TO ENTER ANISH KAPOOR’S “Leviathan,” erected inside Paris’s Grand Palais in 2011, you walked through black swiveling doors. Once your eyes adjusted, you began to see.
A giant red world unto itself, the structure looked from its interior like an intersection of enormous balloons — the round ceiling towered above, tunnels twisted off out of sight. Sharp lines, the ribs that kept the inflated structure in place, defined the massive expanse, while the fabric stretched between them radiated colors that shifted from sunset pink to bloody maroon, with long, dark shadows that fell away. The iron frame of the Palais, which surrounded the sculpture, remained visible as a web of shadows, giving “Leviathan” a ghostly outer structure that inched this way and that depending on the time of day. There was no noise, aside from the hum of the machines keeping the structure inflated and the muffled conversation of the day’s visitors. “Leviathan” felt like a womb, like the inside of an enormous machine, like a cathedral. The more you lingered, the more bored you became; the more you looked, the more you saw. It made all the normal questions seem pointless. What was Kapoor trying to accomplish? What was he trying to say? What did “Leviathan” mean? Like its biblical namesake, the piece annihilated such niceties.
“I want the viewer to have a moment of shock, aesthetically but also physically,” Kapoor told Designboom, “so that when you enter the nave you raise your eyes and say, ‘Wow! Could it be like that!’ Each artwork is above all an event.”
It is this sensibility we must bring to fiction.
One of the most profound pleasures of picking up older books is the recognition of how artistically daring the greatest ones remain.
In the second volume of Don Quixote, our hero encounters a duchess who recognizes him as the gentleman deluded into believing he is a knight, whom she has read so much about in the already-published first volume. Instead of feeling frightened, she and her husband want to play along. “The two of them, because they had read the first part of this history and consequently learned of Don Quixote’s absurd turn of mind, waited for him with great pleasure and a desire to know him, intending to follow that turn of mind and acquiesce to everything he said,” wrote Cervantes. A postmodern conceit if ever there was one.
Michel Foucault saw in this moment proof that Quixote was “the first modern work of literature,” because of the way Quixote has “achieved” a “reality he owes to language alone.” It is metafiction before metafiction. “Cervantes’s text turns back upon itself, thrusts itself back into its own density, and becomes the object of its own narrative,” Foucault wrote.
But the sense of play Foucault describes is only one-half of the novel’s structure. Milan Kundera saw in Quixote the very “raison d’être of the art of the novel,” at odds with that of poetry: to depict “the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life.” “Prose is not merely the difficult or vulgar side of life, it is also a certain beauty, till then neglected: the beauty of modest sentiments, for instance the fondness tinged with familiarity that Sancho feels toward Don Quixote.” Quixote is simultaneously a precursor to the layers of irony and play at work in all novels and a specific story set in a specific time and place with specific human bodies. “Homer never wondered whether, after their many hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax still had all their teeth,” Kundera wrote. “But for Don Quixote and Sancho teeth are a perpetual concern.”
Cervantes’s balance between aesthetic innovation and base human realities pulses through the centuries. It’s a combination that has become a trademark of so much of the best fiction, allowing a book to reflect both its very particular time and place and its connection to literary tradition. Gustave Flaubert’s refusal to judge, even in the midst of the bitter mockery of Madame Bovary, opened up interpretative possibilities in the 19th century, while James Joyce drew upon Homer to depict 20th-century man on the toilet, satirizing both the epic past and the degraded present at the same time. In the mid-1970s, William Gaddis extended Flaubert’s “authorial absence” to the extreme in J R, delivering his story in a rush of nothing but rarely attributed dialogue and modest scenic transitions. But if Gaddis’s vision of author as curator or editor sounds cutesy or theoretical, the book’s dense business and geographical references keep us absolutely aware of the world in which these voices are talking, while the characters’ recognizable-over-time verbal tics alert us to the bodies they come from. Like most of the best novelists, he has inherited both Cervantes’s fictive ambition, as well as his concern with the day-to-day.
