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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

How's the Pain ?

Pascal Garnier

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To purchase How's the Pain ?

Title: How's the Pain ?
Author: Pascal Garnier
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 163 pages
Original in: French
Availability: How's the Pain ? - US
How's the Pain ? - UK
How's the Pain ? - Canada
Comment va la douleur ? - Canada
How's the Pain ? - India
Comment va la douleur ? - France
Come va il tuo dolore ? - Italia
¿Qué tal el dolor? - España
  • French title: Comment va la douleur ?
  • Translated by Emily Boyce

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Our Assessment:

A- : nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Lire . 9/2006 Delphine Peras
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/4/2020 John Banville
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/8/2014 Marilyn Stasio

  From the Reviews:
  • "Comment va la douleur ? est un texte assez court, formidablement construit, admirablement écrit -- impossible de résister à son sens de la formule (.....) Mais surtout, Pascal Garnier témoigne à nouveau de son habileté à mettre en scène des gens de peu, des individus auxquels la vie n'a pas fait de cadeau" - Delphine Peras, Lire

  • "(S)urely Garnier's masterpiece" - John Banville, The New York Review of Books

  • "(A) deliciously dark tale about a professional hit man's last job." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review


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:

       The central characters in How's the Pain ? are variously injured: Simon Marechall is on the verge of retirement, doing one last job, but already very ill; the twenty-one-year old Bernard Ferrand, whom Simon hires on the spur of the moment to help him get around, maimed himself at his job; and Bernard's mother is a barely functioning alcoholic. The elder two practically embrace death: as the novel's opening chapters reveal, Simon is prepared to end it all (the novel proper then circling back to his meeting Bernard and describing the events that have now led Simon to take this final step), while Bernard's mother, Anaïs does her best to drink herself to death in her son's absence. Life's pain (the French 'douleur' of the original title a more far-reaching term than simple 'pain') manifests itself physically -- but, of course, there's also more to it than just that.
       Simon's sickness makes for a frailty and vulnerability that contrasts with his confidence and determination, but it's not just his failing health that undermines his disciplined approach to life (and death). While Bernard, the picture of naïveté, seems to be the bumbler, despite Simon's best efforts everything seems to unravel around him as well. Only in his final, precisely choreographed act can Simon be in control one more time -- though he's putting his life, as it were, in Bernard's hands.
       How's the Pain ? is a road trip story of sorts. What it all leads to is revealed six pages into the novel, but the story really is about how they got there. Simon chances upon Bernard; he appreciates the young man's "guileless common sense" and he could use a driver, so he offers to engage him for a few days. The naïve Bernard has never had any sort of adventure (or much of a father-figure in his life), and he's easily won over by this impressive man's ways; getting way more adventure than he could have bargained for he remains more or less innocently nonplussed. Early on there's a scene where: "Bernard did not dare look up" -- and more or less averting his eyes seems to be his way of dealing with all that he experiences here.
       Simon explains he is in 'pest control' -- "Getting rid of rats, mice, pigeons, fleas, cockroaches, that sort of thing" -- but his interpretation of 'pests' is rather more ... expansive (and the tool of his trade a gun with a silencer). Bernard is the last to understand that -- but then he doesn't want to understand it. Simon treats him well, has taken him on an adventure the likes of which he could never have imagined (but then for Bernard just getting to drive such a fancy car is an unimaginable treat), and he doesn't really want to think of the downside.
       Along the way they encounter a damsel in distress -- a girl with a baby, having it out with her no-good man. Each helps her out, in their own way: when Bernard sees the man hitting her he stops the car and insists on doing something -- "The kid peed on me, it's like we're family", he tries to explain, referring to the fleeting earlier encounter -- but of course he's fairly helpless himself. Take-charge Simon takes charge and deals with the situation ... professionally. They give the mother and child a ride, but Bernard can't let go quite so easily -- already having found himself an ersatz-father, he wants to hold onto this instant-family -- wife and child ! -- too.
       Needless to say, Simon isn't thrilled -- and it doesn't help that, despite executing his one last assignment perfectly -- "Another job well done. Simon could bow out honourably" --, professional complications prevent him from leaning back and simply enjoying the fruits of his labor (or yet another new friend Bernard makes, the vacationing Belgian taxidermist, Rose).
       How's the Pain ? is a novel of life's dreams and disappointments, and the course one finds oneself on: the failures of Bernard's mother, Anaïs, are the ones unspooled to most obvious (and comic) effect, but the older characters have each gone down some dark road of their very own, from dead-preserving Rose to deadly Simon. Bernard and the young mother, Fiona, sense opportunity -- a life ahead of them, even as its contours are still completely unclear -- yet the only way to embrace it is to do what is right by Simon -- following, at least to some degrees, past the moral threshold he long ago crossed. At one point Bernard and Fiona make a run for it, as it were, but upright Bernard can't let the father-figure down and returns to the fold; he can't quite know what that means when he makes that decision -- and yet the reader knows what he'll ultimately do, since that was revealed early on.
       Garnier's noir drips with moral ambiguities. How's the Pain ? is also a novel filled with dark sort of humor -- not the forced and artificial joking of so much fiction, but feeling true to life (in all its absurdity).
       This is remarkable fiction, cold and humane at the same time, pitch-black dark yet not bitter, ugly yet elegant. Garnier was a talent, and that's on good display again here. Yes, this is light fiction, but about as profound (and well-written) as light fiction gets.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 April 2014

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How's the Pain ?: Reviews: Other books by Pascal Garnier under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Pascal Garnier lived 1949 to 2010.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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