Dead Cat and Delusional Thinking


By Jeff Bursey

A main feature of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s novels (at least, in English) is the way, as one reads, his sentences shape how the reader thinks while reading and, if one is susceptible enough, for a time afterward.

In Reticence, just out with Dalkey Archive but first published in 1991, there is almost no character but the unnamed narrator and his unnamed infant son. Like many of Toussaint’s eight other novels translated into English, it begins with a leisurely introduction to the particular obsession that will propel the narrative, in this case the sight of a dead cat floating in a harbour, though we don’t know that right off. The narrator is in Sasuelo on vacation (the infant’s reason for being there is obscure), and becomes intrigued by the corpse. Everything unwinds from there. When we reach the end, we may conclude that we’ve spent time inside the thoughts of a paranoid man who takes unpromising, haphazard and mundane snapshots of daily life–a particular car is parked somewhere, then gets moved; sounds from the floor above in his hotel signify the presence of a friend who doesn’t want to be seen; his son, for all his charms, is a “hypocrite”—and makes of them a kaleidoscope of a conspiracy.

When everything is made clear at the end it’s as if a fever has passed, leaving the narrator unchanged, for who learns anything from a fever? And that such inventiveness on the part of the author has been expended on an empty pursuit might make us ask: doesn’t Toussaint have anything more substantial to write about?

The way Reticence and each of the previous books (most of them easily fit into a coat pocket) feature the banal rendered with verve strikes me with the pleasure one feels seeing a master of the sentence, who conceivably could write on Major Themes, choose not to be self-important and above himself. Toussaint concentrates on what is otherwise ignored or disregarded (a few of Nicholson Baker’s works come to mind), such as a man who goes to a driving school for lessons and instead becoming attracted to the female staff; another who can tell us the mental processes of a horse; and someone else who wants to spend his life in a bathroom. With Toussaint you’re there for the writing, not plot. Certainly the characters are paper-thin, more like figments of the narrator’s grey matter. As far as I can work out, there are three things of importance to Toussaint: re-invigorating how things are told to readers, an interest in how people think (through the presence of so-called characters), and philosophical matters.

An interview appended to Camera (1998; trans. 2008) provides a helpful insight into Toussaint’s work. When asked if the emphasis in France on the “intellectual aspect” of his work rather than on the humour might have been “dangerous,” he replies:

No, quite the contrary. Back then, people who didn’t like my books accused me of being a light, offhanded, trendy author who lacked depth. It was therefore a blessing in disguise that critics focused on the philosophical aspect of the book, on the reflections it develops about thought and photography: it balanced everything out, as it were.

 Something similar can be said of Reticence. The dead cat seen in the harbour would strike most people as worth only a moment’s notice, and even though it seems like one set of impressions is as (non-)important as another, with Toussaint little is wasted, and much seems pregnant with meaning. We move from that scene to find out more about the narrator and the potential of a visit to friends in town:

To a certain extent if I’d come to Sasuelo it was to see the Biaggis. Until now, however, held back by a mysterious apprehension, I’d always put off the moment of going to visit them… Two days had now gone by since then and I was starting to wonder at the fact that I hadn’t yet bumped into them in the village, even if I’d been careful to avoid their house every time I went out.

In Toussaint’s books, a carefully built-up picture of the conscious layer of thought of the narrator seldom reveals much of the surprising impulses lying underneath. “I did nothing and wasn’t waiting for anything in particular,” he tells us, and this is both true and misleading, for we later learn he has done things new to us even when we thought we’d been accompanying him everywhere. He thanks an elderly woman for looking after his son while he picked up some groceries by abruptly kissing her “on the cheek,” and is surprised when she’s “taken aback.” We are no more prepared for his actions, in the beginning, than the woman; which is another way of saying, we’re no more prepared than the narrative lets us be. We are lulled and drawn in by the surfaces of those sentences even as we’re given clues that things are happening at obscure levels.

One of the features of this semi-detective novel, the pursuit of the cat killer, is its insistence on firm conclusions that are upended or transformed when new information comes in, and this changing set of convictions is often prefaced by two words: “in fact.” After the first few pages what we think of the narrator–an attentive father amused by his child whom he treats with tenderness–is overturned. The narrator casually indulges in petty acts like breaking into homes and stealing mail, while leaving his infant son alone in their hotel room for hours, and believes the worst about Paul Biaggi, his friend.

As the presumed facts multiply, swell in significance and change, we understand that far from knowing this narrator, we’re trapped within his thinking side but are out of touch completely with his true feelings and nature. In cavalier fashion, we’ve been placed within the mind of someone who easily could be deranged. Where is the mother of the child, and why isn’t she referred to? Is the narrator always like this? He slips in and out of the hotel to investigate the Biaggi property, and to look at the dead cat “under the moonlight that was identical every night” (another repeated phrase, though with slight variations), imagining murder and an incessant surveillance of his actions.

Here a reader has two obvious choices: treat Reticence as a parody, and therefore as an entertainment; or imagine that, yes, we too, who have made our own false connections, or been anxious, can see ourselves in the narrator, who is unaware of his delusional thinking. The minor epiphany he has towards the end of the book tells him he’s been wrong about those “facts,” but not that he’s unbalanced. He will just go on as before. The third choice Toussaint holds out, which we may be reluctant to accept, is that both the other choices are operating at the same time. Where do we stand, then, and on what? Closing this slender and provocative novel, that is the real disquiet I experience.

Dalkey Archive Press | 104 pages |  $13.99 | paper | ISBN #978-1564787101

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Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.