Gaddis detested the term “experimental” when it was applied to his work, calling it “the rather loose embrace of writing pursued willy-nilly in some fond hope of stumbling on […] strokes of brilliance” in a 1993 letter, and one is struck by the deliberateness with which he attacked his fiction. One mantra repeated throughout his recently published letters is the absolute “marriage of style & content.” One cannot depict a fragmented age without embracing fragmented storytelling, he argued.
A lifelong devotee of T. S. Eliot, he echoed Eliot’s theory of the objective correlative, “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art,” which dictates that the artist must locate and present “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” Form and content are inseparable, and content’s significance depends on the skill with which form is crafted. Unlike physical work such as Kapoor’s, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s, language can never be pure experience. It is burdened with meaning. Formal mastery by definition means mastery over meaning.
This does not imply that all content need be clear or even graspable. The meaning of a piece of writing may be a rejection of clarity, a purposeful uncertainty. When Susan Sontag attacked the interpretation regime, rejecting the exegetic tradition that privileged content over form, she did so not to encourage meaninglessness, but to suggest a multiplicity of meanings that might flow from the same work. She singled out American fiction and drama for their “feeble and negligible avant-garde,” naming “most American novelists and playwrights” as “either journalists or gentlemen sociologists and psychologists.” Their form is “rudimentary, uninspired, and stagnant,” she wrote:
But programmatic avant-gardism — which has meant, mostly, experiments with form at the expense of content — is not the only defense against the infestation of art by interpretations. At least, I hope not. For this would be to commit art to being perpetually on the run. (It also perpetuates the very distinction between form and content which is, ultimately, an illusion.) Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be … just what it is. Is this possible now? [Emphasis added.]
Sontag’s answer: in cinema, yes.
To be clear. When we talk about Kapoor’s idea of shock, we are assuredly not in the realm of moral shock, of “shocking” material, for what would even qualify as such in today’s United States? A nation that readily acknowledges its broad use of torture as foreign policy yet wants no one punished for it. That absolutely permits open hatred toward Muslims. That for all its relentless moral posturing, in 2012 seemed perfectly okay with a mainstream Hollywood comedy built around the conceit that the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy rules. A more imaginative team might have massaged the plot of That’s My Boy into pitch-black anti-comedy, but the Adam Sandler vehicle discards any nuanced understanding of its central event: a teacher’s molestation of her student, and the way the abuse made the boy’s life unreservedly awesome. Here, in theaters all across the country, was a film openly celebrating pedophilia, and the nation yawned.
We cannot anymore be shocked. In the same way that corporate advertising long ago hoovered up techniques of postmodern writing like the self-reflexive voice, so has today’s mass media absorbed the work of transgressive artists from decades past. Advertising campaigns have always employed erotic subtleties to sell their goods, but when Carl’s Jr. is directly using hardcore porn imagery to sell Southwest Patty Melts, it’s clear the dynamic has shifted. While the company is using porn in the now-banal wink-wink, faux-clever mode with the expectation — and hope — that its ads will be banned (as the Patty Melt one was), there is no suggestiveness, no metaphor at work in the spots. Thomas Pynchon described a woman engaging in intercourse with a car in V.; 50 years later, Carl’s Jr. is actually showing us a woman fucking a sandwich. A television executive has yet to advance the idea of broadcasting a sequence of coprophagia as graphic as Pynchon’s in Gravity’s Rainbow, but surely one is right now staring out a pristine skyscraper window, dreaming of the day it will happen.
This is not to suggest contemporary writing should shy away from the explicit or the grotesque. Writing that ignores the most corrupt or animalistic corners of our mind has little reason to exist. But what the writer can no longer count on is generating shock through content alone. A 900-page tome about disaffected intra-gender college kids raping moose carcasses and getting off on huffing infant vomit will surprise no one. Such work may be the most reactionary type possible.
In the 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace wrestled with the tyranny of irony, the postmodern voice that had become the dominant communicative mode of corporate media. “The next literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels,” he wrote, “born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.” When a correspondent wrote to Wallace praising another writer’s book for its “sardonic worldview perfect for the irony-filled nineties,” Wallace responded: that is like calling “a kerosen[e]-filled fire extinguisher perfect for the blazing housefire.”
The greatest artistic courage today may be the courage to bore — “to risk the yawn,” as Wallace put it. Art in America may be disgusting, it may be hateful, it may be controversial (the most debased euphemism), but boredom marks the outer limit. Art must be interesting, we insist.
But much of the most provocative art today refuses this; it declines to cater to interest. This is the paradox presented by Kapoor’s work, and his claim to aesthetic shock. Entering “Leviathan,” one was struck, yes, by the immensity of the piece, the beauty of its structure, but one also quickly grew bored. It was simply a space in which one walked around and looked, nothing more. There was no show, nothing to be watched or consumed. One would never describe it as interesting, in the same way one would never call a sunset interesting. Pleasure derived from beauty is not bound to interest. The shock one feels from Kapoor’s work is not the shock of overwhelming sensation, it is the shock of stillness, of contemplation, of boredom.
How might fiction writers bore creatively? This remains problematic, for the novel depends on a reader actively choosing to leap from sentence to sentence and from page to page, and writers must offer enough sense to allow the reader to follow along. Randomized wordplay may generate sparks of genius, but extended across entire chapters, the technique becomes horrifically dreary — numbing in a way that does not invite the reader inside the way Kapoor’s work does.
Film offers perhaps the most successful examples of fusing narrative art with the pleasures of boredom. The cinemagoer is above all passive; the film is something he or she is sitting and watching unfold. A boring film, unlike a boring novel, makes few demands. One must stay awake, one must look and listen — nothing more. And contemporary filmmakers have taken advantage of this passivity for their own ends, none more so than the Hungarian director Béla Tarr.
Tarr directed nine films between 1977 and 2011, his style becoming more sparse through the decades. (Tarr is still alive, but has retired from active filmmaking, hence the past tense.) Filmed exclusively in black-and-white, his later films are most famous for their extended shots. 2007’s The Man From London, for example, begins with an uninterrupted 13-minute shot that depicts everything from waves lapping against the hull of a boat to passengers debarking to an illicit transaction involving a chucked briefcase, all from the elevated point of view of the main character, a railway signalman. Throughout, the camera moves at a glacial pace — inching up and down, left and right. One is awed by the formal audacity of beginning a movie this way, but more importantly one is forced to look. As the image slowly pans, the viewer luxuriates in the pleasure of seeing, genuinely seeing, what Tarr is showing us. The traditional language of film (establishing shot, medium shot, close-up) has become so unknowingly embedded in our minds that to see it violated so flagrantly feels liberating. And while American corporate media has already co-opted and neutered filmic innovations from decades past (e.g. Jean-Luc Godard’s jump cuts), it cannot do the same with styles like Tarr’s, because Tarr risks the one response corporate television and advertising can never allow: boredom.
While writing Infinite Jest, Wallace struggled with a similar challenge. His subject was America’s addiction to entertainment, represented by the film that gives the book its title, said to be so entertaining viewers would rather die than turn it off. How could Wallace in good conscience then offer up an entertaining work of fiction? “The book consistently confounded the reader’s expectations on purpose,” writes his biographer, D. T. Max:
If reality was fragmented, his book should be too. It was also in keeping with Wallace’s insistence that the story not be so amusing that it re-create the disease he was diagnosing. It must not hook readers too easily, must not allow them to fall into the literary equivalent of “spectation.” Infinite Jest had to be, as he subtitled it, “a failed entertainment.”
Hence the novel’s famous endnotes — added by Wallace for reasons mundane (to shorten the book, a demand of the novel’s editor, Michael Pietsch) and artistic. As Wallace wrote to Pietsch during the prepublication process:
It allows me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence, 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically “back and forth” in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns.
Hence also the novel’s ending, which leaves Hal Incandenza, one of the book’s central consciousnesses, dangling before a total emotional meltdown, a meltdown depicted in the scene that in fact opens the novel. What happens between the book’s end and its beginning? Wallace told Pietsch he would never “let the reader settle on one” solution. And to subvert the possibility of entertainment even more, Wallace offers the solution to the mystery at the heart of the plot — where is the film Infinite Jest hidden? — as early as page 17.
