—Review by Charlie Griggs—
It’s deceiving. Harold Jaffe‘s Paris 60, that is. The text, reprinted by the Journal of Experimental Fiction (JEF) in February 2013, offers on the book’s back-cover a brief backstory detailing how each of the sixty entries contained therein was written by the author during his Spring ’08 visit to the City of Lights – well, one is bound to make associations. Paris evokes spirited jaunts through distinctly flavored arrondissements, foreign coeds and corresponding (read: inevitable) love affairs, partaking in too much French wine, baguettes, the infectious tourism. And it’s these associations, largely propagated by the undiscerning media, which so deceive the reader upon entering Paris 60. Because, see, this is Jaffe’s Paris – a global mishmash, hodgepodge, clusterfuck of identities and histories with stories, and so very few of these stories corresponding to the author himself because, despite hints of travel fiction commingling with the other genres at work here, this isn’t a story about a man, but a story about a city, and it just so happens that this city is filtered through the lens of a man whose own story is secondary – nay, tertiary – to the global importance surrounding him. But, of course, to understand all of this, one must first understand the lens, and so Harold Jaffe is due an introduction:
Author, scholar, flaneur – pick your favorite, the three bleed together in his work seamlessly, tastefully. And, aside from the Fulbrights and grants and prizes, Jaffe’s work is known for its unique hybridization of genres: the merging of fiction with non- into the aptly titled docu-fiction, a categorization with which Paris 60 aligns itself.
Disregarding all of the aforementioned professional success, Jaffe is an American who identifies himself with the marginalized of his own society and, when immersed within nationalist-minded France, finds himself making the same identifications within that society. Early in the book, Jaffe, en route to an academic engagement, embraces the abject by associating himself with the French vagrants, writing, “I am that clochard sleeping on his side in the rain on the grand Parisian boulevard.” However demonstrative of his empathy and sense of self, this section fails to account for his more intentional, however playful it may be, removal from certain associations. In the entry titled “Interpol,” Jaffe finds himself accosted by a young man who, “thrusts a squalid sex-show card in [his] hand and tries to steer [him] into the run-down cabaret.” Rather than simply decline, the author says he works for interpol, flashing pictures of Palance and Brando (“Now, both dead, they are fugitives holing up someplace in Paris.”), asking the young man if he’s seen either. Disengaging himself from this singular facet of society, the reader is afforded perhaps the most telling insight, given the context, of Paris 60‘s lens when Jaffe states, “I smell the liquor on his breath and feel bad that I am dicking a small-time rip-off mec.”
So what the reader experiences when becoming engaged with Paris 60 is less of a lateral and more of a vertical immersion. Whereas others might sidle in from the ground-level, acclimating bit by bit, as sneakily as possible, Jaffe drops himself and his reader into the cultural fray, familiar with Paris from former visits, but taking measures to show that even this is not satisfactory. In a country where the pieds-noirs and countless others have existed on the cultural cusp for so long, Jaffe glimpses his reader an encounter with a waiter whom he remembers from a visit two years prior. Upon recognizing one another and exchanging pleasantries, the waiter corrects Jaffe’s French. “Even the pissed-on ex-colonized are language pedants in Paris,” the author explains, thus forcing himself and the reader away from cultural acclimation at the book’s very beginning.
It’s a technique which works in terms of acclimating one with the text, however. While the reader remains a literal outsider – seated on his/her sectional sofa, reading by lamplight with coffee close at hand – Jaffe as narrator assures his audience that this isn’t a Paris with which one must feel suddenly intimate. Evoking physical discomfort at the end of his first entry (“Foul weather persists, raw wind, rain, hail.”), the second entry begins with “La haine = hate” further distancing the reader from their setting. But, interestingly, what the setting lacks in warm-welcomes, Jaffe’s writing makes up for by using brief chapters, adroit line breaks, and lyricism to seduce the reader early. Engagement with the text on an aesthetic level is unavoidable. Take, for instance, Jaffe’s observations on the Iraq war’s sudden place in pop culture: “Every opportunist insisting I told you so. / Vietnam war redux. / Worse. / Razed Mesopotamia. / Global Muslim-bashing. / Unlearned lessons, lied-about history.” And, in the midst of this rapidly paced linguistic precision, Jaffe is already delving into the core of his subject matter, soon to incorporate snapshots of slighted North Africans, America’s fetishism with physical fitness, the juxtaposition of French and American work weeks.
