Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb

At some point—Sade?—Western culture turned away from the beautiful, fixed its gaze on the repulsive, and said: I like this.

Contemporary art, which isn't a movement but various pèices de resistance, mostly negotiates this ongoing obsession with the repulsive. More to the point: a contemporary artist compels us to recognize that the repulsive attracts. Ugliness, he says—the grotesque, the brutal, the sick—mesmerizes.

In Hygiene and the Assassin (if not in her later books) Amélie Nothomb is a contemporary artist par excellence. We travel 167 pages in the presence of execrable human beings. The two characters who dominate the book—an obese Nobel Prize-winning murderer named Prétextat Tach and a young female journalist intent upon exposing his criminal past—are top-shelf sociopaths, by turns tedious and fascinating.

Not unlike Sade.

For fun, let's imagine that Nina, the female journalist, stands as Nothomb's surrogate, confronting, at the age of 25, the monstrosity that goes by the name "world literature," and telling it: I will destroy you.

One can't help but admire that kind of foolishness.

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