“Murder” by Danielle Collobert is a grim little sequence of prose pieces, most only a page or two long. Freshly translated from the French by mononymous writer Nathanael, and published by Prospect Heights-based Litmus Press, its components vary in style. Some are anecdotes, some are more like confessions or diary entries, and some are like cruel, stunted fables.
This is a book brimming with bad news. There are no real characters, and no over-arching plot or contextual framework gathers the book’s events. The major rewards of reading “Murder” are Collobert’s fine prose and its cumulatively spooky vibe.
Little else can be said definitively — the text is shrouded in morbid fog. The narrative voice, when it is not telling of some third party’s travails, shifts between “I” and “we” like a sorrowful spirit drifting among hosts.
Each piece moves swiftly, even nimbly. The more shocking ones are like staring out the subway window and seeing some atrocity flash past — almost before you can register what you have glimpsed, the book has whisked you elsewhere.
A central theme is loss of agency, the experience of losing control over one’s surroundings or worse, one’s interior world. People don’t just fall apart, they are taken apart. Often the narrators are victimized, inexplicably and sometimes obscurely, but even when “I” or “we” kill someone else, the act seems causeless and preordained, done in the grip of compulsion.
The writing is clear yet carefully mannered, flexibly fragmentary in a way that allows Collobert a wide range of subtle effects. Beneath an almost translucently thin layer of affectlessness lies a roiling hell of pain. This is not the histrionic unhappiness of an adolescent, but the pain of mature loss, and it commands attention. Nothing in “Murder” feels lazy or self-dramatizing. The book goes about its sinister business with confidence, and is dispiriting without ever being boring.
While “Murder” provides no proper names for people or places, a geography emerges — trains, roads, beaches and cafes — inhabited by faceless players. “We came this far to die,” Collobert writes. It is a gloomy truth that could be stated fairly in any situation, but in “Murder,” this musing comes amid a scenario in which hundreds of strangers, having packed tightly into a circular arena, begin spontaneously and unanimously crushing themselves into one another, forcefully and fatally conglomerating into an intermingled hay-bale of human flesh.
This is not a book for every taste. “Murder” is to conventional fiction what the extruded foams and flash-frozen beads of molecular gastronomy are to a Midwestern Thanksgiving dinner. Its scenes of frustration, ominous ambiguity and urban anxiety are cousins of Kafka. Its creepily sensual blood and guts suggest Joyce Mansour. And the mix of stern, faceless officials, boats and trains departing, and a cruelty born of despair, evoke the far-out masterpieces of Anna Kavan.
Killing, in practice, is seldom tidy. There is a lot of suffering, a lot of expended energy, a lot of mess and uncertainty before, during and after. “Murder” provides an appropriately unpleasant series of meditations on unnatural death, not merely of the body, but of the soul or self.
“Murder” is available at Unnameable Books [600 Vanderbilt Ave. at St. Mark’s Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 789–1534 www.unname
“February Houses,” named after the 20th-century Brooklyn arts commune, spotlights recent or noteworthy literature from Brooklyn publishers. To send books for review, contact xjulesbent