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Reproof Reading

Le Reprobateur/The Reprover by Francois Coulon

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reviewed by Edward Picot

The central conceit of Le Reprobateur is the profession of Reprobateurs or Reprovers, whose practitioners hire themselves out to act as external consciences for their weaker-willed clients. They stand alongside those clients throughout their daily lives and silently disapprove of any immoral or self-indulgent behaviour on their part, thereby helping them to lose weight, stop overspending, work harder, keep their tempers, and so forth. The main character of the story is a Reprover called Gildas Noblet.

As with doctors and lawyers, Reprobateurs are sometimes successful in their work and sometimes not. One of Gildas Noblet's clients, a cyclist who wins the Tour de France, exclaims when interviewed that his jersey ought to be only pale yellow, because "it's Mr Noblet who deserves to have half the colour." On the other hand, a less successful case is a circus lion, who despite the Reprover's help loses his self-control and devours his trainer ("The carnivore was fired straight away for gross misconduct... Gildas Noblet had not been able to muzzle the animal's weakness for human proteins.")

Even from these two examples it is possible to get a sense of the bizarre and droll tone of the story. Furthermore, Reproving is not the only offbeat idea in the piece. Parallel to the Reprovers is another profession: the Approvers, or Approbateurs, whose role is to endorse their clients' actions or decisions. As the illustrations show, the Reprovers all dress in dark suits and ties, behave with extreme decorum and composure, and seem to operate singly. The Approvers, on the other hand, dress in mauve suits with voluminously-ruffed shirtfronts and cuffs, and come in wildy-zealous groups, constantly flinging up their arms, shouting and beaming with enthusiasm. In a brief overview of Approving history, we see them endorsing both the terrorist activities of the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica, and the crucifixion of someone who looks suspiciously like Jesus.

One of the Approvers' clients is an ex-hippy-photographer and journalist-turned-author called Joel Fricoteau, who hires them to give him confidence about a book he has written. "Joel Fricoteau ultimately knew little about approving theory; it seemed that a session's effect sometimes wasn't felt until a long time afterwards." The book, it turns out, is a polemical work blaming all of society's ills on problems. After Fricoteau's encounter with the Approvers it becomes a huge commercial success and sets France in an uproar, producing mass demonstrations both in favour of his arguments and against them. Some people want to abolish problems - others, who have problems of their own, feel compelled to defend them.

These different elements are linked together by an intricate plot which emerges only gradually because of the nonlinear arrangement of the story. It spans two decades of French history, and reveals how Joel Fricoteau, his wife Genevieve Chavaux, the Reprover Gildas Noblet and his wife Magali Beauredon are all connected with one another. There are two narrative strands. One tells how Fricoteau met his wife in the swinging sixties when he was hip and sexy and enthusiastic about youth culture - then how he got old, became disillusioned, took a dislike to rock music, wrote his book condemning problems and lost his wife. The second strand - connected to the first not only because Magali Beauredon is related to Joel Fricoteau, but also because Fricoteau eventually hires a Reprover of his own, Rodolphe Blain, who trained alongside Gildas Noblet - tells how Noblet discovers his vocation to be a Reprover (by disapproving of unconstrained behaviour when he's still only a child); how he trains and qualifies; how his work meets with a mixture of success and failure; and how he eventually loses his job through a breach of professional ethics, thus showing himself to be as human and fallible as anybody else.

Reprobateur page layout image 1In terms of its structure, Le Reprobateur consists of twenty pages, all laid out in the same way. On the left, in a narrow column, are two paragraphs of text. On the right are four images: three cartoonish full-colour illustrations, and one photographic still. The text corresponds with one of the illustrations: click on a different one, and different text will appear. Click on the photographic still, on the other hand, and a video will play.

