A Long Way Off is a virtuoso swan song from the master of French black comedy crime writing, Pascal Garnier. This novel is riotously funny and maybe just a little bit more noir than the other novels in this loosely allied series, books connected by themes and emotions rather than anything more tangible, (characters, continuity of plot). This novel is a bold and enigmatic exploration of the darker side of the human psyche, a mystery that twists and turns unexpectedly, eventfully and explosively. Every light warm moment is accompanied by feelings of apprehension as the tension mounts towards a genuinely shocking denouement.
Reading Pascal Garnier is more of a passion than a pleasure. His novels are genuinely original. Yes, in a strong French tradition from Simonen to Vargas but unlike anything else I have ever read. Some writers show flashes of originality, distinct features that are unique but Garnier is Garnier and no one else does what he does, the way he does it, with such élan, such individuality. His novels read as if they are born of one sitting, they are endlessly inventive and utterly beguiling and yet they are finely structured, this is consummate writing. To classify them as crime novels is maybe a little too restrictive, they are contemporary literary explorations of the human spirit. They are often expositions of criminality and deviant behaviour, deliciously, wittily displayed. I’d read Garnier whatever the subject, that’s how much I think his style matters. I’m sure he could make a manual on boiling the kettle exciting.
So I’ve been reading Pascal Garnier since 2012 when his novel Panda Theory first appeared in English. By that time he had been dead for two years and recently I’ve been counting down the books, knowing full well that this last novel was coming. For me that’s a sad thing. This mash up of noir, poetry and farce is as deliciously entertaining. Expect the unexpected in this darkly comic truly outrageous road trip, a journey into the abyss. A man, his daughter and a fat old cat get in the car and head to the beach, mayhem and disaster follow in their wake. Whatever you do don’t mistake the apparently random, rambling storyline for lack of purpose. There’s not a wasted word here, everything has meaning within the story, it just takes time to see it. It all starts with a mildly embarrassing incident at a dinner party:
“You casually invoke Agen at a dinner party, never imagining you are actually invoking it, which is quite different.”
Marc doesn’t really know these people, there’s lots of chatter going on around him, he’d like to contribute, he feels a bit ignored, then the opportunity comes. Someone mentions the south of France and he jumps in loudly with: “I know Agen, too!” He doesn’t really know Agen but his interjection brings everything to a halt, there’s a silence before the hostess can reignite the chatter. In the car on the way home Chloé asks him what he was thinking, he can’t really explain. The car stinks of melted Maroilles cheese, accidentally left in the boot. No amount of cleaning product has been able to erase the smell. Marc is in his sixties, he’s bored, he daydreams, he’s drifting through life, he walks out of a bar when the vacuous inane conversation of his drinking partners leave him feeling empty. One day he buys a cat from a pet shop, the one lazing in the corner of the window that looks like he’s had enough too. Marc is waiting for a lightening bolt of purpose to strike while sitting in his pyjamas doing very little. Then he has a revelation. He visits his daughter Anne, it’s not his usual day so it throws everybody into a tis but they fetch her from occupational therapy. She asks for her chocolate and he remembers the melting sweet in his pocket, she loves a Rocher Suchard. They talk about Édith, his ex-wife he’s only seen her once since the divorce, that’s when Anne came to the home in Perray-Vaucluse twenty years ago. Suddenly, Anne announces that she is going back to her TV, so Marc promises to come back, as planned, on the 14th.
The 14th. Chloé suggests they go away, he agrees, and then heads off to see Anne, taking Boudu the cat along for the ride. When Marc gets to the home he suggests to Anne that they take a drive. One thing leads to another:
‘I had a hot toddy. I think I’ve got a cold. As for you, should be drinking champagne, with your medication. . .?’ [Marc]
‘You’re right. I’ll stop the medication.’ [Anne]
What follows as the trio become fugitives is hilarious but, and this is where it becomes so much more than an entertainment, it’s also deeply touching, poignant, and loaded with portends of disaster and tragedy. Garnier has an keen eye when it comes to outsiders, the kind of people who don’t normally feature in crime fiction, certainly not in a positive light. A Long Way Off is a glorious flight of fancy, a descent into a nightmare and it’s damned funny. The writing is descriptive but always off kilter:
“He was old enough to be ageless and, despite being swamped in countless layers of dubious woollens, looked impossibly thin. His left eye squinting up at you aslant, while the right eye, veiled with an opaque spot, ignored you entirely.”
Garnier makes the apparently incomprehensible make perfect sense. If this is crime fiction it’s literary crime fiction. Read Garnier and you will know thwarted lives and grief and loss, all through his love of the downtrodden, (even when they behave appallingly), and you’ll split your sides while you’re empathising – like being mangled and tickled at the same time. As befits the last novel there’s a hammer blow of an ending.
Emily Boyce has translated A Long Way Off, (she, Melanie Florence and Jane Aitken have translated this stunning series), congratulations and thanks for bringing Garnier’s work alive in English, really getting the off the wall, farcical, emotional truth of the original across.
Au revoir mon ami.
Paul Burke 5/4*
A Long Way Off by Pascal Garnier
9781910477779 Belgravia Gallic Paperback 26th March 2020