Review: László Krasznahorkai’s The World Goes On

the world goes on .jpgSpeaking to the The Guardian as a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015 (a prize he later won), Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai said, “If there are readers who haven’t read my books, I couldn’t recommend anything to read to them; instead, I’d advise them to go out, sit down somewhere, perhaps by the side of a brook, with nothing to do, nothing to think about, just remaining in silence like stones. They will eventually meet someone who has already read my books.”

Woe to those literalists who crouch now in the mud. To those who have not taken his advice and remain comfortably inside, it may be more useful to begin with his new short story collection, The World Goes On. The stories within reach toward philosophical and spiritual questions that haunt the periphery of thought, questions whose answers, as Krasznahorkai writes, lie beyond “the bewitchingly confined space of the human viewpoint.” The book doesn’t comfort you, but it does reward readerly cathexis with big, gorgeous gestures.

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Rising Up And Rising Down (unabridged)

It is impossible to read this, William Vollmann’s 2500-page examination of the morality of violence, without reflecting on one’s own relationship to violence. And so here is a story:

During my undergrad years I helped pay my tuition by working in a small mom-and-pop video store with an extensive (for our location, anyhow) pornography collection. I worked by myself in this brightly-lit closet for about four years, mostly without incident. It was boring, as almost by definition any clerking job must eventually become, but I used the time to read novels, do homework, and watch episodes of The Simpsons and incompetent direct-to-DVD horror films behind the counter. One day a man came in with his girlfriend. I had seen him before. He wore a backward baseball cap, thick glasses, white running pants and a white jacket that looked like an altered prizefighter’s robe. I don’t remember much what his girlfriend looked like, probably because she stared at the ground and didn’t say much of anything. I remember everything the man said very well. He walked up to my desk. There was nobody else in the store.

Hey you, he said.

Yes?

You go back there? Inching his head to the right, towards the door that led into the pornography room….You go in there, huh? Heh.

Yeah, sometimes. I mean I work here.

Okay. You know about any new movies, huh? Like in the past year? I’ve been in prison for a year or so, huh? Know why I was in prison? Because I made too much money. I made too much money. Now what do you think of that?

Huh, I said, not believing him but even beneath that not caring much either way.

I made too much money so they put me in prison. But now I’m out and making money again. I make even more money than when I got put in. Come here–and here he gestured toward his girlfriend, who had been browsing the stacks of the old comedy VHS, old thin cardboard encased in clear yet yellowing dusty translucent plastic shells, those badly drawn cartoon images of John Candy, Howie Mandel–come here.

She came there.

Now we want a movie, he said. Look what I got here. We want a movie. I haven’t been home for a year, you know?–he talked like this, asking questions of himself, performing, like I was not even there–So what’s new?

The new movies are on the center racks in alphabetical order, I said, not wanting to speak with him any further. Alright, alright, he said, and dragged his girlfriend behind him. She whispered something and he whispered back. And then he hit her in the face. I couldn’t tell how hard he’d done it; all I know is that I was able to hear the blow and once he’d done it she bent over a little and scrabbled at her nose in pain, alternately gripping it and letting it go. I didn’t see any blood. And of course I didn’t do anything about it: said nothing, did nothing. At the time I was working 30+ hours a week and taking 18 credits in an attempt to make up for my pathetic high school track record by overachieving in college. I had probably not slept more than four hours the night before. These are reasons, not excuses. I had not even done anything to indicate that what he was doing was wrong: he might have studied my (non) reaction and assumed there was nothing the matter with what he’d done. I had no empathy, and I was afraid. I still think about it.

William Vollmann’s book is a monument to empathy, to understanding. He does nothing by half-measure. He is shot at by snipers. Two of his friends are killed by a landmine. He kidnaps a child prostitute and gives her over to social workers, telling the child’s father to his face that he will kill him if he ever finds out he’s sold another one of his children into sexual slavery. He excoriates the parents of the dead children at Columbine who used the event as a political tool to help ban assault weapons, calling them “vultures”, and speaks with admiration of men like Bo Gritz and Ted Nugent. He speaks at length of his own weapons, many of which are now illegal.

The book is designed to offer a moral calculus for violence–when it is okay to kill or harm another human being (or animal, or the Earth itself) and when is it not okay? The first half of the book offers a series of potential justifications for violence (honor, war aims, defense of gender, defense of class, etc.) by analyzing the actions of various “moral actors” throughout history (Gandhi, Hitler, Robespierre, Trotsky, Lincoln, etc) and the second half offers a collection of Vollmann’s journalism and experiences throughout the world. Something few have commented on is how this structure almost undoes itself–the first half, such as it is, attempts to build an edifice of truth and understanding regarding violence (here is what should be done, and how, in order to live morally) and the second half totally destroys it. The first half is scholarly, the second half is the real world.

