The Never-Ending Torture of Unrest | Georg Büchner’s Lenz Reviewed

sleep of reason

Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.

Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:

The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.

Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.

And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.

The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”

Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.

Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drang movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.

Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.

In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.

Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.

Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:

The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.

Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:

Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .

Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.


Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:

The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!

The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review in June of 2013]. 

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“Language Is Such a Mess” — A Short Review of Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things

What does Slavoj Zizek mean when he says that the Lacanian Symoblic carries the “stain of the Real”? During a talk I once saw him deliver, we watched a clip from David Lean’s Brief Encounter. The plot is as follows: disaffected middle-class wife Celia Johnson falls in love with one Dr. Alec Harvey, both unhappily married with children, both finding in each other a means of escape from their droll realities. They can’t avoid running into people from their shared social circles, forcing them to lie, ultimately delivering us to the final scene. At the train station,  the precipice of their final good-bye, Johnson and Harvey are interrupted not only by a nagging friend of the former, but the whistle of Harvey’s train, preventing a passionate farewell (note: they also have not consummated their affair).

The point is that there is a Symbolic laid over a Symbolic — the first are Johnson’s and Harvey’s individual marriages, the illusion that the ritual provides access to the Real of intimacy (the failure of this accomplishment is signed by the crushingly boring misery of their lives); the second are the lies that overlap the marriages, a futile attempt to circumvent the trap of middle-class marriage. The point to this point: Johnson’s friend, the whistle, and the progressive threat of discovery with each new lie are policemen of the Real. Even in the myth of love we are not truly connected; the stain of the Real interrupts to remind us that there is no signifier of the Real without the Symbolic.

9780007542512

Implicit in this construction is that there is no capital-T Truth, that the Symbolic always leaks the Real through its pores as it tries to envelop it. Such is the dilemma of Jon Michaels, the protagonist in Lee Rourke’s new novel Vulgar Things. Michaels, a mid-level editor at a small academic publisher, hungover from the funerary-celebratory bender of his recent sacking that shuttles against the wounds of a fresh divorce, is told by his perpetually unavailable brother Cal that their estranged Uncle Rey, lost to “‘wacky baccy and strange ways,'” has committed suicide in his caravan on Canvey Island, a tucked-away seatown in the Thames estuary in East London where people–mainly idealistic men–used to believe could restart their lives. Instead, it became a place to simply die.  “I’ve always understood, deep down, beneath the laughter,” Jon says during his first few steps on Canvey, “why the locals refer to it as the island, deep down it’s always made perfect sense to me: to feel dislocated, to feel lost and forgotten.”

It’s my disadvantage that I’m not English and know nothing about the UK’s geography, the cultural codes built into words like Southend or Queensway. To know, however vaguely, centuries of history through the mediation of businesses coming and going, hundreds-year-old buildings crammed up against new condos. The beaten bricks giving way to municipal sidewalk-grade cement. The phasing out of regional accents, the arrival of RP and other posh accents (this is the extent of my knowledge of the UK) to the grimace and chagrin of the locals, who know all the stories and histories of Canvey. Because Vulgar Things is a text built on and from the echoes of these stories, and of stories in general, the highways and throughways of mediation.

Vulgar Things‘s plot is far from compelling. Jon has to go clean out a dead uncle’s Caravan, becomes obsessed with a woman he sees on the pier, discovers something reality-shattering about himself and Rey. For the first fifty pages or so, I was struggling to find something in this limp plot, in Rourke’s signature flat prose (which is what got me jazzed on him in his last novel, The Canal). At first it seemed to be nothing; I was worried, but Rourke’s deliberately unremarkable and at times sophomoric prose points us to something else entirely: the desire to have desire, the desire for agency within a plot, and the inherent failure at attaining truth. In Canvey, “the sea and sky above [him], everything else behind [him, it] makes immediate sense, [his] being here, to help decipher things, to tie up all the loose ends of Uncle Rey’s life.”

