Rouler put me face to face with a character that I couldn’t stand, and yet Oster’s writing is so enjoyable that I couldn’t stop reading. The premise is not uncommon: a man suffers a difficult emotional experience, gets in his car, gets on the road, and starts driving with no destination in mind. The problem, in this case, is that Jean, the narrator who has taken to the road, can’t really tolerate the uncertainties of what he’s doing, and makes himself and his various companions miserable throughout the entire journey.
In many ways the novel reads like an exploration of masculinity, and the glimpse that it provides is unflattering. Jean seeks to be impulsive, spontaneous, and irresponsible, but he constantly slips into small-minded worrying, scolding, and and self-doubt. Even his actions that look free-spirited are actually signs that he has worked himself into an inner turmoil of feeling obligated to do something that he finds utterly distasteful. At a gas station, for instance, he offers to drop a couple of hitchhikers at a nearby town–not because he wants to help them, but because he’s afraid they’ll ask him to take them much further, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to refuse. He immediately begrudges their carefree mentality, becoming a scolding father-type figure rather than opening himself up to any new experiences. When the hitchhikers convince him to stop near a stream so that they can swim, he stubbornly refuses to go with them–even though he is hot, uncomfortable, and wants nothing more than to jump in the water. Throughout his travels, Jean puts himself into situations like this, hurting nobody but himself and for no reason other than a vague distaste for his own decision-making.
An encounter with an old high school friend of his perfectly illustrates Jean’s entrapment within himself. After encountering the friend, Fred, while approaching a hotel in Arles, Jean wants only to avoid having to spend time with him; rather than politely decline an invitation, though, he launches into a needless sequence of lies that don’t even maintain an internal logic. Unable to properly turn down the offer, Jean ends up following Fred and intentionally losing him–but then regrets it, and can’t stand either the thought of going back to Arles or arriving already in Marseille, and spends the night in his car before arriving at Fred’s bed and breakfast in a terribly awkward scene the next morning. This kind of things happens throughout the book: Jean traps himself in sequences that he could easily stop or change, but instead he ends up playing them out to their uncomfortable conclusions.
It’s not the road itself that seems to draw Jean, as he doesn’t especially like being there. He does, however, value the idea of it, and he hangs onto a rough goal of reaching Marseille–as long as he doesn’t arrive there too quickly. He wants to have everything before him and nothing behind him, and it’s clear that this desire has to do with his constant regret over decisions made. Once he reaches Marseilles, then, even that goal will be behind him, and he will have nothing to do but look back on his experiences, and return to his life in Paris.
Eventually and surprisingly, Jean is able to escape from the cycle of obligation and regret that he puts himself through, and the end of the book reads like a sort of redemption. At the bed and breakfast that he never wanted to visit in the first place, and where he oversteps his welcome with the host couple, Jean manages to make a genuine connection with a fellow guest. The guest, elderly André Ségustat, is gruff and distant with most of the others at the bed and breakfast, yet mysteriously allows himself to be vulnerable with Jean. Ségustat makes it possible for Jean to be useful in a small but meaningful way, which is enough for Jean to shed his self-protective stance that does him so little good.
I didn’t expect the turnaround, and while I was relieved to see Jean finally stop making himself and everyone around him miserable, the change happened a little too quickly to feel natural. Still, Oster’s insightful look into a difficult character is wonderfully written, and while it may not be my favorite of Oster’s novels (I still prefer both Mon grand appartement and Une femme de ménage), Rouler is well worth a read.