NIGHT LIFE IS OVER. Parties have been cancelled; clubs have been closed. In the months since restrictions have been imposed on clubbing due to COVID-19, party people across the globe have been forced to dance alone in front of their screens or attend illegal raves — like in the old days — to satisfy their need for hedonism. As for the latter, generators and turntables have been set up in forests and parks or on beaches, while people dance and partake in illicit substances at undisclosed locations that are alive, wild, transgressive, and full of possibilities.
Sadly, one of these possibilities today is contracting the novel coronavirus and then passing it on to others — which puts your community in danger, the one you so desperately want to be close to. The only sensible thing is to wait it out at home until raving is safer. When this will happen is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime you can satisfy yourself with Rainald Goetz’s Rave, which has been recently translated by Adrian Nathan West and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. In Rave, Goetz makes an electrifying portrait of what happens when you dedicate your life to the night, to the bass and the rhythm, when you party nonstop and rave like there is no tomorrow.
“To rave,” by definition, is to:
1. talk wildly or incoherently, as if one were delirious or insane;
2. speak or write about someone or something with great enthusiasm or admiration; or
3. (informally) attend or take part in a rave (party).
The novel Rave involves all of these, often at once. Goetz writes about the chaos of the night in an exuberant tone while recording the wild thoughts and phrases that surface on the dance floor:
Wirr tried to say something, his look wandered through the dancers to the other end of the room. An observation dropped in and then scurried off. And I thought, in individual words: Disorientation, – comma, dash –, colon: PLEASANT. Exclamation point!
The “novel” (or simply “story” as the German subtitle Erzählung has it) focuses on the world of rave culture, on its inner workings where, to put it simply, one dances, listens to music, chats, and does drugs. Rave documents how an autofictional Rainald Goetz talks to friends and writing colleagues like Uwe Schütte and Mercedes Bunz at parties; drifts toward the dance floor to listen to DJ friends and collaborators like Westbam and Sven Väth; and does drugs with whomever happens to be present or offering. These scenarios are repeated in countless iterations, rarely in the same sequence. Sometimes, something lascivious takes place with a woman who is occasionally named, but nothing ever develops.
It is this general lack of development that frustrates the reader’s expectations framed by typical novels. At the same time, it is this lack of development that gets much closer to approximating the experience of rave culture than any more traditional or “realistic” novel ever could. The structure Goetz has constructed of short scenes of dialogue, narration, and contemplation, characterized by hard cuts, repetition, and a healthy dose of randomness, is far from the narrative arc of fictional “realism” with its clear beginning, middle, and end. Instead, Rave activates the affective space of night life, the desire for togetherness and its eventual failure. We get a sense of this even on the first page, beginning in medias res with an ellipsis:
… and came up to me in slow motion. I looked, longed, walked, and thought.
I had a feeling of lightness.
Maybe I could make a decision.
“The driver’s license is gone now, now I’ll write the book fast.”
Wirr: there I was standing in the middle of the music. – Thrust.
This scene exemplifies the general flow of the book, its cuts and straightforward language, as well as its dedication to documenting moments without exposition. Thoughts, ideas, and events appear out of nowhere, and then they are over. Sometimes things make a reappearance, often in an altered form, like a variation of a theme in a piece of music. Or, like in a poem; indeed, the way Goetz uses parataxis and focuses on affect is reminiscent of a poet. He is not concerned with telling a story and imparting “meaning” but rather makes an effort to let experiences be felt. Later in the book, Goetz even makes a programmatic statement about Rave, when he writes about “the story with the dark core and the wicked hero, with the hermetically sealed plot, the time-structure of absolute presence, and how cool that’s all going to be. What do you think Wolli?” The answer is silence, next scene. That moment is already over.
What makes Rave so effective is that Goetz chronicles the tenor of rave culture’s endless cycle. The reader becomes part of the weekends of excessive indulgence, the “cracked” out week after, and the intrigues that linger. While it would then seem that there’s a clear continuum (and there is, via the endless repetitions of scenarios at parties), the book is divided into three sections, which explore different aspects of club culture. The first, “COLLAPSE,” exemplifies the climate of the night and tries to answer a question that it poses: “How would a text about our lives have to sound?” Its answer, somewhat earlier, is
And the immense boom-boom said: one one one –
and one and one and –
one one one –
cool cool cool cool cool …
The section “COLLAPSE” could be described as the collapse of the ego, the dissolution of the self that takes place in sweaty spaces. People and places come and go; they blend into one. They are one, and then they are something else. Again, nothing is dwelled upon for too long, “the plot treads forward in quick steps,” and we are often left guessing what to make of all this.
The collective experience of the night is then put into question in the next section, “SUN BOOBS HAMMER” (which would be better translated as “SUN BOOBS AWESOME,” as awesome is the colloquial meaning of “Hammer”), where the autofictional narrator is partying with famous DJs in Ibiza and becomes implicated in an international plot to smuggle drugs back to Germany. Here, we are focused on the narrator Rainald’s whereabouts and doings, as well as his musings about rave culture and what actually takes place in a drug-riddled brain in various landscapes that all essentially resemble one another. We are occasionally confronted with his tiredness, which has greater implications: “[O]ur weariness brings back the distance between us, the normal distance that exists between people. For just a moment it was gone, just a moment before. Super beautiful, the moment that had briefly been. Madness.”
