Book review: The Anomaly

The cover of Hervé le Tellier's THE ANOMALY, winner of the 2020 Prix Goncourt.

The Anomaly by Hervé le Tellier
My rating: four stars

Doubles have always freaked me out. Perfect example? The Black Lodge sequence from the end the second season of Twin Peaks: you know, Cooper is running around trying to avoid a maniacal version of himself, identical except for clouded eyes. The perfect image of something so mundane, something an individual sees every day – themselves! – except multiplied, with presumably ill intent.

There’s a long history of doppelgängers being evil, or at the very least a sign that everything is very fuckin’ far from okay – and their appearance is, understandably, a cause for concern.

(A special shoutout here to the Irish for using the term fetch to describe the same thing, which brings new depths to the demand that people stop trying to make fetch happen.)

Le Tellier’s The Anomaly takes the idea of the sudden appearance of a doppelgänger but adds a bit of a twist: what if there was a planeload of doubles?

Nostalgia is a villain. It suggests that life makes sense.

The story is simple, though there is a bit of handwaving about how we get to the whole plane-of-extra-bodies part. Essentially, an Air France flight passes through an heroically awful patch of weather and lands after receiving some damage. This is a fairly normal narrative occurrence – the terrible flight as a life-changing event is pretty common – except for the fact that the same aircraft, duplicated in every way, comes in to land a couple of months later, too.

Maybe life begins the moment we know we don’t have one.

Wormhole? Cosmic 3D-print job? Who’s to say? Certainly not the author, who keeps the actual mechanics of the dupe to himself. But that’s fine – the who and the what-if are more important than the how in this particular story. We’re shown several individuals – a closeted musician, a potentially cancerous pilot, a hitman with a normal home life amongst them – as well as the government and military personnel responsible for dealing with just such a circumstance. How do you integrate to a world where you already exist, unless you’ve died or offed yourself in the interim? How do you process such individuals in a way that’s not going to freak the populous the fuck out? And importantly, what the fuck does this all mean?

Religion is a carnivorous fish in the abyssal depths. It emits the feeblest of light and needs a vast darkness around it to attract its prey.

Le Tellier doesn’t give a particularly solid answer for any of this, instead letting the reader consider the ramifications of such an event. There’s religious fervour and violence, sure, but that’s hardly unusual – the author’s views on both religion and Trump are, shall we say, less than glowing – but the actions of the doubles in the face of their odd position are presented without judgment. Do you take the offer of witness protection? Kill that other you who must be an impostor? Team up with you double in some way? Try to have another go at things that’ve turned to shit in the meantime?

I guess it could be extrapolated that le Tellier sees us as existing in the end times, given the way doubles are seen as harbingers. But the book doesn’t insist on being read in such a lofty manner: it reads eminently well as a popcorn book, as (suitably) an airport read. It’s quick and easily digestible, and Adriana Hunter’s translation flies along breezily. There’s a French sensibility to the work – it’s certainly more thoughtful than most airport lit – but it’s a fun, albeit unsettling read.

But I still don’t really like the word ‘destiny.’ It’s just a target that people draw after the fact, in the place where the arrow landed.

The ending didn’t particularly work for me, but I guess there is a difficulty in attempting to end a story like this that is, by nature of its random event that changes the world but could happen again! underpinnings. But this isn’t enough to dissuade me from looking into some more of le Tellier’s work. (Or winners of the Prix Goncourt, come to that.)

Check it out. Or recommend it to your double.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.

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