THE FOREIGNER by David Plante


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Though unnamed this time, Plante's narrator here again seems to be Daniel Francoeur, the protagonist/alter-ego--from a French Canadian/Providence family--who was at the center of three exquisite novels: The Family, The Country, The Woods. It's 1919; the young narrator has both the itch and the opportunity to study in France--though he fears his own affectations, ""being a phony."" (Indeed, once in Paris, he'd rather be lost than open a map.) The narrator is soon enveloped in the strangeness of a foreign country, passively relying upon the kindness of people he barely knows. And when his Parisian landlady wants him to go to Spain to hand-deliver a letter, the narrator is so completely rudderless that he is docile and obliging. In Spain, then, almost immediately, he re-encounters Angela Johnson, a young black woman whom he met on the boat from the US to Europe; knowing no one else in Spain, he teams up with her, platonically. But Angela has business, sexual and otherwise, with a cruel, depressive, gangsterish man named Vincent: he is fond of humiliating and oppressing those around him; the narrator is coerced into supplying Angela and Vincent with money--in return for which he's forced to watch them have sex; he is pressured into participating in various shady, unexplained, yet certainly illegal rendezvous/transactions. And Vincent's suicide will eventually cap this sordid manipulation--though, as always with Plante, the haunting notes aren't the melodramatic events but the unmentioned moments, the gaps in the narrative. Unfortunately, however, Plante's familiar web of emotional subtexts is strained and unconvincing this time: Angela is a completely indistinct character; the narrator's puppy-like tractability, underlined by a hyper-sexual self-consciousness that's excruciatingly delicate, becomes fairly tedious. (As in The Woods, the real ""foreigner"" here is the narrator's body in relation to his mind.) Moreover, Plante's deliberately flat-footed style too heavily reinforces the effect of the flat, hollow, elliptical story, almost to the point of parody. (""When he came out, his forehead, cheeks, jaw, neck were tense, and his body was tense. Angela didn't ask him anything. He sat still for a while, then stood, and Angela stood, and I did."") In sum, then, Plante's exploration of his alter-ego's sensibility seems to be providing diminishing returns: the passive apartness that was so striking in The Woods now threatens to become a stock device; the oblique narcissism that was apparent in Plante's non-fiction Difficult Women has begun to color his fiction. And, while first-time Plante readers may be impressed by some striking effects here, those who know the superb Francoeur novels will find this disappointing, repetitious work from a major talent.

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 1984
Publisher: Atheneum