Grégoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest brings to life the despair of the disconsolate. Throughout the book, it was difficult to keep myself convinced that this was indeed a true story, a memoir of sorts, perhaps even a mini-autobiography. Grégoire Bouillier telling the story of Grégoire Bouillier.
And yet there he is, rudely awakened by the sound of the ringing telephone, knowing, as he says, "even before I was conscious of knowing," that it was her. "It was her voice, her breath, it was practically her face, and along with her face came a thousand moments of happiness rising from the past, gilded with sunlight, caressing my own face and licking at my fingers while a thousand more like them swung at the other end of a wire."
Lorin Stein's translation from French serves the story well; I do not speak French, but Stein clearly captures the searing, emotive intensity emanating from Bouillier's writing. The "her" of whom he writes is his ex-girlfriend, although subjecting her to that most mundane of labels really obfuscates the relationship's emotional resonance. The phone is ringing, Grégoire is certain, because "she felt guilty all the time -- I'd never know how guilty she felt -- and maybe it was society's fault, maybe it was the fault of her family, she didn't know, but in the end she did the only thing she could and went off with the first man who wanted her."
Grégoire's stratospheric imagination is soon confronted with a far more terrestrial reality: "she was calling simply to invite me to a party -- and will it never end, this continual pinching of the flesh in disbelief?" A friend, Sophie, was holding a birthday party in which Grégoire's ex-girlfriend was selected to bring a mystery guest; hence, her call.
What follows is a heartbreaking journey into the mind. Grégoire wonders, "Was she trying to destroy me? Was she bent on my complete and utter annihilation?" This is soon followed by rapturous delight, as the lovelorn narrator stumbles onto the "realization" that "by calling me on that day...she was trying to pick up the thread of the story at just the point where it had been snapped in two, as if to say that all the intervening years had lasted a matter of seconds. And this changed everything."
Except that it didn't. Bouillier so perfectly and incisively captures the delusional qualities of unrequited love that he manages both to break the reader's heart and to give his own wild-eyed musings a sharply comedic hue. One can empathize with his plight as if one with his pain while simultaneously laughing knowingly at the ancient rite of romantic devastation and recovery. Rare is the author who can pull off such a feat, and rarer still, in that the subject is himself.
What takes place at the party, and the ever more evocative moments contained therein, is for the curious reader to discover. As for me, I will be reading more from Grégoire Bouillier.