The Unforeseen BY Christian Oster. edited by Adriana Hunter. Other Press. Paperback, 264 pages. $13.

The cover of The Unforeseen

Among the pleasures to be found in reading Christian Oster’s books, surprise may not numbered. The unnamed protagonist of his new novel, The Unforeseen, will be all too familiar to readers of his other works in English—this is the third of his eight novels to be translated from the French. Like the narrators of A Cleaning Woman (2001) and My Big Apartment (which won the 1999 Medicis Prize), this one is a neurotic. Like them, he is a lonely Parisian of indeterminate white-collar employment; like them, he must recover from a romance that has gone sour for no particular reason. Like them, he meets a new woman; like them, he takes a trip out of Paris. His story, like theirs, ends on a note of hope and resignation. Oster does stick to his pattern.

He’s not alone. Many writers—Updike, Hemingway, and Roth among them— habitually return to a crisis and search it for new meaning. (Perhaps something in male crises requires continued attention.) In Oster’s hands, repeated themes of alienation and loss are handled through unadorned though melancholy prose to create something of a new genre: neurotic fiction. A magnifying glass isn’t good enough for his self-obsessed narrators— they need a microscope. Emotionally crippled, they are unable to make the smallest choices. Bounced back and forth like so many cosmic pinballs, they are directed through the world by the batterings of strangers.

The Unforeseen begins with our protagonist and his girlfriend, Laure, en route to a friend’s fiftieth birthday party, a trip that should take them from Paris to the island of Braz. In the car, however, Laure’s cold mutates into a nasty flu, and the two check in to a hotel. She asks him to sleep in another room. (After living inside his head for the duration of the novel, I can’t say I blame her: “I was thinking about Laure,” he says at one point, “or I should say about me.”) The next morning, she insists he go on to the party without her, but with one catch—he must leave the car behind. Forced to try his hand at hitchhiking, he winds up at a birthday party, but not at all the one he was meant to attend.

“I had not chosen anything, in fact,” he thinks at the party, where he, too, falls ill. “Nothing at all. I was there by chance, if you want to call it chance that sometimes propels our lives when they run away with us, in which case chance would be, at worst, a sort of letting go—I am prepared to admit that I was letting myself go a bit, yes, but I fail to see how I could have taken any initiative in the situation, particularly as no one was expecting anything of me and, to be honest, I did not need anything either, except from Laure.” The sentence, like many of the interior monologues, gathers steam for another five lines.

In this world of not choosing, people are brought together under unusual circumstances— as roommates, lovers, birthing partners, guests. Even though the narrator insists on completing the trip to Braz, he does so less for friendship and more to have some goal to attain before returning to Laure. His meaningfully named hosts, the Traverses, welcome him with compassion and hospitality, opening the possibility for intimacy, for catharsis, but as the hours pass, everyone, including the narrator, has a hard time justifying why he has lingered so long. The mood turns. “Gilles and Hélène were annoying,” he thinks. “I probably was too, but that was not the point.”

Even if this man is annoying, Oster’s writing nonetheless soothes us, carrying the protagonist’s neuroses pleasantly along. The novelist pokes fun at him but remains sympathetic. And when the worrying becomes tiresome, a little humor bursts through, as when the narrator returns to the hotel with Gilles’s car to look for Laure. She is gone, so he talks with the hotelier and his wife: “She came over to join us and all three of us stood in the foyer, without witnesses—I could just as easily have killed them, it was too many people to talk to, suddenly, too much concern, I felt a searing desire to be with myself again, to erase these people standing facing me like a sub-clause, because they were the sub-clause, not me, even their hotel was just a sub-clause, a hiatus in time with a blurred interior, unworkable.”

This sudden panic is slyly self-aware; he is in agony, but it might make you laugh. Ultimately, Oster writes existential comedies, quest stories without heroes. His protagonist is floundering, out of place, ruthlessly truthful, blank, and absurd—and the effect is very entertaining. He needs other people, “sub-clause” or no, to get by. Accordingly, he doesn’t follow Laure but goes where he is anticipated: “Not for a moment did I think of trying to catch up with her. Of leaving the Traverses in the lurch. With their car. And their cake. And me, even. They were expecting me.” But how easily need becomes manipulation. Leaving a party with a woman who has offered to drive him to Braz, he falls, and his injury dominates their trip. “I felt a ridiculous omnipotence,” he thinks of his helpless state.

Oster’s plots flirt with our incredulity. Would a sultry young housekeeper really move in with her middle-aged employer, as happens in A Cleaning Woman? Is it possible a woman could never have gotten a cold before, as we are asked to believe in The Unforeseen? Would anyone really want a man she has known for two days to be witness to her child’s birth, as happens in My Big Apartment? It’s no shock that what I will kindly call the implausible element is located in Oster’s female characters—men often write paper-thin women who exist to catalyze male development. Tellingly, in Oster’s world, they don’t trigger male growth, but anxiety. The drama consists not in resolving this anxiety, but in surviving it.

When the hitchhiker finally arrives at his friend’s home in Braz, what he finds is not at all what he expected. He hasn’t changed, but neither has he been defeated. The novel ends, a little cutely, with another stranger. What does she want to know? His name.

Christine Smallwood is assistant literary editor at The Nation and a founding editor of The Crier magazine.