All the time I spent reading "Undercurrents" I struggled with defining for myself the constituent parts of what I would say comprise a literary novel (so unsatisfying was the reading experience, so demanding of a reason for that dissatisfaction). I would define a literary novel as a novel in which the author is overly concerned with the order of words. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. For example, a splendid vocabulary can enhance a good story (it's the vegetables to the meat, as it were). At the same time, it can work to a book's detriment: words can get in the way (I can think of at least two books I've read in the last six months - Ali Smith's "Hotel World", Don Delillo's "The Body Artist" - that can serve as good examples), such that the book - as an experience to thrill at over the course of page one to whatever - is akin to watching aphids skirt around in circles on the surface of some scummy pond. You can see what they are up to but there is not much reason to stick around.
What I'm saying is: there are good literary novels and bad literary novels; the word "literary" can be perjorative as well as complimentary. Good literary novels (such as Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" and Zadie Smith's "White Teeth") can dazzle you with a kind of expertise (look how much I know, see what I can make language do) without getting in the way of the fact that - hey, there are people here I'm interested in, you've got my attention due to the fact that you have created an interesting place for me the reader to spend my time.
"Undercurrents" - like "Hotel World", like "The Body Artist" - is not a good literary novel.
The premise is not bad. Like Darrieussecq's previous novels (the wonderful, Kafkaesque "Pig Tales", the squib that was "Phantom Husband"), the story is rooted in the idea of identity: what happens when your life changes forever. On this occasion, a woman driving her child home from the child's grandmother's house decides not to go home. She withdraws all of the money from the joint account she shares with her husband and disappears, heading to Spain but holing up in a French seaside town just shy of the Spanish border. The woman and the child are observed - by the owner of the flat the woman lets, by a lifeguard called Patrick and by a detective hired by her husband to track her and the child down. The narration - what actual narration there is, in terms of moving the story along from point A to point B - is spread diffusely between the mother, the child, the child's grandmother, the landlord and the detective. Aside from Patrick, nobody is named. This feels crucial. Nameless, these shallow characters skit about, aimlessly reflecting upon the actions of others without - and, again, this is crucial to the great lack at the book's centre - reflecting upon their own actions. The mother does not wonder - or attempt to explain - why she did what she did. The child does not really miss her father. The detective appears to be a little remiss, but - so what? Who are these people? Why should we care? No reason.
The grandmother thinks about television programmes and trips taken with the child to observe archeological sites. The child observes the sea. The mother spends time - more time than you would believe - thinking about the straps at the back of her summer dress, the only dress she has with her, the dress she washes each and every night to wear again the next day. There is (or there may be) a minor dalliance with Patrick. It isn't always clear - metaphor imposes at the point when a reader demands statement of fact (when a reader asks themself: what is happening here?). Metaphor obscures the knowledge you need to perceive what is going on. It's frustrating.
So: what happens is this: you read and attempt to get beneath the skin of what precisely is happening. You are deftly deflected, thwarted time after time, in your purpose. By the last chapter, you want to scream (you want to hold the book under the water, not caring if it can breathe or not, just wanting the whole thing to be rendered somehow, made obsolete, taken from view).
It seems to me, in conclusion, that whatever made "Pig Tales" great, whatever Darrieussecq tapped into to produce that book, lessens with each successive work, like "Pig Tales" was the tolling of a wicked loud bell (clanging: here I am, new talent everybody) and "Phantom Husband" and "Undercurrents" are merely echoes of that first clap, reflections of something that - briefly - seemed interesting and turned out not to be.