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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Seventh Function
of Language

Laurent Binet

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Seventh Function of Language

Title: The Seventh Function of Language
Author: Laurent Binet
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 394 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Seventh Function of Language - US
The 7th Function of Language - UK
The Seventh Function of Language - Canada
La septième fonction du langage - Canada
La septième fonction du langage - France
Die siebte Sprachfunktion - Deutschland
La séptima función del lenguaje - España
  • French title: La septième fonction du langage
  • Translated by Sam Taylor

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Our Assessment:

B : has good fun with colorful cast of (real) characters and intellectual pretensions, a bit weak with the rest

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard B 27/4/2017 David Sexton
Financial Times . 12/5/2017 Andrew Gallix
FAZ . 15/12/2016 Sandra Kegel
The Guardian . 12/5/2017 Lauren Elkin
Irish Times A- 13/5/2017 Eileen Battersby
Literary Review . 5/2017 Andrew Hussey
London Rev. of Books . 15/6/2017 Christopher Tayler
NZZ C- 3/1/2017 Thomas Laux
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/8/2017 Nicholas Dames
The Observer A 7/5/2017 Alex Preston
San Francisco Chronicle C 17/8/2017 Anthony Domestico
The Spectator A 13/5/2017 Nicholas Lezard
The Times . 13/5/2017 Janice Turner
TLS . 8/12/2015 Neil Badmington
TLS . 3/5/2017 Hal Jensen
The Washington Post . 23/8/2017 Michael Dirda
World Lit. Today A 5-6/2016 Edward Ousselin
Die Zeit . 26/1/2017 Jutta Person

  Review Consensus:

  Intellectual-spoofing playful fun -- but some more taken by it than others

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) smart, spoof thriller, cheekily taking as its cast the most famous Parisian intellectuals on the scene in 1980 (.....) Numerous outrages on reality are committed. (...) As a thriller, as a detective book, however, The 7th Function of Language soon palls, never even faintly credible. Binet evidently finds intellectual games and narrative trickery more intriguing than addressing the world we live in" - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. (...) Although highly entertaining at times, The 7th Function of Language fails to live up to its title. Everything, including the most obvious allusions (like the ubiquitous Citroën DS that Barthes compared to a Gothic cathedral) is spelt out. After all, what is the point of a roman à clef if the author provides us with all the keys ?" - Andrew Gallix, Financial Times

  • "Der Clou ist: Das Bild des idealen Lesers, das die poststrukturalistische Theorie entwirft, ist das Bild des Lesers als Detektiv. Der Leser wird zum Spurenleser, Bedeutungsschnüffler, immer dicht auf den Fersen des semiologischen Abenteuers. Und seine Beziehung zum gelesenen Text ist eine doppelte: nicht nur intellektuell, sondern auch als erotische Beziehung zum Textkörper, zur „Lust am Text“, um mit Barthes zu sprechen. (...) (E)in Dekonstruktionsroman, der viele Spuren legt und sich dabei als pointenreicher Theorietransfer erweist." - Sandra Kegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The 7th Function is a satiric romp through the upper echelons of Parisian intellectual life, indicting anyone -- Sollers, for example -- who takes the signified more seriously than the signifier. (...) It is also very entertaining, like a dirty Midnight in Paris for the po-mo set (.....) But in the end, The 7th Function of Language isn’t (only) playing for lowbrow/highbrow laughs; it’s a mise en scène of conflicting ideas about Frenchness." - Lauren Elkin, The Guardian

