On Backwardness

When Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands was published last year, it met with a bewildering and dismaying response from reviewers. Set in an unnamed but vaguely Middle Eastern country, the novel follows a foreign doctor’s attempts to live with the pseudo-tribal inhabitants of the desert marshes — a people modelled on, but not faithfully representing, the marsh Arabs of Iraq. The lands of these “marshmen” have been occupied by a foreign power within the region and, in response to the occupation, a more distant foreign power offers military and logistical support to the insurgency of the marshmen. The marshmen are thus proxy soldiers in a war between two much larger nation states, and when that war results in the defeat of the original occupying forces, the marshmen launch an insurgency against the second-run occupiers who were once their allies.

In summary form, it’s true, Marshlands might appear to be the sort of novel that seeks to engage with current affairs or, more broadly, with the political upheavals that have plagued the Middle East over the last few decades. In fact, though, Marshlands possesses a number of unconventional qualities which altogether bend the novel towards fabulism at the expense of realism. Among these are the total absence of a specific and recognisable narrative setting, a determination to abstract rather than particularise the conflict and its participants, a detailed but necessarily speculative anthropological commentary on a fictional people, and a light dose of self-referentiality. The novel’s clearest antecedent is arguably J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which employs the aesthetic strategies mentioned above, but it also seems to owe something to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, whose narrator reads significance into the everyday actions of the foreigners he calls “plainsmen” in much the same way that Olshan’s protagonist can watch a marshman simply shrug his shoulders and remark that a shrug by a marshman is “a gesture with infinite subtle inflections.” In any event, although it offers implicit commentary on the follies of imperialism in a general sense, Marshlands is not a novel determined to say something perceptive or insightful about the conditions of the contemporary world.

What’s interesting about the response to Marshlands is the attention given to one of its least interesting features. After the novel sets up its story, according to the blurb on the back, “Marshlands reveals one of its many surprises: it is written in reverse. The novel leaps backward once, twice… unraveling time to reveal the doctor’s ambiguous relationship to the austerely beautiful land and its people.” But don’t think it’s something along the lines of Time’s Arrow, in which time proceeds backwards action by action, sentence by sentence. The story is simply broken into three sections, each of which depicts events that take place after the section that follows. That’s not exactly radical experimentalism, and yet that’s the feature of Marshlands to have attracted the most attention from its reviewers. “[F]or all its shocking revelations,” according to the New York Times, “the story lacks propulsion, its backward narration and withholding of information distracting us from the action and motivation.” “Mr. Olshan’s control over his story-in-reverse is impressive,” the Wall Street Journal protested, but perhaps at the cost of “adept[ness] in his uses of the past.” And even when the novel’s reverse chronology escaped criticism for its supposed shortcomings, there was a tendency to downplay its effects and undersell its success. “Fiction that moves backwards in time,” wrote Benjamin Rybeck at Three Guys One Book, “often milks the structure for irony [and] Marshlands is no exception. The reader moves into the protagonist’s past, holding knowledge of what will become of him, while he blunders onward, oblivious to the future.” That’s true, but is that all there is to it?

Irony is, without doubt, one effect of the reverse chronology of Marshlands. The doctor visiting the marshlands is a citizen of the foreign power that at first supported the insurgency of the marshmen, and he lives among the marshmen with pretensions of being apolitical but without realising that he cannot be. Whereas he sees himself as an agent of strictly humanitarian interests, over time he fails to see that his interests conflict with those of both his native country and the people of the marshlands. Although he wants nothing more than to practise his profession, to offer medical aid to the marshmen, the marshmen come to resent the ways in which his techniques and his disposition do not accommodate their cultural customs and the government of his native country comes to see him as guilty of treason. Finally, for the assistance he provides to enemies of the state, he is apprehended by representatives of his government and imprisoned for some twenty-one years. His release, however, is the event with which Marshlands opens before it takes the double plunge into the doctor’s past. Thus, as Matthew Olshan himself has written, “the reader’s sense of [the doctor] as a victim… slowly give[s] way to an awareness of his complicity in the crimes against his beloved marshmen.” That’s irony at work. Yet there’s no reason to think that this is the sole effect of the reverse chronology, nor even that it obstructs the “propulsion” of the narrative. While Olshan admits that the chronology drains Marshlands of dramatic suspense, the novel doesn’t entirely lack suspense so much as it finds suspense in exposition rather than drama. The question that draws the reader into Marshlands is not “what happens next?” but “why is what is happening, happening?” and what follows the inciting incident — the doctor’s release from prison — is simply a search for causes instead of a series of consequences.

