COUP DE FOUDRE
A Novella and Stories
by Ken Kalfus
Bloomsbury Press, 277 pages
reviewed by Carolyn Daffron
Ken Kalfus is an audacious stylist, whose stories and novels often invoke the likes of Borges, Calvino, Golgol, and Saramago. His choice of subject matter can be equally fearless: cosmology, 9-11, and the grand sweep of Russian history, to name only a few. Coup de Foudre, the novella which forms the centerpiece of his most recent collection of short fiction, is a coruscating example of this gutsiness and high literary ambition.
Not that I enjoyed reading it, at least not the first time. Coup de Foudre tells the story of David Léon Landau, a character not-at-all-loosely based on French financier and former presidential hopeful Dominque Strauss-Kahn (known in France and now everywhere as “DSK”) who was accused of sexually assaulting a housekeeper in his New York hotel in 2011. Although criminal charges were dropped, the case led to a civil settlement, various other scandalous accusations and revelations, and the ruin of DSK’s career.
The novella is a first person account of the hotel assault and the events immediately surrounding it, written in the form of a letter to Mariama, the housekeeper-victim—a letter which Landau can never send to her or anyone without violating a civil gag order and subjecting himself to criminal prosecution. Landau’s story, which parallels DSK’s in almost every known particular, is a repellent one, and its narrator is about as monstrous and unappetizing—to say nothing of unreliable—as they come. Even while purportedly seeking “moral benefit” from “fully and exactingly” acknowledging his errors, the chief of which is that he forcefully fellated Mariama, he cannot help reminding her that his name “signified financial brilliance in the service of the public” and that a water treatment plant he financed in her home country may once have given her clean liquid to “sip thirstily and with pleasure…You may even have reflected at the time on the liquid’s animating power and plenitude…Some may have spilled from the sides of your mouth.” It is hard not to shudder at this.
Or to think of Nabokov and his Humbert Humbert. Mariama’s and Lolita’s predators are both wily, sardonic, self-pitying, and usually self-deluded narcissists. The two narrators write with a similar flowery style and attention to detail, sensuous and sickening, and both taunt us by conflating predation with love: “Oh, darling, ” Landau writes as he recalls the assault, “ I can summon to memory every ridge and contour of your tongue and palate.” Much as I would have rather not, I couldn’t help recalling how Humbert perverted Lolita’s very name by telling us how his tongue carried its three syllables along his palate, front to back.
Ostensibly for the purpose of making sense of what happened—although he also spends plenty of time complaining, and enjoying his own skills as a raconteur—Landau takes us through his weekend. He recovers from a sex party in Washington; meets up with one of his long-time lovers, the older but highly skilled Claudette, whom he actually calls a “piece”; and seeks out various other possible partners. He gets credible evidence that he and his correspondence are being spied on by his political opponents. He negotiates with the American Secretary of the Treasury. All this while preparing to save the economy of Greece and possibly Europe at a Sunday meeting with Angela Merkel, whom he views as part of “all the forces that were arrayed against” him. It ‘s possible, he says, that when he emerged from the shower in that hotel room, naked and with a huge Viagra erection, he mistook the “full-bodied, round-eyed” Mariama for the German chancellor herself.
This observation, which had me on the brink of nervous laughter, immediately precedes a graphic, twisted account of the attack itself. And so it is with the novella as whole: the reader is swept along, horrified and entertained, and horrified to be entertained. The writing is masterful, especially considering that Kalfus manages to write so well while in the persona of a vain man who is trying and mostly failing to write well.
But is masterful writing enough, given the subject matter? When I read the blurb for Coup de Foudre, my heart sank. Why, of all the heads in all the world, does Kalfus have to go into the fictionalized head of DSK, who could have used his gifts to unite French socialists but chose instead to violate a helpless refugee working as a maid in his hotel room? At first I wondered whether Landau’s/DKS’s intimate story was something anyone, male or female, needed to suffer through; but after I had raced through Coup de Foudre the first time, stopping to admire the writer’s (if not the narrator’s) style and insight from time while simultaneously wincing and cringing, I came around. As Landau says, we must to try to understand. Learning what motivates evil acts may help us prevent some and heal the effects of others. Or it may not. But at least we will have tried, and writers who tackle such issues—for heuristic and not sensationalistic purposes, as Landau or Humbert might put it—should be commended and read. It seems especially important to try to make sense of troubling human behavior when the perpetrator can affect so many lives. We should learn all we can about how someone like Landau/DSK, decent and large-minded in public life, could be so reckless, and so evil, in private, and about how the various kinds of power and entitlement and greed—political, economic, sexual, psychological—bleed into one another. Kalfus’s novella makes a real contribution to this sobering debate.
On my second, more leisurely, better-armed reading, it was easier to appreciate the many comic touches in this novella, as when Landau loses the battle with crosstown traffic on the way to lunch with his daughter. Hailing a cab to go seven blocks, he says, was “almost chief among” his many “perverse, foolish actions that weekend.” (If so, it is a very distant second.) There follows a set piece, with clanking horns and shimmering heat and hallucinations of Merkel driving the car up ahead. The cabdriver says “Fucking Greeks,” and Landau concurs. But my favorite comic scene—which is also the one time we meet a woman with ideas about the larger world—has to be the interlude in a scarf shop, when Landau tries to seduce one of the salesgirls by having her model some high-end scarves and hinting that, if she accepts his invitation to go out for a drink with him, she can have the $410 scarf he has just bought with his “anodized titanium Black Card, an advertisement for sexual prowess if ever there was one.” Things seem to be going well until she realizes who he is. It turns out that she’s a grad student in international finance at NYU: she instantly forgets about the scarf and the drink in her excitement over the intricacies of macroeconomics and Merkel’s position on the Greek bailout. “She was a hard, bright young woman,” Landau says sadly, “and fully self-possessed, never a real prospect.” No scarf for her! (Landau ends up giving it to Claudette, who had been a bit vexed when he threw her to the floor that night, stunning and bruising her—an event he refers to as “her fall.”) As I suspect might happen with DSK in real life, a closer reading of Landau made me regard him with less fear and more contempt, which is a sort of progress, and makes at least some laughter possible.
