So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano
2014 Nobel Prizewinner Patrick Modiano’s So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood is a curious novella that subverts the noir genre with a story more about narrative and memory than any specific mystery. When Jean Daragane gets an intrusive phone call from a gambler named Gilles Ottolini who claims he found Daragane’s address book, Daragane derails his quiet solitary life in search of a shared mystery buried somewhere in his past.
Modiano starts his short novel with “almost nothing,” “like an insect bite that strikes you as very slight.” The reader must feel their way through the narrative darkness and piece together a scene with what few details Modiano feels like offering. He begins his mystery with a phone call and asks not just who is calling but who the receiver, Jean Daragane, really is.
Immediately one begins to grapple with a complicated meta-mystery: it seems So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood is being shaped in a way by Ottolini’s inquiries. He’s interested in a name he found in Daragane’s address book, a man named Guy Torstel who was also featured in one of Daragane’s early novels, Le Noir de l’été. But “Daragane had no memory of it. Nor of the rest of the book, for that matter.” Suddenly, due to Ottolini’s nosiness, Daragane takes shape: he’s got a past, and a present: he’s a writer with a history of acquaintances and memories faded like a “mist that dissipated in the sunlight.”
Ottolini and his partner Chantal Grippay continue to pester Daragane for any leads on tracking Torstel down, but Daragane is already lost in reminiscence. Le Noir de l’été, written 15 years ago, is intimately influenced by events from his childhood and Daragane must mine those depths to make any sense of what’s going on. Here Modiano tackles a very tricky tripartite timeline, using a dossier of clues from Ottolini and Grippay to spark memories from the time of Le Noir de l’été‘s publication and whatever he suppressed from when he was a kid. It’s difficult to track but intentionally so. From late in the novel, during another scene of Daragane researching his files:
“In the end, he decided to take advantage of the silence of the night to reread all the pages of the ‘dossier’ for one last time. But no sooner had he started his reading than he experienced an unpleasant sensation: the sentences became muddled and other sentences suddenly appeared that overlaid previous ones and disappeared without giving him time to decipher them. He was confronted with a palimpsest in which all the various writings were jumbled together and superimposed…”
Much of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood has the same effect, and while this is clearly Modiano’s plan, Daragane’s weariness is contagious and makes the novella somewhat difficult to endure.
Modiano has effortlessly created a reading experience that mimics the excitement and frustration of his protagonist, but for what purpose? Perhaps a greater statement about reading is afoot: why do we read anything but to learn about ourselves, to find clues to illuminate hidden pockets of memories and associations? And perhaps writers write for a similar reason: in his musings on Le noir de l’été, Daragane recalls:
“Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves.”
While there may not be an encrypted message for everyone in So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, Modiano’s crafted a powerful little experiment about self-reflection and searching for some hidden resonance. It is a book to get lost in with a plot to lose, and potentially capable of revealing something unsuspectingly profound.