This audacious, genre-bending debut novel fuses an academic comedy of manners with an existential murder mystery.
Translated from the French, the novel by former schoolteacher Dufossé suggests that the terrors and traumas of the early teen years transcend national boundaries. The plot begins with the apparent suicide of Eric Capadis, who apparently couldn’t resist the impulse to jump from the window of his middle-school classroom. His replacement is Pierre Hoffman, who also serves as the novel’s narrator, and who was the closest thing that Capadis had on the faculty to a friend. The parallels between the 25-year-old Pierre and his unfortunate predecessor are striking and unnerving: Both are lonely and seemingly sexless bachelors (though Pierre has an incestuous infatuation with his sister) and both do their best to resist the dysfunctional dynamics of the faculty, which can be as threatening as any of the challenges presented by a classroom full of 13-year-old students. Early on, Pierre is warned by one of those students that he should get out while he can, a suggestion that something more than suicide led to the death of Capadis. As other misfortunes bedevil these students, it appears that this particular group might be the classroom of the damned. Though the mystery sustains the narrative momentum, a deliciously black humor laced with philosophical speculation (and occasional punk-rock references) spices the prose. Pierre proves to be the most cluelessly untrustworthy of narrators, leading readers to wonder whether the students are as much of a threat to Pierre as Pierre might be to the students (or to himself). And whatever the craziness, hormonal and otherwise, inherent within the early teens, the students could hardly be more collectively maladjusted than the faculty entrusted with teaching them. The result is a tightrope performance between tragedy and farce.
Way funnier than most mysteries, and more thrilling than most comic novels.