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The Collection by Nina Leger

There is no point beating about the bush. This is a novel mainly about the penis, a word that turns up on almost every one of the 151 pages. Always penis, with the words cock and phallus appearing only once.

It is a hard book to fathom, since there is no real explanation of the behavior of the central character, Jeanne. Out on the Parisian streets, she will appear to faint and allow herself to be helped back to a hotel room by a man, any man, whose penis she will proceed to use. But it is more than a physical thing, it is also a mental exercise. Each penis has a very clear identity, a singular shape, size, taste and texture. Jeanne will commit the memory of it to her mind, somewhere she calls the ‘palace’, many rooms and many memories. She has no interest in the faces and identities of the men themselves. So much so, in fact, that when one penis turns out to have been encountered before, she has to go to especial trouble to create a new room in the palace to allow it to exist in two memories, not just one.

The feature of the book that I liked the most was the speculation about Jeanne herself. The book leads us down a host of alternatives around her identity. The narrator is having fun with us. We run through a whole list of things we know nothing about; her wardrobe, her technological objects, trinkets, habits, or job. No answers are provided. We consider whether Jeanne is a lecturer, journalist or graphic artist. There is elaborate description of the apartments that she might inhabit for these different roles. But not definitive answers. At another time we speculate on her age and the type of husband that she might have had, was she thirty-six and married to a ‘prematurely greying ophthalmologist’ or twenty-two with her adolescence devastated by bulimia? Lots of options are presented, none are settled upon.

The pleasure of this book for me is all about little sentences and observations. For example “The next day, she catches the metro at 15:00, the time of day for those with nowhere to be.” Wow. And then, in the middle of more vigorous activities, there are a host of observations: “That other one, who places a hand over her mouth to muffle the cries she has no intention of emitting.” And “An armpit, hairs pearled with sweat where the electric light plays in sparkles. Jeanne stares at the flickering of this delicate garland, until one particularly vigorous movement launches one droplet onto her cheek and another into the corner of her eye. The man comes and asks if she is crying.”

Jeanne is an indifferent participant in all the activities that she initiates. She even attempts to get over her strange obsessions by investing in a host of rubber toys, spending time in sex shops choosing a range of shapes and sizes. The final chapter, an exact repeat of the first, hints that she is not getting over anything at all, but simply continuing in the same way.

This is an odd book. It is not arousing, but it does have some gems of playful prose and pointed observation. I shall certainly think of it again, probably at 15:00 when I have nowhere to be.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Granta, RRP $24.99