Wallace’s structural techniques followed Gaddis’s insistence that style and content be rigorously matched. The refusal to entertain is not just a formal tic; it is central to the meaning of Infinite Jest, to the significance of its plot, its setting, its characters’ choices. But then what, if not entertainment, pulls the reader through? As the extended shots of Tarr’s films force the viewer to reexamine his or her own relationship with Hollywood filmmaking, so Infinite Jest‘s deliberate obtuseness forces the reader to rethink what we expect from fiction. We are trained as readers to search for connections, and Infinite Jest can be maddening in the way it hints at connections but dodges them at the same time. Is Wallace simply being coy at times? As anyone who’s read through the endnote with James Incandenza’s extensive filmography can tell you, of course, God, yes. Wallace may have been hoping to reinforce his book’s verisimilitude with the endnotes, but they read at times like evidence of a writer’s inability to choose, a way to demonstrate mastery over a variety of formats, not all of them worth mastering. The theory behind the book has a tendency to overwhelm the experience of reading it. But whether or not the novel is a universal success, Wallace’s goals here count for a lot: today, they seem as pressing as ever.
In 2004, Chad Harbach called Infinite Jest the “central American novel of the past thirty years, a dense star for lesser work to orbit.” A decade later, its gravity feels just as forceful — partly because the age we live in so closely mirrors the book’s entertainment- addled universe and partly because the challenge Wallace threw down remains so daunting: to write creatively while resisting the pull of entertainment and distraction, to love the reader while holding him or her at arm’s length, to bore us profoundly while at the same time making fiction “above all an event.”
In 1964, in “Against Interpretation,” Sontag chastised critics and scholars for fetishizing content at the expense of form, but this never absolved artists of responsibility for their works’ moral dimension. In 1974’s “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag chafed at the then- current attempt by cinephiles to rehabilitate the name of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi actress, photographer, and filmmaker whose most infamous work, Triumph of the Will, documented and glorified the 1934 Nazi party convention in Nuremberg. “The strongest impetus behind the change in attitude toward Riefenstahl lies in the new, ampler fortunes of the idea of the beautiful,” Sontag wrote. “The line taken by Riefenstahl’s defenders, who now include the most influential voices in the avant-garde film establishment, is that she was always concerned with beauty.” While ’70s critics were attempting to sever Riefenstahl’s “horrid” politics from her artistic accomplishments, Sontag forcefully argued no such separation was possible. Triumph of the Will and works like it exhibit “fascist aesthetics” — their form reinforces their ideology.
Easy enough to see in such an extreme example. But Sontag warned that efforts to cut the cord between a work’s form and its ideology — exemplified by the “de-Nazification” of Riefenstahl — were a dark omen:
The force of her work being precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas, what is interesting is that this was once seen so much more clearly than it seems to be now, when people claim to be drawn to Riefenstahl’s images for their beauty of composition. Without a historical perspective, such connoisseurship prepares the way for a curiously absentminded acceptance of propaganda for all sorts of destructive feelings — feelings whose implications people are refusing to take seriously.
This is all to say that form is not only inextricably linked to the meaning of a work of art, à la Infinite Jest, but also to its ideology, its positioning in the political. Wallace’s work has elicited few political readings, perhaps because its mockery of America’s infotainment saturation seems somewhat obvious and Wallace himself issued few personal political pronouncements till very late in his life. Even in “E Unibus Pluram,” he simply took it as a given that the language of corporate advertising and television needed to be opposed, that any fiction writer with ambition needed to set him- or herself in opposition to prevailing American reality.
But why? Wallace inherited an anticapitalist tradition present in much postwar American fiction, and his work seems animated by revulsion at the way capitalism has atomized American society, the way broadcast media, and later cable, and still later the Internet, have sundered every last tie that once bound us. In Infinite Jest, religion is reserved for recovering drug addicts, families like the Incandenzas are shattered, and the government is run by a president mostly concerned with hygiene. The book’s main characters are horribly alone, unable to connect meaningfully with anyone outside their own heads. The problem of aloneness was a recurring fixture of Wallace’s work and life. Wallace’s friend Jonathan Franzen wrote that Wallace was “very explicit, in our many discussions of the purpose of novels, about his belief that fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude.” Reading and writing fiction represented Wallace’s best chance to overcome his own solitude — they were “his way off the island” of the self. Transcending self-imprisonment meant rejecting the lures of late capitalism.
