Luc Lang, Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor, Trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith, University of Nebraska Press, 2015.
In sixteen ferocious short stories, French author Luc Lang encapsulates the brutality of everyday life. Each tale is an admixture of tragedy, comedy, ridicule, and pain. Compassion lurks somewhere, perhaps, but pity is conspicuous by its absence.
Lang’s curt, agitated prose disassembles daily life with a swift, unflinching hand and examines it with a sharp, analytic eye. Skinning quotidian moments to bare, raw impulses, confusions, and the agonies underneath, the stories in Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor show the mundane grind of the everyday forces that are fueled by cruel calculation and amoral happenstance and shot through with bizarre surprise. The results are at once coldly comic and powerfully tragic.
Interpreting human interactions as a series of precise jabs and desperate flailings, Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor tells truths about the darker sides of our potential and our well-meaning urges dimmed by chance.
An extraordinary fabulist of subterranean aggression.”—Christine Ferniot
“[Luc Lang] works with enormous talent on ellipsis and on the unsaid. . . . His electrifying writing presents events in all the banality of their ugliness or sadness: the firing of a good worker injured on the job, the foiled attempts of a superior to wrest sexual favors from a subordinate, the failing memory of an old man. . . . Lang shows the cruelty of the world without ever pronouncing the word ‘cruelty.’”—Les Inrockuptibles
Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor collects sixteen stories in a hundred pages; a nice touch, given the title, is that the numbered chapters pass over '13', the way elevators skip over that floor (number), jumping from 12 to 14. Only two of the tales clock in at ten pages or longer; for the most part Lang's stories cut quickly to the quick. And they certainly live up to their billing as 'cruel tales'.
Even where there's a darkness or outright sense of menace right from the start, Lang can surprise with the dark turn he takes. 'Private Life' is one of the longer tales, the narrator, Laetitia -- whose husband has left her for a twenty-two-year-old -- working hard in order to make a good impression and to make the provisional contract she's currently on a permanent one with her employer. Her sleazy boss has designs on her, and she tries to string him along until her permanent contract comes through -- but he makes it clear what's required of her for that to happen. Laetitia is resourceful, Laetitia has a plan -- and yet even as it goes exactly like she hoped Lang doesn't spare her one last cruel turn in the resolution.
Several of Lang's characters cause harm to others -- there are quite a few spattered bodies (and he really does have a penchant for the high-impact splatter), along with a few more minor injuries --; often they do so indirectly but rarely inadvertently. Several practically stage the circumstances so as to be witness more than participant, and able to walk (or drive) away without concern. Others are more directly accountable. Regardless, these are largely stories of also voyeuristic thrill, "the windshield a 70-mm screen", for example -- or, in 'Face ?' an actual film the horrific record of what happened.
Aside from their cruel turns, Lang also employs a distinctive style in his story-telling, with run-on sentences that are intentionally not smooth but shift abruptly, grabbing hold and not letting go. The beginning of 'Escalation' is as typical as any passage:
And she slapped him with all her might: answer ! admit it ! react ! --- she slapped him again -- he got up, the Bulgarian-style yogurt in his left hand, and threw it in her face -- she reciprocated immediately -- the two of them now with face, hair, chest streaked with yogurt, she closed her fist, and bonk ! punched him in the nose, broke his glasses, a splinter lodging in his left eyebrow -- he slapped her in turn with the fury of a condemned man -- they were both bleeding, blood running over their lips, dripping from their chins like strawberry milk --
And on, and on, for another whole page. The sentences and scenes don't always go on at such length without more breaks, but it's his fundamental technique. It's effective, too, and translator Nicholson-Smith maintains it well in his English translation.
Cruel Tales from the Thirteenth Floor is dark stuff, the ugly side of people and of fate. There's a lot of gusto too, a love of life, and death, and the power one can have in one's hands, which gives many of the tales an even creepier feel. It's all quite impressively done, making for a strong but very dark collection. - M.A.Orthofer