Pascal Garnier’s novel, Moon in a Dead Eye, is set in a gated retirement community, and concerns a set of paranoid residents who worry about who might get inside; really they should have been more worried about each other. That same dark irony is at the heart of Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger–a short novel which concerns a widower who isn’t exactly mourning for his dead wife.
Fabien is a wonderful Garnier creation, for this author seems to excel in formulating characters who don’t possess appropriate emotions. That’s certainly true in The Panda Theory, a novel in which the main character, Gabriel travels to Brittany and befriends a number of people who seem to think he’s the solution to their many problems. In the case of Gabriel, a lack of appropriate emotions is deadly whereas in The Front Seat Passenger, Fabien’s inappropriate responses leave him open to a very dangerous situation. There’s something off about Fabien; he’s not likeable, and so in a sense he deserves what he gets.
Fabien is visiting his father–a man who never recovered from his wife, Charlotte’s desertion thirty-five years earlier. After hearing that she has died, he’s gone into full-blown mourning, and Fabien doesn’t understand his father’s deep sense of loss. This mystery of emotion eludes Fabien, and in a way its absence protects him, but only for part of the novel. Here’s how Fabien feels about children, so it’s just as well he doesn’t have any:
To Fabien children were just receptacles that you constantly had to empty and fill. They clung to you for years, and as soon as they took themselves adults, they reproduced and ruined your holidays with their offspring.
Upon returning home to Paris, Fabien receives the news that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car accident along with her married lover. Fabien is flabbergasted. While he was aware that he was having marriage problems, he had no idea that Sylvie was having an affair. After identifying Sylvie’s body, Fabien asks questions about the man who died in the car with Sylvie. He tells the police that he and the dead man are, after all, “sort of related now.”
Exactly why does Fabien track down and proceed to stalk, Martine, the frail, shy woman married to Sylvie’s dead lover? Is he curious? Does he seek revenge? Does he think he has some sort of ‘right’ to Martine in a spoils-of-war mentality? Or is it just that he has nothing better to do? Why is he so obsessed with this mouse?
the other man’s wife looked singularly uninteresting, She was a pale blonde of about thirty, with staring blue eyes, practically no lips, and dressed in navy and beige. She looked like an overexposed photo, with so little presence that one wondered if she was capable of casting a shadow.
Martine may be a widow, but she has a constant companion, Madeleine–a “muscular fifty-year-old with the sharp eye of a bodyguard,”–the keeper of her figurative chastity belt. Fabien stalks the two women, waiting for his opportunity to approach Martine without her duenna/bodyguard, and when he discovers that the two women are planning a holiday in Majorca, he decides to follow them….
This is a scenario that’s ripe for various unfolding disasters, but that’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss. I’ll add another long quote, however, from the section describing Fabien’s chaotic living arrangements with his friend Gilles. Fabien, claiming to “feel nothing,” can’t stand being in his own apartment surrounded by Sylvie’s things, so he moves in with the divorced Gilles, whose wife Fanchon has moved out, taking most of the furniture and leaving the fridge, the TV and the stove. The place looks like it’s been burgled. Gilles, who’s unemployed, sits around smoking Columbian weed, and shares custody of his small son with his ex-wife. Fabien fits right in with the chaos surrounding Gilles:
An open space filled with toys and smoke. Fabien decided he liked the new décor. After half an hour neither of them were giving a thought to their pitiful status as abandoned males. They were on all fours on the carpet building a dream Lego city and arguing over the bricks.
‘No! You can’t have the chimney. I need all the chimneys! It’s for a reception area for Santa Clauses. Don’t you get it?’
‘Ok, but pass me the red staircase; everything in the temple has to be red.’
Why did no one ever point out the delights of unemployment? Whilst everyone else was dashing about, coming and going, bent under the weight of their responsibilities and worries, two middle-aged mates, one widowed, one divorced, were happily playing Lego at four o’clock on a weekday afternoon.
“Gilles, can you hear animal scrabblings in the kitchen?’
‘That’s Casimir. The stupid bitch took the hamster cage without noticing that he wasn’t inside. I’ve bunged him in the oven in the meantime. Otherwise he eats everything.’
Something approaching life began to flow in Fabien’s veins.
In Emma’s review, she mentioned that ‘The Front Seat Passenger’ translates to La Place du Mort: the deadman’s place/seat. Here taking that seat in a car is called ‘riding shotgun.’ It’s strange, but both of those phrases: deadman’s place and ‘riding shotgun’ can be applied to the plot.
This is now the fourth novel I’ve read by Garnier, and once again I’ll urge any fans of Jean-Patrick Manchette to check out Garnier. Garnier has the blacker, nastier sense of humour, but there are many connections between these two French crime writers–brevity, energy, irony, attitude towards the bourgeoisie, and the sucker punch of characters who find others more violently explosive or more unpredictably psycho than themselves. And for anyone interested, here’s my order of preference for Garnier so far:
How’s the Pain? (very closely tied with) The Front Seat Passenger
Review copy/own a copy
Translated by Jane Aitken