Linguistic Locations in Orbit

Maxwell Donnewald’s ‘The Indescribably Real’ has been on my mind for a few days now, ever since it went online at Full Stop. Essentially a lengthy review of Atticus Lish’s debut novel, Preparations for the Next Life, it pits Lish against Karl Ove Knausgaard and mounts a defense of Lish’s more conventionally realist aesthetics against certain admirers of Knausgaard who have celebrated My Struggle as an antidote to Lish’s brand of “fiction fiction, organized around characters who don’t actually exist.” What’s interesting about Donnewald’s essay, however, has less to do with the conclusions he reaches than with the path he follows in order to reach them. Donnewald basically takes William H. Gass’ stridently anti-realist, anti-humanist definition of “character” and then reads it into Preparations for the Next Life in a way that allows him to use Lish’s characters as ciphers for a narrative structure that he finds aesthetically rewarding. “A character for me,” Gass once said in conversation with John Gardner,

is any linguistic location in a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence, say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy — other characters — which the words in a book flow toward and come out of.

Donnewald’s praise for Preparations hinges on Lish’s use of these “subordinate locales of linguistic energy” as modifiers for the “linguistic location[s]” otherwise known as his main characters. In order to describe and define Lish’s approach, Donnewald turns to the language of astronomy to appropriate the notion of the “barycenter”:

Representations of the solar system often depict a planet’s moons as though they twirl around their host like a ball around the center of a roulette wheel, conquered by the larger’s mass. The planet itself appears fixed in its steady arc, and all the smaller stuff just buzzes around. But this is a fiction. Hubble observations of Pluto in 2006, which led to its reclassification as a dwarf-planet, showed it wobbling with its moons around an empty space, the center of mass of a system of celestial objects in which it simply happens to be the largest. Despite its relative size, the gravitational center of Pluto’s trajectory is dislodged by its satellites outside its body. In truth, any object hosting the orbit of another is engaged in a dance like this, even in cases where the difference in mass is quite large. The earth too, entangled with the gravity of its moon, rotates around a barycenter, as it’s called in astronomy, a few thousand miles off-center. It’s just that, from here on land, it doesn’t look that way. In contrast to the epic formula of Knausgaard, where motives are exhaustively laid bare, such that characters surrounding the author are either entirely present or altogether absent in their influence, there is an oppositional manner of composing realities, in which even if a character is missing from a certain scene, as Auerbach notes, “the influence of his will and his feelings continues to operate.” In such a world, the trajectory of any one character, however prominent, never escapes being warped by the gravity of another. Even if, as in Preparation for the Next Life, these background figures are no longer alive. Just as marginalization cannot reduce them to zeroes, neither do destruction and disappearance — [Brandon] Skinner’s friend Sconyers, mortally injured in the same blast which leaves Skinner permanently disfigured, and Zou Lei’s father, whose life is mysteriously sacrificed in “a war to modernize” for the Chinese military, haunt the story constantly. And likewise, with this remainder of narrative mass looming in the background, no one ever quite manages to take charge of events. The weightless occasionally flicker into form, and so too are the main actors subject to sudden disappearance. Nothing can be traced independently, disentangled from its distorting factors. A continuous self, around which all events are organized, is impossible in this reality.

I’m not sure that this alone invests Preparations for the Next Life with as much aesthetic value as extraordinary as its admirers say it possesses, but it at least allows Donnewald to read the novel in a way that departs provocatively from those who have hailed Lish’s mastery of realism as sufficient grounds on which to celebrate his work.

