A SMALL CIVILIZATION: torpor BY CHRIS KRAUS
Published in Rain Taxi - Fall 2006
Humor: the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral ambiguity and man in his profound incompetence to judge others…the intoxicating relativity of human things: the strange pleasure that comes of the certainty that there is no certainty.
Tersaments Betrayed – Milan Kundera
Torpor by Chris Krauss, recently published by Semiotext(e) is a brilliant, funny, and moving novel about the failure of a marriage and the moral vacuum created by the global “success” of contemporary American culture. This is not history on a grand scale but at ground level – it is not Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina but Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. Both novels by the Russian masters might be said to chart failure, but the first is tragic and seen from a great height as we survey a landscape of aristocrats on the make, while the latter is a comedy seen at ground level (or below) of chance events and their absurd consequences. Tolstoy's work is tied to the world of 19th aristocratic manners, that would collapse after WW1 but Dostoyevsky's work takes place in the present tense - it could be any large city today where the main character is already breathing the air of the 20th century. So it is with torpor, a novel that also charts failure, endings and beginnings: those of the main characters and of a generation that would experience the year 2000, and, consciously or not, put a period on two thousand years of civilization and chart the course of the new millennium. The novel begins with a couple Sylvie and Jerome (S&J) walking along a road that, significantly, was once a wagon trail during the 19th century but is no longer used or maintained. Sylvie is a punk-formalist film and video maker who writes applications for grants she never gets, works as a topless dancer to live and pay for her films, and occasionally teaches. Jerome is French, 18 years older than Sylvie, a serious academic tenured at Columbia University who edits books of famous continental philosophers – or as Sylvie describes him more cogently toward the end of the book: “French theory’s wandering pimp.” Aside from teaching he is working on a film called "Second Hand Hitler" and an essay called "The Anthropology of Unhappiness." Both projects, as one would expect, are being procrastinated over. S&J develop routines and word-play, they perform air-quotes and repeat certain phrases ironically, as many couples do, creating a “small-civilization” which is how Henry James once described the state of being a couple. Jerome is a survivor of the Second World War and “was struck too numb to actually convey its horror.” The war and the camps are his “home.” His favorite expression is “It could have been worse” - a refrain that repeats in the novel musically, becoming more ironic, tragic or absurd depending on each new context. Sylvie feels the need to have a child. They compromise and get a mongrel dog named Lily. Sylvie has three psychologically devastating abortions to comply with his family needs – commitments to a daughter by another woman – and then takes the initiative of taking their “small-civilization” to Romania after the fall of Ceausescu in order to adopt a child and build a family. Romania had by 1989 completely imploded and collapsed due to the fall of the Soviet Union that same year, and its satellite countries, once meant to be a buffer between Western Europe and the heartland of communism. That collapse, as to be expected, destroyed the life of thousands and also opened opportunities for business people to exploit the situation - one person's catastrophe is another person's bounty - that is the law of capitalism in its essence. The possibilities for relatively inexpensive adoptions of white babies, immediately following the collapse of the Soviet block, became a reality that many took advantage of, and Romania was one of centers of this new lucrative enterprise.
The novel charts the failure of S&J to adopt a baby and the collapse of their marriage. In Kraus’ previous novels I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia the line between fiction and the autobiographical was not simply carefully navigated, it was consciously obliterated. Like Kathy Acker, who was Kraus' contemporary, and Jean Rhys, who is her predecessor, she revels in putting the realities of autobiography and imaginative fiction into a blender whose effect is to make the transitions from one to the other impossible to detect even for the author herself. In torpor that destruction is intensified by the third person narration that acts as a distancing device that cools everything down and removes it from the codified language of diary entries, autobiographical rants and social media. She describes S&J with the ruthlessness and the caution of an anthropologist dissecting a new dig - one broken fragment at a time. S&J live in two separate homes that are in “quaint rural slums adjacent to resorts.” The juxtaposition of extreme class differences becomes a running motif. In torpor we see an America that is recognizably contemporary. This is unusual as so much contemporary writing leaves out everyday realities in favor of “literature.” One of the most intense of these juxtapositions happens when Sylvie sees the psychological devastation and poverty of the Romanian people through fake Versace sunglasses. The execution of Rumania’s dictator Ceausescu, the murder of Versace, the Chinese laborers who made the fake Versace sunglasses and the traumatized Romanians in Sylvie’s path, suddenly conflate and implode in one long stare as she surveys the wreckage of the 20th century from a taxi taking her (of course) from the airport to the hotel.
