So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood

So You Don't Get LostLike a lot of Americans, I’d never heard of Patrick Modiano until he won the Nobel Prize in 2014. Learning that he wrote psychological thrillers, I was immediately curious as to what kind of thriller writing would get a Nobel, so when his latest book turned up on the Tournament of Books long list, I thought I’d give it a try.

The first thing to note is that this isn’t a typical thriller. In fact, it’s hardly a thriller at all. Modiano takes a typical thriller premise and turns it into a contemplative story about lost memories and a (perhaps best) forgotten childhood.

The novel’s main character, Jean Daragane, is a writer whose comfortable solitude is interrupted when he gets a call from a man who has found an address book he’d lost. The man, Gilles Ottolini, wishes to return it in person because, as it turns out, he’s been trying to find some information about a man named Guy Tortsel, who’s listed in Daragane’s address book. Daragane remembers nothing about Tortsel, but he gets drawn into the mystery anyway when Ottolini’s girlfriend, Chantal Grippay, presents him with a dossier filled with Ottolini’s research.

Modiano employs a lot of the tropes of noir thrillers. There’s a femme fatale, mysterious meetings, links to a possible gambling ring and a murder, and a world-weary tone. But the trappings never lead to actual thrills. Instead, we see Daragane digging into his own memory, following a thread to someone he lost long ago. The links between this forgotten woman and the murder mentioned in the dossier are never clarified, and Tortsel’s identity, when revealed, is no great revelation. And by the end of the novel, we’re left not with a crime revealed but a child, alone, and even more of a mystery than we started with.

I do not want to give the impression that I consider the lack of thrills a flaw, but I do think I’d have enjoyed this more if I’d not picked it up expecting something in the vein of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell. What Modiano does in slowly stripping away the book’s noir trappings is interesting, but it offers different pleasures from an actual thriller. (Not superior pleasures, but different ones.)

One of the novels chief pleasures is its prose, translated from the French by Euan Cameron. The third-person narrative mostly focuses on Daragane’s thoughts, and the meditative style suits the novel’s exploration of memory. Memory, as it turns out, is fraught with pain:

Le Tremblay. Chantal. Square du Graisivaudan. These words had travelled a long way. An insect bite, very slight to being with, and it causes you an increasingly sharp pain, and very soon a feeling of being torn apart. The present and the past merge together, and that seems quite natural because they were only separated by a cellophane partition. An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane.

The merging of past and present makes the book hard to follow at times—there are flashbacks inside flashbacks as Daragane remembers previous attempts at uncovering the mysteries of his past. But the details of the plot are less important than how it feels for Daragane to remember.

I can’t say that I loved So You Won’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, but it’s the kind of book that sometimes grows on me as I think more about it. It’s a short book, just 155 pages. I get the impression that most of Modiano’s books are short, which makes me very much willing to try him again, with my expectations more in line with what Modiano’s writing is like. If anyone has recommendations, I’d welcome them!

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16 Responses to So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood

  1. It’s been hard for me to find him in print out here. When I do find him, he’s awfully expensive for such short works. I believe books that are short should cost less than books that are long. But I will put him on reserve at my library once the TBR Dare is done. I’ve been very curious. I like French noir stuff, myself.

    • Teresa says:

      I figure his books will get easier to find since he won the Nobel, but probably not priced for length. With books so short, it would make sense to publish two in a single volume. I think you’d like this.

  2. This one is coming up for me soon. A lovely person gave it to me for a Christmas gift. I really enjoyed Modiano’s treatment of unreliable memory in the two titles I have read from him so far. Reminded me of Marias in a number of ways.

    Do you know when the ToB short list is going to be released? It has to be any day now. Feel impatient because I have never been better prepared. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I enjoy stories about memory, so I think I’ll like exploring more Modiano. And I have yet to read any Marias–too many authors, too little time!

      I saw in the Goodreads group that it’s coming out Wednesday. I’ve now read seven-and-a-half longlisted books, but I’d be surprised to see more than a few of those in the Tournament. The Buried Giant is probably my favorite of what I’ve read, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Satin Island or the Dreaded Tome on the list. All three of those will spark good conversation, even through I disliked two of them. This book, Slade House, Get in Trouble, and Spool of Blue Thread seem like long shots, as does Saint Maize, which was too dull for me to finish.

  3. Would I like him, do you think? He doesn’t immediately sound like my type of thing, but I’d trust your recommendation if you thought he’d be a good author for me.

    • Teresa says:

      I think probably not. There’s not much of a plot, and the characters aren’t much more than sketches. I think you’d prefer a more filled-out narrative than this one.

  4. Deb says:

    I have this on my tbr list. I didn’t know he’d won a Nobel (hangs head in shame), but saw the book in a list of “off-beat” thrillers and the premise sounded interesting. I really like the Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine school of psychological suspense, which I thought this might be. Your review has helped me adjust my expectations. I’ll probably enjoy the book more if I don’t go into it expecting a traditional suspense/thriller.

  5. Goodness me! Was Modiano described as a thriller writer? (laugh) Modiano has nothing of the thriller writer at all. He is a very literary writer who starts on the premises of the thriller but whose work is mainly upon memory – he is not far from Proust sometimes. And to study memory and its tricks, he uses mostly the WWII period – almost never comes to the contemporary period. He seems very bland when one reads him for the first time but, as you say very aptly, his novels grow on you. Let them do their job within you and you should be surprised after a while. Unless you do not like too much the contemplative and very slow mood. :)

    • Teresa says:

      The edition I read called this a “novel of suspense,” which is pretty off-base, aside from the premise. I can certainly appreciate how he took that premise and bent it into a completely different kind of book, but I think I’ll appreciate the next book even more, now that I know what he’s up to.

  6. Jenny says:

    I can’t believe you got to Modiano before I did! This sounds like an author I would really like; thank you for pushing me to read it.

  7. Stefanie says:

    I had one of his books out from the library over the summer but had to re turn it before I got the chance to read it and I haven’t tried again. He seems like an author I would enjoy but not one I’d pick up spontaneously. One of these days I’ll get myself back on the library list.

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