"On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son. He was five years old, the same age as Antoine Romand. Then we went to have lunch with my parents, as Jean-Claude Romand did with his, whom he killed after their meal." So begins The Adversary: A True story of Monstrous Deception, one of the most silkily rancid novels of the past two decades. Its affectless, musing cadence recalls Camus's "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte . . . ," or the early-nineteenth-century confession made famous by Foucault: "I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother. . . . "

Emmanuel Carrère's novel is a fantastic tale that happens to be true, a picture of everyday life with its flesh peeled off. The forensic particulars of Romand's existence were themselves clustered around a fiction, like iron filings on a magnet. He dropped out of medical school at the outset of his "career," simply pretending to advance from strength to strength, grade to grade, while in reality he spent most of his time cowering in the apartment his parents had bought him, paralyzed by a failure of will. He even convinced other students at the school that his classes were scheduled at different hours than theirs (which did involve a degree of risky prevarication), and that he passed the same exams as they. It should be noted that Romand kept regular study dates with his supposed peers, who were impressed by his quick grasp of difficult material.

The lives of impostors and con artists often reveal that to actually become what they are pretending to be would take a fraction of the effort that is required to sustain the deception. Typically this is accounted for by the thrill of the con. Yet Romand seems not to have experienced any unusual visceral pleasure from fooling other people, merely the banality of a life resembling everyone else's, without the responsibility of "officially" earning it—or, indeed, of even really having it.

After years of parental support, Romand announced his graduation from medical school. He awarded himself an exalted job at the World Health Organization (WHO), headquartered just over the Swiss border from his home in Ferney-Voltaire, in the French Jura. Meanwhile he married a pharmacist, Florence; fathered two children, Caroline and Antoine; and passed as a conventionally responsible, bourgeois civic presence (school boards, community meetings, etc.). To support his immediate family in the stylish manner of Ferney-Voltaire's professional middle class, Romand defrauded his parents, his in-laws, several other relations, and later his mistress Corinne as well, by offering to invest their savings, through who's Swiss bank, at a guaranteed 18-percent annual return. Astonishingly, these people surrendered every franc they had put away, without hesitation.

Romand juggled these ever-dwindling funds for eighteen years. Each morning, he drove off to work, often actually going to Geneva, where he would sit for hours in the who parking lot. He chose a window where he fancied "his" office was, pointing it out to his wife and children every now and then without ever taking them inside. He occasionally departed for a week or two "on business." In reality, he spent days wandering in the forest or passed his traveling time in Paris hotels and rustic inns a safe distance from home. He established an inflexible rule forbidding anyone, including his wife, to contact him at work. His imaginary professional life was firmly, weirdly barricaded against everyone who knew him.

The charade had to end one day; the fact that it didn't end sooner indicates a ghastly truth about contemporary bourgeois life. Romand never spoke about his work, except occasionally to mention—lightly, with an air of slight embarrassment—his friendships with world-famous cardiologists, cancer surgeons, the director of Doctors Without Borders; his reticence was taken for the extreme discretion characteristic of the professional elite he supposedly belonged to. He pinched brochures and other printed matter from the who lobby and left these materials casually strewn around the house. Romand's charade, for years at a stretch, required a mere modicum of embellishment.

Contrastingly, his more banal secrets occasioned ballistic damage control upon exposure: When Luc Ladmiral, Romand's best friend since medical school, demanded that Romand reveal to Florence his affair with Corinne, Romand tragically declared that he had lymphoma. He confided this imaginary cancer (in fragile remission, he said) to several intimates at various times, distracting them from gaping improbabilities in his accounts of driving mishaps, deaths of coworkers and mentors, and similar ponderous happenings for which there was no tangible evidence. Certain calamities were fabricated to elicit sympathy and impart the idea of Romand as an especially burdened soul—which he was, albeit for spectacularly different reasons.

But other lies were strictly meretricious. In at least one instance, he sold a bogus experimental cancer drug to a relative for an enormous sum; nobody blamed him when it didn't work. He invented bizarre excuses to explain why his wife and children didn't enjoy perks available to other who employees and their families. Somehow, these improvisations were accepted as signs of an admirable, if overactive, moral fastidiousness.

