Running Away, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, tr. Matthew B. Smith. (Dalkey Archive) $12.95
In a great scene from Jean-Philipiie Toussaint’s Running Away, the unnamed narrator gets lost in thought as he contemplates the geometry of bowling. The white pins form a tidy triangle, which sits at the end of the lane, a greased wooden rectangle. He hurls the spherical ball down the lane and feels a violent rush of pleasure as the ball collides with the pins, knocking them down. The narrator has been knocked off-axis by the news that his girlfriend’s father has died, and for an instant, he is allowed to escape his anxiety:
I was alone before the lane, my ball in hand, my eyes focused on my sole objective, the only place in the world and only moment in time that mattered to me, isolated from all past and future moments (84).
Many of the best passages in this often-breathtaking novel are moments where order briefly supplants chaos. The book has so many of these passages that my choice of the bowling scene feels arbitrary. And there’s plenty of chaos. To stick with bowling, the narrator has found himself at the bowling alley (disco-bowling, actually), which is either in or near Beijing, after being escorted there by his French girlfriend’s Chinese business associate (what the man actually does is unclear), who may or may not be dealing drugs and who also may or may not be competing with the narrator for the affections of a woman from Shanghai whom they both met at some art function (the man also might be playing the role of a courteous tour guide). The presumably French narrator never says why he’s in China (“I don’t feel like going into details”), and while he’s there, the narrator is ushered around by the possible drug-dealer, a string of bizarre incidents that culminates in a chase scene, although, at the end, no one appears to be chasing them (11). Then, suddenly, the narrator is back in Europe, staring at the Mediterranean Sea.
Running Away could have been a typical postmodern parable, filled with more questions than answers, but Toussaint writes with surprising tenderness, balancing the absurdity of the hero’s existence with the beauty the man sees in the world. Even while he is making out with the Chinese woman in the bathroom of the train, the man pauses to describe his surroundings:
It was a tiny space, violently bright, with a wall mirror stained with water streaks and flecked with spots . . . Up higher on the wall, an opaque window, swung open, looked out into the black sky, and a moist draft of air mixed with the roaring of the train reached us with an extraordinary force (35–36).
Although many of the themes in Running Away have been covered thoroughly in the last couple of decades—cultural isolation in a shrinking world, constant jet lag, lost connections, etc.—Toussaint filters them through his generous and attentive eye. The result is an affecting and original contemporary novel from a seriously talented writer.
Kevin Funkhouser is an MFA candidate at Seattle Pacific University’s creative writing program. He lives in Costa Mesa, California.