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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Irrealism in the U.S.A.
(reviews of books by Donald Antrim,
Stephen Millhauser and Colson Whitehead)

by Alice Whittenburg, The Cafe Irreal

Most of the writers whose work we cite in “The Cafe Irreal” (Kobo Abe, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, etc.) are not English language writers. Those who do write in English (Leonora Carrington, Kazuo Ishiguro, etc.) are usually not from the United States. In fact, few works of American fiction written during the twentieth century could readily be described as irreal, according to our working definition. Maybe that’s because by the early 1900’s, American writing had developed an intense focus on naturalism/realism (thanks to Theodore Dreiser and others); it was also marked by a tendency to put inventive energy into a creative, sometimes colloquial, narrative style rather than into imaginative narratives themselves (thanks, at least in part, to Mark Twain). There are, however, American writers who are notable exceptions; Donald Antrim, Steven Millhauser and Colson Whitehead come to mind. The books reviewed below, though they’re not Antrim’s or Millhauser’s most recent, represent what seems to have been a growing trend toward irrealism in the United States during the last few years of the twentieth century. Hopefully, as we begin to publish “irreal (re)views” on a regular basis, there will be a lot more irreal American fiction to consider as the twenty-first century unfolds.

Donald Antrim, The Hundred Brothers
(Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1997)

In the United States, when an author’s tone and intent defy the conventions of realism, critics sometimes read their own bemusement as amusement and call the author a comic writer. The jacket notes for the hard-cover edition of Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers tell us that the novel is “a madcap allegory of family” with an “uproariously funny” premise, that it reads like “the Marx Brothers -- times twenty-five -- performing a Harold Pinter play.” As far as it goes, this is an accurate description of a novel that contains equal measures of slapstick and wit, with a dark, brooding undertone; however, it’s also true that The Hundred Brothers unfolds in a complex, inventive way that undermines both reality and our expectations. In other words, it’s not only funny, it’s irreal.

As the novel opens, ninety-nine of the brothers have gathered in their deceased father’s library to share a meal and, possibly, to find the urn that contains his ashes. Doug, the narrator and family genealogist, begins by listing his brothers and telling a little about them. Some are described according to occupation -- doctor, sculptor, scientist, spy; others according to a salient characteristic -- there are a number of young fathers and “really bad womanizers.” About some brothers, all we ever learn is a birthday or neurotic mannerism. All of the brothers, Doug tells us, have the same father, though no mother is ever mentioned. One almost imagines that this father raised his brood of male offspring all by himself, though, in fact, many of the brothers don’t seem to have a clear memory of him. Doug proceeds to describe how he and his brothers, who range in age from twenty-something to ninety-three, celebrate and bully each other, aid and abuse each other, and share drinks and drugs and food throughout the course of a long winter’s night. As the night progresses, an image of their father (actually, more like a big Rorschach inkblot made up of stains and shadows that only some of the brothers identity as their father) appears on the ceiling, and the library is slowly destroyed by wind and water and brotherly rough-housing. Doug relates these events in a somewhat sinister but offhand way as he prepares himself to take on the identity of the Corn King, a mythic figure he has embodied at family gatherings in the past. Though, in the end, Doug cuts a ludicrous figure as the Corn King, naked from the waist down but wearing his shoes and socks, waving a hypodermic needle and balancing a huge mask on his head, the novel actually abandons its comic tone at about this point. Doug, who has remained upbeat (if somewhat unstable and unreliable) throughout the course of his quirky narrative, can no longer evade his painful thoughts or his fate. In the end, the novel confronts us with bitter, complex themes that no amount of comic energy can lighten.

In addition to being funny, The Hundred Brothers might also be described as expressionistic, a term more likely to be used in regard to Kafka than to Pinter. In an expressionistic work, physical actions and events express inner emotional states, giving the work symbolic depth and a dreamlike quality. (In dreams, as Erich Fromm tells us, “inner experiences, feelings and thoughts are expressed as if they were sensory experiences, events in the outer world.”) To give a simple example, Antrim uses struggling physical interactions to represent mental struggles as Kafka did, and the grappling/wrestling scene between Doug and his neurotic brother Virgil calls to mind the grotesque physical contortions of the two young men in “Description of a Struggle.” In fact, the whole novel proceeds in this way, with a nearly continual flow of pratfalls, injuries, rescues and attacks, a whole world of physical interaction that implies a deeper level of feeling. “But feeling about what?” I found myself asking, without coming up with a concise answer.

Shimon Sandbank stated that Kafka’s writing usually points to a truth beyond itself without committing itself to the truth to which it points. An attempt to sum up The Hundred Brothers left me with a similar uncertainty about direction. Just when it seemed sensible to agree with Jonathan Franzen that the novel is about “male anxiety at the millennium,” I found that I could also make a convincing argument that it’s a new take on the myth of the hero, with Doug as a combination of Trickster, archetypal hero and self-sacrificing savior. Then, too, it can be read as a “madcap allegory about family” or a commentary on culture (the story does, after all, take place in a very complete and carefully catalogued library). The fact that the novel can be interpreted in many ways, or perhaps none at all, is one of the things that undermines our notion of the way things “really” are and contributes to our satisfaction in reading it. And while it’s true that Antrim fails to address philosophical truths with Kafka’s intensity, he does give us the satisfaction of a good laugh as we puzzle over his intentions.

