Fear of Growing Up

by CHARLES R. LARSON

It’s difficult to think of Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03 as a novel as its publishers claim. Big print, lots of white space, 84 pages, one paragraph—almost no plot–but, fortunately, plenty of reflection on an incident that happened in the narrator’s life years ago. Nor do I have a clue at all about the title, 03, unless that is the possible mental age of the girl the narrator obsesses about.

The unnamed narrator—though looking back on an incident much earlier in his life—is sixteen years old at the time, and one day at a school bus stop in a French suburb, he observes a girl perhaps two years younger. She’s brought each day by her mother for another school bus than the narrator’s because she is clearly mentally retarded, though strikingly beautiful, and sent to a special school for handicapped students. And it is that lushness which attracts him to her, with all sorts of speculations about her future life and, of course, his. His life will be one of “privileges…thanks to my normal intelligence,” while hers may become one of exploitation, even abuse by men because of her extreme beauty and her innocence

The novel develops a fascinating triangulation of the two characters. The narrator is set off from the mainstream as much as the girl, because he’s insecure—largely because he’s not part of any social clique at his own school—thus every bit as much an outcast as the girl he can’t get out of his mind. Of himself he states,

“…the biggest problem I faced was my tendency, from very early on and anytime I could, to take things much too seriously, given my hostile surroundings and, above all, my sorry lack of dignity, one of the more charming features of macho adolescent males. So I could see that, where feelings were concerned, I too was slightly deficient, and that my latest romantic escapade merely rehashed the old drama of ‘feelings too deep for words,’ except this time nobody cared and no one would find out and no one would ever make fun of me. For if this young retarded girl stood as a reflection of my own failure to fit in, when I gazed narcissistically into the slimming mirror of my own weakness, her image also kept this weakness, for once, safely from view.”

The narrator’s extreme angst, his sense of being a social pariah, mirrors, then, his “own unhappy childhood reflected in this young girl.” But it also reverberates upon the adult inability to regard children as anything but their own lost selves, nostalgia for a time that cannot be recaptured. Children, he reflects, are the most oppressed creatures on earth. “Just look how they were led day and night to their bus stops, in rain or snow or gale-force winds, their bags excessively weighted down by the cumbersome learning of their teachers….”

Ergo, no exit from childhood except into the conformity of adulthood, sameness, lack of imagination and predictable routine.

The innocence of his love for the young girl achieves a kind of purity, repeatedly brought to his attention by her presence at the school bus stop but also her vulnerability and his own: “So while she was waiting there, frail to no end, like a signpost when they’ve torn off the sign, I saw all these possibilities in her that had become impossible, and I projected onto her fragility the immense waste of talent I was forced to observe every day in my closest friends and suffered a little too readily in myself, a waste that filled me with a vengeful bitterness and pride at having salvaged or developed a talent that would allow me to forget, even in the moment of giving up on them, my own irreparable limitations which, as they tightened within me, grew and grew.”

Ultimately, it’s a fear of growing up, of entering the adult world, and the focal point of his own youth—the vulnerable young girl—is every bit his own clear understanding that once he becomes a man, it’s all over as far as purity, innocence and difference are concerned.

03 has been seamlessly translated by Mitzi Angel.

03
By Jean-Christophe Valtat
Translated by Mitzi Angel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 84 pp., $12

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Geoffrey McDonald
Obama’s Overtime Tweak: What is the Fair Price of a Missed Life?
Brian Cloughley
Hypocrisy, Obama-Style
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
A Day of Tears: Report from the “sHell No!” Action in Portland
Tom Clifford
Guns of August: the Gulf War Revisited
Renee Lovelace
I Dream of Ghana
Colin Todhunter
GMOs: Where Does Science Begin and Lobbying End?
Ben Debney
Modern Newspeak Dictionary, pt. II
Christopher Brauchli
Guns Don’t Kill People, Immigrants Do and Other Congressional Words of Wisdom
S. Mubashir Noor
India’s UNSC Endgame
Ellen Taylor
The Voyage of the Golden Rule
Norman Ball
Ten Questions for Lee Drutman: Author of “The Business of America is Lobbying”
Franklin Lamb
Return to Ma’loula, Syria
Masturah Alatas
Six Critics in Search of an Author
Mark Hand
Cinéma Engagé: Filmmaker Chronicles Texas Fracking Wars
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Patrick Hiller
The Icebreaker and #ShellNo: How Activists Determine the Course
Charles Larson
Tango Bends Its Gender: Carolina De Robertis’s “The Gods of Tango”