Herve le Tellier
Other Books, 2013
Writing about love inadvertently teeters on the edge of cliché. Typically, the subject is treated as a plot-point, a simple development for the many romance movies that spring up every summer. Herve Le Tellier’s Electrico W (Other Books 2013) is a resounding rebuke to this formula. In most other circumstances, a sad sack journalist running away from a failed relationship would lead to finding love in a new locale. Not so in Herve Le Tellier’s newest book, where relationships do not run smoothly, and people’s emotions are more complex than one-word classifications. Both in its clever meditation on love and even the act of writing about love, Electrico W is a knotty wonder, both intricate in its form and serious in its emotional heft.
Taking place in seven days in Lisbon (each chapter corresponding to a different day), the plot is minimal to say the least. Vincent, the narrator, is a reporter working the Lisbon beat for a French newspaper and is assigned to collaborate with a photographer, Antonio, on the arrest of a recently captured serial killer. The assignment takes the back burner to Vincent and Antonio’s problematic romances and exploration of the city, and the book is made up mostly of a series of conversations and reflections.
It’s a simple concept and the beginning takes off slowly. However, the book comes into focus (in perhaps its loveliest segment) when Antonio describes his first childhood love. It is the shadow of this first love, known only by her nickname Duck, which sets a nostalgic, lovelorn tone that persists throughout the rest of the novel. The segment, beginning with Antonio as a child running to catch the Lisbon tram (named Electrico W), is so charming, and the intensity of their young love so palpable, that its inevitably sour conclusion is wrenching. Vincent, curiosity piqued by Antonio’s past, searches for Duck in Lisbon, while still reconciling with his own history of failed romances. It becomes a kind of personal detective story, where Vincent takes advantage of those around him in an attempt to weasel his way to the truth.
Vincent’s manipulation, while occasionally repulsive, gives the book momentum. As Vincent uncovers more about Duck, the pace picks up and climaxes in a surprising and perfectly understated way. Even though Vincent’s snooping can be uncomfortable, he manages to be a sympathetic character. Jaded from unreciprocated love, his fixation on Antonio’s idyllic relationship with Duck is understandable. Even more, as the book progresses, Vincent reveals more about his dysfunctional family, making him a difficult, but compelling mix of relatable and conniving. Especially in the book’s final chapters, when his tragic history is revealed, the reader roots desperately for Vincent despite his reprehensible actions.
Yet the book is more than just a character exploration. Vincent himself is attempting to write a novel on the fatal duel of the math prodigy Evariste Galois, killed by a man obsessed with Galois’ lover. In another anecdotal story, Vincent recounts his favorite movie in which a boy falls in love with his female companion travelling across France, but ends with a melancholy parting of ways. These reverberations add layers of detail to the apparently straightforward plot. And Vincent’s reporting on the bizarre Lisbon serial killer is intriguing both in its own mysteries (did he do it?) and its connection to the greater story (is there any?). These are the types of giddy, page-scouring questions that arise when reading this book. And while the plot occasionally stumbles into soap-opera territory, as when Antonio’s Lisbon lover encounters his girlfriend visiting from Paris, the layers of meaning make the book into a strangely satisfying puzzle.
Tellier’s masterfully pared-back writing lets the intricacies of his book come forth. It is reserved and often invisible, only drawing attention to itself in snapshots of elegance: “She was describing shapes in the emerald water, ephemeral figures, no two the same, manipulating the bamboo precisely, unhesitatingly. It was as if she was forming letters, writing words long forgotten by the waters but carried to us silently on the shimmering wavelets.” Primarily, he brings his characters to the forefront, and this is what makes Electrico W so riveting. Its writing is disarmingly simple, but its interconnected details and questions require an intense reading.
In the story’s epilogue, which flashes forward several years from Vincent and Antonio’s journey in Lisbon, it is not happily ever after. But it is genuine, and genuinely sad, in its portrayal of relationships decaying with time. Electrico W is a true love story, dealing directly with the uncomfortable aspects of desire. But just as Tellier’s beautiful language occasionally shines through, there are moments, such as Vincent’s meet cute with the comically candid Manuel, that are totally joyous. Even though this friendship doesn’t end as expected, just like Electrico W as a whole, it’s a wonderful journey.