jstumpEnglish-language readers might have at long last become acquainted with one of the most-lauded voices in French literature last year when Knopf published Marie NDiaye’s book Three Strong Women to very strong reviews (“NDiaye is a hypnotic storyteller with an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives,” said The New York Times). The fact that she was also just shortlisted for the International Booker Prize (alongside such giants as Marilynne Robinson and Lydia Davis) probably also brought her a few more well-deserved readers.

Three Strong Women is a difficult-to-classify book, which takes the form of three thematically linked long stories (or possibly novellas), shows NDiaye’s rare ability to take time-worn forms and make them her own. That capacity is further on display in All My Friends, which will be published by Two Lines Press in on May 21 of this year. Instead of three tales this volume includes five, all of which sit somewhere between novella and story, or story and parable. What remains the same are NDiaye’s labyrinthine sentences, her strange but all-too-human characters, and her plotlines that hold up to (or maybe require) multiple reads.

It’s always nice to have visitors visiting when you’re living abroad. They bring reminders that no matter how much you miss the States, the States stay pretty much the same. This is like everywhere, though. Our first visitor, the daughter of our roommate Deanne’s hairdresser, had won a contest. She mailed in the back of some cat food and got a 7-day, 6-night setup around the Iberian Peninsula. Her father, Deanne told us, was a deeply religious and protective man and mandated that his daughter’s trip would only extend as far as Madrid, where she would stay with Deanne (and us) away from the vicissitudes of foreignness, an isolated beaker of propriety. Her name was Carla and she was anorexic, a gargantuan alcoholic and just shy of being an “imbecile,” defined like the antiquated English usage.

Carla arrived into Barajas airport in Madrid. The four of us, my roommates, James, myself, Deanne and Caron, bought her a drink at Barajas airport and left in a taxi, a real treat. Carla later assured us that she wouldn’t burden us with having to take her on as a house-guest for a week and was excited to be out on her own in “Mexico.” Yes, Mexico. She’d only stay a night. “Totally!” Spain beat Mexico. This once.

As a guest, we felt obliged to give Carla a night on the town. We’d been living cheaply, but all of us had credit cards, so we ventured out to a German bar called the “Rats Keller.” Every city has one of these, just like every city has an Irish bar called “The Blarney Stone.” I don’t know why we always went to the Rats Keller with our out-of-country guests. Oh, sure I do.

We’d inevitably order a three-liter concoction known as “Der Vulkan,” which consisted of a liter of vodka, a liter of rum, a liter of gin and a then some Jagermeister and orange juice. The straws they gave us were Crazy Straws and the drink had a bunch of umbrellas scattered about it, drowned or drowning in the alcoholic filth. It was a real horror of drink-making, but we always ordered it. The problem is, you just can’t drink that much without ensuring some form of disaster. Especially if you’re a 90-pound anorexic imbecile with a death wish.

Carla attacked Der Vulkan with Bibilical enthusiasm. By seizing all five straws and inhaling a solid third of the drink, my roommates and I looked around at each other, rolling our eyes, knowing, or thinking we knew, what would come next.

What came next was a true tour-de-force of blacked-out endurance. After finishing Der Vulkan (My roommates and I commandeered it and drank the beast in tag-teamed flurries), we had to put some food in this creature.  The rest of us sat at a tapas bar and ate chorizo and olives while Carla went around the bar, grabbing the penises of the bar’s patrons. This is no way to operate, so James and I tried to spirit her away from these men who, at a point, were convinced (perhaps rightly so) that this drooling trollop was a sure bet. It would also be ludicrous to deny that James and I both had selfish interests in mind. I think James would admit that.I miss him.

Something kicked in Carla, though, something that I can only describe as a sort of Las Vegas adrenaline that keeps you on your heater even after you’ve had seventeen scotches. And Carla went on a heater. Through a gauntlet of dance clubs, pubs, bars and bistros, Carla tore through the night like an ethylene comet. She spoke no Spanish, so her tirades against “Mexico” were even more offensive. There is nothing so excruciating, I imagine, than to be yelled at by an American ghoul in its native tongue. We broke up fights with hookers, withdrew her from a dumpster, ceased her insistence on removing her clothes in the Plaza Mayor and then retreated back to our apartment seven hours later, James and I, quite drunk ourselves, trying to reinvigorate Carla’s insistence on removing her clothes.

