Lit Thursday: How to Behave in a Crowd

Read an excerpt from Camille Bordas's debut novel in English, How to Behave in a Crowd.

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The father rarely said anything to us, or me, at least. Sometimes at dinner, after Simone or one of the others had given a lecture on how they envisioned their future, he'd ask what it was I planned to do in life. It made me nervous when he asked. I'd mumble something about not being quite sure yet. I thought I only had one shot at the answer, that coming up with the wrong one could loom over the rest of my life.

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I tried to get serious about coming up with a vocation, for the next time he put the question to me. At the school library, I went through a guidebook that listed all the professions in existence. It actually said "all the professions" on the cover, but then there was a warning on the back, in small print, that said new professions were invented on a regular basis and that others disappeared, but that the reader should nevertheless rest assured the ones listed in the booklet should at least have a good twenty years of existence ahead. The list was four years old already. It bore 443 items, I counted, in alphabetical order. I tried to guess which ones would expire. Cartography sounded like a doomed business. Anthropology did too. I thought places and groups of people only existed in a limited number, and that once you'd studied a particular land and mapped it, or spent some time with a tribe and written about it, there was nothing to add, you'd done the job and crossed something off the list of places to map and people to study, and that the list had to be extremely short by now, if there was anything left on it at all.

Each professional title appeared in italics and was followed by a brief description of what it entailed, what kind of education you needed, how many years. I imagined the longest descriptions had to be for the most impressive jobs, and I skipped them.

I wanted to come up with something conceivable, not too showy, something my siblings wouldn't right away try to discourage me from pursuing. On the other hand, too modest a pick would expose me to their mockery. They despised salesmen and politicians, as well as anything too useful (like plumbing, for instance) or concerned with precious things (flowers, stationary, babies).

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I thought I would read the whole booklet and find a vocation in one sitting, but by D I got bored and headed home. I didn't see the rush in making a decision anymore. I was still pretty young. I could wait for the booklet with the new professions to come out.

* * *

The only thing I was good at was holding my breath. In fact, I'd had a brief taste of what the rush of athletic performance might be during gym class when I'd held my breath underwater for the whole length of the pool. It impressed my classmates, I could tell. When I resurfaced at the other end, they all stood small in the distance and didn't say anything. All of them had gone up for air midlength. Though I hadn't saved anybody's life or done anything of importance, and though I'd always despised those who stuck out their chests, I walked back to them like a hero, in my flip-flops (I left a different pair at each end of the pool), and, halfway there, realized that, had I been gifted any real talent, I would probably have been a terrible person.

* * *

One night, it came up again, "What about you, Dory? What do you want to be when you grow up?" and it struck me right then that the answer should be that I wanted to be a German teacher. It was Sunday, and the father had just spent two hours helping Simone with her German homework. He'd helped all my other siblings with their German over the years, not that they were bad at it, they just weren't as good as they were at everything else. When they'd had papers to turn in, they'd always run them by the father. He was happy to help, and since German was the thing with which he felt he could be of most use to his children, he discussed every little translation choice they made in more detail than my siblings were comfortable with. Only because my father excelled at it was German mandatory in our family. He tried to make us believe that German was important—the language of Hölderlin and other people like that—but I think what he liked about it was really that he understood it and that it was more impressive than English or Spanish—which he spoke as well—because everyone spoke English and Spanish. German teacher was the perfect answer, I thought. An achievable goal. Respect would pour forth from all around the table.

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I thought I only had one shot at the answer, that coming up with the wrong one could loom over the rest of my life.

"I know what he'll be!" Simone announced before I got the chance to share my last-minute vocation. "He'll be my biographer!"

She wasn't being sarcastic.

"People will fight to write books about me one day, but yours will be the only authorized one, Dory, I swear, we can make a pact about it right now."

The father thought it was a great idea.

* * *

"What questions do you want me to ask?"

"What do you think this is? Stalinist Russia? You pick the questions," Simone said. "After all, you were around for most of my thirteen years on earth, I'm sure you have a perspective on my life that I couldn't possibly imagine."

"Is that a compliment?"

"Sure," she said.

Simone had borrowed Jeremie's Dictaphone. It worked with little cassettes. Jeremie supplied two he said could be erased because he'd uploaded the bird sounds he'd recorded on them to his computer. Simone tested the Dictaphone and placed it on the night table we were supposed to share but that had always been all hers.

"I'm ready when you're ready," she said, and on the tape, you can hear me unfold the list of questions I'd prepared.

