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In Yasmina Reza’s Novel, a Dinner Party Descends Into Chaos — and Then Tragedy

BABYLON
By Yasmina Reza
202 pp. Seven Stories Press. $23.95

It could all go wrong in an instant. In Yasmina Reza’s unsettling new novel, Elisabeth, the narrator, looks back on an evening in a Paris suburb that began in the most ordinary way — a casual evening party for family, friends and neighbors — and ended in catastrophe. The nature of the disaster unfolds across a brisk 200 pages, but it is foreshadowed from the very beginning, when Elisabeth observes her neighbor, Jean-Lino, rigid in an uncomfortable chair, surrounded by the detritus of the festivities, “all the leavings of the party arranged in an optimistic moment. Who can determine the starting point of events?”

On the surface, Elisabeth leads a placid, unexceptional life. She works as a patent engineer at the Pasteur Institute in the city; what she actually does all day, however, remains a mystery. She is married to Pierre, a math professor. “I’m happy with my husband,” she says, but then undercuts that claim: “He loves me even when I look bad, which is not at all reassuring.” At 62, she worries about getting older; she buys anti-aging products recommended by Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett, though she disapproves of herself for doing so. She has what appears to be a casual friendship with Jean-Lino; she doesn’t much like his wife, Lydie.

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During the course of a soiree Elisabeth and Pierre decide to host in their apartment, Lydie questions whether the paté another guest has brought comes from free-range chickens, and Jean-Lino mocks her for her punctiliousness, clucking and flapping his arms like wings. It could be an argument any couple might have, one that would flare up and dissipate before morning. But in Reza’s work, characters have always been inclined to go too far, to act out the impulses most of us keep in check. And so a middle-class set-piece takes on the color of a tale by Georges Simenon.

Reza is the bard of bourgeois, neoliberal angst. She has been a successful playwright in her native France since the late 1980s; it was her 1994 play, “Art,” that brought her fame in the English-speaking world. In it a group of friends argue over the true value of a modern painting one of them has bought — and the resulting conversations highlight the neuroses of privileged lives with sharp hilarity. In “The God of Carnage” (2006, with a film by Roman Polanski released in 2011), two little boys have a fight and their parents attempt to settle the matter; what begins as a stilted meeting of self-satisfied adults swiftly descends into chaos.

[ Read our reviews of “Art” and “Gods of Carnage.” ]

Reza is fascinated by what almost always remains unsaid: What happens if we dare to speak our minds? “Babylon” is darker and more mysterious than the plays that have brought her the most renown; the flat affect of Elisabeth’s narration recalls that of Meursault, in Camus’s “The Stranger.” (As in that novel of alienation, this narrator’s mother has just died, though Elisabeth seems uncertain of precisely when.) She lives at one remove from her own life: The novel begins with her description of a photograph by Robert Frank; throughout the novel she returns to his 1958 book “The Americans,” full of “dead people, gas pumps, people alone in cowboy hats.” “The saddest book on earth,” she calls it. Jean-Lino seems to be, for Elisabeth, someone who recalls the sorrowful misfits seen through Frank’s lens; she is drawn to him as she is drawn to the photographs, yet she remains as distant from his tragedy as she does from what she sees in the pages of a book.

“People who think there’s some orderly system to life — they’re lucky,” Elisabeth reflects. Any reader who begins with such a belief will have it overturned by the end of Reza’s haunting little tale.

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