Infiltrations, Translations

[W]hen she’s asleep he likes to sit down beside her bed and make one further attempt to get to the bottom of what has seemed to him the greatest riddle in all the history of mankind: how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature — such as war, famine, or even a civil servant’s salary that fails to increase along with the galloping inflation — can infiltrate a private face. Here they turn a few hairs gray, there devour a pair of lovely cheeks until the skin is stretched taut across angular jawbones; the secession of Hungary, say, might result in a pair of lips bitten raw in the case of one particular woman, perhaps even his own wife. In other words, there is a constant translation between far outside and deep within, it’s just that a different vocabulary exists for each of us, which no doubt explains why it’s never been noticed that this is a language in the first place — and in fact, the only language valid across the world and for all time. If a person were to study a sufficient number of faces, he would surely be able to observe wrinkles, twitching eyelids, lustreless teeth, and draw conclusions about the death of a Kaiser, unjust reparations payments, or a stabilizing social democracy.

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (translated by Susan Bernofsky)

Starvation and Starscapes

I found my way to Binary Star, the debut novel of Sarah Gerard, through the author’s recent critical work on Hilda Hilst. Publishing an essay on Hilst in the Los Angeles Review of Books and taking the lead on a roundtable discussion in Music and Literature, Gerard caught my eye as someone prepared to venture out to provocative, challenging places in the pages of her own fiction. The subject matter of Binary Star only confirmed this impression. Based closely on the author’s experiences with a severe eating disorder, the novel introduces a young bulimic woman and charts the dissolution of her disastrous romance with an abusive boyfriend. It begins with a road trip devoid of any sense of direction and destination, then it swerves into drug and alcohol addiction, sadomasochism, and the ethics of doing violence to creatures of flesh and blood. Given that its narrator wrestles painfully with bulimia, there’s a temptation to say that Gerard simply refracts these other forms of bodily harm through the mindset of the bulimic. But since the narrator devotes so much of her attention to the anarchist politics of her boyfriend and the cultural maladies that ignite his indignation, it’s more accurate to say that Gerard’s true interest is the mindset of the obsessive, broadly conceived, and that the narrator and her boyfriend are possessed of variations on this mindset.

Binary Star is in many ways admirable,” Dan Green concludes in his review of the novel, “although more in the way of a good deed performed well than as a flash of artistic brilliance.” I agree with that judgment and share the sense of disappointment it entails. The shame of it is that Gerard equips Binary Star with qualities of artistic distinction and the building blocks of something brilliant, but her stance towards her own material is finally too conservative to allow her to unleash its potential. Comprised of sharp declarative statements that cumulatively advance a rhythm of unrelenting, oppressive insistence, the novel stylistically asserts the confidence and certitude of a narrator whose disclosures repeatedly give voice to self-doubt, insecurity, and increasing desperation. And yet despite the focused concision of its every sentence, and despite the intriguing tension between the substance of those sentences and their stylistic gloss, the novel runs to an excessive length. Clocking in at 166 pages, it offers little that couldn’t have been offered in half as many.

I mean that in quite a literal sense, since Binary Star is structured in a way that leaves a good portion of the prose superfluous. Perhaps the novel’s most innovative feature is the narrator’s extensive recourse to an astronomical lexicon in an effort to articulate human interactions and experiences. As a graduate student and lecturer in the field of astronomy, the narrator repeatedly turns her gaze skyward to disclose her knowledge of celestial phenomena in a way that refers and corresponds to the turmoils of her life. She and her boyfriend correspond to a binary star system in which two stars in orbital proximity gravitate towards each other and collide with catastrophic results. She purges herself of nutrition to accentuate her beauty, corresponding herself to a nova burning brighter the closer it comes to exhausting its fuel supply — although she neglects to notice that, for human beings, starvation entails an agonising death and not a dazzling glory. In one way or another, the vocabulary of the starscape is inscribed throughout the narrator’s writing as the basis of her ability to know and express herself.