The first half is probably the less useful section of the book; while interesting for devotees of Vollmann’s ridiculously baroque writing style, it doesn’t quite work as history (Vollmann’s too much of a character motivation-obsessed novelist to totally subsume himself within his material the way a great writer of journalistic nonfiction like Robert Caro does) and if you’re not already familiar with the time periods described Vollmann certainly isn’t going to clear things up for you. What is worthwhile here is watching Vollmann attempt to carve his way through history’s thicket and impose order upon it. Vollmann also often discusses photographs and pieces of art in detail that do not appear in the book; in a book with a great deal of art, this is a serious lapse.

The second half is far more terrifying and essential. Vollmann offers personal tales of violence that beggar description and make one fear for the soul of humanity; I found the Soviet Union’s disguising of landmines as toys in order to lure Afghani children to their deaths to be the most horrible example but everyone who reads this is going to probably find their own example of violence to give them nightmares. Vollmann is not afraid to tell you his opinion, and for this I admire him. We know exactly what he thinks about everyone he meets and yet rather than make him seem judgmental it makes him seem more human. Two of Vollmann’s friends die horribly in Bosnia, and he has no compunction about saying that he hates and wishes ill on those who killed them. This is how we would all feel and to sugarcoat it is a lie. Each and every one of the conflicts described in this section is insoluble. Vollmann offers no answers because they’re aren’t any. For nearly 1500 pages we are pounded with this message: poverty, fear and something ineffable in human nature breeds violence, and there is nothing that can be done about it–but we have to try. Trying will most likely do nothing, but we have to. We have to. This is an incredibly significant work. –Jonathon Walter

Something Happened

“‘Something Happened’ is black humor with the humor removed.” –Kurt Vonnegut

I thought I liked depressing novels.  And I do.  But I’ve reached my limit.  I will not be able to read a book more depressing than Something Happened, Joseph Heller’s second novel.  If I read another book and find the emotional suffering to be more abject than in this one, I will probably stop reading it.  Thankfully I doubt such a book exists.

Something Happened is unremitting despair from beginning to end, 600 pages of it, told in the single, obsessively parenthetical, shrill first-person monotone of one Bob Slocum, father and office worker.  Bob is a racist, sexist, and homophobe.  Bob is unhappy.  He is unhappy at work (he hates his coworkers); he is unhappy at home (his wife and son and daughter are unhappy, as well.)  They live the standard normal suburban life with grave doubts and hatreds simmering underneath.  We’ve seen this before, but never at this pitch of intensity.  The book is like a Man in the Gray Flannel Suit from Hell.  It’s the literary equivalent of waterboarding.  I felt my chest constrict, reading this book.  But I could not stop reading.  Bob’s monologue (and it really is the entire book) is a catalog of his hates, his problems, girls he wants to sleep with and can (and did) and girls he wanted to sleep with and couldn’t.  The latter is the source of much of the novel’s misery.  He has another son, who is mentally retarded.

In a book chock-full of scenes of complete emotional terror none is perhaps more horrible than Bob’s discussion of when he worked as a mail clerk in a telegraph office at the age of seventeen and protected one of his coworkers (who he was head-over-heels in love with) from being raped at the hands of some stockboys, who have actually asked him to join in:

“You prick,” they said (and I was relieved when I saw they were not going to beat me up.  I was being set free).  “We could have had her.”

“We’ll get her without him.”

That thought struck pathos into my soul.  I was not allowed to feel like her hero for long.  By the time I returned upstairs, she was at her desk chatting with both of them over what had happened, flirting brashly with them again, especially with the tough, coarse, sinewy one she hadn’t liked (mending her torn silk stocking with colorless nail polish, lifting her breasts for him as she had always done for me, tilting her head and tempting him with her ruby, saucy smile.  He was a tough, swarthy Italian, like Forgione, and I felt he had just shoved me out of the way again, as he had downstairs.  I hated her.  My feelings were hurt.  I felt she would have fucked him from that time or sooner than she ever would me, if he was smart enough to pose and wait–“I’m on my back, he’s in my crack,” was part of another bawdy song she liked to sing to me–even though she still liked me better), and I felt pangs of jealousy.  (What good did it amount to, being liked, if she only wanted to fuck people she didn’t like?)

This is doubly tragic because 1.) Bob is disappointed, again, and 2.)  but more importantly, he doesn’t actually care about his friend–he saved her because he hoped she would sleep with him as some kind of reward.  Not minding that she has just almost been raped and might in fact be attempting to ingratiate herself with the boys out of fear (this is the early 50s, you understand, and she has to continue to work with these boys around her every day), no the important thing is that Bob’s “feelings were hurt”!  Bob is of course too young to recognize the depravity of this, being a mindlessly horny teenager like we all are or were, and takes the entirely wrong lesson from his experience (which is expressed in the final parenthetical statement).  What is the point, basically, of doing good things if you aren’t rewarded in exactly the way you want to be?

The tone is sustained despair.  Everything builds up to some horrible event, and it does happen, and it is more horrible than you can imagine.  This is a great novel.  Please don’t read it.

–Jonathon Walter