I come from a long line of people who will scream at a television.
For my father the inciting incident was someone on a documentary referring to the titanic as a boat (it’s a ship). Mine was watching Dan Brown complain that Harvard University didn’t have a field to study ‘symbology’1 . Dan Brown is the kind of idiot who thinks that just because he’s never encountered something, it doesn’t exist. He also writes terrible little action suspense novels. If only such novels could be written by someone who had even the first clue as to what ‘symbology’ actually was?
The Seventh Function of Language opens up with the real death of death of literary critic and Semiologist2 Roland Barthes, and builds a conspiratorial novel around it.
Reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder if part of the enjoyability of this book doesn’t come from having a point of reference for many of the real characters. Not only is Barthes central to the story, but the book name drops many of the famous names of the 1960’s of both the Parisian intellectual circle and other renowned thinkers of the time (Foucault, Althusser, Lacan, Eco, Searle), and describes them in fairly recognizable ways (from what I can gather, I’ve only ever really seen pictures of them and wouldn’t know the first thing about their personalities). But its cute to imagine them all having dinner together at someone’s flat. Without spoiling much, they later do other things together as well, which you can’t exactly call cute.
I did stop to wonder to what extent this would function somewhat like gatekeeping – these characters are obscure enough that some things that happen seem like a kind of inside joke. At some point there is a comical vignette of a person describing the difference between continental and analytical philosophy. I thought it was hilarious and it reminded me of conversations I had had while in university. I am not sure it would be appreciated by every reader in the world.
When I got to the part of the novel where whole lines are in Italian, it almost felt as if the gate-keeping was made just for me.
I also enjoyed the book’s style, though I recognize that not everyone will. There is a certain meta self awareness that the writer incorporates into the work which the author also included in his previous work HhHH, and is something I am largely familiar with from other French novels, such Daniel Pennac’s Like a Novel. Every now and again, aware that you are indeed reading a book, the story clues you in on some information you might have missed because of this. The Seventh Function of Language did it in a way that seemed to be just on the safe side of lazy writing, but I don’t think everyone will accept it.
1His stupid term, not mine.
2Was that so hard?