Review: Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq

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Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq book cover
Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation (1996), Truismes in the original French, is Marie Darrieussecq’s infamous debut novel. A peculiar tale of metamorphosis, it is a rumination on the female body in the modern world and an unexpected political satire. Working as a perfume girl in Paris and living in a small flat with her partner, Honoré, little about the unnamed protagonist appears remarkable. That is, except for the fact that she is turning into a pig. Reporting that her skin grows ruddier by the day, and that her fatty flesh and is becoming “pneumatic,” she finds that men are increasingly attracted to her, and eager for a pound of her flesh. It transpires that the perfume counter where she works is little more than a boutique prostitution business, but the naïve narrator sees no real problem in this despite earning a pittance; in fact, she is delighted to find herself the most popular attraction in the store. But as her metamorphosis becomes more extreme it takes its toll on her body and she finds herself with unusual wants, from more forward sexual desires to a changing diet that is more likely to contain flowers than ham sandwiches. These things separate her from other humans, and as her base instincts take over, she struggles to retain a sense of her own humanity. It is all to little avail, however, and she finds her life collapsing around her. Through politicians (one of whom bears more than a passing resemblance to Jean-Marie Le Pen) and maintenance men, she crashes from one hopeless venture to the next. That is, until she meets a werewolf lover who sees both her humanity and her animalistic nature and falls for both.

As in Candide, here is a naïve abroad, caught up in an impossibly mad world where sanity is very much a fluid concept. Clearly, the central metaphor – the literal metamorphosing into porcine form of a young women to represent the way in which the female body is viewed by men – is central to the story. It is a piece of Kafkaesque surrealism that carries with it a more immediate metaphor – the commodification of her body as the embodiment of the market economy in practice – than the metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa, and yet Darrieussecq’s effort is not spent with this. What appears a rather straight-forward jibe at the treatment of women becomes an unexpected political satire as the unnamed protagonist falls into a liaison with a high-flying politician. Indeed, her incurious observations on the world guide the reader through numerous targets of the novel: soulless capitalism, mindless liberalism, the toxic beauty industry, corrupt and corrupting politics, the stupefying media, and the female body in the context of all these pressures. It is a lot to cram into a slight, absurdist novel.

The zoomorphism is not restricted to the narrator, with other characters described using animal metaphors or even, the case of her werewolf lover, transforming literally as she does. This duality, between monstrosity and beauty, is a familiar theme in fiction, and here the Apollonian-Dionysian dynamic is certainly played out within the narrator, her porcine form representing the wild aspect of her nature, and the human one her socialised side. This is an important aspect of the metaphor. In her wild form her sexual appetite is disdained by those that seek to sexualise her and she is not able to speak and barely able to write: she requires the niceties of civility to be heard by society. The narrator reads to bring her back to her more ‘civilised’ form and writes to record her story and leave a sense of permanence. There is a point here about the way in which language is used to create the Human (indeed, there are numerous ideas about language woven into the story, not the mention the fact that the metamorphosis itself could be read as a metaphor for the birthing of Darrieussecq as an author). Clearly, the condition of the unnamed protagonist – in being nameless – indicates both her lack of identity and her position as a representative for the wider female experience. To an extent, the novel represents a search for identity, but as its protagonist remains unnamed by its close and unable to articulate her own wants, it is hard to see the writing of her story as liberating or identity forming. Indeed, in a novel of transformation the most personal transformation – of moving from a sense of anonymity to a sense of self – is never achieved.

This sense of identity in an indifferent world touches on some large philosophic questions and there are echoes of existential literature throughout the text as well as ideas about disgust as a philosophic concept. In a novel full of duplicity, it is hardly difficult to evoke Sartre’s Bad Faith, and indeed the narrator shares some traits with Nausea’s Roquentin not least the fact that, if for different reasons, she feels most at home in public parks. The most referenced author, however, is Knut Hamsun – an existentialist before one could be labelled as such – and as Darrieussecq’s narrator stumbles about Paris sicking up and generally finding herself in various states of physical dilapidation, one cannot help but be reminded of Hamsun’s unnamed narrator in Hunger.

There is something of the philosophic novel in the style too. Darrieussecq writes in plain, unadorned language. Written in one, long paragraph, the sensual prose rolls over one, not voluptuous like Nabokov’s but sharp and knowing (despite the narrator being anything but), and far less overt than might be supposed. Indeed, little described in the book could be called graphically pornographic.

As the plot encompasses so many important issues that define life for women (weight gain/loss, pregnancy, and relationships with friends, lovers, strangers, employers, and the state), it would be easy to read Pig Tales as a novel simply about the experience of being a woman in a society that both desires and disdains the female form. But it is more than that. An absurdist nightmare in which to all sides the protagonist is surrounded by apathy and indifference, Pig Tales speaks to something more widely felt about the human experience and the pressure of living in a society that cares little for those who have nothing to offer it. Dark and affecting satire, the author’s finest trick is in setting the novella in a dystopic future, which baits the reader into condemnation and recrimination only to find that the fictional world they lament is hardly removed from their own. A strange, affecting tale.

A sharp and, at times, quite abrasive read - and I mean that in a good way. It is both subtle and not at all subtle, but that may not make sense until you've read it.


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