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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

School's Out

Christophe Dufossé

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase School's Out

Title: School's Out
Author: Christophe Dufossé
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 326 pages
Original in: French
Availability: School's Out - US
School's Out - UK
School's Out - Canada
L'heure de la sortie - Canada
L'heure de la sortie - France
  • French title: L'heure de la sortie
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside

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Our Assessment:

B : some good detail and ideas, but doesn't do enough with the kids

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 25/5/2007 Thom Geier
The Guardian . 21/1/2006 Paul Bailey
The Guardian . 20/1/2007 Jane Housham
The New Yorker . 17/9/2007 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Although Pierre's narration can be off-puttingly aloof (perhaps Shaun Whiteside's rather stilted translation is to blame), School's Out is the literary version of a citron pressé mouth-puckeringly tart and refreshing." - Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Class 9F would have inspired Mr Chips to say goodbye after a single lesson. These children are Gallic to the core, briefed as they are in the finer nuances of existential gloom. (…) Whenever they talk to Pierre, they sound like Heidegger on a particularly oppressive day. Dufossé chooses not to make them memorably distinguishable, and if I cannot reveal why he does so it is in the best interests of potential readers. (…) I was convinced by the book even while its plot was in abeyance, as Pierre -- contemplating the perpetually white sky -- tries to find his raison d'être. Shaun Whiteside's translation expertly captures the slightly dispiriting spirit of the original text." - Paul Bailey, The Guardian

  • "While the apparently affectless children supply enough "thriller" elements to keep a blurb-writer happy, School's Out is really a philosophical novel in the great tradition of Gide, Sartre and Camus, a serious consideration of existential alienation in contemporary French society." - Jane Housham, The Guardian

  • "At its heart, the novel is a subtle and disconcerting meditation on the relationship between teachers and students (Dufossé is a former teacher), and, despite digressive subplots, the central mystery -- what’s wrong with the students ? -- enthralls." - The New Yorker

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       School's Out begins -- after epigraphs from Kafka and Stephen King -- with an apparent suicide, twenty-five year old teacher Éric Capadis having him flung himself out of a classroom window. The narrator of the book, Pierre Hoffman, is asked to take over some of his classes -- a few hours a week with the class of the thirteen-year-olds of 9F. Hoffman is already in his mid-thirties and sounds a bit jaded: he's not sitting for the teachers' exam that might mean some professional advancement, and he's apparently working on a postgraduate thesis -- "an essay it literary physiognomy, if you like", in which he's trying to show through photographs that: "writers always resemble their writings" (the only two exceptions he's found so far being Walser and Hawthorne). But there's not much mention of this work beyond an early stage-setting mention.
       The class at the centre of School's Out, 9F, is a vaguely sinister assemblage, well-behaved but leaving behind the feeling that there's something ominous lurking underneath. Hoffman observes:

