BEF 2011/28 – American Diary [France]
My first thought on reading Frenchman Eric Laurrent’s ‘American Diary’ was on the reception it might get from American readers. The story is some dozen entries of a diary written by a Frenchman (thus inviting us to identify the diarist with the author, a presumption Laurrent does nothing to dissuade) that reads as xenophobic and dismissive, the condescension of a refined man of taste touring a glittering cultural wasteland. Laurrent’s distaste is there from day one as he describes the imitation of Gothic Venetian architecture and the bastardization of high art (Boticelli’s Venus as a bathing-suited, roller-skated tourist sans the shell) of the Venice Beach hotel in which he is staying. What follows is a satirical slideshow of the diarist’s misadventures as he travels from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Salt Lake City and in between.
Despite his statement that we are more perceptive when traveling due to the “hypersensitivity into which out constant attentiveness plunges us,” Laurrent’s observations on la vie des Americains range from trite to almost piquant. From the sights that come his way our flâneur cobbles together a record of American excess: the gigantic pornography industry, roadside diners inhabited by the obese, love of litigation, ubiquitous advertising. In his entry dated “Los Angeles. Thursday, April 2,” Laurrent writes,
On Wiltshire Boulevard there’s a monument commemorating the conquest of the West: it’s an equestrian statue depicting the actor John Wayne, whose pedestal is sculpted with bas-reliefs featuring battle scenes with cowboys and Indians. Can you imagine, in France, a monument commemorating World War I being adorned with an effigy of Jean Gabin, on the grounds that he starred in Grand Illusion?
There is a statement to be made here about the aestheticization and interpenetration of history and pop culture, but which Laurrent ignores in favour of another similarly fertile but tossed aside observation:
Los Angeles abounds in places of worship to such an extent that it’s not impossible that everything on this planet which might be considered a religion, from the most ancient to the most recent, the most widespread to the least known, the most serious to the most harebrained, has a home here. There’s no one building manifesting any sort of spiritual heritage, like Notre Dame in Paris. They all seem to be equal.
These two extracts are the kernels of greater works than the soil that surrounds them. Either observation, interesting in itself, could have furnished sustained contemplation of the cross-pollination of American entertainment and history, or the architectural paucity of her spiritual heritage. Instead they serve as eccentricities to be simply logged and not investigated; the quick snapshot is favoured over deeper thought and meaningful analysis.
I admit to some confusion over Laurrent’s aim here. Is ‘American Diary’ nothing more than his turn at the piñata of American insularity on which it has become so fashionable to flail? Is he confident that the work, appearing as it does in an anthology of European fiction, won’t find a sizeable audience in the United States? It is unclear that Laurrent has anything more in mind than a broad caricature of American life, dutifully taking note of its weighty excess and emptiness in sex, entertainment, religion, architecture, gastronomy, going no deeper than does a spinning stone of the surface of a lake.
An expected defence against such a charge might be the claim that Laurrent was being ironic and that he meant something entirely other. But any meaning beyond the comment that, as outsiders, we are seeing only the surface of American and ignoring its cultural depths (a comment made by giving us nothing but more of the same surface) is difficult to imagine. Furthermore, Laurrent treads almost on the tail of sincerity when he admits at the end of the piece to liking (not quite genuflecting) and purchasing a song by Madonna; a conciliatory gesture that might be intended to soften what came before it but comes rather as a noncommittal shrug.
Ultimately, ‘American Diary’ is a patchwork of cheap and empty cynicisms and, aside from a few remarks (see above), there is nothing of interest here.
‘American Diary’ is translated from French by Ursula Meany Scott.
This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press. There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.