Review: We Three by Jean Echenoz

At first glance “We Three” by Jean Echenoz, recently translated from the French by Jesse Anderson, is an adventure novel: a car explodes; there’s a devastating earthquake; a mission into space. Or it’s a love story, as two men rival for one woman’s affections. But really the short book is a demonstration of one of France’s most decorated literary talents having fun with form and convention, as he turns the act of reading the novel into the central adventure.

I’ll explain. The novel starts with Louis Meyer, a divorced aerospace engineer setting off on a much-needed Mediterranean vacation to Marseilles. While traveling, he saves an attractive unnamed woman from an explosion, and once in Marseilles they survive a terrifying elevator drop during a record earthquake. The action of Meyer’s narrative is interrupted sporadically by astronaut DeMilo’s first person account of, well, nothing in particular: his observations of the sky from his apartment; his daily workout routine; his visits with his friend, Max, an artist. With a narrator so separate from the other characters, Echenoz leaves the responsibility of connecting and interpreting the novel’s odd turns up to the reader — making for a strangely exhilarating reading experience.

We make what we will, then, of the small scenes of Meyer in Paris, shopping and visiting graves with his mother; we think nothing, or everything, of the novel changing course in the middle when Meyer is invited on a manned space flight; we swoon or skim over the reoccurring meditations on fear, a sensation which “Meyer feels arise in his body, in the shape of a crab.”

Echenoz approaches writing like an explorer: not content with what is known, he sets his sights on the horizon, shaking off the dust and confines of what is known in search of a new way. Reading “We Three,” then, is not for the conventional, not for the faint of heart. But for those who commit to the journey the reward is something extraordinary — something out of this world.