Vol. XXI, #2 Janice Galloway / Thomas Bernhard / Robert Steiner / Elizabeth Bowen
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Undercurrents, by Marie Darrieussecq
reviewed by D. Quentin Miller
Trans. Linda Coverdale. New Press, 2001. 114 pp. $21.95.
Although it is rare to read a novel that contains absolutely no dialogue, it’s even rarer to find an author who can write such a novel with grace and beauty. Marie Darrieussecq’s Undercurrents is that novel, and the author is so adept at her craft that we scarcely notice the novel’s experimental aspects. As with a novel by Virginia Woolf–and this novel is somewhat reminiscent of The Waves in the way it evokes the rhythms of the sea–the plot is hardly the point. Undercurrents is ostensibly about a woman who has escaped to a seaside resort town with her daughter, but it is really about the power of language to evoke moods, sensations, and the underlying cadences of ordinary experience. The opening line signals that the book is about perception, not about a sequence of events: it’s a mouth, half open, breathing, but the chin, nose, and eyes are no longer there. The novel manages to sustain this surreal description without indulging in undue abstraction or inscrutability. The language is dazzling and precise, and the reader is able to enter the characters’ inner lives through this language which accurately evokes sense perception and memory. The narrator, without being manipulative, builds subtly and gradually upon individual moments frozen in time and repeats motifs and perspectives in order to allow meaning to emerge. We get to know the characters based on how they feel when they walk across a sand dune, or the sensations they experience when they order ice cream. Although it is experimental, Undercurrents is well worth reading not simply because it succeeds in attempting something different, but rather because of its rich artistic achievement.