Blake Crouch: Dark Matter

Crouch, Blake (2016), Dark Matter, Pan
ISBN 978-1-4472-9757-4

I’ve said it before, on this blog and elsewhere – the power of science fiction is to make familiar things less so, to expand the way we read, both texts as well as the world that surrounds us. That doesn’t mean that all texts have to be Dhalgren, but they don’t also have to be Crichton light. It is particularly odd when basic structures of our world as we know it, are lazily reinforced in fiction that would not need to be tied to them. Some books are under-girded by sexist stereotyping but are otherwise well meaning and expansive in other ways. None of that is true for Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter the most disappointing book I can remember reading in a long time. Not the worst, mind you, there are a lot of bad books out there and I do read epic fantasy. But the most disappointing. A book I was told was, to quote a blurb, “mind-bending,” when, in the end, there wasn’t as much bending as settling. My god what a boring book Dark Matter turned out to be. A book about the multiverse, about identity, reality, about who we are, or at least that is what it could have been. Instead, Dark Matter is about one man’s quest to get back the woman he feels he owns. It’s utterly baffling that anyone who has ever read a good science fiction novel would look at this godawful mess and think, yes, this is good, I have no notes for the author. To be clear – this is not about the prose. With genre, I am willing to make compromises. Not everybody is Brian Evenson. So yes, the prose is absurdly bad. It’s not overwritten purple prose. It’s merely plain, and banal, and utterly unaware and directionless, with its writer having invested as much effort into crafting interesting sentences as he has into the structure of the novel as a whole.

The main effort, clearly, went into researching the science behind it all. The whole book has a massive masculinity problem, as has the odd modern obsession with science over philosophy (Neil Degrasse Tyson is a particularly noxious example) and general forms of thought. Science fiction has always attracted scientists and sometimes they have not been the greatest stylists. But writers like Asimov and Clarke are considered classic writers because they use their background to dig deeper into the soft flesh of the world, to grope for possibilities, for pushing our understanding. There is none of that here, or in the current fascination with science, or rather, engineering, as an answer to all our problems. Fittingly, the book has a blurb by Andy Weir, whose Martian had also disappointed me, a book unwilling or unable to imagine anything beyond an engineering problem. But Dark Matter even undercuts the Martian on the marketplace of ideas. And it’s such a bummer, because as always, the science is truly fascinating and begs for someone to find the right literary approach. What’s worst is that the book isn’t even any fun. I have a big heart and soft spot for genre books that may not enlarge the language or possibilities but are greatly enjoyable. That’s not the case here. There is no difference between the incessant, dour, seemingly unending monologue of Crouch’s protagonist and all the many thousands poor, put-upon white men all over mainstream fiction who walk through their cities, their banal, unfair worlds, eager to stick it to the lesser people around them, and to stick it into a woman, any woman, ideally a woman that somehow belongs to them. These are worlds that give the lie to Galileo – the earth doesn’t revolve around the sun, it revolves around the taint of mediocre white men who think they are geniuses in disguise.

Only in this case, Crouch constructs a fictional universe that does revolve around his unbelievably unbearable protagonist. He gives up the game real early – his protagonist used to be a brilliant scientist, and teaches at a second rate college now, because he gave up his career to raise a child with a woman who’s an artist. Yes, this is the same gender split as in Charlie Jane Anders’s reactionary novel. But what’s worse is that he makes the woman such a wooden regurgitator of the praise he feels is owed to the protagonist.

I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, “Your father could have won the Nobel.”
I laugh. “That’s possibly an exaggeration.”
“Charlie, don’t be fooled. He’s a genius.”
“You’re sweet,” I say. “And a little drunk.”
“It’s true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your family.”
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward hyperbole.

Who is he talking to here? This last condescending remark – who is he arguing against? Do men have to explain their silly wives, even when they are fictional? Don’t mind her, after a few drinks, you know how she gets. And also – “hyperbole”? This misplaced modesty is both unpleasant and typical. We know, from the rest of the book, that it’s true, that the protagonist has indeed made a spectacular discovery. He made it largely on his own, which is not how big scientific discoveries are made, but coming up with a team of scientists would have complicated Crouch’s shitty narrative, so it’s one man, one theory, and, crucially for the plot, once that man vanishes, nobody can reconstruct what happened, not even with all notebooks and data intact. I mean, he’s a real genius, and somewhere in Crouch’s infested mind, this is how geniuses work in science.

So what happens in the book is this (spoilers, spoilers, etc): a version of our protagonist, who didn’t abandon his career for a baby, creates a machine that allows people to access the infinite other selves that exist in the multiverse. You have to take a drug, and hop into a kind of time machine, which is half TARDIS, half HG Wells. Now, that scientist visits our protagonist, takes him and basically does an exchange of hostages, takes over his happy family life. Our protagonist, meanwhile wakes to a world where he is a successful scientist who has made a pact with a ruthless billionaire. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the protagonist decides to get back to his original “world” and reverse the exchange. He takes with him a female scientist who, of course, is a psychologist, because GOD forbid there are female physicists in Crouch’s dick-shaped worldview.

