Frédéric Dard – Crush (translated by Daniel Seton), Pushkin Vertigo, 6 October 2016
(Original title : Les Scélérats, 1959)
A book review by Eugen Kontschenko
How low would you be willing to fall to live the American dream ?
Frédéric Dard’s novel Crush takes us to Léopoldville, a bleak and turbid industrial town in 1950s France. The residents of Léopoldville are mostly factory workers living simple lives. This is also the case for the novel’s protagonist Louise Lacroix, a 17-year-old girl who lives with her mother and drunken stepfather and, unsatisfied with her work at the factory, aspires to a fancier lifestyle. As she walks home after her shift, she passes by the house of the Roolands, an American couple considered wealthy in contrast with the others, due to the husband’s employment with NATO. Impressed by their house, their garden and especially their car, Louise is fervently drawn to them, envisioning an escape from her dreary life. Her wish seems to come true when the couple employs her as their live-in maid. But before long the American idyll begins to crumble.
Crush can be described as a story of contrasts; Léopoldville, and its factory chimneys, to the Rooland’s estate with its beautiful garden, and Louise’s working class family, to the Rooland couple – seductive but ultimately useless. The struggles of a teenage girl in a hopeless French city are contrasted with her desire to live the American Dream. Thus, the story hinges on a contrast between Louise’s imagination, desires and dreams, opposed to the reality of her employment in Rooland’s house. Louise is often dangerously delusional; she is rarely satisfied with what she has and always aims for what is out of her reach. This is the main drive of the novel, as the reader will often find himself wondering how Louise will proceed to ensure she gets what she wants.
The portrayal of the Roolands represents the seductiveness of America for the French in the late 1950s. Louise’s young age and her subordinate position symbolize an unequal cultural relationship. The American couple is represented as ‘coca-colonialists’; the Roolands are shown driving expensive cars, listening to Elvis Presley and cooking canned food. The stereotypes are integral to the representation, and as such not a weakness but, to the contrary, a curiosity of the novel. The portrayal of the Roolands introduces a foreign factor to the story, a certain ‘otherness’, both familiar and uncanny. This ‘otherness’ is used by Dard to present two types of parallel alienation; that of the admiring, colonised maid compared to that of the naïve and easily deceived coloniser. The novel plays with expectations as the apparent subaltern become dominant, and the contact with the otherness is made destructive by a naïve Louise.
This crime novel takes time to slowly, but in detail, illustrate Louise’s life in Léopoldville. It explains her family situation, her hate for her drunken and grumpy stepfather and the general dislike of Americans by her family, which is mostly based on envy. Crush begins to pick up the pace in its second half, growing in intensity towards the end. Unfortunately, the ending is not as surprising as I wish it would have been and the epilogue’s ‘twist’ seems so clichéd by today’s standards that the novel may well have been better off without it. But this does not take away from the novel’s superb, if bleak, depiction of life in 1950s France and the French perception of American culture. On top of that, it is a thrilling character study of a teenage girl driven to despair by their family and the prospectless city she is stuck in.