When, very belatedly, people gleaned that Romand's Formica-like normality had unaccountable inconsistencies, he proved incapable of facing public bewilderment and ostracism. Instead of killing himself, however, he murdered his family, including his parents; tried to strangle his mistress; and set his house ablaze, swallowing a Nembutal overdose and inhaling smoke only after he heard the fire engines.

The Adversary proves that the novel form can frame real events more potently than quotidian reportage or generic crime "nonfiction." Carrère doesn't call his book a novel, nor does The Adversary disinvite the consumer of true-crime books; still, there are books that ploddingly belong to genre writing, and other, nominally genre, works that don't. The appetite for exhaustively detailed, voyeuristic reconstructions of mayhem is unlikely to find much ruminative succor in The Adversary's compression, its poetic angularity, its absence of facile moralizing. Yet it has been hugely popular in France, where it was published in 2000, as has Nicole Garcia's screen adaptation, one of two films based on Romand's story.

Carrère the writer appealingly figures in the narrative. Eventually, he contacts Romand; a correspondence, eventually prison visits, and courthouse encounters ensue. These are revelatory, depressing, essential. People whose entire lives are a performance pull out all the stops in the acts they cook up under indictment.

In the French manner, some would say, Carrère indicates his status in the literary world with scattered allusions to his earlier books. This is not immodesty, but usefully stresses that a singular, fallible observer is interpreting events by his own lights as he reports them; as it happens, Carrère's previous writing directly facilitates an important insight into Romand's mentality. After reading Carrère's horrifying novel Class Trip, Romand tells the author that his own childhood was exactly like that of Class Trip's Nicolas, a pathologically withdrawn boy who intuits his family's unspoken, unspeakable secrets.

Romand's identification with Nicolas may have a few points of justification; the Romand family had secrets, though none as nasty as the ones in Class Trip, and some perturbing events stippled Romand's early years. But I suspect that the darkest parts of Romand's crepuscular childhood came directly out of Carrère's novel, and that he hoped to elicit Carrère's approval by praising its insight, and his pity by comparing himself with the story's haunted child.

Throughout The Adversary, Carrère inserts flashes of his own life, in calculatedly flat counterpoint to the drama of Romand's narrative. He mentions thorny problems with his long-incubating Philip K. Dick biography. A friend with aids, suffering third-degree burns from an accident, is dying in the hospital. Carrère sees a newspaper account of the slaughter in Ferney-Voltaire. He seems drawn to this story because it is so unlike his own; yet his children are roughly the age of Romand's; he wonders how a man could kill his own children; he wonders about Romand, who's still in a coma from smoke inhalation, having set the fire to disguise the murders, or to feign attempted suicide, or both in succession (he had to have known he'd be found out, and tried to delay the moment of full revelation). At last Carrère decides to write about it:

I considered rushing to the scene, setting up shop at a hotel in Ferney-Voltaire, playing the nosy, tenacious reporter. But . . . I realized that this wasn't what interested me. . . . The details of Romand's embezzlements, the way his double life had taken shape over the years . . . all that, which I would learn in good time, wouldn't tell me what I really wanted to know: what went on in his head during those days he supposedly spent in the office, days he didn't spend, as was first believed, trafficking in arms or industrial secrets, days he spent, it was now thought, walking in the woods?

* * *

Deciphering a sociopath like Romand is not, strictly speaking, a process of identification. Romand is impossible to identify with. The Adversary's title itself places him slightly outside humanity, "the adversary" being a historical name for the devil. Romand's monstrosity, an eruption of unassuagable evil, is beyond human understanding. A slight contradiction arises. A monster, by definition, isn't subject to human laws or morality, any more than a cow or a cobra is. What Carrère wants to know, perhaps only vaguely suspecting as much, isn't what occurred in Romand's mind when he was, every day, absent from his own life, but when, and why, he ceased to be human.

