Tuesday’s Reviews – The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet

books, dan brown, fucking funny, fucking weird, literary theory, Paris, reviews

There’s a Terry Eagleton quotation that I’ve always adored from the opening paragraph to his book After Theory. I’ve always enjoyed his writing and think he’s incredibly funny and accessible. I once met him at university and was such a ridiculous fangirl about it. I genuinely said something along the lines of “I’ve read loads of your books”. It was super cringe and, understandably, he didn’t spent too much time talking to me. I’ve never got over the embarrassment of this moment. Anyway, the aforementioned quotation really sums up everything I love about him. The opening to the books discusses the forefathers of literary criticism and the fact that nobody has been able to live up to them.

Fate pushed Roland Barthes under a Parisian laundry van, and afflicted Michel Foucault with Aids. It dispatched Lacan, Williams and Bourdieu, and banished Louis Althusser to a psychiatric hospital for the murder of his wife. It seemed that God was not a structuralist.

That final line is honestly one of the greatest literary joke I’ve ever heard. This quotation has the added benefit of teaching me that Roland Barthes was killed by being run over by a laundry van, which is a fact that caused me to be incredibly excited about Laurent Binet’s follow-up to his hit debut novel HHhH. It seems that everyone who has reviewed 7th Function has referred to his previous novel but, as I’ve not read it yet, I won’t be doing the same. I also won’t be mentioning the fact that, according to my weekly rundowns, I started reading this book way way way back at the end May. Meaning I’ve had this book on the go for about 3 months. That slump really did hit me big.

Recently, somebody on Instagram asked me if I would recommend this book because she was thinking about reading it. In my answer I tried to sum up the narrative but found it really difficult. It’s part whoddunit, part history novel, and part study of semiotics. Laurent Binet, who enjoyed mixing history with fiction in his novel HHhH has once again blurred the lines between reality and fiction. Binet takes the event of Roland Barthes death and asks the question “who killed him and why?” Now, you’d be forgiven for being a bit confused here as it is well known that nobody killed Barthes. In fact, he was accidentally knocked over by a laundry van in Paris whilst crossing the Rue des Ecoles. However, Binet isn’t interested in the pesky matter of “the truth” in 7th Function. In fact, he openly has one of his main characters regularly question whether or not he is actually just a character in a novel.

In the narrative, the author takes the historical occurrence that is Roland Barthes’ death and creates an alternate reality of the events that surrounded it. He suggests that, instead of being accidentally killed, the theorist was murdered because of a document he was carrying. This single document could have changed the landscape of linguistics forever as it is suspected to have been Russian linguist, Roman Jakobson’s, secret seventh function of language. The novel suggests that Jakoson had discovered mode of communication gave the speaker complete control over their audience. Urged into action by the French Prime Minister, Jacques Bayard, a French detective, sets out to investigate the writer’s death and discovers a world of secret societies, political scheming and a hell of a lot of sex. It’s an interesting premise that, as you’ve just seen, is a little hard to explain. Really, the best way that I have found to describe it is “the kind of book The DaVinci Code wishes it could have been”. It takes the general conspiracy theories that fuelled Dan Brown’s potboiler but elevates it by invoking the world of literary theory and philosophy.

I think one of the reasons that it took me so long to finish the book is that it’s so heavy on detail. There are moments when theories are explained and the historical context is set up. I really enjoyed these moments and, if I’m honest, the opening of this book explained the practicalities of semiotics much better than my University literary theory and criticism course ever did. However, I did find myself being able to read less of the book at a time and needed to have a break reading something a bit lighter. It’s an intense and serious read that, if you’re in the right frame of mind, is incredibly rewarding. Especially with the issues that it raises that have a resonance in today’s world. Whole sections of the narrative discuss the power of words to persuade and convince people. It raises questions about the implications of being able to get people to do what you want simply by using the right words. In these turbulent political times, all over the world, it feels very relevant and important.
At the same time, 7th Function is a very fun novel. It’s a post-modern and very self-aware novel that never takes itself or its premise too seriously. It satirises that era of French society and, in a very Midnight in Paris kind of way, it opens to the door to the past. You can’t help but enjoy every moment that Binet name drops a famous theorist and then places them into very nonacademic situations. As someone who wrote an essay about Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, it was a bit disconcerting to have him popping up regularly getting blowjobs from male prostitutes. Disconcerting but still fun. In a way, 7th Function is the perfect blending of highbrow and lowbrow content. On the one hand, it has a lot to say about the history of literary theory, French society and the basics of reality. On the other, it’s just kind of silly and weird narrative.
Ultimately, though, 7th Function is just a great book. It is well written and the potentially gimmicky blending of reality with fiction is handled well. The research that went into this book was is so good and is so carefully interwoven with the made-up parts of the story that it’s sometimes difficult to tell one from the other. There are also moments of incredible drama and fantastic action sequences. We see a very exciting car chase as our heroes escape from a group of Bulgarian assassins. What I love most about 7th Function is that Binet, in the midst of his reverence for the writing of these past French heroes, never loses sight of his main purpose: to entertain. This is a very dense and challenging read but it always maintains its sense of fun and accessibility. It is easy to read and get lost within the narrative. It may have taken me 3 fucking months to finish this but I’m incredibly glad that I did. One day, when I’ve finally read HHhH, I’ll go back to this book and give it the time and attention that it really deserves.

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