A review of Hallucinating Foucault, by Patricia Duncker
Published February 13th, 1997, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine
By Patricia Duncker
Ecco Press, $21
But what happens when the pure communion of reader/writer breaks down and gets confused? What happens when the ugliness of biology gives profane form to the sacredness of the author? Patricia Duncker takes on this precarious and problematic relationship in her debut novel, Hallucinating Foucault, and the result is terribly disturbing (to the devout bibliophile, at least).
Right away, Duncker puts the reader off guard by introducing an unnamed boyfriend/girlfriend team of graduate students, calling them simply “I” and “The Germanist,” respectively (read: you the reader and your girlfriend, or the other way around, depending on your gender). The narrator is studying the (fictitious) French author Paul Michel at Cambridge, and the Germanist, a Schiller devotee who seems to be an expert on just about everything, urges him to dig deeper into his research than just mere scholarship.
The Germanist, who has ulterior and possibly sinister motives for attaching herself to the narrator, leaves clues to Michel’s fictional and physical worlds. She points out Michel’s creative debt to Michel Foucault (the very real French philosopher and theorist) and then hints at Michel’s current plight, which the narrator had chosen to ignore.
The narrator, cajoled by the Germanist, eventually discovers that Michel had written all of his novels to and for Foucault, that Foucault had been the intended reader for his entire oeuvre. And when Foucault died of AIDS in 1984, Michel found that he had reason neither to live nor to write, and he subsequently went insane. As the narrator falls deeper into his research, he finds that he can no longer ignore Michel the man, and he decides to go to France to find him.
For the first half of the book, Duncker simply has her characters discussing Michel’s work, but when she allows Michel to speak (and write) for himself, the result is astonishing. Paul Michel, Duncker’s invented author, suddenly stops being an abstract, studied object and leaps into the narrator’s (and reader’s) life. Everything about him is fascinating—his lifestyle, his speech, his prose, his insanity. He’s eminently alive, and this is what keeps the novel from being just a dry examination of authorship. And discarding reductive academic notions of influence or affinity, Michel’s obsession with Foucault becomes that much more immediate. He writes in a letter to Foucault, You ask me what I fear most. You know already or you would not ask. It is the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write. My greatest fear is that one day, unexpectedly, suddenly I will lose you. We never see one another and we never speak directly, yet through our writing our intimacy is complete. My relationship with you is intense because it is addressed every day, through all my working hours. I sit down, wrapped in my blanket, my papers incoherent on the table before me. I clear a space to write, for you, to you, against you. You are the measure of my abilities. I reach for your exactitude, your ambition, your folly. You are the tide mark on the bridge, the level to reach. You are the face who always avoids my glance, the man who is just leaving the bar. I search for you through the spirals of all my sentences. I throw out whole pages of my manuscript because I cannot find you in them.
Although Duncker unequivocally succeeds in creating this character/author, the novel at times suffers from shadows cropping up around Michel’s brilliance. Michel’s love for Foucault is thoroughly convincing, but the narrator’s love for Michel is less so, and the novel sometimes progresses artificially because the narrator doesn’t seem to be truly driven. He just kind of falls into his role, and when the novel’s action gets intense, he doesn’t seem as amazed (or as skeptical) as he should be.
But this may be part of Duncker’s plan. Like the reader, the narrator gets sucked into a strange authorial web, and his dazed compliance mirrors our own. Or maybe not. Either way, Duncker takes a tremendously thought- (and action-) provoking stab at why we read and write, and the reader comes away from Hallucinating Foucault with a refreshingly new, if creepily twisted, view of the author/reader relationship.