Oleg Zaionchkovsky – Happiness is Possible

Happiness is Possible
by
Oleg Zaionchkovsky (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
And Other Stories: £10.00rrp.: 303pp.

 

We live in a society now where we are expected to give our lives meaning. We never truly step out of work, and we’re led to believe that we can be ‘happy at work’ or that work can be a meaningful endeavour. This no longer feels like a choice, and as Boris Groys notes in In the Flow (2016) “In earlier times, recreation meant passive contemplation. But today’s society is unlike that spectacular society. In their free time, people work – they travel, play sports, and exercise. They don’t read books; they write for Facebook, Twitter and other social media.” It is what I am doing here is it not writing this post? But the ways we make meaning or understanding meaning in our lives has changed. Happiness is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky is about a narrator constantly struggling with the difference between his work and his writing and ultimately how he finds meaning.

The nameless narrator is a writer and the impetus, drive, or energy for his novel, appears to have deserted him. Indeed, he even appears to have been deserted by those he love. He has no inspiration for characters and only his dog remains. We watch him visit parts of Moscow, pick up on threads of conversations and glimpses of lives to try and turn them into stories and narratives, but as A.D. Miller writes in the introduction to the book “the urge to find and keep a place to live in Moscow dictates where and how people choose to work”. There it is: work. We are watching a novelist at work. What is the work that leads to meaning and what is its worth?

He is given an assignment to write about a restaurant. He goes with his ex-wife and his new partner (of course these are the ‘characters of the novel he is not-writing-but-is-writing), who is an important figure in his life as he lends him money to keep him afloat: ““when my indebtedness exceeds my creditworthiness Dmitry Pavlovich doesn’t write it off, he restructures it.” Surely it is the writers job to write it off?

But at the restaurant we, as the reader, see the narrator’s personal reflections and realise how difficult a task this is going to be for him

“What an array of dishes we sampled at his insistence – I can’t recall them all now!”, which is slightly worrying for a writer.

Can he not make it up? Dmitry, noticing his struggle says to him,

“Ah what a Joe Blow you are,” Dmitry Pavlovich put in unexpectedly. “Write something beautiful about all this…about the way destinies are defined. The establishment gets a boost for its image and you, you fool, get paid a fee. There’s a balance for you.”

People know more about the act of writing than the writer himself. The writer who is now at the behest of other forces than his own creations, or than any power of personal inspiration. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) was one of the finest and recent novels to challenge this idea of creation and meaning in our postmodern age, and particularly the financial forces that Groys suggested above, are caught up in this messy conception of work. The work of the novel and the work of labor are the same thing to Zaionchonsky’s narrator in this postmodern world. Its progenitor is somebody like McCarthy’s narrator, even though  unlike McCarthy’s character he doesn’t have any money, the pressure is still the same, rich or poor: one must find meaning.

That image of a writer in his flat that we see often in Happiness… was reminiscent of Camus’ The Outsider (1942). Although Camus’ novel is not about a writer, it does seem to ask, what is an outsider but a person struggling to find meaning? Camus’ outsider is a man who is struggling to find feeling, meaning, in the death of a loved one: and why? Because he has to? There is a chapter in which Meursault, after seeing his dead mother, retreats to his flat, where he idly sits looking out of his window, observing the world below him. Like Meursault, the narrator of the Happiness… is often ‘boxed in’. Even when he is not in his flat, he carries this image of him being disconnected, of him trying to reach, connect and configure with the outside world. Instead, moments and events stream or filter through his vision and perception, and not in a stream-of-consciousness manner, but as phenomena, gone before he can comprehend it. At the opening he is saying how his air vent functions like an ‘old wired-in Soviet radio speaker'(that important mention of history as well), and he hears other people’s arguments filter into his flat.

“I don’t know their names, I don’t know what they look like but I think about them a lot. When my own text – the one that’s my vocation , the one I’m paid money for – when that text betrays me, then my weary thought mingles with my cigarette smoke and streams out through the air vent.”

Is it the death of the author? A couple of pages later he says “I am mute: my own soap opera has been a silent one since my wife left me.” The author might not be dead, but he is rendered mute. The sole, individual creator seems archaic in this society. This would hint toward Russia’s history of suppressing and incarcerating writers in one or way or another, but this sense of the individual being able, at least, to turn something into a personal, reflective experience is gone. McCarthy’s narrator in Remainder did wield a dictatorial power, but it seemed only meaningful in his life, in a purely solipsistic sense. It is inherently paradoxical, and like Meursault, no matter how much the narrator tries to enter the world, he takes the box with him. He needs others, but others don’t need him. Perhaps this then is The Insider?