Wallace was hardly the first American writer to feel this way. Don DeLillo told The Paris Review he writes for the “uncomfortable” reader, who maybe needs “a book that will help him realize he’s not alone”:
We have a rich literature. But sometimes it’s a literature too ready to be neutralized, to be incorporated into the ambient noise. This is why we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation. We’re all one beat away from becoming elevator music.
Wallace’s refusal to allow Infinite Jest to become just such elevator music stands not just as an aesthetic choice, a decision about how the book should be experienced, but also a deeply political one, a refusal to participate in a perverse and degraded marketplace. (Of course, Infinite Jest‘s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, a division of Time Warner Book Group, perhaps saw things differently.)
Tarr’s film The Man From London was adapted from Georges Simenon’s 1934 novel L’Homme de Londres, but like several Tarr works, the film grants a screenwriting credit to László Krasznahorkai. Born in Gyula, Hungary, in 1954, two years before the Soviets crushed the nation’s independent uprising, Krasznahorkai published his first novel, Satantango, in 1985, and first collaborated with Tarr on his 1988 film Damnation, which Krasznahorkai wrote. Although an early work, the film bears all the trademarks of the long, fertile collaboration that would follow: crisp black-and-white photography; achingly long shots; agonizingly slow pans and zooms; themes of betrayal, disintegration, and surveillance; understated dialogue that never quite tells you what you need to fully piece together the plot.
The next feature-length film Tarr and Krasznahorkai partnered on is easily the most famous (and notorious) in Tarr’s oeuvre: 1994’s seven-hour adaptation of Satantango. Intended to be viewed in one sitting, with a pair of intermissions, the film pushes the style of the relatively svelte Damnation to its fullest extreme. Set over the course of a few days in a rotting, rain-battered Hungarian estate, the film tells an interlocking series of stories in nonchronological order. A handful of townsfolk plot to abscond with a sum of money intended to be split between all the residents, when a pair of con artists arrive, promising to rescue the town from oblivion. An alcoholic doctor, meanwhile, observes the goings-on through his window, jotting down even the most mundane details, while a number of side stories unfold, each of them concluding almost inevitably in tragedy.
Unrelentingly grim, the film is filled with unforgettable imagery. A young girl batters and then poisons a cat; the doctor stumbles drunkenly through black woods for what seems like hours; the con artists march endlessly down a long alley swirling with trash tossed about by the wind. The sound design is equally immersive. The pounding of rain rarely ceases. In one typically extended shot, the characters dance drunkenly in the farm’s one dilapidated bar while a simple accordion riff is repeated over and over and over. It’s difficult to pin down one clear precedent for the film: there’s the punishing length and repetition of Jeanne Dielman, the enveloping shadows of film noir, the long dialogue-free stretches found in epics like 2001. Obscure upon release, the film’s reputation, and Tarr’s, grew steadily. The movie has become almost synonymous with the extreme demands of postmodern cinema — choosing to watch it feels like accepting a dare.
But it wasn’t till 2012, when New Directions finally published an English-language version of the Krasznahorkai novel that formed the basis for the movie, that Anglophones were finally granted a fuller understanding of the film, one that obliterates the reputation of the movie as a sui generis Tarr masterpiece. It can be assumed that most English readers who come to Satantango the book come to it through Krasznahorkai’s collaborations with Tarr, and it is striking to encounter, in printed form, a close linguistic blueprint for what Tarr attempted to achieve on film.
