Imagining the Real


by Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Picador, 336 pp., $17.00 (paper)
Marc Fontanel/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Jacques Derrida (center) and Bernard-Henri Lévi at the Sorbonne, 1979


The idea that certain words in a certain order can alter the balance of political power is central to the French writer Laurent Binet’s most recent novel, The Seventh Function of Language. Its title refers to a document by that name whose instructions, when read and comprehended and internalized, grant its reader the power to persuade anyone of anything. For a politician whose work as a candidate is vested in the production of language that would convince voters of its speaker’s integrity—language that, history teaches, routinely describes a person who does not exist in life and will not serve in office—such a capacity would be worth killing to obtain.

Binet’s novel exploits this conceit through a murder plot that sets in motion a police procedural: a man crossing a Paris street is hit by a van and gravely wounded; a detective from the intelligence service of the French police is sent to investigate the seemingly unsuspicious circumstances, because the man had just come from lunch with a Socialist candidate for president who is trailing badly in the polls and not known for persuasive rhetoric; the detective swiftly turns up irresolvables; those loose threads, chased and tugged, unravel into discoveries. On the traffic victim’s person at the time of the accident-that-will-turn-out-to-have-been-no-accident was the worth-killing-for document. Those pages will disappear before he reaches the hospital; while convalescing, he will be successfully murdered on the second attempt.

The detective’s pursuit traces the purloined text’s origins to the world of postmodern critical theory and discovers there a secret fight circuit called the Logos Club, where the battles are debates, and people of some fame engage mano a mano before a crowd of cultural elites. The cost of losing is paid in blood and bone. The presidential election simmering behind these events will be decided in favor of the candidate who lunched with the murdered man and who indeed got his hands on “The Seventh Function of Language,” the pages of which readers never get to see, for if we did…

In outline, Binet’s novel might sound something by Dan Brown, with a secret society that runs the world and a secret something being chased that, were it to fall into the wrong hands, etc. Binet’s novel is, however, distinct from such a book in that it is actively aware—and makes the reader aware that it is aware—that it is in winking dialogue with a Dan Brownish book, one it does not admire. The novel’s central character, Simon Herzog, a graduate student not in symbology but in linguistics—drafted by the investigating Jacques Bayard, a by-the-numbers detective, to play Virgil to his Dante and explain this dark world of language arts—frequently broadcasts his awareness of his part in the narrative. (“I think I’m trapped in a novel,” Herzog says.…

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