Deep flow

Jun 6, 2001 at 12:00 am

Undercurrents, the third novel by French fiction sensation Marie Darrieussecq, is a breathtaking performance of withdrawal from the maddening crowd and its dizzying chatter. Without fanfare, without as much as one explanatory thread, the young author abducts her protagonist (a mother and child dyad) from the capital, hubby and the rest of the bourgeois cocoon and unceremoniously plunks them near the Spanish border at a seaside resort “shaped like a flight of stairs.” It is this disappearance, this civil disobedience that Darrieussecq documents, hanging there at the bottom of the wave before it crashes back to shore, as it must. But the return to normal is of no interest to her.

As if denuding a lover’s body, the novel removes contingencies, tensions and possessions in the dreamy sunshine of the waterfront. What remains — crossed straps on a sundress, an empty beach, Lopez the ice cream vendor, the little girl playing ghost in the fluttering curtains — is all caught in the inexorable rhythm of the sea and its immortal light. Like a yoga student, our nameless heroine becomes more and more concentrated the less she struggles and thinks. The days are long. She laughs. She buys a bathing suit. She looks at the stupidly handsome surfer. “She runs her fingers through her hair.” She gives her daughter a kiss. “The world is enveloped in a fleecy pillowcase.”

In six short, lyrical chapters, the author who shares with Marguerite Duras more than just the accident of identical initials, narrates the sea as if it were one of the main characters — endowing it with a presence which is throbbing with life, amniotic peace — but also the site of deadly currents and shipwrecks. That the admission of desire is buoyed up by the daily ritual of sea tides, coming and going, high and low, the fabulous swell, where everything melts into this fluid mechanics, only confirms the text’s sensual pull, deep and foaming.

The language, in this exquisite translation, surrenders its hold. “The words slow down, stretch out, coil up.” Undercurrents will knock you down like a big breaker and yet you’ll want to dive in again and again. Darrieussecq’s cool is simply prodigious.

E-mail Chris Tysh at [email protected].