Review: The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet

Laurent Binet’s second novel is one of the most inventive books I’ve read all year – but it’s weird. Good too, mind. But weird.

In 1980, the French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician, Roland Barthes is run over by a laundry van on the way home from lunch with French Presidential candidate Francois Mitterand. So far, this is true, but this is where Binet jumps off into fiction, blending historical fact with some brilliantly inventive writing, to create a detective novel where everything is more than it seems:

What if Barthes was murdered, because he had uncovered a secret function of language – one that could be used “to convince anyone else to do anything at all in any situation“?

What follows is a detective thriller that tours French intellectual society in the 80s, runs through linguistic theory, and toys with the idea of what a novel is. In fact, the line between what is fact and what is fiction is never quite clear to the reader (was philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, and feminist Julie Kristeva‘s father really in the Bulgarian secret service? Did French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser really murder his wife? Was French Deconstructionist Jacques Derrida really mauled to death by dogs in a cemetery?).

Binet’s style is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Whilst most of the book is written from the point of view of the investigating detective and his semiotician sidekick, there are bits where Binet changes everything around altogether and just writes from his own point of view. The effect is electrifying – you just never know what Binet will come up with next.

In the end, things become so outlandish, that the protaganist starts to suspect he’s in a book himself:

“In the course of a few months he has lived through more extraordinary events than he expected to witness in his entire lifetime… Simon knows how to spot the novelistic when he sees it…

‘I think I’m trapped in a fucking novel,’ he says.”

Not every writer can get away with this kind of thing, but Binet pulls it off with aplomb – mainly because he keeps it rolling along with bucket loads of humour. There’s hardly a page in the book where someone or something isn’t parodied (in one memorable passage, French writer and critic Phillipe Sollers is castrated for losing an argument with Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, and semiotician, Umberto Eco – in a scene which echoes Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club).

Yep, I recommend this book – but don’t expect an easy ride. You’ll be happy you stuck it out in the end though.

So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

Let me know in the comments!


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