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  • The Mystery Guest: An Account
  • Lisa Hoashi
The Mystery Guest: An Account by Grégoire Bouillier Translated by Lorin SteinFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, 120 pp., $18

In his second book, a short memoir the length of a novella, French writer Grégoire Bouillier writes about the lavishly absurd processes we devise to make meaning of our world, our relationships and ourselves. In The Mystery Guest, Bouillier tells a self-deprecating story about surviving a failed love affair. In doing so he illustrates the necessary process of finding, as he puts it, "the loopholes that reality offers us from itself."

Bouillier's story begins in the fall of 1990, when a phone call wakes him from a Sunday afternoon nap. On the other end of the line is the woman who left him, without a word, four years before. Forgetting that he'd vowed never to speak to her again, Bouillier eagerly answers her, waiting for an overdue explanation.

But she only wants to invite him to be "the mystery guest" at a birthday party for her husband's best friend, the contemporary artist Sophie Calle. Somehow Bouillier accepts the invitation. "I wanted answers," he decides. "The rest of my life depended on that party, I knew that for a fact, and that night I dreamt of a horse trampling coattails in the dust."

What follows the phone call is a nonstop monologue, similar to those of Thomas Bernhard's wryly observant narrators. Bouillier desperately tries to make meaning of his ex-lover's invitation, what it says about him and his place in life as a thirty-year-old unpublished writer who has compulsively worn turtlenecks ever since she left him. He looks both within himself and, most amusingly, into the world for signs, clues, and inspiration. At last, riding in a cab, headed to the party, Bouillier thinks of the space probe Ulysses, launched on [End Page 175] a mission to the sun the day before. Armed with the optimism of that small probe moving through the giant universe, he, too, goes forward.

The most amazing feature of Bouillier's memoir is its size; it is a small but perfect, unforgettable morsel. The author's economy, the effortless rhythm in which he tells this story, is unshakable, whether he is exploring the cosmic or the mundane. At times, Bouillier shares Bernhard's indignation and bitterness toward society, but unlike Bernhard, he always finds something in the world to renew his more fundamental, innocent hopefulness.

Rounding out that hopefulness is Bouillier's brilliantly restrained sense of humor. The day after the party—which was, of course, a disaster—Bouillier finally finds a way to decode all that happened, freeing himself, and his life, to move forward. "It sounds like nothing," he reflects with deadpan earnestness, "but that was the day I bought a new light bulb to replace the one in the bathroom." He is even liberated from the turtlenecks. And to the very end, Bouillier claims his destiny is tied up with the tiny, intrepid Ulysses: The day he wrote the first sentence of The Mystery Guest was also the day NASA and the European Space Agency extended the space probe's mission.



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pp. 175-176
Launched on MUSE
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