“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Book Review: Running Away

Running Away
By Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a Belgian author who writes in French. He has written seven novels, all shorter works that generally also have short names like Camera, Bathroom and Television (indeed, the French title of this novel, Fuir, might be more literally translated as ‘flight’ or ‘fleeing’). Running Away is narrated by an unnamed man who has flown into Shanghai for the shadowy purpose of giving an envelope filled with $25,000 in cash to a Chinese man named Zhang Xiangzhi. The narrator also quickly develops a romantic interest in Li Qi, Zhang’s female associate who also may or may not be Zhang’s girlfriend.
As the title suggests, this is a book that privileges action over detailed character development: most of the novel comprises a series of elaborate chase scenes in a variety of locations, such as a train, a bowling alley, and the streets of both Beijing and Shanghai. In one hysterically funny sequence, all three characters ride on the back of one motorcycle, driving cross-country to evade an unknown pursuer.
In many ways, Toussaint’s novel is a series of incongruities; in theory, the many different elements of the novel shouldn’t work together, but ultimately, they do creating an unusual and eminently readable book. The tension of the chase scenes is continually leavened with an absurdist, almost slapstick sense of humour that has more in common with The Three Stooges than most works of literature. But despite this absurdity, there are also beautiful descriptions of everyday objects and locations. This is one of Toussaint’s most significant novelistic gifts: the ability to make the commonplace both wonderful and strange.
The frenetic action of the book’s first two sections concludes when the narrator receives disturbing news that forces him to return to Europe. In this final section, the tenor of the novel shifts yet again, offering sweet, even touching, meditations on mortality and human relationships. But even these moments are again undercut with Toussaint’s ridiculous (and occasionally scatological) comedy.
The result is a book filled with contradictions: Running Away is a European ‘high art’ novel composed of tropes from popular entertainment (slapstick and the cinematic chase scene). It’s an absurdist novel that is filled with both beautifully rendered realist description and tender evocations of human emotion. Moreover, for all of its contradictions, Running Away is a fast-paced and easy read, with enough tension and action for it to work as a (very strange) page-turner.
Running Away would definitely appeal to those who like the novels of Haruki Murakami and the films of Wong Kar-wai, but it is a highly unusual and extremely successful novel with enough of everything to please almost everybody.

This review initially aired on Triple R Radio's Breakfasters. Buy it here.

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