The fabulous quality of Romand's deception makes it nearly unbelievable, though it may be more accurate to say that we'd like it to seem more incredible than it actually is. Ultimately, Romand himself is no help in discovering why he started lying—no conscious help, at least, since introspection and narcissism are hopelessly entwined in his personality. (He made up a carjacking incident and other bizarre whoppers even before he made his permanent detour into fantasyland, but has no idea why.) He does, though, by chance, suggest a partial answer. The embellishment of the original lie, over decades, is both logical and insane. He had to say this because he'd already said that. He had to perpetrate this fraud since he'd already committed that one. But the solution to the puzzle is so infantile, so stunningly selfish, that it makes Romand more horrible still. It can't fully account for his rampage—yet what if it does? What if modern life is constructed to support the flimsiest impersonation of the real, in order to further undermine and devalue the authentic?

Carrère forgoes the redemptive uplift that high-minded crime literature shoplifts from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who invented Ivan Karamazov and Prince Dmitrii Nekhliudov, respectively, in a less morally narcoleptic time than the present. Russian society, in the twilight of czarism, viewed its aberrant personalities as reflections of its own imperfections. Even there, of course, humanity produced unassimilable anomalies that could only be regarded with wonder and attributed to the mysterious workings of a deity. The Adversary confronts the more ineluctable problem posed by Iago, or Balzac's Vautrin, or Peter Verkhovensky in Demons. As in Bresson's film L'Argent and "The Forged Coupon," the Tolstoy story from which it derives, in Carrère's narrative a great crime is only one, conspicuous disorder among many produced, like a poison seeping through society, "a false coin in circulation," to borrow Heidegger's phrase.

The proliferation of the inauthentic, or false, consciousness, is a subject much contemporary literature skirts by fetishizing psychotherapy, itself a ritual of redemption. This is where The Adversary most forcefully distinguishes itself from "crime writing" and the sentimental narratives associated with it. In prison, Romand expeditiously finds God. With equal efficiency, he finds others who have found God, in the form of two prison visitors, his "angels," Marie-France and Bernard. (The prison visitor—volunteer friend, self-trained social worker—is a more familiar figure in France than America. He or she is often an exemplar of saintly patience and Candide-like gullibility.) Carrère writes:

I wound up imagining Marie-France and Bernard leaning over my work to one side of me, rejoicing even more—and all heaven with them—for a repentant sinner than for the ninety-nine just souls who have no need to repent; on my other side, I heard [a reporter covering Romand's trial] saying that the worst thing that could happen to Romand would be to fall into the hands of those people, let himself be lulled by angelic speeches on the infinite mercy of the Lord and the wonders He would work in his soul, and thus lose all chance of someday getting back in touch with reality.

Romand's feral reaction to imminent exposure is hardly more shocking than the dewy-eyed forgiveness of others on ethereal grounds. "He is not putting on an act, of that I'm sure," Carrère concludes after recounting various Christ-inspired encomiums to Romand's essential goodness, "but isn't the liar inside him putting one over on him? When Christ enters his heart . . . isn't it the adversary deceiving him yet again?"

In a document solicited for a Catholic newsletter by one of his "angels," Romand's language echoes Tartuffe, euphemizing his butchery as "a terrible family tragedy" and rejoicing that "the presence of God burst upon" him in his blackest hour. In effect, he repudiates guilt while feigning its embrace. Anchored in a humanist ethos, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literature depicted redemption through piety as authentic: Transgression was a fall from grace; the criminal was an object of pity, regarded as something more, and at least potentially nobler, than his deed, a soul in need of healing.

The recrudescent Elmer Gantry-ism of recent decades has given "finding God" a deservedly unsavory reputation. Our age does not believe in God, despite a fervid, universal pretense that its occupants do. For scoundrels high and low, from mass murderers to corporate thugs, historical personalities like Jesus Christ are Band-Aids to plaster over a festering gash in the social contract. Romand's expedient religiosity converts his victims into sacrifices necessary to his own salvation. This self-absorption recalls the group-therapy sessions for war criminals in Liliana Cavani's Night Porter.

Romand's "possession" is his own creation, a product of infantile passivity. Carrère's account ratifies Hannah Arendt's speculation that "the activity of thinking as such" could be "among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing," a "hypothesis enforced by everything we know about conscience, namely, that a ‘good conscience' is enjoyed as a rule only by really bad people . . . while only ‘good people' are capable of having a bad conscience." Romand stopped thinking the week of his second-year med school finals. Considering the eons of malingering self-pity and inanition that followed, Carrère refers to Romand, in passing, as a "big baby"—the apt, miserable truth. What passed through his mind all those hours, days, and years of killing time was nothing at all.

