Strange Things Afoot in the Academic World: On Christelle Dabos’s Here, and Only Here

Some books with a high-concept hook at their core announce that hook up front. Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird makes its futuristic setting and an android’s longing for mortality clear from the outset; Sarah Pinsker’s We Are Satellites reveals the futuristic technology from which much of its conflict arises early on. Christelle Dabos’s Here, and Only Here (translated from the French by Hildegarde Searle) abounds with big ideas, but it’s not as readily apparent where they’re headed—which is part of this novel’s unsettling charm.

Dabos’s novel is narrated by a group of students, with each of them getting several chapters over the course of the three terms covered in the book. These characters are teenagers, and their concerns and frustrations will be familiar to nearly anyone who’s ever been an alienated high schooler. Consider this passage, from an early chapter narrated by Madeleine:

“Art. At elementary school, it was our favorite subject. Or rather, the subject we most liked to compare ourselves at. Now, Louise doesn’t compare herself with me anymore. Doesn’t need to anymore. She’s bored. She was already bored last year, and the year before that.”

Seems relatable, right? But gradually, things take a turn; by a third of the way through the book, a student named Iris realizes that, by virtue of her social standing, she has become literally invisible. (And, yes, this is also the concept at the center of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Out of Mind, Out of Sight.” Metaphors for teenage angst do have a way of recurring.) This is the biggest example of the uncanny in the book, but it’s not the only one.

The novel’s title comes from the name of the school that these students attend: Here, which is always capitalized in the narrative. This can lend some passages a kind of “Who’s On First” quality, as when Pierre describes a unique quality of one of his fellow students:

“It’s Théophile, the upside-down student, who made them. I haven’t seen Théophile, not yet—apparently, he hangs out on all the school’s ceilings. Don’t know if he really exists, but it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing I’ve seen Here.”

And then there’s a series of chapters headed “The Top-Secret Club” which, in lieu of a single narrator, follows a series of characters known only by numbers—echoes of The Prisoner—who seem to have a greater insight into both the weird happenings at the school and the nature of this novel’s reality.

More specifically, the Top-Secret Club is investigating a bizarre substance called “the schmoil,” which causes humans to become more irritable and aggressive. Or, as Number One explains:

“Do you now all remember why we gather every day? The discovery of the schmoil, and thereby of the irrefutable proof of the existence of the intramural distortion of the field of reality, has vested us with a crucial mission. We have the moral duty to look for additional proof.“

Here, and Only Here is a strange work, one where a vibe of subtle strangeness and slight alterations to the fabric of reality is paramount. In a recent interview, Dabos herself said, “for Here, and Only Here, I was strongly influenced by magic realism. I studied South American literature in Nice, and I found it fascinating how these two separate forms (realism and magic) could coexist so naturally, without one seeming more real than the other.”

Gradually, these seemingly unrelated phenomena begin converging—and, unexpectedly, Iris’s invisibility turns out to play a significant role in the ways in which they come together. Dabos’s novel is a peculiar work, one that combines a number of seemingly disparate elements into a surreal whole. There’s a grand tradition of Francophone weird fiction, where the characters must grapple with an underlying order to the world that’s beyond their understanding. Here, Dabos has blended that with a dash of dark academia; the result is elusive but ultimately rewarding.

Here, and Only Here is published by Europa Editions.

Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).

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