Thursday, October 13, 2011

Crime and Punishment meets Princess Di in Paris (Books - An Accident in August by Laurence Cossé)

I am a huge fan of Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore, so I was delighted to stumble across her 2003 novel An Accident in August at one of my favorite New York haunts. The premise is simple. Lou, who works a simple job and lives a largely uneventful life in Paris, happens to drive into the Alma tunnel on her way home one night as a Mercedes speeds by her, swerves, and crashes headlong into a post killing its passengers. The passengers were Princess Di, Dodi, their bodyguard and driver. When Lou discovers the identity of the passengers she becomes consumed by paranoia. Too frightened to come forward, she begins trying to cover her tracks.

When I began reading An Accident in August, I found it gimmicky. It reeked of its own clever opportunism, and its language (though this could have been the translation) was hyperdramatic, sensationalist.
And the question kept coming at her, nagging, the question with no answer: why did I run away? Why didn't I stop? What came over me, turning me into some terrified rabbit, not even a thought about stopping to help or act as a witness, thinking only of saving my own skin?

Saving my own skin, no one else's; like some rabbit about to be skinned, yes, bushy-tailing it out of there.

Then it came to her, like a bolt of lightning. It was death she had run away from...
But Cossé is skilled at creating a claustrophobic sort of trappedness. The book this one most reminded me of was Crime and Punishment in that most of the "action" occurs in the head of someone who has committed a crime as they run from themselves. However, it isn't merely being blamed for what happened that Lou dreads, it is the media attention this will attract and the fact that she will forever been known at "the driver who..." I find it interesting that both An Accident in August and A Novel Bookstore share this theme of being exposed by the media. Cossé, who worked as a journalist, seems to cast journalists as the bad guys. This sense that Lou's life will never again be her own drives her to some irrational choices, but the thing that really got me to stay with this book wasn't wondering whether she would get caught, since we know the driver was never found, the real point of interest was the way being in this position made Lou change her life. Raskolnikov is tormented, but he only succeeds in running towards himself. Lou tries to run away. This kind of attempted transformation of character (since I won't tell you whether she succeeds or not) is something most people dream of doing at some point in their lives. If only I had.... If only I was..... If only I looked.... One function of a good piece of art is that it can help us imagine such a metamorphosis. Cossé's novel does that in spades and that, I found, was the fun of it.

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