Now, due to complications and an equal amount of stupidity on the part of the so-called genius that’s our protagonist and the so-called “mind-bending” nitwit who wrote him, a proliferation of versions of the protagonist, a multitude of selves, descends on this original world, and in the end, after some chases, some gun- and knife-fights, the protagonist escapes with his wife and child, into the multiverse. If this sounds like a stupid plot, it is. But the most bizarre thing is that the idea isn’t necessarily bad? Crouch is aware that his scientific research gives him no firm ground to stand on, ontologically. Differences between the multiverses are minute, the same applies to the different versions of the protagonist. At no point does this lead Crouch to introduce the idea of undecidability, of ambiguity, into the book. Everything in the book is always exactly clear, exactly nailed down. We know that the world he lands in last is the original world, because he can tell, of course. And what’s more important, because we always follow his voice, we are never shaken in our faith that the person we’re listening to is the original one, the real one, the one who “deserves” to get the wife.

If anything’s mind-bending, it’s the author’s utter gall to write a novel based on a science of ambiguity, and undecidability, and make it absolutely, boringly immobile. Nothing changes, nothing is odd or unexpected. We are always where we need to be. It’s always clear what’s real and what’s not, who’s real and who’s not. And added to that, we are let into the mind of our protagonist, who needs his wife back – not any old version of her, but the one he met and fucked. I mention that part, because that part is particularly important to him. He’s obsessed whether the self that replaced him temporarily fucked his wife better than he did. It’s constantly on his mind, and once he re-acquires his wife, it is one of only a handful questions he asks, and she, of course, answers in detail. And symbolically, she only becomes fully his (and comes fully on board with this multiverse story he tells her) after they have sex and he re-asserts his territorial importance.

This is a story about two things: about identity and how fractured it is in a multiverse, and about love. But this is a diseased, greedy, kind of love where the woman is a mere bit player. And the question of identity? We are never, not for one moment, shaken in our sense of who we follow, who is where, and it feels like taunting when Crouch has his stodgy, surprisingly stupid protagonist say: “My understanding of identity has been shattered – I am one facet of an infinitely faceted being who has made very possible choice and lived every life imaginable. I can’t help thinking that we’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.” But of course, he has to say it, absolutely HAS to, because the novel doesn’t fucking say it anywhere in the way it’s made. And as if to affirm all this, the very next sentence is “but none of the other Jasons matter. I don’t want their lives. I want mine.” I thought these facets are inseparable? They are not? Who’d a thunk it.

Dark Matter has already been optioned for the screen and it will make a passable movie, maybe even a good one. The writing already reads like explanations for the screen. As far as thrillers go I have read worse. But this is mainly disappointing, because of what it could have become, instead of what it is, a spoonful of spunk after 300 pages of masturbatory, uninspired middle-of-the-road thriller fare. Sad.

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On Predictions

So one year ago, not exactly one year, but more or less, God don’t start counting the days, ok it was early May 2018, 9th, or 10th, I don’t know – anyway, Scottish musician Scott Hutchison died a year ago by his own hand, or by his own volition anyway, he was found, after people looked for him for a while, floating in the River Forth, the latter being a river near/in Stirling, Scotland, and he was found there, dead, after a well documented struggle with depression, his band’s fifth album having come out recently, anyway, so they were doing a tenth anniversary tour of their album The Midnight Organ, and song #13 on that album is called Floating in the Forth, and is about suicide, let me quote it: “And fully clothed, I float away / (I’ll float away) / Down the Forth, into the sea / I think I’ll save suicide for another day” (oh yeah that worked out a-ok), I mean, if you’re thinking I used the word “floating” in describing his suicide because of the song, you’re not wrong, you know, but what else was I going to say: he was found drowned, puffed up, buoyant, drifting, bobbing, I mean of course I am going to say “floating” – it is the most fitting word here given the musical antecedent and this is always creepy, right, like an announcement, then again, ten years is a long time for an announcement, so maybe the anniversary tour was a reminder, sometimes we really don’t need reminders of our worst instincts, and anyway so I was looking at my first collection of poetry, because, you know, I don’t write poems like that any more really, I’m working on distance and structure more, but there is a lot of very direct unvarnished depression in my first book and I was looking at it and wondering whether if something happens to me and I am the miscreant who had done the happening, whether someone could look at the book and think, huh, lookit this poem this sounds a lot like what happened and what would it mean I mean I don’t think i am that person any more, but maybe at the end of the day that person is like Schwartz’s heavy bear who walks with me and I will never get rid of them and then some day, someone will look at the book and say, huh, will you look at this, he predicted it, I mean what if I suicide Nostradamus, you know.

