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The Novel that Riveted France During Lockdown Arrives in the U.S.

PARIS — An Air France flight from Paris to New York lands on March 10, 2021, after passing through a terrifying storm. One hundred and six days later, the same Boeing 787 flight with the same crew, the same passengers and the same damage from an identical storm approaches the east coast of the United States. It’s impossible — the passengers and crew must be doubles — and yet.

This is the crux of “The Anomaly,” a novel by Hervé Le Tellier that has become a French literary phenomenon, and is being released in translation in the United States by Other Press on Tuesday.

France takes its books seriously. Author photographs advertising their latest works line the streets of Paris. Bookstores are everywhere. The Prix Goncourt, the country’s most prestigious literary prize, is a major annual event.

Even so, “The Anomaly” is an outlier. Published in the late summer of 2020, the novel has sold 1.1 million copies here, more than any book since Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover,” which came out in 1984. In an anomalous time, when a deserted Paris was in lockdown for months, and much of life moved online, the novel struck a powerful chord by suggesting the flimsiness of all we take for granted, what T.S. Eliot called “the old dispensation.”

A year ago, the novel won the 2020 Goncourt, which always boosts sales, but then something unusual happened: It kept selling. Initially, Le Tellier’s editor thought he had chosen “a bad title.” Speaking in his cluttered Montmartre apartment, the author agreed that “The Anomaly” was “a flat title, even if it’s a pretty word.”

Yet in the end the double anomaly at the heart of the novel — the upending of time in a world that discovers it is simulated — captured a moment when the pandemic stopped the world and existence veered toward the virtual.

“I am surprised by the book’s success given that it’s so experimental, bizarre and a little crazy,” Le Tellier, 64, whose more than two dozen previous works never made best-seller lists, said. “Perhaps reading it was a means of escape.”

The novel, which was translated into English by Adriana Hunter, begins with the description of several seemingly unrelated characters: a ruthless contract killer named Blake; an architect called André Vannier, whose girlfriend Lucie Bogaert, a movie editor, is about half his age and has lost interest in him; a down-on-his-luck novelist, Victor Miesel, who, in one of Le Tellier’s many literary artifices, provides the epigraph for the novel, “A true pessimist knows it is already too late to be one.”

Published in the late summer of 2020, the novel has sold 1.1 million copies in France, more than any book since Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover,” which came out in 1984.

The link between them, and the other characters who emerge, is gradually revealed. They were all on the March Air France flight. When the June flight approaches, it is diverted by U.S. authorities to an Air Force base in New Jersey and held there. As an M.I.T.-trained mathematician tells a military officer about to address the 243 bewildered passengers: “I don’t recommend you tell them that they all already exist in duplicate somewhere in the world and they darn well shouldn’t be on this earth at all.”

The mathematician, Tina Brewster-Wang, compares the situation to being asked the possible outcomes of flipping a coin. Heads, tails and the remote chance of the coin resting on its side. But what, she adds, “if the flipped coin stays suspended in the air?”

Le Tellier said he has long been fascinated by the idea of the double, a theme also taken up in literature by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Oscar Wilde and Jorge Luis Borges. Returning home one evening, he thought: “It would be interesting if I found my double awaiting me. How would I react?” This was the genesis of a book he took one year to write.

“And so, I inverted the usual approach in a novel, where you invent a character and plunge that character into a situation,” he said. “Instead, I took the situation as my starting point, one that would allow me to confront seven or eight characters with their doubles, after 106 days have elapsed. A lot can happen in 106 days! How would different characters react?”

When asked if he has ever met a doppelgänger of his own, Le Tellier said that once, when he was crossing the Boulevard St. Germain, an older man stopped him. “We know each other,” the man said to Le Tellier. “I know you because I saw you in the mirror 20 years ago.”

Le Tellier is a mild-mannered man who worked briefly as a college math teacher before taking up scientific journalism and starting to write novels in his 30s. In his writing, he is interested in probability, paradox, word play. Part of the appeal of “The Anomaly” is that it swerves between various genres — science fiction, a thriller, love stories, an introspective work — without being confined by any of them. It pokes fun at itself. It should be no surprise that Miesel, the novelist, is writing a novel called “The Anomaly,” or that another of his epigraphs holds that the one thing that surpasses genius “is incomprehension.”

Literary constraints fascinate Le Tellier. The constraint of writing without using a certain letter, “u,” for example. Or, in another exercise invented by the French novelist Georges Perec, writing a poem to a loved one using only the letters of the person’s name. “The constraint causes something unforeseen, unanticipated, to happen,” he said. Constraint, in other words, can be liberating.

In “The Anomaly,” Le Tellier described his constraints as “exposition, explanation and confrontations,” each addressed in one of the book’s three parts. The explanation for the identical June flight was not easy, causing him a brief writer’s block. Then an idea came to him: “that the world is perhaps simulated and that we are, on a biological level, nonexistent.” As one of the characters observes, Descartes’s “I think therefore I am,” is therefore obsolete, replaced by “I think therefore I’m almost certainly a program.”

Le Tellier worked briefly as a college math teacher before starting to write novels in his 30s. He is especially interested in probability, paradox, word play.Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

But are 21st-century humans really just perfected algorithms? “Well, we know we will get to that point,” Le Tellier said. “And if we know that, we can ask ourselves the question of whether we have not already reached it. That it’s already done, and we are in fact in a simulation without knowing we are in a simulation.” He smiled. “I find that a rather beautiful thing.”

In the novel, a logician named Arch Wesley is tasked with explaining what is happening to the American president. He is met with an angry response. “What you’re describing is ridiculous,” the president explodes. “I’m not some super Mario and I’m certainly not about to explain to the American people that they’re programs in a virtual world.”

Unfazed, Wesley suggests the second plane may constitute some sort of test that it’s important for the president to pass. “Because if we fail, the entities running this simulation could just shut it down.”

Before any end of days, there are deeply human issues, which are addressed in the “confrontations” between passengers and their doubles that make up the last part of the book.

For characters like Blake, who make a living by killing, the question of who lives on is quickly and brutally resolved; for others, like a young lawyer called Joanna Wasserman who discovers that her double has gotten pregnant during the 106-day interlude, the answer is agonizing.

“In the end, the essential question for all the characters, the only question, is what do I do with my love?” Le Tellier said. “Love is the point at which all the characters stumble, where they are fragile, and where they have to decide. On all the rest, they can negotiate.” Because part of love is possessiveness, and that is complicated when one becomes two.

“So, in some instances, the love has to be broken,” he continued. “Or the result will be an ambiguity that is cruel or an ambivalence that may even be destructive.”

The world, too, is facing agonizing decisions, Le Tellier said. The English translation of the novel arrives as world leaders have just recommitted in Glasgow to fighting global warming. The author sees climate change as an imminent threat to which the response has been paltry. “The simulation is waiting for a reaction from the entire human race,” he writes in the novel. “There won’t be a supreme savior. We need to save ourselves.”

The alternative, as “The Anomaly” makes clear, is that whoever controls the simulation will lose patience and, in an instant, bring down the curtain.

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