The feeling of togetherness that a rave has to offer is impossible to hold on to, which is why one keeps chasing it night after night, party after party.
The book’s final section, “DESTROYED,” could just as well describe the state of a raver after weeks of debauchery as the dissolution of social relations. The section builds upon everything that has happened but focuses more on Rainald’s surroundings, on the people that populate his world and their problems. It also zooms out and explains the art of DJing and tries to grapple with the reality of raving, its inherent contradictions:
[R]eckless as it might have been, at the same time this experience was yearning to understand itself. And yet wanting at the same moment to forget itself again, to destroy understanding, to have some new experience reveal that understanding to be nonsense invalidated through novelty, tumult, coolness.
The book as a whole embodies this tug of war, which makes it so enchanting and confounding — hermetic, even. One of the things that makes the book hermetic is its dedication to “absolute presence” and the context it was written in. Goetz names real people and real magazines undoubtedly well known in the 1998 German (rave) scene without ever bothering to explain them to the uninitiated. (And this is a second reason why the initial scene is telling: the book is as much about exploring rave culture as it is about its own effort to get it right through various depictions of it.)
In West’s translation, I found this lack of explanation frustrating. As someone acquainted with the German cultural scene, I could make sense of what Goetz was (not) discussing, but I worried that the international reader might be missing important nuances about who said what and where and how we were supposed to receive it. A whole media landscape is depicted in Rave that is hard to decipher without prior knowledge of German culture and/or substantial Googling. This might seem like a minor issue, but it feels vital for anyone who wants to understand what Goetz is actually raving on about.
I see this as no real fault of the translation; it is perfectly aligned with Rave’s general approach. It’s confusing, but so is the book by design. What I do, however, take issue with is where the translation lacks fidelity or is characterized by inconsistencies. Switching between British and US colloquialisms — “tossers” appear as do “dudes” — the translation lacks the rootedness of the German original, which is quite clearly based in the youth vernacular of BRD in the 1990s. Perhaps this is the 2020 version of 1998 and thus accounts for the globalism that we are all much more a part of, but there were other changes that left me wondering about their intentions: “ein schokobraunes Mädchen” (a chocolate-brown girl), for instance, is euphemistically translated as “a dark-skinned girl” in what I’m guessing is an effort to make the text about a “wicked hero” more politically correct. I’m guessing further that a change like this is so as to not repeat the violence of the original, but then it would have been nice to know for certain in a translator’s note.
Other irritants include a number of anachronisms: I don’t remember anyone saying “besties” or “no probs” on the dancefloor in 1998, and Google time searches have only corroborated my hunch. Nitpicky as the latter point undoubtedly is, it led to me do some cross-reading, where I found other, more substantial lacks in fidelity with the German original. The most glaring and easy to explain is that “Schütte schläft ein” is most definitely not “Schütte sleeps in,” as West’s translation has it. The sentence in German means “Schütte falls asleep.” This matters in a scene where Schütte takes drugs and passes out; we are not skipping ahead to the future and erasing what happened in between, we are incorrigibly bound to the present.
Don’t get me wrong — I loved reading Adrian Nathan West’s translation of Goetz’s Rave. It reminded me why I dedicated nearly a decade of my life to this culture: first in the illegal parties of the Bay Area rave scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s, then at the clubs here in Berlin in the mid-2000s. While reading Rave, I was transported back to the long weekends of dancing and chatting and doing drugs in warehouses where everyone was wearing pants whose cuffs were twice the size of their waist as they blew on whistles in rhythm with the beat or whipped around glowsticks in complicated patterns. That was mostly fun to relive, if at times a little painful, but more importantly, the book reminded me of what rave culture was trying to achieve: new ways of relating and coming together. In the Bay Area, this was summed up in our call to arms and mantra PLUR: Peace, Love, Unity, Respect. These were the words we lived by while the bass rearranged our cells at night and we searched for a disruption from the normal social relations. In those wasteful and wasted and joyful years, I was able to partake in what Goetz describes as “the enigmatic appeal to the dignity of nocturnal ferment and endless celebration. Its irreducibly local and at the same time, yeah, that’s right, utopian dimension.” Raves were not only about battering your brains or picking up “chicks,” as the back matter has it. They were about coming together and creating a collective sense of freedom. This is probably just as true for the young people attending “corona parties” today, but I take issue with today’s iteration for swinging too hard to the other side of the rave experience, namely individualism and recklessness. Rave does an admirable job in portraying the tension between these two dimensions, without ever losing sight of the utter ecstasy of the experience. I often felt a contact high reading Rave and can only sing praises for the way Goetz chronicles how it actually feels to enter a venue as a raver:
I simply cannot get tired of this.
You walk into a place like this, and the effect hits you then and there: Euphoria.
As if you had NEVER felt this before.
As if there were no such thing as the history of happiness.
Now we do have such a history of happiness, and we have Goetz to thank for it.
Shane Anderson is an author and translator living in Berlin. His book After the Oracle (which, in part, looks at his involvement in the Bay Area rave scene in the late 1990s) will be published by Deep Vellum in 2022. More work can be found here: http://shane-anderson.info/.