The stars in these pages therefore function as much more than simple, occasional metaphors for the narrator to elaborate on her state of mind or the state of her relationship at any given moment. She uses them to conceptualise her place in the world around her, her position in relation to others, and the general direction of the life she is leading. Ruminations on the beauty and behaviour of the stars appear on almost every page, and sometimes they even extend across several pages in succession. Indeed, altogether, they comprise perhaps one third of the novel’s total length as the narrator alternates between depicting her experiences and describing their starbound parallels. Here, however, the pattern of alternation, pursued to great lengths and adhered to inflexibly, ossifies Binary Star. Of course it is initially necessary to enable readers to become accustomed to the structure of the novel and to be guided towards understanding that, for example, the narrator’s dissection of the mechanics and movements of a binary star system is really her way of discussing the subtleties and intimacies of her relationship with her boyfriend. But because the pattern persists well beyond the point at which the narrator has established the double significance of celestial bodies, the bravery she demonstrates in her difficult choice of subject and her idiosyncratic style is not strong enough for her to fully commit to the logic of her structure.

The result is a novel that disappointingly retreats from exploiting all of its structural possibilities. Gerard invests Binary Star with the potential to become something risky and radical — a novel that focuses on a narrator whose mind, body, and lover punish her on a daily basis, but also a novel that details the narrator’s trauma solely through her discussions of phenomena occurring at a vast distance from her own life — and yet this potential remains only that, exactly that, right through to the final page. Encased within Binary Star is a novel very different to the novel it becomes, a much less conventional novel that is structured into existence by an author who does not then withdraw from convention so that this other novel may exist more fully and completely. Because Gerard holds the hands of her readers for the duration of Binary Star, because she does not set them free to inhabit its structure at length, she effectively neuters its early capacity for innovation. Binary Star is a feral novel forced into domestic behaviour, a novel rendered far less adventurous than it wants itself to be.

The Mathematics of Madness

“Madness” and “insanity” are the words most often deployed in descriptions of Hilda Hilst’s enigmatic novella, With My Dog-Eyes. It gives voice to “a mind unravelling,” writes Nick Lezard in The Guardian, “and through the gaps we see a horrified fascination with the body, a kind of carnal awareness of existential futility.” “[F]luid, shifting narration tells the story — if you can call it that — of mathematician and poet Amós Kéres’ descent into madness,” adds The Independent‘s Holly Williams, “mov[ing] rapidly between first person present tense, recalled memories, reported speech, and chunks of poetry; between absurdism, theory, fable and filth.” The novel “reads like a long poem,” Juan Vidal concurs in his review for NPR, “with utter insanity pervading each and every page. The vivid, disjointed prose mirrors the troubled mind of our protagonist… an expert in pure mathematics who is losing his grasp on reality.”

For me, however, the most captivating quality of With My Dog-Eyes is not the way in which Kéres’ burgeoning insanity leads his representations of events to become increasingly disjointed. That sort of thing has been done often enough before that it no longer bears remarking on. More captivating here is the way in which the novel’s structure projects a mind so fundamentally, inflexibly logical — so absolutely committed to mathematics — that when his reality begins to lose its logical underpinnings, when he ceases to grasp the causal connections between sequential experiences, Kéres mounts a resistance to insanity by seeking refuge in mathematical logic and marshalling his experiences into a form that follows its rules. Although this choice of form is to some extent suggestive of Kéres’ insanity, I was struck by how it also suggests his striving for coherence in the face of insanity — albeit a coherence that may likewise appear to be tainted by insanity insofar as the structure beneath the novella’s narrative surface is built upon an alternative to narrative logic.

“Poetry and mathematics,” Kéres muses, identifying his twin passions while recalling the onset of his insanity:

The black stone structure breaks and you see yourself in a saturation of lights, a clear-cut unhoped-for. A clear-cut unhoped-for was what he felt and understood at the top of that small hill. But he didn’t see shapes or lines, didn’t see contours or lights, he was invaded by colors, life, a flashless dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning.