Kraus then compares Sylvie's own relationship with Jerome to a couple that they meet on their travels, a perfect “alpha-couple” reminiscent to Sylvie of the people in the American television sitcom Thirtysomething. That is, they have “lives that they are invested in, where cards like Marriage, Family and Career are played closely to the heart, and small decisions matter.” In direct opposition to this socially integrated model couple, who have moved “closer to the fold” Sylvie remains faithful to a rebellious, radical, punk philosophy. She is adamant (as only an adolescent can be) about authenticity, integrity and remaining faithful to the religion of profound art personified by artists from Van Gogh and Rimbaud to Artaud and Patti Smith. Sylvie gambled on the seriousness and weight of these feelings and at the age of “thirty-something” comes to feel betrayed by her faith as others, seemingly also in the religious quest for radical authenticity, quietly and without explanation, move to the suburbs, get a job and start their "real lives." This in itself is not so unusual. What is unique is the way Kraus creates a narrative that moves from California to Romania allowing us to see the relationship of Sylvie’s failure to the larger failures of a corporate culture that has – aside from the “slave-mentality” of the “free-market” - ground any depth of feeling and ideas into a flat screen where everything is equivalent – and by inference – nothing means or matters very much. The various people sleepwalking throughout the “post-industrial/post-communist” western world that Sylvie encounters pass through her and leave a mark. To her credit she refuses to treat them as “interesting” or “colorful.” She tries to fight the good fight. That she looses is not the point – the road traveled tells us a lot about who we are at the moment.
The novel describes the world of academics, avant-garde artists, and their respective Salons. This is a privileged elite that must maintain the posture of a democratic, egalitarian community to ensure its own sense of reality, creating an impression of irredeemable nonsense worthy of Milan Kundera, who chronicled a similar lineup of absurd institutionalization in his novels describing Eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet Bloc. While Kundera chronicled Soviet crimes against common sense, thereby eviscerating them with glee, Kraus does the same for our own home grown "free-market" variety. In torpor we see the holidays and the apartments paid for by grants, the parties for donors and editors, the magazines and the art (institutional critiques!) that cater to the tastes of cognoscente comically removed from the fray of what used to be called “engagement.” In this world Sylvie is at once an insider and an outsider – something that bonds the Jewish Frenchman who both loves and loathes France to her, a woman who cannot join her friends as they embrace the “New Traditionalism” but is also out of the loop in the conservative aristocracy (is there another kind?) of academe and high art.
Jerome’s friends regard Sylvie as an invisible prop that her husband has brought with him as a moral obligation. In one of the funniest moments in the book she is made to sit beneath “several neo-expressionist paintings inspired roughly by Willem de Kooning’s Women. Sylvie sits beneath one painting of two enormous cunt-lips sprouting fangs.” The rest, as someone once said, is silence, as the various partners of the famous, set temporarily aside, sip their drinks while smiling politely at each other. The capitulation of all the secondary characters in the book to the market realities of careerism and to the biological necessities of sex, family and children is rendered comically in prose worthy of Swift. The names S&J come from Georges Perec’s Things, a novel in which a couple become entranced by consumer objects to the point of forgetting their animal nature and their humanity. It is significantly subtitled “a novel of the sixties.” The wit and the cultural baggage that define S&J’s routines are defense mechanisms that work superbly well in dinner parties in Long Island and bar-be-cues in Los Angeles. But those routines come apart at the seams in precisely the place that S&J choose to go: Eastern Europe – where the weight of History is a palpable reality with consequences (no air quotes possible). History has not just refused to come to an end there, it is in your face like the stench of an open sewer, and there is nowhere to turn and make it stop. The human beings that are still alive have been destroyed psychically many times over, but somehow they carry on – they live – and Sylvie listens to them. She learns not History (like Jerome) but little histories through a long oral tradition of women talking to women. This is a beautiful mirror image of Jerome’s interview books with star philosophers talking about culture, ideas, ideologies, and art theory.
In the dichotomy between the insights that Sylvie gains on that aborted trip to Romania and Jerome’s stoic passivity lies the heart of the book. The man who wrestles with History - by writing books about its tragic incommensurability - so he withdraws is disgust - and the woman desperate to enter history – by having a child and a family – cancel each other out. Yet the novel is in a sense a love letter to Jerome and to his profound but laconic, and ultimately passive despair - a torpor that Sylvie loves and hates. The trip to Romania becomes that most horrifying of events, a ready-made-narrative that can be brought out at dinner parties when there is a lull: "…a well-crafted story to tell at dinners in New York and L.A. They’ll find ways of telling it that obscure the purpose of their trip. They won’t say that much about the orphan.” Their social smiles become fixed in some horrible frieze: a tableau of respectable despair. With Jerome’s encouragement she starts to “date” by using a “Telepersonals Dating Hotline.” She finds a picture of herself from when she wanted to have a child and a family and realizes: “The woman in the picture is inescapably immersed in an expectant emptiness… the same emptiness that Sylvie likes to simulate by having recreational sex in Los Angeles. Safe in the suburbs of L.A., cheerfully pursuing a career in an art world that no longer matters much to her or to anyone, except perhaps to those that play the market, she sees a link between her present life and the photo.” In that link lies not simply the failure of Sylvie to create a family, because what makes Sylvie’s tragedy profound is not the depth of feeling, which would be profound regardless, but that it encompasses the aspirations, the self-doubts, and the biological needs of a generation that betrayed itself in favor of an agenda that was always a little abstract and ultimately unreal. It is of course by embracing this failure honestly that Kraus gives herself a voice that resonates, because it goes beyond itself, beyond the narcissistic "me," outward, to encompass us all – it becomes a portrait of a generation.
©George Porcari 2006