“Day was dawning over Tokyo, and I plunged a finger into her asshole.” There we have, in sentence-sized microcosm, much of what I’ve found appealing in the novels of Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Another nameless narrator finds himself in a situation he didn’t expect in a place he didn’t expect it to happen, one he wound up in by only the faintest traces of his own volition. Just as something grand happens in an exotic setting, a much smaller scale presents something decidedly more, er, intimate.
If all you knew about this book was that it contains that quoted line and that it opens with the protagonist handling his precious bottle of hydrochloric acid — “I carried it around at all times, with the idea of one day throwing it right in someone’s face” — you might assume it to be the work of one of those Frenchie “transgressives.” In the event, I’ve read few novelists less transgressive than Toussaint, who — and this may go some way to explaining that — actually comes from Belgium. I’ve never been to that country, but most of the accounts I’ve heard of it take great pains to stress its boringness. Nothing I’ve yet read of Toussaint’s says a thing about Belgium, which squares with that image, though I wonder if his homeland shaped what I’ll call his meditatively adventurous mindset. Seemed to do it for Hergé.
But nobody’s numbly getting that acid dripped onto their nipples or anything; when I want to write about stuff like that, I’ll get to work on my Michel Houellebecq primer. That plunge is by far the most sexually unconventional act on offer in the book, the first but not the last to feature the owner of the orifice in question. Marie Madeleine Marguerite de Montalte, a big-name fashion designer and the narrator’s longtime girlfriend, has come to Tokyo to put on an exhibit. The couple has come together in order, effectively, to break up. As a means of decoupling, this at least beats the hell out of an SMS message.
Nearly every element of the plot conspires to create a state of hazy unease which the text delivers with a curious resignation, in both senses of the word curious. The protagonist is traveling with his girlfriend, but she’s mostly occupied with professional obligations. And while she technically retains that title, both she and he know, on a deep level, that the union approaches its end. This all goes down in a land of whose language the protagonist is more or less ignorant; what’s more, he’s usually outside in particularly desolate wee hours. (Shades of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, but even lonelier.) On top of that, the protagonist spends a third of the novel suffering under a disorienting fever, and let’s not forget the floating question of who best to splash that acid on.
If Joy Press called Television spare and oddly limited, man, I wonder what she thought of this. Running barely over 100 pages, the book operates under what seem to be stiff textual and psychological confines. Its most harrowing piece of action comes then the narrator, his head clouded with sickness, hops on a train to Kyoto to visit a mostly absent Western teacher friend. He struggles to find his pal’s house and, once there, collapses on a mat and shivers for days. This situation is as strange and outwardly unproductive as he and Marie’s last-gasp attempts at sex early in the novel or his late-night break-in to the hotel gym to swim a few laps.
Yet there’s an intriguing interiority here, not just that of the Westerner bumbling through Japan, but specifically of the Francophone Westerner bumbling through Japan. I’ve long felt those cultures go well together, for sufficiently loose definitions of well. Some Japanese idealize France from afar to such a baroquely brittle point that, when they come up against Paris’ small rivers of dog crap and sullen, shove-y populace, there’s actually a syndrome for it. When I’ve seen French (or Belgian) writers and filmmakers examine Paris, they’ve usually done it with a kind of grand incomprehension — they throw up their hands, but they do it so artfully — that renders near-inconsequential details weirdly amusing. However the dynamic really works, it aligns well with Toussaint’s literary skill set.
(This would be as good a time as any to mention that I love Toussaint’s web site, which appears to be as internationalist as his writings themselves. I’ve gotta get me one of those. A few similarly neato Éditions de Minuit covers wouldn’t hurt, either.)