All My Friends

By Marie Ndiaye


Translated by Jordan Stump
Two Lines Press
May 2013

Reviewed by Angela Woodward


She then said, too quickly, trying to conceal her unease, her excitement:

"I don't see anything."

"You don't see anything?"

"Nothing at all," she said, trembling a little.

"You ought to see something."

These opening lines of "The Death of Claude Francois," one of the five stories in Marie NDiaye's All My Friends, lower us into the disquieting murk that constitutes NDiaye's worldview. Her orphaned, abandoned, humiliated beings suffer both blindness and uncanny vision. Here, a doctor peering at the back of an old friend can't see a wound, nor can she see that this is indeed her old friend. It may be only someone with the same name as her friend, the doctor can't be sure. A teacher screams at a former pupil, now his housemaid, that they knew each other fifteen years earlier: he lent her eight books, which she never returned. No, that wasn't me, the maid says. A boy huddles in the corner of his neighbor's dining room, watching the legs of the family as they eat at the table. They treat him as virtually invisible, and he may as well be so. NDiaye sculpts these omissions of recognition with soft putty, so that it's never settled whether these people are lying to each other—the maid was indeed once the teacher's student but won't admit it—or that the blinded characters are mentally unstable or simply mistaken, or that the supernatural is pulling its veils. NDiaye's  hazy and befuddled men and women also have moments of acute perception. An aging minor film star glances up at her hotel window to find a precise younger version of herself staring down at her. The younger woman may or may not be a spirit or hallucination, but whatever she is, she mocks the older woman's loafers. Loafers! Minor film stars should not wear ugly brown flat shoes! Later, when this woman's daughter appears, her hair shorn and dyed orange, the reader can only hang in a zone of skepticism. It couldn't possibly be her real daughter. Yet the girl's nonchalant refusal to greet her mother captures unerringly the emotional isolation of the actress, and the possibly universal snottiness of teenage daughters.

NDiaye's stories leave out much more than they reveal, pushing this ratio towards the limit to which this can be done, all in quiet, rational prose. So much is unknown and unaccountable that the wisps that are left have a hallucinated clarity, full of feeling yet almost shorn of meaning. While all five of the stories that make up this slim book are masterful, "The Boys" whips the reader most mercilessly. A teenager, Rene, hangs out at his neighbor's because no one notices him at home (though the neighbors don't notice him either). One of the many strangers who visit Rene's mother after dark suddenly declares himself the boy's father. Of course he may not be Rene's father, we'll never know. When the neighbor family sells their one good-looking son to a pimp or slave trader, Rene longs to be sold also. Rene scrutinizes himself and realizes he has nothing anyone would buy:

It was true, he had [youth], all that, but was youth without beauty, without money, without talent, emaciated youth in a tin-roofed hut hemmed in almost to the threshold by endless fields of corn that did not belong to Rene's mother, was youth unnoticed by all not the equivalent of the grimmest and loneliest old age?

Rene's inward look at his misery and disgrace sears. While its emotional core is evident, his self-appraisal is nonetheless unadorned with sentimentality, scarcely with compassion. When the boy gets what he wished for, the face or identity of the person in the car with him is undisclosed, kept behind a screen by the willful author, and before we know it, the boy too has passed the perimeter of the story and it's over.

NDiaye populates All My Friends with characters in extremes of desperate longing or metallic guardedness, these two poles attracting each other. They trudge along roads or sit in buses. It is for other people to have nice clothes, elegant furniture, and carefree laughter. Even the doctor and the teacher are unsure of their bourgeois comfort, and they certainly lack what we might think of as bourgeois security. NDiaye was raised in France by her white French mother, and did not meet her Senegalese father until she was fifteen.  When her novel Three Strong Women won the Prix Goncourt, France's highest literary award, in 2009, much was made of her being the first black woman so honored. Her writing cannot be categorized as ethnic or immigrant literature, though class, status and wealth may be the concerns that spread their anxious fog over many of her characters. Other characters have a concern with skin, but it's gone beyond or through or around skin as marker of race. The teacher in the title story compares a friend's beautifully upholstered pale green leather chair to the skin of the maid/pupil. In the same story the maid leans over a banister and drops something, which the teacher describes as a youthful human skin falling over his feet. Skin is both political, social, metaphorical, and inner, psychological, arcane. NDiaye belongs to the French tradition of Nouveau Roman, and this seems to be a bit mystifying to those who expect a certain something from her African name. Asked in an interview why she thought she won the Prix Goncourt, she replied that it was probably because of the writing, and because the stories are touching. Faced with this condescending question—did she not win the prize because her book was the best?—she answers with deadpan irony; her stories can hardly be described as touching.

All My Friends reads like one anxiety dream after another, when you've parked the car in the wrong place, your sister hates you, you've lost all your money, and the reasons for these disgraces are opaque, buried, inconclusive, or written in a script you can't make out. NDiaye creates a portable unease that slips from one story to the next, never losing its force, or its accusatory tone—You don't see anything? You ought to see something. To be so addressed does not touch the reader so much as sting or slap. And it opens our eyes, at least for that little bit, something flits across the pane of our consciousness, a boy, a car, a shoe. You ought to see something. You ought to.