Such reserve could be understood as a response to the thought with which Susan Sontag opens Illness as Metaphor, a book that Noora, Mycelium’s point-of-view character, rereads in the course of the novel: “Two diseases have been spectacularly, and similarly, encumbered by the trappings of metaphor: tuberculosis and cancer.” “Hände weg vom Nationalsozialismus, (Keep your hands off National Socialism),” one of Noora’s art school professors warns her; they might as well have said, “Keep your hands off cancer.” Cancer is as overdetermined as Hitler. It is an echo chamber within which the frightened voices of the past drown out anything new that might be said of the illness. No minute particulars of experience, no matter how abject or vital, will supply an escape velocity sufficient to leave the orbit of the disease. So why even try?
The book’s second tone is used to speak more animatedly, if also more elliptically, of other matters mostly unrelated to cancer: attending a group psychotherapy session, discussing screen memories pertaining to the second World War, the Chernobyl disaster, radioactive mushrooms in the Black Forest. These serve as snapshots of the historical era in which the story takes place. The drift into these other areas can sometimes make Mycelium seem not to be a cancer narrative at all, or at least to be one that achieves its desired jailbreak by other means.
In reality, the book is in these moments pursuing its own intricate stratagem against cancer. Conceding the futility of attempting to best the disease on the battlefield of metaphor, the book opts instead to maneuver around cancer by treating it as if it were the secret name of a family of processes, social in nature, which are then diagnosed in the Berlin art world of the turn of the millennium. The move is ingenious, not least because it dislodges cancer from its position as an inward, isolating persecutor submitted to by the lone subject and projects it “out there,” such that it becomes macrocosmic, transindividual, like mycelia, the sometimes vast fungal substrates from which individual mushrooms emerge. Also, since the nature of cancer is to (re)produce excessively, cancer-like phenomena are themselves liable to ramify beyond control, to produce an excess which breaks any vestigial strictures placed on them by the concept which acts as their loose denominator.
This insight — which is not stated explicitly, but which takes on the character more of a tacit unfolding — initially seems occasioned by Noora’s chancing upon a New York Times article entitled “A Tumor, the Embryo's Evil Twin.” This explains that the genes responsible for creating a baby are also responsible for generating a tumor. Noora muses:
[T]hese three modes of female productivity — making art, making babies, making a breast tumor — [are] intertwined: As one is expanding, the other two recede. And while creative work and reproductive labor might override each other at different times in a woman’s life, cancer’s hyper-productivity, once released, trumps both. She has neither made a baby nor a whole lot of new work in the past couple of years. Did she allow breast cancer to slip inside her body because she hadn’t filled up the spaces of her existence with enough stuff? And what, exactly, is it that holds her back; what stops her from filling all the nooks and crannies with babies or sculptures?
The empty spaces inside Noora's body/existence bespeak, she thinks, both her shameful idleness, and her conviction that the spaces are hers, not anyone else’s, to exploit.
In the next moment, she adopts a different perspective:
[S]he is watching her former art school friends happily pushing out work after work, show after show. […] Nobody is asking for their stuff — for some, that had changed over time — but they bring it into the world anyway. Artists impose themselves on the world; that’s the essence of what they do.
The space that people (artists especially) fill up is not inside themselves, but out in the world, and some of them do this with a hyper-productivity that rivals that of cancer. Noora’s ruminations after this point orbit a series of linked questions: What is or can be one's own? What is held in common? What can be seized and exploited by others? Do these acts constitute betrayals or fair use? And perhaps most importantly, what happens when the self gets “out there” and moves beyond control, takes on its own apparently autonomous life?
These things are examined in detail in two contrasting vignettes. One of these treats of the loss of control over an artwork, while the other narrates what appears to be a contrasting case. The artwork described in the first vignette is what occasions the warning “Hände Weg vom Nationalsozialismus.” Noora is judged to have sailed close to the wind with her graduation piece, a sculpture that has to do with the 200-plus German schools named after the Scholl siblings, who resisted the Nazi regime, and ended up being guillotined by it.
This was the project Noora had been working on since her second year in art school: a sprawling, amorphous sculpture made out of plywood, cardboard, photographs, assorted junk (broken headphones, cigarette butts, crushed Red Bull cans, […]) […] At the center […] were six neatly fanned-out school yards on different levels, each complete with tiny benches and table tennis facilities, trash cans and basket-ball hoops and miniature trees[.]
A visiting professor clocks the similarity to Mike Kelley’s Educational Complex and suggests that Noora look it up. He asks “whether or not she herself attended a high school named after the Scholls. To Noora, this was completely beside the point. This wasn’t some kind of personal reckoning with teenage idolatry.” Perhaps it bothers the professor that in Geschwister-Scholl-Schulkomplex Noora has appropriated a subject that she can’t demonstrate a natural entitlement to; or perhaps it is more that he fears, on her behalf, such a subject’s capacity to appropriate the appropriator. In any case, the latter is more or less what happens:
During her graduation exam, when prompted to talk about her work, Noora said she no longer feels like the creator but rather the custodian of it. In an existentialist move, she had ended up being the caretaker of her own creation, unable to escape its demanding drive towards completion.
Her examiners can’t seem to help but formulate their comments in the idiom of the clinic:
“But isn’t it just a monstrous externalization of your super ego?’ one professor of the graduation committee asked, to which Noora had no adequate answer.
“To me, it looks like some sort of building cancer,” another professor added helpfully.