The film Satantango in fact exactly copies the main structure of Krasznahorkai’s book: both are divided into twelve chapters and both proceed in the same nonchronological order. And about those famously long shots: 11 of Krasznahorkai’s dozen chapters unfold in just one paragraph, with no breaks, not even for dialogue, and those chapter-length paragraphs frequently contain page-long sentences. The second chapter begins with the story’s two criminals, Irimiás and Petrina, summoned by the police:
The clock above their heads shows a quarter before ten but what else should they be waiting for? They know what the neon light with its piercing buzz is doing on that ceiling with its hairline cracks and what the timeless echo of those slamming doors is all about; they know why those heavy boots with their half-moon metaled heels are clattering down those strangely high, tiled corridors, just as they suspect why the lights at the back have not been lit and why everything looks so tired and dim; and they would bow their heads in humble acknowledgement and with a degree of complicit satisfaction before this magnificently constructed system if only it were not the two of them sitting on these benches polished to a dull glow by the rumps of the hundreds upon hundreds who have occupied them before, obliged to keep their eyes on the aluminum handle of door Number Twenty-Four, so that, having gained admittance, they should be able to make use of the two or three minutes (“It’s nothing, just …”) to dispel “the shadow of suspicion that has fallen …”
Krasznahorkai’s long sentences have become the most frequently commented-upon aspect of his style, and for good reason. They possess a deep, winding mystery all to themselves. The reader is given no information about the “they” in the section above, and the slowly unspooling second sentence, despite its flurry of concrete detail, offers few clues till the very end, and even those come obliquely, through the quoted bureaucratic cliché at the sentence’s conclusion. It is a sentence the reader wanders through, but its end point, rather than resolving what came before, in fact introduces the reader to another unknown perspective.
The style is typical of the novel, which replicates at the chapter length what it accomplishes in sentences like the one above. Each chapter grants the reader a particular window into the life of the collective, but nothing is ever cleanly resolved. Irimiás and Petrina eventually meet with a furious officer who speaks of something he calls “the project,” although what the project consists of remains a mystery to Irimiás and Petrina. “You’ve been summoned because you have endangered the project by your absence,” the officer begins,
“No doubt you have noticed I’ve not given precise details. The nature of the project has nothing to do with you. I myself am inclined to forget the whole matter, but whether I do or not, depends on you. I hope we understand each other.”
Of course, we do not understand each other, and the conversation grows more absurd as it drags on. Irimiás and Petrina are eventually dismissed, visit a bar, then begin a long trek to the rural estate with the intention of walking away with the residents’ newly found wealth.
The chapter mirrors its long sentences — alternately obscuring and clarifying, before ending in irresolute action. Along the way, the reader is forced to pay careful attention. Krasznahorkai meagerly dribbles out hints of how this interlude connects with the broader story of the estate, and the reader is frequently forced to fill in the knowledge gaps. We know Irimiás and Petrina have been presumed dead by the residents of the estate, but we are never told why. The townsfolk both fear Irimiás and hold faith that he can deliver them from their squalid circumstances, but we are never informed of the origins of their confidence. Much later, Irimiás and Petrina deliver a vulgar status report on the estate’s residents to the police, but why the police could possibly be interested in the pathetic self-destruction of a handful of peasants is never addressed. Even more basic questions are left hanging: why is the second chapter written in the present tense, the only such one in the book, when it antecedes the first chapter?
As the novel continues, Krasznahorkai resolutely pushes and pushes his style. Confused and bereft at the suicide of Esti, a sadistic and ignored young girl, the estate’s citizens gather to hear Irimiás speak, and Krasznahorkai turns his narrative over to him for a series of long monologues that take up close to 17 pages. We finally see — or hear, rather — how Irimiás is able to inspire fear and awe in the other characters. His speech is thick with rhetoric. He first delivers a sort of eulogy for the dead girl that turns on the exaggerated dramatization of his own grief (“I am incapable of saying or doing anything except share, deeply share, the agony of an unfortunate mother, a mother’s constant, never-to-be-alleviated grief”) and then moves on to general guilt (“The tragedy involves each and every one of us”) before pivoting toward the execution of his plan to relieve the estate of its cash while pledging to better the town’s fortunes. It’s a rhetorical strategy that of course concludes with him refusing to accept the estate’s money when offered to him:
I am extremely grateful for this moving demonstration, but no! I can’t take it from you … not for what seems likely to be several months … Really? … the bitterly scrimped savings of a whole year? … What can you be thinking?! My scheme is, after all, fraught with as yet unpredictable risks of all sorts! The forces I am up against could delay realization of the plan for months, even years! And you wish to sacrifice your hard-earned cash for that? And should I accept it — after having just confessed to being unable to help you in the immediate future? No, ladies and gentlemen! I can’t do it.
