Despite early efforts to fold it into various conceptions of a Nouveau "Nouveau Roman," François Bon's work has come to occupy a distinct territory within contemporary French literature.1 In retrospect, even the first novels he published at Les Editions de Minuit seem difficult to assimilate with those of his colleagues. During the 1980s, Minuit writers began attracting attention for their investigations into the nature of storytelling (Jean Echenoz's Cherokee), the passing of time (Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La salle de bain) and the mechanics of narrative development (Marie Redonnet's Splendid Hôtel). While Bon explored these issues in books such as Sortie d'usine and Décor ciment, he complicated the recursive investigations of works like Cherokee with an increasingly deep investment in a second concern: referentiality. In his writing, the question "how does the novel work?" was closely shadowed by another: "how does the text relate to the world?"
These questions remained important to Bon's work in the 1990s, but as the decade progressed they fell out of balance: with time, he appeared to distance himself from the first in order to focus exclusively on the second. Impatience, his last work for Minuit, clearly expresses his frustration with the novel as genre: "The novel is no longer enough, neither is fiction, the stories are there in the city" (12).2 When Bon left the publisher in 1998, his writing seemed to push away from prose fiction: in the years that followed he published theater (Quatre avec le mort), methodological essays (Tous les mots sont adultes), and partially-autobiographical narratives that alternated between documented accounts of individual lives (Mécanique, Rolling Stones) and descriptions of the contemporary world (Paysage Fer).
In a sense, decisively turning his back on the novel left Bon free to embrace it. Given his mixed feelings towards the term, it is both slightly surprising and entirely logical that the book he published after RollingStones and Quatre avec le mort, 2004's Daewoo, is his first in ten years to bear the designation roman. This return does not imply a capitulation. At first [End Page 5] glance, the text's blend of interview transcripts, field notes, and personal reflection make its account of recent factory closings in Northern France seem like anything but fiction. The subtitle, which Bon claims to have added "out of provocation, or weariness," is best read as a polemical gesture: invoking the term provides an opportunity to better call it into question ("Parler," 1).3 Bon's text opens by underscoring its generic ambivalence: "Why call a book novel when we'd like it to emanate from the presence, so surprising sometimes, in all things [...]?" (9).4 While the book aims to investigate a social problem, it also leads an aggressive interrogation into how this problem is staged.
What Bon proposes in Daewoo is, to use Warren Motte's expression, his own fable of the novel, a working model for literary practice that defines the powers and limits of its form. Given that he positions the genre so close to the contemporary world, the tale Bon tells is, in part, an account of its own destruction. At the same time, Daewoo does not simply forsake fiction for some extra-textual reality. More than anything else, its vision of contemporary France starts from literary precedents: it is particularly indebted to work by Georges Perec and Assia Djébar. The following pages explore the complex relationship between this book and its source material. What's at stake here is not the existence of fact or fiction in the text. Rather, I am interested in how Bon's novel is a product of the relationship between these terms: it is through this relationship that the abstract categories of fact and fiction take on meaning. Examining Daewoo's double investment in text and world also provides an...