The Seventh Function of Language is often described as “The Da Vinci Code Meets _________” (fill in the blank with something higher brow than The Da Vinci Code). I have one too: The Seventh Function of Language is what would happen if David Foster Wallace wrote The Da Vinci Code. Google tells me that David Foster Wallace and Dan Brown attended the same creative writing class at Amherst college, so this collaboration isn’t even as far fetched as it sounds!
The Seventh Function of Language is a buddy cop-murder mystery-political thriller, but it’s also a satirical-but-loving look at French critical theory and post-structuralism in the 1980s. If put on the spot, I would not be able to give a satisfactory definition of either of those things, but one concept that’s relatively easy to grasp is Roland Barthes’ “death of the author”, introduced in his 1967 essay of the same name, that argues that the author’s intentions don’t matter as much as the reader’s. The book opens with the literal death of Barthes – he was run over by a laundry truck in 1980, just after he met with François Mitterrand, who went on to be President of France. In the real world, Barthes’ death was ruled an accident, but Binet asks us to imagine that it wasn’t, that instead it was an assassination, and that every prominent thinker, linguist, writer, and political figure of the time might be involved in a race to learn the secret “seventh function of language”, which would allow the practitioner to persuade anyone to do anything.
Car chases, bombings, poison umbrella stabbings, orgies, and dismemberment ensue.
The book was hilarious and scathing in it’s critique of this moment in French academic history, and I loved how the characters would sometimes realize that they were probably in a novel (and remark that the writer must not be very good, or was using too many cliches). But it didn’t quite land with me – it was missing a few elements. In my Booktube review, I compared it to a few other books that covered similar ground, with somewhat more effective results. Here’s a quick summary, but please tune in for more ramblings and probably-incorrect French pronunciations.
- Searching for Petronius Totem by Peter Unwin: this book is very similar in subject and tone. Unwin is very interested in the death of the author and the death of the book, and by setting his satirical tale in modern day Canada, I not only understood more of the jokes, but got to consider some very modern literary issues. Namely, how to deal with authors behaving badly, and how technology is affecting (or killing?) literary culture.
- Come Barbarians series by Todd Babiak: Babiak’s series is set in 1990s Paris, and anti-hero Christopher Kruse also becomes embroiled in political intrigue and murder. These are more straightforward thrillers, but Babiak manages to create a character with such depth, it becomes more that just a “whodunnit”. Binet creates a pair of main characters to guide the reader through the heady world for French semiotics, a detective and a professor, and while they serve that purpose very well, they never became more than literary devices. Meanwhile, I’m so enamored with Mr. Kruse that I’ve embarrassed myself in front of the (local) author more than once… still waiting on the third book in this series!
- The Sellout by Paul Beatty: no thematic or time-and-place parallels here, but The Sellout maintains a relentless pace that The Seventh Function of Language approached, but couldn’t quite achieve. A satire of race relations in America, Beatty packs every sentence with jokes and wordplay. It made my head spin, in a good way. Binet gets off some great one-liners, and creates some deliciously uncomfortable scenarios for his characters to play out, but these are often followed by a section that drags. It just doesn’t soar the way Beatty’s writing does.
If you watch the video below, you’ll get a bonus middle-grade recommendation for young semioticians. In the meantime, watch for this one to make the shortlist, but it won’t be my pick to win.
A few more reviews and articles to check out:
- Tony’s Reading List’s review
- Words and Peace’s review
- Interview with Laurent Binet in Partisan Magazine