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
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.
[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)
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.
“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.
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.