Just finished Amanda Filipacchi’s The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. It was an extremely good book. Very surreal. Very absurd. It’s about a beautiful woman who dresses up in a fat suit in order to find a man who’ll love her for herself, and about a very ugly woman who keeps trying to convince one particular man to love her. And there’s also a murderer in there for some reason.
But what this description can’t convey is how bizarre this book is. I think it was in the third chapter that I realized what I was dealing with, when I read this passage:
I always do whatever I can to help Penelope. She’s a dear friend who’s had a tough life. Or rather, she had a tough three days, six years ago. She was kidnapped and kept in a coffin for sixty-nine hours.
And that’s played neither seriously nor for laughs. It’s just a bit of background! At that point, I accepted that bizarre things were going to happen for bizarre reasons, and they did. Still, the novel remained very thematically cohesive, very focused on the body, and everything paid off in a satisfactory way.
The other thing that stands out about the book is how stilted and mannered the writing is. None of the dialogue sounds anything like what a real person would say. For instance:
“It has been brought to my attention by one of you that women can hide weapons inside their bodies in the fashion of a tampon, and that the weapon can easily be accessed, especially when the woman goes to the bathroom.”
“Typical that a man should think of this,” Penelope mutters, looking at her shoes.
Jack seems taken aback by her guess, but doesn’t deny it. “I’m a cop! That’s why I thought of it. Not because I’m a man.”
It took a little while to get used to the writing style. It reminds me of nothing so much as the style in Kafka or Calvino or Houellebecq or other European surrealists who’ve been translated into English. I always assumed that the particular stiltedness of these books was an artifact of translation. I thought that maybe the dialogue in Kafka sounded more natural in German. And perhaps that’s true. But reading this book has made me realize that overly-mannered writing can create effects that naturalistic dialogue can’t. It allows characters to say more. And it allows more things to happen. And, at least in this book, it didn’t prevent me from seeing the human side to these characters. They weren’t real people, but they were emblematic of certain real things that exist in people. And that was enough to allow them to touch me.