A review of Lord, João Gilberto Noll’s abject novel of dissolving identity

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João Gilberto Noll’s short novel Lord is an abject and surreal tale of madness. Madness is perhaps not the correct term, although it does point towards Lord’s gothic and abject modes. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that in Lord, Noll gives us a consciousness dissolving and reconstituting itself, a first-person voice shifting from one reality to the next with absurdly picaresque energy.

That first-person voice is “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public.” The Brazilian novelist travels to cold winter London on an unspecified “mission.” Indeed, the mission remains unspecified to both reader and narrator alike, although it does seem to involve an English university. The man who arranges for the narrator to come to London is himself a shifting cipher in Lord, transforming into different entities—at least in the narrator’s (often paranoid) view. We get the sense in Lord that consciousness is always under radical duress, that a state of being might collapse at any time or give way to some other, unknown state of being.

Throughout Lord, Noll dramatizes abject consciousness in turmoil. Early on, the narrator, already feeling uncertain about why he has moved halfway across the world, arrives at a university’s Portuguese department. In a book-lined office, he attempts to stabilize himself through the textual “reality” of printed matter:

The walls were covered with books. I trailed my hand over them as if to confirm the reality I was living in. Though I knew I was not living an unreality per se—like those born out of a simple dream and ending up in a nightmare, which we can only escape from when we wake up sweaty, trembling, and confused.

The irony is that the narrator has not fully comprehended yet that he is living an unreality, that he is actually narrating the nightmare. Noll’s hero is an unfixed voice, a voice that can’t square the signifiers around him with any stable signified meaning in his consciousness.

Slowly (but not too slowly—Lord moves at a steady clip), the narrator embraces this abjection and wills the dissolution of his self and its reformation into some new other. “My tiredness did not demand sleep, but, damn!, how I craved some indistinguishability between bodies, volumes, and formats,” he tells us.

The narrator carries his project of transformation even farther, applying cosmetics and hair dye to alter his appearance and “find a new source for [his] new formation”:

My lack of definition was already greater than me, although I had lost myself and begun to suspect that even my English boss couldn’t do anything to bring me back to me. I needed to keep up this task of being every- one somehow, because without it I wouldn’t even make it as far as the corner: without asking anyone, I happened to have overcome being the individual whom I had mechanically created for other people. I had to find a new source for my new formation, even now in my fifties, and that fountain would come from him, that light brown-haired man with makeup on, who lived in London for the time being without exactly remembering why.

Lord’s narrator takes this new version of himself on various London adventures, most of which are lurid and gross, and many of which are downright horny. Our Brazilian writer (who is slowly unbecoming a Brazilian writer) visits museums and has weird sex encounters, sleeps on the streets and takes a soapy bath with a Professor of Latin American Studies. Lord moves at a rapid and occasionally bewildering pace, giving the narrator’s quest a mock-ironic urgency. In Edgar Garbeletto’s capable English translation from the Portuguese, the paragraphs go on for pages but the sentences are choppy, riddled with colons and dashes, lurches and leaps, falls and stops.

Through this turbulent rhetoric, Lord’s narrator channels other voices, sublimating them into the text proper. The narrator absorbs bits and pieces of the other voices he encounters, dissolving his consciousness into and out of them as he strives for transformation. He also absorbs bits and pieces of bodies—fluids and other detritus, other abject bits of our human borders.

Our narrator is obsessed with borders, but his transgression of them has little to do with a moral framework. For the narrator, moral semblance is simply the result of an “individual…mechanically created for other people.” Rather, the narrator is fascinated by what makes a consciousness conscious. However, he’s not yet willing to cross the ultimate border, despite his fascination. In one little episode of Lord, our hero happens upon a dying man on the street. He watches the man pass from life:

I squeezed his hand. His mouth opened, and I could see the pool of blood that had overflowed his rotten teeth. That death, in some way, in some corner of my mind, gave me tremendous satisfaction. Someone was not afraid to go all the way to the end. To do for others what everyone tried to avoid. I wished I could follow him, but I didn’t have his bravery; I lacked the necessary elements to consummate the act. I needed that hug today.

A strange hug indeed!

The apparent finality of death as cessation-of consciousness holds a certain appeal to Lord’s narrator, whose quest is perhaps to overcome abjection via transformation. But it’s not easy,

It’s not just a snap, man: it’s being stuck in this limbo between staying in England and going back to South America that made me unrecognizable to myself anymore, it didn’t let me transfigure myself, it wouldn’t let me leave this stupid little body here, vomit myself out in disgust, or turn me into someone else.

