Utopia Is Not a State; It Is a Compass: On Patrick Nathan’s “The Future Was Color”

Alina Stefanescu reviews Patrick Nathan’s “The Future Was Color” …

Utopia Is Not a State; It Is a Compass: On Patrick Nathan’s “The Future Was Color”

The Future Was Color by Patrick Nathan. Counterpoint Press. 224 pages.

THE NAZI PARTY envisioned a “great” Germany that would reclaim its ancestral territories and purify its citizenry of decadent, “weakening” influences, including the physically and mentally disabled, leftist intellectuals, Romany persons, Jewish persons, Slavs, homosexuals, and queers (among others). Those with the means to leave did so.


By 1940, most of the intellectuals associated with the Frankfurt School had fled Hitler’s Germany for exile in New York City or Los Angeles. But Walter Benjamin remained. Glaring at Nazism’s expanding horizon from occupied France, Benjamin considered what could be read of the future. His essay “On the Concept of History” (1940) contested the Enlightenment legacy of progress and its corresponding political theology. “One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm,” he wrote. “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable,” Benjamin concluded, of those who acted shocked that teleological notions of progress had culminated in excusing political messianism. He died by suicide in Francoist Spain a few months after writing these words.


Patrick Nathan’s new novel The Future Was Color opens on a world shaped by displacement and genocide. In the bustling, McCarthy-tinged Hollywood of the 1950s, a Hungarian immigrant named George Curtis works as a studio hack and tries to write horror films. In imagining the monstrous, he recalls the events that brought him to Hollywood. Eschewing chronological order for the discontinuity of memory, the novel is divided into sections corresponding to different geographical locations in George’s life, recounted by an unnamed narrator who retells the story George told him. But what does it mean to know George? And how can we parse the distance between knowing and imagining each other?


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In 1944, as Walter Benjamin’s friends are building new lives in the United States, a 16-year-old Jewish boy named György Kertész finds himself among the newly exiled in New York City, expecting his parents to join him from fascist Hungary. In the meantime, György sleeps on a cot owned by a woman whose address had been scribbled on an envelope by his parents. He waits for them. He waits to be recognized by someone who knows him. He cannot figure out how to begin to be part of the world alone, in a foreign language, unknown by the syntax and grammar in which daily life is transacted.


For its part, New York isn’t the “city without a past” that the boy had imagined. Instead, like Budapest, New York is filled with the stench of life, the aroma of “lead and farty garbage, cigarette smoke, sweating onions and splattered oil.” Staring down a future in which nothing is stable, György reminisces about his mother and dreams of being a painter—of having “an inner force (a thought, an emotion, a worldview, a suspicion, a yearning, a shame, a secret)” that insists on “having an outer shape or color, a form” (as opposed to mere receptivity or formlessness).


Although György has “an eye, especially for color,” he lacks a will or form in which to house it. “Life was this: a civilization of crawling, seething, single-celled tints and hues,” an absence of anything that could be called home. Even museum paintings absorb and return György’s topographic loneliness: “each surface […] was a shatteredness of pigments.” The shock of Dresden and Auschwitz, the mass death of civilians, coincides with the presumed death of his parents.


Ardor for art spills into love for an artist named Paul, who tells György that color is “multirelational—in a way that depth and line, weight, shadow, tint, and tone” can never be. Color is “like juggling ten pins instead of three”; color isn’t “left, or up, or thicker, or even necessarily darker,” and this “prismatic compass” makes it “easier to get lost in a painting,” especially if that painting seems to be about color. Color is like “trying to describe a smell”—everything depends on how the description coheres with its surroundings.


Color’s relational capacity is physicalized when Paul takes György by the hand and leads him out into the New York night. The two recognize their own hesitancy in the snow’s “wet, warm” falling, a “fall so slow you could pause it if you tilted your head at just the right speed, and fill the air around you with tentative, hovering flakes unsure where or whether to land.” As they talk about poetry, art, and despair, György discovers his willingness to do whatever Paul wants to sustain their shared recognition of loneliness; he would “live in whatever evil or pathological way there was to live, as long as it was happily.” Their night ends with furtive sex in an underground toilet on Christopher Street.


¤


“The gyroscopic flutter of a secret is a way of life,” says the narrator of György’s introduction to queerness. This flutter cannot follow the typically linear development of the Künstlerroman. Instead, our protagonist’s secret passes like light across the many faces of a prism, illuminating glimpses, angles, and facets.


As György’s world expands, so does his relationship to medium. When he and Paul go camping for a weekend, György learns how to use a camera, and the photographic lens teaches him “how to watch, which is a way of being kind to the lives of others.” Monarch butterflies, “their wings like Tiffany lamps,” haven’t lost their rich hues; “the baby-blue finches” create color as they leave the nest and fly to new branches. “[T]he most peaceful blue in the world” is “a nest of robin’s eggs,” he says, vowing to “remember it, these colors, the way some fool […] vows to remember a smell.” Yet these bright colors cannot be captured by the camera; they fade in the developing process. Here, Nathan seems to be questioning the representational function of art in these failures of realistic modes—a questioning that recurs throughout the novel.


The nylon scent of the sleeping bag in which they make love, the languorous card games interrupted by strolls in the forest, the eros of reading aloud to each other—“it was the tenderest time of their lives together.” György photographs Paul as they sprawl naked, feasting on canned beans. With the colors of the campfire playing across his face, Paul reads a poem to György—a poem that George describes to the narrator as “the most beautiful poem he’d ever heard,” a poem that resembles love in the “mutual recklessness” of creating a common world.


But there is also a surfeit of tenderness in world-making—an aura that Nathan evokes repeatedly as George looks back on his life. The way George describes that softly snowing night with Paul as one of his most joyful is saturated in tenderness, developed like color in an imaginary photographic plate, across time: “Sometimes a love story was simply the tale of a true and great friendship, a friendship, he imagined, for the ages.” This is the case with Paul, a first love that ends in Paul’s institutionalization for depression and his subsequent abuse at the hands of medical professionals by way of experimental electroshock therapy. György and Paul’s friendship remains beautiful despite its attendant yearning, a longing “that never, even now, had really gone away.” Throughout Nathan’s novel, this interminable feeling inherent to endings mirrors the incompleteness of beginnings.


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George “was born, he told everyone, in a movie theater.” According to George’s story of origins, Paul took György to see the movie The Flying Serpent, a 1946 fantasy starring George Zucco that follows a mad archaeologist’s quest to prove the existence of the Aztec bird-god Quetzalcoatl. The archaeologist’s obsession leads him to slaughter his disbelieving enemies; witnessing the spectacle births George Curtis.


But this birth was preceded and assisted by a postwar newsreel announcing that the United States was “stronger than ever”:


This was evident in Hiroshima, and on-screen György saw burned and scarred human beings, men, women, and children mutilated by the bomb. What was once a city, surveilled from the sky, was now a flat plain of rubble. People were blind and half-melted yet composed in their agony, and with their irradiated bodies waited in line for American soup, American bread, American bandages, American morphine. They watched American movies and looked at the pictures, George said, in American magazines.


As the screen flashed to a tropical island surrounded by warships, where a new atomic bomb was being tested, the voice-over said: “Here is the motion picture spectacle of our time.” The juxtaposition of the film and the newsreel alters György’s understanding of art’s purpose, and opens a “gap” between cinematic art and the boy “who he was at the time,” a gap reflected in the difference between the documentary form of the newsreel and the fantastic worlds of science fiction.


To that end, if this novel reflects on the failure of strictly documentary forms to do justice to the spectacle that other mass media has made of atrocity, it does so through style—particularly Nathan’s use of montage, a cinematographic technique wherein a new composite whole is formed out of fragments of images, text, or music. Textual montage blurs all facile divisions between good and evil, knowledge and belief—as when calendar months flutter past, “1944 tick[ing] over into 1945”:


The end of Germany couldn’t have been clearer. One hundred thousand killed in Dresden, the papers said. What they don’t tell you, said a man György would soon know as Gil, is that those were not soldiers but civilians. Just people. We are terrorists, this man said, and who will judge us? Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen. Zyklon B. Crematoria. The weather began to change and the streets and parks were suddenly vibrant—technicolor, George told me, after winter’s long, grainy silent picture, with lilacs, hawthorns, magnolias, crab apples, dogwoods; with markets perfumed by tulips, lilies, irises, roses; and fresh leeks, radishes, parsley, rhubarb, spinach.


Where documentary realism perfects the sense of proportion that makes events feel consequential, even fated, montage makes space for fantasy to unsettle the teleological drive. In his 1979 essay “On Film and the Public Sphere,” German filmmaker Alexander Kluge writes that fantasy is marked by “a continuous shifting of perspectives.” For Kluge, montage is “a theory of relationships” that mines the gaps created by strange juxtapositions—not unlike Walter Benjamin’s notion of “profane illumination,” a revelatory re-visioning that permits the fantastic to bear on our understanding of the real.


Considering Kluge’s claim that “every cut provokes phantasy,” I thought about how cuts expand the context of Nathan’s novel to include countless contingencies. Maxim Gorky’s suicide is laid alongside Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World (1948) and the immobilized confinement that would grieve Frida Kahlo’s final paintings; images, documents, texts, artworks, places, persons, and impressions are thickened by the fresh relationalities articulated in the book’s gaps. Against the ideal of completion, the assemblage of disconnected fragments unseats what Kluge calls the “imperialism of consciousness.” There, in the gaps, the profane brightens, illuminates, surges, and speaks.


The relational mode of color is the perspective from which the story is told. In this book, narration is befriended: Nathan’s speaker addresses the reader while gazing toward his subject with affection. Such an address feels radical in a neoliberal world. Because neoliberalism (as aestheticized by what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”) discards relationships for processes, positioning things mechanically, gear to gear and grind to grind, and forming perfect machines with no unused time slots or revelatory silences to distract us from our forward momentum toward the foregone conclusion: this is the only way it can be.


¤


As he sits in Hollywood and reads news about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, George realizes that he has “forgotten what it was to hope or believe, to imagine a future beyond the pale headlights of one’s aimless automobile.” Even though the uprising is quashed by Soviet troops, there is no propulsive machine of causality; there is no reason to conclude that war is inherent to humankind, or that imperialism must continue.


There is a speculative element to writing—a sense of relentless possibility—to which Nathan alludes when George finds himself alone in a room with no task before him except writing a script for a fantastic film: “Ideally, we would not be human at all, he thought, but here we are. Out of curiosity he typed it, to see how it would look.” This curiosity, this creative relationship to possibility, remains constant despite reality’s failure to produce justice.


At one point, George remarks that despair is the temptation of the privileged, who pride themselves on their realism and disguise their economic interest beneath a sort of wary resignation to realpolitik. Economic industries and institutions remain deeply invested in the continuance of imperial militarism. In 1945, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki presented the American public with hundreds of thousands of civilian “enemy” deaths. As Nathan describes it:


On August 6, the United States incinerated eighty thousand people in a single blast. “Their eyes melted in ecstasy,” one man said. “It made angels out of everybody.” An entire city erased in seconds. This was something new to the earth. On August 9, they did it again. There were shadows, they said, burned onto the sidewalk like faces into film. Japan surrendered unconditionally.


The veterans returned “with money to burn” and academic opportunities that enabled them to “become men of the future.” Are these men of the future, for whom war provided a future, inclined to imagine war’s continuance? Like cinematography, war became a dedicated field of study, an academic area of inquiry central to human thinking about the future. Suddenly, war was normalized: you could graduate with a degree in it. To this day, killing other human beings provides access to personal advancement.


Even as he stacks the weight of past and future horrors before us, Nathan’s language rebukes the privilege of pearl-clutching despair by carving out gaps for intersubjectivity. His descriptions are so visceral that one can almost feel the flushed cheek rise from a line. In a New York without Paul, György savors the secret of his own sexuality. Anonymity gives him pleasure at socialite-studded parties when, mid-sip, he finds himself grinning at “what he carried swimming inside him,” this “almost excruciating excitement to be among the rich, among the civilized, a used and fucked thing put away wet, his legs trembling, his lips swollen.” George calls the secret of furtive queer sex “his own private science fiction film,” the artistic form that comes closest to representing his own experience as a “transdimensional being whose two realities could never quite intersect, smuggling its moist, soapy life from one universe into another.”


¤


One could say that the book ends in Paris. There, the (still unknown) narrator encounters an aged, ailing George who looks back on the fragments of his life wistfully, recounting the various names and identities he assumed on the run. Betrayal, subterfuge, masking: there is no simple, authentic self for George Curtis. The truth is complicated by the simulacra of wholeness. Still, George has no regrets; he doesn’t purport to offer the luxurious narrative self that matures into completion. Instead, he provides bits and pieces of a life, fragments the narrator then gives to us.


Is it any surprise that George’s narrative holds no redemptive resolution? A self that begins in so many places would surely be irredeemable by any measurement. So, George loiters at the edge of his own mythos, and ghosts his own stories of origin. The narrator admits that many years went by before he realized that the birth in a cinema story “was only half true.” George’s real origin story was “much sadder,” but the narrator “didn’t trouble him with this contradiction” because “we all have the right to believe in ourselves.”


The missing half involves George’s arrest during a sting operation in 1952. The handsome blond cop who nabbed him “waited until he shot his load in György’s mouth before he showed him his badge and produced the handcuffs.” György reads his own name in the paper, nestled amid those of “all the other sex criminals.” Driven to run by circumstance rather than choice, György fled New York for California, where he became George Curtis to evade arrest for being queer.


Some parts don’t survive the crossing of borders, as Nathan reveals when George describes the rich man who helped him financially and socially in New York, a man whose “name was Noël, with two little dots like I’d once had,” and those little dots became a bond of sorts, since “Noël had dots and György had his.” Where Noël ascribes this to fate, George doesn’t correct him. He never points out “that Noël’s diacritics were only similar in appearance, and even then by accident.” Noël’s given name was marked by a dieresis signaling “that a vowel is pronounced separately, not combined with its neighbor.” A dieresis is “adjacent but apart.” But his own name, György, was marked by an “inaccurate umlaut,” two dots that appeared because the American alphabet fails to transliterate the actual glyph.


Leaving the land of his birth caused György to lose his language’s “unique” alphabetical marks, George tells his Hollywood mentor, Madeline. He then illustrates this by tracing “the letters of his real name” into her palm, pausing above the “o” to draw “two subtle diagonals, someone’s lazy twin apostrophes.” That is “how it should be,” George tells her. That is how it should look to be who he was. But the future is color. And how it should sound is unexpected.


In Hollywood, when George’s young lover, Jacques, says “Fuck me,” George complies. Afterward, the “landscape of bruises and burns and handprints” makes him think “guiltily of empire” and power. No one is free from it. No one is safe. But sometimes we get pronounced in a way that intones a familiar resonance. Parsing the rue on his lover’s face, Jacques whispers “Poor Georgie.” This diminutive is as close as anyone has come “to George’s foreign, forgotten syllables.” Jacques calls George by his given name, queerly.


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“Destruction is crucial in man’s ethical development,” George observes. Destruction “is reflective—as much a mirror as creation.” Science fiction knows that every tacky or trashy artifact testifies to man’s creative capacity. For George, every artifact is “imbued with love, no matter how unoriginal and cheap,” as in the scene where George steps away from a conversation to watch himself smoking. The cigarette is an artifact rolled by a machine in a factory. Yet the mass production of the cigarette doesn’t erase the presence of “a tenderness […] an imagination of care; someone had thrown themselves against a world that couldn’t have cared whether or not it contained such things, such pleasurable things.”


