Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Marguerite Duras' Destroy, She Said, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Emily Withrow: From the moment Alissa says the word "Destroy," the book's central destructive game starts to move forward. Max Thor and Stein have chosen their target, a vulnerable wisp of a woman, Elisabeth Alione, who has been sent away to convalesce after giving birth to a stillborn child, and at that moment, Alissa signs on. She begins the mental onslaught that will eventually take Elisabeth down. Destruction explicitly pervades the novel as these characters act as evangelists for their viewpoint, siccing themselves on Elisabeth and bringing her around with violent psychological attacks. Total destruction will come from Alissa, we're told, and we watch her sidle up to Elisabeth and glide effortlessly back and forth between the roles of confidant, seductress, and predator. She drops enough clues (as do Stein and Max Thor) to make Elisabeth fearful; Elisabeth realizes she's up against something dangerous, but stops short of breaking things off entirely. Her character is perfect for conquest—lost, craving direction, and too timid to resist.
Alissa, Max, and Stein often seem to be in perfect control, from the reader's standpoint: They're confident in their madness. The "knowing" I referred to yesterday reflects this sort of evangelism; knowledge in this text aligns with the trio's viewpoint. Characters either have it or they don't, are game or aren't. Another motif that ties in with this is safety and danger, and this is where Duras really messes with us in a way that I love. The destruction here is also self-destruction; not even the characters who perpetrate the destruction are safe from the annihilation. Alissa manages to erase bits of herself as she moves toward Elisabeth; their names morph into Elisa, and they share that fabulously freaky moment in front of the mirror, noting physical similarities.
Of course, in the meantime, Duras has been hard at work destructing the novel in a way that mirrors these characters and their game. Donna used "willfully opaque" where I used "coy;" I read her not so much as stubborn, but playful, gleefully experimental, freeing, refusing to bend to what we've come to expect. She gives us, to my mind, enough substance that I'm able to form a distinct plot and characters and make sense of things—as long as I'm willing to let go of the desire to make sense of every thing. We sometimes pick up on little pieces of dialogue that don't directly link to conventional meaning. "'Torn,' says Max Thor. 'Bloody.'" Is he referring to childbirth? The violence of the game they're playing? Both? Neither? I'm all right not knowing for sure, and chalking them up to atmosphere instead of as direct links to plot points.
Is this game one of nihilism? Maybe. I'm not ready to neatly cart off this novel to that pile, and I cringe when I hear the novel referred to that way. I've spent some time the past few days thinking about why that rubs me the wrong way, and I think it comes back to the emotional moments of the book, the way these characters seem truly invested in each other and the questions about how they're connected. I don't think this destruction is aiming at meaninglessness—more about questioning meaning and our desire for it. This happens both at the plot level, with Alissa and co. working to break down social order and morality, actively redefining it for Elisabeth by example and conquest, and at the narrative level. Duras insists on reminding us again and again that this is a book, a construct, that these characters are just invention. We see that in the mise-en-scene at the beginning, with the characters musing on themselves as characters, and consistently to the end, when they tell Bernard that their interest in Elisabeth is literary. They're as aware of the arbitrary constraints of their game as we are of the literary construction. Duras invites these questions, and effectively, I think.
Donna Bowman: I'm glad you raised the specter of nihilism, Emily. The novel doesn't strike me as nihilistic, either, in spite of its characters' determination to break down the identities of their target, and the absence of any larger social standard to which the author holds them. My lasting impression is that the story depends on a structure consciously built and defended to hold back the threat of meaninglessness. Some parts of that structure consist of self-delusions. Some parts are real, rooted in a reality shared (at least potentially) with others, such as Elisabeth's family. They come from outside; their daily phone calls are not invented to maintain a sense of normalcy. Their standards, feelings, and desires represent concrete facts against which Max, Stein, and Alissa's efforts at confusion are contrasted.
I'm moved by the fragility of the setting. When the characters foresee destruction, I worry that it's the asylum itself that will be destroyed. The forest will invade, the tennis players will flee, dinner will no longer be served in the dining room. The setting of the novel is Ark-like, the last vestiges of life in a world already flooded. When there's evidence that it's inside where the waters are rising, not outside, I'm perversely relieved. I don't want Elisabeth to succumb, but her ailment and the recuperative setting allow me to compartmentalize her fate and feel relatively comfortable that my meanings aren't ultimately threatened by the rhetoric that takes hers down. Strangely enough, reading Duras' notes on theatrical performance at the conclusion undermined that feeling of otherness. I can imagine a minimalist performance effectively breaking down that distance and wedging the destruction into my comfort zone. In the novel, though, it stayed safely contained.
Zack Handlen: Man, Emily, the novel you're describing sounds absolutely terrific.
The "Wow, I wish I'd read that book" punchline is overly dismissive and not very useful in most cases; it's sarcasm that closes a conversation by denying any shared experience. Really, though, while everything Emily describes above is consistent with Destroy, and while I believe completely that what she describes is what the author intended (or else close enough to be a valuable line of criticism), I got maybe a tenth of that impression from what I read, and I was definitely paying attention. This doesn't really say nice things about me, does it? Kind of makes you wonder what I've been bringing to the table for the past few years.
Anyway. The destruction angle works for me, because of its inherent drama. I kept looking in the book for anything I could cling to that would make me want to keep reading, and understanding that there was a group with goals, and that those goals might not be particularly positive ones, was something, at least. I liked the way Alissa drove the process, and her relationship with Elisabeth was the closest the book came to something I could be attached to. And the more I think about the interactions, and the more I apply Emily's concept, the more I want to see how this plays on the screen. With movies, I think the presence of actors makes it easier to care. But we'll get to that tomorrow.
Leonard Pierce: Well, I guess when you title a novel Destroy, She Said, you're eventually going to have to follow through, aren't you? Duras, in fact, doesn't waste any time in getting to the meat of one my favorite book titles ever: destruction is implied, both in and of the text, from the very beginning.
I'd also like to register on the nihilism question, because "nihilistic" is a charge that's often deployed against the events of May '68, which we've already talked about informing this novel, and against the kind of deconstruction that Duras engages in with her books. I think it's inherently a bit unfair, because it suggests that failing to value what's important to the person making the criticism is filing to value anything at all, which I definitely don't think is the case here.
But what we do have to consider is that Duras is challenging us—both in the way she writes the book and the events she portrays in it—to question our own assumptions about why we value the things we do. Why does destroying Elisabeth seem like such a cruel act? What do we know about her, or not know about Max, Stein, and Alissa, that suggests that she should be spared? Are we imposing a general humanism on the story, or are we reading a heavy sociopathy into the mad troika who conspire against her? And why does the book's destruction of narrative so vex us? What is it about traditional storytelling that we value so much, that its absence or transformation here should be so upsetting?
These questions are built into the story like land mines, never at the surface, but just waiting to explode in our face. Duras uses the motif of game-playing (particularly chess) throughout the book, and she rather cleverly forces us into the position of thinking of the characters in terms of advantage and value, of victory and defeat, and wondering why we've come to identify with them and their goals so thoroughly after having seen them so presented. I think it's a very clever bit of work, though it creates a standoffish distance from the characters that may have bothered a lot of readers.
Donna, though I think we ended up on opposite sides of this one, your observation of how the scale of the book helped keep it contained is a good one. For all its ability to jettison traditional aspects of narrative, keeping it a sort of chamber miniature helps prevent outside forces that would likely shatter the spell it needs to cast from getting too intrusive by their absence.
Ellen Wernecke: I have to fall in line with Zack and say that I’m not sure I saw the same powerful pull in Destroy, She Said as you did, Emily. Nor did I find the game that Alissa, Max, and Stein played with Elisabeth to be particularly remarkable. The power of group connectivity to motivate a few people to approach outsiders, invite them in, and then ruin their lives is as sturdy and enduring a storyline in literature as the clichéd “a man goes on a journey” or “a stranger comes to town.” It could even be regarded as a variant of the latter.
Not knowing exactly why Elisabeth Alione is being targeted adds to the power of the act, infusing it with a sense of randomness. Could her tormentors have had this plan all along, in wait for the next lone guest to come along? Or is it something about her specifically that draws them in? I never got a satisfying answer, but this was one of the areas in which Duras’ strength is to leave that door open; any explanation would undoubtedly have come off as heavy-handed and less powerful.
In its best moments, the foursome of Destroy, She Said reminded me of what I think is a much better book, Ford Madox Ford’s 1951 novel The Good Soldier, which employs a much more familiar unreliable narrator in the sense that the author isn’t shredding his own established conventions like Duras seems to be doing here. The Good Soldier concerns two couples who meet at a European resort who arguably choose one of their own to destroy, although the extent to which that character wills her own destruction is up for debate. But unlike in Destroy, She Said, the characters are presented with histories, lives lived up to the point where they meet, and gradually peeled back throughout the book. To yield to modernity, to transgress in the way Duras wants to, must we give these things up? I find the suggestion very troubling.
Todd VanDerWerff: I'm honestly not sure I have anything to add to this discussion, but I was really struck by the way the natural world was portrayed as a kind of destruction. There's a temptation in modern literature to make the world of, say, the forest a peaceful, tranquil place where people can escape from the monotony of everyday life. Here, though, the monotony of the buildings the characters occupy is meant to seem calming and reassuring, and there's a sense that Thor, Stein, and Alissa all belong to the forest, the place where they could best express themselves and tear Elisabeth apart. There's a real sense of something like a fairy tale here, where a bloody end is only a few moments away, should someone step wrong.
I suppose in that case, the someone is Elisabeth, and I liked the fear of the forest, which reminded me of, of all things, "Young Goodman Brown," a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne that I think everyone has been forced to read in one lit class or another. That story has a similar sense of plunging heedlessly into some heart of terror, and it also has the sense of the people surrounding our innocent center having nothing but the worst of intentions for that character.
But at the same time, Destroy, She Said is such a destruction of regular literature (and I just realized how similar that word is to deconstruction) that I felt adrift a lot of the time. I know this was part of the authorial intention, but it was a book I wish I had read in a college setting, where someone could tell me the preferred interpretations of the book, and I could respond to them as I saw fit. I was able to grasp some of the games the book was trying to play with my own preconceived notions of what a novel can be, but it also occasionally felt like wanton destruction for destruction's sake. I normally like things the more I talk about them, but trying to talk about Destroy, She Said is slowly eroding the goodwill I had toward the book.