  • "At the heart of a madcap narrative is the overwhelming acknowledgment of the power of language. (...) Binet plays with his madcap story, which has hints of a Dan Brown mystery, fact juxtaposed with speculation and red herrings. (...) Should French literary theory hold little interest for you, this is still an immensely good-natured book of wicked cunning and slapstick timing, if messy plotting." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Binet geht dabei sehr frei mit den Fakten um. Ohnehin versinkt der Roman recht schnell in einer Aneinanderreihung verbrauchter Klischees. Binet benutzt das intellektuelle Milieu nur noch als Dekor. Die Figuren werden zu Marionetten, ihre Sprache gerät zusehends vulgär, die pornografischen Szenen der schwulen, in Saunabädern oder auf Szenepartys sich treffenden Avantgarde (neben Barthes auch Foucault oder Hervé Guibert) wirken peinlich. (...) Das wissenschaftliche Geschwurbel wirkt nervtötend und erstickt weiteres Interesse an der Sache. Spätestens damit aber hat sich dieser akademische Krimi, und das ist und bleibt er bei über 500 Seiten, selbst ein Bein gestellt." - Thomas Laux, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "At once a buddy-cop plot, a fish-out-of-water comedy and a spy thriller, Bayard and Herzog’s adventures become exercises in incongruity. (...) Along the way, no small pleasure is to be had from the amusing, sometimes scabrous, satirical portraiture of illustrious figures. (...) It is as if a roman policier has collided with the kind of campus novel Kingsley Amis would have written had he been of the generation and temperament to read Derrida’s "Of Grammatology." " - Nicholas Dames, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The bitchy, brilliant world of the French intelligentsia is rendered with aplomb. (...) Binet’s research is as immaculate as ever, and it is the care he takes to interweave the factual and the fictional that stops the novel spinning off into mere farce. (...) This is a novel that establishes Laurent Binet as the clear heir to the late Umberto Eco, writing novels that are both brilliant and playful, dense with ideas while never losing sight of their need to entertain. (...) The 7th Function of Language is one of the funniest, most riotously inventive and enjoyable novels you’ll read this year." - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "So does it all work ? Not as much as one would hope. (...) The ideas are too thin for theory lovers and too thick for theory novices. Binet has written a perfect beach read about semiotics -- no small feat. Yet he doesn’t show why we, professors and common readers alike, should care about theory once we’ve closed the book. By making the stakes of its ideas so cheekily high, The Seventh Function of Language drains them of their actual excitement." - Anthony Domestico, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "It is a hugely entertaining novel, taking delight in its own twists and turns (although it wobbles badly in Bologna [.....] Binet has his cake and eats it, taking pleasure in mocking his intellectuals as well as treating their arguments seriously. So there is a great and intelligent interest in the novel about the uses of debate and argument; but you also get to see Michel Foucault caught masturbating over a poster of Mick Jagger. (...) It almost works perfectly." - Nicholas Lezard, The Spectator

  • "La Septième Fonctiondu langage is certainly frivolous in its portrayal of French Theory, and it is not clear if an alternative is being offered, but to argue piously that its play should be tamed would be to censor what Binet in HHhH calls “the almost unlimited power” of the novel as a form. Laurent Binet may be smiling, but he has not assassinated Roland Barthes." - Neil Badmington, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(I)t is all delivered by Binet with such confidence that what is patently unbelievable becomes, for the duration, more convincing, and certainly more satisfying, than plain, unpoetic truth. (...) As a madcap thriller, The 7th Function offers much to admire. The recondite world of literary and linguistic theory collides delightfully with the pulsating one of desperate car chases, Bulgarian heavies brandishing poisoned umbrellas, and international espionage. Particularly enjoyable is Binet’s invention of an underground, blood-spilling, competitive rhetorical society (.....) Smart, witty, direct, cool, the tone here is above all likeable. Crucially, Binet appears to be free from vanity. His jokes are good, too." - Hal Jensen, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A)n intellectual thriller that will be catnip to serious readers. (...) Like HHhH, Binet’s post-modernist novel about the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich, The Seventh Function of Language doesn’t just tell a story. Binet is also exploring the relationship between fiction and reality. (...) To my mind, Binet doesn’t really do enough with these familiar metafictional tropes, and he’s much better at satire and suspense. Still, such a small reservation hardly matters when there’s so much fun to be had in The Seventh Function of Language" - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "The author manages to hold the reader’s interest for nearly five hundred pages by deftly intermingling tantalizing investigative clues and snippets of dialogue among the literary glitterati that are often hilarious and always reflect an in-depth knowledge of each writer’s works. (...) Overall, this quest for the putative seventh function of language is as intellectually sophisticated as it is humorous." - Edward Ousselin, World Literature Today

