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Hervé Le Tellier: L’Anomalie (The Anomaly)

This book won the Goncourt Prize for Le Tellier in 2020 and it is not difficult to see why. It has a very complicated and clever plot. It is very funny. If you are a fan of the US president he describes as mouth wide open, strongly resembling a large grouper with a blond wig, you may want to give this one a miss. It discusses serious issues (though, often, in a far from serious way).

The basic form is one of those novels where there are several stories, all seemingly unrelated, but which, eventually merge into the same story. In this novel, there are seven of these stories, some focussing on one individual though s/he interacts with others, and some focussing on more than one individual – a family or a couple. In addition there is one side story, which is actually about three separate individuals but their stories all merge, as we shall see. Finally, there is the main story which, initially, involves a pilot and his co-pilot but then a host of other people, including the aforementioned US president. Complicated? Yes indeed.

What brings them all together is a flight they make in 2021 from Paris to New York. This flight is a normal Air France flight. As it approaches North America, the plane hits a huge storm. The plane is seriously buffeted, drops a thousand feet and both passengers and crew fear for their lives. Suddenly, they are clear of the storm. However, the plane is somewhat damaged. However, when they request landing at JFK, a normal procedure, they face considerable hostility. The pilot is asked all sorts of questions to prove he is who he is. Initially, he thinks it is a joke as he is nearing retirement. However, when he is informed that he will be accompanied by two USAF planes and if he veers from the course, he will be shot down, he realises that it is serious.

The plane is guided, not to JFK but to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, where the passengers are not allowed to leave and not allowed to contact friends and family. By now, we have an idea as to why they are being held though they do not. The might of the US government seems it be mobilised to deal with the issue, including the aforementioned president. (As this takes place in 2021, Le Tellier may have jumped the gun somewhat.)

I mentioned above three separate individuals who all merge into one story. These are three young data/mathematics scientists. Two of them, Tina and Adrian had been given the task, after 9/11, of establishing strict protocols for who should do what in the case of any likely emergency the government might face, primarily because the 9/11 protocols apparently failed. They develop a stringent set of protocols for all eventualities – terrorism, nuclear attack, extraterrestrials and so on

When they send their large and complex document to the Department of Defense, the reply comes back What if we have a situation not covered in the document?. They had not thought of that as they assumed they had covered everything, so they come up with Protocol 42, wittily named after the The Meaning of Life in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Basically, it means that the two of them will permanently have a phone, which will always be on and, if something happens, they will get the call and be summoned. They get the call. Adrian is just trying to seduce a fellow scientist when the call comes and he has to leave her in medias res, though she will become the third of the trio.

The trio ( and others) have a lot of interesting and not always relevant discussion, including a variation on the old idea that if God is all-good and all-powerful, why does he allow misery, wars, inequality etc? Their variation is that we may well all be simply a relatively sophisticated computer programme but, if that is the case, the programmer did a pretty poor job.

Much of the second part of the book concerns the fall-out of what happened after these events. The key individuals we have been following are all affected in different ways and all react in different ways. Some react well while others do not. We also see how the rest of the world reacts, particularly the US authorities, which gives Le Tellier ample opportunity to mock them, and not just the president.

The individuals closely involved are also a mixed bunch. We have a professional French contract killer, a French film editor and her much older on-off boyfriend, an architect, a young American girl who adores her pet frog, a high-flying African-American woman lawyer from an underprivileged background, a Nigerian gay rapper, the pilot and his oncologist brother and, above all, a writer-cum-translator, who has had limited success till he writes a book called, of course, The Anomaly, which does very well. He was going to call the book If on a Winter’s Night, Two Hundred and Forty-Three Passengers but was dissuaded from doing so by his publisher. Le Tellier admits that he was very much influenced, in writing this book, by Italo Calvino‘s Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller). All of these people have complex back stories which we follow in both parts of the book.

However, while the book clearly owes its success to what happened during the flight, Le Tellier’s ability is also to make full use of this situation to develop a complex set of tales, mock the system, primarily the US but Macron comes in for a bit of mockery as well as to raise issues on the nature of life and the functioning of space/time and our planet. It is a very clever and very original novel.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Gallimard
First published in English in 2021 by The Other Press