Me, reading

Here is a picture of me reading in late May on my trip to Boston. This is Cambridge at the “Poetry Readings at Outpost 186” series of readings with Andrew Singer’s art all around me. Picture by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright. Among the texts I read was a brand new poem about my grandfather who has died in June.

#tddl: the winner is…privilege?

So, man what a bummer this day was. Yesterday I wrote “what’s notable about today’s writers is just a continuation of things I already noted. This is the first time that the selection and treatment of writers seems so cohesive – and not in a good way. Following along in real time is like looking at a thesis statement, of a thesis you do not particularly care about.”

This absolutely continued in the award voting. In my German language commentary I wrote a 1000 word mini-essay on how these awards exemplify the typical Bachmann-text and I cannot summon the energy to do it a second time. But the main thing to understand is this: there are always typical Bachmann texts, and texts that are different. If your text is good enough, it will make it onto the awards list even if it doesn’t fit the mold.

There was no room for exceptions this year. The special kind of voting leads to every award coming down to a two-text runoff ballot, so for four awards you can have up to 8 texts competing – and since the shortlist (voted on before the beginning of the public awards voting) consists only of 7 texts, you’d assume all texts get a look-in. Not so. Each of the four runoff votes involved Yannic Han Biao Federer’s text, until it won the fourth award. The winner is Birgit Birnbacher’s text – excellent and fitting for Klagenfurt. Leander Fischer’s and Yannic Federer’s catnip won second and fourth place respectively, and Julia Jost won third place. The only other text that made it into the runoff election was, bizarrely, Daniel Heitzler’s absurdly bad story. Although both Sarah Wipauer and Ronya Othmann had made it to the shortlist, neither of which even received runoff consideration, not to mention an award, which is enduringly strange.

It felt like a circling of the wagons around the cultural capital that is amassed by the gatekeepers represented by the Bachmannpreis-jury and the whole unsavoury theoatre surrounding it. “We are important and the texts we like are important” seems to be the message. As all people of privilege in Germany and Europe and the world are circling the wagons, whether it is men, or white people or the financially dominant class, afraid of losing that privilege, this group of critics, professors and academics replicates a process that is happening everywhere, shutting the door hard on difference. But what today’s awards also make clear is that a solid portion of the public is no longer behind them. In this small microcosm, this is represented by the public vote – which went to Ronya Othmann’s important, excellent text, who thus won the fifth, public award. This tension, the closing of doors by the gatekeepers is regrettable, but what’s most remarkable that the two best writers of the competition are two young women, who have not even published one book of prose – and thus represent an exciting future.

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

 

 

 

#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the  2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day three (of three) went. The writers who read today* were, in this order: Ines Birkhan, Leander Fischer, Lukas Meschik, Martin Beyer. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For my account of day one click here. For my account of day two click here. For a German summary of the whole thing, which I also wrote, for Faustkultur, click here.

If yesterday’s post was a bit on the long side, today*’s summary is likely to be more brief. That’s not just because the Saturday slate of writers, as every year, is one writer shorter than the other days, but also because in many ways, what’s notable about today’s writers is just a continuation of things I already noted. This is the first time that the selection and treatment of writers seems so cohesive – and not in a good way. Following along in real time is like looking at a thesis statement, of a thesis you do not particularly care about.

The big exception was Ines Birkhan, the first reader of the day. Now, to be entirely honest, I went into this, intrigued but not expecting a lot. I had read her debut novel before, which was entirely unique, but not necessarily in a good way. Chrysalis read like a quickly written piece of fan fiction, you know the kind – it’s always a bit too long because the writer does not have the mot juste, like, ever, but also lacks the literary training to have easy access to cliché. So yesterday we had two different kinds of exact descriptions in the Federer and Birnbacher text. Federer spread out the vast microscopic observable detail and had absolutely no wish or ability to cut to down to an exact, resonating image or phrase, and he used literary clichés judiciously. Birnbacher was extraordinarily good at the good, exact observation, and tough on cliché. Birkhan’s novel somehow turns up in a third space. There are no clichés in it, but every description, and half the accounts of what happens read like someone had to paraphrase a text in an extraordinary hurry. It seemed very bad, but at the same time very original. So, originality, but at what cost? The second book was better written, with a Jelinek-inspired use of sexuality and a very political surrealism, about contemporary events. The story she read on Saturday, an excerpt from a forthcoming third novel, was much better than each. Gone was the awkwardness of descriptions, everything was much better. She was on similar conceptual ground as the very first reader of the competition, Katharina Schultens. Both offered a spec fic that drew on human transformation, and both had a bit of a vague sense of place. But where Schultens missteps both linguistically and literarily in her treatment of plot and structure, Birkhan’s text is tight, moves the reader forward. She integrates the descriptions of animals and morphology much better, an absolutely solid text, one of the best of the competition. You’d think a jury that had been kind even to the crappiest of stories (Gerster, Heitzler) would reflect this, as well. Instead, what happened was that two thirds of the jury absolutely savaged the text, to the point where the person who had invited it, Nora Gomringer, was constantly forced into a corner. The leader of the pack, Insa Wilke rose to a spectacular furor that was so strong, she kept coming back to the text and her hatred of it even in later discussions. It’s an absolute mystery to me why the jury reacted like that, especially since they had been so kind in the previous days. It is my personal theory that the similarity (but obvious deficiencies, compared to Birkhan) of Schultens’s text which had been invited by Wilke, and some other kind of resentment had played a role in it. Who knows. What I can say is that the hostility was so overwhelming that the critics ended up forcing Birkhan to defend her text, something that had not happened in a long, long time. Birkhan’s reply was elegant and smart. She pointed to the literary influence of Konrad Bayer, and briefly sketched some details of how the text was made. What a spectacle, what an undignified treatment of a text and its author, and fellow members of the jury. And what a dignified author.