"Do you remember when you got lice in first grade and Mom was going to cut your hair real short in the bathroom and before she did you wanted to save as many lice as possible and asked me if I would shelter them and rubbed your scalp against mine?"

"What kind of question is that?"

"I was thinking about it. I'm pretty sure it's my first memory of you."

"Well it's not going to be a book about you, is it? Next question."

"Have you always been the smartest person in your class?"

"Absolutely. Even in kindergarten, I drew my houses with perspective—"

"What is your first memory?"

"I don't think we were done with the previous question."

"No?"

"You have to leave me some time to answer, to reminisce."

"Okay."

"So. Yes. I've always been head of the class. In every subject. Even now in German, which I'm not particularly good at, I'm miles and miles and miles ahead. People envy me, but there's a big drawback to being smarter than the rest, and I'll tell you what it is, because I assume it will be in part responsible for the kind of person I'll become: loneliness. You know, I happen to be good at everything I try, but it doesn't mean that I want to be the best, and people get the two things confused. The truth is it would be good for me to have competition once in a while, or even someone to look up to that is not just Berenice or Aurore or the boys but someone my own age. But when you're first in everything, you have to know better than to say you want competition. That would sound false or spurious to everyone. You have to be humble, you have to be ashamed of yourself, sort of. I guess it's the same thing when you're very happy. I've never been very happy, but I assume it's the same. You can't be too obvious about it. You have to show some restraint."

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"Did you ever think about failing a test on purpose?"

"Why in the world would I ever do that?"

"So people wouldn't think you're a freak? To fit in?"

"I don't see why I should be the one to make the effort and reach down to everyone else. Why doesn't it cross everyone else's mind to reach up to me?"

"Well, it's not easy being smart."

"Of course it is. You just have to shut up nine out of ten times you think you want to speak."

"Do you do that?"

"Well, not right now. Not with you guys."

There's a few seconds of silence there on the tape.

"You say you want competition, but you never had any so far, so how do you know you would be okay with it?"

"That's an interesting question, Dory."

A silence here.

"So what's your answer?"

"I don't know."

Silence again.

"There's a girl, in art class, she's a pretty decent painter. I mean, I'm a better sketcher, by a long shot, that's how I stay head of art class, but she's a better painter, and I have no jealousy whatsoever toward her."

Another silence.

"It's quite the opposite actually."

"Why don't you try to be friends with her?"

"I don't know what to say to her."

"Just say you like her paintings."

"I don't really know how to say nice things. When I have something nice to say, I don't know how to be honest without sounding fake. Or condescending. Are you taking notes? I mean . . . isn't this thing recording?"

"You're the one who set it."

"Plus, I'm sure she thinks I'm pretentious. Everyone does."

"I think you're pretentious sometimes."

"I know. That's because I do talk down to you sometimes. On purpose. But at school, I'm always very careful not to do that, and I still get morons saying I'm full of myself, or calling me pretentious, if they actually know the word. You know what really pisses me off, Dory?"

"When people misuse words?"

"Misuse of words. Yes. Sloppy usage. Pretentious has come to define someone who talks about a thing that others don't understand. But it's not what it means. Pretension is a form of lying, it's looking to impress people with knowledge you haven't really mastered, or giving yourself more importance than you have, but calling me pretentious for actually knowing things, well, that's a fucking disgrace, that's a misuse of language. It's more than that: it's language abuse. It's like when people use the word symbol left and right. What's up with that? Or problematic as a noun, because problem doesn't sound edgy enough. If I'm not sure how to use a word, I won't use it 'til I've looked up its meaning. It would be pretentious to do otherwise, you follow me? People who call me pretentious, they're the pretentious ones. I mean, should I surrender and start using words inappropriately the way they do, just to fit in? Dory, why are you taking notes? This thing records everything we say."

"I'm taking notes on your body language."

Another silence.

"You're taking a hell of a lot of notes. Do you think we should get a video camera?"

"Why are you pretentious with me sometimes?"

"What?"

"You said you were pretentious with me sometimes, on purpose. Why?"

"To impress you. That's the only purpose of pretension."

"Why do you want to impress me?"

"I'm your big sister. You have to look up to me."

"But I do already."

"Well, it should stay like that. For a little while at least."

"Then what?"

"Then at some point you'll stop being impressionable, and my mission with you will be complete."

"Do I have a mission with you?"

"This is not a book about you."

"Off the record?"

She stopped the recording there and you can hear static for a second and a bird chirp. Then the interview resumes.

Excerpted from How to Behave in a Crowd Copyright © 2017 by Camille Bordas. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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