cover image The Seventh Function of Language

The Seventh Function of Language

Laurent Binet, trans. from the French by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-26156-6

Binet, author of the Prix Goncourt–winning HHhH, ups the metafictional ante with The Seventh Function of Language, which draws a detective story out of the true details surrounding the death of French philosopher Roland Barthes. Barthes was the father of semiotics, “a science that studies the life of signs within society,” and this novel is alive with the potential signifiers lurking behind language. And so the fact that Barthes had just had lunch with François Mitterrand—the man who would become the president of France—on Feb. 25, 1985, before being fatally struck by a van becomes grounds for a grand conspiracy. Our hardboiled hero is superintendent Jacques Bayard, who is bewildered by the luminaries of the left that make up his suspects—including Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler—even as their antic discourse regarding everything from James Bond to LSD (which Foucault tries during a disastrous bondage club visit) make the novel a charming roman à clef like no other. Bayard eventually learns that Barthes may have been killed for possessing a manuscript that reveals the fabled seventh function of language (linguist Roman Jakobson outlined only six), but the mystery—which parodies The Da Vinci Code—is really just an excuse for this loving inquiry into 20th-century intellectual history that seamlessly folds historical moments, such as Louis Althusser’s murder of his wife and the prison death of Antonio Gramsci, into a brilliant illustration of the possibilities left to the modern novel. (Aug.)