The Washington Post

Different planes of existence

In this French bestseller, a flight falls into a vortex, and when it lands four months late, passengers find they’ve been duplicated

- BY RON CHARLES

With anti-mask vigilantes, the omicron virus and lost luggage, you already have enough to worry about when flying. But here’s one more variant of concern: Before landing, you might be spontaneou­sly duplicated.

That’s the mind-bending premise of France’s hottest novel, “L’anomalie,” by Hervé Le Tellier, a former science journalist and a member of experiment­al writing group Oulipo. Winner of the 2020 Prix Goncourt, “L’anomalie” has already sold more than a million copies in the author’s homeland, and now it arrives in the United States on a tail wind of internatio­nal acclaim.

Make sure any carry-on expectatio­ns are placed completely under the seat in front of you. Although Americans are frustratin­gly xenophobic when they make reading choices, “The Anomaly,” translated by Adriana Hunter, could be the rare exception. It’s French, but not trop francais. The book’s intellectu­ality is neatly camouflage­d by its impish humor. Indeed, with its elegant mix of science fiction and metaphysic­al mystery, Le Tellier’s thriller is comfortabl­y settled in the middle seat between “Lost” and “Manifest.”

Much is left unexplaine­d in “The Anomaly,” but all the characters agree on one thing: Their Air France flight from Paris to New York in the spring of 2021 is a nightmare. We witness that terror early in a chapter titled “The Spin Cycle,” which is typical of the novel’s wit. Moments before beginning its descent, the Boeing 787 hits a spectacula­r storm. “There’s not just one anvil-shaped mesocyclon­e spiraling high up into the atmosphere,” Le Tellier writes, “but dozens of them, as if they were being lifted by an invisible hand, and all fusing together.” The pilot has enough time only to warn his passengers before the plane plummets into a

pitch-black vortex. “Those few seconds feel like an eternity, and then despite the tornado’s gusts, the plane finds a warm, rising current and a semblance of support, producing that intense crushing trough-of-a-roller-coaster sensation.” Screams fill the cabin.

Depending on your nerves, “The Anomaly” may not be the best book to read during your next flight. At the very least, every copy should come with an airsicknes­s bag.

But rest assured that all the passengers survive this terrifying twirl in the sky. What’s waiting for them when they arrive, though, is even more alarming: The plane and everyone aboard it already landed almost four months earlier.

If you think it’s confusing that so many black carry-on bags look alike these days, just wait. A duplicate set of passengers on American soil would test any airline customer service department. In Le Tellier’s telling, this unpreceden­ted situation presents the United States government with a national crisis. The military goes on high alert; the intelligen­ce services spring into befuddled action. Are these clones an elaborate trick engineered by an enemy country, or do they represent a fundamenta­l glitch in the space-time continuum?

None of the proposed explanatio­ns feels definitive, but the existence of these replicated people — out of sync by 106 days — calls into question the foundation of reality. “Conspiracy theories are proliferat­ing,” Le Tellier writes. “When seven billion human beings find out that they may not really exist, it’s not easy to comprehend.”

Le Tellier has some fun contrastin­g the reactions on different sides of the Atlantic. “Media-savvy philosophe­rs,” which are apparently a thing in France, analyze this extraordin­ary phenomenon on Paris talk shows. But in the United States, which is still bickering about climatolog­y, evolution and even basic virology, fanatics panic and lash out violently. “Religion is a carnivorou­s fish in the abyssal depths,” Le Tellier writes with a heavy dose of his very French condescens­ion. “It emits the feeblest of light and needs a vast darkness around it to attract its prey.”

But these broad bits of social and political satire — along with some silly drama involving emergency mathematic­ians — are the weakest elements of “The Anomaly.” (A scene showing a Trumpy American president struggling to understand string theory feels like shooting supernovas in a bucket.)

The novel soars, though, when it focuses instead on individual passengers from the Air France flight(s). In these chapters — each carefully dated to help us keep everyone straight — we see people struggling to comprehend this most incomprehe­nsible moment of personal inflation. How, after all, would you react to meeting a duplicate of yourself — a person with exactly the same claim on your job, your possession­s, your memories; and with exactly the same anxieties about meeting a duplicate? And would your spouse accept this new ménage à trois? It’s a predicamen­t that gives a whole new meaning to Heather Has Two Mommies.

Le Tellier starts with an internatio­nal assassin who’s already living with multiple identities. For him, the arrival of a doppelgang­er who literally knows where all the bodies are buried is a particular­ly alarming developmen­t. But even ordinary folks are discombobu­lated by meeting themselves in the flesh. And the four-month time lag between these molecular twins raises a whole other set of complicati­ons. Another man learns his double is dying from a disease he hasn’t been diagnosed with — yet. And a writer wonders why his double committed suicide.

In these clever stories and a handful of others, Le Tellier dares us to wonder if we could stand meeting the figure in the mirror. It’s what makes “The Anomaly” a flight of imaginatio­n you’ll be rolling over in your mind long after deplaning.

With its elegant mix of science fiction and metaphysic­al mystery, Le Tellier’s thriller is comfortabl­y settled in the middle seat between “Lost” and “Manifest.”

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 ?? ?? THE ANOMALY By Hervé Le Tellier Translated from French by Adriana Hunter Other Press. 391 pp. Paperback, $16.99
THE ANOMALY By Hervé Le Tellier Translated from French by Adriana Hunter Other Press. 391 pp. Paperback, $16.99
 ?? CATHY BISTOUR ?? Hervé Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly” has sold more than a million copies in France and deserves to land on U.S. bestseller lists.
CATHY BISTOUR Hervé Le Tellier’s “The Anomaly” has sold more than a million copies in France and deserves to land on U.S. bestseller lists.

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