Kéres suffers from this event, of course, and begins to succumb to inexplicable lapses of time. While delivering a lecture on mathematics one day, he loses his train of thought and pauses for what he believes is only an instant. Later, though, he learns that his audience watched him staring into space for fifteen minutes before he returned to the task at hand — and worse than that, several students have complained to his superiors that such events are becoming fixtures of his classes. Rather than simply detailing Kéres’ lapses of time, however, With My Dog-Eyes as a whole is structured in a way that mimics their effects. Time and again events underway are cut off and interrupted by recollections of other, unrelated events, and these interruptions are in turn interrupted by yet other events, and even these interruptions of interruptions are themselves interrupted, until the narratorial focus snaps back to one or another of the previous recollections and the events therein resume or conclude as if they weren’t interrupted at all.

Mathematical Formulae

Disjointed, perhaps, but in another sense perhaps not. Although Kéres’ experience of madness no doubt disjoints his perception of reality, his recollection and articulation of that experience rejoints his reality along apparently mathematical lines. Every interruption of an event suggests some sort of association between that which is interrupted and that which interrupts. Moreover, every conclusion to an interrupted event delineates a boundary that encases all of the event’s associated interruptions no matter how disparate they may otherwise be. As a result, although the events detailed by Kéres appear to lack coherent narrative organization because they are presented achronologically and without any evident causal connections, a closer look at their structure reveals an attempt at mathematical organization instead. Sequences of interruptions constitute something akin to mathematical sets when bound together within broader events that receive a conclusion. Other events, outside of these sets, perform the role of functions when by modifying either an entire set or one of the events within it, and still other events that interlace the sets work to establish or modify the relations between several of them.

Beyond serving as a mathematician’s account of his own descent into madness, then, With My Dog-Eyes also stands as Kéres’ attempt to reclaim his sanity by conforming his experiences to a non-narrative logic that may still enable him to make sense of them. This logic affords him a structural foundation on which to articulate his experiences and better equips him to literally commensurate the bursts of “incommensurable meaning” that afflict him. Of course, every narrative that surveys a life and takes stock of its significance is, in a sense, a narrative pegged to a mathematical formula, at least to the extent that it fixes some sort of value to the life in question by illustrating “what it all adds up to.” But while most works of that sort cleave to fairly linear formulae that are compatible with conventional narrative logic, With My Dog-Eyes employs a formula more appropriate to its narrator and his mathematical mind. The result is not the pure and simple chaos of a man’s reality falling apart: “a mind unravelling,” “a descent into madness,” “utter insanity pervading each and every page.” It is an experience of chaos relentlessly subjected to a system of order whose principles are not easily accommodated by the medium in which the experience is given expression.

How Works Works

Like many readers of Édouard Levé, I first came to his books when Dalkey Archive published English translations of Autoportrait (2002) and Suicide (2008) several years ago. But while Suicide was arguably the title that received the most attention from critics — in no small part because Levé actually committed suicide ten days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher — I was more taken with Autoportrait for reasons best articulated by Mark O’Connell at Slate:

To describe that book in basic terms is to risk making it sound outright unreadable. It’s a single paragraph, 112 pages long, consisting of a continuous sequence of short declarative sentences, each of which states some or other fact about its author, a relentlessly present “I”. … It’s grueling and madly propulsive at the same time; you kind of want him to stop just saying things about himself, but you also can’t stop reading these things that he just keeps saying. “My uncle’s friend taught me to laugh at things I saw on TV that were not, on the face of it, funny, for example Bobby Ewing’s hairstyle on Dallas,” he writes. “I have not signed a manifesto. If I turn around while looking in the mirror, there comes a moment when I no longer see myself. Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.” It goes on like this, in this arbitrarily funny and boring and horrifying way. The more it goes on, the more facts he asserts about himself, the more the referent — the autobiographical subject, Levé himself — is displaced, defined into obscurity.

“I was as transfixed by the book’s self-possessed commitment to its formal conceit as I was by its blank and pitiless gaze on the reality of pain… [its] strange combination of formal distance and emotional immediacy,” O’Connell writes of Autoportrait — although he writes those words in his review of Levé’s latest posthumous publication, Works, in order to identify the governing aesthetic of Levé’s entire oeuvre. “[T]his is the signature of Levé’s pulverized non-narratives,” he says, “this unflappable insistence on going on like this. He’s never afraid, in other words, of being boring in the service of some larger way of being interesting.”