During a recess in the killer's trial, Carrère meets a newspaper sketch artist,
a forty-year veteran of courts and trials, who makes a bleak observation reached by many who've probed the mental gearworks of sociopaths: "They think it's
a man we've got in front of us, but in fact it's not a man anymore, hasn't been a man for a long, long time. It's like a black hole, you'll see, it's going to spring at our faces. People don't know what true madness is. It's dreadful. It's the most dreadful thing in the world."

Although Carrère could hardly pose it as the central enigma of his narrative, this story is haunted by the inference that "the activity of thinking as such" had atrophied almost as thoroughly in the people taken in by Romand's deception as it had in Romand himself. Exactly how lazily does someone need to dissemble to be seen as honorable, decent, trustworthy? Intimate friend, loving husband, adoring father? In Romand's case, it took only a few phone calls to his imaginary employers and professional organizations for his house of cards to collapse; how could it have held up for eighteen years?

* * *

The subtitle of Carrère's I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick is no empty promise. Like Jean-Claude Romand, but in a considerably more baroque sense, American science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick had the reality-testing prowess of a paramecium. Carrère installs himself in Dick's weird cranium with the mimetic dexterity of a pod "taking over" Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Happily for us, though generally less so for him, Dick translated his pathology into a large body of writing, inventing alternative universes where otherwise debilitating fears and phobias assumed beguiling shapes, becoming containers of widely shared metaphysical anxieties.

Dick was born prematurely in Chicago in 1928. His twin sister died of malnutrition after their mother inadvertently underfed them. Dick's parents divorced when he was five. His father, absent much of the time anyway, then disappeared for good. His mother passed along a rampant hypochondria and festive dependence on pharmaceuticals. Dick also developed a lifelong addiction to psychiatry as a teenager. Mother and son migrated to Berkeley. The community there, with its resemblance to a wildlife refuge for perpetual students, rebels, dead-eyed burnouts, and Age of Aquarius would-be's, provided a kind of safety that Dick attempted to replicate, with mixed results, for the rest of his life.

After abandoning school at fifteen, Dick worked at a classical-music store, where he met sci-fi impresario and author Anthony Boucher, who first published Dick's writing in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the fall of 1951. On the strength of this sale—not exactly a sultan's ransom—Dick quit the music store, and he never held another steady job after that, eking out a meager livelihood from his stories and novels. Many years, books, and marriages later, his royalties brought a modicum of security, but even when he died, famous, in 1982, he was far from affluent, nor had his work been acknowledged by the mainstream American literary world.

Carrère's own works qualify as fantastic literature, or speculative fiction: Gothic Romance (Bravoure), an early novel, is woven from the Frankenstein story and the circumstances under which Mary Shelley wrote it; another novel, Hors d'atteinte, is about gambling, and virtually every fiction centered in a casino belongs to the realm of unreal, alternative worlds, from Dostoevsky's Gambler to Tommaso Landolfi's feverish stories of compulsive betting. Carrère has written a book-length essay on Werner Herzog, impresario of the bizarre and uncanny, and another, Le détroit de Behring, about uchronia, the science-fiction term for an alternate or alternative history.

But as much as I Am Alive and You Are Dead lavishes an almost unwarranted degree of attention on Dick's novels and stories, the book is about something else entirely. Philip K. Dick—the person, as opposed to his inscription on the page—is the kind of dysfunctional personality Carrère creates in fiction, and it's arguable, at least, that if this were a book about a psychotic plumber instead of a notable science-fiction writer, it would still exercise the same morbid fascination.

Carrère usefully links much of Dick's writing to the somewhat pathetic theater of Dick's life, but I Am Alive and You Are Dead is not very much about writing at all, except as the particular secretion of Dick's madness that survives in printed form. Dick's carnivalesque, markedly adolescent mind exhibits a certain rote pattern when Carrère describes him in the act of writing; Dick was always, it seems, on the brink of yet another deluded illumination, and after a while, these eureka moments all sound much the same.

In life, Dick's career was dreary at best. As I find his better works diverting in concept and almost as execrably written as most science fiction, Carrère's biography kept inspiring the question, Why is a writer as brilliant as Carrère so insistent that a nerdy, narcissistic slob deserves all this attention? But the question becomes moot when one considers I Am Alive and You Are Dead as the same kind of fictional nonfiction as The Adversary—a true story, but only because in rare cases real people resemble the most extravagantly invented fictional characters. In this context, it would be pointless to cavil about Dick's exact literary stature. His life, as Carrère tells it, is one of the most comprehensive illustrations, ever, of the shitty fate awaiting almost anyone—genius, middlebrow, or mediocrity—for whom the act of writing is a necessary means of achieving mental and moral equilibrium rather than a career choice.

When opportunities to promote himself in interviews and speaking gigs cropped up, Dick had no idea how to use them to advantage, becoming lost beforehand in whatever byzantine train of thought had lately colonized his brain. He usually came across as a meandering crackpot. Spokesperson for the storming of consciousness's frontiers, Dick dropped LSD exactly once and became so paranoid that it permanently terrified him. His ceaseless industry was a peculiarly ungenerative effort to make sense of reality—ungenerative because his contrarian nature wouldn't abide any truth acknowledged by anyone else: As soon as he had convinced someone his perceptions were accurate, he became convinced that he was wrong. In everyday life, his personality habitually regressed to an unappetizing stage of adolescence. He was grandiose, abject, cowardly, envy-ridden, emotionally shallow, and, quite often, repulsively obese—in short, a can of nightcrawlers, with a brace of diamonds (or, depending on your opinion of his oeuvre, zircons) hidden at the bottom.

Carrère has been a passionate fan of Dick's overgenerous literary output since adolescence. (Like most genre writers, Dick wrote too much—almost fifty novels, over a hundred short stories; he needed the money.) Carrère's portrait has no taint of malice, but it's doubtful that any honest biography of Dick could conceal his repellent qualities, since they manifested themselves in most of the noteworthy moments of his life. The mitigating circumstance that Dick was clinically insane, enough so to require periodic confinement, is registered throughout I Am Alive and You Are Dead, but it's hard to finish the book without feeling fortunate never to have known him.

Amphetamines enabled Dick to write novels with the same rapidity Balzac attained by drinking coffee. Some were written in a week, and many of them read that way. Usually set in a world of effortless space travel (as fictional today as ever), Dick's novels manifest enough of the familiar to establish a believable reality, then introduce a runaway element that throws that reality into question.

Dick's best work is speculative fiction of a memorable kind, smartly crafted, interestingly paced, full of fresh, disturbing images and provocative ideas—Ubik, The Man in the High Castle, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are probably his most successful novels. Carrère acknowledges that Dick's writing often falls short of his intermittent brilliance; what he doesn't say, and ought to have, is that the bulk of Dick's oeuvre recycles the same projections of financial anxiety and sexual paranoia with ever-diminishing effect, except on those rare occasions when a new idea actually occurs to him. And he cannot, as far as I can tell, create a character that isn't cardboard-thin.

There are legible reasons for Dick's prolific redundancy. Balzac wrote bales of shit to keep creditors off his back, long before producing any of the novels he later included in his complete works. And, if modern pharmaceuticals had been available instead of espresso, he might well have written thirty times more dreck, and even made a botch of novels like Ursule Mirouet and Père Goriot.

Much of Dick's adulthood passed in a state of subacute amphetamine psychosis, which accounts for his construction of intricate cosmologies that resemble each other in many details, and their sudden metamorphoses into opposite cosmologies, the trick endings that reverse the state of things established by his plots. Carrère treats the fractional differences between one Dick novel and another with the scrutiny of a psychiatrist listening to a patient's slightly varying recurring dreams. In a sense, this is a more elevated approach to literary biography than the usual hagiographic sludge. Carrère, thankfully, references for the most part the same five or six important works instead of running through the whole bibliography.

Ideas of earthquake magnitude struck Dick at regular intervals, scrambling his perception of what reality "meant." While it sometimes crossed his mind that it didn't mean anything, Dick found meaninglessness intolerable and incessantly embraced meaningless explanations as to why there is something rather than nothing. Dick believed a secret lurked behind everything and that he would just naturally be its designated recipient. He attached occult significance to trivialities that caught his attention (numbers, advertisements), certain they were messages from the unknown addressed exclusively to him.

Carrère supposes that Dick felt haunted by his dead twin. The idea that he, instead of she, had died in infancy, and that he was being imagined, or contacted from the other world, by her, might account for the fascinating variations on this conundrum found in Dick's novels. A mild brush with the FBI during the McCarthy era seems to have set off inextinguishable brush fires in Dick's brain for decades, culminating, bizarrely, in a strong identification with Richard Nixon. An unexplained robbery at his house generated decades of dithering speculation, including Dick's recurring suspicion that he "might have" burglarized himself.

A slobbery romanticism of the "Love me or I'll die" variety lured a succession of insecure women into Dick's surpassingly uneventful orbit. (He hated leaving the house, never exercised, and was only slightly less sedentary than a potted plant. From early middle age, he preferred "cuddling" to sex.) Dick usually ended these liaisons in an excess of paranoia, sometimes convincing his cashiered paramours that they actually had been plotting his destruction. In the circles that formed around his oracular obesity, others existed to nurture him and wax awestruck at his Dexedrine-motored theories. Like most addicts, he grew worse as he got older. In later years, new lovers were quick to notice, and back away from, the heightening symptoms of his impressive inner wreckage. As he deteriorated, Dick developed an avidity for physically unappealing women with fatal illnesses and serious mental disorders; he even cruised psychiatric clinics for potential dates. The objects of this patronizing, late-blooming adoration usually turned out to be saner and less needy than he was and dumped him.

Summoning Dick's inner states, extracted from Dick's fiction as well as myriad interviews and copious research, Carrère arrives at the kind of slippery truth that empathy sometimes levers out of the unconscious. This intuitive approach, nearer to method acting than ventriloquism, may be the most prescient way to represent someone as trapped in his own neural synapses as Dick, someone so far from endorsement by the people who would later lay claims to his work that he could stand as a monument to the culture's obtusity.

Like Beautiful Shadow, Andrew Wilson's recent biography of Patricia Highsmith, I Am Alive and You Are Dead is a surpassingly well-accomplished, unflattering act of love. It depicts an obsessive, self-destructive, frequently insufferable artist, who seems to have had a biologically calibrated sense of how to pace his suicide in order to finish his work first. The very fact of the work—improbable, even miraculous, given the author's bad living and defective inner wiring—is revealed as the reason for the life, exactly as it was lived.

* * *

Carrère is immersed enough in science fiction that when French reviewers of his novel The Mustache compared him to Kafka, Carrère thought it odd that nobody cited science-fiction writer Richard Matheson. The Mustache is a fantastically creepy story about a man going mad, with echoes of stories by Gerard de Nerval, Edgar Allan Poe's "Toby Dammit," Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's "Desire to Be a Man," Daphne du Maurier's "Don't Look Now," and the cruel tales of Landolfi—works about arbitrary, ludicrous obsessions and recurring hallucinations, pursued to an absurd, devastating end.

In The Mustache, a man's capricious impulse to shave off his mustache provokes the unraveling of his existence. Imagining that the failure of his wife and friends to notice the mustache's absence is a deliberate canard, he makes vain efforts to "trap" them into admitting the prank; when people continue treating his mustache as a bewildering fixation of his own, and, finally, as symptomatic of a nervous breakdown, he grows estranged from his wife, who insists he never had a mustache, and decides that he's the victim of a conspiracy. The man is soon reduced to feigning blindness and asking strangers if the face on his identity card has a mustache. The sudden, small crack in reality and its corruption of everything authentic has obvious parallels in the lie at the heart of The Adversary, as well as in the themes of Dick's stories and novels: Like the deliquescent physical world in Dick's Ubik, which can be temporarily restored but never reliably stabilized by spray applications of the product that gives the book its title, the descent of The Mustache's central figure into madness could only be halted if he suddenly believed—really believed—that the mustache he removed at the outset had never existed, or if his social universe acknowledged that it had.

