It’s no secret that the more our affluent society projects its wares on the global screen, swamping the world with its vision of happiness choreographed down to the minutest detail, the more it aches to slip itself into the skin of the other.
Satiated as we are with the photogenic gallivantings of the rich, with the endless parade of bourgeois narcissism, in the dark we drool at the idea of eavesdropping on the wrong side of the tracks, over there where the grass ain’t so green and the tender mercies aren’t even all that.
Lila Says, the new French sensation of a novel — allegedly written by a true though anonymous denizen of the hood — obliges. Chimo, its presumed author, feeds our voyeuristic dream with the deftness of a hand job and the undressed provocation of a rapper. International publishers are in an uproar: Is it a hoax? The literary slumming of a gifted writer in tune with the private yearnings of his public? A pomo sequel to The Story of O? Or indeed that rare find, a new artistic voice stepped out from the shadows, the unschooled vacant lots and noisy projects of the Parisian suburbs? You decide, dear reader!
Either way, Chimo’s book has you coming — and going — like a woundup Peeping Tom in a passion play. Except this is no fall and redemption drama put on by angelic choirboys. The crucified one is a 16-year-old slut with golden hair and milky thighs. Her name’s Lila — like lilac, she says, without the c.
In 12 slim chapters of unbound lyricism, Chimo writes from his makeshift office on a demolition site. We hear a plainsong in homage to this singular blond goddess whose immodest attributes have the projects bugging out with lust and rage:
I’m saying she’s the best, even better than all of what you see on TV, those old dolls on "Dynasty," the marshmallow eye-candy windsurfing around on "Baywatch," those big dopey models that alright they’re gorgeous but they walk in this twisty wiggle like an octopus, they look so much the same they’re like giant toy soldiers, total bitches, that’s it check me out good you pathetic wimps here I come, pussies all dried up too you can bet on it, all the women you can see on the tube, even Vanessa, even Merlene Ottey the thirty-five-year-old sprinter who features the world’s cutest ass at the starting block and it’s not just for running that’s for sure, all of them I mean all of them look like dogmeat next to her …
The first cruelty, the one that will spawn multitudes, is the endemic poverty of the place. "Shantytowns of the world, unite!" could be a local banner fluttering in the dirty French sky. It matters little whether we’re in the slums of Delhi, Rio or Kingston. The same piss-ass stink and run-down air reign everywhere. Chimo and his gang at the Old Oak Housing Project, a mere bird’s hop from the capital, prop up the walls and dream up scams.
Our lives are already decided on each morning and each tomorrow’s the same again. It’s no state of alert no war just a long wait for nothing, getting older everyday and for what.
It’s in this context of flying garbage, bashed-in mailboxes and general I-don’t-give-a-fuck that Chimo’s journal hits us like a mean snowball in the chest or like a love song à la Jean Genet from behind prison bars. Inspired by Lila’s sublime beauty, but more so by her impudent sex acrobatics in public spaces and talk-dirty-to-me mouth, our North African teenager seems to be possessed, writing under dictation, recording every word and deed of hers as if he were documenting the life of a saint.
And if some critics have mentioned Marguerite Duras or Pauline Réage as points on a literary horizon which would include this newborn bastard into the erotic canon, it’s not for nothing. Certain notes that have to do with folding over violation with innocence, fervor with shock, sex with death, will recall the great axes of French contemporary thought on this issue.
But ultimately, beyond the sensational content, the hood sensibility, the cinéma-vérité style that drums out such a poetic beat, Lila Says is an extraordinary book because it performs a miracle: Chimo the Arab boy abandoned by all, who owns nothing but his own spit, comes to writing, a land of air, liberty and self-realization, a land whose name he didn’t even know only a few months before. And now he lives there as if it were his birthright, attentive to the daily weather and growing taller with each page he blows into being.