Canvey is a space in which Jon is underneath the atmosphere, the systems of reality that fix Jon’s life in apathy: his overpriced London apartment, the dissatisfaction he found in his work, a failed marriage. The messy task of deciphering and reassembling Rey’s life through his papers loses Jon between temporalities. For here is a man surrendered to aimlessness, wanting anything that can fix him to a desire and thus a meaning and thus a truth. Jon’s and Rey’s wanderings collide wonderfully when, like a good mystery, Jon finds amidst the detritus of Rey’s life a manuscript titled Vulgar Things, a reassemblage of Petrarch’s sonnets, the only poet, according to Rey, who got anything right.  Rourke’s Vulgar Things becomes a palimpsest of Rey’s “Vulgar Things,” itself a palimpsest of Petrarch’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (Fragments of Common Things). The elevation of the banal is reflected in this mediation through the form of the book — the days of the week are built from ordinary phrases, seemingly forgetful perceptions: “such a long time”; “afternoon drinking”; “pointless”; “part of the furniture.” As if these are the forgettable shots in a film, the necessary moves that help get us from Point A to Point B. The limp conceit I mentioned above becomes a kind of mystery-thriller, not unlike the strange turns that Rourke’s last novel takes, when Jon becomes animated by Rey’s “Vulgar Things,” the secrets he points to in his strange video recordings. The startling coincidences of Laura throughout the three media (Petrarch, Rey and Jon).

Sort of unsure how to end this, much like how Jon is unsure how to integrate the revelations he has at the end of the book. He doesn’t keep anything; which is to say, we’re prevented an ending that Symbolically ties up the trajectories of desire that Vulgar Things elicits (perhaps solicits) from us. Again, this is much of the book’s thesis. We need language, but language is a medium, and these mediums are haunted by its linguistic and media forebears and continually fail at providing a truth beyond its Symbolic functions. Yet we are caught in desire, caught in language, and can do little else than to contend with that failure.

The Never-Ending Torture of Unrest | Georg Büchner’s Lenz Reviewed

sleep of reason
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (detail), Francisco Goya

Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.

Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:

The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.

Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.

And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.

The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”

Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet
The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.

Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drung movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.

Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.

In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.

Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.

Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:

The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.

Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden
The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:

Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .

Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:

The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!

The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.

Books of 2010 — Noteworthy, Notorious, and Neglected

Biblioklept already busted out our Best Books of 2010 list, selecting ten of our favorite novels of the year. Such limitations help to generate lists, which internet folks love to circulate–you know the ritual–but those limitations can also prohibit a discussion of some of the other important books of 2010. So, without further ado–

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom has, for some reason, topped all kinds of year-end lists already, and been hailed by writers, critics, and readers as book of the year, decade, and even century. We pretty much hated it, saying–

Franzen is deeply intelligent, even wise, and his analysis of the past decade is perhaps brilliant. It’s also incredibly easy to read, but this is mostly because it requires so little thought from the reader. Franzen has done all the thinking for you. The book has a clear vision, a mission even, but it lacks urgency and immediacy; it is flaccid, flabby, overlong. It moans where it should howl.

Still, we felt the need to defend Franzen when he caught flak for, gasp!, getting attention. Other writers had to work hard to get noticed, including Tao Lin, whose novel Richard Yates we found baffling. Lin smartly hijacked Franzen’s Time cover, parlaying it into the kind of media attention a young novelist needs in this decade to get noticed.

David Shields also garnered a lot of attention after publishing his ridiculous “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a book that cobbled together citations from superior writers to make a point that Henry Miller made over half a century ago and every novelist worth his salt has always known: great writers steal. Although Shields’s points about copyright laws and who can “own” stories are salient in world two point oh, his call for the death of the novel is absurd and offensive.

Lee Rourke’s brilliant début novel The Canal is as good an answer as any to Shields–The Canal is a thoroughly modern reconsideration of existentialism in the post-9/11 world, a new kind of novel in the nascent tradition of Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder (of course, as McCarthy–and David Shields–would point out, these novels are “plugging into” other novels). Similarly, Adam Langer’s witty novel The Thieves of Manhattan pointed to the ways that novels can still be meaningful; Thieves jauntily riffs on adventure and mystery genre fictions, squaring them against a parody of literary fiction and the hermetic world that produces it.

Langer’s novel tracks the quick rise and fall of more than one literary star; Yann Martel might have felt such a falling sensation in 2010–Beatrice and Virgil, his follow-up to the wildly successful book club classic Life of Pi, received mostly scathing reviews. He’ll have to console himself with the piles of money that Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi will likely generate. In our review of Beatrice and Virgil we declared the book “a page turner, engaging, propulsive, and quite easy to read. It injects the philosophical and artistic concerns of literary fiction into the frame and pacing of a book designed for broader audiences.” We think too many folks mistook Martel’s aims for something higher.

