by Russ Rymer
Reviewed by Gabrielle Bellot
The allure of Paris for certain Americans is a phenomenon well-known-enough by now to be a kind of American cultural meme, one dating back long before the nineteenth century—and one that keeps cropping up in this century. There is, for instance, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris—a name Russ Rymer’s first novel faintly echoes—which features an American writer, Gil Pender, quite literally walking through the 1920s Paris of his idealistic dreams. Then, there is American historian David McCullough’s The Greater Journey from 2011, the same year Allen’s film was released; Cullough’s text is an anecdotal study entirely devoted to the very phenomenon of Americans having been drawn to France’s capital in the nineteenth century, as the romanticized city held for many of these pioneering Americans a sense—at times not unfounded—of being at the apex of cultural and artistic significance. The city, and its language by extension, still often holds a powerful grip on certain individuals, and it is here—in a Paris of the late twentieth century that is at once real and idealized—that we find ourselves in Russ Rymer’s ambitious, at times beautiful, but ultimately disjointed, debut novel.
And the novel is certainly ambitious. It follows Matilde, an orphaned American cardiac anesthesiologist who has returned to Paris in the winter of 1990 to participate in a mysterious heart transplant as a member of a small medical team, the only fellow member of whom she knows is a rival and one-time lover from medical school named Willem. Who the patient is, who will be donating the heart, and how the surgery’s strings are being held is a mystery that Rymer deftly slowly unfolds, all the while another significant thread is unfolding—that of the identity of the also enigmatic Byron M. Saxe, a deceased individual who has, with no clear relation to Matilde, left his living space and belongings to her. Matilde becomes involved in a wide-ranging detective tale of sorts to track down who Saxe is, all of which is entwined with Corie, a girl that Matilde fittingly almost crashes into early in the novel; Corie is a young political activist and scholar and archivist of Saxe’s correspondence, and while she and Matilde soon become almost like sisters, Matilde quickly finds herself entwined with Corie in another way, as Corie’s political affiliations begin to entail that there are dangerous men following her—and Matilde by extension. Our American protagonist also meets the again-mysterious figure of Emil Sahran, a suave figure from a “haute Paris family of North African descent,” is heading the heart transplant operation; Matilde soon learns that the patient is none other than his long-suffering and beloved sister, and it is not long before Matilde—who has begun the novel with an address to a former lover named Daniel—falls into a passionate affair with Sahran. While all of this goes on, there is the intermittently mentioned threat of distant violence from protests against the Gulf War, a threat mirrored in the correspondence between Carlos and Alba that Corie is investigating, which takes place during the Second World War between Franco’s fascist Spain and France. All of this is set against the narrative backdrop of Matilde’s memories of Daniel and her parents; indeed, she at times addresses Daniel directly. It is not hard for a reader to begin making certain connections in this novel: Matilde’s mysterious parents, Matilde as a heart anesthesiologist trying to find love, protests present with protests past.
It’s quite a bit for Rymer’s novel to try to accomplish, and unfortunately the book cannot perfectly hold up all of its narrative pieces. Its address to Daniel, for instance, is a technique that often feels simply tacked-on here, as if merely a way for the novel to appear more “complex” stylistically. While Daniel’s relationship with Matilde in the past is at times full of beautiful and poignant imagery, Daniel himself and the direct address often simply fade away and become jarring when they recur. The Gulf War, too, often feels so distant in this novel that it at times feels tacked-on itself, as though a political event were merely added to the novel in an attempt to make it seem “political”; there is a distance here from the reality of the protests or the war, even just a distance from their presence on the page, that makes them feel incidental, even when Corie, the primary link in the novel to the Gulf War protests, is on stage. While distance and closeness are important themes throughout the novel—Matilde often beautifully reflects on the role of the cardiac anesthesiologist, a figure who is at once very near to and far from patients—it is hard not to feel that these elements in the novel are too disjointed, are not present enough. And the novel occasionally struggles to leap from each narrative thread to the other.
Then there are the characters themselves and the language they use. That Matilde will fulfill the trope of the romanticizing Francophile American is a danger that Paris Twilight neither ever fully succumbs to nor leaves behind. The novel, for instance, is sprinkled with French phrases that, at times, simply but skillfully convey an atmosphere inexpressible in English; many other times, however, our narrator throws in French words seemingly only because she would like to rather than out of any narrative necessity, a persistent trait that creates a kind of faux ambience and that makes her at times seem dilettantish or difficult to take seriously. Matilde throws in phrases like “artistes du moment” or “vedette Hemingway and (writer) Andre Malraux” that do not need to be there; beyond this, the parenthetical insertion of “writer” is an insult to either the intelligence of a reader or the ability of said reader to look something up. Here, unfortunately, is the trope of romanticized Paris in un-ironic action.
And all this leads into a larger problem of tone and world. The world of Paris Twilight is at once real and disarmingly cartoonish, unable to toe a consistent tonal line throughout. The many small moments in which this occurs quickly accrete, building into a sense that Rymer does not trust his readers to at times grasp basic information and that the novel does not always know what it wants to be. Paris Twilight wants us to believe in the significance of the political protests that hover intermittently in the background, yet they feel tacked-on in so many ways—except that it is these protests that deliver Corie into the narrative and that attempt to link the present-day story with the letters that Matilde and Corie will try to decode. The real danger of a group of political thugs entering Corie’s living space at one point in the novel is tempered when one of the thugs, upon hearing noises and exiting from the apartment in fear that the police have arrived, loudly growls “Flics” (which Matilde translates as “cops”), then says “Fuckin’ merde” as he walks out with the others, an utterance that comes as if for the first time when all of the group members already clearly know why they are fleeing—and, beyond this, the ponytailed thug has said this loud enough for the narrator to hear, patently unconcerned about the “cops” he is fleeing hearing him. The mix of French and English in dialogue like this that presumably takes place in French is bizarre but not uncommon in the novel. Moreover, there is a kind of cheesiness to this moment, while somewhat forgivable for the 1990s setting of the novel, nonetheless feels off-kilter. At the frequent moments like this, the novel not only loses some sense of verisimilitude but seems to underestimate the reader’s intelligence. In another moment, Matilde describes throwing an “unironic punch,” clearly unwilling to believe the reader will realize the un-ironic-ness of said punch. These are not quibbles; these are examples of a too-frequent phenomenon that underscores deeper tonal issues in this book.
But this is also a book that is often beautiful. Rymer’s prose, at its best, is an elegant joy to read. And when we begin to see the closer connections between Saxe, Corie, and Matilde, and when the heart operation’s donating patient is finally and quietly revealed, the book is one that can be hard to put down. Rymer’s debut novel, while flawed, showcases a major stylist at work; here is a writer who has gorgeously anatomized, quite literally, what it means to be alive. Problems despite, it is a bit of a duller and darker twilight, indeed, when we turn the final page of this ambitious new book. Some sutures may be in need here, but Rymer is certainly a novelist to keep an eye on.
Gabrielle Bellot, who also writes under J. Bellot, holds an MFA from Florida State University, where she is currently pursuing her PhD in Fiction. Her work has appeared in The New Humanism, Small Axe, Transnational Literature, BIM: Arts for the 21st Century, Belletrist Coterie, and in other journals. She was born in 1987 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has lived since the age of nine in the Commonwealth of Dominica, where she is a member of a committee for the Nature Island Literary Festival. She is working on her first novel.