Sunday, November 20, 2011

Camera, 62/100

Finished the slim but worthwhile Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew Smith. The novel follows the thoughts and actions of a Parisian man as he pursues a relationship with a driver's ed instructor. The style of writing, what you might call minimalist or matter-of-fact, combined with the narrator's actions, had me convinced in the beginning that the man was possibly a psycho or murderer. I was prepared for something dark and grisly. This is what happens when you pick up a book and start reading without looking at the back cover or any reviews or descriptions. That, and you've been reading American Psycho for ten months.

But here's why my mind was set on him being a psychopath. The man is presumed to be older and doesn't have a driver's license. He goes to sign up for driver's ed classes, doesn't have all the application materials necessary, and keeps returning every day to the driver's ed office without them just so he can hang out with one of the employees. And by hang out I don't mean have conversations with, but just to be in the office with her. I found it terribly creepy, although the back of the book describes it as a "love story."

Perhaps I'm sensitive to this particular brand of creepy, since I once had a workplace stalker. A library patron who would play solitaire on our computers, waiting for me to get off work so he could follow me out and try to start one-sided conversations. Possibly wouldn't be so creepy if I hadn't lied and told him I was engaged, and wasn't interested. Several times. Creepers please stop with the creeping.

The story in Camera turns out not to be creepy or murdery at all. Instead it is an account of an uneventful period of time in the self-obsessed narrator's life, not special for any particular reason, but given importance through description of his activities and his thoughts.

Take the very first line:
It was about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.

The novel is split into two focuses (foci?): the first half dealing with "the struggle of living," and the second half with the "despair of being," both lines used by the narrator.

In the "struggle of living," most of the narration is centered on his actions -- step-by-step the things he physically does during the day. Often sprinkled with extreme detail. Think of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" when he spends nearly ten pages describing the house and its surroundings, except with this guy eating an olive. In an interview with the author he refers to this mode of writing:

Underlying my novel is, although it isn't expressed theoretically, an idea of literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the "not interesting," the "not edifying," on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books.

In the "despair of being" the narrator slips into philosophical thought, with his self-obsession turning from "what I am doing" to "what am I doing here?" Self reflection not of the body but of the mind.

It was night now in my mind, I was alone in the semi-darkness of the booth and I was thinking, protected from outer torments. The most favorable conditions for thinking, the moments when thought can let itself naturally follow its course, are precisely moments when, having temporarily given up fighting a seemingly inexhaustible reality, the tension begins to loosen little by little, all the tension accumulated in protecting yourself against the threat of injury...and that, alone in an enclosed space, alone and following the course of your thoughts in a state of growing relief, you move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.

The novel never becomes grisly, but it does turn a bit dark.

A nice read, and I'll be looking into Toussanit's other work in the future.

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