In a genre dominated by by-the-numbers sagas of suffering and redemption, Gregoire Bouillier’s is a refreshingly odd voice. The bulk of his memoir, The Mystery Guest takes place in the space of a single day – a day in which not much happens. And yet, with its restless intelligence, The Mystery Guest manages to encompass all the thematic preoccupations of its touchstone, Mrs. Dalloway: time, fate, and the meaning of life. And unlike Ms. Woolf, Bouillier keeps us laughing.
When we meet our protagonist, a failed writer and ex-boyfriend pushing middle age, the filmmaker Michel Leiris has just died. A wry depressive, Bouillier (it’s unclear how much of the book is fictionalized) is interrupted mid-eulogy by a call from his ex-girlfriend, whom he still loves.
“How appropriate flashed through my mind. And on the same day Michel Leiris died […] Of course that’s what had happened: she’d heard about Michel Leiris and somehow the fact of his disappearance had made her reappear.”
She invites the narrator to a birthday party for the conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who each year has a friend choose a “mystery guest.” This year, the mystery guest is to be…guess who? In the ensuing hundred pages, the narrator will fulfill his role as mystery guest, hoping for some closure with his ex-girlfriend. And of course, once at the party, he will behave like a complete ass – albeit an enlightening one.
Until near the end of the book, The Mystery Guest seems content to be a sort of Gallic Woody Allen routine. Bouillier’s prose, in a supple translation by Lorin Stein, turns every interaction between the narrator and his fellow guests into a comic meditation on the impossibility of communication… And then suddenly, in a stunning reversal, Bouillier sets off the depth charges he’s quietly been planting throughout the book. In the end, we discover that The Mystery Guest isn’t a symphony of missed connections after all, but a kind of hymn to possibility. And though we’ve paid nearly 10 cents a page for the privilege of reading this slim paperback, it leaves us moved, even as we shake our heads in disbelief.
“The significance of a dream,” Bouillier writes early on, “has less to do with its overt drama than with the details; a long time ago it struck me that the same was true of real life, of what passes among us for real life.” The Mystery Guest pursues this intuition until the boundaries between the imagined and the fizzle away, leaving the reader in a state of grateful intoxication.