Content Warning: Ableism
When I decided to read Not A Clue, I was hopeful – perhaps naïvely – that it would offer a new take on a frustrating and overdone premise. The story is set in a psychiatric hospital in Paris, where a doctor has been murdered and six patients are suspected of the crime. I have read too many stories that play into the false and stigmatizing belief that mentally ill people are more likely to commit violent crimes than others, and so I thought Not A Clue might have been willing to push against this tired trope and add new, astute dimensions to the discussion. Instead, from the very first chapter, I encountered the most violently ableist prose I have ever read. Consider one of the many ways the six suspects are described to themselves in chapter one:
You’re useless now, the dregs of carnage, grotesque gagged druids skirting the feast where you should preside as good citizens an overripe apple in your glottis, a bouquet of parsley earplugging your ducts. You are no longer fit for consumption but you are still cowardly tousled shriveled up bluish fear in your gut, unable to face the why that saves, the why of contamination, the why of error.
And, lest that single paragraph allow itself to be treated as hyperbole, the next page doubles down: “it’s too late to recycle you, use you for transplants, you’re nothing but refuse whose social matrix can no longer be reloaded …”As does the page after that: “Stop waving your softer pathologies at me like a bunch of screaming spotless flags. For you insanity is simply a consequence. I insist on the term and its adverb.” This chapter is written from the perspective of Dr. Black, the murdered man – it is understandable that he would be angry, but this goes beyond anger and into vicious cruelty, which is even worse to hear in the voice of a man who has apparently been working in the field of mental health and still carries the beliefs that mentally ill people deserve their illness and are less valuable than garbage.
The rest of the book continues in much the same vein. The first patient character we meet is Aline Maupin, and this is how her father speaks to her about her current hospitalization, uncontested by any sort of kindness:
You think it feels good to have your kid in a psych hospital, honestly it doesn’t. You’re not crazy, you have no reason to be here, period, new paragraph. There are no crazies in the Maupin family. It’s a good thing your grandparents aren’t with us anymore, I swear. It’s just that it’s not an easy situation, you know. One minute you’re on death’s doorstep, the next you’re a vegetable, they get us all confused with euthanasia and everything, and then finally Her Highness wakes up one fine day but doesn’t remember anything.
Maybe a different novel would have allowed Aline to respond in her own words at some point, to assert her own voice and mind and humanity against this casual dehumanization. But Not A Clue is guided through its chapters by an opinionated and unreliable “omniscient narratrix,” who decides that neither Aline nor the other patients can be trusted to speak for themselves. The narratrix says:
I record the content. But leave the form to me. It would be harmful to the narrative to reproduce her words. Aline’s tongue is damp, soft-boiled egg slimy. Because you see Aline is a real woman. Not a fictional character. Aline always expresses herself in the cowardly vernacular, smooth phrasing, sometimes a little rough, punctuated with healthy slang and trendy terms. As the omniscient narratrix, I’m duty bound to raise the level.
I would love to be able to read this as a simple meditation on how reality is often messier than fiction, but in the context of a mentally ill woman being robbed of this part of her agency, it reminded me too much of how disabled and mentally ill people are often not trusted to tell their own stories or lead their own advocacy, and other voices with more power are amplified instead.
Near the end of the book, a character named “Chloé Delaume” – sharing the author’s name and claiming to be her – joins the narrative. She spends a chapter corresponding with the omniscient narratrix, and is ultimately heavily implied to be one of the patients in the hospital. Having this “Chloé Delaume” character appear in the story challenged some of the perspectives I had been forming as I read. If these polemics Delaume spent the better part of 200 pages writing were in some part directed toward herself, or an avatar of herself, did that make them less awful in general? I’m not so sure. While I no longer believe the cruelty is the point of this book, I still found the writing cruel, and I believe it would be harmful to people I love – repeating, amplifying, and doubling down on the worst things they have ever been told about their own mental illnesses.
Delaume uses untraditional punctuation and text layout to convey a wide and nuanced range of tones; the entire novel is structured like a game of Clue, and some of her inventions are marvelous. For example, the idea of an omniscient narratrix who has her own chapters, acknowledges herself as an unreliable narrator, fights with the characters, and corresponds with the author is wonderful! (And, yes, Delaume’s omniscient narratrix would find it absolutely vulgar that I used an exclamation mark to punctuate that thought). In her translator’s note, Cornelio delves into Delaume’s efforts to write works that are “expanding the reader’s idea of what literature is, of making reading a participatory activity, of refusing to be cultural entertainment, of disrupting literature, and of trying to overthrow the ‘Banana Republic of Letters’ the author feels most contemporary, commercialized literature contributes to, with its pleasant and easily consumable and digestible stories.” With the structure of this book and the quality and nature of her prose, Delaume continues to draw the battle lines of her rebellion.
In terms of the translation, Cornelio takes a bold approach. Out the gate, in her translator’s note, she talks about the idea of clinamen, or “an unexpected deviation that is responsible for a change in the order of things,” as a concept she used to inform her reading and translation of the novel. She delves into Not A Clue’s intertextuality, and how she preserved some of these references as they were written while adding or altering a number for English readers, for a text she hopes will include “a few clinamens of [her] very own invention.” Anglophone references to Leonard Cohen, Walden, and the movie Overboard are peppered through her translation, replacing references to Charles Trenet, Paul Claudel, and Se souvenir de belles choses.
While this domestication stands as a coherent translation style, some of Cornelio’s other choices go further – perhaps too far. For example, in French, the title of this book is Certainement pas (which would usually translate to “certainly not”). Not A Clue is a cuter title, particularly for a book structured like a game of Clue, but it comes at a cost. In the last chapter, the character “Chloé” asks a doctor who has read this book “well, can I go home Tuesday?” The response, and the final line of the book: “My answer is in your title.” In this context, “not a clue” is a hugely different answer than “certainly not,” and Cornelio’s unnecessary decision to change the title and therefore the ending of the book seems a shame.
As a novel, Not A Clue has a complex structure and is wonderfully inventive with old and new literary devices alike, and Cornelio’s domestication of the textual references while retaining the unique, exuberant character of the prose makes for a fascinating English reading experience. However, due to the nature of the plot, readers may wish to proceed with caution.
Delaume, Chloé. Not a Clue. Translated by Dawn Cornelio. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.
Julia Peterson is a writer from Montreal, Quebec. She is currently working on a new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.