1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? Monsieur by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (Trans. John Lambert).
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
When I was editing the book review page at The L Magazine, I wanted to give space to works published by small presses. As part of that process, I spent a lot of time soliciting review copies and digging through websites and catalogs from those presses. Monsieur seemed interesting and we hadn't reviewed much by Dalkey Archive Press at that point, so I requested it. When it came, I cracked it open and ended up being really charmed by it, so instead of sending it off to a reviewer to write about, I held onto it and reviewed it myself.
A side note here: Dalkey's recently made news for an utterly nonsensical and loathsome job posting that so fully adheres to negative stereotypes about publishing work that one can only hope--for the sake of Dalkey's reputation and the reputations of small presses everywhere--that the posting was truly intended as satire, as Dalkey's John O'Brien has indicated. Still, they publish some truly wonderful, innovative work--things you can't find anywhere else in English--so I suppose one must put up with the hijinks.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
I don't know if it influenced my own writing or not, but I do know that I admire the book because it ignores all of these writerly rules I sometimes feel obligated to follow. Basic things like precision, like instead of writing the sentence "There were three or four trees in the yard," writing "There were three trees in the yard." Basic things like providing your protagonist a first name so that you can sort of read past it and feel intimate with that character. Basic things like providing temporal cues so that as the narrative moves forward, the reader has a firm and inherent sense of the sequence of events in the book. Those are things pretty common in naturalistic fiction, and that's the beauty of this book in so many ways. While it uses many conventions of naturalistic contemporary fiction, there's also something experimental about Toussaint's work. It feels familiar but it surprises as well.
Because we never get the protagonist's first name, there's always this reminder that Toussaint is holding something back, and that he's perhaps working in types, writing a satire in which this "Monsieur" is a stand-in for every bored and boorish yuppie in Paris in the 1980s. (The novel is set in Paris in 1986).
In some respects, I think it's appropriate to read the book as a satire in which this corporate type is just one more suit wearing blowhard. But there's something deeply humanizing in the minutia Toussaint provides. We learn about Monsieur's coffee maker, his neighbor's interest in crystallography, the conference room where he has weekly meetings with his supervisors. So even while it's occasionally frustrating to get all of this narrative information in the third-person, you sort of glean truths about this character through the things and people surrounding him.
I realize in describing the books that I'm potentially making it sound really horrible: "Hey, here's a book about a character with plenty of money and no troubles at work whose name you don't get and who doesn't really do much of anything, let alone anything interesting!"
But there's something about the accumulation of details and about Monsieur's brand of ennui that's deeply interesting to me. It's a surprisingly fun read, especially for a book about a guy who is unfulfilled by his friends, his hobbies, and his home life. Of course, it's a novella. I'm not sure Toussaint could've sustained the story for more than its 90 or so pages, but it strikes me as just so unlikely that I'd like the book (let alone find myself re-reading it) that it's stayed with me for a long time now. That's why I'd say the book certainly changed some of my ideas about writing; this book challenged many of my assumptions about what makes "good writing."
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
"Monsieur's new apartment, which had three large rooms, was practically empty and smelled of paint. Only in his bedroom were there one or two pieces of furniture and a few camping chairs. All the other rooms were empty, with the exception of the entrance, where he had put his suitcases, as well as two boxes of magazines and a portable typewriter. Since the previous day Monsieur hadn't touched or unpacked a thing. He sat int he bedroom, the light out, in a reclining chair. Dressed in a grey suit, a white shirt and a dark tie that everyone envied him, he listened to the radio and touched himself all over his body, his cheeks, or his sex, coolly, at random, but not comfort, really, came to him from having himself permanently at hand."
There's something deeply sad about this passage, and there are several like it throughout the book. Being all dressed up with no place to go always sucks, of course, but this guy is so uncomfortable with silence and with himself that he can neither sleep nor find it in himself to go out and take a walk. Hell, he doesn't even derive pleasure from touching himself. He's really sort of pathetic, and he's utterly disconnected from other people. He's got plenty of acquaintances, plenty of money, lots of nice ties and suits. In my original review of the novel from years ago, I compared the novella to Ellis's American Psycho, and I think the comparison holds. Monsieur and Patrick Bateman are pretty lame, ultimately. The difference, of course, is that Monsieur doesn't even have Bateman's fulfilling fantasy life, which in so many ways makes Monsieur the more pitiable figure.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I think I'm going to send this to my dad, who is a big reader. I'm going to guess that he's not read anything like this before, and he may very well hate it. But I have to know what other people think of this one. I want friends to read it so that they can a) either have their minds blown or b) tell me I'm crazy for finding this book so good. I recommended it to one friend a couple of months ago and he managed to find it in a bookstore. After he'd read it (standing there in the bookstore), he texted me and said something like "I liked that." I was hoping for a more enthusiastic response, of course. Maybe I'll get it from my dad.
Bio: Nate Brown is the Deputy Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation in Washington, DC. A graduate of Cornell University and of the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Vermont Studio Center, the Kimmel, Harding, Nelson Center for the Arts, and multiple work-study scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Carolina Quarterly, Wag's Revue, The Iowa Review, and Mississippi Review.