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Bart Beaty Reviews La Vie secrete des jeunes, by Riad Sattouf
posted November 13, 2007
 

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By Bart Beaty

Riad Sattouf's new book, La Vie secrete des jeunes (L'Association), troubles me.

On the one hand, there may be no better tour guide of contemporary French culture than Sattouf, who shines a bright light on, as the title indicates, the secret life of young people. On the other hand, however, he's sort of making me hate those very same young people. I'm not old enough yet that I should be so cranky.

But what can you do? Starting with the semi-grotesque cover image of a pimple-faced poseur trying to stick his tongue down the throat of a dismayed and/or disgusted young woman (an image which, in a lovely piece of high irony, is adorned by gold-embossed flowers), it is all quickly downhill. Sattouf's work is reportage. The stories he tells us are true. He publishes each week a single-page in the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. But his work seems far removed from that of Joe Sacco, who investigates life among marginalized and often terrorized populations. Sattouf turns his eye to life in one of the richest cities in the world, uncovering within it random acts of viciousness, callousness, ignorance and despair.

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That may sound harsh, but it is the reality that Sattouf depicts. His world is one in which suburban youths randomly strikes passers-by on escalators at Les Halles; it is a world of semi-crazed homeless people in the subways and ranting Greenpeace activists in the streets; it is a world of minor perverts, cheaters, and users. Sattouf turns his attention to incidents of gross hypocrisy, outrageous incidents that often seem invented. Indeed, in at least two strips the artist depicts someone speaking to him at a book signing and suggesting that he has made the material up. I have no idea whether or not this is in fact the case, but I can tell you that to me it all feels real -- and that is the key to the book's success.

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No one will ever accuse Sattouf of being the most skilled draftsman of his generation of cartoonists, but his unadorned line work nicely carries the work where more detailed depictions might detract from the larger issues that the strips raise. Importantly, he has a tremendous eye for body-language, and he uses this attentiveness well. He also has a great facility for pacing. And his dialog, which is chock-full regional and ethnic colloquialisms is second to none. The strips do impart a genuine "you are there!" feeling, despite the lack of highly detailed depictions.

One reality of the book as a book, however, is that it is possible to take in too much too fast. Sattouf's pieces work really well in single-page weekly doses, but taken in one or two sittings it can become overwhelming. So many stories of petty bullying become oppressive and he makes you want to stop looking. Yet, at the same time, the work is so compelling that you always seem to wander back.

*****

La Vie secrete des jeunes Riad Sattouf, L'Association, 2844142532 (ISBN10), 9782844142535 (ISBN13), October 2007, 19 Euros

*****

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