Lila Says is the tale of a star-crossed odd couple. The lead, Chimo, is an unemployed, 19-year-old, Arab man living in a Parisian government housing complex. Chimo’s life revolves around writing stories and getting by however he can. A fair amount of the book is about living a life of poverty in the ghettos of one of the world’s most expensive cities, but the core of it is about Chimo’s relationship with Lila.
While Chimo is awkward with girls and uncomfortable in sexual matters, Lila is an exhibitionist and – it seems at first – a nymphomaniac. She is a pretty blonde girl being raised by a Catholic aunt. Over the course of the novel, it becomes less clear that Lila is a nymphomaniac, and it’s possible that she just gets excited by causing arousal in others – particularly Chimo. In other words, it’s not so clear to what degree she is having sex, versus telling erotic tall tales. At any rate, the interplay between Chimo’s repressed nature and Lila’s unrestrained nature is at the center of the story. It soon becomes clear that part of the reason Lila has chosen Chimo is because he’s simultaneously safe and interested. That is, he can control his libido but doesn’t reject Lila’s flirtations. Chimo is surprised to find that Lila doesn’t talk to any of his friends the way she does to him, and – in fact – she doesn’t talk to them much at all.
This book is hard to rate. It’s definitely rough around the edges. However, as it’s presented as the journal of a young, unemployed man with minimal education that roughness contributes to an authentic feel. I have no idea whether it’s really a case like Go Ask Alice. (Go Ask Alice was presented as an anonymous manuscript written by a teen-aged girl whose life fell apart due to drug use, but it turned out to be written by a middle-aged woman whose life experience was nothing akin to Alice’s – though she was a therapist and youth counselor and thus had access to stories of those like Alice.) However, the text feels like it could have been hand-scrawled in the ruins of an abandoned building by candle light as described. (That is, if one discounts the British slang which takes one away from the “Arab man in a Parisian housing project,” but the book was originally published in French and so the English edition translation was made to invoke the same class level in its readership.) There are even a few footnotes about the state of the pre-edited manuscript that sell the meta-story of the book.
It’s also a great oversimplification to classify the book as erotica. It’s true that there is a great deal of sexual content in the book, and most of what Lila says, except toward the book’s end, is intended to be titillating. However, the book is also about living in poverty, selling blood to get grocery money and such. Furthermore, the book’s end ventures away from eroticism and into the realm of tragedy.
I found this book to be incredibly and surprisingly engaging. I might say I liked it warts and all, but I think it’s truer to say its warts contributed to making it more engrossing. I would highly recommend it for readers who don’t mind adult themes and who aren’t attached to happy endings (no pun intended.) I don’t mean to give anything away or to beat a dead horse. It’s just that if one picks the book up thinking of it as romance or erotica, one might feel betrayed. Better to think of it as a gritty work of fiction.