The basic plot of Anthology of Apparitions is both simple and familiar. Claude Boudin, a balding, middle-aged Parisian, is an archetypal flaneur who spends his days sitting in cafes and wandering the streets, all the time dwelling on the past.
Less familiar, however, is the substance of his reflections. In the 1970s, when he was in late adolescence, he and his younger sister, Marina (then barely a teenager), indulged in a level of hedonism that would make a member of Motorhead wince. Every day they would get up in the afternoon, make themselves look glamorous, and then go to a disco, where they would take every available drug and solicit the affections of whichever seedy millionaire they happened to meet. On a few occasions, when no willing partners could be found, they even broke the ultimate taboo together.
Not surprisingly, this lifestyle didn't last. Marina moved to the US and eventually disappeared. Two decades on, Claude is unable to get over his loss. He blames himself for not trying to find Marina and longs to be more like his younger self, the one who aroused desire, rather than pity, in others. His few remaining friends are similarly burdened by the past. They still take drugs, sleep around and avoid having careers, but do so with an air of desperation, of trying to continue a party that has finished.
Claude deflects attention from his failure to start an adult life by criticising those who have: his girlfriend, who supports him financially, has hair like "pig's bristle"; his niece, a successful model, has "real dog's breath". Simon Liberati demonstrates great skill here, because despite showing us the very worst of his protagonist, he does not allow our sympathy to wane. Claude and Marina, we discover, were horrifically abused by a doctor who was supposed to be treating Marina for depression. Everything that followed - the drugs, the sexual excesses and Claude's often intense unpleasantness - is to some degree explained by this. A troubled past cannot endlessly justify bad behaviour, but at least Liberati makes us feel for Claude.
This is a novel packed with angry assertions, making it feel, on occasion, like an embittered sermon. But oddly, this approach works. Even when Claude's claims are patently untrue (everyone is out to exploit the young, for instance), his narrative is endearing in its wounded subjectivity. The book is patient and analytical, deconstructing a character who is paradoxically both lazy and obsessively thoughtful, and it must be read slowly to be appreciated. While this is a brutal and self-consciously referential work, it is also fascinating, well written and rewardingly different from the countless novels about people you think you recognise or, worse, think you are. Anthology of Apparitions is a valuable and at times tender examination of an unenviable, alien soul.