The fifteen remaining stories in this collection vary widely in style, tone, theme, and subject matter, ranging from a very short humor piece—a list of increasingly absurd and burdensome instructions to future literary executors which, appropriately, ends the book—to “The Un-,” an almost 30-page story about aspiring writers. A straightforward realistic narrative, with wonderful interludes cataloguing the many ways you can go crazy being or wanting to be a writer, “The Un-” is full of convincing detail about writerly pitfalls and obsessions, but somehow manages to encourage ambition anyway.
The other stories include two fanciful tales which are among its most successful—although, given how eclectic this collection is, reasonable readers may differ about which stories work best. One of the fanciful stories, “Square Paul Painlevé,” about a young American in Paris, thwarted in love by a park bench that roots people to its seat, is a sweet distillation of hopeless romantic longing. In the other story, “The Moment They Were Waiting For,” a town falls under a curse where all its inhabitants know their exact time of death. With great economy and specificity, we are told how the situation plays out, from the townspeople’s being “enshrouded in perpetual mourning” down to the curse’s effects on retirement planning and life insurance.
Although there are stories in the collection with far grander concerns or backdrops—war in the Middle East, the wages of racism, astrophysics, irregularities in time, and the possibility of Earth’s being swallowed by a black hole—the two that stayed with me longest were about one man getting his eyes treated and another having his quarterly periodontal cleaning. In “Factitious Airs,” the narrator, a witty and minutely observant writer, takes us with him as his hygienist scrapes his gums and administers nitrous oxide. He knows that the gas will put him in a heightened state, and has a detailed agenda for how he will make use of it. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan, and the narrator returns to a world “which is no more comprehensible than it ever was.” But the journey is thrilling for the reader, and its aftereffects do make the narrator’s mouth “tingle with interdental awareness.” We’ve all been there.
“Laser,” the ophthalmology story, works seamlessly on several levels. It is a thoroughly believable account of a man’s dwindling eyesight and the treatments he accepts and declines. It also explores the relationship between doctor and patient, the limitations of the scientific method, and the nature of perception. The patient, who is a veteran science teacher, comes to understand that repetition and predictability, as much as field loss, can make the world seem as if one is looking through “a wall of slightly smudged glass.”
Another story, “Mercury,” stands out for me as a fine experiment. Ostensibly a first-person account of how the narrator loses his teaching job for delivering a scandalous note to another teacher, it becomes clear (the title should have been a hint!) that the real story is about the messenger, a second-grade misfit named Sammy, and his traumatizing journey down long corridors and into a classroom full of contemptuous fifth-graders. The story plays havoc with point of view, and we never do find out what that note said—though we can guess. But Sammy’s agonies are so well and compassionately depicted that “Mercury” works anyway.
If I have a complaint about the stories in this collection, it is its reductionist, retro treatment of women. One expects a certain amount of shapely legs, short skirts, nubile young things, retreating forms in provocative clothes, and so on in the title novella, but there are plenty more in the rest of the stories. Item: In “Professor Arecibio,” an astronomy professor on a train imagines the “intimate parts” of the woman opposite him, with her “above-the knee leather skirt.” Item: In “The Future,” another professor (social science this time) is almost run over by a woman. He becomes “transfixed” by her skirt: “by its brevity and by its twenty-first century pink vinyl sheen.” He is also taken by her legs and the “nearly pre-Cambrian” freshness of her face and, since she has decided she cannot drive in the city, he chucks an important meeting of an august commission and drives her to New Rochelle. Thoughts about past, present and future worlds figure into this somehow. Item: The young paralegal with whom the protagonist in “V. The Large Hadron Collider,” a judge, imagines an affair, wears “body-hugging blouses and above-the knee skirts.” On the day the story takes places, she is wearing a short dress whose hem rides up “a few inches farther” when she leans into his doorway. The judge, who is deciding a case about a particle collider, begins to have deep if incoherent thoughts about alternate universes where he could “frolic” with the paralegal and not get caught by his rich and powerful wife.
Okay, many of the protagonists, and perhaps the author, are leg men. Fair enough. But the larger point about this collection is the near-absence of women who are not objects of male desire, or in the story only as they relate to men. True, the writer is a man, and you write about what you know. Even so, I decided to apply Alison Bechdel’s movie test to this book. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie must: (1) have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3), about something other than a man.
I leafed through the collection and could only find two examples where females talked to each other at all, and both are on shaky ground. The two schoolgirls mentioned as part of the scenery in “The Future,” who “resolved not to return to school,” might count, but that would be a stretch because we never actually hear them speak. Or the second hygienist in “Factitious Airs,” who both speaks directly to the first one and actually has ideas about special relativity, would have saved the day except that she turns out to be the narrator’s nitrous-oxide induced hallucination. Of course, short stories are not movies; they are more interior, contain fewer characters, and are, well, short. But when a whole collection doesn’t get past Bechdel Step Two, it is worth taking stock before compiling the next one.
I would, however, add that Kalfus, like Updike and Cheever and probably most other great male fiction writers in English, create plenty of characters that either transcend gender, or teach all of us something new about it. This is an intelligent and very rewarding collection of short stories, with a brilliant flagship novella.
Carolyn Daffron is a lawyer, writer, editor, and policy analyst who lives in Philadelphia. For the past several years, she has worked on the intersection of policy and technology.