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Les Bises

EARLY IN ROSECRANS Baldwin’s bittersweet memoir detailing his eighteen-month stint working in the French capital, he unabashedly announces that he has almost always held the conviction that the City of Lights was civilization’s summit: “For a long time I’d thought Paris had the world’s best everything. Girls, food, the crumble-down buildings. Even the very dust was arousing.” The Parisian life, he goes on to say, served as “an umbrella, a dream I carried around in case the weather turned bad.”

Baldwin, in other words, was a true-blue Francophile—a “Paris freak” as he puts it—and his book is an account of these Parisian ideals being assaulted. It all begins when he and his wife Rachel (who curiously is never made nearly as vivid as his relationship with the metropolis) move from Brooklyn to Paris in the late-2000s so he can pursue a copywriter job with a high-end advertising agency. He lands the gig through a friend—despite being a neophyte to both the French language and the advertising industry—because they need English-speaking employees and he once wrote a “luxury humor” column for an American Express magazine.

Upon arrival, Baldwin envisions settling in the Latin Quarter, “where artists and students once rambled.” Yet he discovers—solemnly, of course—that the Left Bank bohemian life is now a bygone epoch, presently serving as the “home to the rich of Paris, the wealthy of the retired-expat class, and Russian moguls.” The “young and creative” now reside on the historically bourgeois Right Bank, he notes, but living well and being broke anywhere in present-day Paris seems to be a Sisyphean existence. In Baldwin’s depiction, the city is more or less the European equivalent of Manhattan, but with better bread and more overt xenophobia. In due course, he concludes, “central, decadent Paris” is “dead as fluff.”

Other postcard clichés are soon shattered as well. In one instance, he ruefully lists cobwebby Parisian totems now largely absent in the city: “No berets anymore, except on tourists. No more mustached bistrotiers. No Yale dropouts in khakis. No one loitering on the Rue de Tournon. No bistros worth their price on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.” But Baldwin—a youngish writer who published his first book in 2010, the novel You Lost Me There—does get a half-baked chance at the artiste life. He wrote his book while an expatriate, but the novel was a side dish rather than a feast. “Everyone knew Paris was where artists moved to pursue art,” he says, “but I was only writing in stitches, having journeyed to Paris to pursue ad sales.” Nowadays, according to Baldwin, it is only “trust-funders” who have “all the time in the world to write the shittiest novels imaginable.” (You Lost Me There, it is worth noting, was anything but contemptible, rightfully earning the mostly glowing praise it received.)

His riffs on Parisian office mores, meanwhile, are probably the most insightful—and funniest—in the book. He documents being routinely anguished about the nuances revolving around who and how to give les bises (greeting kisses): “It definitely wasn’t appropriate to kiss your boss, except when it was, though it was correct to kiss your underlings, except when it wasn’t.” Moreover, he recalls how it is nearly impossible to fire someone in France, even a worker who would “disappear for several days, whereabouts unknown.” The alternative, a colleague tells him, is “you simply stop giving them things to do … and they sit in a corner for a few years, and you hope they quit.” Baldwin also skewers the male staff, which habitually resorts to racist jokes for the sole purpose of taking a stand against “the grand evil that was political correctness”:

Either Murphy Brown never aired in France, or Paris was stuck in the early nineties. I hadn’t heard the term used in maybe ten years, but in our office politically correct came up twice a week. In meetings, if someone called your idea P.C., pay-say, there was no possible recovery. The label was nuclear. Anyone accused of pay-say during un brainstorming would be shouted down—Don’t be so American!—to sit shamefaced in his seat, excluded from the rest of the session.

He doles out his own social-political criticism as well, such as partly blaming Paris’s staleness on its pushing of foreigners to the outer parts of the city. According to Baldwin, “it took immigrants to give a city life, never mind friction—some tread as Paris tried to move its bulk forward into the twenty-first century.” Likewise, he remarks on the grievances by transit workers over Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposed reforms at the time, which in turn stalls the city: “I found the public-sector strikes in Paris a little ridiculous—more pantomime than struggle—never mind a pain in the ass.”

But Paris, I Love You is not a diatribe. For every grumble about Paris and its inhabitants, Baldwin has a bipolar swing about his surroundings, such as when he reflects on the press coverage of “bling-bling” Sarkozy’s courtship of Carla Bruni: “Sometimes the French were incredibly French—so cultured, so reliably contradictory—it thrilled me. There was nothing else to say. What a wonderful place.” Indeed, Baldwin, a concise and likable writer, frequently has a delightfully off-kilter way of capturing the city’s charms, as he does when describing the arrangement of its arrondissements: “They spiral out from the river like toilet water flushing in reverse and erupting out of the bowl—a corkscrew or what have you, a flattened pig’s tail, a whorling braid notched one to twenty.”

But all too often he limits his account by forcefully aiming his writing squarely at the McSweeney's/Stuff White People Like-type reader. Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down is sprinkled with an Eggers-esque tone, along with pop-music references that seem to be made solely for liberal arts-educated Caucasians. (Starting with the book’s title, which is an allusion to the song “New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down” by the dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem.) All fine things in themselves, but their uses in Baldwin’s hands seem like straining, trying-too-hard endeavors. Ultimately, Paris, I Love You will never be regarded as an “important” book in the expat canon, but that doesn’t mean it is without its small appeals. The result is less Memoirs of Montparnasse and more a portrait of an artist as a young professional.

Eric Been is an associate editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and other publications.