The lead characters in the 1999 movie Being John Malkovich discover a portal that lets a traverser actually be, for fifteen minutes, John Malkovich. When Malkovich himself, learning of the portal, traverses it, he finds himself in a nightmarescape in which everyone is a variously distorted version of himself: his head on all the different bodies, and all those various selves able only to mumble, repeatedly, “Malkovich.” It’s a kind of nightmare of influencenot of being influenced, but of influencing.
What is most masterful in Stéphane Audeguy’s beyond charming—but always also charming—second novel, The Only Son, is its imagining of the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath as just such a nightmarescape, albeit not of Malkoviches, but of Jean-Jacques Rousseaus. Not quite literal Rousseaus—it’s not that kind of novel—but mobs of selves fashioned in Rousseau’s (extraordinarily blurred) image. As Audeguy’s narrator explains in direct address to the ghost of the man of influence: “You thought yourself unique, and because you were, an army of your kind rose up to change the order of things.”
Now, the narrator of The Only Son isn’t just any old Rousseau devotee or critic. He happens to be Jean-Jacques’s long-lost brother, François, mentioned only a few times in the famous Confessions. François, at the end of a rather libertine life, addresses the dead Jean-Jacques:
Why should I hesitate to invoke your ghost, when everyone in the street feels entitled to do so, calling upon you as the Christ of the Revolution? For many years, people have been naming their children after you. . . . Of course, no one reads your work anymore.
That mute influence might account, François seems to think, for the nightmare from which he can’t awaken.
Though the ethics of influence—and other ambitious questions, such as the legacy of the Enlightenment—haunt this novel, The Only Son does not read as if entombed in sober critiques of Rousseau or the Revolution acquired amid the dust of academia’s offsite libraries. Instead, François’s story is packed (arguably too packed, almost pedantically packed, but mostly joyfully packed) with incident and amusement. Before the Revolution is even a whisper, François has lost his virginity in a French barn, apprenticed himself to an epicure, been robbed by a blind man, and worked in a high-end Parisian bordello. There’s also a lengthy episode in which his skills as a clockmaker are applied toward manufacturing erotic toys, which culminates in his being hired to engineer (in order to outdo the finest automaton of the time, a mechanical duck that defecates) a mechanical and indefatigable lover that ejaculates. And that project ends in a hoax involving a dwarf.
So folly and whimsy run high. Clearly, Audeguy wants to distract the reader from the thoughtful relation his narrative bears to Rousseau’s work and the larger dilemmas of eighteenth-century France. He uses his picaresque episodes as a magician uses misdirection, aiming to work, just beyond the audience’s gaze, the legerdemain for his grander tricks, the real heart of his show.
François’s odd engineering eventually lands him in the rather pleasant prison—he eats well and is even regularly allowed to go out on the town—of the Bastille. Here is where he is most forcefully thrust into what he repeatedly calls the “strange theater” of history, where events and texts are misread, and those misreadings are more influential than reality. Audeguy’s portrayal of the storming of the Bastille is particularly funny and poignant: There are very few prisoners, the lack of torture chambers is so disappointing, the citizens idolize the insane inmate dubbed Caesar, and the prison’s stones are sold off in a way that inevitably recalls the pieces of the Berlin Wall that could be purchased at a department store near you. The old bones of the animals once fed to the well-nourished prisoners are taken to be human remains. Such play (quite serious of course) is central to François’s bemoaning of the misreadings of the armies of Rousseauists, Robespierre chief among them. History is theater, is false, is nothing but a series of misunderstandings: These are some of François’s worries, at least early on.
It is through François’s Bastille neighbor, the Marquis de Sade (cameos are one of the incidental pleasures of the novel), that François’s critique of what he calls the theater of history—an idea in large part descended from his brother’s devotion to the ideal of sincerity—becomes something more nuanced, something complicated by a conviction that such a theater is the only space there really is. Sade “passionately loved the theater, its darknesses and deceptions, its machines and masks.” And no one is treated more reverently in this novel than the much-maligned—albeit adored in contemporary academiamarquis. His writings are seen by François, and surely by Audeguy, too, to be following the smartest thinking of the century out to its logical extreme. His writing, that is, puts the Revolution’s influence though its own portal: “Would you believe it, Jean-Jacques? The Marquis de Sade was your most devoted reader, and he deemed himself your best disciple.”
“I declare to you,” François says late in his tale, “that men of genius are responsible for their descendants.” Yet clearly, he’s not so sure. His whole story still feels like a love letter—so long as one concedes how elaborate an emotion love is—to the misread Rousseau. And to the even more misread, and more revered, marquis. “Today,” he concludes, “I believe in Sade’s infinite gentleness, in his sadness, and I say that had we only read him, deeply and entirely read him, we might have taken the road that leads to the end of all fear.”
Rivka Galchen is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).