“You guys are pigs,” said Carla, as James and I both went in for a pre-coital neckrub (Carla had collapsed in front of our couch, sitting upright, held in this fashion only by virtue of the durability of our couch, and sundry theories postulateed by Sir Isaac). “Why don’t you let me see your pigs,” she blathered, somewhat seductively. James and I both looked at each other. Convinced this travesty of nature on loan from San Pedro, California was in the middle of a blackout, James asked me, in a normal voice, “Does she mean our penises, I wonder?”

“I was just thinking that,” I said. James took the reins. “Carla, when you say you want to see our pigs, is that a synonym for dick and balls or does that mean something else?”

“Synonome. Syndrome. Synful. Syn,” she hissed. “I want cock.” ‘I want cock’ is a sort of desperate thing to say. It works out okay in pornographic movies because the scenarios are always so outrageous to begin with. But, if you’re standing around your apartment with your best friend, your two female roommates watching the exchange take place and laughing, it’s a desperate line, not a sexy line. It’s amazing how an orgy is the end result of most male thinking when surrounded by drunk women, but what’s really amazing is that we’ll say things like ‘to say I want cock is desperate and pathetic.’ How not desperate and pathetic of us. Synecdoche not metonymy. A teacher taught me that. There is a difference. Wake up, Smith!

James, Deanne, Caron and I all had a prodigious laugh at Carla’s expense and moved her on top of the couch, where she could find some Sandman after a long day and night. Sometime before dawn, James and I both emerged (I slept in the girl’s bedroom, on the floor this night) and bumped into each other trying to coerce Carla into wakeful, naughty ill-advised sexuality. Drunk. We laughed at our mutual desperate night moves and finally retired to our sleep spaces, this time for good.

Morning. I am hit across the face with a mop. “Tyler, goddamnit what the FUCK have you done?” This scene is repeated next door, to James. Caron and Deanne wanted their bases covered. Caron hit me, Deanne hit James, and we both woke up supremely nuisanced and confused by the crowing. I hit James, because why not?

“There is SHIT everywhere!” the girls wheezed in unison.

“Like what kind of shit, Caron?”

“Like what kind of shit, Deanne?

“PEOPLE SHIT!”

James and I were then forced from our beds to examine people shit. Sure enough, there was people shit everywhere. Rather, person shit. At this point, it’s all Murders in the Poo Morgue speculation, as nobody can prove anything. However, rubbing feces on things, I imagine, is something you either do once—then stop drinking forever—or you do it with some regularity and thus have few friends. The shit is analyzed through perfunctory examination, through gags. It’s on the living room wall, the doorknob of James’s room, and the point of origin—the bathroom—as a grotesque triptych of fecal matter, vomit and other post-apocalyptic fluid. This is nobody’s filth we know. You live with some people long enough, you know things. Why the ladies hadn’t pinned the crime on Carla earlier, we felt was sexist.

“Oh, like only a guy would shit on a wall, Caron.”

“A woman wouldn’t do that kind of thing, you idiots. Even as we sleep, we have an internal governor that won’t allow baboon shit-throwing. Even crazy women, like really crazy, I’ll bet they don’t go throwing shit around.” This sounded convincing.  James piped up,

“It must have been Tyler.”

“Dickface! Look at that shit. Those are the bowel contents of a woman.”

“Where’s Carla,” asked Deanne through a wine-soaked handkerchief. All we had was wine. It’s all we ever had. So to combat the stench of last night’s disaster, we all took a cue from Deanne and drank a large swallow of Don Simon boxed wine, wet a rag or handkerchief with some more wine, then continued on our investigation.

“She’s not here,” said James. “By the way, weren’t we supposed to not let her get away? Deanne you promised her father, who seems kind of Croatian and deadly.”

“He is,” Deanne clarified. “We should find her, then make her clean up this shit.”