The rift in the jury was quickly mended with the second writer of the day. If my statement about Federer yesterday was that he appealed to the jury, especially biographically, the same applied tenfold to the second text. Leander Fischer’s story was Bachmannpreis-catnip. Clever, well written, playful. Entirely devoid of relevance, but at the same time extraordinarily well made in the exact way the jury likes. There is no way this text dents the top three of Wipauer, Othmann or Birnbacher, or at least it should not, but it reads and sounds like a text that should do well. I don’t have much more to say, as I was neither interested nor intrigued by the text, though I can at least appreciate and laud the skill involved.

That skill was, confusingly, absent with the third text. i say “confusingly” because Lukas Meschik, despite his young age, is already a seasoned novelist, who writes novels at a rapid clip, some of them quite ambitious and voluminous. So when he turned up with an autofiction about his father’s burial that was among the dullest texts ever presented in Klagenfurt, it did make my head turn. This text is a kind and generous text about a father that appears neither ambitious not ambiguous. It is entirely unclear why a prolific and seasoned writer would turn up with a text like this. Some in the jury were similarly puzzled, at least one of the judges suggested the same inversion they had all suggested applied to Daniel Heitzler. To be honest, i was surprised this opinion wasn’t more widely adopted since Meschik was more deserving of reasonable doubt than Heitzler – there is something to be said about routine and work ethic in writing. It produces, as we could see from Federer’s text, a certain consistency. This apparent break here, in favor of uncomplicated sentimentality is at least unexpected.

The final text of the day, however, was a real humdinger. If you thought that Silvia Tschui’s text from day one upset me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. For context, for day one’s anger and this, maybe you need to understand that what’s happening in many countries, the rise of the radical right to insitutional power or at least coming real darn close to it, is happening in Germany too. What we also have is a kind of revisionist overton window that keeps moving to the right. The wave of texts about Germany-as-victim, jumpstarted by Günter Grass’s very bad but very explicably very popular late-career novel about the sinking of the Gustloff, Crabwalk (for my take on Grass and his career go here), were the beginning, but once we look at Germans as victims of Soviet aggression and Allied bombing (ignoring why it happened, who and what the populace had supported for how long), then it’s not that much of a leap to also look at the German officers and soldiers and the straight Nazis and ask how bad they were, really. A TV movie event called Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter took this and ran with it, with the barely concealed subtext being “sure they all say we were bad, but look we were like you, but look at the Polish people, much worse!” It is quite something that there was so much room to move to the right, given the insane amount of former Nazis whitewashed after the war and leading the country. Baden Württemberg, one of Germany’s most properous and largest states had a former Nazi judge as governor, and Chancellor Kiesinger was an NSDAP member, not to mention all the writers and professors and judges and the vast majority of the new country’s Foreign Office, and much of the new party FDP and on and on and on. But there was always bit of shame, a bit of underhandedness. They weren’t really members, not really Nazis, etc. etc. This is slowly starting to fall away which should terrify everyone living in this country. It is in this atmosphere, then, that Martin Beyer presented his text, a short story about the execution of the Scholl siblings. The Scholl siblings were genuinely part of the resistance against Nazi Germany. Principled, generous, forthright young people though what they did would barely make a dent in the resistance stories of other countries. They, like the Edelweißpiraten, wrote leaflets to the population. There was no real, active, armed, broad resistance in Germany, compared to France, or Poland or most other countries (for reasons I do not need to spell out), so the actions of Hans and Sophie Scholl truly stood out. They are unquestioned heroes in German history and culture. A story dealing with their execution thus has to deal with an exceptional amount of weight, and requires an exceptional amount of moral clarity and literary skill and investment. NONE of which is found in Beyer’s story, which focuses, of all things, on the executioner. Now, the actual executioner is a fascinating figure. The Nazis had their special #1 executioner shipped in, Johann Reichhart. He is an infamous murderer, but also, after the war, he was employed by both the Allies and the Bavarian state. His son, burdened by the pressure of being Johann freakin Reichhart’s son, committed suicide, I mean there is clearly a story there, also setting him in opposition to these famously principled young people. None of which is exploited by Beyer in any way. He makes an unknown, one time assistant to Reichhart his focal point. Why does he do this unpleasant job? Oh, to make money. Oh, because he is a victim of the war. Oh, because he has lost a brother in the war. Oh, of course his family HATES Hitler. This claim to OF COURSE have hated Hitler is such a well trod path in the history of Germans lying to themselves. It is particularly interesting that it came up this time of year since a group of scholars have just found out that the supposedly authentic diary A Woman in Berlin, about a woman in Spring/Summer 1945, which focuses on rapes by Soviet soldiers. As it turns out numerous passages had been added by the author to the text, specifically focusing on her supposed resistance to or dislike for the Nazis. I mean it’s such a remarkable lie to include in a story – and not undercut it in any way. The text is written in the most unambitious 19th century style, with no contrasts, no critique. There are small inserts to make us realize the poor man’s war trauma (what a poor widdle Nazi!), which contain some odd misogyny. It’s not that Beyer calls his protagonist a hero, in fact, he suggests his protagonist may be a bit of a psychopath, but that, too works as a kind of defense. The Scholl siblings barely make a dent in this story, which has the primary function, intentional or not, to make the protagonist relateable. A bad text, in most ways, and for once, the jury largely let the writer have it. Although, to be fair, with nowhere near the hostility they treated Birkhan with earlier this morning, still a mystery to me.

