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Quantum Fiction: A review of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's 'Running Away'

by Kathleen Brazie

April 24, 2010

Running Away
By Jean-Philippe Toussaint (trans. Matthew B. Smith)
Dalkey Archive Press. 120pp, $12.95.

In an interview with Dalkey Archive Press, Belgian-born author Jean-Philippe Toussaint discusses what he believes is crucial to the nature of literature: “The simultaneous possibility of two opposite things, instead of a middle ground.” He wants his novels to be “all at once black and white, hot and cold, not [a middle ground of] gray or lukewarm, but both hot and cold….Such a juxtaposition of opposed extremes creates ambivalence and ambiguity, and that’s another essential literary quality.” The literary energy of his most recently translated work Running Away comes from precisely that kind of juxtaposition, the holding of opposites in the same novel, same scene, same narrator, even the same moment.

The unnamed narrator finds himself in China, both on a holiday and on an errand for his Parisian girlfriend Marie. From the first few sentences here, we already know their relationship will end. That is one of the few things we do know definitively, however. As the narrator appears to drift from one event to another, through China and back to France, on planes, trains, and motorcycles, everything seems open to misinterpretations and ambiguity. Upon arriving in Shanghai, Marie’s business contact Zhang Xiangzhi, to whom he has been instructed to give an envelope of cash, meets him with a mysterious cell phone. Zhang’s watchfulness and constant presence throughout the time in China strikes him alternately as threatening or as attentive. At an art exhibition, the narrator meets Li Qi, a young woman to whom he is instantly attracted and with whom he agrees to travel to Beijing, but who, to his surprise, brings Zhang Xiangzhi along. Any romantic interlude between the narrator and Li Qi is complicated not just by Zhang Xiangzhi but also by a call from Marie about her father’s sudden death.

The rest of the story wanders from subtle absurdist comedy to almost ludicrous action to surprising depth of feeling. The narrator wanders as well, through unwilling sightseeing, stays in unfinished hotels, bowling, a risky (drug?) deal, a funeral, and even a motorcycle chase. During it all, he states repeatedly that he doesn’t understand, that he doesn’t know “where [he] was going or what would happen,” and most frequently, that he is “going with the flow.”

On the surface, he seems to be as diffident and drifting as the narrators of some of Toussaint’s previous novels such as The Bathroom (1990) and Monsieur (1991). And yet, is he? The literary energy of this particular world comes from the holding of opposites; here, the opposites of motion and stillness. On one hand, we have travel, transition, intermediary states and spaces, the openness of possibility. Even the brief romantic interaction between the narrator and Li Qi begins in the vestibule between train cars, an in-between place on a transitioning vehicle, itself between geographical boundaries. Toussaint presents the reader with the epitome of what cultural anthropologist Victor Turner would call the liminal unknown, that space between boundaries, between fixed states (whether social, chronological, geographical, or mental) where creative possibility is infinite because nothing is fixed—“a place that is not a place and a time that is not a time.” On the other hand, we have an inescapable sense of the concrete, of buildings, cities, specific events, choices made however unwillingly, facts, and a tsunami of descriptive details. It’s enough to numb the reader’s senses, although, we, like the narrator overwhelmed by Zhang Xiangzhi’s instructions, “get the gist of it.”

It is as though the author is challenging one of the basic tenets of quantum physics, the statement that one can’t know both the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time, and that the more precisely one is known, the less the other can be measured. But here, momentum and position are known, balanced, described simultaneously. Toussaint effectively captures the tension of modern life in the literary energy, juxtaposing his opposite extremes, or if you prefer, holding momentum and positions of all kinds in the same moment without becoming gray or lukewarm. Here are scenes in which it can be both day and night, taking place in both a museum and on a train, both still and still moving, including both life and death—opposites existing at once, captured by technology and connected by cell phones. As Toussaint himself points out, it is a case of literature adapting, creating scenes that could not have been written twenty years ago in a world without ubiquitous cell phones. Literature itself is in motion, transitioning, while simultaneously captured on the page.

