Eddy Bellegueule was a disappointment to his family from a very young age. He was his father’s first son, and his father wanted to prove his manliness by having a manly son. Eddy was not what his father saw as manly, and he’s focal about it:
He would ask my mother if I was really a boy, Is he a fucking boy or what? He’s always crying, he’s scared of the dark, he can’t really be a boy. Why? Why the fuck is he like that? Why? I didn’t raise him like a girl, I raised him like the other boys. What the fuck? You could hear the despair in his voice. The truth—not that he knew it—was that I asked myself the same questions. I was obsessed with them. Why was I always crying? Why was I afraid of the dark? Since I was a little boy, why couldn’t I really act like one? And most of all: Why did I behave the way I did, with my strange airs, the huge gestures I would make with my hands as I spoke (big queeny gestures), feminine intonations, my high-pitched voice? I didn’t know where whatever it was that made me different had come from, and not knowing hurt.
This work of autofiction (or autobiographical fiction) by Édouard Louis and translated from French by Michael Lucey is full of suffering. Eddy doesn’t just suffer from his father’s tirades at home. He’s bullied and mocked and doesn’t have many friends. He plays sometimes with boys in the neighborhood, but that play turns sexual in ways that Eddy finds both arousing and horrifying. He tries to date girls, to prove to himself and everyone else that he’s not gay, but that doesn’t work at all. His existence is mostly brutal and miserable.
The book is set in the recent past, but the extreme brutality (and even the rare moments of playfulness) seems like it comes from generations ago. Perhaps it’s because Eddy lives in an isolated rural community. Or maybe this kind of violence is not as distant as many of us like to think. Of course abuse of this type still goes on today. Of course it does. And it’s to our shame as a society.
Still, the book suffers from the fact the Eddy is himself not much more than a vessel to receive abuse. Perhaps that’s meant to show abuse’s power to dehumanize, but it kept the novel from breaking my heart as much as I think it wanted to. Plus, the extremity of the abuse, coming from so many quarters, caused it to lose its impact. Again, that may be demonstrating a real dynamic, but I had to harden myself to keep reading.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about toxic masculinity and how the need some men feel to prove their manliness may lead to eruptions of violence. This book shows how that operates at an extreme and literal way. But, I think, it’s often more subtle, exhibited not through violent acts of bullying but through other forms of dominance. There’s nothing subtle about this book, and, for me, that kept the story from having much power. It was short, though, and that kept it from feeling like a total bludgeoning. If it had been much longer, the lack of subtlety would have been a serious flaw.