So at the end of a mostly bad day, nothing changed in who I think should win the awards, i.e. Wipauer, Othmann, Birnbacker and Jost. But I would advocate for the fifth award, the public vote, to go to Birkhan.

 

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

*this post is about a week late, let’s pretend it IS “today”

 

#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the  2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day two (of three) went. The writers who read today* were, in this order: Yannic Han Biao Federer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher, Daniel Heitzler, Tom Kummer. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For day one click here. For a German summary of the whole thing, which I also wrote, for Faustkultur, click here.

There was a strong sense on Tuesday of what the gatekeepers of culture want to be written and published and what they would rather wasn’t. Yesterday had two excellent texts, Sarah Wipauer’s story, which is clearly top of the class this year, and Julia Jost’s. There was one mediocre story by Andrea Gerster, as well as one badly executed, but interesting story by a very talented writer and then, there was a mess of historical revisionism, with a dose of literary cliché. There was no clear sense, as there often is during Bachmannpreis-competitions of texts that fit a mold and texts that don’t. Day two had it in spades.

The first text was written by Yannic Han Biao Federer, a writer with a perfect biography, who has won several literary awards, and has very quickly become part of the cultural gatekeepers himself with his work at the Literaturhaus Köln. Biographically, he appears to be straght from central casting: academical background. work in journalism, work in cultural institutions, awarded some key prizes, and debut novel with one of the leading literary publishers in Germany. No wonder his story, taking almost no risks, offers such a flat take on personal narrative. There are small metafictional twists, slow, detailed observations, and just enough relevance to save the story from utter blandness. It’s not that Federer’s text is bad – it is not. It reads like a chapter from his novel (review likely forthcoming here) – a consistency which points to strong literary control and skill. The blandness is not accidental: Federer’s story is carefully, and skillfully designed to be bland. One is tempted to read the story and the environment its read in in terms of Bourdieu’s theory of practice, in that the (sub-)field of Bachmannpreis is a very specific field. The judges, as well as the audience consists of people of varied background. Academics, successful writers, journalists, people who have or are working as gatekeepers in various cultural institutions. It’s a big field, but also narrow in that they all share a similar sense of references. They have all read this kind of text before. This is like New Yorker poetry, where, dependent on who is editor of the poetry section, the kind of poetry that gets published almost becomes its own genre which you then can see turn up in all kinds of other journals and places. Reading and rereading Federer’s story, it becomes clear that its very specific kind of dullness – it’s a kind of writing that develops when you write a lot of submissions for places, and have to be aware of word count. There is no description that is wrappped in one, two fitting phrases, it’s all extended to the point of maximum ennui. Despite the author’s Asian heritage, which is also mentioned in the story, there’s also a sense of whiteness about the whole thing – or rather: privilege. This was highlighted by two things: the enormous praise by the judges, and by the next story to be read.