Of course, he can do it, and gladly rakes in the estate’s “great pile of money” on the very next page.
Krasznahorkai runs risks in this passage, turning his narrative over to another for the first time and presenting Irimiás’s oral showmanship in such exaggerated terms. The scene plays as comic, one of the few in the book, and yet it represents the moment in which those who live on the estate surrender everything they own. We understand Irimiás is a wicked charlatan, but the sheer audacity of his speech is bizarrely courageous. Krasznahorkai’s vision is relentlessly bleak, and in this moment, contempt for the stupidity of the townsfolk and disgust at the exploitation of a child’s death for financial gain fuse into a monstrous black wall. The estate becomes a kind of duplicitous hell, its residents no more enlightened than animals.
Krasznahorkai’s strength is in allowing his form to guide this reading. The book is written in the omniscient voice, and we spend many pages deep within the minds of many characters, but Krasznahorkai almost never shows us his characters considering the rightness or wrongness of their actions, and we feel this lack without it ever being pointed out to us. How dark is this book? The one character for whom the reader is allowed to feel real sympathy, Esti, the suicidal girl, tortures and murders a cat, a scene that is easily the book’s most overtly chilling.
Gaddis repeatedly invoked the importance of the “marriage of style & content” in his work, and Krasznahorkai displays a similar integrity in Satantango‘s later pages. As the book moves toward its conclusion, as the characters’ community splinters from the deception perpetrated by Irimiás, Krasznahorkai’s style drifts into fragmentation, never more beautifully than during a long section depicting the estate residents drifting off to sleep in the rundown hovel Irimiás has shepherded them to. As the characters slip into unconsciousness one by one and begin dreaming, Krasznahorkai slowly abandons punctuation and grammatical sense and then slowly the words themselves bleed into one another:
Mrs. Schmidt said she’d had enough her skin was beginning to burn with all the scrubbing but Mrs. Halics pushed her back in the bath and carried on scrubbing because she was ever more fearful that Mrs. Schmidt was annoyed with her then she cried out angrily I hope the viper bites you and sat down at the edge of the bath and the young scoundrel was still glaring at the window Mrs. Schmidt was a bird happily flying through the milk of theclouds seeing someonedownthere wavingather soshedes cendeda littleand could hear Mrs. Schmidtbawling whyisntshecooking youscoundrelcomedownim mediatelybutshe flewoverherandshechir ruppedyou won’tdieofhun gerbeforetomorrow shefeltthe warmsunonher backsudden lySchmidtwas therebesideherStopit immediatelybutshe paid noattention anddescendedfurther shedhavelikedtocatchaninsect theywerebeatingFutakisback withanironrod Hecouldntmove hehadbeenboundwithropestoatree tenselyshefelthow theropewasstraining alongopenwoundacrosshisback shelookedawayshecouldntbearit shewassittingonanexcavator thatwasdigginganenormousditch amancameover andsaidhurry becauseyourenotgetting anymorefuel howevermuchyoubegmeforit shedugtheditcheverdeeper itkeptcollapsing she tri tr triedagain butinvainandshecried asshewassittingattheengineroomwindow andhadnoideawhatwashappening itwasdawnandgettinglighter oreveningandgrowingdarker and shedidntwantitall evertocometoanend shejustsatandhadnoideawhatwashappening nothingchangedoutside itwasneithermorningnoreveningitjust carriedondawnortwilightwhichever …
On the surface level, Krasznahorkai’s style here is accurate, in that it well describes the bizarre twists the mind takes as it settles down to sleep. But the passage also connects to Satantango‘s major theme: the collapse of community and the total rending of human bonds, paralleled here by a breakdown in the ability of language to mean anything. To depict madness, one must write madly. To depict dissolution, language itself must dissolve.
Krasznahorkai collaborated with Tarr on three feature films after Satantango, and has published seven novels overall, along with two collections of short stories and a number of nonfiction works. In English, four novels in total have now appeared. If our mission is to locate event-worthy fiction, to adapt Kapoor’s language, nothing to my mind rivals Krasznahorkai in English today. Aesthetic shock, yes, physical shock, yes. “Could it be like that!” Satantango — with its grave vision, its embrace of boredom, its relentless style — finds few parallels.
