Fresh Meat: Boxes by Pascal Garnier

Boxes by Pascal Garnier is a work of noir fiction about a French man who goes through with moving to the countryside despite his wife's sudden overseas disappearance (available May 18, 2015).

The house was sulking. Not one window would look him in the face.

Those dazzling lines from Pascal Garnier’s novel Boxes are enough to make me want to read more and more of his books. But those bits of dizzying surrealism are only part of what makes the late Frenchman’s novels such gems. Boxes, which was released in its original French in 2012, two years after Garnier’s death at age 60, is being brought out in a new English translation, courtesy of Melanie Florence. It’s the latest in Gallic Books’ series of English language versions of Garnier’s noir fiction works. And it’s superb.

Like much of Garnier’s body of noir, Boxes is set in a provincial area of France. Also in keeping with the author’s general approach, it studies a person who is living in such terrain and whose life – and mind, and spirit – is coming apart. Brice Casadamont is a middle-aged man who illustrates children’s books as his profession. (Garnier authored many kids’ books, in addition to his noir novels.) Brice and his wife Emma, an oft-traveling journalist some 20 years his junior, make the decision to vacate their apartment in the city of Lyon and relocate to the countryside. But sometime before moving day, Emma goes missing. She was in Egypt on assignment when she disappeared. Brice goes ahead with the move, anyway, and starts to make a life for himself in the village as he awaits word on Emma.

From the start, Brice’s life in the underpopulated area goes into an off-kilter mode. An introverted misanthrope (he illustrates kids’ books yet he hates kids), he makes the garage his bedroom and fails at what DIY home improvement projects he undertakes. He tells his boss off while abruptly leaving his present employment, and he dismisses Emma’s parents’ offers to come help him get the house set up. He also waves off his parents-in-law’s suggestion that he start seeing a counselor who might help him with the grief he must be feeling at Emma’s seemingly permanent disappearance. Instead, he (initially) mostly keeps to himself in the country home, and he begins slipping into a personal netherworld.

Here are some telling observations of Brice’s character, by way of Garnier’s omniscient narrator. This is shortly after Brice injures himself while wandering around the village:

Never could Brice have imagined that the walking stick he had borrowed from the pharmacist would afford him so many pleasures . . . It protected him from being too close to other people. He felt important. With a simple twirl of his stick he consigned this cruel, pathetic world to its humble fate, a billiard ball ricocheting around at the mercy of the void. Even as a child he had been fascinated by prosthetics. He would have liked to wear glasses or false teeth but unfortunately neither his eyes nor his gums had need of them. To make up for such tragic good health he had improvised glassless frames and stuck chewing gum over his teeth.

The big turn in the story comes when Brice encounters Blanche, a 39-year old single woman who resides in the small village. Blanche is a quirky sort, maybe even more of an odd bird than Brice. She takes to Brice immediately. The eccentric Blanche might just be the only kind of person Brice can relate to in his present, warped state, and he welcomes her into his life. And that’s when things start getting really odd. Because Blanche (a) might be confusing Brice with her deceased father, (b) forms an emotional attachment to Brice, and (c) seems to have gotten inside Brice’s brain, to the point where she knows what he’s going to do before he does it. The relationship that forms between these two oddballs, in the strained circumstances under which their always unexpected interpersonal dynamics play out, is really what makes Boxes go.

Following is part of the text from a Harold and Maude-like scene wherein Blanche takes Brice to one of her favorite local attractions: a junkyard, or “graveyard of objects,” as she calls it:

Blanche suddenly dissolved into tears and began scrabbling around in the mud with both hands, like a madwoman.

“Stop that, Blanche. You might hurt yourself. There’s all sorts of nasty things in there.”

“This earth that takes everything away from us and gives us nothing in return!”

Wiping her nose with the back of her hand, she inadvertently gave herself a Charlie Chaplin moustache. Brice burst out laughing.

“What’s funny?”

He picked up a piece of mirror and held it in front of her. Blanche started laughing, too, and all the birds which were picking around nearby flew off, saying to themselves that humans weren’t people you could mix with, that was for sure.

“Brice, promise me you won’t die.”

“I’ll do my best, but . . . “

“Don’t believe what they tell you. There’s nothing above us, and nothing beneath. Just us, here and now, like survivors of a shipwreck.”

Garnier’s noir novels have been favorably compared to the work of Georges Simenon, in particular Simenon’s edgier crime novels, or his romans durs. Like Simenon, he wrote with a deceptive simplicity. His books are easily approachable yet ultimately disturbing. He makes you comfortable with blasé descriptions of his characters’ doings, then he makes the room in your brain go spinning when he describes abrupt, extreme actions these seemingly sleepwalking people take. He drops brain-bending, jarring lines and passages like they’re afterthoughts. I see the likenesses between his writing and Simenon’s; and I also note a similarity between his work and French New Wave cinema, as well as early Wim Wenders films such as Alice in the Cities and especially The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. What all of the above have in common is a freshness of perspective, a daring willingness to look at our world and its people in unbridled ways. If it’s true, as Thoreau put it, that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Pascal Garnier’s novels explore what people do when their desperation suddenly gets not so quiet.

I’ll close with a random assortment of lines and passages from Boxes that I found striking:

Both strategically and philosophically, his position was untenable, so he decided to go out for a coffee while he waited for the world to end.

It was hard to imagine the love child of a vegetable mill and a pair of skis.

The church clock hammered eleven times, using his head as an anvil.

The editor’s letter came to rest on a pile of envelopes he had not bothered to open. He stretched out on his camp bed and said to himself that this would be a good day to die.

TV was TV. It was not what it showed you that mattered but the way you looked at it, like the ever-changing patterns of a kaleidoscope. It could still be watched when it was switched off.

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Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.

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