Theme: International Thrillers
It’s not easy to write novel featuring a protagonist as reprehensible as Lee Anderson, but only someone like Boris Vian can do it and do it well. And there aren’t many writers like Boris Vian. I have long been a fan of Vian since reading his sci-fi-esque, nihilistic love story Foam of Daze. Vian led me to my current theme because when I thought of thrillers, I thought less of the mainstream formulaic idea of thriller and more of the hardcore, pathological, psychological idea of what the feeling of ‘thrilling’ is. I wanted to go a little deeper, challenge the current genre connotation of thriller. I only realized this is what I wanted to do after I read his remarkable I Spit on Your Graves. If you want a happy, police procedural, you will need to look elsewhere. Vian is a gritty mix of de Sade and Jim Thompson with a twist of noir pulp.
This book is deceptive in that it reads like a five and dime thriller. Vian’s quick with atmosphere and description, a no frills package. The meat of the novel is the cutting social commentary on racism in America and the story around the book. Vian gives us Lee Anderson, a black man who passes for white, as the symbolic protagonist. He has blond hair and light skin which makes it easy for him to slip into a small Southern town, posing as a white man who works in a bookstore. Anderson does this so that he can avenge the murder of his darker skinned brother by white men. Once he assimilates into small town life, he begins to bed every pubescent girl he can find. The sex is as cursory as the violence. He ingratiates himself a group of teens with his guitar playing skills, his friendly demeanor and his ability to legally and willingly buy liquor. The narrative is done so well that it when Lee objectifies those around him, the reader still wants to keep reading about Lee. When Lee attends a party given by a rich friend t hat he has made, Lee simultaneously looks at them with disdain and empathy:
As soon as I was in Dexter’s house, I understood why they’d specified evening dress: our bunch was lost in a majority of “better class” people. I recognized some of them at once: the doctor, the preacher and others of the same type. A colored servant took my hat, and I noticed a couple of others. Then Dexter took me by the arm to introduce me to his parents. I learned that it was his birthday. His mother looked like him: a little, skinny, dark-haired woman, with muddy eyes, and his father was the sort of man you feel like smothering with a pillow, they have such a superior air about them. B.J., Judy, Jicky and the others, all dressed up in evening dresses, were acting very properly. I couldn’t keep from thinking of their boxes when I saw them ceremoniously drink their cocktails and accept invitations of some serious looking characters in cheaters who asked them to dance. From time to time we gave each other a wink to keep our spirits up. It was pretty miserable.
It is as if Vian chose to write in a reductive style to enhance the voice of the character and disguise any hint of societal commentary. Ultimately, Lee’s aim is to bed the two richest, prettiest sisters in town and kill them. The reader knows you should hate him, but Vian makes this quest so compulsively readable one can’t turn away:
With Bill, with Dick, and with Judy, I’d already gotten several points up on them. But I didn’t think it worth while telling them a “nigger” had taken them–I wouldn’t get what I really wanted that way. I’d have my revenge on Moran and on every last one of them when I’d done Lou and Jean Asquith. Two at a clip, and they wouldn’t get me like they did my brother.
I Spit on Your Graves is a masterful piece of work that does thrill, giving you the the perspective of a first-person misogynist, murdering black man through his own eyes. What’s equally compelling is how this book came into being. Editions du Scorpions, a french publishing house, was looking for an American-noir type of book to be a bestseller for him. Enter Vian. Vian submits a novel by a black American, Vernon Sullivan, as a translation of an American noir thriller. In reality, Vian wrote the book himself. Vian managed to successfully capture the essence of an American thriller writer, who just happened to be black, even though Vian was white and had never been to America. And, of course, because of its content, it was challenged by censorship. Even more gruesome, a copy of the book was discovered at a murder scene in Paris when a man killed his mistress the same way Lee had perpetrated one of his victims.
In a way, this work resembles performance art. A writer posing as another writer that doesn’t exist, writing about a character who poses as a man of another color to commit murder. This a disturbing work that mystifies because it captures American racial injustice in a way that hadn’t been done at the time. Reading Vian is a thrill for the history of the book itself and for the idea of what being an author can mean.