My initial impression was that they were neither a class, nor a group, but a gang.
       At Capadis' funeral one girl comes up to warn him. "They'll destroy you", she tells him, and:
Leave before it's too late. They'll get inside your loneliness the way they did with Monsieur Capadis.
       Hoffman doesn't seem to pay too much attention, even after the girl is attacked in what seems like obvious punishment for stepping outside the group. And it is a close-knit group: they've managed to stay together from primary (elementary) school through now -- almost unheard of, and only possible with the forceful intervention of the school authorities, who have been pressured into this. And oh, yes, not everyone made it: there have been a few other mysterious deaths among those associated with the class, a teacher who threw herself in front of a train, a classmate brutally murdered.....
       But Hoffman only teaches the class a few hours a week -- indeed, the book is almost half over before he even takes them on just for the second time. Meanwhile, there's a lot not so much on the rest of his dreary life but at least on what touches it, from the teachers' lives that he observes at some distance to his sister (and then her own suicide attempt) to his parents, recently split up and newly paired up. Hoffman seems fine muddling through, claiming he's satisfied, but the student's warning -- that his loneliness would prove to be a great vulnerability -- seems plausible from the beginning.
       Hoffman does practically go into hibernation over the school holidays, but feels compelled to defend himself, stating (if only parenthetically):
At this point in the story I should like to eliminate one misconception, and say that in my attitude towards solitude I had never flirted with the post-modern miserabilism often associated with the term.
       It's hardly convincing -- and even he has to admit:
Sometimes I lost my nerve, imagining a lonely existence in old age, meals on a television tray in a dining room stinking of old socks, underpants stiff with dry semen. But I still wanted to talk to people.
       Hoffman accepts the world around him, though the picture is an unattractive one: from a graphic description of a visit to an early punk rock performance -- a rare foray into the new, though here too Hoffman is at the periphery -- to the anonymous (and often foul) local apartment complexes, School's Out is yet another look at the French underbelly. Hoffman is yet another French protagonist who can't connect with the modern world, and is kind of lazy about trying: "Did I have any aspirations ? I don't think so." This is just another version of Houellebecq's France, a slightly different take on what Jean-Paul Dubois saw as the Vie Française (except Dufossé doesn't even let his protagonist be as sexually maniacal as Houellebecq and Dubois insist theirs are ...).
       The mystery of 9F doesn't exactly force him into action, but brings the mess of his life -- and of the French state of affairs -- into focus. Class 9F is used to getting its way, and so also with a class trip that comes as a surprise to almost everyone else. Of course, Hoffman is assigned to go along and keep an eye on them, and while he's fascinated by how they manipulate the system that's still not the only thing he harps on: he again discusses, for example, the teachers' union and its various efforts and failures, a bureaucracy that's part of a system that he can't (or won't) do much about but which, he implies, is at fault for many of the things that are wrong.
       Still, he's also a bit curious about the trip. Though perhaps not as much as he should be, as when he asks his students:
     "Why did you choose Étretat ?" I asked again, immediately realising that I hadn't yet had an answer to my first question.
     "There are cliffs," said Sandrine Botella.
       Hmmmm .....
       The trip is, of course, the climax of the book, the bus careening down the road where this is all leading. Hoffman gets a chance to get to know the kids a bit better along the way -- and reveals a bit more about himself (and what presumably ails him, and, in a sense, his generation and, indeed, France as a whole). Asked about his memories of being their age Hoffman says he can't remember a thing:
     "That's not possible. Everyone remembers."
     "Oh, it's perfectly possible. I've talked about it with people my own age. No one remembers the years they spent at middle school. There's a great blank. You can believe me on that one.
       He doesn't seem to be paying too much attention to the message he is sending, continuing in the same vein:
     "What do you do to stop believing ?"
     "As soon as I left middle school, I started to grow apart from my former classmates. I never saw them again, or if I did it was by accident. I had completely abandoned the very idea of the gang we had formed, four or five of us. I became the ideal target for advertising companies. I had turned into an adolescent who was integrated into mass culture."
       It's not clear if the kids saw the warning signs this clearly before, but they have had a different route mapped out all along. While their gang isn't entirely cohesive (one kid doesn't go on the trip, for example -- though he can't escape its consequences), they will definitely not allow the drifting apart Hoffman succumbed to. And, yes, the way they go about that does come as quite a shock. Houellebecq may have a dark view of (French) society, but as far as remorseless, hopeless dénouements go, School's Out has him beat.
       Dufossé's thirteen-year-olds aren't exactly pictures of innocence -- in fact, they're pretty obviously dripping with guilt, at least as far as some of the horrible things that have happened (and with no qualms about them) -- but he doesn't do enough with them to make their actions truly convincing. What in outline seems like a plausible scenario doesn't fully convince the way Dufossé has it unfold here. The build-up simply isn't enough to sustain the weight he ultimately burdens his book with.
       Dufossé is far more successful in describing the failure of Hoffman and French society as a whole, and it would be entirely understandable for the kids to do whatever they could to avoid becoming part of that, but he doesn't make that connexion clear enough. As is, the kids are largely just a creepy group, and any other ending Dufossé could have chosen would have seemed no less plausible -- and that can't have been his intention.
       An incredibly bleak book, School's Out is an uneasy mix of thriller and social commentary (with both strands getting in the way of each other). What Dufossé has to say about French society is interesting and often gets to the heart of the matter, but it isn't integrated well enough into his plot, the kids remaining devices rather than characters.
       Of some interest, but also frustrating.

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School's Out: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       French author Christophe Dufossé used to be a schoolteacher.

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© 2007-2008 the complete review

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