Edited by Veronica Vivi
Art by Arta Ajeti https://www.instagram.com/artawork/
The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis, first published in French in 2014, is one of the most successful pieces of Francophone writing in modern times: translated into twenty languages, it has taken the European literary establishment by storm. The novel details the life of a child in Northern France, a boy whose story echoes his author’s, with all his hints of wit, his budding charms – and, crushingly, his overwhelming suffering. This is a text about a young man’s pain, as an effeminate homosexual in a social world that reviles him.
Reading Louis’s work is painful in a way that one can barely comprehend, as with each chapter, the tragedy of his life seems to thicken. Reading his tales of growing up, one is transported into his family life. The reader suffers alongside Eddy as he chokes on wood-smoke in his cramped home, unable to imagine a better place to live, in which to feel safe. His loutish father mocks and threatens him, when he isn’t unconscious from chronic pain after gruelling factory work. Meanwhile, Eddy’s mother’s only efforts to guide her son comes when she tells him to grow a pair, obsessed as she is with her own failings, and her disgust at her own femininity. School provides little safety either. Between classes, Eddy is beaten ritualistically by his peers. In the fields and sheds at the outskirts of town, other tortures lie in wait, acts of violence which make Eddy question his very sense of identity and autonomy. This is not a happy tale of gay youth. What The End of Eddy manages to do is erode our sense of safety as a reader, and force us to see the world not as we desire it to be, but as it is, in the places we’re less willing to gaze upon. It is a valuable addition to a gay sub-canon of literature, which can at times be dominated by middle class stories, of rich men in a world of freedom and fancy.
Life in this book is about a series of traps, great and small, the binds of which prove lasting and dangerous. Eddy is trapped in his body, with its girlish mannerisms and its choked, birdlike voice. It is these quirks which doom him, not necessarily his desires: other men are shown to touch one another, to fuck each other, but it is his manner which makes his desires queer, his inability to conceal his needs with a layer of butch bravado. He is caught up in cycles of bullying and violence, at home and at school, and he is rooted to a homophobic town, from which no one ever seems to escape, and in his desires and fantasies that leave him lonely. He is entombed- and it’s not just him. This is a text where everyone is locked in cages, prisons whose foundations, Louis elegantly shows, have been laid by a brutal, capitalist super-structure. The men of the town copy their violence from television and cheap pornography. Factories keep workers locked in unhealthy work until they’re too broken to keep going. Civic money fails to nourish public services, and so schoolchildren wander straight from class to work or jail. Some of the finest writing in the text comes when the narration explores the way in which class violence has seeped into the minds of the townsfolk in the text, into Eddy’s family life: these people treat him, one another, and themselves badly, obeying commands from a distant institutional world they can barely access.
Reading The End of Eddy, I was reminded of Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: that text’s descriptions of loneliness, the literal and metaphorical cages in which society all too willingly leaves people incarcerated. I was particularly haunted by Laing’s descriptions of Harry Harlow’s historic experiments on monkeys. In his attempts to understand how socialisation builds in young children, Harlow created wire mothers: contraptions that were soft enough for baby monkeys to cling to and mistake for parents, but which concealed hidden tortures. The monkeys would learn eventually that their metallic parents, these mockeries of mothers, would always provide pain alongside scant moments of softness. Yet, the babies still clung to the only carers they had been given. Harlow concluded that children learn to seek moments of love amidst pain above all else, and Laing’s book stresses how our quest for human connection can force us to accept vast quantities of trauma. In The End of Eddy, these ideas burst from between the lines. Like Harlow’s monkeys, the young Eddy is treated to great pain by his family, and his so-called friends. Once he even runs away – and comes back immediately, luring his father into catching him so that he can be punished. At school, he questions his own complicity as each day he walks into the corridor where he knows he’ll be beaten. These rare moments of connection are enough to make Eddy circle the edges of the trap, and return to its centre. His world is a wire mother.
This is a novel which doesn’t just condemn broken families, or cruel parents, or bullies at school. It is a text which indicts our capitalist world, and rages against a class system which allows violence and suffering to fester in the minds of children and on the bodies of the vulnerable. The End of Eddy is important to potential curricula not just because of its value as a European text in translation, or as an example of queer literature, or because of its memoir form, or even its subtle exploration of what makes a queer person queer. Eddy’s story fits into a tradition of working-class literature where it is desperately required: when discussing class, many critics forget, or at least gloss over, its intersections with gender, race, and sexuality. Louis shows us how impoverishment and institutional neglect can impact a child who was already vulnerable because of his identity. It is important to note that this is not a text which suggests bourgeois life is necessarily better than worlds elsewhere: when Eddy eventually escapes to university, he is still victim to bigotry and casual cruelty. Nevertheless, Louis stresses the relative safety of this new environment, as a place where identity is slightly less regimented and policed, where one is not limited by only one path to manhood.
The End of Eddy should be included in our curricula. It is a vital reminder that queer people exist across the world – not just in metropolitan centres or on university campuses, but in the suburbs, in villages, and, as Louis so eloquently and viciously describes, in the fields: at risk.
Laing, Olivia. The Lonely City. Canongate, 2016.
Louis, Édouard. The End of Eddy, translated by Michael Lucey. Harvill Secker, 2017.
About the author
Toby Sharpe recently completed his master’s degree in literature at the University of Edinburgh, with a research interest in queer lives and literatures. He is the co-founder of Project Myopia.