A fair warning to contemporary novelists: Reading Tristan Garcia’s debut novel may cause you to hate the 29-year-old French author. It’ll be a hate born of sincere admiration and maybe a little jealousy, but you’ll feel it all the same. Some of it might stem from the economical way he covers a large chunk of time in the lives of his four protagonists – an intellectual, a queer activist, a comet of a party boy and the culture journalist who knows them all. Some of it might come from his nimble control of tone, which can swerve from heady discussion of the intersection between contemporary politics and moral philosophy to the intentionally glib name-dropping of Foucault. More than anything else, though, that feeling may brew in your belly because Hate: A Romance is one of the more movingly recognizable accounts of the fickle ways that love and sex and joy and friendship can so easily decompose into their opposites.
Published in France in 2008 and translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein for this American paperback, Hate stretches from the 1980s – a “cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics and Western homosexuality” – to the 2000s, as endured by two interconnected couples. Occasional journalist Dominque Rossi, whom everybody calls Doumé, is a gay Corsican who comes from a line of political outsiders and emerges as the de facto spokesperson for a queer activist organization called Stand, as AIDS meanders through the gay community. He falls in love with William Miller, a younger man from a small town north of Paris and the son of an Ashkenazi Jew. Miller slowly becomes an underground gay celebrity during his relationship with Doumé, who meets Jean-Michel Leibowitz through some political organization, before his study of eastern European dissidents made him a public leftist intellectual. Journalist Elizabeth Lavellois, the novel’s narrator, works with Doumé, introduces him to her friend William, and carries on an affair with the married Jean-Michel, whom she calls Leibo, about 10 years her elder.
And for 300 pages spanning nearly 20 years, Garcia follows Doumé and William, Liz and Leibo as they fall in and out of bed, talk about and organize around the rise of AIDS, fret over the changes in Paris and France, worry about how the Left is becoming the Right, split hairs over anti-Semitism and homophobia. There are plenty of ebullient, ribald moments, to be sure – a section detailing the unemployed William’s trips to the employment placement office are laugh-out-loud hilarious – but Hate is a document of relationships and romances becoming torn and frayed.
What gives the novel such force is Garcia’s recognition that love and hate are intensely powerful emotions, fires that demand constant kindling. And Garcia is unabashedly willing to present the ways in which his characters supply fuel for love/hate’s roaring inferno. William even provides a formula for the feeling – “hate = (love+death) - lies” – and reveals himself as a man who has spent considerable time on the subject:Because hate’s important. It’s the most important thing. We live in a society where hate is incredibly underrated. Hate brings you to life. It’s everything. Real hate – like Spinoza said, hate is where it’s at.
And Garcia lets his characters act petty, malicious and hurtful to one another. By the mid-’90s when a different generation of queer men is making the party scene and the dangerous thrill of bug chasing and barebacking has entered the discussion, the Internet is also this new thing. And William, with some old photos and the single-minded focus of the cast-off, hurts Doumé in a way that only somebody who has shared a life with him can. It’s brutal, and it’s entirely believable.
This empathy is what makes Hate so impressive. Born in 1981, Garcia was a child during the decade he recreates with such a vivid understanding. But his talent for recreating this period culturally and intellectually and imagining characters, their histories and personalities, and their unsavory weaknesses and impulses, turns his fictional world into something recognizably flesh and blood.
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