Steven Millhauser, The Knife Thrower
(Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1998)

In a way, Steven Millhauser is a science fiction writer. Unlike most science fiction writers, however, (including Ray Bradbury, who shared Millhauser’s fascination with circuses, sideshows and amusement parks) Millhauser often re-writes the technologies and amusements of the past in order to undermine our expectations in ways that might be called irreal.

The title story in his most recent collection, The Knife Thrower, is about the sort of sideshow performer whose act is a display of his strong nerves and good aim. Yet this story becomes a rich, dark investigation of an odd cult of violence that the knife thrower has engendered, and its look at the psychology of the spectator and the nature of entertainment is both unreal and unsettling. Like so many of the stories in this collection, “The Knife Thrower” is written in the first person plural. This technique is, in part, Millhauser’s way of bringing the reader more deeply into his somewhat formal stories which are not strong on plot or character, but it also serves to validate the observations of the narrator and encourages a willing suspension of our disbelief.

Two of the other stories in the collection which are satisfyingly irreal also use this narrative technique: “The New Automaton Theater” and “Beneath the Cellars of Our Town.” The first is about a society obsessed with the performances of miniature clockwork people and how that society reacts to an insistently Brechtian “master” of the art who thinks his theater should be more than the perfect replication of human expressions and movements. Though this story is maybe a little too much of a parable about realism to be entirely satisfying, the images are compelling. “Beneath the Cellars of Our Town” focuses on the labyrinth of passageways that exists beneath the town in question and which satisfies the people’s mysterious and complex needs. This image of subterranean passages and amusements is found in some of Millhauser’s other stories and seems to be one of his personal symbols.

Millhauser also deals imaginatively with elements of a shared public life that was so important at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. “The Dream of the Consortium” reads like a synopsis of what Millhauser was leading up to in Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, without that novel’s tedious examination of the entrepreneurial spirit. In other words we don’t have to follow the life of a dreary businessman to get to the good bit at the end where department stores become pleasure palaces to rival Kublai Khan’s dome at Xanadu. In this story a consortium builds a department store that tries, by its opulence and excess, to rival the successes of the malls, and the descriptions are rich and satisfying. “Paradise Park” builds on the idea of an amusement park like Coney Island, only this park, which begins its days within impossibly high walls, soon extends to multiple subterranean levels and finally ends up self-destructing in its own excesses.

In the 21st century, online shopping, the Internet and other non-face-to-face forms of commerce and entertainment seem poised to replace the shared public life that is so often the focus of Millhauser’s irreal story-telling. Though we no longer live in a time of lavish department stores, amusement parks and spectacles, the most irreal stories in this collection do seem to contain something ominous among their rich, formal descriptions. The overly baroque creations of Millhauser’s entrepreneurs and artistes, as in “Paradise Park,” lead to “more and more extreme forms until, utterly exhausted but unable to rest, they culminate in the black ecstasy of annihilation.” Maybe Millhauser, unlike the science fiction writers of the sixties, is too sophisticated to try to warn us. Maybe he’s simply extrapolating, based on technologies that could never come to be. Or maybe not.

Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist
(Anchor Books/Doubleday, New York, 1999)

In a city that might be New York, at a time that suggests the 1950’s without being the 1950’s, Lila Mae Watson is the only African-American woman in the all-male, mostly white world of elevator inspectors. She is also an Intuitionist, which means that she intuits an elevator’s mechanical problems while riding in it, rather than by examining the machinery directly as the inspectors known as Empiricists do. When an elevator she has just inspected goes into “total freefall,” casting doubt on her Intuitionist methods as well as impugning her race and gender, Lila Mae must go underground to try to clear her name. As it traces her struggle to do this and the truths she learns in the process, The Intuitionist reads at times like an off-beat detective story and at times like a symbolic work about the struggle for African-American liberation; its tone, more often than not, is subtly irreal.

The Intuitionist deals with serious, topical social justice issues through an understated mode of nonrealistic storytelling in which the elevator is a many-faceted but never fully comprehensible symbol. This might accurately be called “social irrealism,” a welcome contribution to the genre we’ve built The Cafe Irreal around. Among other works, The Intuitionist calls to mind Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but Whitehead uses symbols differently than Ellison did. Whereas, for example, the wind-up Sambo doll in Ellison’s novel has a clear source in the imagery of American racism, Whitehead chooses the somewhat more abstract symbol of the elevator and then gives it multiple, overlapping meanings. Simply, it can be seen to represent moving up in the world or, in the phrase that often appears in the novel, “vertical mobility,” but it also makes us think about urban progress (without elevators, skyscrapers are impossible) and civilization itself (which is why it is so important to Lila Mae, and so problematic for the white male Old Dogs in the Elevator Guild, to recognize the African-American contribution to its history). Though the novel follows many of the conventions of the detective story, an ongoing irreal effect is created by, among other things, the fact that people get so exercised about elevator inspection, theory and design; the long, intellectually rigorous course of study at the Institute for Vertical Transport; and the fashion trends that exist among elevator inspectors, including a haircut called the Safety. The existence of the Intuitionist method itself is also treated in a complex way and open to multiple interpretations. It might represent opposition to the prevailing rational, scientific world view (the Empiricists call Intuitionists voodoo men, witch doctors, juju heads), but it also suggests the female point of view (women’s intuition) and might even imply a level of comfort with irreal story-telling rather than a stubborn insistence on realism.

The Intuitionist surprises us with its unique approach to isssues of oppression and liberation. It also contains much for the fan of irrealism to enjoy and is a welcome contribution to the short but growing list of irreal works by American writers.

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