To publicly share the details of life post-breakup would be an embarrassment for most people, but Red Is My Heart does not explore disturbing details about the relationship or the breakup. Instead we are taken into the mind of a man as he meanders through the trivial, often delirious, times of his suffering. This is presented as a good suffering, though, almost enjoyable. The heartbroken man does not immediately create a dating profile on the internet, he doesn’t mention owning a cell phone, and when he is on the computer, overcome by boredom, he searches for his street on eBay.
The first page is a disruption of the modern psyche and a departure from the novels of unrequited love that have come before it. “Today I Posted” is the first line, and it is safe to assume posted is meant in the modern context of the internet and social media. The narrator continues his disconnected thought by saying “you a letter, a very beautiful letter,” but by the end of the paragraph the letter is never sent, never read by its intended audience. Here, Antoine Laurain departs from the epistolary style of Bill Callahan’s Letters to Emma Bowlcut and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. This new work of suffering reads closer to the style of autofiction, like the journal entries of an abandoned lover.
This is a lover lost in a city that once felt like home and now feels like a prison. He stays in his neighborhood and compares the streets to the rings of hell traversed by Dante. He mentions Dante and his love of Beatrice, and recounts the story of another writer who suffered from not being loved by the woman he desired, Alain-Fournier. Fournier followed a beautiful woman through the streets of Paris all the way to her home. Red Is My Heart’s narrator tries to retrace this path but is impeded by tourists and walkers. And here we are introduced to the people of Paris living in reality, while the narrator is steeped in delirium, regularly waking up at 4:15 a.m. while following phantom threads neither here nor there to repair his sense of self and create a new routine.
It is the ability of those that suffer to revel in the unreality of life, to make their own meaning from what they experience. The unhinged lover, broken, has nothing to discover but the magic among the mundane. The way he orients his new life is by immersing himself in the wonders of the city. He also goes to bars and cafés.
In one passage he returns to the old building of his ex. He still knows her code. In Paris, building codes are very intimate. Knowing someone’s code is almost like having a key to their house and direct access to them. The narrator goes inside the building, only into the hallway, but after the breakup something criminal seeps into the visit to his ex’s building when he realizes she still lives there, and he feels like a stalker. His world is turned upside down while hers appears to remain constant.
Inanimate objects play inordinate roles throughout the short novel. There are watches, jackets, boots for a trip to Sweden, discarded hard-drives, Cross fountain pens, and keyrings never used. These are accompanied by the vertiginous images of apartment buildings, airplanes, hot air balloons, ladders leaning against vertical towers too tall to reach the top, ladders floating in the sky, and key holes that seem to always have the eye of some unwanted watcher peering through.
Along with the writing, drawings are included from artist Le Sonneur, who is known for making street art that is interactive. Phone numbers can be called, buttons can be pushed, and even the narrator sends flowers to the building of a woman murdered more than 100 years ago. Paris is a place of public art on a grand scale, yet Le Sonneur scales down the aggrandizement for a bigger impact. The fact the works disappear adds to the importance of the perspective of those people passing it by. The unsuspecting narrator happens upon one of these temporary installations and comes to find out it was indeed Le Sonneur, a self-referential and playful admission that the two of them are working on a project of re-enchanting us throughout the book. If the romance of the city is being lost to modernity it is the mission of the artist and the writer to help recreate it in this work.
As the narrator says about the work of Le Sonneur, “his art does not last and serves no purpose,” the same might be said about the novel itself. The breakdown of the book is the shallowness of the emotion. The book seems to play with the experience of losing love, and without an actual purpose. Perhaps the book is a performance of suffering, held together by the drawings, sincere and yet mocking the French ideal of romance. Not to say the book is cold; it burns through its own pages, allowing us to finish the book feverishly. It is a fun read and a worthwhile journey for anyone who has been in love or enjoys the suffering of others. There are more things to find in moments of despair than we realize, and Laurain rewards us. Although humanity might be consumed by the sun there is hope for the all of us to love and be loved.
Red Is My Heart, by Antoine Laurain & Le Sonneur. London, England, UK: Gallic Books, January 2022. 192 pages. £14.99, paper.
Jordan Nunes lives in Sacramento, CA. He is the co-founder of Basset Hound Press. His work has appeared in Irrelevant Press and CHAPPED.