Hate: A Romance, By Tristan Garcia, trans. Marion Duvert & Lorin Stein

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The Independent Culture

Winner of the 2008 Prix de Flore, Hate announced the novelistic arrival in France of young philosopher Tristan Garcia, then aged 27. Except that it didn't, strictly speaking, do any such thing. The original title of Garcia's novel was La meillure part des hommes, or the best part of men. Figuring out the gulf in suggestiveness between these two is only the beginning, however. While there are things to admire in Hate, this reader found much more to question.

Garcia earns plaudits for disobeying the advice to young novelists to keep to what they know. In focusing on 15 years in which Aids laid waste a generation of Paris's cultural elite, Garcia took on a period he can hardly have remembered. Inadvertently, too he took up an extremely hard sell. For if there are many reasons for the disappearance of Aids from contemporary fiction, among them is one unavoidable truth. With the odd exception (Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty), readers weren't buying.

Hate ingeniously deploys a female narrator, Elizabeth, to recount the decimation of gay Paris from the outsider's perspective. Within pages we are introduced to "Hervé" (novelist Hervé Guibert) and Michel Foucault – just as Guibert himself fictionalised his mentor in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. So far, so familiar. As the Guibert/Foucault nexus continues to receive attention in France - take Mathieu Lindon's recent memoir, Ce qu'aimer veut dire - we might wonder how Garcia aims to say anything new, compared to those who witnessed the French epidemic's darkest years.

The answer, surprisingly, comes in the form of leading protagonist William, a gay activist who comes to disavow health campaigning, instead embracing drug-fuelled, unprotected sex, which he promotes through journalism and scandalous novels. In France, this character's closeness to real-life author Guillaume Dustan, who died in 2005, was immediately understood, though Garcia expressly rejects any linkage. Nevertheless, "William's" auto-fictional novel dovetails closely with Dustan's Dans ma chambre (1996; translated as In My Room). There's "this confused guy who keeps getting carried away, who says one thing and then the opposite, and who holds forth on genius, dildos, community, condoms... there are no chapters, just 'fragments'."

Bret Easton Ellis is name-checked in Hate. Certainly his Generation X nihilism might have informed the texture of Dustan's books, and the world-view of Garcia's own characters, including William. Oddly, then, Hate inclines conversely towards a Balzac-like comprehensiveness, layering plots and subplots judiciously, whilst shaping itself carefully towards the foreseen conclusion: the HIV-sponsored demise of the hospitalised, unrepentant William. Elizabeth then abruptly resigns from her tale.

Despite memorable touches – the Aids prevention posters framed in bars "like souvenirs in a museum" – Hate lacks both the bite and conviction implied by its English title. Its acclaim elsewhere, moreover, I suspect stems from a widespread need to historicise this epidemic, rather than from any conviction that Hate revitalises its subject.

Richard Canning's anthology of American Aids fiction is entitled 'Vital Signs' (2007)