By Ryan C. Bradley
A man decides he is old enough. A woman returns early from a lovers’ retreat to a bottle of pills at home. Moreover, how should you explain the nuances of contemporary Paris to your mother, twenty – five years dead? Valérie Mréjen’s Black Forest is a book of mourning that is not morbid or sentimental, but rather an elegant and wryly humorous brace against the void. With a paradoxically detached intimacy, Mréjen follows death’s dark and twisted path through the lives it touches, wringing out every possible meaning—or non–meaning—along the way. A writer at the height of her career who draws comparisons to Georges Perec and Nathalie Sarraute, Mréjen has cemented her status as an auteur with a singular voice, guiding us through the Black Forest of ghosts that populate her subconscious.
Black Forest is French-performance artist Valérie Mréjen’s eighth book. It is a dream of death, a collage of vignettes. In each one, Mréjen introduces a character—always referring to them by a pronoun rather than a name—, catalogs some meaningful details of their lives and then their death. As noted in the synopsis, the book’s detachment makes it more often funny than sad.
In between the vignettes, the narrator addresses her dead mother. It seems intentionally ambiguous as to whether the speaker is telling her mother about the deaths, or this conversation with her mother has called them to the narrator’s mind.
The lack of space between the vignettes seems intentional, as well. It is hard to follow where one stops or starts. Some are about the after-effects of the death, others about life before. A few address both. It all lends Black Forest a dreamlike quality.
Mréjen’s rolling sentences add to that surreal feeling. She writes things like, “I would be convinced I had brushed shoulders with brutes, with monsters who would go to any lengths to be on time, willing to push half the world aside. I would denounce their crass behavior, though I never failed to do the same whenever a lone miserable ambler has the gall to slow me down with his snail’s pace, and what is more to stand right in the middle of the sidewalk.” As the novel’s translator, Katie Shireen Assef observes, there is a “care… [a] peculiar intimacy of this writing that never once reaches for pathos.”
Black Forest is off-kilter, putting the reader in a strange space. All of this is in the service of making readers think about death. It seems Mréjen’s goal is to break her audience away from what the narrator her mother calls “the cult of the carefree.”
Grounded, concrete observations counterpoint the dreaminess of the novel, breathing life into it. Mréjen’s writing pops when she writes about the widower that cannot bring himself to cancel his deceased wife’s mailing subscriptions or the young woman whose anxiety forces her to text everyone after a dinner party to apologize for her acceptable behavior. (★★★★☆)