The Mustache is written from inside the hero's refusal to forget what he knows, or thinks he knows; suddenly life stops accepting the image of himself he's carried around, in one stroke banishing him from the external data that define him. His stubborn fidelity to a trivial truth, if it is one, results in a persecution complex as self-destructive as Michael Kohlhaas's quest for justice in Kleist's novella. Carrère's sentences and paragraphs resist any whisper of digression, scanning like a fable worn smooth by repeated telling. It's a radically concentrated text, though at two hundred pages not a remarkably small one.

Class Trip, more replete with physical incident and possessing the episodic quality of a novel, is surprisingly briefer than The Mustache, and an even more stealthy exercise in delicately paced revelation. The entire novel transpires in the mind of Nicolas, as his father drives him to ski school, and afterward, throughout Nicolas's generally numbed and unpleasant Alpine holiday. The infiltration of Nicolas's gothic dreams and morbid fantasies into the routine of classes, cafeteria meals, and communal bedtimes distorts the tempi of passing time; the crowding of mental events renders real happenings perfunctory and distant, as if the waking life were the dream and the dream a truer picture of Nicolas's experience.

Carrère conveys the desultory tedium of childhood, and the gaps of comprehension imagination fills with make-believe. An especially quiet boy, Nicolas is isolated from the other children even before he arrives at the school: Everyone else goes by bus, but Nicolas's obtusely fretful father, alarmed by a recent school bus accident, insists on driving the few hundred miles to the school himself, only to forget, once there, to unpack Nicolas's luggage from the trunk. Besides his missing clothes, Nicolas's bag, critically, contains a rubber sheet—without it, his fear of wetting his bunk bed while wearing pajamas he's borrowed from Hodkann, the class bully, makes him vulnerable, weaker, less assertive than the other students. Finally, an attack of rheumatic fever excludes him from school activities altogether, creating a solitude filled with feverish, calamitous fantasies.

Hodkann the bully conceives a protective affection for Nicolas, his interest piqued by the discovery that Nicolas's father is a salesman of prosthetic limbs. (The sexual attraction between the two boys, vaguely adumbrated in the book, is more evident in the Claude Miller film of Class Trip, for which Carrère wrote the script.) It's expected that the father will quickly discover Nicolas's suitcase in his trunk and return with it; when he doesn't, the school learns that Nicolas's mother doesn't know his father's itinerary and has no means of reaching him.

Some time later—time here contracts and expands mysteriously—a local boy goes missing. Soon after, his mutilated body is discovered hundreds of miles away. Nicolas, who has invented for Hodkann a tale about a kidnapped sibling whose kidney was removed by organ thieves, reveals that his father is on a private mission to catch the body snatchers. The charmed complicity of the boys, between whom Nicolas's fantasies develop a play-narrative elaboration, has an undertaste of something real hidden inside it. The most unsettling aspect of Nicolas's violently surreal stories is his own passive relation to them. He's spellbound, emotionless at mental pictures of terrorists storming the school, of his father's bleeding body twisted in a car wreck, of the story "The Monkey's Paw" coming to life. Nicolas's waking nightmares substitute for repressed knowledge, easier to consciously accept than what they cover up.

The revealed secret of Class Trip raises even darker questions than it answers, and like much of Carrère's writing to date seems written around those elements of consciousness that remain unquantified and inexplicable, though they certainly exist and may only be accessible by inference. We "know" more about each other and ourselves than we think we know, more than we can bear knowing—our perceptual scanning pattern registers the disruption of a lie, whether we recognize it as such or not, and the cues by which we assemble a consensual reality also broadcast our secrets, which others, in turn, may reconfigure in ways that mitigate their horror.

In this sense, Nicolas knows what his dreams mean, even as they protect him from unassimilable terrors. A mustache can be the missing outward sign of something essentially false in our transpersonal arrangements. The family and friends of Jean-Claude Romand must always have known that his illnesses and quirks and prevarications were the effluvia of something infinitely worse. Carrère is perhaps the preeminent poet of slippages between what we agree to recognize as the world around us and "the world inside this one." His characters, both real and imaginary, are people who tumble down a rabbit hole to a place very few of us would characterize as Wonderland, but it seems a wonderfully well-observed place, where we meet up with ourselves in the dark and discover that the arrangements we've made with ourselves have been cancelled.


Gary Indiana is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.


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