We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

The Mystery Guest: A True Story by Grégoire Boullier, translated from French by Ben Truman. New York: McNally Editions. 104 pages. $18.
True Stories: 66 Short Stories by Sophie Calle. Arles, France: Actes Sud (Distributed in the US by ARTBOOK DAP). 152 pages. $22.

The cover of The Mystery Guest: A True Story The cover of True Stories: 66 Short Stories

ONE OF THE WORST THINGS ABOUT BREAKUPS—aside, obviously, from the heartbreak and the acrimony, the division of belongings, and the general sense of loss—is their ability to make even nominally normal people behave like abnormal people, by which I mean writers. Few other situations lend themselves quite so definitively to casting ourselves in the lead role in our own personal drama. Minor coincidences become dazzling signs and wonders, or dark omens; lovelorn anecdotes are streamlined in the telling, edited and punched up as if we were not merely recounting them to our uninterested friends, but preparing them for future publication. Pity, then, the actual writers who find themselves being unceremoniously ditched, leaving them with no option other than to commit all these shameful fantasies of suffering and heroism to the page. “In those days cold and oblivion were all I wanted,” the French-Algerian memoirist Grégoire Boullier writes in the opening lines of The Mystery Guest, a slim book about a breakup first published in English in 2006, and which is being rereleased by McNally Editions with a new translation by Ben Truman. “This was fine with me: one day, I knew, it would be time to rejoin the living, and that day could wait.”

That day, as it turns out, is September 30, 1990, when the action of The Mystery Guest begins. By its second paragraph, Boullier’s ex—who left him suddenly and apparently cruelly some years earlier—has called to invite him to her friend’s birthday party, sending him into an existential tailspin. He spends the next ninety pages lurching between maudlin self-admonishment and a kind of awful, funny swagger that at one point sees him likening himself to Jesus Christ. To call The Mystery Guest only “a slim book about a breakup” is somewhat disingenuous, in fact, since the event Boullier has been invited to is not your typical soiree, but something more conceptual: the host is the celebrated artist Sophie Calle, whose confessional, quasi-documentary works have made her a celebrity in intellectual circles. Each year, Calle throws a party for as many guests as there are years in her age; Boullier is to play the role of her “mystery guest,” an anonymous attendee who, per tradition, Calle allows a friend to invite as a living representation of her future. For Boullier, this is a chance to reinvent himself, and to prove that his life hasn’t “turned into one long hibernation.” “Quite the opposite,” he writes, seeming desperate to convince not just the reader but himself: “My life was one party after another, and I was in top form.”

Throughout The Mystery Guest, Boullier certainly does not sound like a man in top form, and his willingness to make himself appear buffoonish saves the book from being an agonizing exercise in flowery self-pity. In the kind of perfectly ironic detail that could only come directly from real life, he decides to distinguish himself by spending more than a month’s rent on a bottle of 1964 Margaux, only to learn that as part of her artistic practice, Calle keeps all of her birthday gifts in storage in their original wrapping. (If he really had been Jesus Christ, a bottle of Evian would have sufficed.) At the party, Boullier talks shit, and crosses the line between anonymous, iconoclastic interloper and garden-variety wine-drunk jerk. The prose is breathless, sometimes drunk seeming itself, and there is something realistic, even touching, about its perpetual ricocheting between hope and despair, often within the span of a single sentence. It is a tightly written portrait of the artist as a young(ish) mess, and its ingenuity lies in its positioning of the “mystery guest” as an idealized state that exists in diametric opposition to the thoroughly unmysterious position of the ex-lover. Familiarity breeds contempt, and it can also hasten breakups. If Boullier can make himself unknowable enough again, perhaps he can represent not only Calle’s future but also that of the woman who once loved him.

Rêve de jeune fille (Girl's Dream) from Sophie Calle's True Stories (Actes Sud, 2023).
Rêve de jeune fille (Girl's Dream) from Sophie Calle's True Stories (Actes Sud, 2023).

