I'm Gone By Jean Echenoz The New Press 195 pp., $22.95
'I'm Gone" is a mildly amusing mystery. Indeed, its greatest mystery is why it's become a cause celebre in France. It's already sold half a million copies and won the Prix Goncourt, the country's most prestigious literary prize.
In America, where Jean Echenoz's short novel is being released this month, it's tempting to assume something was lost in translation - but in fact, the attenuation seems entirely intentional.
Life is not going well for Felix Ferrer, a Parisian art dealer. In the opening line, he walks out on his wife after five years of numbing routine: "He always washed in the same order, inalterably from left to right and top to bottom. He always shaved in the same order, inalterably right cheek then left cheek, chin, lower then upper lip, neck."
Strapped for cash in a weak art market, Ferrer accepts the suggestion of his assistant to search for a trove of lost artifacts. In 1957, a boat carrying animal pelts and some rare regional antiquities got stuck in the ice in Canada's extreme north. The crew was forced to abandon ship, and its whereabouts have never been determined.
Until now. By a method never explained, Ferrer's assistant has discovered the location of this lost ship. Then, by a cause never mentioned, Ferrer's assistant dies. Then, for a reason never given, Ferrer makes the trip to the Arctic Circle himself, though he has no expertise in such dangerous travel and suffers from a serious heart ailment. Finally, when he returns, the antiques are stolen by a "mysterious" man whose identity is immediately obvious to us.
But how declasse to worry about elements of plot. Some of these chapters are so aimless that even the narrator confesses he's losing interest. In the end, he notes, "Everything happened according to the desperately common process."
And let's not concern ourselves with characterization - tres bourgeois! These people are psychologically blank, morally vacuous. Before being frozen to death in an ice truck, one mildly annoyed victim accuses his killer of being cliche. (How's that for fighting back?) Speaking of Ferrer's meaningless sexual conquests, the narrator sighs, "Can he really have grown so blase?" His protagonist moves in a shadow instead of a spotlight.
So, what's left in "I'm Gone"? Wit. Echenoz's forte is an exquisite sense of comedy. He's a master with the details of modern life, not just the ripe absurdities of modern art - although he's brilliant with those, too - but the incidental filigree.
For instance, we learn nothing about why Ferrer cannot commit to women, but much about his frantic efforts to remove the smell of a heinous perfume from his apartment. Similarly, the narrator never mentions why Ferrer's assistant dies, but he provides a hysterical description of Ferrer swinging holy water at the funeral. And during his arduous trip from Paris to the Arctic, we learn most about the mosquitoes that make crossing the tundra so maddening.
It's not surprising that a nation which gave the world deconstructive criticism should embrace a novel that leaves its foreground out of focus and concentrates instead on the edges. The practitioners of that arcane critical theory are always picking at stray threads no one else notices. Even the structure of the book frustrates our expectations of how a story should develop. The narrator moves backward and forward simultaneously. Relationships that appear to be transformative eventually lead nowhere. Conflicts don't resolve, they simple dissolve.
You see, it's not about the story's characters; it's about the narrator's play. Echenoz moves through his story with casual elegance. When he says he doesn't want to bother "going into the technical details" - what used to be called "plot" - we chuckle and traipse along with him. "Let's keep moving forward," he calls back, "and faster."
He carries this off with considerable skill, but is it old-fashioned to ask, "To what effect?" Gourmets of post-structural theory will find "I'm Gone" a delectable piece of gateau sacher avec creme au beurre. But philistines should be forgiven if they note that it's a lot of fuss for a Ding Dong.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor