Anthony Luebbert reviews Jean-Philippe Toussaint's The Truth about Marie


The truth about The Truth About Marie (La vérité sur Marie) is that it is the latest book by Jean-Philippe Toussaint and is a sequel to his previous called Running Away (Fuir). Both novels feature Marie, whose father just died, and an unnamed narrator, who was dating Marie in the first book but has since split with her by the time of the second book. Both books are split into three sections, span two continents (Europe and Asia), and both end on Elba, the Mediterranean island famous for Napoleon's 300 day exile there as well as the palindrome, "Able was I ere I saw Elba."


My priority in Fuir (Running Away) was the literary energy, that invisible thing that burns and is almost electric, and that sometimes emerges from what remains "still" in a book. This energy, exemplified in Faulkner, is a surge that causes your pupils to enlarge when reading, and that's completely separate from the anecdote or the story of the book itself. So that's what my priority was in Fuir, the energy of the novel, more than a view of the world, the search for beauty, or humor. But that wasn't always the case. My first books, The Bathroom or Camera, dealt with an underlying sense of literature as focused on the insignificant, the banal, the mundane, the "not-interesting," the "not-edifying," in other words on daily stuff, and I was trying to approach this with humor, and to offer a view of the world.

−Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Quarterly Conversation interview

In physics, energy is only observed in its effects. It is never seen for itself.

What is observed in Running Away and The Truth About Marie: 1. The narrator is in China on a mission from Marie when he attempts to have sex with a Chinese woman in a train's restroom when Marie calls to say her father has died. 2. The narrator goes bowling (after a long motorcycle ride) with Marie's business contact and sees that he is involved in the drug trade. 3. The narrator attends Marie's father's funeral in Elba. 4. Now separated from the narrator, Marie has sex with a man who dies during the act and calls the narrator over. 5. Before that, Marie and the dead man were in Japan to transport a thoroughbred race house to France via jumbojet; the horse gets loose in a dramatic fashion on the Narita Airport runway. 6. The narrator and Marie travel to Marie's father's empty house on Elba and there is a fire. (The excerpt that runs in this issue of Asymptote is from this chapter.)

The books are wild. Each chapter features either sex or travel, sometimes both, and the constant motion and the amorous exchange between the characters presents a contrast to Toussaint's first book, The Bathroom, in which the main character has taken an extended exile in his bathroom. In these new works, Toussaint spares the reader of the "banal." He does not stuff the novels with unnecessary information to pad the page count the way that an American writer might have done. There's nothing in either book, for example, about Marie's mother, although surely she must have had one. She never becomes relevant enough to the proceedings to warrant a mention. It is the racehorse unloosed on the airport runway that is featured in the book, despite its cameo in the life of Marie.


The exquisite pleasure of The Truth About Marie is the uniqueness of the scenarios that Toussaint has given the reader. One of the problems of the developed world, perpetrated most strongly by the United States, is the monoculture. The cultural and agricultural exports of the US are famous for their lack of diversity; the food is all made of corn and soybeans, the movies and television shows all feature superheroes or a twisted brand of reality. And even though the internet and the boom in air travel for both commerce and recreation connect us in ways that were impossible before (which one might think would broaden our scopes), they can lower us to the lowest common denominator. The local is replaced by the national or the global. The denizen of the global world is more likely to have a yen for Starbucks Coffee than any food from his hometown.

The effect must be deadening. Look at the book covers for the 2011 National Book Award nominees. They lack variety. The color palette for all of them is similar in its mutedness. Even the three red covers which stand out in their rows feature the same red. The photographs and cover images themselves (save for the ones on the poetry books in the top row) are all throwbacks. None of them attempt to capture the "now." The subjects of the non-fiction books are all dead save one (Maryam Jameelah, the subject of The Convert, who is 77 this year). It is as though the things found worth examining, that have that allure of being unique, have happened already and they are fading into the black and white of dreams which will ultimately be forgotten, as we line up again for the same coffee experience that we had ten years prior, a hemisphere away.

Toussaint and his characters do not fall into the trappings of the homogenous culture. They are of it, of course, but there are few references to brands (again, Toussaint was judicial in what to include), and Toussaint strives to carve out the unordinary. In a scene from the final chapter, which has been excerpted in this issue of Asymptote, the two characters forage for seafood on the shore of Elba. There is no trawl fishing or freezing here. Marie and the narrator eat their finds raw, on the spot, in an act that is most local and unpackageable. It will read to many of us like Eden.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Truth about Marie in this issue.