Running Away by Jean-Philippe Toussaint; trans. by Matthew B. Smith
In a fall 2008 interview for The Quarterly Conversation, Martin Riker asked Jean-Philippe Toussaint, “What is the role of the artist in society?” To which Toussaint responded, “To run away.” Misanthropy aside, for me Toussaint‘s answer foregrounded the importance of his latest novel, Running Away (Fuir), in his artistic growth. The book, the sequel to Making Love, won the Prix Médicis in 2005. It represents a significant development from Toussaint‘s previous novels, though it does share many of their characteristics.
Running Away distinguishes itself immediately from many of Toussaint‘s works in that a lot happens in it. The plot is staggeringly complicated for the book‘s slim size: The narrator is sent to Shanghai by Marie, a woman with whom he has an ambiguous, and apparently doomed romantic relationship, to deliver $25,000 to her business partner, Zhang Xiangzhi, in a probable drug deal. Zhang Xiangzhi gives the narrator a cell phone that constantly puts the narrator within reach, both exacerbating his own (plausibly justified) paranoia, and strengthening Zhang Xiangzhi‘s (unverified) protection and control of him. The narrator attends an art exhibition with Zhang Xiangzhi where he meets and strikes up a fledgling romantic relationship with Li Qi, a Chinese woman who invites him to spend a few days with her in Beijing. To the narrator‘s surprise, Zhang Xiangzhi is waiting for him with Li Qi when he arrives at the train station to go to Beijing. The trio take a night train where the narrator and Li Qi begin to get intimate, but are interrupted by a call from Marie saying that her father has died. From this point on, the narrator is really only physically present in China, dragged by Zhang Xiangzhi and Li Qi through some sort of botched drug deal and motorcycle chase, finally leaving them and flying to Elba to try to meet Marie for her father‘s funeral, which turns out to be more complicated than it would seem.
Such a dramatic plot alone could make Running Away a cinematic novel, and Toussaint‘s style (Remember, he‘s also a filmmaker) furthers the effect. As the narrator‘s ferry approaches Elba, he describes the view:
“I had gone out on deck and was watching Portoferraio unfurl in the distance, still a shimmering mass of orange roofs indistinguishable from one another in the liquid light of the morning. The city was gradually gaining definition, beginning to stand out among the mountains and neighboring hillsides, the contours of bell towers and houses coming into focus as we got closer to the shore.”
You can envision the shot perfectly, the camera focusing in on the approaching shore. The novel breaks again and again into these shots, the action into scenes. For as “think-y” as Toussaint is, there‘s little that goes on in the novel that doesn‘t have some visual underpinning.
What makes Running Away so captivating as a novel, beyond its sensory pleasure, is that this wealth of lyrical description precipitates emotional statements that aren‘t often expressed in other Toussaint works, allowing the narrator an emotional maturity unseen in many other Toussaint characters:
“…the row of old European buildings whose green lights, reflected on the wavy water of the Huangpu, projected emerald halos in the night. From the other bank of the river, beyond the flow littered with vegetable waste stagnating in the darkness, beyond the chunks of mud floating on the surface of the water and the algae magically held in place by an invisible undertow, the skyscrapers of Pudong traced a futuristic line in the sky as fateful as the lines that mark our palms, punctured by the distinctive sphere of the Oriental Pearl, and, further along on the right, as if in retreat, modest and hardly lit up, the discreet majesty of the Jin Mao Tower. Looking out at the water, pensive, I was captivated by the river‘s dark and wavy surface, and in a state of dream-like melancholy—as often happens when the thought of love is met with the spectacle of dark water at night–I was thinking about Marie.”
This transcendental characteristic indicates a direct engagement with reality foreign to the narrator of The Bathroom, for example, who spends his time hiding in his bathroom avoiding scenery of any kind, let alone emotional revelations attached to it. The narrator of Running Away seems so much more capable of self-awareness and normalcy than Toussaint‘s other narrators, so much more identifiable. There is more opportunity to explore pathos when the narrator isn‘t emotionally reptilian. And this is largely why Running Away feels like a much more complex novel than Toussaint‘s earlier works.
Each description carries the reader away, creating an opportunity for empathizing with the narrator‘s final emotional statement, and each emotional statement lends weight and meaning to the description. If this all sounds a little formulaic, it‘s because it is. It happens frequently, reminding us that this novel is not totally different from Toussaint‘s previous ones. The narrator could have been musing on Toussaint‘s style instead of on bowling technique when he says, “Coordinating the hand with the eye is all it takes—the secret of perfect form. It all comes down to precision; the rest is pathos.” Toussaint is a very conscious craftsman; he knows the effect that any given technique will have, and he doesn‘t seem to have much interest in concealing the technical aspect of his writing.
Running Away has a strange relationship with the more experimental of Toussaint‘s technical hallmarks; these qualities aren‘t foregrounded in the same way they are in the other novels, yet Running Away does not operate on entirely different principles than the earlier novels. Take alienation for example, always a source of tremendous energy for Toussaint. Whereas in novels like The Bathroom, Camera, or Television the narrator‘s own psyche is the primary source of alienation, in Running Away, plot and setting provide all the alienation your average Toussaint novel needs. All the narrator has to do is to run away from the bad relationships, the drug deals gone wrong, the baffling foreign culture, the shadowy acquaintances.
Certain eccentricities of the narrator will also be recognizable to readers of Toussaint‘s earlier novels, though they aren‘t as pronounced. That is, a certain tendency to meet emotion with clinical remove. Take his description of the pleasures of bowling: “geometrical, hence painless–because geometry is painless, without flesh or even the concept of death–a pure, mental construction, a reassuring abstraction, a single triangle and rectangle…” Certainly not why your average Joe goes to the bowling alley (Okay, well at least not consciously…), the narrator‘s description of losing himself in the game is so hyper-intellectualized its connection with experience and activity seems tenuous. Even the narrator‘s penchant for crescendo-ing lyrical descriptions also belies a passivity. His emotional outpourings are entirely reactive. Of course, the narrator‘s emotion isn‘t based on the scenery, but it seems necessary for him to have some sort of completely external, inhuman input to precipitate his internal, personal output.
I don‘t mean these observations of the narrator‘s peculiarities as a critique; if anything the tension between the narrator‘s difficulty acting or expressing himself, and the lyrical and surging emotion of his descriptions creates depth. Jean-Philippe Toussaint is at his best in Running Away. The book is simultaneously emotionally complex and stylistically taut. First-time readers of Toussaint will find it a human and idiosyncratic novel, and those who have more experience with Toussaint‘s writing will be pleased to recognize familiar themes adapted to a more elaborate rubric.
Reviewed by Amanda DeMarco
Running Away by Jean-Philippe Toussaint; trans. by Matthew B. Smith
Dalkey Archive Press, 2009
Paper, 120 pp, $12.95
Posted in Reviews