Gregoire Bouillier has made a nom for himself as an unconventional autobiographer, a gracefully gonzo presence brooding his way through eccentric memoirs. In The Mystery Guest (2006), the Paris-based journalist detailed his odd reunion with an old love. Years after dumping him, she gave him a call, and he, mustering the will to pick up the phone, received an invitation to attend a party as a kind of human conversation piece. "Every year," he writes, "this friend had a birthday party and invited as many people as she was years old, plus a 'mystery guest' who stood for the year she was about to live." The riffs that followed amounted to slapstick philosophy, pointing the way toward this sardonic sequel.
In its very title, Report on Myself signals Bouillier's almost clinical sense of detachment, the quality that sets his account apart from this genre's many self-pity parties, despite all the woe that came the author's way as the child of a floridly unstable mother. The story begins with his mother's nostrils flaring as she asks Bouillier and his younger brother, "Children, do I love you?" At the age of 7, he demonstrates a precocious talent for disquieting frankness, replying, "Maybe you love us a little too much," prompting her to attempt to throw herself from a sixth-floor window.
While the mother haunts this story like a madwoman in a 19th-century novel, the son staggers through it like a kid in a Noah Baumbach movie — bright, wild and weird — as a slide show of anecdotes flip past. He structures the tale of his existence according to an idiosyncratic perspective on language: Finally finding his calling as a writer at age 40, he connects this new "appetite for living" with a childhood staph infection because, as his translator has it, Staphylococcus aureus rhymes with fortyish. Later, he tells of an eye-opening reading of Homer's Odyssey that happened when he connected the dots between the women in his life and the likes of Calypso, Circe and Penelope.
In recounting all the revelations and oddities, he divulges strange gripes, dispenses cracked epigrams and indulges occult whims, as when writing that women with the letter i in their names — Nathalies and Valeries and Carolines — have always been his lucky charms: "For me, love is also an affair of vowels."
Meanwhile, the book — content to be minor, determined to avoid uplift — is an affair of offbeat charisma. Its fragments add up to a frank attempt to capture the weirder mysteries of life's truths. Or, at any rate, as much truth as you can expect from an antsy imp who confesses, about his boredom with an early job writing 60-character news briefs, "I began to invent dispatches and secretly distribute them. Sabotage is the only weapon that remains within reach of everyone."
Excerpt: 'Report On Myself'
by Gregoire Bouillier
Report On Myself By Gregoire Bouillier Paperback, 161 pages Mariner List price: $13.95
I had a happy childhood.
Sunday afternoon, my mother bolts into our room while my brother and I are playing in our separate corners. "Children, do I love you?" Her voice is intense, her nostrils beyond belief. My brother answers straight on, but all I can muster with the confidence of my seven years is to hem and haw. I get what's going on but at the same time dread what's to follow. I end up murmuring, "Maybe you love us a little too much." My mother looks at me in horror. For a moment she's at a loss, then moves to the window, shoves it open, and tries to throw herself from the sixth floor. Having heard the noise, my father catches her on the balcony after she has already stuck a leg into space. My mother yells, puts up a fight. Her screams echo through the courtyard. My father pulls her roughly backward and drags her inside like a sack. During the struggle, my mother's head hits the wall and goes clunk. For a long time afterward, there's a small bloodstain on the wall. One day I draw some circles around it with a black felt-tip pen and use it as a dart target; when I hit the bulls-eye, I imagine for a brief instant finding again a way to speak without fear.
When my mother met my father, she was sixteen and he was eighteen. It was in 1956, during a surprise party at the house in Bois-Columbes into which my father's family had moved after the war in '39. My father brought the party to life by playing drums in a little jazz band made up of fellow law students. My mother helped him do the dishes; a year later they were married and they had my brother, whom they named Olivier, for no particular reason I'm aware of. My father barely had time to see his son; he had to do his compulsory military service. It wasn't the best moment to be drafted: instead of the obligatory eighteen months, what wasn't yet called the Algerian War forced him to wear a uniform for nearly three years. He was quartered at Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Algeria's Great Kabylia region, where, according to him, not much happened.
Getting separated from her husband so soon upset my mother. She quickly made up her mind: to abandon her baby at her in-laws' and go join her lover in Algeria. Such boldness wasn't common to most seventeen-year-old girls of the time. Down there, they loved each other. And they were more — or should I say three times more? — than happy to do so, because an intern at the hospital in Tizi Ouzou fell under my mother's not unsubstantial charms; soon he'd join them in their romps; and in the midst of such threesomes, I was conceived.
Excerpted from Report On Myself by Gregoire Bouillier. Copyright @ 2008 by Editions Allia, Translation copyright: Bruce Benderson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.