All the videos are monologues, spoken to camera by a thin, comically-serious character with a black moustache. This is Gildas Noblet, the Reprover, himself, who appears not only in the videos and the text story but also in the illustrations, where his face becomes even more hollow-eyed and doleful. It is striking how quickly the combination of text and video comes to seem completely natural; but as a result of his being both a character in the story and the narrator of the video sections, Gildas Noblet enjoys a curious double status, and the story as a whole has a double-stranded feel. The text part is told in the third person by an oldfashioned omniscient narrator, albeit one with a very whimsical and surrealistic way of describing things. The video sections, on the other hand, are told in the first person by Noblet; but Noblet himself is not involved in all parts of the story, which means that his video monologues are sometimes first-person narrative and sometimes third-person, and he seems both to be part of the story and separate from it, both affected by the events he is describing and undisturbed by them. This is entirely in keeping with his role as a Reprover, which obliges him to appear detached from normal human feelings, although in the end he turns out to be just as vulnerable to those feelings as anyone else. But it is also a sly self-referential comment about authors and the literature they produce: they too, like Reprovers, would prefer to imagine themselves looking down on human existence from higher ground - but in the last analysis, of course, they are just as fallible as the rest of us.

There are two methods of navigating through the story. The first is by clicking on one of the pictures, which will take you to another screen. The connection between one screen and the next is non-sequential, so that when you click through in this way you will often find yourself reading about a different set of characters, in another time and another place. Despite these abrupt transitions from one part of the story to another - which are fairly commonplace in hyperliterature, because of its frequent use of nonlinear structure - the more you click around, the more a sense of pattern begins to emerge; and this sense of pattern is augmented by a series of visual correspondences between the pictures. When you click one of them, and jump to another part of the story, the new picture you find yourself looking at is often paired with the old one through a kind of visual pun: for example a picture of Noblet holding out his arms horizontally for a fitting in a tailor's shop is paired with a picture of Jesus with his arms spread out at the Crucifixion; Noblet's cyclist client winning the Tour de France is paired with another client of Noblet's, this time a toy-monopolising father, riding his son's mini-bike while the son howls in the background; and a picture of Joel Fricoteau covering his ears to block out the noise of New Wave music is paired with one of Genevieve Chavaux covering hers, while Fricoteau entreats her not to leave him. These visual correspondences between apparently-disparate parts of the story, and the thematic correspondences to which they often direct our attention, give some idea of the care with which Le Reprobateur has been constructed.

Icosahedron imageThe other method of navigation is a three-dimensional icon in the form of an icosahedron - a twenty-sided sphere constructed out of equilateral triangles. Each triangle represents one of the story-screens, and contains thumbnails of the three pictures on that screen. The sphere can be swivelled in any direction by dragging it with the mouse, thus allowing readers to see all sections of the story in overview, and to visit a section of their choice by clicking on it. It's surprisingly easy to recognise different parts of the story by the pictures shown in the triangles, and the icosahedron becomes increasingly useful as a navigational instrument once a good deal of the story has been read - because like a lot of nonlinear fiction, Le Reprobateur suffers from the problem that after a certain point readers will begin to find themselves visiting the same screens over and over again, and wondering whether they have now seen all the available material or whether bits of it are still lurking in undiscovered corners. The icosahedron doesn't completely eliminate this difficulty, but it does alleviate it.

It also - like the picture-links with their visual correspondences - draws our attention to the way in which the story is constructed. There are twenty triangular sides to the icosahedron, and each of them corresponds with a single screen of the story, so clearly the story consists of twenty screens. Each screen contains three pictures, corresponding with the three points of its triangular representation on the icosahedron, plus a video; and each picture, when you single-click it, calls up two paragraphs of prose. In other words there are sixty pictures (and twenty videos) in the story, and one hundred and twenty prose paragraphs. But there is a further level of detail: each prose paragraph, if you mouse over it or click on it, reveals a number of "extensions" - extra bits which can be added to the paragraph without altering its overall shape. For example, the paragraph -

By hand movements from the front to the back, Joel Fricoteau tried the prevent the closing of Genevieve Chavaux's suitcase. He begged, he grovelled, even overdid it a bit - there was nothing to be done.
- changes, on mouseover, to read -
He begged, he quavered, he implored, he grovelled, even overdid it a bit - there was nothing to be done.
And if you mouseover again, the first sentence changes:
By hand movements from the front to the back - and one and two, flex-stretching, and three and four, affliction-exaggeration - Joel Fricoteau tried to prevent the closing of Genevieve Chavaux's suitcase.