Ronya Othmann was on the mound next and immediately hit us right between the eyes with a fastball. A story that couldn’t be more different. Not drowning in descriptions, she used the names of places and people to carry a lot of the descriptive weight, it is a story about how a young yazidic woman who lives in Germany comes to terms with the genocide committed against her people by the IS. Othmann, trained in an MFA, uses this training to make sharp observations about what temporal and geographic distance means. What language means. How do you speak about something that has never been widely or fairly represented in the media of the languages you use to speak or write. The violence against the Yazidis has often been framed in terms of a broader war against the IS – the complicity of the Turkish government, clearly stated by Othmann, never really plays a role in these narratives. What’s more, there is an obsession with particularized, sexualized violence in the media – what does this mean for a young woman, whose family is only alive due to a quirk of personal history. Without being able to migrate (or having a car), her family would have suffered the same fate as all teh murdered and raped people of her ethnicity who stayed behind. Witnessing survival has a long and harrowing literary history, and has perhaps been best described by Primo Levi. There are many survivors of the Shoah who did not really survive – they stayed alive, until they couldn’t any more. People have been writing about this for decades and it is remarkable and laudable that Othmann found new and fresh literary ways to examine this same issue. She discusses quite specifically the question of how to comprehend the fact that she and her family are alive. Are they alive or have they merely survived? Othmann struggles with the binary language between life and death. It is not an accident that one of the best and clearest books on suicide, which attacks the morally freighted binary of life and death has been written by a survivor of the Shoah, Jean Améry. Whereas Federer’s text turned on a metafictional chuckle of bourgeois life in Cologne, Othmann’s text turned on the question of identity. Othmann uses several layers of writing: there is the typing up of recorded conversations, journal entries, and of real actual travels. The story ends with the narrator seemingly shedding the ambiguity of language, coming up right against questions of reality and speech. A remarkable story – not without flaws, but executed with enormous skill. The first sign that Othmann might be in trouble was the Twitter commentary. The twitterati, among them people with some cultural influence, reacted – oddly. There was a worry (yes, worry) that one would be guilted into…what? praise? attention? I feel that if you read a story about genocide and your primary comment is – “Oh no, I’m being morally blackmailed” – I feel I cannot help you. What is this “blackmail” you speak of? Blackmailed into caring? That’s such a remarkably white statement – and it was sort of echoed by the judges. Hildegard Keller felt she couldn’t properly criticise the text’s deficient grammar with a Yazidi survivor sitting right there. I mean, how dare she just turn up and tell a story that is unpleasant. What happened to the long meandering descriptions of mint-colored walls? I mean, the nerve! Other judges decided to re-open the very well trod paths of debates on witnessing and fiction, on truth and literature. There are literally hundreds of thousands of books on the topic. Frankfurt, for example, has a whole frigging professorship dedicated to the topic. What’s the need to re-legislate the topic? I mean literally yesterday, for inexplicable reasons, a judge decided to use Imre Kertesz’s searing work as a comparison for Silvia Tschui’s German nonsense – Imre Kertesz addresses the topic in his work! To be honest, I am not sure it’s plausible NONE of them were aware of this. The longer this discussion went on, the more it seemed like they needed an excuse not to engage with the text. The unwillingness to have a literary discussion about a text, which is written with such excellent literary skill (if anything, one of its flaws is that you can see the MFA training a bit too clearly in it) struck an unpleasant note this fine Friday morning.

The final text this morning combined two things: being palatable to the judges and exquisitely written. A absurdist-but-relatable story about a woman who’s relatively poor, struggles with a life that is less than she and others hoped for. She takes smaller jobs to not preclude the possibility of writing A Novel, but what sounds like depression, family struggles and other issues prevent her from giving her life a shape that she would be satisfied with. It’s a ramshackle, unfinished, unformed life, like many people still lead it today. Suddenly, a cabinet appears mysteriously. Birgit Birnbacher, already one novel under her belt, writes this story with enormous skill – it is much funnier than I made it seem, it is cleverly structured, addressing racial, gender and other concerns, even metaphysical ones, without ever having to strain. It’s not quite as flawless as Wipauer’s tale, but that’s in part because where Wipauer sticks the landing perfectly, Birnbacher stumbles in the last sentence. If this was a poem, every reader would tell her to just strike it and be done with the whole thing. That seems like a minor flaw in a major, excellent story, and it is. Birnbacher joins Wipauer and Othmann among the favorites to win it all. The judges, meanwhile, agreed. Praise was unanimous and detailed. There was no sense of “we have a thirty-something woman in front of us, how can we discuss a story about a thirtysomething woman,” meanwhile. One wonders why.