Maybe it becomes more about feeling. It stretched beyond tired postmodern debates for me. Where Meursault was given the one, weighty event, in the form of his mother’s death, the world in which Happiness… is, there is a fecundity of meaning, or least potential for creation like in Remainder. Of course the reputability of these creations is the question. The political and ideological criticism is obvious, and in the ways that Groys talks above and in his book, it is how this work is turned into something of artistic value. When the narrator of Happiness…is at the restaurant and cannot find anything to say about the food, is it because he has nothing to say or because he doesn’t want to say anything (the juvenile use of the exclamation mark would suggest the latter to me)? He is under pressure to find something meaningful, something real out of his experience. As McCarthy demonstrates though, no amount, or lack of money can help re-create the real.

Image result for rogier van der weyden the descent of the cross

From Rogier van der Weyden’s (c.1435) The Descent from the Cross

Happiness…is ultimately about art in such an unpretentious way, in a way that would initially be seen as pretentious (self-referential narrator) that you can miss how profound this book is at times. It is primarily concerned with the gaze; that of the gaze outward by the artist and the gaze returned to the artist. Here is Groys again as he talks about the development of art and its practice:

“the division between artists and spectators seemed to be clear cut and firmly established socially: spectators were subjects of an aesthetic attitude, and works produced by artists were objects of aesthetic contemplation. But from the beginning of the twentieth century this simple dichotomy began to collapse” (Groys’ work is timely for this work as he references Soviet art frequently. But his discussions of the art and the avant-garde now in the age of the internet means its a book you should consider visiting if I haven’t persuaded you enough yet).

And what has it collapsed into? As I sit here writing this blog there is perhaps a clue there. The quest you follow in Happiness…is how this narrator can turn himself and his art into something that is worth the gaze of others, and is worthy of spectators. This is of course what all novels are, but you’re in the process and the pursuit, you the reader become the voyeur of the voyeur in Happiness…. For this reason it reminded me of Ben Lerner’s (2012) Leaving the Atocha Station. The similarities are not just startling with each other but with their precursors, as we’ve mentioned here, like Remainder and the The Outsider, as well as one another. For a start Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work were both published in 2012 and feature nameless narrators. Happiness…unlike Lerner’s work, is not by a debut novelist (yet only Zaionchkovsky’s second), but they are both narrators who have been given a capital to produce something (in Lerner’s; a thesis on the poet John Ashbery). And then, when you open the pages you get both narrators in their apartments, in a cosmopolitan city with the noises filtering, meaning to go out and have an artistic experience. Lerner’s endeavour appears much more of a crisis though; his narrator looks upon somebody else having a meaningful experience of art in a gallery looking at Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. I urge you to visit or re-visit that opening, but after looking at this person, Lerner’s narrator verges on panic and says, “I had long worried that I as incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew.”

The narrator, whether he knows it or not has received something from his experience, but not from the art. He has ‘discovered’ something, and all that might be, is a lack of an ability to have a profound experience by looking at somebody else. The Other has gotten in the way. The narrator in Happiness…tries to use others to develop his novel by recreating their stories, but it must ultimately come from one-self.

Happiness…is a self-conscious novel; the anxiety doesn’t seem as palpable as something like Leaving the Atocha Station but there is an acute awareness of the self and its lacking – the art is not making him whole. Ultimately, Happiness…like the other novels of its time, is about how do I create meaning from myself? How do I strip the societal, capital investments and pressures to produce something from myself? A question posed but not necessarily created by Woolf: how do I find a room of one’s own?

There is a lesson to be taken from Old Salamano in Camus’ work when his dog escapes. But when does it escape? When the old man is distracted by watching the stalls at the fair, and a performance of “The Escape King”. So, the thing that you are watching could in fact be the thing that is happening to you without you knowing it. In Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work, we have become the spectator of the dog disappearing, watching the watcher, but the gaze now may also be upon you. Art is not something that renders you entirely unconscious like it did to Old Salamano; art is more than a distraction, it requires somebody to pay attention to your attention.

And so with that in mind I’ll leave you with this passage from Zaionchkovsky’s novel.

