Review: Life Form, by Amélie Nothomb

n404315>>Published (in English): February 2013

>>Finally got around to it: March 2013

Two hundred pounds is already a huge person. I’m richer by one whole huge person now. Since she came and joined me here, I’ve been calling her Scheherazade. It’s not very kind to the real Scheherazade, who must have been a slender creature. But I’d rather identify her with one person and not two, and with a woman rather than a man, probably because I’m heterosexual. Besides, I like the idea of Scheherazade. She speaks to me all night long. She knows I can’t make love anymore, so instead of doing it with me she charms me with her beautiful stories. I’ll let you in on my secret: it’s thanks to Scheherazade’s storytelling that I can live with my obesity. I don’t need to make you a drawing to show you what would happen to me if the guys found out I gave the name of a woman to my fat. But I know that you won’t judge me. You have a few obese characters in your books, and the way you portray them they never lack dignity. And in your books they make up strange legends, like Scheherazade, to be able to go on living.

It’s as if she were the one writing this letter. I can’t get her to stop. I’ve never written such a long message in my life, which proves it’s not me. I hate my obesity, but I love Scheherazade. At night when my weight presses down my chest, I imagine it’s not me but a beautiful young woman lying on my body. I immerse myself in the story and I can hear her sweet feminine voice murmuring indescribable things in my ear. Then my fat arms squeeze her flesh and it’s so convincing that instead of feeling my own flab, I am touching a lover’s smooth skin. At times like that, believe me, I am happy. Better still: we are happy, she and I, the way only lovers can be.

***

Since discovering an English translation of Amélie Nothomb’s first novella Hygiene and the Assassin a couple of years ago, I’ve devoured, in very short order, what little of her work I’ve been able to find. This is fitting, given the themes of consumption—both of the artist and their art—at the heart of Life Form.

Employing a predominantly epistolary format, Life Form tells the story of the world famous writer Amélie Nothomb and her was-it-real-or-wasn’t-it correspondence with a man named Melvin Mapple, a dangerously obese and downtrodden American soldier stationed in Iraq in 2008. Mapple is a fan of Nothomb’s writing. He reaches out to her first for understanding, then for inspiration as he pours his woes out to an intrigued if not entirely confident ear. Mapple’s body is at once his worst enemy and closest confidante; he is a compulsive eater, using food to deal with the horrors he’s experienced as a soldier in Iraq. Over time, he has developed an attachment to the extra weight he carries around, seeing it as a lover, a family, an act of sabotage, and in the end, a work of art.

Through their correspondence, Nothomb addresses not only her own misgivings about Mapple’s attitude towards his self, but her reluctance to emotionally involve herself with a fan—someone she’s never met who, like so many who write to her every week, is in some way devouring a part of her as he slowly devours his own will to exist.

I won’t say much more about the plot because, like all of Nothomb’s books, Life Form is a trim, fast read that is best experienced in only one or two sittings. This novella, while embracing its uniquely epistolary format, does tread on some familiar ground for the author; weight, size, obesity, and the control or lack thereof such things symbolize are a continuing source of antagonism in her work—never a thing for belittling or condemning, but something to be at first acknowledged, then confronted, pulled into the here and now in order to be better understood.

From the beginning of her career, via the embittered, misogynistic Prétextat Tach of Hygiene and the Assassin, obesity and size have been prominent components of Nothomb’s literature. In Life Form, she’s able to muster an appreciation for Mapple as long as he remains on the other end of their correspondence, invisible and out of sight; she can dispense sympathy and support with greater ease than if her were in front of her, confronting her with his size. This point is made clear when two thirds of the way through the novella she receives a photograph of Mapple in all his corpulence. In that instant, the pondering over his girth and what it means for his health and mental state is replaced by an overwhelming parade of visual notes:

It hit me right in the face: a naked, hairless thing, so enormous that it spilled over the edge. A blister in full expansion: you could sense the flesh constantly searching for new opportunities to spread and swell, to conquer new terrain. The fresh flab must have to cross continents of fatty tissue to blossom on the surface, before crusting over like bacon draped over a roast to become the support for even newer fat. Thus is the void conquered by obesity: to add weight, the body annexes the empty space.

Not terribly warm-hearted of her, but striking and sense-igniting all the same. This passage, for all its negativity, is the author once more stripping her skin for the reader, revealing her… not her hatred of fat, but her fear of it, her struggle for control projected outward. Before seeing Mapple, his fat is simply an idea, not yet a reality—a mirror into which she sees something still worth raising one’s hackles over.

As the narrative progresses and, following certain revelations, plans to meet are made, the correspondence as a hunger in and of its self is made clear. Nothomb discusses the trouble with correspondence—the public feeding off the artist, always begging, always asking for more of her mind, her time, and her ideas. What become more obvious over time are the direct parallels between Mapple’s at times bi-polar reaction to his own physique and Nothomb’s semi-transparent social anxiety, each of which has roots in the other. Both, when all is said and done, tread a delicate balance between acknowledging their own fears and psychological limitations and self-victimizing in order to better avoid life and the world outside their tiny, protective-yet-destructive bubbles. Life Form is a missive about devouring and being devoured in every sense of the word, and where control rests in such situations.

There’s a certain amount of curiosity and innocence to Nothomb’s writing and how she sees and interacts with the world—in a perfunctory and highly visual manner, but not at all outwardly combative or dismissive. By often placing herself—or, at the very least, a heightened, possibly slightly fictionalized version of herself—at the forefront of the stories she tells, Nothomb crafts an unusually strong relationship with the reader in which she largely avoids social criticism and points her knives instead at her own chest. Life Form, like all her novellas, is a clean glass of ice water embracing an absolute brevity of language to maximum effect. Whether the correspondence between the author and Mapple actually happened is irrelevant, and surprisingly enough I have no desire to look further into the matter. What is important in the case of this narrative is the author’s willingness and ability to, without reservation, sheer away any and all pretension she might have had in favour of an honest appraisal of both Mapple and herself. What is revealed by the narrative’s end is equal parts sad, unsettling, and touching.

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