A Hook in the Sky (Claude Nougat) is a hair-raising coming-of- (Baby Boomer) age story, but an exclusive focus on that dimension may obscure its delicious complexity. Anne Korkokeakivi, writing for The Millions, notes that French novels tend to be “… dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten).” Author Nougat isn’t French (she’s Belgian), but her protagonist is, and the novel’s style fails none of these criteria. Indeed, it reads like the haunting, subtitled movie you discuss with friends for months!
The principal narrator, Robert, casts light on a heretofore uncelebrated stage of life – the third. He is retiring from a career at the U.N. and painfully unsure of his next step. Kay, his American wife, is twenty years his junior and deeply involved in her work as the owner of a trendy New York art gallery. The couple is childless, a decision made years earlier by Kay without Robert’s knowledge or consent, the revelation of which decision causes the couple to separate. Robert is abruptly alone, trying to recapture an abandoned version of himself – the (traditional) artist he wanted to be before choosing a more practical career. He may stay with that career as a consultant, but instead dives headlong into the unknown.
His story is direct, seemingly honest and never “overwritten.” He describes exotic Italian locales, his loathing for Modernist art and details of his affairs with an old friend and the friend’s troubled daughter in a seductively boundaried style. The reader, while mesmerized by the written proximity of sunlit Italian villas, the inner workings of the U.N., heady discourses on art and the palpable disintegration of a marriage, is nonetheless aware that much remains mysterious, unsaid. Robert is a quiet man, and yet his story is borne forward with an impossible-to-put-down momentum. Something is about to happen, and it does.
What happens is a fascinating shift, reminiscent of that in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Once a straightforward, uncompromising tale of one (admittedly privileged and cultured) man’s transitional crisis, the novel suddenly blossoms into a sort of conceptual magic show. It’s a wild ride into symbolic territory that may jar readers who were expecting either consistency or a sweet, comfortable ending. After bitter confrontations over Kay’s passion for Modernist art, Robert uncharacteristically agrees to create a huge Modernist installation, a towering, dangerous, Escheresque maze of aluminum ladders rising to… a hook. Unreachable but omnipresent, the hook both looms above and incites the conflicting struggles of the lives below. Robert and Kay’s conflict over art reflects both their personal discord and a larger philosophical perspective from which Kay emerges monstrous, a shallow, desperate pawn in the capitalist game. But neither does Robert emerge a hero. He chronicles, but does not alter, the horrific/fantastic concluding events (unreported here to avoid spoiling their effect on readers). Robert is Everyman, but an Everyman who can tell a story!
Digital publishing is still a chaotic undertaking and the text has some missing commas and an odd use of “news” as a plural noun (“The news today are promising.”), but these typographical glitches are few and subsumed in the multilayered intelligence of the book. Ideal for book groups, A Hook in the Sky poses questions for which there may be no answers, but about which endless discussion will be compelling.