“It seems to me that the image of Moscow only exists in the minds of the provincials. It’s the same with a whale for example: look at it from the outside and you see a certain image, but when it swallows you and you end up in its belly, the image disappears.”

Readers of Smith’s essay will have an advantage at seeing the strong claim in Zaionchkovsky’s novel to settle in with some of notable works of recent times, even if, as the narrator continually worries that he is a mute in his own soliloquy, even if he worries, as Prospero foretold, of being but a spirit and melting into thin air.

Remainder: Lessons at the Limits

Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken along with the context, means, that of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooner, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the whale, is much like having an apple; there is no intermediate remainder” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

There was a time when it seemed that that essay by Zadie Smith – ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ – was more known and read than Remainder itself. But now, McCarthy is one of the most notable and talented British novelists writing today, and two Booker nominations go to show for it. A Booker nomination can be a mystifying accolade though, and what would this ‘avant-garde’ novelist, eschewing the reliable and persisting, lyrical realism Smith riles against , make of being nominated for such a mainstream, literary prize? Clearly his work is not antithetical nor rejecting the culture at large.

This is one of the many paradoxes central to McCarthy’s work;  Remainder is a novel that plays with the redundancy of language so it becomes a novel that has plenty to say but doesn’t say anything and more directly, a novel that has had so much said about it, it is a wonder what to say next; what it is made up of, it rejects. Smith uses James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to elucidate the issue when she says:“The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegan’s Wake did not fundamentally disturb realism’s course as Duchamp’s urinal disturbed realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry a trace of the real”

Let’s look at how it carries this trace of the real.

~

It’s not necessary to do a point by point summary of the plot of Remainder, and instead point toward Smith’s essay and the text itself. However, what is making this task even more subservient, is that the edition that I’m using comes with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, which will be divulged later.  We know however, that our nameless narrator (or Enactor as Smith calls him) is bequeathed a large amount of settlement money after an accident. About the accident he says “I can say very little” and  this is no journey of discovery or reconciliation. With his money, instead of any hedonistic or philanthropic impulse (as Smith notes, both feel as inauthentic as the other), he decides to reconstruct a moment, that arrives through Deja vu, or a memory that he cannot locate in any time but feels that is inherently his. The reenactments multiply, becoming reenactments of reenactments, before culminating in a bank heist in a real, working bank.

Now, A film adaptation of McCarthy’s Remainder, directed by Omer Fast, has just been released and is coincidentally the impetus for writing about the book here. Putting it into the context of a film adaptation, Remainder shows itself to be the remarkable work that it is. This question of language that was highlighted at the start becomes even more complicated in this new context. Would Jacques Ranciere confidently have written this if he had read Remainder when he wrote in The Intervals of Cinema: “Cinema has been asked to fill the dream of a century of literature…Literature has been able to carry that dream because its discourse on things and their intensities stayed written in the double game of words, which hide from the eye the palpable richness which shimmers in the mind. Cinema just shows what it shows.” Remainder is a novel that just shows what it shows and seems to ask if we’re all anxious about what is real, and if we’re even worried that subjectivity is inauthentic, why divulge and express it with more inauthentic language?

Fundamentally it is grappling with what is real in the image culture, a very classically postmodern issue. And as we witness the narrator become obsessed with dissecting and slowing each moment in his reenactments, watching him only try to grasp at this thing we call real, all that is revealed is more space and vacuity; as Smith says Remainder “makes you preternaturally aware of space” as you read it.  Look at the narrator’s continual references to cricket. Smith uses this as one of the cruxes of comparison between Remainder and the ‘other direction for the novel’ Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. But McCarthy is not trying to wedge in any postcolonial metaphor, but is instead trying to understand the sport’s relationship with space and the image. Think of the different types of images that cricket gives to its viewer; the different types of replays; not just slow motion, but super-slow-motion, along with inventions like Hawkeye and Hotspot. These images don’t change the fundamentals of the game but they transform the viewing experience of it, and now, through a referral system, can alter decisions. A replay in effect, can now change the outcome of a game, and has become part of the game, rather than just the viewing experience.

Cricket: ‘Hotspot’ showing subtle edges and marks left by the ball.

