical questions related to The Anomaly emerged that you hadn't considered.

No. No reaction that surprised me, ethically or practically. I had thought a lot about answers, about religious questions, about the use of free indirect speech, which is the basis of literature, but which more and more people seem not to understand anymore, since social networks dominate and simple first-degree thinking has invaded everything. 

If you could meet a version of yourself, would you want to?

I'm not sure I'd like to exist in duplicate. My life is complicated enough as it is, and having two would not divide its complexity. --Hank Stephenson

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