Running Away by Jean-PhilippeToussaint

I read Running Away about two weeks ago and ever since I’ve been thinking about blogging it, but there’s something in me that revolts against writing about this book. It’s short and light and Matthew B. Smith’s translation reads really well… but the narrator is repulsive, a middle-class idiot savant who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He goes to Shanghai to deliver money to a guy called Zhang Xiangzhi, and then indulges in all the usual orientalist fantasies; including misreading menace into acts of friendship in a culture he doesn’t understand. This culminates in him concluding that Xiangzhi is a heroin wholesaler. After returning to Paris, the narrator heads out to Italy where he fails to connect with his girlfriend.
The plot doesn’t really matter, this book is like Jean Baudrillard turned into very finely wrought fiction, a study in alienation by an unreliable narrator who doesn’t understand that everyone in a capitalist society is alienated (in an economic rather than a psychological sense). I read and enjoyed this very well-crafted book as a damning critique of capitalism and the middle-classes; my fear is that some of those who are delusionally attracted to literature as a mark of their own ‘distinction’, will identify with Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s obnoxious narrator. I guess that’s the risk of writing this type of fiction… Running Away is published in English by Dalkey Archive Press early next year. Since it’s hard not to love a book named after a Sly & The Family Stone tune, let’s hope its reception in English isn’t marred by too many nerds announcing their love of the ridiculous narrator.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Zen Master K on 2009-10-16 10:10:19 +0000

Call yourself a man? I won’t run from you!

Comment by Bad Music Foundation on 2009-10-16 10:16:58 +0000

Good taste alert! Sly & The Family Stone are a class music act. If you wanna hear bad music you’ll get the links at Bad Music Foundation!

Comment by Oleksiy on 2009-10-16 10:35:48 +0000

Keep us fols alerted on mid-class puppeteers!

Comment by Old Rope on 2009-10-16 11:24:41 +0000

Though I’ve not read the book in question, I share your sentiments Trip. There is often a dilemma in the rendering of obnoxious characters. That said, if people seek to identify themselves with odious fictional personalities, what can you do? We see scenarios such as this played out in the field of popular culture routinely, I’m sure people could list numerous examples (Al Murray’s infamous Pub Landlord irony/face-value charade, that gives comedians and the broadsheets something to rap about occasionally, for a kick off anyone…?).
Call me a one-dimensional romanticist (seriously, please do, it’s the only way I can get a stiffy these days) but personally, I often struggle with works of fiction / cinema / television that focus almost solely on unsympathetic character types… Perhaps I am shallow, if not alone, in seeking some form of redeeming qualities in (fake) people, even if it is just in the supporting cast.
Perhaps this is more pronounced in comedy, even though the premise maybe laughing at someone’s expense. Conclusion: I should just stick to my Mills and Boon…

Comment by Old Rope on 2009-10-16 11:28:17 +0000

That said, I cannot get enough of the escapades of fictional anti-hero and cross-dresser Paul McCartney

Comment by Nerd on 2009-10-16 16:46:33 +0000

I love the ridiculous narrator.

Comment by Marcel Duchamp on 2009-10-16 17:18:09 +0000

Pah, this is old stuff, this book came out in French quite a few years ago. Books, like works of art and people die, they go to graveyards we call bookshops and they may even suffer the indignity of a public funeral AKA translation…

Comment by northern uproar on 2009-10-16 19:06:48 +0000

His ‘Bath’ from 1985 is also quite good.

Comment by Southern Freeez on 2009-10-16 19:13:26 +0000

Yes better than Frieze art fair which is a shower, partly because they’ve economised this year by cutting back on heating, which means you need some of our jazz funk in the form of Anti-Freeez!

Comment by Jah Pothead on 2009-10-16 19:42:50 +0000

Sly & The Family Stone are a groove, but the Bob Marley song of the same name – Running Away – is even better! So maybe the book is named after Bob’s song and not Sly’s – but my guess is the author, who it seems likes being tricky, based it on both! Peace. Love.

Comment by Sly Bugger on 2009-10-17 10:47:12 +0000

There’s a transmitter buried in your dental work!

Comment by Psychedelic Sid on 2009-10-17 11:44:12 +0000

Not interested, doesn’t look like this book has anything to do with drugs.

Comment by Paul McCartney on 2009-10-17 14:46:56 +0000

Jean-PhilippeToussaint (smokes) rocks but I’m even better! I’d also like to point out that I’d never read anything by Jean-PhilippeToussaint at the time I recorded “Mull of Kintyre”. So there is definitely no question of influence at work here!

Comment by This Is Not Ti-Grace Atkinson on 2009-10-17 15:29:12 +0000

Do men exist? On the basis of this book one would probably conclude that they’e not properly alive.

Comment by Michael Roth on 2009-10-18 17:30:55 +0000

” .. the narrator is repulsive, a middle-class idiot savant who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.”
Ahhh, finally a character that I can identify with, one that really speaks to ME.

Comment by Lee Rourke on 2009-10-19 13:30:35 +0000

I really like this book. We must meet for coffee on Whitecross street to discuss this pressing matter 😉
Lee Rourke.

Comment by Simon Strong on 2009-10-19 23:03:08 +0000

Is this the ‘the bathroom’ dude? if it is, I read that and got serious deja-vu to that 60s froggy classic ‘la vie invers’ (which I recall is tops). Seems to me that his slop is fun but a bit redundant (in a not terribly funty way).

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-10-20 16:29:47 +0000

Yeah, same dude, one of those still carrying the Robbe-Grillett torch at Minuit, and mainly published by Dalkey in English….

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