  • "Vor allem übertreibt es Die siebte Sprachfunktion mit der Gelehrsamkeit: Der Roman strotzt vor Binnenreferaten über Illokution und Perlokution, über die "French Theory" und über Björn Borg und John McEnroe, deren Match vom schlaumeiernden Semiotiker Simon "gelesen" wird. Nach 500 Seiten hat man großes Verständnis für Bayard, den Intellektuellenhasser." - Jutta Person, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Seventh Function of Language posits a bit of alternative history, taking as its premise that literary theorist, writer, and philosopher Roland Barthes didn't just accidentally get hit by that laundry van in 1980 -- sustaining injuries that eventually killed him -- but that he was targeted for murder. Barthes had in fact been at a lunch with French presidential candidate François Mitterrand, so there's obvious potential for political intrigue, but the crux of the matter is an invention of Binet's -- a document apparently in Barthes' possession when he was killed, and that was stolen from him after he was run down. Superintendent Jacques Bayard, leading the investigation, is told by no one less than the president of the republic himself, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, that the document must be recovered because: it: "may pose threat to national security".
       The first question -- which Giscard is unwilling to provide an answer to -- is, of course:

What did Barthes possess of such value that someone ot only stole it from him, but they wanted to kill him for it too ?
       Simon Herzog, a doctoral student teaching a course in semiology (though not seeing himself, strictly speaking as a semiologist) at one of the more radical Paris university campuses, Vincennes (Paris 8), is enlisted as Bayard's sidekick and topical expert -- since the conservative Bayard has little understanding of Barthes' work, or indeed much of the Parisian intellectual scene (which is paraded up and down throughout the novel). Herzog knows his theory, and notes how linguist Roman Jakobson defined six linguistic categories -- functions of language -- and suggests that there might be a not-publicly-known seventh function, "designated as the 'magic or incantatory function'". Initially, however he can't imagine there's much to it:
A negligible curiosity. A nonsensical footnote. Nothing worth killing for, in any case.
       Others think otherwise -- and one of the masters Bayard and Herzog consult, Umberto Eco, tells them there is a lot more to it, including some worrisome consequences:
Whoever had the knowledge and mastery of such a function would be virtually the master of the world. His power would be limitless.
       Their investigations take Bayard and Herzog far and wide -- the novel is divided into five parts, by locale: Paris-Bologna-Ithaca (NY)-Venice-Paris, with a three-chapter Epilogue set in Naples -- and, aside from the French presidential election, utilizes other real-life events as well, most notably the 2 August 1980 'Bologna massacre' (the bombing of the central railway station that left 85 dead), as well as Louis Althusser's murder of his wife (both of which are neatly tied into the larger story). The novel is also heavily populated by real-life figures -- specifically the cream (or dregs, depending on how you see it) of French intellectual life of the time -- many of whom figure prominently in the novel (and the mystery). Though mostly based closely on the actual figures, Binet does take considerable liberties -- as suggested also by the inclusion of another fictional character, the Stanley Fish-inspired Morris J. Zapp, of David Lodge's campus novels (Changing Places, etc.) -- and aside from scenes including, for example, Camille Paglia making out with Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida is killed off (rather earlier than in real life) and Philippe Sollers is literally emasculated.
       (There are several small historical inaccuracies that seem to be unintentional, but since the name of the game here is that everything -- even the mistakes -- mean something ..... But, for example, in the fall of 1980 Bayard and Herzog travel through New York City on their way to a conference at Cornell and: "walk up 8th Avenue until they reach the Port Authority Bus Terminal, opposite the gigantic building that houses the New York Times" -- though The New York Times headquarters has only been at 620 Eighth Avenue since 2007 (previously -- and in 1980 --: 229 West 43rd Street). Or, for example, when Derrida speaks at the conference in Cornell he uses as an example: "in what sense does Reagan claim to be Reagan, president of the United States" -- but while Reagan had (presumably) won the election by the time of this fall, 1980 conference, he was only inaugurated in January 1981 (i.e. he could and would only claim to be president-elect, not president).)