“Where should we look?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just get the hell out of here.”

Where, pumpkin? WHERE?

It was for moments like these that I have an undying nostalgia. When people disappear now, there is no adventure, only panic. When people disappear now, it either ends badly or ends boringly. But in Madrid, fortified by our fortified wine and a cool morning March air, we all trundled out of the apartment to try and track down our AWOL in a kind of renewed optimistic charge.

There is nothing more invigorating for the stultified, frictionally unemployed American abroad than a project. Hell, a mystery. Caron remembered that, had her father not demanded she be incarcerated in our apartment, the itinerary of the cat food grand prize called for a trip down to the south of Spain, in Granada. The four of us hopped on the subway toward the bus station whose routes ran to the south. We arrived at the ticket counter and asked the vendor if there had been any Americans that looked like they were in pretty bad shape who had earlier boarded the train to Granada.

“All the Americans look like they’re in bad shape.”

“Yeah, but this one was particularly bad. A woman, possibly covered in mierda,” James added.

“No, not today. I haven’t seen anyone like that today,” replied the ticket vendor, sucking impatiently from a black tobacco cigarette.

“Alright,” said Deanne. “What are we doing here?”

“Yeah, what are we doing here,” asked Caron.

“How mean is this barber, by the way?” asked James.

“That bad,” said Deanne.

“This wasn’t my idea,” I defensed. They say that the first 48 hours is the crucial time after a disappearance. After that, your odds of survival go down e to the x and so do those of your rescuers, assuming this Croatian barber is as murderous as he looms in our heads, our lives. It had been around ten hours since anyone laid eyes on our guest. We called the airport. No good there. Carla is still in the country, a good thing, we agree. But where?

“Deanne, if you were Carla where would you go?”

“How the hell would I know?”

“You’re both from San Pedro and you have Croatian ties.”

“Just because I’m part Croatian doesn’t mean I’m in the fucking mafia.” Deanne would always insist that we knew her family was only partly affiliated with organized crime.

“I’d probably go shopping,” Deanne said, finally. James, Caron and I all laughed at Deanne’s preposterous reply until it was clear that this is what, according to Deanne, someone from San Pedro would in fact do after smearing their own shit around a veritable stranger’s apartment: They would go shopping. Isn’t that beautiful, in its way?

We went to The Corte Ingles, where we would later buy a turkey, but now, we were looking for a diseased humanoid in cosmetics. We cased the entire mall searching for Carla, ogling the ranch dressing and basketballs inside this ersatz America. The English Court. They’re too embarrassed to plea in front of The Corte Estadounidense. We window shopped for an hour or two, eventually realizing that Carla would have to come to us. She’s had too long to move. There is nothing we can do. We will wait until twenty-four hours from now, then we will call Carla’s father. We’ve started to call him “The Bavarian Butcher,” even though none of us are certain where Bavaria is, only that it vaguely sounds like somewhere where Croatia could be. We stop in to The Quiet Man, the pub directly below our apartment and order four calimochos (Molarity=1.5 parts wine, i part Coca-Cola, one part cocaina from Jayne, our bartender. Jayne is from London. She moved to Madrid for a man ten years ago and “here I still fuckin’ am, pouring pints for these cunts and cunts like you Yanks and just can’t find my way out. If I find him, I’ll Micky Finn’em, freeze his dick, snap it off and fuck him to death with it. For starters.”

“Jayne, have you seen an American girl, possibly covered in shit, anywhere around the neighborhood?”

“No, ‘fraid not. Not lately.” This is one reason to love Jayne. She never asked “Why,” something I think is both tragic and great. With Jayne, things were just because. There is a shit-covered American walking around this neighborhood because…The man I followed to this cunty shithole left me because…The girl last week was hit by a car in front of here because…Life is because.

We smoked cigarettes (except for James, who would only endure tobacco when mixed with hashish, thus only smoking the equivalent of a pack a day) and tried to retrace the night’s steps.