Indeed, the quest in Lord might be summarized by that phrase: “vomit myself out in disgust.” While the voice in Lord remains untethered by the normal strictures of narrative (or even moral) logic, it is hardly free or disembodied. Indeed, the relationship between bodies and consciousness is perhaps the primary problem of Lord. Our narrator’s voice has a body that can’t catch up to what’s happening in its consciousness. Hence the novel’s preoccupation with the corporeal reality of bodies: blood, urine, semen, sweat, vomit…all the leaking stuff of humanity spurting out, transgressing the apparent borders and showing those borders are but a moral fiction.

In one abject episode, our narrator attempts to dispel London himself from his consciousness:

On a corner in Bloomsbury, a totally unexpected need to vomit hit me. I wiped myself with a sheet of newspaper that was fluttering by. But I couldn’t stop; I realized it was London I was throwing up, London with its ghosts and impossible missions, already entirely unsuccessful.

Tellingly, the narrator grasps a newspaper that just happens to be “fluttering by” to clean himself, to restore the moral fiction of an arranged, presentable self. The newspaper, like the books in the university office, is another nod to Lord’s metatextual motif. The written word proves to be illusory as an anchor in Noll’s novel—it cannot codify consciousness, it cannot fix meaning. Hence, the novel’s strange, disruptive rhetorical program, which takes first-person consciousness and literally deconstructs it.

The fact that Noll’s hero is/was a writer, “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public,” suggests another metatextual nod. Lord’s narrator is a strange cipher of Noll himself. In 2004, the year Lord was published, Noll  served as writer-in-residence at the Centre for the Study of Brazilian Culture and Society at King’s College London. But the narrator is a cipher of Noll only—a voice that deconstructs and reconstructs itself, autofiction that dissolves the self.

This abject voice tries to reinvent itself from the outside in, only to vomit the inside back out again. Utter disintegration seems fatally imminent; madness seems inescapable. As one reaches the final pages of Lord, one senses that the narrative might fall apart into nothing—which, to be clear, it doesn’tLord sticks its ending a strangely and suitably satisfying way. I won’t give away the end, but instead reverse the course of my previous sentence: Lord falls apart into something.

Like Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel (the other Noll books currently available in English translation),  Lord is propelled on its own dream-nightmare logic. It’s fucked-up, gross, abject, and surreal. It’s permeated by a vague horror. Reading it might make parts of your stomach hurt. I like these particular flavors, and I particularly like a book that doesn’t just upset me with its themes and its plot, but also with its style and its rhetoric. Lord certainly isn’t for everyone, but I loved it, and I think that there’s an audience of weirdos out there like me who will really dig this book too. Highly recommended.

João Gilberto Noll’s Lord is new from Two Lines Press. It is the third novel by Noll Two Lines has published. I hope they publish more. 

 

 

 

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Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem,” a meditation on language and consciousness

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The science magazine Nautilus has published Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem.” This is the first piece of nonfiction that McCarthy has published. It’s a fascinating essay that takes its name from a dream of Friedrich August Kekulé, “father of organic chemistry.” Kekulé dreamed of an ouroboros, an unconscious insight that led him to “discover” the ring-structure of the benzene molecule. (Thomas Pynchon writes about Kekulé’s dream in Gravity’s Rainbow, by the way).  Anyway, it’s a nice piece on a complex subject, and it’s fun to watch McCarthy move from lucid, transparent, and direct prose into wry fragments that are, well, more McCarthyesque. From the essay–

The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

We dont know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.

What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind do, each morning, waking? (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moon-driven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.

But here rise the stubborn continents. The shelves of gravel and the cliffs of rock break from water baldly into air, that dry, terrible outerspace of radiance and instability, where there is no support for life. And now, now the currents mislead and the waves betray, breaking their endless circle, to leap up in loud foam against rock and air, breaking…

What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind do, each morning, waking?

The first three paragraphs of Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven.

Two citations (David Foster Wallace/William H. Gass) and a (not so) very short note on the muck of contemporary consciousness

‘I miss TV,’ Orin said, looking back down. He no longer smiled coolly.

‘The former television of commercial broadcast.’

‘I do.’

‘Reason in several words or less, please, for the box after REASON,’ displaying the board.

