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Don't judge this book by the cover

A titillating picture on the front of School's Out doesn't aptly reflect the choppy story.

By Thomas Frobisher, Special to the Times
Published July 15, 2007


School's Out
By Christophe Dufosse
Penguin, 336 pages, $14

- - - 

On the front cover of Christophe Dufosse's debut novel, School's Out, a small throng of long-legged teenage girls stands on a crowded patio, uniformed in collared shirts, pleated skirts and ties. If you were wondering: Yes, they are wearing high heels, and, yes, it does appear to be a windy day outside.

On the back, we read about Pierre Hoffman, a 25-year-old teacher who takes over for "his friend" Eric Capadis after the latter's apparent suicide. Of course, there is something bizarre and vaguely threatening about the class he takes over. It is they who are responsible for the "apparent" in "apparent suicide." In short: Perhaps Capadis' death was not a suicide after all. And if it wasn't, who will be next?

Never mind that Pierre Hoffman is actually 32, or that he explains five pages into the book that he "never tried to form any kind of friendship" with Capadis (who actually is 25). Never mind even that the closest things in the book to the "cool, sexy, sinister" promises of the cover (courtesy of Esquire) are the brief and usually vague descriptions of the students' relationships (a belt comes undone) and an even briefer discourse on the difference between "active paedophilia" and "passive paedophilia" among teachers.

What is troublesome about the way Penguin has chosen to decorate the cover of the American edition of Dufosse's novel, which won the Prix Premier Roman in his native France (one of that country's most prestigious awards for a first novel), is not so much what they put on there as what they left out, which, as it turns out, is quite a lot.

For example, there is Nora, a young nurse Hoffman meets at the hospital in the wake of Capadis' apparent suicide, who has skin "the colour of weak tea" and a nail-biting problem. There is the hitchhiker who has a dog named Luc and a boyfriend named Daniel ("but everyone calls him Dany"). Then there's Nora's jealous ex-boyfriend, who waits outside by Hoffman's car singing a song that Hoffman recognizes as "Careless Whisper, for a long time the soundtrack to an advertisement for a brand of hypoallergenic shower gel," and who has a stutter.

These are just three of the characters introduced in the first 20 pages of Dufosse's novel. Each of them is given no fewer than three pages of narration, and, of the three, only Nora reappears in a later scene (some 200 pages later and for the duration of a very awkward first date with Hoffman).

Chapter Two offers six more characters by name, half never spoken of again, and by the time we finally meet the children - Class 9F, which provides the central conceit of the story - in Chapter Three, it is with a feeling not unlike finally seeing your friends arrive at a party you showed up to about two hours too early. We are ready for action, which is why is it particularly exasperating when Hoffman hands out to the class some questionnaires and then promptly lapses into a 10-page flashback covering in brief the history of punk rock and its effect on his childhood before releasing them all for a two-week holiday.

By now, it is fairly obvious that School's Out is not the suspenseful thriller we had expected. Dufosse seems to be in no hurry to go anywhere particular with his story. We get a sense rather that it is really the minutiae he is interested in, and it should be, since it is the little things with which Dufosse shows himself to be adept.

A girl in the convenience store in the last chapter is said to look so bored that "you would have felt like issuing her with an impromptu invitation to the zoo." Poncin, the principal, folds up his newspaper with "the false ease of a Calvinist banker feeling guilty about a moment's relaxation during the conduct of his earthly affairs."

It is the main plot line, meanwhile, with which Dufosse seems to struggle, and there is a sense throughout that he is writing this particular story not out of any overwhelming desire to do so but out of some self-imposed duty toward his reader.

And, indeed, when the ending finally does come, it is done in such a brutal fashion that it seems Dufosse resented the whole thing having to end this way and was eager just to finish it. "It was as though I were, second by second, becoming aware of the whole process," Hoffman reflects, "of the connections between things."

That makes one of us.

Thomas Frobisher studies creative writing at Florida State University.


[Last modified July 13, 2007, 11:55:22]

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