In his “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” James Baldwin observes, “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.”
Edouard Louis’s autobiographical novel, The End of Eddy, suggests Baldwin is wrong. Far from being something each of us is capable of choosing, or forgoing, freedom is contingent. Our ability to choose freedom, to live freely as ourselves, is dependent on circumstances, the choices available to us often in proportion to our wealth. So, one might say, that not only are we not all born equal, we are not all born equally free, either.
Written when the author was only twenty-one, The End of Eddy is a deeply affecting, relentless meditation on the effects of shame. This is not only the shame the young Eddy feels at his effeminacy – the sounds and gestures that escape from his body and, what his parents refer to as his “fancy ways” – but the implicit shame felt by his parents, imposed on them for their social deprivation by the wider world. The book – I feel uncomfortable calling it a novel – describes the interaction of multiple levels of deprivation: social, cultural and emotional.
Louis gives voice to a people forgotten, lives ignored. The consequence of such ignorance is a social blindness, tolerance, of myriad forms of violence. Most of it is perpetrated by men, but The End of Eddy reflects on the damaging effects of masculinity on men as well as women. This is not a tract for men’s rights activists, this work has feminist underpinnings, but it demonstrates how the patriarchy damages men too. When Eddy’s father damages his back from lifting loads that are too heavy at work, he receives no compensation and is left bed bound for months. When his wife begins to bring in more money than he does, he demands she quit her job. Deprived of work and his conventional masculine role, he takes to drinking pastis all day. He treats those around him, so the argument would appear to go, with the same contemptuous disregard shown to him. Yet, when Eddy pretends to run away, his father searches for him and breaks down, imploring him never to do it again. Before giving the boy a beating.
These are people – communities – rendered less than themselves by their inhuman treatment and systemic inequality. Yet, in some way, the book also depicts a paradox in which members of the community choose partial erasure by their adherence to the community’s values and their need for its love. So, Eddy desperately tries to conform – to be good at football, to fancy girls, to meet the paradigm demanded of him. His parents try to explain or excuse their son to the neighbors. His mother tries to deny her alternative desires or aspirations – be it for an education, a job, to cook a healthier meal than chips – for the sake of pleasing her husband and conforming to the norms expected of a wife. I’m not convinced that this is particular to working class communities, but the greater the level of deprivation the greater the potential need for our community’s validation. Rejection by our community, or the freedom and strength to reject them, would appear to be a luxury. One made more affordable with money.
Yet, there is something disingenuous about making the behavior of his parents and others solely the product of systems and systemic inequality – because Eddy himself manages to both think and feel outside of them. There is a sense that we are to take the narrator’s perspective as the result of his escape from this world. Yet, one must have an awareness of something’s potential flaws to want, so passionately, to leave it. In this respect, Eddy is afforded an awareness and agency not only denied to his community but, through denial, used to excuse at the same time. Yet this carries with it an implied superiority – that the narrator has an agentic path to question homophobia and the community’s social presumptions.
The book’s refusal to be either novel or argument results in a collapse of perspective. There are repeated authorial asides or interpretations, which not only disenfranchise the reader but have the dual effect of both distancing us from the narrative as well as a possible argument. Insertions such as, “In a world where masculine values are held up as supreme,” tells us what to think. Ironically, this can serve to make the narrated behavior less excusable – the general may provide the reader with an explanation, but it lacks the empathy induced by the particular.
Other moments of generalization distance the reader from the character of Eddy and his experience, without being able to allude to the kind of replicable facts necessary for argument. For example, there is a brief scene in which the young Eddy dresses up in his sister’s clothes. The narrator refers to this childhood experience as “the runway show”, which one presumes is an adult awareness and naming reflected back. The narrator describes the experience as “like one of those days when inebriation and disinhibition lead to foolish behaviors, regretted the next day, once the alcohol wears off and nothing is left of our deeds but a painful and shameful memory.” There is a sense that this subtly evokes an adult experience of sexuality juxtaposed with a childish one. However, the juxtaposition is awkward. It feels loaded with significance in relation to Eddy’s awareness of his difference and sexuality, attributing to a childish consciousness something beyond its reach. Yet most children experiment with cross-dressing. The work buckles under the pressure to carry both general and singular significance in events which may be one or the other, or neither.
The translation by Michael Lucey works well and is unobtrusive. Although there is the odd occasion, such as the community’s use of “yokel” that jars. Whether a direct translation or no, the English use feels archaic and of an altogether inappropriate register.
However, as Baldwin says, in the same essay, “The importance of a writer… is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.” For all its faults, The End of Eddy looks unflinchingly at people society – and too often readers –know nothing of and prefer to keep that way. The relentlessness of the violence, the abuse, can inure the reader but clearly this is partly the point. Violence that is everyday stops being seen as violence. Yet an absence of tenderness, an absence of description even that reflects any beauty, can reduce the book’s efficacy. It’s most affecting moments are the few instances of tender care, delivered by parents who love in spite of themselves.