There are usually about four of these variations on the basic paragraph - sometimes more, sometimes less; but assuming that four is the average, this means that there are about four hundred and eighty paragraph-extensions altogether. They represent one of the most interesting aspects of Le Reprobateur, from the experimental point of view, because they challenge the assumption that good writers must always find the perfect words for what they are trying to express, and that a well-written text cannot be altered by the addition of extraction of a single word without being fundamentally damaged. Text in Le Reprobateur, by contrast, is flexible, provisional, and subject to playful variations. It must be said, however, that this aspect of the work is not always entirely successful. The easiest way to extend a sentence without spoilings its grammar or compromising its original meaning is to splice in adjectives and subclauses which are not really required at all, and Francois Coulon does not always manage to avoid this trap. At their best the sentence-extensions offer a lively sense of invention and variation - sometimes they even offer extra insights into the story, as in the example above, where they seem to be hinting that Joel Fricoteau is putting up a show of despair at Genevieve Chavaux's departure, but doesn't actually want to do anything which would prevent her from leaving. At their weakest, however, they can come across as mere padding; and either way, they do tend to distract us in our attempts to follow the story, and I suspect that many readers will be tempted to avoid mousing over the paragraphs of text, so as not to have to deal with the extensions.

One other aspect of Le Reprobateur which seems less than fully integrated with all the other elements is the music. At the top of each page-screen is a button with four headphone-icons on it. Initially these are greyed out. If the button is clicked once, music begins to play, and the first icon turns black. Click the button again, and a second layer is added to the soundtrack, turning the second icon black; and so forth. The music is agreeably poppy and quirky, nicely suited to the tone of the story - but the problem is that every time you click from one screen of the story to another the music gets switched off, which means that you have to do some extra clicking to switch it back on again. Since this is rather a nuisance, and a musical soundtrack is by no means essential to our enjoyment of the story, my guess is that most readers will try it once or twice and then forget about it.

Gildas Noblet image 2Completely successful or not, the sentence-extensions and musical soundtrack both add to the feeling of richness, wit and invention which comes across from Le Reprobateur. As you explore the work the architectural pattern which holds it together becomes more and more apparent, but this is no mere exercise in geometric formality. Coulon makes it clear that an Oulipo-like concentration on overcoming formal difficulties was not part of his working method: he was more interested in creating structures which would be interesting both for himself and his readers than in placing constraints upon himself, and he describes the growth of his ideas through a revealing metaphor which combines play and a flexible approach with engineering discipline:

When I was a kid playing with Meccano, my father taught me that I should start to place the screws just tight enough to hold the different parts together, then tighten them all a bit stronger, then one last time. If you tightly screw the first parts too early, you'll just end up distorting the metal and get some trouble making later junctions... Fortunately, there's a lot of ways to create fancy correspondences.

When asked about his influences, Coulon goes as far as to state explicitly that the Oulipo movement doesn't interest him all that much - and interestingly, he tends to mention films and directors rather than books or authors - Bollywood, the Nouvelle Vague, and the Japanese animation Totoro, for example. He does admit, however, that there is a parallel between his work and magic realism; and certainly that is one of the ways in which it strikes me. Le Reprobateur is actually quite short in terms of the number of words it contains - if you work it out, it can't have more than about twelve thousand - yet it manages to span two decades, and within that span there is a strong sense of history and cultural development being seen from a bizarre angle, crosscut with bizarre concepts and events - a sense which also comes across from the work of writers such as Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass, whose novels combine experimentation, wit and invention with an interest in history in much the same way.

In the end, however, Le Reprobateur does not need to rely on such comparisons: it is a sufficiently interesting work to demand attention in its own right. It exudes selfconfidence, playfulness and humour; it attempts to do a lot of things at once, and by and large it succeeds in everything it attempts; it jettisons the old clumsy, labyrinthine model of nonlinear fiction in favour of something much more open and user-friendly; and in short it is certainly one of the most accomplished and approachable works of hyperliterature to have been produced to date.

© Edward Picot, May 2008

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