Our apparently diffident narrator seems to be on the momentum side of the dichotomy, going with the flow and trying to embody another tenet of quantum physics, that particle motion is inherently random. In some ways, he attempts to stay in that liminal no-place where all is possible and nothing definite. A deeper look might reveal that he actually embodies yet another quantum physics claim, that particles behave both like waves and like particles, in other words, with both momentum and with position. Opposites held and juxtaposed. In a weird twist, the transition of travel becomes inaction, a strange kind of in-between stillness; choices become stagnation, turning the flow of all-possibility into the very points of defined fact and experience he is trying to avoid.

In spite of his repeated assertions of not understanding and going with the flow, the narrator makes repeated and very specific choices. He can’t help searching for meaning, finding interpretations, stumbling over perceptions. Going to China, sightseeing with Zhang Xiangzhi, talking with Li Qi, going to Beijing with them, not holding Li Qi’s hand at a specific moment, going back to France—the list goes on. However much he claims to be swept along, he can’t help but choose, even if he chooses not to act. The narrator might be seen as an everyman, trapped between passive openness to all possibilities and the definite perception of anything, no matter the resulting interpretation.

Perception itself becomes a tricky issue. The narrator himself is aware of this:

I was perceiving the world as if in a state of perpetual jet lag, causing a slight distortion in the fabric of reality, a shift, a misalignment giving rise to a miniscule yet fundamental incompatibility between the familiar world around me and the removed way, distant and hazy, in which I perceived it.

At one point, he sees a lazy-susan type tray moving on the table. The bowls on the turning tray don’t move in relation to the tray, but the configuration of table, tray, bowls, and companions changes every time someone turns the tray. With every movement of the tray, a “new shape was being configured in space, which in truth didn’t indicate any sort of change in our situation, but was, rather, a case of my being presented with a different facet of the same and only reality.” The narrator sees not just new possibilities but new interpretations. Zhang Xiangzhi no longer seems malevolent but rather attentive, and his interaction with Li Qi no longer a pleasant memory but rather one that repulses him. No matter how much he wants to live in a world of open possibilities, like the turning tray on the table, he can’t help but land on some configuration of meaning, reality, perception. This tension fuels both the narrator’s actions and the literary energy of the running away in Running Away.

In his unacknowledged need for something concrete in the midst of all his momentum, the narrator fills in gaps for himself. He can’t resist choosing interpretations or, lacking known details, even creating them whole cloth. His girlfriend Marie is a particular source of this tendency. He refers to the “particular pleasure that comes from knowing you exist in someone else’s mind, that you move around there and lead and independent, inconspicuous existence,” and clearly demonstrates how Marie lives that independent existence in his mind. From the detailed facets of Marie’s journey through the Louvre, of which he only hears small pieces via cell phone, to her actions before and after her father’s funeral, for which he is barely present at all, our narrator relates long sequences which start based in seen or heard facts then move into spinning conjecture. In true Faulkner-ian fashion (Toussaint refers to Faulkner as one of his favorite authors), stories are created separate from and in the absence of the person about whom they are told, birthed in maybe then morphed into assumed fact, an interpretation of situational specifics that the narrator creates in his own mind.

In spinning such tales, the narrator creates a Marie who exists in his mind as well as in her own reality. Being in more than one place at a time creates a disconnect between known details and the narrator’s imagined perceptions. We loop back to issues of time and geography, of momentum and position, of mutability and concreteness. In exploring the distance between these poles, Toussaint finds a reconnection, like the art exhibit whose projected figures “converge on the walls before splitting and spreading apart only to come together and reform again.” The narrator finds himself in all places and all times, as time and geography twist in on each other. His body, “motionless, moved through space…and time,” as though he is everywhere in all trips ever taken and simultaneously nowhere, outside all borders and “always both at rest and in motion.” Always landing on the concrete yet always transitioning, disconnected opposites coexist, and in doing so, create yet another liminal no-time and no-place that, in the end, provides only short-lived respite and makes running away more like running in place.

Toussaint’s narrator is not a simplistic or simply passive character, but one who, trapped as we all are between momentum and position, finds himself redirecting his energy into interpretation and perception in order to simply function, let alone feel. Complex, intriguing, sometimes amusing, and strangely tender, Running Away offers a deceptively deep glimpse into the human dilemmas underlying a seemingly simple story line, motorcycle chase notwithstanding."

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