Two very entertaining — and short — reads for you today, both of them novellas. The first one is by a young French author named Benoit Duteurtre, and it has the delicious title of Customer Service. Right. Aren’t we all just waiting for someone to come along and skewer all those outrageous phone menus that lead you down some sinkhole in a parallel universe where you’ll never get any service? That’s what the book is about and since Benoit Duteurtre was a young protege of Samuel Beckett, you can guess that his sense of the absurd is fine-tuned, to say the least. The very title Customer Service has a kind of savage Orwellian cruelty, but don’t go looking for profound insights, depth of character or lyrical language. This is satire with a sure sense of the ridiculous — and it’s a very funny read. The story, told in the first person, concerns a young man whose parents give him a very high-tech cellphone that he can’t live without – until one day he loses it in a cab. Then he discovers that his parents had also bought him a plan with benefits that did not apply if the phone were lost. In other words, our poor friend would have to keep paying for this plan for a year even without the phone, while having to buy a new phone and a new plan. Got that? Has this happened to you? Read on, as the poor guy’s phone-menu hell begins. Recalling that he was a preferred customer, he fights his way through a Kafkaesque blur of telecommunications bureaucrats, becoming outraged and hysterical, only to find that the named Customer Service rep does not exist. I won’t tell you what happens after that, because the remainder of the story veers off into a wonderland of wierdness. I just wonder why there aren’t more satirists working this same rich lode of terminal idiocy. That’s Customer Service by Benoit Duteurtre, published in 2008 by Melville House in Brooklyn, New York. Go to www.mhpbooks.com.
Now another novella, this one by Canadian writer Gale Zoe Garnett, who’s also a poet and an actor. Her book Room Tone has been out for a while now, but I’ve just caught up with this affectionate insider’s look at the world of film. The story’s told through the eyes of Nica Lind, the child of a French new-wave film star and a Danish photographer. The title of the book refers to the practice of recording the sound of a room, in case it’s required as background if some film dialogue has to be re-recorded. It also points to the state of silence on the set while this is happening, a calm which joins everyone in a co-operative and meditative state of mind.
Told in the first person, the story is written in the intimate voice of innocence lost and wisdom found, as Nica, who makes her way as a serious film actress in Europe, is invited to work in Hollywood. There’s plenty of wit in the writing, as the tone changes from high-minded artistry to Hollywood-agent bombast and ridiculousness. How a frustrated actress negotiates the rocky shoals of money vs. art unfolds nicely in this slim book which is divided into old-fashioned chapter headings: ‘Nica Enters The Family Business,’ ‘Big Face, Small Voice,’ ‘All the Action.’ Each of these creates distance, and each hints that what follows ought to be read with a bit of ironic detachment and good humour. Over all, it works. The last scene with Nica riding the Helsinki ferry with her dad has a lovely tranquility which evokes the cinematic idea of room tone as a still moment that calms all fear and anxiety . “No past, no future. Only the early morning light,” she says. “Only the room tone.” I would have dropped that final sentence, that nudge in the ribs about the room tone. We could hear and feel it ourselves in the deft writing which preceded it. Over-all, it’s a nicely-written novella. That’s Room Tone by Gale Zoe Garnett, published in 2007 by Quattro Books in Toronto. Their website is http://www.quattrobooks.ca.