Hotel Crystal
by Olivier Rolin

Reviewed by Robert Duffer


Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2008   |   216 pages

The world outside the Hotel Crystal, from New Jersey to Hiroshima, is a dangerous place for French novelist and editor Olivier Rolin. An assassin who may or may not be dead pursues him through a post–cold war terrorist world; the author/narrator arranges bogus WMD deals with the thug sons of a rogue dictator; he bribes a literary-prize commission to vote in his favor; he trades the remains of a dead American soldier to liberate his endangered love; he fucks a chambermaid, kills a priest, performs cunnilingus under the table on a woman with “Anglo-Saxon legs” as she dines with her American husband, dabbles in conspiracy theory and geopolitical chaos, and bemoans his haggard appearance reflected in the mirrors of the forty-two different hotels. Sound like a thriller?

It’s not. Imagine that the same author/narrator invites you into this world via hotel rooms broken down in excruciating detail and painstakingly linear fashion. Anything that resembles a traditional scene is told in passing, ancillary to the room being described . Each brief chapter, or hotel stay, is written on various media , from a Paris taxi receipt to pages ripped out of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Though Rolin attests to the veracity of all the rooms, there is nothing else to be believed except that he is bothered from his literary pursuits by his duty as timeless international man of mystery. He endeavors to finish other writers’ unfinished books, like Georges Perec’s chronicle of his rooms in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces.

It’s expected that a writer of Rolin’s cultish stature and caddish temperament would disregard convention and mock establishment, but aren’t books meant to be read? His power as a writer can’t be argued; few writers have the ability to take you from such banality to such intrigue, however brief. Credit is due to Jane Kuntz, whose translation of idiom and euphemism was imperceptible. Yet this non-novel, this anti-memoir, the absence of Hotel Crystal, reads like literary masturbation: the reader doesn’t participate in so much as watch and wonder if there will be anything worthwhile when it’s over.

[1] It may be just as dangerous inside the metaroom of the Hotel Crystal: the author/narrator’s only memory from his stay is a box of macaroons.

[1] The door, the vestibule, then the bathroom, then this wall, that wall, the other wall, until the view from the balcony/window.

[1] “(but that’s another story, which I’ll tell another time, perhaps)”

[1] And overwrought with footnotes

Robert Duffer is a regular contributor to Chicago Public Radio’s Eight Forty-Eight, TimeOut Chicago, Chicago Scene and others. Excerpts of his first novel are available on his website, www.robertduffer.com.

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