As Socrates famously said, the unexamined life is not worth living. On the other hand, the over examined life presents another set of problems. Thinking too much about things can make one retreat into a shell. In Gregoire Bouillier’s case—frighteningly– it meant hiding in turtlenecks.
It’s obvious from his intoxicating little book The Mystery Guest that Bouillier thinks too much. Luckily for us, he documents the twists and turns of his hyper thoughtfulness, and while the process is familiar to those who wonder the whys of this and that—and who doesn’t?—Bouillier’s “account” as the book is subtitled, shows us how pointless and funny some of this thinking can be. Rumination like this is hilarious when we’re removed from the actual process, when we get to listen in on the rumble of someone else’s hell-bound brain train. If this were our story, it wouldn’t be as funny.
Bouillier’s account is a set of nested boxes, a smaller incident fits neatly into the crate of his life. Dumped by his love years before, our anti-hero stays mostly in bed clad in turtlenecks, those throat-concealing shirts worn, he observes, by “pseudo sportsmen.” The shirts represent more than just surrender to sloth. They reveal Bouillier’s withdrawal and his superstitious nature, the fact that he sees larger forces at play in the universe. “If I never took them off, nothing would ever take off on me,” he rationalizes. Love will do that to you.
The book opens on the day writer Michel Leiris dies, a not-so meaningless coincidence that plays an important role in this tiny tale. Bouillier pulls himself from bed to take a call and the caller turns out to be the ex that has left him shipwrecked all these years. Her friend, a performance artist, is throwing her annual birthday party to which she invites a mystery guest. Would Bouillier play the role? His acceptance is as certain as the fact that he’ll be of two minds –or more—about the decision. He suspects the invitation conceals a message from his former love and he sets about discover what it might be.
Unlike the many memoirs in which the narrator struggles towards life-changing revelation deemed forever whole and true, Bouillier’s serial revelations are often followed by modification and negation; a take back philosophy as his reasoning plunges aimlessly ahead. In typically French fashion, he embraces the existential: “this morning Michel Leiris had died, and yesterday the last of the Mohawks had laid down his arms, and tomorrow a war and/or a scandal would break out…in the end the world would turn the page before I did.” If his self-obsession keeps him from seeing things clearly, it seldom stops him from enjoying the view.
As the thoughts pour from Bouillier’s brain, we can’t help admire, even identify, with many. “We spend our lives losing touch with ourselves, disappearing behind what negates us,” he laments, and “Doesn’t every windfall hide a trap?” Some of it is just plain sour: “gift wrap hides the fact that the Gift is a lie.” But some are actually consoling, as when he realizes that the pace of life is like a movie. “Once I watched them save earth from a giant meteor and even that didn’t take two hours…I, too, would smile again in my own ninety minutes…”
The only line left in its original French, “C’est le bouquet” is explained, without mention of flowers or gateau, in a brief forward by translator Lorin Stein to mean “that takes the cake,” a phrase that becomes doubly symbolic as the story progresses. Coincidence piles on coincidence, small gestures become grand acts and a forgotten gift stashed unopened on a shelf for years fulfills its intended purpose, though not in a way the giver intended. The book’s semi-happy ending is not what you or Boullier expects.
Much of the humor here results from the author’s honesty. Bouillier doesn’t mind sounding silly, in fact, he sees himself a fool—past tense only– as he jumps from one explanation of events to another. Little books carry large significance and the story is full of literary allusions. That Boullier identifies with the space probe Ulysses as it ventures beyond the solar system may seem overly self-important. The fact that the craft is so tiny, especially held against the canvas of the universe makes it humbling. In the end, Bouillier finds reason to climb out of his turtlenecks. His message is that we’re all mystery guests in our own lives and attempts to understand it are, as Socrates knew, their own reward. I think…–Cabbage Rabbit