“It makes no fucking sense to retrace the night, you assholes. We were all there until we all weren’t and then we went to sleep,” Caron pointed out. We know what happened. We just don’t know how happened. It sounded like something Jayne would say, which attracted me to Caron immensely. “Let’s just set up shop at the apartment. She’s probably been banging on the fucking door all day and we’ve been out trying to find her—things always happen like that.”

“She’s right,” said James. “It’s the jinx. We should wait upstairs for her.”

“If I did what she did I wouldn’t come back,” I offered.

“Sure you would, Tyler. But you’d deny it. You’d be terrible at denying it, but you’d be convinced you were selling the hell out of your performance, your amateur gig, that everybody would feel so bad for you, I, or someone else would manage to admit to ourselves—even though we were lying to ourselves and knew it—that we had done it and this would convince you that we were convinced you’d taken yourself off the hook—that’s why I knew it wasn’t you. If it were you, we’d be pointing the finger at Deanne. She’s a softy and doesn’t want to upset you,” said Caron.

“If you weren’t so careful not to overdo it, I’d say that was almost like an angry rant,” I said to Caron, in that way people begin to flirt. She looked at me.

“I am so not a fucking softy, Caron. My family’s in the fucking mafia. San Pedro, bitch.”

“Yeah, well let’s go back up and find your girl from the Pedro.”

“She’s not my girl,” snorted Deanne. We finished our drinks and James and I took the elevator while Caron and Deanne took the stairs. James and I arrived at the door to our apartment, hearing only screams, then Caron opening the door and pleading we make ourselves scarce for a few minutes.

“Is everything okay,” we asked.

“No,” said Caron. And closed the door.

“Is she in there?” I screamed through the door.

“Yes,” said Caron.

“Why can’t we come in? Is she nude?” asked James, continuing, “because if she’s nude this is bullshit. If there were a nude guy in there we’d let you come in.”

“She’s not nude,” said Caron. “She’s having a nervous breakdown.”

“Well let us in, damnit,” I replied, eager to see what a nervous breakdown looked like. Everybody always talks about them, but you only see the anesthetized aftermath. Like Brian Wilson. I don’t care about him on his medication—I want to see what happens when he snaps. I want to see Clara snap. I want to see Clara in a sandbox, tobillo up to cat fluid, cat solid. But Caron and Deanne decided to be selfish and watch the thing for themselves. I would have probably done the same, but I still felt ripped off.

“No. You guys go down to the Lab or something. The Lab was our bar. It’s full name was “El Laboratorio.” Come back in an hour or two.” The Lab was a heavy metal/transvestite bar around the corner from our apartment. That’s right, it was called El Laboratorio. It was one of the deadliest bars in Madrid, but we endeared ourselves to the management early on. Going to “The Lab” was always a good idea, nothing bad happened there. And that’s not something I’d say because I’m trying to be ironic. That’s something I’d say because it’s true—nothing bad happened at El Laboratorio. At least for me. James and I agreed to go down to the Lab, but we threatened violence if, in an hour or two, we weren’t let back in to our flat. Our flat. Our flat—reason enough to geograph—our flat. Who can say that?

“Go fuck yourselves,” said Caron. You could always tell when she was smiling—you just had to hear her.
The Lab was situated at the end of Calle Valverde, our street. Calle Valverde is only one block long, but it’s one hell of a block. Valverde juts off from Gran Via, that main artery, pulsing blood and life for one little block, then splash…into a vomit of heavy metal/transvestite gore at the entrance to El Laboratorio. You turn off of life and roar toward frozen death, turning off Gran Via, down Valverde, open the door to the Lab (if the rest of the Valverde gauntlet hasn’t got you yet). There’s Manuel, as he always is. Nothing bad ever happens in the Lab.

Manuel is Moroccan with some French in him, he says. This isn’t at all important because he’s consistently garbed in assless leather chaps, a Houston Astros 1980s throwback jersey and smoking a “baseball bat,” his name for the enormous hash joints he’d roll and smoke and roll and smoke.

“Fucking pooosies,” he’d snarl, in what I’d think he thought was a coy way. “You need anything, I get for you. Teresa, for the American Texans two whiskey dicks, pero echalas con fuerza, eh?” Teresa knew what we drank. DYC is a Spanish whiskey.