It isn’t until midway through the text, in an entry titled “Saint Bataille,” that the reader is presented an option, a realm to inhabit, should they choose. In a brothel dungeon, a narrative develops between B and the dominatrix God – the former bumping cocaine and submitting to bindings, derision, enforced abjection. It’s here, buried in the center of the text, that the reader is shown, not the first, but certainly the most damning departure from that City of Lights moniker. In fact, the scene itself is dimly lit in that Jaffe chooses to convey most of the degradation through unsituated dialogue as opposed to setting details: “Admire. / Merde, don’t touch. / Now touch. / Your tongue . . . thrust. / Lick.” Lewd but lurid, further exemplifying Jaffe’s poeticism, the scene presents just one such facet of the marginalized society which France, up until to this point, has appeared so ready to condemn, to ignore.
“Homeless” functions as one such example of condemnation in which the reader taxis with the author “to the Gare d’Austerlitz for a professional engagement.” Almost off-hand he mentions the title of his presentation, “McLuhan’s utopian concept of the ‘Global Village,’” before spying two homeless, one with a dog, curled on the side of the street soaked through by the rain. It’s here that the author-outsider empathizes, identifying with the French vagrants, thus shedding light not just on his own disposition, but on the cultural disposition of the city as well.
Marginalization, though central, does not occupy the whole of the text, however. What Jaffe does masterfully – taking full advantage of the structural leeway his sixty entries grant – is to interweave the abject with its opposite, what one might term “official culture.” This loose, though pointed, designation encapsulating that broad societal mindset which thrives on pop culture and technology, which allows the homeless to sleep on the street in the rain, which overlooks the brothel dungeons with their debased inhabitants. Meaning that Paris 60‘s presentation of official culture is not without commentary.
“Question: Are there vegetarians in France? / Possibly Brigitte Bardot. / She wears leather but not fur. / She is an avid animal rights activist. / She detests France’s previously colonized Muslims living in France.” Bringing Bardot’s hypocrisy into focus, Jaffe embraces the big names. Even the colloquially disarmed Sarko whose humorous portrayal amounts to something equally sinister and farcical. These public figures who deserve to be acknowledged more for their (in)humanity and less for their celebrity are handled without concession.
Which is not to say that pop/political culture alone is held accountable. Consider Jaffe’s imperative: “When I count to three we all throw all the mobiles into the Seine.” Great attention is paid to the manner in which technology has usurped social interaction. On the métro, in the entry “Desire,” Jaffe observes the other riders’ predisposition to gawk at their phones rather than make even the slightest connection with one another. Crammed together on public transportation, even a moment of eye contact seems impossible. Official culture giving way to techno-dependence and, subsequently, world-weariness when said world is left unfiltered by the mobile device with its social media crutch.
Pointing out Jaffe’s yearning for the eschewal of the techno-medium now substituting itself for human connection is to point out only a fraction of what lies at Paris 60‘s core. Similar to the realm illustrated by “Saint Bataille” at the book’s center is that contained in the text’s final entry “Anti-Saint Artaud,” an epistolary exchange between writer/performer Antonin Artaud and publisher Jacques Rivière, of the Nouvelle Revue Française, in which the latter wishes a truncated publishing of the former’s written correspondence on account of “humanistic” intentions. Another choice presents itself to the reader, rather another invitation, this time to confront the real. Artaud declines the publisher’s offer to print their exchange with fictionalized names and altered content. Censorship denied, the publisher does not respond to Artaud who writes again, ending the text, both his own correspondence as well as Paris 60, with a sardonic gift song. Censorship, the denial of reality, Artaud (and by proxy Jaffe) is saying, this is what detracts, distracts, destroys. Such little humanity remains outside of the brothel dungeons and keen written word.
And so Paris 60 concludes, a text which grapples with the global direction, asks whether or not there’s enough left of society outside of the virtual realm to still inhabit the physical. It’s deceiving at times. One might expect a work called Paris 60 to focus strictly on the eponymous city, but Jaffe stretches beyond the insular to his home country and, further yet, to touch even the global mindset. Paris 60 forces reality on its reader, but it does so with an imprint, a feeling, an aesthetic, and once Artaud’s song ends, the impression remains that this “Parisian story” is greater than simply that.
CLICK HERE to order PARIS 60
[Charlie Griggs is an assistant editor for the literary journal Fiction International.]