Humans touch, hope, and alter the world despite the pessimistic fatalism of those who blame human nature and the animality of man for Nazism, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust. Artists, writers, and visionaries “are the opposite of those who go around mumbling about the animality of man, about human nature.” Blaming human nature for fascism secures it as a vision for the future. Accepting the view that human nature consigns us to slavery, rape, and torture is a way of despising the world and sabotaging its future.


George casts his lot with those who dare to imagine and build alternative worlds. Some prefer resignation to the risk of thinking and imagining otherwise. But, as Nathan’s narrator observes, “utopia is not a state; it is a compass.” It is a direction without a clear arc or terminus. Although Nathan’s novel isn’t didactic, it embodies queer theory’s radical commitment to world-making. In refusing to settle for poptimism and neoliberal realism, it also queries the ever-popular focus on therapeutic literary responses to trauma. George’s life begins with unthinkable trauma, as a teenage orphan of the Holocaust who finds himself alone and queer in New York City, but it ends without being fixed or repaired. George/György/Gyorgy tells the narrator that he has no regrets; his fragments refuse suturing together. Ghosts should not live in shame, the narrator says on the last page, his own voice blurring with George’s. “Listen: that you lived never needs to be forgiven,” Nathan writes. “You traveled here and looked around, you tried the food, you talked to people, you took your pleasure, and you left.”


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This critic resembles the novel’s characters; she, too, is constructed by the responses to what she has seen, what she believes, and what the world asks of her. And, as a writer and a human, with no clear border between the two, this critic can’t help relating the novel to the present. Blame it on a correspondence of details or on Nathan’s mode of relentless tenderness.


The book is dedicated to the author’s husband, Michael. In the early years of their relationship, Patrick and Michael went camping in the Mojave Desert and “ate beans out of a can,” inspired by the lyrics of a Tom Waits song—a detail I gleaned from the author’s Substack, where he also intimates that something changed after this trip, something loosened, enabling him to write his first novel a few months later. “For so long it felt as if everything were pressing against me, but I pushed back, and it was exhilarating,” he writes. And that time in the Mojave became “one of those times I’m always trying, foolishly, to recapture—to reconnect with how it felt to want, more than anything, to write.”


I recognize the canned beans from György’s camping trip with Paul, as I recognize the blurred rainbows of queer theory in this novel. The colors mingle and marble in the now. In the same Substack entry, dated February 24, 2024, Nathan describes silence as “the tomb we die in.” In an unpredictable world, “silence accumulates,” carving open the chasm of mass slaughter. “Fifteen thousand children have been murdered—some by sniper bullets fired from rifles my taxes have paid for,” he adds. He is referring to events in Gaza, and the catastrophe of Palestinian children massacred by the Israel Defense Forces, supported by American weapons, nurtured by American military strategists, trained alongside American police, and justified by the officials of American imperialism.


Against the spectated images of “the neoliberal fantasy of eight billion little worlds that have nothing to do with one another,” Nathan counterposes perspectives, faces of “the prismatic whole” on the “giant diamond” of the world. Against definitive colors, Nathan insists on relationality, hues, and continuous seepage. Against cynical resignation, Nathan hoists a defiant amor mundi. “I’m tired of letting people make money by convincing me that the world is something to hate,” Nathan announced in his February post. This refusal to hate the world, despite its terror and cruelty, resists accepting the worst as fated, destined, or decreed by teleology. As if heeding Benjamin’s warning, it refuses both the amazement and the acceptance of messianic nationalisms that facilitate it.


Like George, Patrick Nathan counts among the dreamers—those guided by a compass whose true north is care and creation. His love for the world is inseparable from his desire to taste it, paint it, study it, and live in it. “I love it,” he declares of the world. And, of The Future Was Color, that love “is the reason I wrote this.” Surely this is the reason goosebumps appear on my arms when trying to describe how much I needed this novel that I could never have imagined.

LARB Contributor

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. She serves as editor, reviewer, and critic for various journals and is currently working on a novel-like creature. Her new poetry collection will be published by Sarabande in 2025.

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