In Small Worlds, Warren Motte categorizes Christian Oster as a “minimalist,” placing him in a group with other young French writers such as Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Marie Redonnet, and Eric Chevillard, who “exploit the principle of formal economy in their writing.” Each does so it his/her own way, yet there is something that similar in their approach—a terseness in their writing that tends to put a greater emphasis on the mindset of the characters (especially the protagonist) than on the description of the plot, setting, etc. The Unforeseen fits squarely in this tradition, complete with all the typical charms and frustrations.
The plot of the novel is hardly worth mentioning, but here it is: an unnamed narrator is on a trip with his girlfriend, Laure, to attend a birthday party. On their way, Laure gets sick. (“It is my fault: I always have a cold, they inevitably catch it. Once they have recovered, they always leave me . . . and I am left with my own cold.”) She shacks up in a hotel to recover, and sends the narrator on his way to the birthday party. Unforeseen events ensue, such as attending someone else’s birthday party in a sick, drunken haze.
What drives this narrative though isn’t the plot points—or the quasi-surprising ending—but the way in which the narrator processes these events. Nothing is ever really thought through, and his selfish nature is both irritating (to the reader and those around him) and his main charm:
“And, anyway, I’m not waiting for anything or anyone,” she told me, “the only thing in you that holds me, the only thing with you that holds me, well, the only thing in me with you that holds me,” she clarified, “that gets me hooked, I mean, that makes me feel good, if you like, is your selfishness, and I can’t get involved with your selfishness, I don’t really have the time. I’m sorry.”
How the narrator processes events, how he thinks about the world, is the primary charm of minimalist books like this one. Unfortunately, in contrast to Toussaint’s Television or anything by Echenoz, or even Oster’s earlier book A Cleaning Woman, this novel falls flat. The narrator is like Larry David without the funny. Or a less neurotic Woody Allen.
Adriana Hunter’s translation is adequate, but there are some wonky lines that don’t do the book any favors. The translation of a book so dependent on tone and word choice needs to be almost flawless.
That said, this novel may not be a masterpiece, but it is worth checking out. It’s a nice diversion and a pleasant example of one trend in contemporary French fiction.
by Christian Oster
translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
$13.95 (pb), 257 pgs.