Like 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!