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faire l'amour

20 february 2013

One of the first things I learned about Jean-Philippe Toussaint after I started reading his novels was that Faire l'amour contains the distressing motif of a flask of hydrochloric acid that the narrator carries around, always ready to throw into someone's face: perhaps his lover Marie's, but at times, perhaps, his own. I really do feel like spoiling this nasty little plot device right now, so if you don't want to know where the acid ends up, click away before reading further :)

Still here? OK, after much suspense and much restraint of impulse, the narrator pours his acid onto a flower and watches it wither away.

The gesture is low-key and rueful. And somehow appropriate. The novel narrates the story of a few days that the narrator and Marie spend in Tokyo, where they've flown so that she can display her fashion creations at a place called Contemporary Art Space. (Toussaint repeats the phrase Contemporary Art Space time and again over the course of several novels, to the point where you imagine it has a certain private, incantatory value for him that you're never going to be let in on.)

Well, Marie and the narrator spend their few days fighting and breaking up, with emotions totally out of proportion to their nonexistent backstory and the insignificant inciting events of their Tokyo experience. The narrator even comments at one point on how little they find to fight so much over:

Lack of an objective correlative, T.S. Eliot would have said had he lived to read Faire l'amour. Yet for all that, the central relationship in Toussaint's novel resembles those in The Waste Land: adrift in a sterile postmodernity, overreacting to small irritations. (Their first night in Tokyo is ruined when they receive a routine fax.)

So little happens in Faire l'amour that I can't compare it favorably to the more headlong and quirky Fuir or Vérité sur Marie, its prequel and sequel respectively (Fuir, published later, picks up an earlier thread of the story). The narrator and Marie are never likable characters, but in the two later novels, interesting things happen to them. In Faire l'amour, they just behave badly for no apparent reason, and there's no incentive for the reader to empathize with them, even out of pity or, still worse, even out of Schadenfreude.

Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. Faire l'amour. Paris: Minuit, 2002.