Much like his earlier The End of Eddy, Édouard Louis's History of Violence is an autobiographical “novel” in which the events that form the frame of the story are true and other parts have been imaginatively reordered. The narrative is divided into two components: Louis's first-person experience of being raped and nearly killed on Christmas Eve 2012 in Paris, and the same story as retold by Louis's sister to his brother-in-law when the character/author returns to his small hometown after the incident. Reda, his hookup-turned-rapist, is a character who makes Louis alternately uneasy, excited, protective, and fearful.
At its best, History of Violence is about the tension between desire and danger, between passion and destruction, and about how individuals heal from trauma without allowing themselves to remain perpetual victims. Against expectations, Louis's novel is an act of empowerment in a time when too many encourage responses that disempower. Throughout, the author wrestles between liberalized notions of how the world should be and conservative ones of how the world is. Throughout, we see him strip away the liberal tendency to empathize with criminals as victims of social failures.
When Louis populates his so-called origin story of masculinity with Reda, the reader is introduced to an imagined Reda as the noble embodiment of freedom, seeking chaos and discord for its own pure sake. Louis writes: “[H]e wanted to be the image of freedom at its most spectacular. It wasn't a matter of responding to some kind of conflict. He would make the conflict himself, he would produce it, he would invent it.” And by the time he's recovering from the rape, Louis is both slightly defensive of Reda—when the protagonist is recounting the story of the police—and fearful of him.
For everything else that it is, Louis's novel is a unique heir to a legacy of gay literature that has always spoken bluntly about the ways we navigate sexual interactions. As John Rechy, Gore Vidal, and many others have demonstrated, sex and violence are always a thread apart. And as an autobiographical novel, History of Violence rewards readers with authenticity about Louis's attraction to danger; a male forthrightness about sexual desire and seduction; and an honesty about the way we delude ourselves in our pursuit of sex (“That night I simply ignored anything that seemed bad about Reda…only later did it strike me how much reality I set aside in order to keep what I liked”).
The novel shows us a splintering within the stories we tell ourselves for why we do things (Louis's hatred of repression) versus a more elemental truth (Louis's fear). “[Y]ou can't send someone to prison, you can't do that, you're not capable of that,” Louis thinks to himself when his friends encourage him to go to the police. But then, he admits, “Reda would find me after he got out of prison…he would hunt me down and take revenge.” Before the night takes its brutal turn, when Louis and Reda are simply arguing about Louis's accusation that Reda might have pocketed his iPad, the narrator thinks, “He's not a murderer. You don't just run into murderers on the street. Murderers aren't skinny Kabyles. They're menacing and you don't just happen to meet them by chance.” He articulates a persistent blind spot in the modern mind's ability to recognize that evil and danger lurk everywhere.
The book's description and structure allow readers to foresee the pivotal act before we finally reach it nearly two-thirds of the way through. Louis's description of living a rape is a vividly analytical account of survival and, understandably, the novel's most powerful scene. Louis gives readers an entrance into the ways victims survive the act itself that defy conventional expectations of how we think we would act in that scenario. In place of that illusion, Louis explains the power he held, “I did what I could to muffle any groans of actual pain, letting him hear only the groans I faked…I struggled harder to give him pleasure, more pleasure, and so to end it sooner. I controlled everything, I measured everything—at least that's what I wanted, and what I told myself to do.” And when the end comes, after Louis throws Reda off afterward, he gives us an even simpler image: violence subsumed in flat, pitiful powerlessness. The attacker simpering, divested of his sexual violence and power, retreats from the act and his controller.
When Louis writes, near the end, “That's what saved me—my ability to deny the facts,” he gives us one of the most succinctly powerful descriptions of healing. Louis's novel is entangled with a history of French social theory that can sometimes make it difficult to enjoy. The title is, after all, History of Violence. It's difficult to imagine a novel having a more painfully Foucaultian title. It's sometimes hard to take Louis seriously when he writes about the power of language to shut down avenues to truth when it's read in the context his own novel. And it's patently clear Louis is far too intelligent to not be making some kind of self-aware assessment here. After all, Louis has only given the police the power he allows them to possess and his reticence about “surrendering” to the power of their language seems myopic and lightweight in comparison to the surrender to the power of Reda's physical violence.
The equivalency Louis seems fit to make is frail and modern and already dated. If an elbow threw Reda off after raping Louis, History of Violence throws off the structural violence that the author attests to. But it's also clear, not only from the novel but also from Louis's interviews and profiles, that he isn't seeking the easy answers. When Reda first attempts to strangle Louis with a scarf, the narrator explains:
“They say we can never leave language behind; they say language is the essence of being human and that it conditions everything…they say we don't think first and then organize our thoughts into language later on, for language is what allows us to think… but if language is the essence of being human, then for those fifty seconds when he was killing me, I don't know what was…”
At its root, the novel exposes the thin line separating sexuality and sexual violence. Wipe away the patina of superfluous French social theory and Louis touches on something vital and worthwhile. History of Violence is at its most meaningful when he questions those assumptions that would otherwise abdicate personal freedom and responsibility.
History of Violence is available on June 19 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.