What is the real experience with the image anymore then? Let’s remind ourselves how this starts – through a moment of Deja vu – an image, or a ‘memory’, that we feel that we have already inhabited before it has happened. The narrator says that “I’d been in a space like this before, a place like this” before he recounts the moment of being in that bathroom and looking at a crack in the wall. And unlike Deja vu dissipating, it instead persists. But Deja vu is the remembrance of a thing that hasn’t happened ultimately, of the brain working before itself, or the feeling of a memory that is not located in a particular space; or is not triangulated within the schema of our linearity of past, present, or future? It is as if working on all three,  suspended above them all, working on the memory – the arbiter of the past; experience – the recognition passing of the present into the future; and desire –  the wish for something to occur. What makes it such a striking experience though is that it is deeply personal. And like a replay, like all the reenactments, it feels like it has happened before, within reality,  like the moment a batsman watches his decision overturned and is now considered out and his innings over.

The narrator is trying to understand before experiencing. This is entirely possible: look how after the accident, the narrator receives physiotherapy and begins relearning the basic motor functions that occur automatically in a process called ‘rerouting’. Here is the essential predicament summed up when he says: “[rerouting is to]cut and lay the new circuits, what they do is make you visualise things. Simple things like lifting a carrot to your mouth…Understanding this, and picturing yourself lifting the carrot to your mouth, again and again and again, cuts circuits through your brain that will eventually allow you to perform the act itself. That’s the idea (my emphasis)”. He then goes on to detail all the minute possibilities that are encased within the act of putting a carrot to your mouth – twenty seven separate manoeuvres – and the thousands of imaginary carrots that he has successfully consumed. But when it comes to the actual physical carrot itself, he cannot get it to his mouth. It’s by repetition that he thinks he can understand it, reinforce it and in doing so, make it a real, manifested, repetitive action.

That’s the idea, that’s all it is, and the obsession of ideas permeates in all the reenactments.  But the transitions from an idea to the actual, physical completion of something are in different parts of the brain, and might as well be in different worlds. His world, both inside and out, is one of metaphysics and language, and although we can accept that our inner, thinking world is a foundationless one, to accept that the outer, physical world is as well is an abysmal one. This is the crisis, and it is a novel entrenched in crisis. It is embedded both locally within the novel and globally in the postmodern world. Smith says both Remainder and Netherland are enduring similar crises but playing them out very differently. Everything in Remainder is an idea, reducible to language, and not pretty lyrical language (“even my fantasies were plastic, imperfect, unreal”), a language that, even though it is the last vestige, is still stricken with inauthenticity. The narrator however is wanting and desiring to understand, but at each occasion, he’s greeted by more space that is only filled with more lyrical units.

Most books set out to answer why, or resolve, or at least through the dialectical process of reading, allow the reader to resolve. A book’s creation starts with just that though – the desire to create – and the narrator of Remainder at his core is a creator. This is where Smith and Wark converge. Remainder is typically self-conscious for its time and is effectively a creator creating a creation, but through the guise of an affable, naïve sounding narrator (McCarthy seems to have the ability to develop these effectively neurotic narrators that are implausibly limited, but at the same time affable and likeable). Wark addresses this more directly though when he says: “Creation once had a particularly exalted range of meaning. It is what God does. Remaining has more lowly connotations. Those not chosen come Judgement Day remain behind…” before adding that they become “unwanted books sold at knockdown prices are Remainders.” He says therefore that the questions that Remainder asks are: who gets to create? And when something is created, what remains, or is left behind? Furthermore, even if it is in the real physical world, is it real?

It is easy to look at this through the lens of postmodernity and ideology. This is a person who has an excessive amount of money and is investing it in these meaningless endeavours in an attempt to create meaning. The result is more surplus, debris, excess, indeed – remainders. But since the turn of modernity, we believe that we have the will to power, not a divine, invested power through a God. This sense of creation and being a creator is continually criticised, but what’s more, a criticism of critique is underway. The dispensation and availability of different theories to apply to the Remainder and the novel in general  is further adding to this sense that all is beneath us is more theory, or more language (McCarthy takes this even further in his latest novel Satin Island). Marxist, Feminist, Poststructuralist, Freudian, or even Theologically, there is no way one to understand, but there’s only one way to do it.

What does feel real however is the sense of anxiety (you may ground this in psychoanalytic interpretation) and as Smith talks of Netherland, even though there is a real anxiety there, it eventually reminds us of our ‘beautiful plenitude’, where Remainder resolves nothing and instead aspires to be more debris, or even, junk. Here is where the naivety of the narrator comes in: if it is a novel that is self-conscious, it doesn’t understand itself as a novel, and the creator doesn’t understand himself as a creator. Yet there is a palpable anxiety, because there is a desire withheld, which we may call creation and accept all of that words umbrage, from artistic to Freudian connotations.  What adds to it, is that he is not fully conscious of this anxiety, yet the reader is and feels it right till the very end and beyond. There is, as said nearer the start, no realisation or completion and although the creator produces a text, he doesn’t realise it. He is back to the problem of understanding and doing; he is doing and writing a novel, not understanding the implications of doing so, resulting in a novel that is not, by modern realist standards, necessarily a good one.

This is of course purposefully done by the real creator, Tom McCarthy. But where people like McCarthy and David Foster Wallace began diverging from the likes of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, is that they stop-short of there being some kind of fictive Other on which to project, regardless of the aesthetic of that Other. Think of the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ in DeLillo’s White Noise or the Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero mail systems (one fact, one fiction) in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: we know that they are ironic fictions, but there is something there and somewhere to project all this anxiety onto. Whether this is the grounding or not for the obsessive reenactments, but repetition is  born out of a desire and an anxiety to understand, in the same way writing a novel is born out of a desire to understand the self and the world. The anxiety acknowledged becomes intensified, even if the narrator doesn’t recognise it as so. Early modernity at least allowed there to be a private self but Remainder doesn’t; what isn’t private is unconscious.

Where it may become more a matter of ideology might be illuminated by some of the work Wark has done on the Situationists International (SI), mainly in his books ‘The Beach Beneath The Street’ (2011: a Situationist slogan, ironically used as an epitaph in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice) and ‘The Spectacle of Disintegration’ (which i’m going from here). The SI were a Marxist organisation that tried to counter the fact that capitalism had become so advanced that it had venerated not just labor and production, but every aspect of life and culture. But where Marx may have grounded his critique of society in philosophy, Guy Debord, the figurehead of the SI, ground his in culture. In his manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle (1968) Debord wrote, “the spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living”. There is clear influence from the likes of Lefebvre and consequently on people like Baudrillard, but capitalism had become so dominant and pervasive that culture had become commodified. Or rather, life, or the experience of it has. Remainder is at least aware that it is mixed up within the garble of slogans and commodification.

 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

And yet, with all these remainders and reminders the novel is centred on the fact that there is no remainder for him after the accident and the fleeting moment he initially has in the bathroom is without substance. Watch how the final scene shows how we need no precedent for there to be experience, or for that matter, a remainder. In the rehearsal for the bank heist there is a kink in the carpet that the actor repeatedly trips over, but when it comes to the actual heist, the kink is not there, which still causes the actor to fall and ruin the heist. The narrator in his perennial naivety says:“But it was a re-enactment. That’s the beauty of it. It became real while it was going on. Thanks to the ghost kink, mainly – the kink the other kink left when we took it away”.  Remainder is like a Mobius strip, and even though there’s no definitive starting point, everything has an idea and a desire, and as a result, a remainder. This is why this ‘avant-garde’ novel is so central to late, postmodern culture, because like Warhol’s Soup Cans, it is so eminently made up of it. All the stuff of it.

But there is something real that comes from this; there are real traces and remainders out there to remind us of all our creations. Wark opens his account of the legacy of the Situationists International, The Spectacle of Disintegration  with a description of the Great Pacific garbage patch in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is nothing more than a great mass of dispensed litter. Feeling related in some ethereal way, McCarthy warns in the acknowledgements to his latest novel Satin Island (2015) that all his books are regurgitated ideas and theories. There is some fun to be had in finding the traces in Satin Island. 

This is perhaps a real, reluctant lesson to be taken from Remainder.  After all, there is an experience of it. Experience is unique in that it is formed by our past, present and future, and sometimes they’re like kinks in a carpet, can only happen before we understand what it means. But understanding just means more language and relativity. Experience cannot simply be transformed into words: that is a reluctant, real, transcendent matter.

Remainder directed by Omer Fast, and starring Tom Sturridge is out now. A new edition of Remainder (originally published in 2005) by Tom McCarthy, with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, has just been published by Alma.

Satin Island (2015) by Tom McCarthy is published by Vintage.

McKenzie Wark’s The Spectacle of Disintegration (2013) is published by Verso.