Birnbacher’s story concluded the morning readings and the good portion of the event. The two afternoon readings – hoo boy. The first, a story by Daniel Heitzler, is hard to talk about. I mean you’ve all heard of Poe’s Law, right (definition here) – this was a perfect literary equivalent. On the surface, this is just a very bad story. A very bad story, structured badly, drowning in adjectives and adverbs, mindlessly run through a thesaurus, like that high school essay we’ve all seen (“Students: Stop. Halt. Discontinue. Terminate. Cut it out with all the thesaurused smart-person words in your essays.”). I remember, on a literary forum that I’m not entirely sure still exists, someone once explained to me that Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending wasn’t a cliché-riddled mess, but specifically invoked the clichés involved in talking about death. There was nothing in the text that suggested that, except that forum member’s goodwill. I mean, the books Barnes has published since have disproved that theory, but as an approach, it stuck with me. It’s a literary Poe’s Law: an awful literary text is indistinguishable from a very good parody of an awful literary text, if there’s no wink in the parody. Sometimes the sheer skill involved provides the wink: Robert Coover is probably the best example: his parody and homage to Louis L’Amour-style WEesterns, Ghost Town, or his homage to Noir novels in, uh, Noir, are written with enormous skill. On the “wink” side of things is maybe John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is hilarious. Not his best book, but Barth incorporates winks into the style he parodies. There is nothing, nothing of the sort in Daniel Heitzler’s story. The best we get is a comment in the intoductory video that he’s a fan of American postmodern literature, especially Beat and David Foster Wallace. Sure, nothing bad has happened with young devotees to DFW’s work. Sure. You know I was once at a meeting of the DFW society at a conference where they had a roundtable dedicated to salvaging the bad reputation of DFW’s work, created by his acolytes and the unsavory facts that had come out about DFW’s own misogyny. So faced with a young man, essentially subscribed to a problematic literary tradition, the judges decided that the text could not possibly be this bad – it had to have been done on purpose. i have thought long and hard on the fact that all the judges except one insisted on reading the text this way and I think this goes back to the assumption, shaken by Otoo’s nonchalant interview after her win: “we are smart and important people. A writer wouldn’t dare come here with a text this bad. Ergo, it has to be good.” That this judgment appears to be solely a creation of the subfield of Bachmannpreis thinking becomes clear once you look at the unanimous rejection of the text on Twitter.- there wasn’t a torn opinion. Nobody read the text and thought: oh this is intentional. Personally, I have limited patience for intentionally bad writing anyway. If you make me read ten pages of bad prose that you artfully and cleverly shaped to be this friggin bad, I still have to read ten pages of bad prose. There’s a masturbatory quality to this kind of writing, and let me tell you, I have never seen it practiced by female writers. I feel that says something right there.

I don’t know what to say about the final story that I didn’t already suggest even before he read. Read my original TDDL post for notes on who Tom Kummer is. Kummer is a kind of inverted mirror of Federer, the first guy to read today. Kummer is also a production of gatekeepers’ goodwill, but not by following all the rules and pleasing all the right people. He did it by projecting an image of being “the last Gonzo writer” (snort), a literal quote. The bad boy of literature. He turned up, and read a story in a kind of faux-Clint Eastwood drawl that sounded sleazy and unpleasant. His story, about a limousine driver was unpleasant and bad. For someone, who became infamous faking exciting interviews with celebrities, his dialogue was dragging and boring. The story was entirely without ambiguity or tension. Everything was stated plainly and then, for the people in the back, re-stated. The story is unpleasant start to finish, from some lazy racism to literary and explicit misogyny, as well as the weirdest description of a father caressing the naked body of his child i have ever seen. The protagonist’s dead wife re-appears as an octopus-like monster, the only other woman, an accomplished researcher, is, wait for it, an antifeminist who produces a drug to further male sexual enjoyment, because, no kidding, we have too long been interested only in female lust and pleasure – which, I mean, she has never seen any porn or TV or movies, I assume? Or commercials? I mean, what? And for some reason, this turns the protagonist on to the point of considering sexually assaulting his passenger, a thought that he discards after a long struggle. There are no, zero, zilch redeeming qualities in this story, but its invitation shines a light on what’s acceptable and what’s not. Writing a story about genocide gets the judges to equivocate and stay distant. Writing indirectly about rape, on the other hand, raises no red flags. Tom Kummer and Yannic Federer, each in their own way, offer a take on what privilege means in German-language literary culture.

So it’s a day where two of the competitions two best texts so far get sandwiched by an odd duo. At the end of the day, the four best texts are, in this order. Sarah Wipauer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher and Julia Jost.

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis

 

*this post is about a week late, let’s pretend it IS “today”

#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space

If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the  2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Katharina Schultens, Sarah Wipauer, Silvia Tschui, Julia Jost, and Andrea Gerster. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.

Ah, what a day, what a day! Five women, two science fiction stories, murder, Nazis, and divorce proceedings. I’m telling you, things were on fire! Well, maybe not so much on fire as occasionally slightly warm. Tepid maybe? Look, honest to God, a clear favorite emerged today, reading a story without any recognizable flaws, and a runner up turned up as well, also very well executed, mostly, and the rest, well, tbf, there are five slots to fill every day, not everyone can be a winner.

The first reader was Katharina Schultens. Schultens is an exquisite poet, and what’s more, a poet of the kind that should be easily transferable to prose – long, looping sentences, complex rhythms, all of that. What’s more, there is a strong vision behind the text she read. Not everything became clear – it is an excerpt from a novel, but it appears that the text is a Ballardesque vision of a future (it is set two hundred years after 1984) after some ecological collapse. Regrettably, one would have, given the very real ecological threats today, hoped for a more relevant kind of catastrophe, say, speaking of Ballard, something like The Drought; instead her vision veers towards the post-human, with Vandermeeresque landscapes threatening deformed or changed descendants of humanity. She’s not just somewhat apolitical regarding our very real ecological crisis, which is a bit problematic – but in addition, completely (apparently) randomly, she uses the heat of Africa as a metaphor, which seems a bit tone deaf given that any ecological disaster would hit countries in Africa harder than, say, Germany, so if you are steering clear of politics, maybe not lean into the Africa-as-metaphor too much, yes? I mean, it’s white blindness, I suppose. And then there is the confusion and dullness of some of the fiction. Speculative fiction that takes such a big leap needs a proper story telling backbone – which this text, very specifically, does not have. There are great, meaty descriptions of situations and things, and there are rail-thin, meandering sections of what you’d have to call plot? It is very odd, how strong talent and strong vision somehow leads to a mediocre text.

The second reader was Sarah Wipauer. Wipauer’s text, almost irritatingly, has no flaws that I can see. Last year, a hole was discovered in the ISS – seemingly drilled from the inside though it wasn’t clear who drilled it and why – it necessitated an unscheduled spacewalk to plug it from the outside. As far as I can tell, it is still entirely unclear what happened. As a writer, Wipauer is intrigued by space stories, and by the quirks and oddities of small news stories, and she took this event and turned it into a ghost story set in Austria. There’s everything in it that  you could possibly fit – provincial history, medical oddities, and Wipauer appears to be able to manipulate syntax at will to fit the story and the individual voices in it haunting these events. Towards the end the story tightens even further, including social pressures regarding class and gender. There is not one word too much, and the story wraps up beautifully. No matter what the rest of the days bring – this has to be one of the five best texts.

It is with text three that things started going off the rails. The author, Silvia Tschui, appeared to present at first a bucolic story (an excerpt from a novel), written with tight craftsmanship – oh how I was mistaken. It became clear real fast that #1, she pursued a kitsch kind of writing, offering a cliché depiction of a childhood on a farm, with mild doses of violence, lessons, and the kind of dialogues that someone who grew up in the city assumes are spoken in the countryside. So far so dull, but then the story took a bad turn. I mean, excuse me, for not immediately assuming the worst – but it’s true: bucolic clichés have a special function in literature, especially German literature. Farmers are often used to show a nation’s real backbone, and attacks on farmers are the way the political right tends to frame foreigner invasions. In Germany, the so-called conservative revolution was particularly enamored with that figure – the work of Hermann Löns – in particular the 1910 Wehrwolf – was used as inspiration (Löns died in 1914), and many books in the 20s, and particular 30s, repeated and enlarged these motifs. In the early-to-late oughts, German literature added another trope, that of Germans-as-victims. The Germans in today’s Poland and the Czech Republic and Hungary fled the approaching Soviet army and often lost everything. Tschui’s text connects the bucolic motif with those revisionist stories of victimization. They are all the rage in German TV shows and movies. In Tschui’s text there are German farm boys scared of an Enemy who is sudden, cruel, mean, and is connected, in the broader narrative of the novel, to a East European mythical figure, that the Germanic boys have been told to be afraid. The (post)colonial aspects of German/Prussian occupation of Poland have not been discussed as broadly as they should have, but this text reads exceptionally exploitative, with an almost archetypical and racialized sense of an Other. As a result, the text was both literarily bland and politically dubious. Did this come across in jury discussions? Except for Hubert Winkels’s fairly clear words, the other judges steered fairly clear of the text’s issues. Honestly, what would you expect?

The afternoon readings were less eventful overall – the first story, a story from the Austrian countryside by Julia Jost, was very well done – mostly. A story about an Austian childhood, with pedophile priests, knives, Nazi heritage and more. The story is written with enormous energy and humor, clearly, CLEARLY the second-best story of the day, magnificent in many ways – though the ending is a bit of a dud – the writer had to tie up all her plot points so it becomes plodding real fast.

And finally, the final story – a banal tale of child custody and motherhood – the story itself isn’t necessarily banal – we are quick to label women’s stories as banal because they don’t conform to masculine hero narratives. And indeed, there are issues in the story here and there that piqued my interest – but the story is told with no literary energy, no skill beyond the routine of a prolific novelist. She needs to get from one end of the story to the other – and by Jove, she will get there. Choice of words seemed almost random in its banality.

On Friday the readers will be

10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer

 

Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2019 edition.
#tddl, Day One: Holes In Space
#tddl, Day Two: A Privilege Sandwich
#tddl, Day Three: Mollusks and Nazis