Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: The Truth about Marie, by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

It’s been a while since I’ve dipped into the strange, elusive world that is French literature. With the exception of a Michel Houellebecq novel a few years ago and a backlist title by Marie-Claire Blais last year (she’s French Canadian, yes, but the elliptical weirdness and envelope-pushing was still there), I can’t think of the last time I had my brainmeats expanded by the forays of a French scribbler. Jean-Philippe Toussaint certainly holds his own with his language’s rich tradition in The Truth about Marie, a novel that possesses the cold, secular jolts and stylistic experimentation that we’ve come to expect from France’s contemporary literature.

Yet what The Truth about Marie gains in its alluring eccentricity, it loses in its structure and, well, raison d'être. The book appears to be a sequel of sorts to a Toussaint novel that I haven’t read, called Running Away. That’s perfectly fine – I’m happy to truck onwards without an adequate back story at my disposal – but I’m still wont to judge a work by how it stands on its own. The Truth about Marie has three sections, all narrated by Toussaint’s unnamed protagonist and involving his capricious love interest, the titular Marie. While the story drops us unapologetically in medias res – with the narrator and Marie on the outs with one another upon returning to Paris from Japan, and each having sex with a new partner at the same time just a few city blocks apart – I still felt like there wasn’t enough on the page to warrant my caring for these characters and what they meant to each other. Even a single line or short paragraph of history might have brought enough illumination about their relationship to give it definition, but it felt as if Toussaint was relying on the previous novel to do that work for it.

Each section sets up a fairly straightforward situation and then blows it apart with an off-the-wall catastrophe. In part 1, Marie calls the narrator after her new lover, Jean-Baptiste de Ganay (though the narrator mistakenly refers to him as Jean-Chistophe throughout the section, for reasons that are in no way apparent) has suffered a heart attack shortly after having sex with her. The narrator races over to her place, leaving his own lover (in a flight of po-mo improbability, she is also named Marie) in his bed. What happens in between is a brilliant third-person description by our first-person narrator of the utter chaos of the paramedics treating Jean-Baptiste and trying to save his life.

The second section backtracks to the ill-fated trip to Tokyo. Marie and the narrator are there for an art exhibit of Marie’s work, and while on the outs with him she meets Jean-Baptiste, who owns a racing horse, and takes him as a lover. What starts out as a simple love triangle in a foreign land becomes a situation of dire absurdity. While Marie accompanies Jean Baptiste on the cargo flight to transport his award-winning horse back to Paris, the animal escapes just before take-off and runs chaotically around the tarmac, getting chased down and finally cornered by airport staff.

The third section jumps ahead, with Marie now on a horse ranch on the island of Elba following the death of her father. The narrator joins her there, and the two slowly circle each other with romantic intentions following the situation with Jean-Baptiste. Their tryst, however, is interrupted by a huge fire that breaks out randomly on the ranch, and the two have to work to save the lives of as many horses as they can.

The question that kept coming up as I read this was: what holds these three disparate sections together? Often, it felt like nothing. It felt like The Truth about Marie was little more than three randomly selected excerpts – brilliantly written excerpts, mind you – from a much, much longer work that perhaps could never be published. I’m not sure this is enough to constitute an actual novel. I felt there wasn’t sufficient interstitial tissue between the three sections to give this work a life of its own.

Still, there’s no denying that Toussaint is a supreme stylist with an incredible cadence to his sentences. (Sentences rendered, I should add, into English by the excellent work of translator Matthew B. Smith.) There were passages that knocked the breath from my lungs, and paragraph for paragraph this was some of the finest writing I’ve read in a while. But in the end, we must ask what a novel amounts to; we must ask, what is its arc? Unfortunately, The Truth about Marie kept those answers, at least for me, somewhere beyond the outskirts of its pages.

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