I can only say that I’m reacting to Toussaint’s novels in the way I was supposed to react, back in junior year, to The Stranger. (As for how I was supposed to react to Catcher in the Rye, I’m still waiting for a proper literary surrogate to come along. Maybe something by J.G. Ballard?) I never quite understood what so many American sixteen-year-olds of the early 2000s found to identify with in that Frenchman in 1940s Algeria, though I suppose one’s surroundings do feel just as bleak after so many years of mandatory public schooling. But does it make much more sense for me to clench my fist in solidarity at books like these?
Whatever the answer, I have to admire an opening paragraph like this:
It was at about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly and interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way. As it happens I had just decided to learn how to drive, and I had barely begun to get used to this idea when some news reached me by mail: a long-lost friend, in a letter composed with a type writer, a rather old type writer, had informed me he was getting married. Now, personally, if there’s one thing that terrifies me, it’s long-lost friends.
Over the remaining 109 pages, Unnamed Toussaint Dude hangs around the licensing office drinking tea and reading the paper, falls in with a single mother working the desk there, gets driven around by her mildly eccentric Eastern European dad, eats olives, gets a pedicure, crosses the Channel, goes around Europe, finds a camera on a boat, and throws the camera off a boat. Among other things — I think. But is there any point plot summary here? Toussaint’s books practically exist to make the argument that plot doesn’t really matter. You might call his characters’ lives dull but well-observed — his characters might call his characters’ lives dull but well-observed — but are they really even all that dull?
Maybe I’m wrong, but if any of us fell in love with a driver’s ed office attendant by repeatedly showing up yet never quite bothering to get the necessary paperwork together, we’d dine out on the anecdote for the rest of our lives. If, visiting Milan, any of us were asked by our host (of the name Il Signore Gambini, no less) if we needed anything else, clutched his arm and incongruously demanded a pedicure, then got one at the most opulent place in the city, we’d never forget it. Hell, if we visited Milan at all — or London, or any of the places to which the other Toussaint protagonists jet at a moment’s notice — we’d think we were doing pretty well for ourselves.
So I might read about a life like this even if Toussaint’s consciousness wasn’t interpreting it. Fortunately, it is. He’s mentioned in a few interviews his opinion that novels should be “infinitesimal,” that they ought to put the infinitely small right alongside the infinitely huge. Hence Camera’s celebrated passage (among Toussaint fans) analogizing the eating of an olive with a fork to nothing less than a strategy for taking on reality:
I vaguely felt that the reality with which I was grappling was beginning to show some signs of fatigue; it was beginning to soften and slacken, oh yes it was, and I had no doubt that my repeated assaults, in their tranquil persistence, would end up exhausting reality little by little, as one wears out an olive with a fork, if you will, by pushing down on it lightly from time to time, and then when, weary, reality finally offers no more resistance, I knew that nothing could then stop my impetus, a furious surge that had always been in me, strengthened by everything I had accomplished. But, for the time being, I had all the time in the world: in the battle between oneself and reality, don’t try to be courageous.
I myself can’t get enough of the mundane shoved up against the cosmic, but if that’s not your bag, you could just take Camera as a love story between the protagonist and Pascale, the woman who, in a different reality, would have issued him a driver’s license. But on this inferior approach I can comment no better than did Tom McCarthy, a huge Toussaint fanboy and another of my favorite novelist working today:
For all their narrative refusal and machine-like logic, Toussaint’s first three novels also involved emotional encounters between men and women. They could even be seen as playful renditions of quite conventional romantic situations, but only if re-engineered through a certain kind of reading, much as some student guides to Ulysses try to persuade us that what’s ‘really’ going on in such and such a scene is Bloom pining for Molly, for example (‘No,’ I always want to shout out when I read accounts like these, ‘what’s really going on is tramlines vibrating, soap singing and language rioting, just like it says!’).