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The hospitality of strangers in Jean Echenoz's I'm Gone (Je m'en vais).

Awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt for fiction in 1999, Jean Echenoz's vagabond novel I'm Gone now enjoys a weighty critical acclaim that sets it at odds with its title and emphasis on levity, transience, and inconsequentiality. A cinematic succession of scenes of leave-taking and desertion, Echenoz's story documents "the alienating effect of contemporary [...] urban and suburban landscapes" composed of what Jean Auge calls "non-places"--"environments designed to be passed through" (Emer O'Beirne, "Navigating 'Non-Lieux' in Contemporary Fiction: Houellebecq, Darrieussesecq, Echenoz, and Auge," Modern Language Review 101. 2 (April 2008), p. 389).

Moving from airport chapel to facsimile highway motel bedroom, from metro station entryway to the desolate stages on a North Pole dogsled journey, I'm Gone conveys no sense of character or plot development, no narrative teleology. Unlike other contemporary French chronicles of post-modern anomie, Echenoz's novel offers playful tribute to the pleasures of fresh experiences and interesting strangers. While the title sentence is the first and last line of the novel, Echenoz's hero does not avoid people or eschew relationships, but is transported by haphazard circumstances from failed marriage to fugitive love affairs, relocated by whimsical job aspirations to different points across the globe.

In a 2000 interview, Echenoz concedes that his novels are collections of throwaway events and disposable observations yet suggests that his insistence on perishable things is itself meaningful and lasting. "There are themes that are recurrent: displacement, absence, abandonment. They come back" ("Dans l'atelier de l'ecrivain, Entretien realise par Genevieve Winter, Pascaline Griton, et Emmanuel Bathelemy," in Jean Echenoz, Je m'en vais, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 2001, p. 250, translated by the author).

Having relinquished the ambition to paint or sculpt, Echenoz's hero, Felix Ferrer, takes over as the proprietor of a Parisian gallery, another non-lieu in being both a repository and a point of transit--less a locus than a mechanism for promoting the circulation of art works as commodities. Ferrer's stable of painters display their canvases in public places, not private homes. Their works are meant to be experienced as impermanence. Ferrer acquires them and then resells them. No sooner does a painting arrive than it departs (il s'en va).

The plot impetus setting Echenoz's own story in motion is the reported discovery of a priceless trove of Inuit art lost when the vessel carrying it had become frozen in an Arctic wasteland. The image of an immobilized ship and its priceless cargo conveys what author and protagonist consider the unacceptable arresting of art as the engine of its own retransmission. Encased in ice, the historic Eskimo artifacts assume the magical property of treasure, acquiring value because they have ceased to act as a medium of exchange, instead becoming objects susceptible to hoarding, possessions returned to stasis by their physical re-embodiment.

As Ferrer flies to Montreal, then books passage on an icebreaker traveling past Labrador, crosses permafrost expanses in sleds and snowmobiles, the exoticism of locales and strangeness of events fade into the unchanging grey of the Arctic night. On board the ship, Ferrer spends his time as he had at home, performing laborious acts of personal hygiene, watching pornography or video cassettes of Kiss Me Deadly or Rio Bravo, making half-hearted yet successful attempts at seducing a fellow-passenger. After Ferrer acquires the treasure, the threat of narrative petrifaction is obviated when the artifacts--sculpted mammoth tusks like scrimshaw, ice goggles carved from reindeer antlers, quartz dolls, talismanic shark's teeth--are stolen by a colleague, who sets off on his own automotive journey through the Pyrenees and into Spain in flight from the police.

Echenoz's topology of thoroughfares and crossroads reinforces the theme of liminality, the non-space that one moves through and where identities dissolve and non-persons are created. Ferrer's ephemeral liaisons are with women evaporated into perfume lingering when they are gone. Suffering from angina, Ferrer has a heart attack that moves him imperceptibly across the threshold of life and death.

In a critique of the novel, Oana Panaite remarks on the distancing influence of media technologies in Echenoz's books, their leveling effects, their reduction of objects to mere surfaces, their tendency to rob characters of psychological depth ("Les fins de l'ecriture: Reflexion et pratique du style dans les oeuvres de Jean Echenoz et Pierre Michon," French Forum 31. 2 (2006), p. 98). But as Echenoz's narrative addresses to readers create a fleeting sense of connivance, establish a momentary author-audience bond, Ferrer himself--however shallow and deracinated--prefers the company of others to the misery of being alone.

At the end, after Ferrer catches the thief and elects not to kill him, he is said to be in possession of enough wealth to be able to purchase a chateau on the Loire: "I'm not saying the great chateaux, like Chambord or Chenonceaux. I'm talking about the small-to-medium-sized ones in the Montcontour or Talcy vein, which are already not bad" (Jean Echenoz, Je m'en vais, Mark Polizzotti, trans., NY: The New Press, 2001, p. 87). Crowned with success, fortune, and comfort, Ferrer seems to enjoy an identity partaking of the indestructibility of classical French architecture, hence his wish to stop, look around, buy a house, and go stay there. But while, in the opening scene, he abandons his wife and leaves the conjugal home, when he returns there in the end, he finds a raucous party underway, an unknown woman on the doorstep with whom he joins in casual conversation.

In his fiction, Echenoz creates a sense of familiarity and estrangement, a homey feeling of the Unheimlich. We watch as Echenoz's hero floats among ice floes and walruses, chases robbers to thalassotherapeutic resorts in Northern Spain. We look on as his artfully crafted vignettes coalesce and disintegrate, like the callipygous women who descend the staircase to the subway, then turn to appraise the appraising looks that are given them by admirers.

This mistaken sense of homecoming is unlike the experience of technological dereliction that is the hallmark of much contemporary French fiction. The fact that every sanctuary in Echenoz is a point of transit is what accounts for "the freewheeling sense of endless possibilities his narratives [...] project" (O'Beirne, p. 397). Opening Echenoz's novel is like going back to your own house and being greeted by a stranger who offers hospitality. "I'm just looking for someplace or someone I used to know," we tell the narrator, who smiles at us in welcome: "Won't you come in? Can I get you a drink?"

Robery Ziegler, Montana State University
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Author:Ziegler, Robery
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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