Thursday, November 6, 2014

Agota Kristof and the Southern Reach

Among so-called negative thinkers, there are some who after having had a glimpse of the negative have relapsed into positiveness, and now go out into the world like town criers, to advertise, prescribe and offer for sale their beatific negative wisdom — and of course, a result can quite well be announced through the town crier, just like herring from Holstein... But the genuine subjective existing thinker... is conscious of the negativity of the infinite in existence, and he constantly keeps the wound of the negative open, which in the bodily realm is sometimes the condition for a cure.
—Søren Kierkegaard as quoted in Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?
Interest, interesse, means to be among and in the midst of things, or to be at the center of a thing and to stay with it. But today’s interest accepts as valid only what is interesting. And interesting is the sort of thing that can freely be regarded as indifferent the next moment, and be displaced by something else, which then concerns us just as little as what went before. Many people today take the view that they are doing great honor to something by finding it interesting. The truth is that such a judgment has already relegated the interesting thing to the ranks of what is indifferent and soon boring.
—Martin Heidegger, "What Calls for Thinking?"
I've just read Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy in tandem with Agota Kristof's twin trilogy. I didn't plan it that way. I didn't even realize it until, after finishing Kristof's The Third Lie, I noticed that the next book I'd planned to read was also the conclusion of a trilogy. Immediately my mind started to compare them. As it turns out, they are well worth comparing. Annihilation and The Notebook, the marvelous opening volumes respectively of VanderMeer's and Kristof's trilogies, both present themselves as the writings in a notebook; more important (though related), these first volumes are both open wounds. But though both trilogies depart from their notebooks for a kind of "broader view" once the first volume is done with, they do so in dramatically different ways; and where in the remainder of her trilogy Kristof insists on keeping the wound open (not least by bringing out the implications of the verb "present" in my previous sentence), VanderMeer seems almost frantic in his rush to patch the wound up — without regard for what "the condition for a cure" might be. No wonder his three books had to be issued in such rapid succession: neither he nor his publisher, it seems, could imagine leaving Annihilation out there, alone, needing to be dealt with.

Authority and especially Acceptance, overabundant embarrassing similes aside, are eminently readable and entertaining. This is not nothing, and I don't want to minimize it. They contain much that is intriguing, even wondrous in the fullest sfnal sense. But the intrigue here is mere intrigue; they are, they work at being "interesting novels" where Annihilation was something entirely different, a tear in the world, making a demand on us. Or at least Annihilation is this if one can consider it as its own entity; unlike with Kristof's work, which creates in the reader a great deal of justified faith, with VanderMeer's the mere knowledge that there is to be a "rest of the trilogy" (coming soon! so very soon!) feels like it is working, is calculated to foreclose already even before one reads on.

Kristof's books are, simultaneously, "the negativity of the infinite in existence" and the process of finding ways to live with it; as such The Proof and The Third Lie are glorious unfoldings of the premises and promises of The Notebook. (Walter Benjamin, in an essay on Kafka, reminds us that the word unfolding has a double meaning: "A bud unfolds into a blossom, but the boat which one teaches children to make by folding paper unfolds into a flat sheet of paper.") But Authority and Acceptance, even at their considerable best, even as they strive (or pretend) to be "about" what Annihilation raised, are ultimately a betrayal: not unfoldings but results: the town crier announcing that the negative has been glimpsed, in the process reducing it to the status of a good for sale.


Ryan said...

Oh god, the similes had me rolling my eyes. Also I found the repetition of a certain sentence/paragraph structure grating: "Opening sentence, subclause, subclause. Fragment. Fragment. Fragment." Both similes & structure felt like a grasping for significance that ended up pushing it away.

Anyway, great post, and perhaps needless to say, I agree with you completely (and you say it much better than I could).

Ethan Robinson said...

"a grasping for significance that ended up pushing it away" - yes! Very well put. I said on twitter the other day that one of the most damning things about the trilogy is what's been written about it; so many of the reviews and critical pieces that have come out to date do precisely that same thing, behaving as though they were thoughtful, making claims for the work's significance, but always pushing it away.

Thanks for the link to your post - how did I miss that?? I agree totally, incidentally, with your mention of Tarkovsky and Lem - they seem so obviously the touchstones that VanderMeer's failure to mention them (in such a thorough list of antecedents!) is glaring, to say the least.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the analysis and for the comments. Those comparisons are meant to be hyperbolic or melodramatic because they surround Lowry. If you'd seen me read that passage aloud, you'd note the heavily ironic tone. (And Authority's also meant to be read for absurdity. I'm not sure about a serious reading of the absurd. I think the word rhinoscrutian is perhaps a tip off.)

As for open wounds, I'd just say the whole trilogy is mimicking familiar forms but not supporting those forms. The wounds that open up in the later books are different. And in general every time something closes down something else opens up. If I'm reading you right. But I certainly could be wrong in the effect even if the intent's different.

Re Tarkovsky and Lem--they're seriously not influences and something can't be glaring by omission in that case. I can only be honest about this: My influences are events in the real world and some other authors in weird fiction.

Anyway, I do appreciate the comments, sincerely. It's interesting, the range of reactions, and I respect all of them. My intent my be immaterial to you anyway.

If this comment is intrusive in any way, please delete it.

Best, JeffV