Wall Street Journal
Crisp and erudite...[with] intellectual elegance.
A mordantly humorous work.
I'm Gone is a mildly amusing mystery. Indeed, its greatest mystery is why it's become a cause célèbre in France. It's already sold half a million copies and won the Prix Goncourt, the country's most prestigious literary prize.
In America, where Jean Echenoz's short novel is being released this month, it's tempting to assume something was lost in translation - but in fact, the attenuation seems entirely intentional.
Life is not going well for Felix Ferrer, a Parisian art dealer. In the opening line, he walks out on his wife after five years of numbing routine: "He always washed in the same order, inalterably from left to right and top to bottom. He always shaved in the same order, inalterably right cheek then left cheek, chin, lower then upper lip, neck."
Strapped for cash in a weak art market, Ferrer accepts the suggestion of his assistant to search for a trove of lost artifacts. In 1957, a boat carrying animal pelts and some rare regional antiquities got stuck in the ice in Canada's extreme north. The crew was forced to abandon ship, and its whereabouts have never been determined.
Until now. By a method never explained, Ferrer's assistant has discovered the location of this lost ship. Then, by a cause never mentioned, Ferrer's assistant dies. Then, for a reason never given, Ferrer makes the trip to the Arctic Circle himself, though he has no expertise in such dangerous travel and suffers from a serious heart ailment. Finally, when he returns, the antiques are stolen by a "mysterious" man whose identity is immediately obvious to us.
But how déclassé to worry about elements of plot. Some of these chapters are so aimless that even the narrator confesses he's losing interest. In the end, he notes, "Everything happened according to the desperately common process."
And let's not concern ourselves with characterization - très bourgeois! These people are psychologically blank, morally vacuous. Before being frozen to death in an ice truck, one mildly annoyed victim accuses his killer of being cliché. (How's that for fighting back?) Speaking of Ferrer's meaningless sexual conquests, the narrator sighs, "Can he really have grown so blasé?" His protagonist moves in a shadow instead of a spotlight.
So, what's left in I'm Gone? Wit. Echenoz's forte is an exquisite sense of comedy. He's a master with the details of modern life, not just the ripe absurdities of modern art - although he's brilliant with those, too - but the incidental filigree.
For instance, we learn nothing about why Ferrer cannot commit to women, but much about his frantic efforts to remove the smell of a heinous perfume from his apartment. Similarly, the narrator never mentions why Ferrer's assistant dies, but he provides a hysterical description of Ferrer swinging holy water at the funeral. And during his arduous trip from Paris to the Arctic, we learn most about the mosquitoes that make crossing the tundra so maddening.
It's not surprising that a nation which gave the world deconstructive criticism should embrace a novel that leaves its foreground out of focus and concentrates instead on the edges. The practitioners of that arcane critical theory are always picking at stray threads no one else notices. Even the structure of the book frustrates our expectations of how a story should develop. The narrator moves backward and forward simultaneously. Relationships that appear to be transformative eventually lead nowhere. Conflicts don't resolve, they simple dissolve.
You see, it's not about the story's characters; it's about the narrator's play. Echenoz moves through his story with casual elegance. When he says he doesn't want to bother "going into the technical details" - what used to be called "plot" - we chuckle and traipse along with him. "Let's keep moving forward," he calls back, "and faster."
He carries this off with considerable skill, but is it old-fashioned to ask, "To what effect?" Gourmets of post-structural theory will find I'm Gone a delectable piece of gâteau sacher avec crème au beurre. But philistines should be forgiven if they note that it's a lot of fuss for a Ding Dong.
The Christian Science Monitor
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This fast-paced comedy of art smuggling and sexual vagaries won France's esteemed Prix Goncourt--with good reason. After leaving his wife, Ferrer, a middle-aged art dealer with a heart condition, travels to the Arctic Circle to recover ancient Arctic artworks from an abandoned freighter now frozen into the ice. After retrieving the relics, sure that they will make him a fortune, Ferrer loses them to a pair of particularly stealthy and prescient thieves. The novel then follows the soon-to-intersect paths of Ferrer and the thieves, as Ferrer tries to navigate several dysfunctional love affairs simultaneously. Echenoz's protagonist is the quintessential contemporary male, always in transit, always looking forward to the next thing, sometimes almost laughably skittish--the novel is as light on its feet as its narrator. The narrative skips between numerous locales, from Paris apartments to a seaside village in Spain to the barren ice flats of the far North, portraying each new place with a vivid sense of mood and atmosphere. Frequent changes in perspective force the reader to constantly reconsider the precarious position of Ferrer and the strange morality of the thieves. Echenoz (Cherokee; Big Blondes) invests considerable energy in descriptions of even the smallest details, giving such unlikely subjects as sled dogs or icebergs lives unto themselves without ever seeming precious. Combining the offhand wit of Raymond Chandler with the narrative agility of Peter Hoeg, he crafts a clever, philosophical tale. (Mar.) Forecast: I'm Gone is a bestseller in France and has been hailed as the author's best novel to date. If it gets sufficient review coverage, it could extend Echenoz's readership among literati in the U.S. