All The Gang’s Here: The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet

The author is dead. A specific author, that is. Specifically, the author who did the most to kill the author — the notion of the author as some sort of a textual god, whose diktat is law. More specifically still, that author is Roland Barthes. His 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ declared that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” and that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

“Author” with a capital ‘A,’ that is. Barthes wasn’t in the business of bumping off writers. Rather, he intended to strike a blow against a literary culture “tyrannically centred on the author” as an implacable source of authority. The Author must be knocked off his (for the Author is always going to be a He) pedestal and replaced with the reader, as an implacable source of authority. Geddit?

Barthes was killed on the morning of the 26th of March 1980, knocked down by a laundry truck. Laurent Binet’s novel, The 7th Function of Language imagines that the author’s death was no accident but an assassination; part of a carefully orchestrated conspiracy that implicates the upper echelons of French academe. Inspector Bayard, squat, proud Giscard voter and entirely uneasy with academia, is called to investigate Barthes’ death. On the way, he picks up a sidekick, the Holmes to his Watson, the rake-thin, timid semiotician Simon Herzog, to help him navigate the echoing corridors of the university.

Their investigations will take them from Paris to Bologna to Cornell, via steamy bathhouses where Foucault cavorts with gigolos, the office of the president, and a debating society where more than words are at stake. The whole gang’s here: the book’s dramatis personae reads like a who’s who of literary theory at its height: Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Kristeva, Sollers and Cixous, Derrida, Searle and Roman Jakobson. Oh, and don’t forget Umberto Eco, who pops up throughout the book as a sort of guide for the perplexed.

In fact, The 7th Function of Language owes rather a lot to Umberto Eco — if the book sounds somewhat like an Ecosian fantasia, that’s because it very probably is. There’s more than a hefty slug of Dan Brown in Binet’s work, but that might be because Brown is, in fact a character in one of Eco’s novels. As Eco once said, “The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.” A delicious quote, and one that finds echoes in The Seventh Function of Language. Wheels within wheels within wheels.

The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet

It would be easy to rhapsodise about Binet’s writing all night — the ludicrous erudition, the way that dry academic debates are weighted with the same import as a firefight, the puns (oh, the puns). Even the Deleuzian sex scene — especially the Deleuzian sex scene (“the two desiring machines collide in an atomic explosion, and become, finally, that body without organs”). But, stepping out of my own shoes and into those of Barthes’ impersonal reader, without history or biology (or, perhaps into those of a better critic), does the novel actually work? How might The 7th Function of Language read to someone without a literature degree or two, saturated in what’s become known as Theory-with-a-capital-’T’?

To return to that Umberto Eco quote about the hermetic secret, everything might be connected, but what does that matter if you don’t have the foggiest what the Rosicrucians are, or the Masons, or the Jesuits? A reader less clued in to all this is perhaps unlikely to get much joy from Binet’s conspiracy — which is the way all conspiracies work, after all. Pizzagate, to draw a particularly ridiculous example, only works if you’re aware of the DNC’s hacked emails, and John Podesta’s penchant for pizza, as well as the Alt-Right’s tendency to happen upon conspiracies around every corner, most of which implicate the targets of that day’s ire. On the other hand, 7th Function might well play better with a Francophone reading public than an Anglophone one — France still has what might be called public intellectuals, whereas we’re all tired of experts now.

Stepping back into my own habitus now (there’s no escaping Bourdieu; not now, not ever), this overly-educated, Theory-saturated curate-cretin-crritic, the sort of person who can laugh out loud at a good Derrida pun, finds a lot to love. Any book where Derrida is killed off in 1980, leaving him to write his 1993 book on hauntology from beyond the grave, tickles my fancy. Any book where Umberto Eco plays a starring role is a good’un, in my ever-so ‘umble opinion.

Pacy, ludicrously witty, and clever to a fault, The 7th Function of Language is a literary thriller in the most radical sense — a madcap, screwball, twisting, turning thrill-ride of a book with impeccable literary credentials. The Author is dead. Long live the Author.

Laurent Binet trans. Sam Taylor, The 7th Function of Language, Harvill Secker (London: 2017)

Harvill Secker kindly furnished me with a copy of The 7th Function of Language.

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