‘Oh, man.’ Orin looked back up and away at what seemed to be nothing, feeling at his jaw around the retromandibular’s much tinier and more vulnerable throb. ‘Some of this may sound stupid. I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases “Order before midnight tonight” and “Save up to fifty percent and more.” I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience. I miss late-night anthems and shots of flags and fighter jets and leathery-faced Indian chiefs crying at litter. I miss “Sermonette” and “Evensong” and test patterns and being told how many megahertz something’s transmitter was broadcasting at.’ He felt his face. ‘I miss sneering at something I love. How we used to love to gather in the checker-tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode-ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff.’

‘Vapid ditty,’ pretending to notate.

‘I miss stuff so low-denominator I could watch and know in advance what people were going to say.’

‘Emotions of mastery and control and superiority. And pleasure.’

‘You can say that again, boy. I miss summer reruns. I miss reruns hastily inserted to fill the intervals of writers’ strikes, Actors’ Guild strikes. I miss Jeannie, Samantha, Sam and Diane, Gilligan, Hawkeye, Hazel, Jed, all the syndicated airwave-haunters. You know? I miss seeing the same things over and over again.’ …

The man tended to look up at him like people with legs look up at buildings and planes. ‘You can of course view entertainments again and again without surcease on TelEntertainment disks of storage and retrieval.’

Orin’s way of looking up as he remembered was nothing like the seated guy’s way of looking up. ‘But not the same. The choice, see. It ruins it somehow. With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted. Different now.’

‘Inflicted.’

‘I don’t think I exactly know,’ Orin said, suddenly dimly stunned and sad inside. The terrible sense as in dreams of something vital you’ve forgotten to do. The inclined head’s bald spot was freckled and tan. ‘Is there a next item?’

—From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996).


Perception, Plato said, is a form of pain.

The working consciousness, for instance, is narrow, shuttered by utility, its transitions eased by habit past reflection like a thief. Impulses from without or from within must use some strength to reach us, we do not go out to them. Machines are made this way. Alert as lights and aimed like guns, they only see the circle of their barrels. How round the world is; how like a well arranged. Thus when desire is at an ebb and will is weak, we trail the entertainer like a child his mother, restless, bored and whining: what can I do? what will amuse me? how shall I live? Then

L’ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosite,

Prend les proportions de l’immortalite.

The enjoyment of sensation as sensation, a fully free awareness, is very rare. We keep our noses down like dogs to sniff our signs. Experience must mean. The content of an aimless consciousness is weak and colorless; we may be filled up by ourselves instead—even flooded basements, some days, leak the other way—and then it’s dread we feel, anxiety.

To tie experience to a task, to seek significance in everything, to take and never to receive, to keep, like the lighter boxer, moving, bob and weave, to fear the appearance of the self and every inwardness: these are such universal characteristics of the average consciousness that I think we can assume that popular culture functions fundamentally with regard to them.

—From William H. Gass’s essay “Even if, by All the Oxen in the World.” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life. The lines of verse are from Baudelaire, which I suppose is a third citation, no?


Continue reading “Two citations (David Foster Wallace/William H. Gass) and a (not so) very short note on the muck of contemporary consciousness”

“Descent of Species” — David Eagleman

Phi (Very Beautiful Book Acquired, 8.08.2012)

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Giulio Tononi’s Phi—remarkable, beautiful, strange. Sort of a novel, sort of philosophical text, sort of a history, sort of a science book . . . I don’t know. Here’s the blurb:

From one of the most original and influential neuroscientists at work today, here is an exploration of consciousness unlike any other—as told by Galileo, who opened the way for the objectivity of science and is now intent on making subjective experience a part of science as well.

Galileo’s journey has three parts, each with a different guide. In the first, accompanied by a scientist who resembles Francis Crick, he learns why certain parts of the brain are important and not others, and why consciousness fades with sleep. In the second part, when his companion seems to be named Alturi (Galileo is hard of hearing; his companion’s name is actually Alan Turing), he sees how the facts assembled in the first part can be unified and understood through a scientific theory—a theory that links consciousness to the notion of integrated information (also known as phi). In the third part, accompanied by a bearded man who can only be Charles Darwin, he meditates on how consciousness is an evolving, developing, ever-deepening awareness of ourselves in history and culture—that it is everything we have and everything we are.

Not since Gödel, Escher, Bach has there been a book that interweaves science, art, and the imagination with such originality. This beautiful and arresting narrative will transform the way we think of ourselves and the world.

The comparison to Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach might be apt. The book also recalls The Rings of Saturn to me. I’ve put it in a “read this” pile.

More to come, but here are some shots at random from its interior:

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