Stories of alternative lives are on the increase. We regularly see films and novels suggesting how things could be different if a different path had been taken – a train missed, a decision muffed, a death that didn’t happen. Why the subject has such appeal is an interesting question – a pessimist might say that the path not taken, the triumph not achieved, are familiar to most people. Regret and disappointment are things we all have to live with.
It is also interesting that these stories often turn up in forms that once looked wildly experimental. That enchanting film, Groundhog Day, has a screenplay of insane repetition that might once have been the preserve of austere avant-gardistes. The same could be said of Kate Atkinson’s hit novel, Life After Life. So it’s perhaps not as surprising as it might be that a French novelist of advanced experimental tendencies has won the Prix Goncourt, and scored a million-copy bestseller, with a high-concept narrative of doubles, parallel simulated universes, and multiplying possible existences.
In Hervé le Tellier’s The Anomaly, a plane crossing the Atlantic one March hits a huge storm cloud, and is buffeted about with terrifying violence. It emerges, damaged, and lands. Three months pass, and it emerges once more from the cloud, asking permission to land of a baffled air traffic control tower. It is exactly the same plane; it contains exactly the same people; as far as they are concerned, they took off one March day and are astonished to discover, on landing, that it is now June.
The novel focuses on a small group of passengers, and what the appearance of another version of themselves means. In every case, both people are convinced that they are entitled to their property, their children, their partners, their jobs. It means different things to the writer, to the singer, to the hitman, to scientists and other professionals. Sometimes the June version is given another chance at life, an earlier warning of a terminal disease; sometimes they find, on emerging, that their other version actually died in the intervening period, and they have to take up the reins of obligations they never knew they had undertaken.
In the implications of the situation, Le Tellier gives us a teasing glimpse of his origins in the French loose grouping of experimental writers, Oulipo. Observers of the event come to the alarming conclusion that it may prove decisively that their reality has been artificially created. Someone, somewhere, is running this – perhaps to discover what the consequences would be, perhaps to understand where things could go wrong. They are living within a simulation of reality. Or, to put it another way, a novel. When the text disintegrates into illegibility on the last page, the simulation has been concluded.
It’s a good idea, and quite elegantly executed. From time to time Le Tellier produces a wizard wheeze – I very much enjoyed the June hitman tying up and killing the March version of himself. However, it remains, rather obstinately, a striking concept rather than a multiplying and engrossing narrative. Le Tellier could certainly have done more with the different paths the two versions follow – we stay with one version of each pair, for the most part. The possibilities of the situation aren’t really realised. For one thing, it would make the hitman legally untouchable – how to prove whether the June or the March version did the killing? Have marriages become ménages à trois? Would a gay character find themselves tempted by themselves, or would it cross some deep incest taboo? It certainly sets the reader’s practical speculative faculty off running, albeit in directions the author hasn’t considered.
The Anomaly is amusing, but lacks the ruthless machinery and demonic capacity for elaboration that Le Tellier’s master Georges Perec would certainly have brought to the table. Perec was brilliant at making the most unpromising scenarios gripping – the description of an apartment block’s furniture in his Life: A User’s Manual, for instance. The Anomaly takes a very promising scenario indeed. In the end, it’s reduced to the status of “quite interesting”.
The Anomaly is published by Michael Joseph at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop