Disorder: Juli Zeh’s “Corpus Delicti”

Zeh, Juli (2009), Corpus Delicti: Ein Prozess, Schöffling
ISBN 9-78-3-89561-434-7

Do you smoke? Does it bother you to be forced to go outside to smoke? To be frowned upon whenever you light up in public? That people assume you would stop smoking if you had the discipline to do it? Are you overweight? Does it bother you that the bar for obesity is dropping lower and lower, so that any surplus weight is treated as a disorder? That eating healthy is turning into less of a choice and more of something that is expected, normal? In the public eye, the thin, well-proportioned hunks have become norm rather than the pleasant exception; any deviation from that ideal, any perceived deformity, turns into a marked freak show act. Does that irritate you? Does it irritate you how quickly we, as a society, have internalized hygiene standards and have purged that which we consider normal from all taint of filth and dirt? Disinfectants have become the norm rather than the exception in household cleaning utilities. The larger scope of biopolitics aside, on the small scale we have learned to discipline our bodies on our own really well, and the trends there, especially after phenomena like the outbreak of the swine flu, does not bode well for the future. Does this make you mad sometimes? Does this worry you? Well, if so, you’re not alone; it is a widespread concern and Corpus Delicti, Juli Zeh’s most recent novel is a particularly vivid example of that.

Juli Zeh’s career has been a constant success. While the fortunes of young German writers have been inconsistent, Juli Zeh has thrived. Daniel Kehlmann published 5 novels in near obscurity (well, as obscure as a writer can be who is published by Suhrkamp, where his second, third and fourth novel saw the light of day), until, in 2005 he made it big-time with his sixth novel, Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World). Judith Hermann made a huge splash with her critically acclaimed and well-selling first collection of short stories, Sommerhaus, später (Summerhouse, later), and was widely lambasted by the critics for her second collection, Nichts als Gespenster (Nothing but Ghosts). With her third collection, published this month, it is a toss-up. These tales could be continued until dawn, without Zeh’s name ever being called up. Juli Zeh’s debut novel was a huge success and the two novels that followed continued that trend. True, Zeh had always her detractors, but they, too, are somewhat reliably predictable. The main offence that Zeh seems to commit, according to her critics, is the use of overburdening intellectual concepts and constructions. Since, in interviews, Zeh doesn’t always appear to be the most brilliant of writers, not quite understanding some of the concepts she uses, I was always wary.

For various reasons, however, when her latest novel, Corpus Delicti: Ein Prozeß, came out, I picked it up. It’s my first Zeh novel, and in many ways, it’s said to be an atypical effort, so my impressions of the book will not be transferable to other Zeh novels. That said, it’s an ok read. It’s not great, not even very good, and Zeh, as many contemporary German novelists, is an excruciatingly bad stylist, sometimes, but you won’t regret reading it and it has some good moments. Most of the good moments are, of course, ‘borrowed’, that is, they are not due to Zeh’s original writing and/or thinking, but to the source material she used to cobble together the intellectual construction of the book. Corpus Delicti is a science fiction novel, albeit with the SF aspect toned down as much as possible, which depicts a dystopian, in some respects vaguely dictatorial society; as could be expected, the novel owes much to greats of the genre such as Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. Sadly, taking a SF framework seems to give Zeh the excuse to go for caricatures instead of characters, for puppets instead of persons. Stylistically, and especially in what concerns atmosphere, other important references are stories by Kafka (reading the book, the word ‘Kafkaesque’ comes to mind repeatedly), or by Kunert (for instance the justly celebrated story “Zentralbahnhof”). As with Davis’ collection, Zeh’s novel, too, never transcends her predecessors or is able to beat them at their own game.

This is not a bad thing, however. Zeh’s novel is less an effort to create an original work of Art (note the capital letter), it’s rather an angry screed against developments that Zeh perceives to be harmful in her society; it is meant to be much more disposable than your everyday novel, in a way, it’s performative, like any political pamphlet. It wants to show us where our current policies and attitudes could lead us; it rallies us to protest and to action. It is, however, this lack of interest in making a durable work of art that may, in the long run, prove to be its biggest asset in achieving just that. Whereas critics have repeatedly pointed out the strained ‘artiness’ of Juli Zeh’s novels, from the construction down to the metaphors, in Corpus Delicti, they are balanced by the writer’s fury, which injects a full load of feeling and originality into what would otherwise devolve into a formulaic genre novel, which is not written well enough to hold together. As it is, the reader who sees the context, who feels Zeh’s anger, is whipped into reading it cover to cover with baited breath. Yes, the end is not surprising, but that is the point, isn’t it? The end is inevitable, inescapable, nd necessary. Zeh shouts at you: this will happen. Get a move on. Do something.

The plot is simple: the protagonist, Mia Holl, is mourning her brother, the late Moritz Holl, who was imprisoned because of alleged antisocial, dangerous acts, and membership in a terrorist group, and on death row for murder. In jail, he commits suicide by hanging himself. Before disappearing into the bowels of the System, he had made a few ominous comments about the direction his life was about to take, talking about his new girlfriend, who was apparently responsible for his political awakening. Throughout the book, this girlfriend, whom Mia has never met, keeps her company, a shadow, her better self, the possibility of living a better, more aware life. Mia never believed that her brother was a murderer. Then, all of a sudden, with the possibility of proving Moritz’ innocence hanging in the air, Mia Holl is arrested and prosecuted for, well, for what, exactly? For not conforming to the exigencies of the society she lives in. To be sick is a crime in her society (here Zeh is thinking through an idea of Butler’s classic Erewhon, by putting it into a familiar setting and exploring the reasoning behind that thinking), any kind of excess is criminalized. If today’s politicians are considering to make ‘reckless’ people pay for the cost they are allegedly causing to the health system, in Zeh’s future society they have criminalized antisocial and dangerous behavior. As with many dystopias, the impulse is partly anti-individualistic, as offenders against the public good, who do not behave in as uniform and bland a fashion as the other citizens, are ostracized, jailed and, sometimes, executed.

Totalitarianism is not one of Zeh’s targets, however. The society in the novel is like ours in many respects. This is not 1984. Personal actions and freedoms are stressed time and again (which makes it worse, of course); we see uniformity in just this one aspect, although controlling and disciplining the body may be one of the most important and pernicious parts of public policies. Sickness is a crime in Zeh’s world, because, unless you’re reckless, you won’t get sick. Genetic screening, hygiene and a responsible and well-planned diet are to blame for a squeaky clean society, with zero illnesses. Zeh’s thinking is somewhat troubling, though. Her criticism clearly targets only those policies that discomfort the roughly normal man of today. What happens to people who get, through no fault of their own, into accidents? How does being pregnant work? In Butler’s Erewhon we were indeed offered an explanation for the fact that pregnant women are not prosecuted. Although the logical system in Corpus Delicti is better woven, Zeh leaves crucial components out that do tell us quite a bit about the tacitly accepted norm in the book, which is the basis for its outrage.

As the novel progresses, Mia Holl is more and more caught up in the absurdities of bureaucracy, in a web of defamation, lies and the absurd standards of a society where she is an outcast if she stops toeing the line. I mentioned it above: there is a huge amount of personal freedom in Zeh’s world. It is not so much different from ours in the way we discipline ourselves, in the way we castigate, lampoon and shower with derision those who don’t share what we consider the necessary tenets of society. Other themes of the novel, such as gender, are also, though refracted through the dystopian scenario, reminiscent of our present day; I take, for instance, the rise and fall of the fortunes of a female judge, to be a reflection on the case of district attorney Lichtinghagen. With direct references like this, Zeh doesn’t allow her readers to read the book as an idle or entertaining exercise in thought, instead she hammers home the topicality of it all time and again. The book is a good though preachy read, a quick read, enlivened by the anger of Zeh who thinks we’re ceding control over our bodies. The fact that, as a positive counter-image, she posits a clean, self-controlled, strong human being, something that we can all manage, if we just try, is Corpus Delicti’s major failing. She is not as far from the people she attacks as she may think.  In one of the most passionate speeches in the novel, she extols weakness, but this is a sham, a mask. Like much Christian thought, her praise of weakness is rhetorical, it’s a masked strength. In Zeh’s novel there is no room for actual weakness. Weakness is external, the very rhetorical power of her praise of weakness derives from its position on the outside. In short, she may disagree about the order that she thinks our society is heading towards, but she is in favor of just as strong an order herself, even if it is a slightly different one.

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7 thoughts on “Disorder: Juli Zeh’s “Corpus Delicti”

  1. Pingback: Juli Zeh: Corpus Delicti - World Literature Forum

  2. Interesting review, Shigekuni. Thank you.

    Have you seen the film ‘Gattaca’? The idea of genetic screening and of punishing/ostracising people who are genetically ‘inferior’ (because their parents decided to allow them to be born ‘naturally’, rather than being screened and ‘repaired’ while still in the womb, therefore risking sickness etc, comes to mind reading your review.

  3. Yeah but the major point of Zeh’s novel is everyday behavior. The genetic screening is just a necessity for the society she depicts. Actually, one could use Zeh’s (rather mediocre) novel to criticise gattaca. Zeh is about choice, about keeping clean every day, about NOT SMOKING, about eating healthy, procreating in a genetically sensible way. Sickness is a crime, because you become sick by choice. Genetic screening takes away that choice, so in Gattaca you have to escape the screening to step outside. It’s choice. And you will excuse me, but Zeh’s point is very much influenced by her being German. The old myth that, in the third reich, you had to conform or else, is not quite true, not as much as, for instance, in Stalinist Russia. Bad things happening are not the result of a small nomenclatura doing bad things. It’s the majority of people agreeing that the bad things are good, or at least necessary and not bad. Gattaca is somewhat muddling this point of individual choice.

  4. Pingback: Corpus Delicti by Juli Zeh | Best2Buy eBooks

  5. Pingback: Corpus Delicti by Juli Zeh | Best2Buy eBooks Blog

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