Reviewed by Leah Dieterich
The first thing you do when you read Sphinx is drop it face down in a puddle.
The puddle is poolside at a faux-Moroccan villa in the desert and is probably runoff from someone’s bathing suit crotch. Luckily, you grab it quickly enough that nothing is ruined. It is nearly 110 degrees Fahrenheit and anything wet, dries.
You and your lover retreat to your room, deciding it is too hot for reading. The air conditioning is already running and you pull down the shades and lay on your stomach on the rug, propped up on your elbows (in what yogis call the ‘sphinx pose’) to begin reading.
The friend who recommended the book warned against reading the introduction, saying it would make you look too closely for the author’s trick. You skim it anyway, because you already know the trick.You’d seen some online reviews detailing the literary (and translational) acrobatics involved in never revealing the genders or names of the narrator and the narrator’s lover. Plus, you read the back cover of the book which calls it an erotic, genderless love story and a groundbreaking narrative accomplishment.
The intro gives you a brief refresher on the Oulipo, (short for ouvoir de la littérature potentielle or workshop for potential literature) a Parisian collective founded in 1960, with the mission of writing books under some kind of literary constraint. Anne Garréta became a member in 2000, fourteen years after publishing Sphinx at 23.
Having inspected the front cover for water damage, you have her name freshly in your head and for the first pages you read the ‘I’ of the narrator as Anne Garréta, or an approximation of her. But before you can scold yourself for this oversimplification, of confusing narrator for author, your image has already shifted. The narrator talks about going to a nightclub with a renegade priest from the university, and now you imagine the narrator to be male, though you’re not sure why.
The club is called the Apocryphe and it later becomes the narrator’s place of employment. The name feels important so you look up the word and find the adjective apocryphal: of doubtful authenticity, though widely accepted as true. The narrator becomes the resident DJ of the Apocryphe, and is a natural, despite having no prior experience with the art of spinning records.
A good DJ is one who, rather than simply responding to repetitive wishes that are consciously formulaic and elementary (such and such a record, such and such a song), subconsciously manages to fulfill an unknown desire by creating a unity out of something superior to adding up so many records, so many requests. To appease is not the same as to fulfill.
You assume this applies to more than just DJing.
In addition to this new profession, the narrator is figuring out how to love A***, a dancer at a club called The Eden. This relationship seems doomed either to never begin or to end badly, and for a good portion of the book you don’t know which it will be. You find it nearly impossible to picture A*** despite the details given. Black skin. Shaved head. Feathers. Hips “narrow and broad at the same time.” “Legs that are slim and long.” Your only physical clues about the narrator come as counterpoints to A***’s attributes. They seem opposite in every way.
As their love story unfolds, you find yourself still hanging on the gender markers. The makeup A*** meticulously applies. The way the narrator’s ear is nicked while getting a haircut, meaning the cut must be quite short. But then you remember that none of these markers can tell you much. As clues, they are dead ends.
This is only frustrating until you stop treating the book as a mystery. Untethered from the genre you’ve unconsciously assigned it, the story expands. Love, like the universe has a way of doing that. And yet you sense a helplessness in the narrator to try, like you were, to pin something down.
“I constantly felt as though this body was lingering just out of reach, even when I was holding it in my arms.”
You wish you could read the narrator a passage from A Lover’s Discourse in which Barthes relates one of Winnicott’s ideas: “Fear of a breakdown, is the fear of a breakdown that has already occurred.” Barthes likens this primitive agony to the lover’s anxiety, and offers this as comfort: “Don’t be anxious…you’ve already lost him/her.”
You finish reading Sphinx later that evening, in the hotel room in the desert and are filled with emotions you cannot name. Your lover is absorbed in a book about poetry so you Google-image Anne Garréta. She wears the same pair of dark aviator sunglasses in almost every photo, making it difficult to get a sense of her face. And yet, your first reaction is that of recognition.
You call your lover to bed and bring Sphinx with you. You think of its dedication page, which reads: To the third.
Once you’re back in Los Angeles, you place it between two unread books sent from the exotics of Amazon—one by James Baldwin and another by Enrique Vila-Matas—in hopes they can smooth its rippling front cover.
You attend an art opening and see someone who looks a bit like you. He’s drinking chardonnay, legs crossed tightly, head to toe in denim, with boots freshly shined, and you imagine your lover might find him attractive. Later you see him dancing in a crowd of people, wearing the same dark aviator sunglasses Anne Garréta wears on Google. Is it really that your lover would be attracted to him? Or is it you? Or is it Sphinx operating from within? The book has taken up residence behind your diaphragm, in that corporeal butterfly sanctuary where you experience both nervousness and excitement.
A week later, while your lover is out to dinner with some people who aren’t you, you decide to write a review of Sphinx. You go for a nighttime walk, like the narrator often did. Except in Los Angeles, not Paris. Today, not in the 1980s.
Even in the absence of the sun, it is still hot and strangely humid. You walk along Sunset Blvd and duck into Yummy.com which is air conditioned, and on a whim buy two bananas, thinking how strange it is to walk into a website.
You pass the seedy Olive Motel and it reminds you of how much violence there is in Sphinx that you can’t describe for fear of giving away the plot. You decide that instead, you’ll relate an anecdote a friend told you, about how the police found a dead body all the way across town wrapped in a bedspread from the Olive Motel.
You turn up the hill. On the sidewalk, a cat runs in front of you looking back every now and then to see if you are still in pursuit. “I’m not following you,” you say out loud to the cat. “I’m just walking.” Your clothes are sticky and you pull your pants up above the knees. You think of the puddle in the desert and realize there is a puddle at the end of Sphinx. An icy puddle that looks like a pane of ancient glass.
At the top of the hill, you notice music in the distance, an ice cream truck, but it quickly fades down as the sound of a helicopter fades up as if controlled by a DJ.
How can you do justice to the way this book has made you feel? Maybe it’s best to borrow the narrator’s description of an encounter with A***: “I don’t know how to recount precisely what happened, or how to describe or even attest to what I did, what was done to me….it’s impossible to recapture the feeling of abandon through words.”
But sometimes words are enough, even when there aren’t enough of them. Toward the end of the book, the narrator transcribes a conversation with a dying woman. “I’ve been waiting for so long for a voice like yours,” the dying woman says, “that could [a word I didn’t understand] me.”
You sympathize with this truncated sentence. Of not understanding something. But knowing it.
Anne Garréta, Sphinx, Translated by Emma Ramadan. (Deep Vellum, 2015). Originally Published by Grasset (France, 1986)