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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Anomaly

by
Hervé Le Tellier


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

To purchase The Anomaly



Title: The Anomaly
Author: Hervé Le Tellier
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 391 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Anomaly - US
The Anomaly - UK
The Anomaly - Canada
L'anomalie - Canada
L'anomalie - France
Die Anomalie - Deutschland
L'anomalia - Italia
La anomalía - España
  • French title: L'anomalie
  • Translated by Adriana Hunter
  • Prix Goncourt, 2020

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an interesting thought-experiment, enjoyably presented

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 18/10/2020 Raphaëlle Leyris
The NY Times . 3/12/2021 Sarah Lyall
TLS . 18-25/12/2020 H.Korthals Altes
The Washington Post A 30/11/2021 Ron Charles


  From the Reviews:
  • "Its plot might have been borrowed from “The Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror,” but it movingly explores urgent questions about reality, fate and free will. If our lives might not be our own and we end up dying either way, how should we live ? (...) (H)is writing, well served by Adriana Hunter’s graceful translation from the French, is nimble and versatile. And it’s impossible not to feel tenderness toward the bewildered characters, with their valiant efforts to make sense of the unfathomable and to rewrite their stories according to the new reality. (...) As you finish this provocative book, you might still find yourself wondering what it is. Speculative fiction about whether reality is actually real ? A delicate paean to the human capacity for improvement ? A warning about how easily we could mess it all up ?" - Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

  • "Le Tellier gently mocks a generation desperately in quest of theories (and protocols) to abide by and incapable of endorsing personal freedom. With his virtuoso erudition and references to fiction and history alike, he dismisses them all with delightful playfulness. Perhaps, like one of his characters who writes that love saves us from constantly looking for meaning in life, he is more of a romantic than he would admit." - Henriette Korthals Altes, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Make sure any carry-on expectations are placed completely under the seat in front of you. Although Americans are frustratingly xenophobic when they make reading choices, The Anomaly, translated by Adriana Hunter, could be the rare exception. It’s French, but not trop francais. The book’s intellectuality is neatly camouflaged by its impish humor. (...) The novel soars, though, when it focuses instead on individual passengers from the Air France flight(s). (...) (A) flight of imagination you’ll be rolling over in your mind long after deplaning." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

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:

       There are two anomalies in The Anomaly: one is a work by one Victør Miesel, titled like the novel itself, which furnishes one of the epigraphs for Le Tellier's book as a whole, as well as then epigraphs for each of its three parts. The other is the central, staggering event in the novel, a truly anomalous occurrence, and one that changes everything.
       Victør Miesel -- actually simply Victor Miesel, the 'ø' a variation with which he signs only this work, and which his editor notes is: "none other than the symbol for the empty set" (Le Tellier is also a mathematician ...) -- is a writer who has had some critical but no popular success; "his sales have never gone beyond a few thousand copies", and he makes a living not from his fiction but as a translator. The anomaly is his seventh book, and rather different from his previous ones:

It isn't a novel, or a confession, oe even a succession of unconnected dazzling sentences or brilliant truisms. It's a strange book, thrillingly fast-paced, unputdownable [....] A dark, very immediate text in which even the banter is painful
       Le Telliers's The Anomaly doesn't resemble Miesel's that closely; it's certainly more of a traditional kind of novel -- though certainly also quite fast-paced. Both, however, are, in a sense, triggered by the same event: the Air France flight AF006 from Paris to New York of 10 March 2021, and the turbulence it hits when it reaches the North American coast, a storm which is: "the most violent and the most sudden in the last ten years". After some terrifying moments, the plane did eventually land safely. The turbulence was bad enough to cause some damage; still, it seems everyone came through unscathed.
       The first part of The Anomaly -- act one of the three-act work, as it were -- covers the period March to June, 2021 -- when, among other things, Victør Miesel wrote his latest work, and it quickly became a great success. Some of the chapters in this part are set on board the fateful flight, describing the scenes in the cockpit, under Captain Markle, during the most stressful moments of the flight, but the focus is mostly on the passengers, including Miesel, in the weeks after they had safely landed.
       The novel begins promisingly with hitman Blake -- his professional, rather than real name. He is a consummate professional, a high-priced and meticulous killer for hire -- and leads a double life, as, as 'Joe', he: "runs a delightful Paris-based company that does home deliveries of vegetarian meals" together with his wife.
       A variety of other figures are introduced, with generally incidental mention that they were also on board that memorable flight. But while the memory of that flight-experience might have faded some by late June, it becomes clear that something still connects the various pasengers, as several of the chapters close with agents from the FBI or similar intelligence and law enforcement agencies coming to see them. The scenes from the cockpit, with the flight hitting that devastating storm and then emerging from it, also are unusual beyond simply capturing what the plane went through during those frightening moments, with Captain Markle finding his communications with ground control rather out of the ordinary -- so much so that he suspects someone is playing a joke on him.
       Beyond those on the flight, we're also introduced to Princeton mathematician Adrian Miller who, on 24 June, also finds himself whisked away by the authorities. Adrian, a probabilities expert, had been involved in a government project some two decades earlier, charged in light of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks to figure out all the possible scenarios of what could go wrong in air-travel and how to react to each case, so that the authorities would have a playbook as to how to deal with any situation at hand.
       It's an impressive and comprehensive playbook: fifteen hundred pages long, covering some five hundred basic situations. And they really did try to cover all eventualities:
     They left nothing out; if the Pentagon had asked them to present all the possible outcomes of heads or tails, they would have come up with three: heads, tails and the rare incidence of the coin deciding to balance vertically on its edge. But in April 2002, ten days after the report was submitted, the DoD sent it back with a question written in red felt pen: "What if we're confronted with a case that fits none of the situations covered ?"
     Tina rolled her eyes: How about the hypothesis where the flipped coin stays suspended in the air ?
       And, of course, it is exactly such an extraordinary occurrence that has happened -- the equivalent of a flipped coin not coming up heads or tails but staying suspended in the air.
       The protocol Adrian and his colleague Tina had written up for this eventuality included them being basically on call to deal with such an incident that isn't already covered in their playbook, should it ever happen -- and now, on 24 June 2021, 106 days after the turbulent flight AF006 had landed, it has, and they have gotten the call. What they then face, and what Le Tellier serves up, is, indeed, a baffling anomaly.
       The experts come up with a few possible explanations as to what exactly happened, and the one that they figure is the most likely has some earth-shattering implications -- suggesting, in fact, that everything we believed about the world is wrong. As one of the scientists laments:
Adrian, if that theory is the right one, then we're living a sort of cave allegory, but to the power of n. And it's unbearable !
       If the authorities get themselves into quite the tizzy about what this means and how to handle the situation, the passengers from the flight are more immediately and extremely confronted with the consequences. The introductions from earlier in the novel set the stage for how these then play out, the variety of people and their personal situations then making for some quite different scenarios. Cool, calm, and collected Blake's -- an outlier in every sense -- is one of the more amusing and satisfying ones, but the many different situations of the various characters make for interesting thought-experiment's, especially about human behavior, that Le Tellier plays out here.
       There is the tantalizing -- and woefully underdeveloped -- suggestion that this is not the first time this has happened, as Chinese president Xi Jinping notes:
They're in the same shit that we were in last April with the Beijing-Shenzen flight
       But the Chinese don't share that information, and nothing more is said on that matter .....
       And Le Tellier remains focused on the human-experience level, of how this affects the parties most closely involved (and then the masses beyond, when word gets out). Curiously, he doesn't have the scientists try to get to the root of the problem, as it were; essentially, the anomaly amounts to a glitch -- and surely what every scientist would want to try to figure out is how, in essence, to fix (and/or more fundamentally, how to get at) the code -- a fascinating problem. But Le Tellier is more interested in the consequences of what the anomaly reveals -- and how people react to that -- than in considering the idea of whether there is anything to be done about it. (Action is, eventually, taken -- in the book's conclusion -- and it's a clever enough (fade) out, a brute force (non-)solution by the unnamed American president who is worried about things getting out of hand and can't think of any other way of dealing with a repeat of the situation -- but it's also an easy out for Le Tellier, and it's a bit of a shame he didn't play things out differently, or at least longer.)
       When word gets out about the anomaly, "the world enters a vacuum of meaning" -- with, of course, no small number of armchair- and other philosophers quickly volunteering their say. But Le Tellier, more interested in showing than telling (much less analyzing), doesn't delve too deeply in what this new world order might bring with it; some American religious fanatics laying siege to the Stephen Colbert show is pretty much the height of all the to-do. Along the way, some of the issues are addressed, but mostly at a fairly superficial level: the carefully scripted Colbert show, complete with the occasional ill-advised ad-lib, sums up Le Tellier's own approach pretty well as well. Of course, that is also part of the point: The Anomaly is, on multiple levels, very intentionally a satire -- hence also the characters he focusses on, from hitman to struggling author, ultra-ambitious lawyer, and awkward scientists -- and Le Tellier is having fun with genre conventions and form here as well.
       The Anomaly is an enjoyable ride, a mishmash -- in a good way -- of different kinds of books, with a hell of a premise. If Le Tellier doesn't delve too deep into the (philosophical and real-world) implications of what he posits, there's still enough of that in the actions and reactions of various characters, and what they go through. Some of the characters are better-drawn than others -- the lawyer-figure, in particular, feels just too exaggerated -- but most of their individual stories are enjoyable and engaging. It's hard not to feel like he could have done more with it, but even as is, it's a broadly enjoyable story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 October 2021

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Links:

The Anomaly: Reviews (please be aware that many of the reviews do address what the anomaly is -- arguably a (huge) spoiler): OuLiPo: Other books by Hervé Le Tellier under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Hervé Le Tellier was born in 1957. He is a member of the Oulipo.

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© 2021 the complete review

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