The same could easily be said of any number of other works of literature. Half of the Sherlock Holmes stories operate on the same grounds, albeit without so starkly foregrounding the regression of narrative causality. For reviewers of Marshlands, though, it proved to be a little too much to take, too great a departure from narrative convention — which is a shame when the novel’s greater virtues lie in a series of other unconventional moves that remain overlooked.

Distance and Partitions

Ben Parker has a perceptive and contrarian take on Karl Ove Knausgaard in the Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps the best essay yet on the fourth volume of My Struggle. Parker begins with the observation that many novels “contain a spectral double, another book trapped within their pages” — Cervantes’ parody of an illicit sequel to the first volume of Don Quixote, for instance, or Tristram’s father’s Tristrapedia in Tristram Shandy — and then considers the purposes towards which Knausgaard incorporates fragments of his father’s diaries into his own work. One of his purposes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to sharply differentiate himself from his father, which eventually leads Parker to the assertion that My Struggle in its totality “is an attempt to create distance and partitions, to police psychic boundaries.” Parker goes on to support this assertion, more or less convincingly, by carefully and compellingly reading the novel’s aesthetic strategies as an almost necessary outgrowth of the experiences that prompted Knausgaard to write it:

The textures and devices of the book are best thought of as neutralizing tactics — in line with Knausgaard’s image of life as “a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides,” where this “enclosedness” is protective, regulating. Nicholas Dames has remarked on the “immersive” quality of the world conjured by the writing; this is right only provided we understand that immersion is a kind of threat or unwelcome outlet. Instead, writing means monitoring proximity, regulating intensity, maintaining a proper scale and distance. …

The point is never understanding; it is always distance. More precisely, a safe distance. … The much remarked-upon abundance of detail in My Struggle is not revealing, not sublime, not meaning-infused. The profuse description is only another distancing mechanism, a way the author pushes off. Knausgaard’s so-called “realism” is only the senseless, resistant substance he is hacking his way through.

All of which leads Parker back to a comparison of Knausgaard’s father’s diary with Knausgaard’s own unwieldy novel. Knausgaard’s “aesthetic program,” Parker says,

demonstrates a basic objection to his father. Namely, that [his father] tried to create distance by fiat, by detachment, and by drinking. The diary is a chronicle that holds experience at arm’s length, rendering it as compact as possible. The son’s novel also creates distance, but by the opposite means: distance cannot be merely affirmed with a sneer, and drinking is only a temporary and reversible means of producing it.

We’re at a point in the publication of My Struggle when there exists, on the one hand, a broad critical consensus on the purposes of Knausgaard’s aesthetic program, and, on the other hand, a kind of critical inoculation to its effects which has led to a largely underwhelming response to Knausgaard’s fourth volume. It’s refreshing, then, to come across a re-evaluation of Knausgaard as provocative as Parker’s — an attempt to overturn the existing consensus, and to challenge the assumptions it encourages Knausgaard’s readers to make, in order to reinvigorate our capacity to appreciate the subtleties and dynamics of My Struggle.

A Prisoner

Long ago… I met a man at a party… who was celebrated because he had spent half his life in prison. He had then written a book about it which displeased the prison authorities and won a literary prize. But this man’s life was over. He was fond of saying that, since to be in prison was simply not to live, the death penalty was the only merciful verdict any jury could deliver. I remember thinking that, in effect, he had never left prison. Prison was all that was real to him; he could speak of nothing else. All his movements, even to the lighting of a cigarette, were stealthy, wherever his eyes focused on saw a wall rise up. His face, the color of his face, brought to mind darkness and dampness, I felt that if one cut him, his flesh would be the flesh of mushrooms. And he described to us in avid, nostalgic detail the barred windows, the barred doors, the judas, the guards standing at far ends of corridors, under the light. It is three tiers high inside the prison and everything is the color of gunmetal. Everything is dark and cold, except for those patches of light, where authority stands. There is on the air perpetually the memory of fists against the metal, a dull, booming tom-tom possibility, like the possibility of madness. The guards move and mutter and pace the corridors and boom dully up and down the stairs. They are in black, they carry guns, they are always afraid, they scarcely dare be kind. Three tiers down, in the prison’s center, in the prison’s great, cold heart, there is always activity: trusted prisoners wheeling things about, going in and out of the offices, ingratiating themselves with the guards for privileges of cigarettes, alcohol, and sex. The night deepens in the prison, there is muttering everywhere, and everybody knows — somehow — that death will be entering the prison courtyard early in the morning. Very early in the morning, before the trusties begin wheeling great garbage cans of food along the corridors, three men in black will come noiselessly down the corridor, one of them will turn the key in the lock. They will lay hands on someone and rush him down the corridor, first to the priest and then to a door which will open only for him, which will allow him, perhaps, one glimpse of the morning before he is thrown forward on his belly on a board and the knife falls on his neck.

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

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)