What’s perhaps most striking about Jean-Phillipe Toussaint’s slim 1986 novel Monsieur is its combination of character-driven psychological observations and its playful, precise language. The “hero” of the story, known simply to the reader as “Monsieur,” is an executive-in-the-making whose corporate and personal success hasn’t brought him the kind of tangible fulfillment one might expect of the gainfully employed. But this novel is nothing so simple as a tale of corporate malaise and a resulting personal dissatisfaction; rather (and this is what makes it such a fun read), it’s a story of a man whose identity is not quite fixed. At 29 years old, Monsieur has trouble making firm commitments or even simple decisions. He can’t seem to say no to people or decline invitations. He moves from apartment to apartment and drifts into and out of his job, taking time to contemplate the stars and the structure of crystalline minerals. He attends meetings and makes coffee, remembering to offer some to clients and co-workers.
The humdrum nature of his corporate routine is reminiscent of Patrick Bateman’s in American Psycho, but Toussaint doesn’t offer the kind of hard-edged, satiric indictment of corporate culture that Bret Easton Ellis does. Instead, Monsieur’s ambivalence, and his vacillation between disaffection and sentimentality, has more in common with Knut Hamsun’s Hunger than it does with any contemporary lambasting of corporate culture or urban living. Just as Hamsun’s unnamed narrator walks the streets of Oslo, musing on the human condition, feeling short bursts of intense sentiment, Monsieur walks the streets of Paris unsure of exactly who he is or what he is supposed to be doing. But where Hamsun’s book brought an evocative first-person voice to the page, Toussaint’s animated third-person narration gives the reader the distance necessary for establishing an appropriately eye-rolling affection for Monsieur. Toussaint reinforces this endearment with small turns in the prose, most notably the phrase, “People, really,” which the narrator uses to make small, editorial comments on the action. Appropriately enough, the reader finds himself doing the same, so that at the end of the novella, it’s hard not to shake your head, sigh and say, “Oh, Monsieur.”