Updated Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 09:15 AM
by Amélie Nothomb
Europa Editions, 125 pp., $15
Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb (“Fear and Trembling,” “Tokyo Fiancée”) is in the habit of building her quirky tales around a character named “Amélie.” This fictional Amélie is always getting in over her head, even with her most sincere and direct efforts.
But she’s never been in so deep as in “Life Form.”
While earlier Nothomb novels traced the madcap mishaps of a younger Amélie, “Life Form” concerns the present-day successful novelist. This “Amélie Nothomb” (no coy omission of her surname here) is diligent about responding to fan mail, though she never knows quite what to expect from her readers. In the opening line of “Life Form,” for instance, she mentions receiving “a new kind of letter.”
And we’re off.
The letter, sent in Dec. 2008, is from a U.S. Army private named Melvin Mapple who’s stationed in Iraq. His request to her is as naked as it is enigmatic: “I’m writing to you because I’m down as a dog. I need some understanding and I know that if anyone can understand me, you can.”
After her initial skepticism about the likelihood of a U.S. Army private having ever heard of her, let alone read her books, he convinces her he’s a fan. Overwhelmed by “a grotesque surge of pride,” she keeps up the correspondence with him, wondering what his story is.
It isn’t long before he fesses up.
“I am obese,” he writes her. “And not by nature.”
He’s not kidding.
Closing in on 400 pounds, he consumes huge quantities at every mess-hall meal he’s served. He’s so fat, in fact, that he’s taken to thinking of his added weight as another person living inside him (he names “her” Scheherazade). His gluttony is a form of rebellion, and he’s not alone in it. He has a whole coterie of army buddies growing so fast they can hardly be kept in uniforms.
“Our obesity is a wonderful, spectacular act of sabotage,” he proudly pronounces.
The stresses and peculiarities of his predicament leave Nothomb “disgusted, amazed, and dazzled.” They also pull her into deeper and deeper involvement with a man she’s never seen, whose situation grows more surreal with every letter.
“Life Form” grabs you from the start and doesn’t let you go until its final twisting sentence. Nothomb is hilarious about the demands that letter-writing fans make of their authors. But the novel isn’t just a cynical spoof about put-upon writers. It’s concerned with how we convey our truest selves to other people. For Nothomb, it’s via the written word, not face-to-face encounters.
Relying on words alone involves a certain trust. But as she writes late in her tale after considerable complications with Melvin have gone down, “It is simply inadmissible not to grant a stranger the benefit of the doubt.”
In Alison Anderson’s brisk, colloquial translation from the French, “Life Form” fuses the sincere with the subversive to tell a story as winning as it is perverse.
Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.