Hate: a Romance

Tristan Garcia, the author of this striking and slightly dazing first novel, starts on the back foot, protesting that he has not written a roman à clef before anyone has had the chance to make the accusation. If readers are reminded of real people they know or know of - well, "that is simply because other persons or characters would have behaved no differently under similar conditions". Garcia demands that we find the novel universal and truth-bearing rather than parochial and referential, which is odd, given that he is almost exclusively preoccupied with dovetailing his characters with French political history, staging intellectual slanging matches and indulging in cultural trainspotting - a taster menu offered as a three-course meal.

One person who behaved similarly under similar conditions is Bernard-Henri Lévy, the dashing French-Jewish intellectual whose perceived rightward shift seems to be reflected in the perceived rightward shift of Garcia's dashing French-Jewish intellectual Jean-Michel Leibowitz. He is called "Leibo" in the first section, which also introduces "Willie" (William Miller), an uneducated Jew who becomes a star of the gay scene in Nineties Paris, and the Corsican cultural journalist "Doumé" (Dominique Rossi), who has a five-year relationship with Willie. The two eventually fall out, violently and publicly, over Aids, which Willie comes to see as "a moral argument that's trying to police our sexuality", just as Doumé and Leibo fall out over the latter's alleged "heterofascism".

The tale is told, or rather reconstructed, by the Libération reporter Élizabeth Levallois, "Willie's friend, Doumé's colleague, Leibo's lover", who describes herself, in the closest we get to introspection, as "the kind of person one comes across in Paris". Élizabeth is a blank, little more than a pair of eyes and a voice - a Nick Carraway with three Gatsbys to commemorate, an Ishmael surrounded by Ahabs. It is Willie, she says, who most deserves "his due", because he kept his best part - the French title of the novel is La meilleure part des hommes - to himself, whereas the others lived through words and actions and "will live on beyond themselves".

Any novel that long-windedly describes the contents of invented books and identifies Jean-Jacques Rousseau as "JJR" is in danger of seeming flip and nothing more. In Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, which has a better balance of ideas and those who spout them, the title character invokes Spinoza to reflect on "how the mind was fed with joy by things eternal and infinite". Willie, who loves Spinoza even more than he does Morrissey and Bret Easton Ellis, uses his thinking - or his name - to explain the beauty of the internet, the value of his hate for Doumé and his own spreading of Aids, though not with the greatest eloquence: "It's a mystical thing. Spinoza. I fertilise them."

Hate: a Romance gets off to such a swift and evocative start that the rest of the book, which follows its characters faithfully without really developing them, is doomed to feel repetitious and even redundant. Doumé and Leibo were students at the École Normale Supérieure when "Althusser's influence was on the wane" and "the men of the hour" were Deleuze, Lévi-Strauss and Vidal-Naquet. Bliss was it in that dawn, and so on, yet it remained difficult to stake out a coherent philosophy or political position when ideas were indistinguishable from fads, and when collective action was so much discussed that there was little time left over for it. Leibo, who describes himself as "a man of the left" but not "a leftist" and who says that his first pamphlet was "wrong in the right way", discusses the predicament of finding one's true position in terms of the penalty-taker's fear of the penalty kick: "If he thought I was going to shoot to the other side, then I'd have to shoot to the other side of the other side."

The bulk of the novel takes place during a 17-year period in which Mitterrand gave way to Chirac and Chirac to Sarkozy, when the forces of relativism and toleration - what Leibo calls "la pensée unique" - pitted those who believe in secularism, the State of Israel and a hierarchy of values against Muslims, homosexuals and the anti-American left, in a depressing replay of Raymond Aron ("our forefather") v Jean-Paul Sartre ("over and done with"). At one point Leibo is caught out by what his enemies see as a "chiasmus", in which "a suggestive ellipsis" equates Jews with Nazis; he insists that it was intended as an "asymmetrical chiasmus". But the complications visited on the old divisions between left and right by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the emergence of two opposing forms of gay activism and finally the 11 September attacks have been too well prepared by the juicy dialectical ironies of the first 20 pages. The fun that Garcia has in the age of Foucault steals the thunder he needs for the age of Fukuyama.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Hate: a Romance
Tristan Garcia
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £12.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East