Why a Novel?

Who knows what to make of Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, Go, Went, Gone?

James Wood has written a deeply appreciative review in the New Yorker, calling the novel “magnificent” and counting “among its many virtues” the fact that “it is not only alive to the suffering of people who are very different from us but alive to the false consolations of telling ‘moving’ stories about people who are very different from us.” He basically reads the novel as a character study of its protagonist, Richard, insofar as Richard’s established character is impinged upon and mutated by his voluntary encounters with asylum seekers in Germany. He doesn’t really read the novel with an eye towards the political, moral, or aesthetic implications of Erpenbeck’s choice to take Richard as her protagonist, except to see Richard as a sort of device that buffers Erpenbeck from simply telling a “moving” story about one or more refugees.

Jonathan Dee, however, has an exceptionally perceptive take on the novel, which really amounts to a takedown of impeccable detail and nuance. “Richard goes to a town hall to discuss the refugee issue,” he writes:

After the meeting, something extraordinary happens, though it is not presented in extraordinary fashion: Richard, acting on his fascination with these young men and their plight — and with, like them, nowhere to go and nothing much to do — begins showing up at the nursing home. He meets the men and asks them to tell him their stories, which they do, in detail. People accept that, because he was a professor, this interrogation is some sort of academic project, but it is not: He’s just curious. He asks them a catalogue of questions about their former lives. …

No one ever asks him what he’s doing there, or tells him to go away. His movements through this most bureaucratic of settings are like those of a ghost. Even as Richard’s consciousness expands, his physical presence, or at least other characters’ capacity to notice it, seems to diminish: He becomes invisible.

Then comes the kicker:

This is a departure from the strict realism of the rest of the novel, and one wonders how conscious of that departure Erpenbeck is. The language employed to explain Richard’s motive for seeking out the men is vague and mystifying (he does it “for reasons unclear even to himself,” “automatically,” he does not “have to think for long”). He never understands — nor does the novel itself seem to understand — that his insistent, pointless, off-the-books interrogation of these desperate men constitutes a kind of humiliation of them.

What Dee is ultimately aiming at is a series of provocative questions that begins with “Why does the novel need Richard at all?” and implicitly proceeds to “Why do the stories told in this novel need a novel with this form?” and then “Why does this book need to be a novel in the first place?”

I haven’t read the novel yet, so I can’t respond to any of those, but what I can say for sure is that it has at least spurred some of the best, most thoughtful criticism I’ve read so far this year.

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