A jet flies into a wild storm and emerges shrouded in mystery, forcing its passengers and the world at large to re-examine everything they believe about the meaning and purpose of existence. As you read “The Anomaly,” by the French author Hervé Le Tellier, you might find yourself wondering what sort of book it is, exactly. Is it science fiction dressed up as philosophy? Metaphysics disguised as high-concept thriller?
Neither, both, all. “The Anomaly,” a runaway best seller in France, where it won the Prix Goncourt last year, lies in that exciting Venn diagram where high entertainment meets serious literature. Its plot might have been borrowed from “The Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror,” but it movingly explores urgent questions about reality, fate and free will. If our lives might not be our own and we end up dying either way, how should we live?
It’s a measure of Le Tellier’s masterful storytelling that he makes us wait all the way to Page 151 to find out what bizarre thing has befallen the plane in question, Air France Flight 006 from Paris to New York. But before that, we meet some of its passengers and learn about their lives on the ground.
In Lagos, Nigeria, a young pop star, closeted in a deeply homophobic country, writes a hit song and begins to reclaim his true identity. In Manhattan, a man learns that he is dying of pancreatic cancer. In Mumbai, a 60-ish French architect abandoned by his much-younger girlfriend realizes that “spending every day missing a woman who’s no longer there will be less painful than relentlessly desiring one who’s sleeping beside him but is light-years away from him in the tepid indifference of the shadows.”
There are more, and it’s a second measure of Le Tellier’s skill that he seduces us into caring so much, even about characters who flit in and out of sight. He has a way of plunging us headlong into each story and then dragging us out, still blinking and obsessed, before immersing us in the next. It’s no coincidence that one character mentions Italo Calvino’s masterpiece “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” with its intoxicating tag-team narration.
And so we also meet a deadly assassin whose day job is running a chain of vegetarian restaurants. An abused little girl who loves her pet turtle. A suicidal French novelist whose posthumous masterpiece is called “The Anomaly.” (It’s a hit, despite being replete with pompous observations like: “If we secure what we hope for, we enter the anteroom of unhappiness.” This appears to be a joke directed at French literary pretension, but perhaps it actually does sound better in French.)
What do they have in common, besides being on this fateful flight? Who are the shadowy government figures quietly rounding them up? And why does the bulletproof, government-issued cellphone of a nerdy Princeton statistician whose T-shirt says “I love zero, one and Fibonacci” suddenly ring, after 20 years of silence, starting an emergency response plan known as Protocol 42?
Even the statistician, who helped devise the protocol in a post-9/11 report on potential airplane-related disasters, never imagined it would be activated, and thus packed it with fanciful science-fiction flourishes. (The number 42 represents the meaning of life in Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”) As the passengers are interviewed by the authorities according to the protocol, one grows suspicious when the questions — “Do you have constant, pleasant, melodic sounds in your ears?” and “Do you have headaches, migraines?” — sound strangely familiar.
“Wait … you’re pulling my leg! Do you think you’re in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind?’” the passenger asks, adding: “What kind of idiot wrote this questionnaire?”
Readers will find inklings of the “Matrix” films and various TV shows: “The Leftovers,” where the living suddenly vanish; “The Returned,” where the dead suddenly reappear; and of course “Lost” and “Manifest,” which feature flights that inexplicably land at the wrong time or in the wrong place. But what it put me in mind of most was Ted Chiang’s heartbreaking “Story of Your Life,” the novella that led to the (not quite as good) film “Arrival.” In “The Anomaly,” as in that story, people caught in a situation that defies understanding react with bravery and love.
Most of Le Tellier’s characters try to rise to the occasion. Religious leaders, diplomats, intelligence officials, philosophers and scientists examine the puzzle from all angles. There is serious talk of the Bostrom hypothesis, a theory about reality devised by a real-life Oxford philosopher whose work encompasses theoretical physics, computational neuroscience and artificial intelligence.
Even the American government attempts to do the right thing, at least at first. (No thanks to its dopey president, with his resemblance to “a fat grouper with a blond wig,” who gets bored during the scientific briefings and who perks up only when he hears allusions to things he has heard of, like “Star Trek.” “Stop with all your billions already,” he snaps, as a scientist begins to discuss nanotechnology. “I don’t understand any of it.”)
Le Tellier is not a fan of American excess, as he demonstrates in an over-the-top scene during “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” in which the host milks one passenger’s experience for fake emotion and drama. At the same time, his account of the relationship between the older architect and his younger girlfriend smacks of wishful thinking, and might appeal more to readers who are not women.
But his writing, well served by Adriana Hunter’s graceful translation from the French, is nimble and versatile. And it’s impossible not to feel tenderness toward the bewildered characters, with their valiant efforts to make sense of the unfathomable and to rewrite their stories according to the new reality.
As you finish this provocative book, you might still find yourself wondering what it is. Speculative fiction about whether reality is actually real? A delicate paean to the human capacity for improvement? A warning about how easily we could mess it all up? Maybe it’s all those things, too.
“Scientists will want to interpret, they will want to understand, they will want to explain, and that is their role,” says the French president — yes, Emmanuel Macron himself briefly appears, addressing the nation. “But it is inside ourselves and ourselves alone that each of us will find answers.”