Noora is not tremendously surprised by these reactions; indeed, by this point, she is well aware that her project is fatally misconceived: “[O]ver time she had realized a fundamental error in her concept: There is no intrinsic connection between a building and to what or to whom it is dedicated. What she had been looking for didn’t exist.” In a sense, her vast, cancerous sculpture has simply repeated the abortive gesture also involved in naming 200 schools after the Scholl siblings. Its “uncontrolled expansion” marks a series of attempts to reach after something that is both ill-defined and, in the end, simply not there; likewise, all those schools can’t themselves recuperate, simply via the fact of dedication, the departed essence of the heroic, dead teenagers.
This presumably matters very little to the thousands of living teenagers whose headphones, socks, and beanies Noora has been putting into her sculpture; school is for them a crucible of experiences which have never had anything to do with the Scholls. But the artist’s own failure matters a great deal to her. She was not prepared for the sculpture to transform into something that was nothing to do with what she wanted it to be. When she trashes the sculpture shortly after graduation, her assessment of the damage is simply: “Noora’s world — gone.” She has unconsciously relied on her creation to provide her with a support, a foundation. It is a prosthetic self — one that has trapped her, weighed her down, and following its destruction, has left her with a weightlessness (“she felt light like popcorn”) that is not freedom but instead a sense of coming unmoored.
Why does this bother her so much? Over a century and a half of European thinking, from Rimbaud to Freud to Lacan to Deleuze-Guattari, has taught us variations on the notion “Je est un autre.” What Noora learns the hard way is that we shouldn’t expect this alien substance, the self, to become hospitable enough to settle into. Perhaps Christina, an art school friend of Noora’s on whom the other vignette focuses, fares better because she is under no such illusions. Christina’s progress is a story of the self in imperial mode — a substance to be used as a currency, speculated with, turned into an instrument of navigation, and indeed of conquest.
After several unhappy years toiling away as a painter, Christina more or less overnight becomes the kind of performance artist who deals in “the creation of a social universe of carefully curated individuals, with herself as the radiant, commanding center.” The decisive moment is when she rechristens herself Miss Tina. This marks a commitment to fully inhabiting her new self, which is just as much a prosthesis as Noora's sculpture was. The difference is that she somehow seems able to master it in a way that eluded Noora, or instead to reconcile herself with its inevitable divagations. As Miss Tina, Christina blossoms:
From the back of the room [Noora] would witness the transformation of Christina into Miss Tina: How she flipped a switch, and instantly began to glow. How she channeled her unused sexual energy into pure charisma, creating a frayed libidinous field that made her simply irresistible.
Measurable success follows. Miss Tina loses many of Christina’s better qualities: she becomes “[s]ardonic. Like a satisfied cat, but a mean one.” A gulf opens up between the friends.
The story concludes with Noora chancing upon an Artforum review of Tina’s recent work. Against the backdrop of the cooling of their relationship Noora is perplexed to read the following: “Her work in various media (painting, drawing, performance and video) speaks touchingly about female friendship and solidarity.” Here I found myself thinking of The New York Times article quoted earlier in the novel:
Scientists have been finding that the same genes that guide fetal cells as they multiply, migrate and create a newborn child are also among the primary drivers of cancer. Once the baby is born, the genes step back and take on other roles. But through decades of random mutations, old embryological memories can be awakened and distorted. What is born this time is a tumor.
A friendship generates certain affects, intimacies, dependences, and then replicas of these things are fashioned in a different context, where they mainly present as toxic, at least to the person who recognizes them from their previous incarnations.
It would be easy to write off the novel’s argument as a variation on “to a woman in chemo, everything looks like a tumor.” This would be to miss the point that Noora’s experience of cancer is evental in nature, and as such constitutes a kind of ecstatic break with her previous perspectives in the sense that Quentin Meillassoux means when he writes:
The novelty of an event is expressed in the fact that it interrupts the normal regime of the description of knowledge, that always rests on the classification of the well known, and imposes another kind of procedure on whomever admits that, right here in this place, something hitherto unnamed really and truly occurred. […] An event is always undecidable in relation to knowledge, and can therefore always be annulled by one who only believes in brute facts: is there political revolution, or merely an accumulation of disorder and crime? Amorous encounter, or merely sexual desire? Pictorial novelty, or shapeless mass and imposture?
To which list we can add: macrocosmic, transindividual “cancer,” or mere literary conceit? In the wake of the event, everything is transformed, if only for the lone individual who decides in favor of fidelity to the event, and in spite of how whimsical both event and fidelity look to the skeptic.
Mycelium’s particular type of commitment to its caprices distinguishes it from the mainstream of autofiction of the last decade, of which Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series is the paradigmatic instance. (If Mycelium is not autofiction, it is at least imitation autofiction.) What is the difference? Knausgaard, after all, indulges in plenty of whimsy, not least the detour, hundreds of pages long, into Hitler and Nazism that creates a “a massive, crater-like depression” in the sixth book’s structure, as Christopher Clark has put it. Strangely, this gesture doesn’t feel like a caprice to me, or not one in the same spirit as those of Mycelium, or Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate, or especially Hervé Guibert’s The Compassion Protocol, a novel that, like Mycelium, is about a battle with disease.
Knausgaard’s Hitler portrait reveals him as fundamentally an explainer, a flattener: his particular way of fighting a losing battle with the hyperobject that is Hitler is to flatten it into an image of himself. Guibert’s caprice in The Compassion Protocol is to imagine a romantic relationship between himself and the young female doctor treating him for AIDS — between him, a gay man, and her, to all appearances a heterosexual woman. On a literal level, this musing explains nothing pertinent about the dying man’s situation, even while its enigmatic quality occasions the subterranean unfolding of themes touched on elsewhere in the text. If we expect Knausgaard’s Hitler conceit to do this kind of work for us, we are likely to be disappointed or merely confused. But this is exactly the work that cancer, however it is understood, performs in Mycelium.
I am grateful to Noah Willumsen for bringing the literal meaning of explanare to my attention.
Ross McElwain is a writer based in London.