I agree with that, and I also broadly agree with O’Connell’s assessment of Works. “Works is one of the most nakedly formalistic pieces of writing I’ve ever come across,” he writes:

The book as a whole is usefully encapsulated in its opening sentence, which is the first of 533 descriptions of ideas for artistic projects: “1. A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being.” This is precisely what the book is, except for the obvious distinction that this particular oddball project has been brought into being, as evidenced by the fact that you are now reading it, or are at any rate about to try to read it. For the most part, it’s a catalogue of unrealized creativity, which in the very extensiveness of its cataloging becomes a monstrous paradox of realized creativity. … For a work of such rigorous formal experimentalism, Works can be surprisingly funny. I found myself laughing out loud, here and there, at Levé’s poker-faced batshittery. … It is, let me reiterate, a book consisting solely of descriptions of imaginary works of conceptual art. As with all of Levé’s work, his insistence on continuing doing the one specific thing he’s doing is an ongoing source of weird perplexity for the reader, a weird perplexity that is a key aspect of the experience of reading him.

What I find most captivating about Works, however, are those moments when Levé ruptures his own relentless accumulation of descriptions of conceptual works in alternative artforms and instead casts his readers directly into the abyss of literature. Every so often, Levé punctuates his catalogue of descriptions with a description of an artwork that possesses certain qualities which could not possibly be perceptible to anyone who might actually behold it, so that the work in question is ultimately and irreducibly literary in nature as the qualities by which it is defined and constituted are inextricably bound to the page. Consider, for example, artwork number eighty-six, which is described in its entirety as follows: “A painting is painted with the artist whispering, ‘Bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye…'” The painting is the artwork, but the quality that defines and constitutes it as this painting and no other is a quality that cannot ever be observed by anyone other than Levé’s narratorial consciousness. The same is true of later artworks, such as number one hundred and twenty-four:

A pamphlet displays twenty-four photographs taken by an artist on a walk through the city, starting from his home. He chooses a metro stop at random. He takes the first exit. Once outside, he takes the second street on the left, the third on the right, again the second on the left, again the third on the right, and so on. If there are fewer than two or three streets, he takes the first possible turn. Every five minutes, he takes a photograph of what’s right in front of him. The walk lasts for two hours.

Since so much of the artistry of this artwork — so much of the artist’s exploitation of the particularities of his or her chosen artform — is invested in Levé’s description of the process of composition, and since so little of it is invested in the outcome of that process, the real value of the artwork resides not in the work itself but in Levé’s literary rendition of its coming into being. It is true that most of the artworks described in Works are not artworks of this sort. Most of them are works that could conceivably be brought forth in a way that does not compromise their artistic integrity. But every so often throughout Works, Levé describes something that is either imbued with aesthetic particularities or else productive of affective states that can exist only in a descriptive form, that are almost entirely constructions of language alone, and that therefore cannot escape or transcend the written word —

138. A wild animal is painted on a red background, in the middle of a round tableau, the radius of which is proportional to the distance at which the animal will choose to fight or take flight when approached by something dangerous.

264. An artist sells his works at the average price paid over the last year for works in the same medium by living artists of the same nationality.

297. A golden drill engraves a sausage.

312. The track of a giant slug — a fat and transparent viscous line — runs through an exhibition, thickening at those works before which the creature tarries.

341. Advertising photographs are reconstructed using expressionless models. The absence of slogans makes the message incomprehensible.

348. A political lobbying group aims to have zoo animals paid a monthly salary.

438. A surgeon creates invisible tattoos on the walls of internal organs.

— and it is with these sorts of descriptions that Levé invests the value of Works itself in its own literariness, in its exploitation of the aesthetic particularities of the artform of literature above any and all alternative forms.