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Winner of France's prestigious Goncourt Prize in 1999, this novel tells what happens after Felix Ferrar, a sophisticated Parisian art dealer, walks out on his wife one January night. A few months later, after hearing from Delahaye, his gallery assistant, about a shipwreck filled with rare Inuit art, he finds himself on a Canadian icebreaker bound for the Arctic. Ultimately successful in his quest to find the wreck, he returns to Paris only to have the three cartons of art objects immediately stolen from the gallery. As the police investigate, Ferrar undergoes heart bypass surgery and experiences several emotionally unsatisfying romantic trysts. Veering among irony, satire, and more than occasional seriousness, Echenoz both employs and subverts the conventions of the adventure and detective genres in this sly send-up of contemporary art and life. Recommended for collections of French literature and for larger fiction collections generally.--Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Crime novel, the 1999 Prix Goncourtwinner, that's also a whimsical tale of the eternal (and eternally rewarding) midlife search for new partners and a deadpan commentary on its own contrivances. "I'm going," Parisian art dealer Felix Ferrer tells his wife Suzanne as he walks out on her in the opening sentence. But before he can get where he's going, Echenozin a fine demonstration of Zeno's paradoxhas to explain how Ferrer's new assistant, Jean-Philippe Delahaye, beguiled him with talk of a Canadian ship laden with Paleoarctic artworks icebound somewhere off the District of Mackenzie, and how Ferrer shuttles imperturbably from one woman to the next, who's always providentially right around the corner, and what made Ferrer turn from creating art to selling it in the first place. For quite a while, in fact, it seems that the blandly determined hero, plowing through the Arctic ice fields under eternal summer sun, will never reach the Nechilik, although suspense is short-circuited both by the playfully flat prose, faithfully rendered by Echenoz's longtime translator Polizzotti, and by the sense of anticlimax with which otherwise decisive actions sneak up on the puppets. Meanwhile, back in Paris,"we've just learned of Delahaye's tragic disappearance"; his funeral is secretly watched by a new agent, one Baumgartner, whose choice of a confederate called The Flounder indicates that he's obviously up to no good. But that's the only thing that's obvious about a plot whose criminal mastermind admits to the influence of TV movies and whose author complains that"the whole thing lacks motivation" and is just plain boring to boot. Amazingly, the shaggy tale winds upmoreconclusivelythan any of Echenoz's four previously translated novels (Big Blondes, 1997, etc.), though nearly every sentence crackles with enough sly humor to keep the author's postmodern credentials intact.
Read an Excerpt
By Jean Echenoz
New Press Copyright © 2002 Jean Echenoz
All right reserved.
"I'm going," said Ferrer. "I'm leaving you. You can keep everything, but I'm gone." And as Suzanne's gaze drifted toward the floor, settling for no good reason on an electrical outlet, Felix Ferrer dropped his keys on the entryway table. Then he buttoned up his overcoat and walked out, gently shutting the front door behind him.
Outside, without a glance at Suzanne's car whose fogged-up windows kept silent beneath the streetlamps, Ferrer began walking the six hundred yards toward the Corentin-Celton metro stop. At nearly nine o'clock, this first Sunday evening in January, the train was all but deserted. Only a dozen men were inside, unattached, as Ferrer seemed to have become in the last twenty-five minutes. Normally he would have rejoiced to find two empty facing benches, like a little compartment for himself alone, which in the metro was his preferred seating arrangement. But on this evening he scarcely gave it a thought, distracted but less preoccupied than he would have imagined by the scene that had just been played out with Suzanne, a woman of difficult character. Having envisioned a more vehement response, cries interspersed with threats and fiery insults, he was relieved, but somewhat put out by his own relief.
He set down his valise, which contained mainly toilet articles and a change of underwear, and at first he stared straight ahead, mechanically skimming over the advertising panels for floor coverings, dating services, and real estate listings. Later, between the Vaugirard and Volontaires stations, Ferrer opened the valise to remove an auction catalogue featuring traditional Persian artwork, which he leafed through up to Madeleine, where he got off.
Around the Madeleine church, strings of unlit Christmas lights hovered above streets still more deserted than the subway. The decorated windows of the high-priced shops reminded the nonexistent pedestrians that they would survive the end-of-year festivities. Alone in his overcoat, Ferrer skirted the church toward an even number on Rue de l'Arcade.
To find the building's entry code, his hands forged a path under his clothing: the left one toward the address book slipped into an inside pocket, the right toward his glasses stuffed into a breast pocket. Then, having passed through the main door, ignoring the elevator, he firmly attacked the service stairs. He reached the sixth floor less out of breath than I would have imagined, in front of a badly repainted brick-red door whose hinges bespoke at least two attempted break-ins. No name on the door, just a tacked-up photo curling at the corners, depicting the lifeless body of Manuel Montoliu, an ex-matador-cum-banderillero, after an animal named Cubatisto had opened his heart like a book on May 1, 1992: Ferrer tapped lightly on the photo twice.
While he waited, the nails of his right hand dug into the inner surface of his left forearm, just above the wrist, where numerous tendons and blue veins intersected under whiter skin. Then, her hair very dark and very long, no older than thirty nor shorter than five foot ten, the young woman named Laurence who had just opened the door smiled at him without saying a word before closing it behind them both. And the next morning at around ten, Ferrer left for his studio.
Excerpted from I'm Gone by Jean Echenoz Copyright © 2002 by Jean Echenoz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.