       From the beginning there seems to be a Bulgarian connection to the original crime, so émigrés Julia Kristeva (who happens to be the wife of Philippe Sollers) and Tzvetan Todorov are persons of interest. Governments are also curious about the Bulgarian connection -- including the Soviets, wondering what their client-state underlings might be up to, as Binet even introduces Yuri Andropov to the action. A slippery mysterious Japanese duo also repeatedly crops up, adding to the international intrigue.
       An enjoyable invention of Binet's is a secret debating society, called the Logos Club, where 'oratory duels' are held -- where challengers, at a certain level (there is a debating hierarchy) must sacrifice a finger if they are judged to have lost. There are several official verbal jousts in the novel, and Herzog even gets involved in the games himself -- at first, because it's the only way to get access to a grand showdown that he and Bayard need to attend, but rather taking to the games after that (despite what it costs him ...).
       The power of rhetoric, as well as the question of substance versus style, figure prominently in the novel -- not least in the idea of the 'seventh function' itself, and the circumstances under which it might be effective. Of course, the question of substance versus style also applies to the intellectuals Binet mocks -- as he clearly suggests much of their babble and preening is rather all about style and show, rather than actual substance. But he gives a wide variety of characters and (would-be) thinkers a platform and presents many of their ideas -- though his tendency to caricature, as far as the characters goes, doesn't exactly suggest he's overly impressed with various theories and philosophies.
       Binet does play with his semiological material, of course, and so The Seventh Function of Language is packed with signifiers and signs. After all, as he warns early on:
Man is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere
       There are not-so-subtle reminders throughout, as well: of course someone observes: "The accident is never an accident". And Binet isn't subtle with the reminders of this being a novel, either, the author himself occasionally peeking out -- as in discussing how to address Barthes' lunch with Mitterrand, a scene his protagonists "will never know", but which the author can (imagine) more insight into: "But I can, maybe ...". Then there's Herzog, who goes so far as to suggest that specific explanation for his unusual circumstances: "I think I'm trapped in a novel". (Of course, he tends to see things in literary terms, and at another point he thinks: "This isn't a Sherlock Holmes story".)
       Suggesting that: "man's most powerful weapon" is language, Binet's comic novel also involves high-stakes seriousness, with political implications -- as revealed in a denouement that also involves a debate between politicians (with a significant historical outcome, though those outside France probably aren't that impressed by its significance), but seems even clearer in the present-day, when such ...unusual oratory as that of the current American president, Donald Trump, proves highly effective. Maybe there's something to that seventh function, after all -- though part of what makes it so intriguing is that widespread knowledge of the function would render it relatively harmless.
       The mystery aspect of The Seventh Function of Language is a bit weak. Binet has a decent enough explanation for much of what happened, and there are some nice twists to that (and it is amusing (in a horrible way) to follow the comeuppance of Sollers, who thinks he's got the upper hand when he decidedly doesn't), but Binet has some difficulty balancing that with the semiological games -- and intellectual-caricaturing -- he stuffs in (leaving some room for some tennis asides as well). Much of all that is good fun too, but it's hard not to feel that he's trying too hard. The number of real-life figures paraded through the story -- and often playing significant roles -- ultimately is more distracting than helpful too.
       [A partial (!) list of those who figure in the book includes: Louis Althusser Yuri Andropov, Roland Barthes, Noam Chomsky, Gilles Deleuze, Paul De Man, Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Michel Foucault, Hervé Guibert, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Jack Lang, Bernard-Henri Lévy, François Mitterrand, Camille Paglia, Jean Paul Sartre, John Searle, Philippe Sollers, and Tzvetan Todorov.]
       The Seventh Function of Language is mostly quite enjoyable but also rather unwieldy, Binet packing more in -- especially more people -- than he can comfortably handle. There are a lot of fun ideas here (and even some provocative ones), as well as some enjoyable take-downs of intellectual preeners, but it doesn't quite add up to a functional novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 May 2017

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The Seventh Function of Language: Reviews: Other books by Laurent Binet under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Laurent Binet was born in 1972.

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© 2017 the complete review

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