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13Jan

The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier review – high-concept thrills

In this playful French prizewinner, the mysterious duplication of a plane and its passengers kickstarts an interrogation of reality

In the first chapter of this novel a hit man remarks to himself: “No one realises how much hit men owe to Hollywood scriptwriters.” But how does the author know? The throwaway joke, along with an unashamed obsession with verbally recreating and namechecking the mise-en-scène of streaming TV drama, is typical of the book’s effervescent playfulness. Hervé Le Tellier, after all, is the current president of Oulipo, the French “workshop of potential literature” whose past masters included Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. And what he has done here would delight his forebears with its paradoxical nature: he has written an Oulipan bestseller, a Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has already shifted a million units on the continent.

Each chapter of the book’s first section introduces a different cast member, mainly French or American, in a different novelistic or televisual style (deftly handled in Adriana Hunter’s clever translation). After the hit man, Blake, we meet a writer, Victor Miesel, followed by film editor Lucie, architect André, musician Slimboy, six-year-old Sophie and her pet frog, lawyer Joanna, and mathematicians Adrian and Meredith. Victor’s story is a hilariously deadpan satire on the Parisian literary scene: his two unbestselling novels glory in the titles The Mountains Will Come to Find Us and Failures that Missed the Mark, while he also “translates entertaining English-language bestsellers that reduce literature to the status of a minor art for minors”. (He commences work on a book entitled The Anomaly, because of course he does.)

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