When you say “Whiskey DYC” it sounds like “Whiskey Dick,” which everybody thinks is funny. We certainly did. That’s why we explained what “whiskey dick” was to Manuel in the first place. This way, your sympathies won’t be compromised (or they will) and you can either dilute your feelings or let them howl until they hit a wall. But nobody’s dead, not dead yet.

We sat with our whisky dicks and laughed in an awkward way about the Carla situation.

“You tried to hook up with her and she makes mierda on the walls. Does that make you angry,” I asked.

“You tried to hook up with her, too!” James barked.

“I was only watching to make sure you stayed out of her pants, out of trouble.”

“They don’t play as much AC/DC in this bar as they used to,” James changed the subject.

“I could request some. I haven’t DJ’ed here in a while. Maybe they’d let me spin a few records.”

“They never let you DJ, Tyler. You just jump behind the turntable when the DJ goes to the bathroom,” corrected James.

“Really?”

“Really.” Conversation with James had recently taken on an odd, disjointed characteristic. He was having a tough time of it in Spain. First of all, he was 6’6” and Spain does not accommodate those kinds of dimensions. He suffered repeated blows to the skull from low-hanging signs, flags, bars, trees, monuments, and just about anything else along the way. Secondly, there’s always a woman. Oh, smash. That’s later.

“It’s probably been an hour,” I finally said.

“Yeah, let’s go up.”

We took the elevator up to our 2nd floor apartment and knocked. Caron and Deanne stood at the doorway, making a “shh” gesture with their fingers to their lips.

“C’mon,” Caron said. “She’s asleep. Let’s go down to the Lab.” This was always happening. Just when you think you’ve made it home, the tractor beam of El Laboratorio pulsed on and led you back for one more drink, one more episode.

“So what the hell happened,” I asked. The girls took long draws off their whiskey dicks and began. They told how Carla said she had “never had so much to drink, that this isn’t who she usually is.”

“That wasn’t me,” they would say, but it was. People behave the way they are. There are no missteps or out-of-character episodes; it is all tied together somehow. Why demure? Wail, if you will, with all ancestry in your corner, the primordial crack. What is this nonsense about “things I don’t normally do?” You did them last night. You may do them again today. Unload and submit.

“I hope not, “said James. “Did she admit to smearing shit all over our house?”

“No,” said Deanne, “but we’re sure it’s her. She smells like shit even though she was in the washer.”

“What do you mean—in the washer.”

“That’s where she spent most of today. She crammed herself into the washing machine, because she was scared.” Deanne went on to explain that, according to Carla, she’d woken up nude on the roof, covered in filth. “She was so confused and freaked out she decided to hide in our washing machine.”
The girls found Carla this way, wedged into our washing machine that barely fit three pairs of jeans. I can’t imagine what this species of cramped solitude must be like.

“So who cleans up the shit,” asked James.

“Deanne propped a mop up on her head and lay a bucket of soapy water down at the edge of the bed. That should give her a clue,” said Caron.

“I’m not going in there until she cleans it up,” said Deanne.

“Me neither. It smells like a zoo,” agreed Caron.

“Well, I’m fine here,” I said. James opted to go back to the apartment and sleep in his bed, no matter the stench. We never knew if Carla and James talked that evening, as Caron, Deanne and I sat in the darkened bladder of the Lab and drank another night away. Maybe he didn’t say anything.

The next morning, as we stumbled in to a pristine apartment, I noticed something: Carla began to eat. She sat quietly in the corner and ate. Plate after plate of spaghetti and tomate frito sauce. She looked invigorated, plausible. Besides, she had to eat. Or talk. She couldn’t talk. Because to talk would mean to explain and to explain would mean spiritual death. There are no explanations. There is no way you usually are. The rent is late. The war is never over by Christmas. Shit happens. Shit unhappens. Did something click? Did someone say something? Whatever it was, it cured her anorexia, at least for the time being.
Caron and Deanne woke up early and accompanied Carla to the airport the next day.

Carla went home to San Pedro, to her unreasonable barber father, and to her cat, who she was missing anyway.