Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Western

Kate Zambreno


Would it be far-fetched to imagine that Christine Montalbetti was musing on the interior monologue of a certain cowboy president while writing her novel Western, a deconstruction of the classic American myth? In this postmodern pastiche—published in France in 2005, now ably translated by Betsy Wing—the narrator, named Christine Montalbetti, writes a novel titled Western, starring a generic cowboy hero, unnamed until the end. Given the associative spirit and self-referential nature of the text, perhaps such speculation is appropriate.

By imagining multiple scenarios and using a teasing second-person voice (as well as the first and third persons), Montalbetti implicates the reader in the narrative’s development. The standard western plot is endlessly delayed, finally materializing in a duel during the anticlimactic climax. Seemingly inspired by Christian Metz’s theory of film—cinema as a kind of language that involves the participation of viewers, who project their own associations onto the screenWestern takes detours through the narrator’s and the reader’s memories: “plus your footsteps and my own, both of us looking like Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock—sticking out in our city clothes in all this western scenery.”

Montalbetti also owes a debt to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s postmodern detective novels, especially his myriad perspectives and close-ups on physical objects. She imbues scenery with vivid internal life, such as a brown piece of paper that “thinks it’s a tumbleweed like all the others, and is doing its best to hop along in their midst.” An army of insects edging around the cowboy’s boot is personified as pioneers battling against the harsh elements. Occasionally, these stagings are undone by the author’s obsession: A cow, for instance, stares at the countryside with a “nyctalopic gaze.”

Often, the narrative mirrors Chinese boxes, one tale nesting within another. The narrator spies a painting, a still life of a basket of peaches, and begins to invent a monologue for the antisocial peach that resides on the table, “a poor little excluded thing hoping to return to its brethren, envying their placid sociability.” She then pictures the canvas in the reader’s living room—“over your mantel, it would give your place quite a nineteenth-century look”—and imagines crowds departing from a landscape scene not even in the painting, the waving handkerchiefs resembling a “cotton aviary, still undulating their avian fabrics at the ends of their arms and presenting the perfect picture of a thousand crazed and impotent birds, vainly beating their wings in a ballet whose choreography delivers their message of good will.” This goes on for several pages, the narrative’s sections collapsing in on themselves in delirium. Montalbetti, however, rescues her work from the potential pitfalls of formalism, crafting a novel that’s clever and pleasurable, if exhausting in its exhaustiveness.

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