A Look Back at the Cruelties of Childhood : CLASS TRIP by Emmanuel Carrere; Translated from French by Linda Coverdale; Metropolitan Books $19.95, 162 pages
Woodblock printing and writing a fictional character have this in common: They depend not only on pressing the sheet to the image or creating the character, respectively, but also on lifting the sheet from the press or relinquishing the character. When not done successfully, you get, in the first instance, a smudge; in the second, a manipulation instead of a story.
“Class Trip,” a novella by French author Emmanuel Carrere, is a manipulation that is unusually distasteful because of its subject: the destruction, psychological and otherwise, of a little boy.
Without the different forms of relinquishing available to an author--the child escapes the horror or prevails over it, or the child succumbs but something else prevails, such as pity along with the terror (the classic Aristotelian formula), or, in the case of outright horror stories, the pleasurable suspension of disbelief--it comes close to creating a life just to destroy it.
Carrere, author of “Mustache”--much wittier and better balanced in its spooky enigmas--imposes a skillful clamminess at the start of “Class Trip.” Little Nicolas, introverted and obsessive--his current mania is accumulating gas-station gift coupons--is to go with his class on a skiing trip. But his father, evidently unstable and vaguely scary, refuses to let him ride the school bus with the other children. Citing a recent bus crash, he insists on driving his son the entire 200 miles. Arriving at the lodge where the others have already settled in, Nicolas suffers the child’s torment of standing out.
Worse, his father drives off with his suitcase. Worse still, Nicolas, a bed-wetter, had packed a rubber sheet along with extra pajamas. Now he undergoes the humiliation of having the counselors, both of them extremely kind, ask for a volunteer to lend him a pair. Nobody speaks up--”He’ll pee in them,” one boy snickers--until Hodkann, the biggest boy and the faintly sinister leader of the class, offers a pair.
Nicolas promptly develops a crush, with homosexual undertones, on Hodkann. The older boy is an orphan; Nicolas fantasizes becoming his confidant and consoler. He also has a crush on Patrick, the senior counselor; after a sexy dream about him, he wanders out in the snow and takes refuge in his car. He develops a high fever; for the rest of the time at the camp, he is allowed to stay indoors, cosseted and spared the need of consorting with the other boys.
When a child is found murdered and mutilated in the vicinity, Nicolas’ fantasizing goes into overdrive. His father, a traveling salesman of artificial limbs, had told him a terrible story of a gang that kidnapped children and cut out their organs. Now he tells Hodkann that his father is working with the police to find the local killer. He hooks the older boy, tempting him with the idea of playing detectives.
Things begin to slip out of control; Nicolas’ story takes on a ghastly life of its own. What happens next and the story’s conclusion are not to be revealed here, but it is not hard for the reader to guess. The sickly cast of Nicolas’ fantasies, the unspoken terror that binds him in ritual, and his desperate longing for the protection of bigger and older male figures are clear indicators of a terrible abuse.
There is no intervention or countervailing energy. The counselors are kind and eventually, learning the truth, horrified. Carrere plays out Nicolas’ story impassively, drawing a moral silence around the boy’s desolate fate.
The author has written with such acute intuition of how a child can suffer that it is only gradually that we realize that he is writing without affect. Nicolas’ story is a setup. It is terror with neither pity nor the invigorating spark of the classic horror story, that mutually agreed upon compact between writer and reader. In literary terms--presumably Carrere is a perfectly nice man--it is the difference between two ways of outraging gravity: taking a child on a roller coaster, or dropping a child from one.
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