In Zazie in the Metro, Raymond Queneau presents a world of apparent meaninglessness, a world opposed to authority of any variety, where death is devoid of meaning and where one value is as fine as another. His characters are not constructed of many facets, but simply there. They are given substance by the incongruous but dominant traits manifested in the here and now of the novel. These traits can be neither disputed nor discussed in terms of cause and effect. Much of the humor of the novel derives from the words themselves: puns, allusions of all sorts, Parisian street language, sexual insults with myriad implications. Queneau attacks both the rigidity of written French and the narrow-minded prudery of bourgeois society.
The action of the novel is circular: Zazie arrives in Paris by train, stays with her uncle, Gabriel, and departs from Paris thirty-six hours later. Zazie’s one goal before her arrival has been to ride the metro, but the metro is shut down because of a strike.
The world of this novel unites the Paris that tourists see, such as the Eiffel Tower, with the underground Paris of street-smart denizens who take over the city after dark. Queneau’s vital linguistic world serves to create a mood or atmosphere in which the characters and their actions are less significant than the manner in which they are described. Hence, Zazie in the Metro is a farcical comedy, using constant reversals of language, of situation, and of identity—usually sexual identity—as sources of humor. Finally, it is clear that Queneau’s farce demonstrates the idiocy of assigning personality traits to individuals on the basis of gender.
The plot, such as it is, focuses on a young girl, Zazie, who has been left with her uncle so that her mother can pursue her Parisian lover. Because Gabriel works at night, Zazie is left alone in the morning while he sleeps. Gabriel’s landlord, Turandot, sees her in the street and tries to stop her from exploring Paris alone. Zazie, however, manipulates the assembled crowd, telling them that he is trying to make her do unspeakable things. Turandot is nearly lynched and only with difficulty sneaks back to his own turf.
Zazie is soon approached by a man who feeds her and speaks of blue jeans; while she does not trust him, she desperately wants “blewgenes,” which the man buys for her. When Zazie takes the package of jeans and tries to elude the man, he beats her at her own game. Before she can tell a new crowd that he is trying to molest her, the man tells them that Zazie is a thief, and everyone carries on about the sanctity of property.
Believing that the man is a policeman, Zazie lets him take her back to Gabriel’s apartment. When the man, Pedro-surplus (also known as Trouscaillon, among other names), accuses Gabriel of being a “hormosessual"and is rude to Gabriel’s wife, Marceline, Gabriel throws him into the trash.Zazie’s aroused curiosity continues through the remainder of the book: Is Gabriel a homosexual? What is a homosexual?
Wanting to show Paris to Zazie, Gabriel—by means of his brother-in-law, Charles, and Charles’s taxi—takes her to the Eiffel Tower. While Zazie and Charles are above, Gabriel becomes the admired idol of a group of tourists below. Eventually, Gabriel has the tourists change their itinerary to eat at the Spheroid Brasserie, a tourist trap, and to come to the Mount of Venus to see him perform the “dying swan” as Gabriella. Fyodor Balanovitch, the official guide who is supposed to have his tourists in Gibraltar by the next day, is also...
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aware of the profit to be made from the tourists who have been beguiled by Gabriel. The tourists, who have an incredible command of esoteric languages but few wits, are happily treated to all the horrors of which tourists in France have complained: being cheated, lied to, and insulted.
Around uncle and niece, other characters inexplicably collect, such as the Widow Mouaque, who, with a private income, has no occupation and who becomes obsessed with Trouscaillon. Trouscaillon, who knows that he can have the Widow on his terms, goes back to Gabriel’s apartment as Bertin Poiree and attempts gracelessly to rape Marceline. A transvestite Pied Piper, Gabriel brings not only the tourists but also his friends—including Turandot’s parrot—to the Mount of Venus. Gabriel’s only disappointment with his performance is that Marceline is not there to admire him.
From the nightclub, Gabriel and his entourage go to the Queen of Night for onion soup. An all-out brawl develops between Gabriel’s company and the waiters. Gabriel’s side is victorious, but armed agents (authorities of order are never good in this novel) descend on the restaurant. The Widow is fatally shot—in spite of her private income. Gabriel and his friends are miraculously lowered on a lift to the basement of the Queen of Night and directed through the sewers to the just reopened metro, where they separate to take different lines. Although Zazie is finally on the metro, she is unconscious, asleep in Gabriel’s arms.
Marceline, the lowerer of the lift, has brought Zazie’s suitcase and takes Zazie from Gabriel to deliver her to her mother at the train station. Only at this moment does the reader learn that Marceline is actually Marcel. This reversal of the sexual identity of Gabriel’s spouse exemplifies Queneau’s determination to keep the reader—or viewer, in this cinematic novel—from believing that appearance is reality or that there is an explanation for reality. The attempted rape of Marceline and the death of the Widow in the riot shock the reader, but, in Queneau’s world, violence and death are facts without meaning.