Édouard Louis’ slim debut novel, The End of Eddy, is an unlikely bestseller. A smash hit in Louis’ native France (where it sold over 300,000 copies upon publication in 2014), the book made its American debut earlier this month to rapturous praise in The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The autobiographical novel is a first-person dispatch from the miserable world of Eddy Bellegueule, a sensitive young Frenchman born into poverty in the mid 1990s. At school, Eddy is assaulted and smeared with homophobic insults; at home, he is ignored or humiliated by his parents and siblings, who are incensed that their son, granted a “tough guy” name, has turned out to be such a “pussy.”
Louis’ novel has been compared, most recently in a glowing New York Times review, to Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir about being born into poverty in the mid 1980s. Both writers use their harsh upbringings as a way to shed light on the class of angry, alienated citizens who feel left behind by the rapid technological shifts of deindustrialization. But while Vance and his book seek to humanize “the Trump voter,” Louis’ tale of indignity has a more ambiguous message.
Its original title in French is En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, or “Doing Away with Eddy Bellegueule,” and Louis makes it clear that he wishes to remain as far as possible from his upbringing. For Louis, there are no sympathetic characters to be found in his childhood. “From my childhood I have no happy memories,” the book begins, reading as a preposterous exaggeration. Indeed, in service to this glum message, Louis often engages in a kind of pornography of poverty, exulting in the pain of growing up poor and gay in a tiny French village.
Though the book is marketed and sold as a novel, Louis has stated in various interviews that everything in the text is drawn from his life. While this raises the titillation factor, it isn’t enough to explain the book’s curious appeal. The End of Eddy bears little resemblance to best-selling trauma memoirs like Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle or Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors. And Louis often dispenses with what we might call “literary” prose altogether, favoring a similar style to that of a sociology text. Take an early scene in the novel when, in the course of torturing the protagonist, a pair of bullies place him in a headlock:
They laughed when my face began to turn purple from lack of oxygen (a natural response from the working-class people, the simplicity of those who possess little and enjoy laughing, who know how to have a good time.) My eyes filled with tears reflexively, my vision became blurred as usually happens when you are choking on saliva or a piece of food. They didn’t understand that it was because I was suffocating that I had tears in my eyes; they thought I was crying. It annoyed them.
Louis trashes the clichéd claim that significant prose must show, not tell. And unlike some contemporary writers, he is not trading in a distinctive style in favor of an expansive plot. The book is only 192 pages, and its fragmentary style doesn’t purport to tell a linear story. While it focuses on the period leading up to Bellegueule’s escape from his childhood village, the book jumps around in time, offering brief—and often horrifying—vignettes of his suffering interspersed with reflections and field-notes on contemporary poverty.
Behind the plastic surface of the book’s prose, however, Louis is attempting to do something radical: infuse politics into the world of contemporary literature. In a 2015 essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Louis and a philosopher named Geoffroy de Lagasnerie call for writers to fight back against the idea that writers should not engage in politics for fear of sacrificing style. “Politics,” they write, “is seen as a risk, a stigma—when it’s the political disengagement that should really be seen as the problem.”
That call has only become sharper since the U.S. and the French presidential elections. In France, Marine Le Pen of the National Front made it into a runoff election this May. In the days before that election, Louis published a column in the New York Times describing how people have come to feel abandoned by the political left. Instead of rallying voters around “social class, injustice and poverty,” Louis wrote, contemporary liberals now focus on “modernization, growth and harmony in diversity”—code words understood to “shut up workers and spread neoliberalism.” As a result, they find comfort in the National Front’s anti-immigrant message of French exceptionalism.
In The End of Eddy, Louis hammers home the message that for people like his family, politics is not a series of lofty ideas. Instead, it is felt in rotted teeth, in molding walls, in long drunken nights and schoolyard scraps. While Vance sees an abdication of personal responsibility in his people’s despair, Louis sees a “set of logical mechanisms that [are] practically laid down in advance and nonnegotiable.”
Louis refuses to engage in a nostalgic vision of what once was and what could be again. His novel is part of a broader warning to elites (whose ranks he has now entered): they ignore his family’s rage at their own peril.
Lucas Iberico Lozada, Paste’s assistant books editor, is a freelance writer and translator based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.