Book review: The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier

In Hervé Le Tellier’s puzzle-box of a novel, over two hundred plane passengers suddenly discover they have doppelgängers. It’s a riddlesome but aesthetically beautiful way of tackling some of life’s big questions, writes Stuart Kelly

Hervé Le Tellier PIC: Cathy Bistour

The year has only just begun but I will be surprised (albeit delighted at the same time) if I read something as astonishing as Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly in the next 12 months. Le Tellier won the Prix Goncourt in 2020, and is the current president of the grouping of writers called OuLiPo, the “workshop of potential literature”. Amongst its luminaries are Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau. The OuLiPo thought that restriction was the spur to creativity – hence works like Perec’s A Void, which does not contain the letter “e”, or Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, with each sonnet’s lines “flickable” because of the serrated pages (it has ten to the power of 14 possible permutations, and no-one can live long enough to read every possibility). Queneau described the work of the OuLiPo as that of “rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”. OuLiPo manages to combine rigour and fun, and as such, The Anomaly is a delight. It is intricate, ingenious, propulsive – but it is also affecting. It has numerous moments that are terribly poignant along with its puzzles and winks.

Best of all, it has a very snappy elevator pitch. On 10 March 2021, Air France 006 from Paris to New York experiences significant turbulence, but lands safely. On 24 June the same year, the same plane, with the same passengers also lands. It is a “Protocol 42” event, an event that ought to be impossible. The government scrambles statisticians, physicists, theologians and various secret services to deal with over two hundred people who now have doppelgängers. Although this is a very French novel, it is also oddly Scottish (we do seem to have penchant for doubles, though fair’s fair, Shakespeare did them too, and gets cleverly folded into the plots here). The problem is not just the impossibility. It is that so many people have lived three months more than the duplicates (or originals?) and therefore their behaviour has had consequences. These range from pregnancy to suicide. Since this is very “meta”, to use that now tarnished word, one of them has written a novel called The Anomaly. His other has no memory of having written the book.

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There is something akin to contemporary television about this novel. A mysterious plane crash might evoke memories of Lost, the interweaved narratives are similar to Lovecraft County, the anthology nature of the book has the same feel as the Watchmen series. In terms of how we deal with the inexplicable, it has a family resemblance to the brilliant Les Revenants and the chilling Les Témoins. The reader is alerted before the opening page with a quote attributed to “Victør Miesel” from his book The Anomaly that there are sleights of hands and tricks going on. There are plenty of other literary asides – a reworking of Tolstoy’s most famous opening line, a reference to the Franco-Scottish poet Kenneth White as a deep state agent, and a homage to one of the OuLiPo’s foundational texts, Mallarmé’s poem “A Throw Of The Dice”. There is also a very clever reference to the work of Romain Gary, who famously won the Prix Goncourt twice (it is only allowed once for each author) by submitting under the pseudonym Émile Ajar. Pertinently, Ajar’s works, such as The Life Before Us and Pseudo investigate ideas of identity, reality and pre-emptive grief.

The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier

I might enjoy the book because of the game of cat-and-mouse it plays with literature. But it is also compelling and you need not be a literature geek to relish it. In part this is because we get the very different stories of the passengers on the plane, suddenly turned into two. These range across genres. There is an assassin, a Nigerian rapper wrestling with his sexuality, a May to December romance, the author Victør Miesel, whose story allows for a number of digs at contemporary literature, and more.

The thing about creating an elaborate trap is knowing when to make it snap. The premise is easy enough, but how the author can bring it to closure another thing entirely. Although I like the puns and references and artfulness of it all, I wondered the whole way through about how it might achieve closure. It does, but to give away the elegance of the solution would be unforgiveable. The plot is resolved in a “never saw that coming but should have” way, but it is aesthetically beautiful and riddlesome in its finale.

What remains are the big questions, over and above the bravura of it all. If you could make different choices, would you? If you were confronted with the might-have-beens of life, how would you cope? How unique are you? The title is a clue. What is the anomaly? There is more than one answer. Personally, I am going with the resurrected toad in one of the stories. A little leftfield, but that is as it should be.

The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier, Michael Joseph, £14.99

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