His problem—much to our delight, since this dilemma is what lends the book its jittery edge—is that he cannot be mysterious to save his life. In the final pages of the book, Boullier and Sophie Calle meet again some years later, and despite his misogynistic flinching at her age (“in five years she’d be fifty-five, and then sixty, and that vision was hopeless and implacable”), it becomes clear that they are twin souls, if not necessarily cut out to be lifelong soulmates: obsessed with fate, and to some degree with themselves, they have an eye for the kind of minor details that make for terrific fiction, even when they are supposedly recording facts. For a time after this meeting, they were lovers, until Boullier eventually sent her a meandering, self-important breakup email. Calle—in a move that a man so obsessed with signs surely ought to have foreseen—anonymized him as “X” and turned the email into her 2007 entry for the Venice Biennale, Take Care of Yourself, asking women from 107 different professions, from a cruciverbalist to a Talmudic scholar, to interpret his words. If dumping a writer is a risky move, dumping an artist might be more dangerous still: like an invading force, they tend to recruit collaborators.

The subtitle of The Mystery Guest is A True Story. True for whom? Every relationship has two narratives, two conflicting sides. Calle’s work trades in perceived truths, and her “documentary” projects tend to be at least a little falsified—burnished like a breakup story, the result a little better than real life. This spring, Actes Sud is rereleasing her ever-expanding 1994 artist’s book, True Stories, with the addition of three new pieces. Pairing text and image, it’s not quite a memoir, not quite a short-story collection, and not quite a photographic compendium, either. Many of the events depicted therein are familiar from what readers might already know of Calle’s biography, but they are often reduced to the level of metaphor, pared down into oblique symbolism and Freudian suggestiveness. For years, Calle has had a reputation as an oversharer, an early adopter of the kind of frightening, often sexual frankness that would go on to define both the (largely female-led) 2010s personal-essay trend and the internet at large. In 2024, there is something rather quaint about this characterization of her candor: many of the texts that appear in True Stories are coolly evasive, and the overall impression is that of an exercise in self-mythology where the “true” self feels almost entirely absent, as if each recollection were a crime scene photograph in which Calle appeared only as a chalk outline.

Unlike Boullier, Calle is not really attempting to be funny—or if she is funny, it is a very specific kind of humor that arises from the collision of her stark, unadorned style and the ghoulish, almost gothic details in her stories. These touches often appear in the final line, a sudden wham of nastiness: a piece about her considering a nose job ends with the prospective surgeon’s suicide; one about her mother’s lodger ends with him setting himself on fire. We learn that the young Calle had a phobia of penises, but we’re never informed why, and the refusal to disclose a reason seems designed to encourage sinister interpretations. The Mystery Guest and True Stories being rereleased concurrently presents an opportunity to compare two spare, art-centric, nontraditional memoirs; the fact that each of them deals, to some degree at least, with the subject of sexual and romantic disillusionment, to say nothing of the fact that the authors were at one time in a relationship themselves, adds a further bit of intrigue. Per the aforementioned cultural connection between women and the personal essay boom, one might expect Calle’s account of her history to be the most emotional, the most lurid. In fact, she is the one who seems steely and in control of her image, whereas Boullier—to use a word that is more typically applied to female writers—borders on hysterical.

His is the messier book—the more embarrassing book, even, with its frantic run-on sentences and wobbling moods, and his admitted willingness to cling to superstition. When he finally does speak with his ex-lover at the party, they are both admiring a floral display, and she makes a passing comment about roses being the only flowers she can bear to see cut. It is, he thinks, a reference to Mrs. Dalloway, one of her favorite books, and he imagines she is trying to apologize in code: “A reunion at a fancy party, yes,” he reminds himself delightedly, reconsidering Virginia Woolf’s plot, “a woman reconnected with the great love of her youth during a big reception.” If every relationship has two conflicting sides, I recognized them both with wincing horror here: Boullier’s desperation to read casual conversation as if it were tea leaves; his ex-girlfriend making what was likely to be nothing more than a little literary joke. After reading True Stories, I knew that Calle had shoplifted as a child, that she had refused to look at her first boyfriend naked for a year, that she had worked as a striptease artist, and that a man had once tried to strangle her to death, and yet somehow, I felt that I failed to recognize her in the book at all. Like Boullier, I could rack up details; I could make connections that might have suggested something meaningful, but that might just as easily have meant nothing. In my consciousness, she remained—still remains—a mystery guest, an X where a woman might have been. 

Philippa Snow is the author of Which as You Know Means Violence (Repeater, 2022) and Trophy Lives: On the Celebrity as an Art Object (Mack, 2024).