If there is one genre of publishing that lived its entire life span in one century, it is the western. From the best-selling heights of Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey to its present obscurity, the mass-market western quietly went extinct somewhere in the early 1990s. Oddly, the genre, once considered one of the lowest forms of writing, now belongs almost exclusively to authors of high literary merit like Cormac McCarthy and Christine Montalbetti.

French author Montalbetti's most recent novel, Western, is a wonderfully Oulipian affair; she shoves the action of the piece—a gunfight, a man looking for revenge on another man—far into the background, instead focusing on details and characters that would otherwise be a barely described, terse sentence or two in a L'Amour novel. With page-long sentences laden with self-aware clauses, Montalbetti tells us about the insects on a fence post, or a lazy but semialert cow:

It was back in the dark of night when the bovid heard the erratic banging of the gate, the braided cord ordinarily keeping it shut apparently having come loose and letting out a little more slack with every new reverberation. The other artiodactyl mammals are asleep, but this one has its ear—the only part moving, as it hasn't yet bothered to move the rest of its carcass as yet, lying on the sand—pricked, aimed at interpreting the sound.

The result is a John Wayne movie filmed by a cinematographer with ADD and a wildly malfunctioning camera: We stare at the stitching of boots or are struck giddily by the blue of the sky for 5 or 10 minutes before wandering back to the horizon line and the characters we are following. Western is a challenging book to read because it strains at the limits of our narrative patience, but as with much French literature, Montalbetti's boundless curiosity and enthusiasm for her experiment makes the book an ultimately satisfying journey into a dead genre. recommended