Cruel Tales from the 13th Floor

  • By Luc Lang; translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
  • University of Nebraska Press
  • 116 pp.

Though brief, these stories offer a savage amount of suffering.

First published in France in 2008 under the title Cruels, 13, this book comes to Anglophone readers in a smooth, seamless translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith, who has brought into English figures as diverse as the Situationist Guy Debord and the crime novelist Thierry Jonquet. There are 16 short stories here, numbered from one to 17. Some of them are very brief, barely three pages long; the longest runs to 18 pages.

Prompted by the title, readers will look in vain for the 13th story, wondering if its absence might provide a key to the striking variety of human behavior one finds in this collection. Clearly enough, however, the notion of cruelty provides a signpost of sorts.

The title points us in that direction, of course, and so does the epigraph, which Lang borrows from Antonin Artaud, the man who coined the phrase "theater of cruelty." Many kinds of cruelty are on display in this book: marital cruelty, parental cruelty, familial cruelty of different ilks; political cruelty, social cruelty, personal cruelty; cruelty in the workplace, in a traffic jam, at the zoo, in the kitchen, in the bedroom.

Not every example is as theatrical as the one in the fifth story, entitled "Private Life." There, when a newly divorced woman finds herself the object of sexual harassment at the office, she takes proactive measures, donning full dominatrix regalia in order to unman her boss. Those tactics prove to be both efficient and unanswerable, as one kind of cruelty trumps another.

Much of the time, the cruelty people exercise in this book is strikingly gratuitous. A zookeeper delights in tempting little children to feed the emus, knowing full well that they will be bitten in return. A driver, recently ticketed for not respecting the rights of pedestrians in crosswalks, brakes deliberately in order to make a woman on a scooter run into the back of his car. An old man humiliates his younger neighbor in front of that man's five children, just for the hell of it. A barely literate Portuguese mason saves the life of his company's director of human resources on a construction site, but that gesture will not prevent the latter from firing the former.

Alienation, loneliness, infidelity, hatred, and violence color these tales from first page to last, a grim panorama of human nature relieved only by the dark humor Lang deploys here and there. If the relations between individuals in social settings seem more than passingly unpleasant, the relations in the pressure-cooker of the family are more troubling still.

In the 11th story, "Escalation," a tale as savage as it is brief, a couple exchanges slaps in the kitchen, but open hands are soon replaced by hot skillets, kitchen knives, and chestnut-roasting pans as weapons of choice. All of this ends badly, as one might expect, and the entire scene is witnessed by the couple's child, who, in turn, narrates the events to the reader. Little wonder if he is scarred by the things he has witnessed in his small world.

Many of the worlds Lang conjures up in these stories are equally small, fostering a sense of claustrophobia in character and reader alike; in several of them, the perspective of escape from those restrictions is largely moot, the principle of immobility assuming the status of an existential truth.

For most of the people one meets here don't evolve, whether because of constraint or choice. Sexuality is often an agent of change in books, but here sexuality is mostly static. A man glimpses himself and a woman in a mirror as they make love, for example, but that merely leads him to arrive later and later for their trysts. A son suspects his father of priapism, but since his father is beset with dementia and confined in a nursing home, his condition no longer causes the kind of ravages it once did. When a man rummaging through the freezer discovers that his wife has bitten off the penises of five former lovers and preserved them in polystyrene containers, he wonders — in a patently idle manner — if that might constitute grounds for divorce.

The 12th tale in this collection, entitled "Face," puts onstage a group of stunt skydivers and the cameraman who is to film their jump for a television program. The cameraman has strapped on all the appendages of his trade, but he has forgotten his parachute, and the skydivers are too stoned on cocaine and weed to notice. When he jumps from the plane, he falls right through the circle that they form, filming all the way.

His situation is not unlike that of many characters in Cruel Tales, I think: There he is, cut adrift, with not much time for reflection, facing the inevitable prospect of an unpleasant end. And I wonder if those befuddled skydivers are not much like we readers, safely and gently suspended by their parachutes as they watch him fall past them to his doom.

Warren Motte is professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014).

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