Yasmina Reza, translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Knopf / 160 pages / $19.95
Tony Award-winning playwright Yasmina Reza expanded her oeuvre into fiction with the publication of her novel, Desolation, in 2003. Desolation wasn't a huge leap for the playwright. She styled her book as a monologue - the ruminations of Samuel Perlman, a crotchety old man with complaints about everyone from his perky wife and ditzy mistress to his spoiled loser of a son with whom he is desperate to connect.
As much a well-written one-man play as it was a novel, Desolation was arch, witty, bleak and redemptive.
Reza's latest novel, Adam Haberberg, plays to a similar audience in a similar style. But while Perlman was ultimately an empathetic and engaging character with foibles that were, if not endearing, at least explicable, the eponymous protagonist of Reza's new book is an annoying, self-aggrandizing, self-important, rambling prig.
When good writers explore the lives of questionable people, the resultant work can be of mixed quality. The vapid Count Vronsky in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is an essential foil to the book's heroine. Without his particular sort of casual brutality, Karenina would not have been ruined. Which would have meant no story.
There are myriad characters like this in fiction - elementally unlikable, yet important character studies - Joyce's Gabriel Conroy, Hemingway's Jake Barnes, Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov. Every character ever crafted by Joyce Carol Oates.
Adam Haberberg follows a day in the life of a writer in his late 40s. It is part lamentation, part soliloquy, part agit-prop. Haberberg is a man with regrets, deep regrets, about his life to date. His publisher is dead and so, apparently, since his latest book has tanked, is his career. He's nearing 50, mortality looms across the bow and he's just been diagnosed with an eye problem that could render him blind.
Does this possibility of sightlessness turn Haberberg into a modern-day Lear? Or do his concomitant regret and anomie portend that he just stumbled out of a Beckett play and into Reza's novel to meander and soliloquize? Reza presents Haberberg as if he should be sympathetic. After all, as Sartre declaimed, hell is other people.
And for Haberberg, hell is other people. He's annoyed with his wife, who doesn't sympathize with his plaint (of course she's been supporting him while his career has ebbed more than flowed). He's annoyed with his readers for failing to appreciate his latest book. He's annoyed with life, which he views as utterly without hope or joy. He's annoyed with the lack of substance of those around him.
Although a tad depressed, Haberberg's not suicidal - just really, really annoyed.
Enter Marie-Therese Lyoc, a former classmate who was at one time infatuated with Haberberg.
While Haberberg is sitting on a park bench ruminating on his miseries like any Albee character, the hyper-voluble Marie-Therese appears. She, of course, recognizes him. He seems not to remember her with any clarity.
Marie-Therese does not improve Haberberg's mood. She's loud, prosaic and eminently worthy of loathing in Haberberg's view. Pretentious Parisian snob that he is, he views his former classmate as empty and contemptible. And yet, she manages to lure him to dinner at her flat outside Paris, because he simply doesn't know how to extricate himself from the invitation.
Much of the novel takes place during the interminably existential drive to Marie-Therese's place, a drive during which the reader begins to understand why Haberberg's wife feels no sympathy for him. A drive during which the reader feels immense empathy for the frothy Marie-Therese and an upwelling of revulsion toward Haberberg, whose brutal thoughts about the sweetly vapid Marie-Therese are uncharitable at best.
The drive is where Haberberg's ruminations expand - or narrow - as he considers how hard it has been, living the life of an artist (far easier, given his wife's willingness to support him, than for some). But he has no insights into the life he's chosen and why it might not have lived up to his expectations. He's more interested in maintaining his sense of separateness and alienation and castigating those who don't share the same poseur persona.
In Desolation, Reza explored the plaintive nature of Perlman's misery. Perlman was in despair over what seemed to be the loss of his son, who did not share his father's sense of purpose. In Adam Haberberg, Reza points to her protagonist/antagonist as a prototype of how not to be. But while the language is compelling and rich, there is little of the insightful nuance of her other work.
Why, for example, is there no connection between Haberberg and Marie-Therese? Both are suffering in their midlife crisis states. Why not show how that kind of despair resonates through all strata of life? Instead, Haberberg, with his constant whining, seems like a Woody Allen character without the laughs - he's the embodiment of angst. His entrapment by Marie-Therese is less After Hours darkly comic than just a bleakly unrewarding conceit.
Reza seems to have intended satire in Adam Haberberg, a caustic look at the way midlife crises hit some people and how the very stasis they complain so bitterly about is often self-inflicted. Satire, however, still demands a nexus of empathy and that is missing from Reza's presentation of Haberberg, at whom one wants to shout "Snap out of it, man!" or simply "Oh, shut up!"
As a set piece on how not to reach middle age, Adam Haberberg is superlative. As a compelling short novel about how life often fails us when time catches up to reality, alas, unlike her previous work, Adam Haberberg misses the mark.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, most recently "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.