“The Age of Reinvention” appeared in France in 2013, quickly becoming a bestseller, scooping up rave reviews and almost grabbing the Prix Goncourt. But such is our demand for works in translation that it has taken more than two years for Karine Tuil’s sensational tale of Islamophobia to drift across the Atlantic. Now, though, in a horrific coincidence, her novel arrives as Paris is bleeding and the Republican presidential candidates are giddily stringing barbed wire along our borders. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess this story had been written within the past 24 hours.
Despite that eerie timeliness and its unmistakable esprit Français, “The Age of Reinvention” luxuriates in the oldest American dream. This is the tale of a man who abandons his identity and devises a more lucrative one. Samir Tahar, the son of poor Tunisian Muslims in Paris, is a kind of North African Gatsby. “He was going to cut through the bars of his social jail cell, even if he had to do it with his teeth,” Tuil writes. “Everything about him promised pleasure; everything about him betrayed his desire — an aggressive, corrupting desire.”
Brilliant, determined, sexually voracious, Samir got through law school, ingratiated himself with powerful people and created the New York branch of France’s most prestigious law firm. “He is now exactly the man he dreamed of being when, at eighteen years old, living with his mother and his brother in a run-down ghetto, he swore to leave that place and never to return,” Tuil writes. He wears $35,000 suits, seduces whomever he wants and lives in a palatial apartment with his high-society wife, strutting through a world that Tuil lays out in breathless strokes of consumer porn.
But to attain all this splendor, Samir “had rid himself of his past like a murderer dissolving his victim’s corpse in an acid bath.” Early on, he stole the outline of his best friend’s life and passed himself off as a Sephardic Jew. What better way to snuggle into the pantheon of New York’s legal stars, philanthropists and liberal causes? All he has to do is make sure that no one ever discovers his abandoned mother, who still hopes he’s living the life of “a good Muslim.”
This high-tension plot, tangled with racial ironies, springs open on Samir’s 40th birthday. He’s so confirmed in his cleverness, so in love with his opulence, so confident in his sexual magnetism that he can’t imagine that his glittery facade is under imminent threat. A former lover and that old friend whose life story he appropriated years ago have just seen him on television, and they’re already dreaming up a plan to extort a sliver of Samir’s bounty.
Except nothing goes the way any of these characters — or readers — expect. That blackmail scheme, for instance, does a backflip and splits into a melodrama of adultery and a satire of literary fame. It’s no wonder that Samir can dissemble so successfully; Tuil is just as crafty in this narrative, shifting tones without warning, holding a straight face through the most acerbic parody of our contradictory ideals. She’s merciless about the capacity of people to deceive themselves while under the thrall of lust and greed. Samir’s wife and his mistress are feminist disasters: Both women are gorgeous, brilliant and completely bamboozled into fulfilling Samir’s fantasies of domestic goddess and pliant courtesan. (Nice touch: Samir specializes in defending abused women.)
But the novel’s bedroom antics soon give way to more global concerns as Samir’s sexual indiscretions are overtaken by the far greater risk of having Muslim parents. If it’s never possible to sympathize with Samir, Tuil makes it easy to understand the logic of his deceit at a time when prejudice has so poisoned the West. “He’d had no other choice,” she writes, “but to sever himself from his origins, to bleed away his identity, to rip out his guts.”
Reinvention is the cost of success in this chaotic, racist economy. And in a cleverly interlaced side story, Tuil emphasizes that reinvention is also the essential requirement of radical Islam. To attain respect in this world and glory in the next, disaffected French Muslims must be willing to be renamed, retrained and remade. Only the supercomputers at the National Security Agency could spot the connection between New York’s flashiest lawyer and an al-Qaeda warrior trudging through the mountains of Afghanistan, but in the war on terrorism, the United States’ reach knows no limits — or restraints.
All these machinations in “The Age of Reinvention” are reflected by its prose, which starts hyperventilating on the first page and risks going into cardiac arrest till the very end. The slick translation by Sam Taylor keeps every sentence piqued to a frenzy bordering on farce, a self-satirizing convulsion that both reflects and mocks these characters’ hysteria. No one in this novel ever merely worries; instead, “he must come to terms with this feeling of vertiginous panic that grips him.” Couples don’t just break up; instead, “it’s a disaster! The aftermath of love, the generalized infection, the amputation, the gangrene!” Sometimes, Tuil’s prose races along so quickly the words literally pile up against one another: Samir “enters the courtroom, frightened/distraught/exhausted.” His body “freely possesses/enjoys/desires whatever it wishes.” There’s no time to choose/think/punctuate! Sentence after sentence, page after page — the whole novel should be pounded out in ALL CAP ITALICS.
If this were merely the hot ’n’ heavy panting of a sexy thriller, it would feel (more) ridiculous. But Tuil is pursuing something sophisticated, even as she runs after these reckless people. By linking the fantasies of capitalism and faith, she has written a bitter critique of “the obligation to succeed, the menace that weighs on you from birth, the blade that society puts to your throat and holds there until you choke.” Aside from the wit and intrigue of this ingenious story, chasing these troubled characters around the wheel of fortune makes the thrashing effects of modern life seem all the more apparent — and intolerable.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Karine Tuil
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Atria. 399 pp. $27