Martel wasn’t the only big name writer whose 2010 novel found critical disfavor. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega was met with a mix of critical shrugs and outright dismissals, with very few champions. We seemed to like it better than most. In our review we said that “Point Omega takes an oblique, subtle, and unnerving tackle at themes of time, perception, family, and, ultimately, personal apocalypse. It’s not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.”

DeLillo’s friend Paul Auster also received mixed reviews for his novel Sunset Park. We loved Auster’s winding syntax and his keen observations on high and middle culture, but found his take on twentysomethings in Brooklyn unrealistic and perhaps a bit pandering (Picador’s updated version of his Collected Prose that came out this year was a far more satisfying read).

The worst novel we read in 2010 though was quite easily Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a calculated attempt to make money, not literature. We have no problem with writers making money, of course–we don’t even mind writers ripping off other writers’ ideas to make money–but Cronin’s book is a shallow, sprawling laundry list of clichés and stolen-set pieces, a failed synthesis of post-apocalypse tropes, and a naked grab at commercial appeal. It seems to have been written expressly to be sold as a series of franchise movies. Because of Cronin’s earlier literary fictions, many critics mistook The Passage for a work of literature; indeed, many praised it. They were wrong.

Of course, our targeting of The Passage feels like backlash of some kind, common to both the internet and the book world. If we’re hating on Cronin for his overexposure, it might be because we feel that there are a host of neglected and overlooked books out there. We put two on our Best Books list: Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack and Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan are both novellas in translation, not the sort of thing that usually tops critics’ year end lists (let alone get read by the public). We could add Yoko Ogawa’s bizarre, slim novel Hotel Iris to the list. Available for the first time in English this year, Ogawa’s novel is effectively a reverse-Lolita, a David Lynchian-riff on BDSM in a small Japanese coastal town. Not for everyone, but strange, disturbing stuff.

Critics also seemed to roundly ignore the full publication of Ralph Ellison’s second, unfinished novel, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . , which we wrote about twice (here and here) but never managed to finish, which doesn’t really matter because he didn’t finish it either. A much shortened version of the novel was published as Juneteenth in the ’90s to mixed reviews, but it seems strange that this version, collecting all of Ellison’s manuscripts and notes, should go so unremarked upon (still, it’s a big long sucker of a book; perhaps someone out there is still unpacking it all).

So what did we miss? What other books of 2010 remain thus-far neglected? What books did you love? Hate? Let us know.

HTMLGIANT Interviews Lee Rourke about His New Novel, The Canal

At HTMLGIANT, Catherine Lacey interviews Lee Rourke about boredom, the writing process, dialogue, foxes, and his new novel The Canal. Read our review of The Canal here. From the interview:

Your narrator speaks a lot about his philosophy on boredom. How much of this do you share with him?

Well, I would have to say quite a lot. I mean, I truly believe – as Bertrand Russell did before me – that if we truly embraced boredom there would be less violence in the world. When I say truly embrace boredom I mean that we should make an effort not to fight it – we especially shouldn’t do something just to stop us from feeling bored (this just leads to the type of passive nihilism the philosopher Simon Critchley warns us about). I think we should just accept it and naturally feel bored and ultimately do nothing. Fighting boredom only leads to friction, which can cause myriad things, including the type of violence that haunts my novel. But I know this is a losing battle. It is a losing battle because boredom reveals to us the nothingness that makes up our lives: the gaping void of our existence, its meaninglessness and finiteness. Obviously this gaping void scares the shit out of us. And it is because of this intrinsic fear that we mostly fail.

The Canal — Lee Rourke

In Lee Rourke’s début novel The Canal, the unnamed narrator quits his job and begins walking to a canal everyday. Why? Out of boredom. At the titular canal, he watches (and describes in banal detail) the geese, swans, and coots that swim in the filthy water. He also keeps one eye on the drudges who go about emailing and faxing in the office building across from the bench on which he sits each day. A strange, icy young woman soon begins sharing the bench with the narrator; in time, she also shares her morbid secrets with him. Complicating the narrator’s paradise of boredom is a gang of youths who terrorize the area with random violence. The novel’s steady pace escalates to frantic tragedy as the narrator’s bored repose gives over to desperate obsession with his erstwhile bench mate and her horrific past.

The Canal takes boredom as its explicit subject. In the second paragraph of the book, the narrator tells us–

Some people think that boredom is a bad thing, that it should be avoided, that we should fill our lives with other stuff in order to keep it at bay. I don’t. I think boredom is a good thing: it shapes us; it moves us. Boredom is powerful. It should never be avoided. In fact, I think boredom should be embraced. It is the power of everyday boredom that compels people to do things–even if that something is nothing.

The canal seems (at first) the right place for the narrator to embrace his boredom, but it soon becomes a space–a “real” space, as the narrator eventually realizes–of transformation and excitement. This space quickly complicates the narrator’s will toward “nothing,” that pull toward nihilism. He’s keenly interested in the various birds that make the canal their home, and his obsessive derision toward the office workers highlights the fact (a fact he doesn’t seem to see) that his apathy is not as pure as he would like it to be. Rather, his “boredom” is a direct response to the apparent meaninglessness of 21st century life in general and, specifically, life in post-Blair London. His horror and fear at the four hoodied teens from a nearby estate (the English equivalent of an American housing project) who insult and attack him is grounded in a relatively conventional morality, one that belies his enduring belief in his own apathy.

The most dramatic challenge to his philosophy of boredom though is his unnamed female foil. Through cryptic, elliptical dialogues he soon becomes a bizarre confessor to her strange sins. Yet she’s remorseless in her unrepentant nihilism. In one conversation she tells him that “There’s nothing left to believe in anywhere. All is fiction. Somehow, we have to invent our own reality. We have to make the unreal real.” This cheerful little aphorism comes after she reveals her empathy for (and sexual attraction to) the perpetrators of the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London. Terrorism, particularly the 7/7 attacks and the 9/11 WTC attacks are a major motif of The Canal; the unnamed narrator obsesses about flight (both of airplanes and birds) and dwells on the image of the planes crashing into the towers. Although he never admits it, it seems that both flight and death are possible forms of escape from the very boredom he claims to embrace. At the same time, the violence of terrorism seems part and parcel of his philosophy of boredom–

“It is obvious to me now that most acts of violence are caused by those who are truly bored. And as our world becomes increasingly boring, as the future progresses into a quagmire of nothingness, our world will become increasingly more violent. It is an impulse that controls us. It is an impulse we cannot control.”

And yet the violent acts of the estate youths shock and disgust the narrator. In one of the book’s most stunning passages, he watches them in horror as they destroy a stolen motor scooter and then cast it into the creek while filming the whole business on a cell phone. The scooter upsets the resting birds and becomes one more piece of detritus clogging up the canal–part of the “quagmire of nothingness,” perhaps. Repeatedly in the novel, the narrator wishes that long-overdue dredges will come along to clean the canal, to restore it, an impulse to control the stochastic violence of life that doubles his horror at the teen gang’s violence. In short, despite what he tells us, the narrator cannot embrace his boredom–although he does wish to name it, recognize it, and perhaps treat it.

This treatment comes in the form of the anti-ingenue he meets with daily by the canal. His obsession with her soon gives way to outright stalking. For a man who claims to embrace boredom, he’s awfully interested in her. The narrator’s stalking feeds into the novel’s deft discourse on surveillance in the 21st-century world, where CCTV, mobile phone cameras, and live pictures of spectacular disaster make people feel alternately safe or horrified (or at least alleviate some of their boredom). The narrator’s relationship with the woman tests the bounds of his devotion to boredom and reveals to both him and the novel’s audience that opting out is not always opting out. Rourke uses a quote from Martin Heidegger – “We are suspended in dread” – as an epigraph to the novel; the narrator must learn how to live in that suspension.

What makes The Canal such a remarkable read is watching the disconnect between the narrator’s would-be solution to life-as-state-of-dread (“embrace boredom”) and his actual responses to the effects of boredom in the world around him (literal and figurative waste, violence). Although he seeks to mitigate the pain of his dread and boredom by submitting to it, the novel repeatedly finds him engaging–and resisting–the cruelty and inhumanity he perceives. While parts of The Canal occasionally seem forced or overdetermined, there is much to commend here and the novel clearly suggests Rourke as a rising talent to watch out for. Recommended.

The Canal is available from Melville House on June 15, 2010.