HATE: A ROMANCE Tristan Garcia Faber & Faber, £12.99
'THE eighties," declares Elizabeth, the narrator of this sharp, poignant novel, "were a cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics, and Western homosexuality." This novel stunningly evokes the period, when the fear of the H-bomb was replaced by the fear of a virus, and charts the bad faith, moral compromises, political dishonesty and emotional limbo of a group of friends. Elizabeth summarises this Parisian set neatly: she is "William's friend, Doum's colleague, Leibo's lover".
Jean-Michel Leibowitz begins as a left-wing philosopher, whose career soars as his convictions change. He is best known to the world at large as the author of a book titled Fidelity For Life: On Promise-Keeping And Our Time, which even Mitterrand has read. He views the rise of identity politics and gay liberation as the "soft terrorism" of liberalism. "To be on the left today is to break with the left," he argues. Dominique is a cultural commentator who stages a brilliant publicity coup as the founder of Stand, an early Aids charity dedicated to promoting safe sex and palliative care. As he shouts to the television cameras: "We have the right to love and you have the duty to save us."
William is Doum's lover, a drop-out from Amiens who seems like a cross between the criminal author Jean Genet and the performance artist Leigh Bowery. William reacts against what he sees as Doum's capitulation to society's norms, and starts to praise Aids and unprotected sex as a kind of queer transcendence. In one particularly bruising argument, he declares "if the queers announce a Nazi f***ing dictatorship to liquidate all the breeders, well, I'm sorry, but I'll stick with the queers". That he himself is Jewish - as is Leibowitz - makes this all the more shocking.
The political realities made uncertain through Aids finds parallels and echoes in the rise of Islamism, the emergence of Sarkozy and the ongoing dilemma over hate speech and Israel. As for the depressive, lost Elizabeth, part of the book's melancholy beauty is the question of which of these men she truly loves. Tristan Garcia is a philosopher, and the novel's emotional core is underpinned with philosophical rigour, albeit of a Gallic timbre. The shades of Debord, Derrida, Foucault and especially Bataille linger in the novel's background. You don't have to be au fait with their thought to appreciate the novel's scalpel-precise vivisection of mores and amours, but it adds another layer of complexity (and a few sardonic asides: there's a reference to Althusser's "domestic troubles", a euphemism for murdering his wife).
William seems to channel Bataille when he praises "really faithful hatred that gives you something to hold on to". The hatred that festers between the three men is not the absence of love, but its purest form, its absolute sincerity. Having witnessed the fragmentation and failure of the ideals of the political left, the question they face is not how to live well but how to die meaningfully. William's great revelation is that "there is no condom against death. You might as well live in a plastic bag and pretend you won't end up in a coffin".
These theses would remain inert were it not for Garcia's haunting prose style. He has a winning way with imagery: politicians look like "robots who'd been set to emote", Dominique, out-manoeuvred by William at a press conference, is like "watching a stage actor in a movie". He fully inhabits the characters' thoughts while retaining a sceptical distance. Despite the impassioned rhetoric, the narrative voice keeps an icy edge, as if looking back from the future with neither hindsight nor nostalgia. It is not a book to offer cosy resolutions or pat solutions, and eschews sentimentality even when dealing with heart-breaking, irreconcilable differences. "As for the best part of men, who keep the best within their hearts, for lack of any outlet, to the final hour, it lives and dies with them."
• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on January 30, 2011