Those two words, “listless drive,” get at most of the actions Monsieur takes in the book. Maybe hanging a couple scare quotes around the word “action” renders the word more appropriate: motivating all his acts is a desire not to have to do more of them. His carefully cultivated idleness at work somehow convinces his boss of his pure dedication. He injures his writs playing soccer and either does or does not have it x-rayed. He finds a fiancée and moves into her family home; when the relationship disintegrates, he simply remains there, finding it easier than moving out. When his ex’s mother finally points Monsieur toward a new place to live, a geologist neighbor has him take dictation for the book he’s writing. Monsieur dislikes this, and comes to perceive only one way out: moving again.
I struggled even to summon that short list of events to mind, partly because I’ve been reading so much Toussaint lately and because his books are so similar — “I think a real writer always writes the same book,” he’s said — but partly because his work feels engineered to allow you to forget the plot. Whether Toussaint’s central character is Monsieur, the standard nameless protagonist, or Jean-Philippe Toussaint, I come away thinking not about what they’ve done but how they’ve thought, how they’ve perceived. I imagine this seems terribly Gallic, but remember, Toussaint is Belgian. World of difference.
Certainly, he resolutely inertial Monsieur has little going on for him but his thoughts and his perception. Nevertheless, I find something to admire in him, something almost Taoist. Ginger Danto wrote that “things that profoundly disturb others, from losing apartments to losing a would-be wife, affect Monsieur rather like mild indigestion.” I aspire to that. I mean, I aspire to a great deal more proactivity, not to mention productivity, than Monsieur displays, but who wouldn’t kill to float on so even a keel? Then again, I fear his utter peace and utter indolence may be two sides of one coin.