In the first chapter of this novel a hit man remarks to himself: “No one realises how much hit men owe to Hollywood scriptwriters.” But how does the author know? The throwaway joke, along with an unashamed obsession with verbally recreating and namechecking the mise-en-scène of streaming TV drama, is typical of the book’s effervescent playfulness. Hervé Le Tellier, after all, is the current president of Oulipo, the French “workshop of potential literature” whose past masters included Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. And what he has done here would delight his forebears with its paradoxical nature: he has written an Oulipan bestseller, a Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has already shifted a million units on the continent.
Each chapter of the book’s first section introduces a different cast member, mainly French or American, in a different novelistic or televisual style (deftly handled in Adriana Hunter’s clever translation). After the hit man, Blake, we meet a writer, Victor Miesel, followed by film editor Lucie, architect André, musician Slimboy, six-year-old Sophie and her pet frog, lawyer Joanna, and mathematicians Adrian and Meredith. Victor’s story is a hilariously deadpan satire on the Parisian literary scene: his two unbestselling novels glory in the titles The Mountains Will Come to Find Us and Failures that Missed the Mark, while he also “translates entertaining English-language bestsellers that reduce literature to the status of a minor art for minors”. (He commences work on a book entitled The Anomaly, because of course he does.)
Other tableaux are by turns amusing and affecting: Slimboy is a Nigerian pop star wondering whether he can come out as gay; David is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer; André and Lucie were once an item but no more. Adrian and Meredith are tipsily flirting at a faculty party at MIT, where “there’s some tequila in the Turing Room, in the cupboard behind the felt pens”. Here is Meredith considering Adrian: “For a statistician, he’s a dreamer. He has green eyes that make him look like a number theorist, even though he has long hair like a game theorist, and wears the Trotskytising small steel-rimmed glasses of a logician and the holey old T-shirts of an algebraist.”
It has been a bravura 100 pages of introductions and emotional or comedic complications before the conceptual inciting event happens. Air France flight AF006 from Paris to New York emerges from the turbulence of an unexpected storm to the bafflement of air traffic control, and is redirected to a secret military base. Why? Because it’s exactly the same flight as one that already landed at JFK after emerging from a storm three months ago. Not just the same flight number but the same plane, with the same people on it. And guess what links all the characters we have met so far. There are now two copies of Blake, Victor, Lucie, Joanna, and all the rest – except Adrian and Meredith, who are instead whisked off to consult for the American government on what this might mean, while the interlopers are sequestered in a Hollywood movie hangar.
At length the assembled brains trust (you’d cast Jeff Goldblum in a shot) decides that the most likely explanation is that we all live in a simulation. Not like The Matrix, where humans are real but enslaved by machines; instead, we ourselves are nothing more than computer programs, running in some vast simulation overseen by an alien civilisation of unimaginable technological capability. The boffins explain this by reference to Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s “Simulation Argument”, though something very similar was a pan-galactic religion known as “The Truth” in Iain M Banks’s sci-fi universe.
If it is the truth, though, what does this sudden duplication of an aircraft full of people mean? Maybe it’s a test, characters suppose. How will humanity know if it has failed? As the intelligence and military types argue the toss, the rest of the novel follows the characters as, in different situations, they meet their doppelgangers. Would you share your life with the person who also thinks they are you? Would you claim them as a long-lost twin? Or would they need to disappear?
After a suitably ludic ending, we are left with an after-echo, a feat of fiction informed by other fictions. Le Tellier describes a world flattened by the unbearable lightness of representation (where some still remember a time “when too many photos hadn’t yet killed photos”). Does he mean to make a sly case that the great god Netflix has become the default way for us to interpret the world? In any event, it seems fitting that the novel’s screen adaptation rights have already been sold. From TV has The Anomaly arisen; to TV shall it return.
The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter, is published by Michael Joseph (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.