We are presented with an audacious epistolary: a young American poet, based in New York, writes in English to the eminent French theorist Alain Badiou (born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1937), and writes him love letters of astonishing honesty and passion. Echoes of Max Ophuls fill my mind as I read through the first fifty pages, letter after letter from Katy, no response from le philosophe--you've seen Joan Fontaine write pages and pages to Louis Jourdan, filling the screen with impassioned hand, in Letters from an Unknown Woman, right? It's the saddest picture in movie history, so my first instinct is to say that young Bohinc has set her sights too high, and that he, "dear Alain," won't even remember her if shown a picture of her after her death. But then finally I get it, that what she is proposing is no ordinary love affair, but rather a test of love, a test to be played out according to her understanding of his writing, and the main action of the book turns into an interrogation, then a subversion, of his tenets, of the monstrances in which his words are displayed: his books and articles and public statements. As she writes, she changes his writing, at least its import, perhaps its meaning.
Tender Buttons has published many books that demonstrate this sort of twisty, suspense-driven turnabout, so I expect that whenever I pick up one of their books it is not going to be what I expect. Into this tradition Bohinc fits beautifully, but even so, the surprises are earned. The reader must bring a lot of attention and empathy to meet her on the page, and to be wise enough to distinguish lover from writer from artist, melancholic from joker. I'm sure I stumbled a couple of times across this lengthy book, but there was always something beckoning, a pennant faintly flapping upon Mont Blanc, to keep me murmuring "Excelsior" and going forward. Well, for one thing she's witty as hell, and for another, she has a gift for extravagant metaphor, perhaps from hip-hop roots, that delights in transforming itself into every variant of itself imaginable. Maybe that's what love does--love with a capital L, as she insists you spell it--creates a hall of mirrors around the loved one that produces infinite lights and angles.
The lovers live parallel lives on either side of fame; they experience the same events, like the resignation of Egypt's Mubarak, and she reads his reaction to Egypt int he papers and he reads hers in these letters. They are either end of the spectrum of age, and of gender, but ungodly connections bring them together. And she can sometimes boast that she knows more than he about this or that--not only matters of the heart, but cold facts, like math. "I suppose you've mapped sociality like a chessboard. But I'm mercurial, at best." In the next life, she recalls, the philosopher is going to reincarnate as a dancer; but as the poet will turn into a janitor, will he still want her? Cocteau or Demy sort of transformation turns old Ophuls plot into something more like a sun-warmed fairy tale, but Dear Alain convinces me, and will you too, that miracles can happen even in the most blighted of social circumstances and broken civic systems. I enjoyed it very much, and it spurred me to direct action, and to going back to the basic arithmetic I abandoned as a teen, and one can ask no more of a book or a friend.