Italy’s Elena Ferrante works with a comparable feverishness, particularly in 2002’s The Days of Abandonment, which details the collapse of a woman whose husband suddenly bolts for a younger lover, leaving her alone to care for their children. The book is a masterpiece of compressed rage. The language of Ferrante’s first-person narrator is much more prosaic than Krasznahorkai’s, more embedded in the day to day, but it frequently skews out of the narrator’s control, devolving into flows of madness and anger. Ferrante shares with Krasznahorkai a commitment to stretching a narrative strategy to its breaking point.
Thomas Bernhard also comes to mind as a similar artist, although Krasznahorkai’s style is not stream of consciousness. His characters could never free themselves to issue the torrents of rage that Bernhard so loved to capture. In France, Édouard Levé had something like Krasznahorkai’s austerity — the final lines of his second-person masterpiece, Suicide, could easily belong to Krasznahorkai: “This selfishness of your suicide displeased you. But, all things considered, the lull of death won out over life’s painful commotion.”
It is difficult to pinpoint similar names from the American scene, largely dominated by realistic novels whose focal point is character development, or by nonrealistic fiction that bends toward the wacky rather than the methodical and intense. Ben Marcus’s twisted environments represent one potential connection, as do the obsessively detailed narratives of David Markson. Surprisingly enough, so does Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. On the surface, Satantango and Gilead could hardly seem to be more opposed — the hellish obscurity of one so far removed from the placid musings of the latter. But what unites the books is their special moral intensity, their sustained seriousness. Gilead‘s narrator, minister John Ames, of rural Iowa, wrestles with his mistakes, with God, with history, with Calvin, right there on the page, but the overall feeling of reading the book is of experiencing a profound calm, of being warmed by a reflective glow. Robinson’s frequently complimented prose is, of course, lucid throughout, and one is tempted to ascribe the book’s wide readership to its beauty, but such analysis understates the most surprising decision Robinson makes — allowing the narrative to be delivered by a character who is largely good and joyous. The dying Ames struggles with his faith, but in his letters to his young son, he rarely expresses despair, even when he remembers the lonely times before his late marriage:
As you read this, I hope you will understand that when I speak of the long night that preceded these days of my happiness, I do not remember grief and loneliness so much as I do peace and comfort — grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace. Almost never.
It’s rare to read a novel narrated by someone so satisfied — rarer still for an author to possess the courage to strike out so far afield from the decadent pack. Through Ames, Robinson locates the joy in solitude, in boredom, and transmits that to her readers.
In his late work, Wallace played with typography in a way Krasznahorkai would recognize. One chapter of his unfinished, posthumously published novel The Pale King contains pages printed with two columns, and the sentences do not flow from, for example, the left column of page one to the right column of page one to the left column of page two, but instead from the left column of page one to the left column of page two to the left column of page three. And the columns are made up of sentence after sentence like these: “Howard Cardwell turns a page. […] Matt Redgate turns a page. ‘Groovy’ Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file. Ann Williams turns a page. Anand Singh turns two pages at once by mistake and turns one back which makes a slightly different sound.” Wallace is describing IRS agents at work analyzing tax returns; he turned to such a repetitious style to convey the job’s total boredom, the major theme of the work. But as he wrote in a notebook while working on what would become King, boredom need not be the dread emotion Americans believe it to be:
Bliss — second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.
We’re back to Eliot’s objective correlative. This passage explains what Wallace was after in his late fiction, but truthfully we don’t feel it when confronted by an actual chapter of “[so-and-so] turns a page.” Wallace may not have been able to find the necessary technique, but his interest in examining the outer reaches of boredom is what matters. In today’s corporatized America — where even the most flatulent, violent blockbusters are preceded by spots that urge the audience to fight the desire to make phone calls during the movie — boredom represents one final absolute no-go zone. It is the emotion that should never be felt. We are asked to sit and stare at the endless spectacle that floods our every waking moment. The ultimate transgression is to opt out, to sit and stare with purpose. To read on.