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by Laurent Binet ; translated by Sam Taylor

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-374-26156-6
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A famous semiotician has been killed. Call the police! And the post-structuralists!

It’s 1980, and Roland Barthes has been struck by a van on a Paris street. He’ll later die in the hospital, and the incident initially appears to be an accident; the famous decoder of signs and symbols in everyday culture could be absent-minded and had been drinking. But as Jacques Bayard, a police superintendent, begins his investigation, dark rumblings emerge that Barthes possessed knowledge of a “seventh function of language” coveted by scholars, gangsters, and politicians alike. To make sense of the dense thickets of linguistic theory and jargon required to crack the case, Jacques recruits Simon Herzog, a young semiotician, and soon this unlikely Holmes and Watson are traveling to Italy and the United States chasing clues, in the process infiltrating the Logos Club, a secret group that hosts high-end debates that are literally blood sport (the loser consents to having a finger chopped off). Binet’s second novel (HHhH, 2012) is at once a mystery and a satire of mysteries, and though the storytelling is often baggy and thick with academic lingo, there’s more action than the intellectual setting implies. There are high-stakes motives (the “seventh function” allegedly has mind-control powers), explosions, and a healthy amount of sex (male prostitutes play a critical role in the plot). But Binet also operates on a brainier level, giving some real-life drama to the likes of Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Umberto Eco, and other thinkers who dealt in linguistic abstractions; his version of a sex scene is a union of “two desiring machines” on (symbolism alert) a dissecting table. “I think I’m trapped in a novel,” Simon says, in just one of the novel’s many overt displays of irony; students of post-structuralism will surely detect more subtle ones.

A clever and surprisingly action-packed attempt to merge abstruse theory and crime drama.