I read these two books consecutively without knowing that they both try to address a particular problem in novels, and not knowing that one succeeds and one fails. The problem is that of a novel about the total alienation of a main character, where the character cannot, for one reason or another, communicate with any other person, and so the perspective is that much more limited.
In Karinthy’s Metropole, the main character Budai mysteriously ends up in a foreign land in which people only speak a language that bears no resemblance to any of the five he knows, and he has horrendous difficulty making himself understood. In Glavinic’s Night Work, the main character Jonas wakes up one morning to find that every other person in the world has disappeared without explanation. In both novels, I got the suspicion that there would not be an explanation for the mysterious circumstances, and in both cases I was right. In both novels, the problem of the single character is slightly finessed by the introduction of a second, opaque quasi-character. And both depend on a careful flow of logical, rational actions to substitute for character-driven conflict: in Night Work, it is Jonas setting up cameras to film parts of the world he has visited; in Metropole, it is Budai analyzing newspapers and other writings to try to derive some knowledge of the foreign language. So why is it that Metropole holds interest while Night Work quickly grows tedious?
The easy answer would be that Metropole does have other characters, albeit non-speaking ones, such as the elevator operator Epepe (or something like that, as Budai has great trouble with the phonemes of the other language) and the hotel workers and the policemen and the revolutionary workers he gets caught up with toward the end of the book. But I don’t think that is the reason.
Rather, it’s that Metropole is the book that fulfills its conceptual bargain with the reader. Both books ask you to suspend your disbelief for a very unlikely scenario, implying that this horrific but imaginary scenario somehow relates to, well, life as we know it, and is not merely an illogical nightmare. We must see the characters as deploying recognizably human characteristics in their respective hypothetical situation. We must feel that this single character is someone we care about, because there is nothing else left to care about in the novels’ worlds. The human world has shrunk to the size of a single person.
Budai, in Metropole, is consumed by the need to communicate. The book strains belief at times because of how stunningly unhelpful the residents of the foreign city are (this is the sort of language that Chomsky claims could not exist, so utterly different is it from any known language; it makes Quine’s gavagai query look trivial in comparison). But Karinthy plays fair. We aren’t asked just to assume this; we go through the careful, logical steps that Budai takes to try to decipher the language, his tentative encounters with the elevator operator, the monetary system, and the subway system. And so by the time the situation begins to appear truly terminal, Budai’s frustration was palpable because I had followed his every step. The situation was real. And though the alienation is of an entirely different sort than that of Kafka’s novels, the emphasis on sheer inexorable process in conveying the difficulty of the situation is similarly effective.
In Night Work, however, logic breaks down too quickly. I was willing to accept that the electricity in this peopled world stays on way too long while the internet dies immediately, but after the first hundred pages or so of scene-setting, leaving notes in case someone shows up, eating, sleeping, and so on, Jonas runs out of things to do, and even the practical problems of his new life are easily elided (I myself was waiting for the power to run out, but it never happens). He remembers things about his rather mundane life before the disappearance. He becomes consumed with philosophical thoughts about being himself, being other people, witnessing events, not witnessing events, Zeno’s paradox, simultaneity, and so on. But Glavinic has front-loaded the philosophy, having Jonas think his new phenomenology before he acts on it, and so readers are dragged into this new pattern of behavior that has somehow determined a course of action for Jonas, just not one that seems to come out of any necessity. To the extent that these are everyman characters because their ability to define themselves in opposition to others is greatly curtailed, they cannot just simply go insane, but must justify their eccentric actions to the reader if they are to maintain relevance. No Exit would not be of interest if the three characters hated each other from the moment they came in.
Perhaps aware of this problem, Glavinic introduces “the Sleeper,” the name given by Jonas to his sleepwalking and sleeptalking self. The Sleeper is, in a word, uncanny: the Sleeper videotapes himself staring at Jonas’s video camera, points to spots on walls, and does other vaguely menacing (and eventually very menacing) things. And he is the best thing about the book. Confronted with an other that is part of himself, I was thrown back into Jonas’s position and fascinated that the end of al other life on earth had caused a part of him other than his conscious self to assert itself. Unfortunately, the resolution of the Sleeper plot is not particularly satisfying, but while the Sleeper makes his malevolent communications to Jonas, the book is gripping. I wonder if Glavinic considered doing more with this plot, because any connections between it and the rest of Jonas’s projects are purely theoretical, barely held together by increasingly abstract and disconnected ruminations on time and self.
And so I return to Metropole, where Budai remains resolutely practical, carefully observant, and increasingly stressed, and the narrative never goes slack. He is a character one would want to have in the situation the novel presents. Whereas if someone asks me what I would do if I were suddenly the last person on earth, I could point to Night Work and say, “Probably not that.”
17 May 2009 at 16:45
17 May 2009 at 21:58
This is probably just a superficial reaction, but your post reminded me of the search for “magna hungaria.” In the 1200s, the Carpathian magyars sent out an expedition and found their “ancestors.” But before a second expedition could be sent back to them, the entire community was wiped out by the tatars. The story has always had a devastating effect on me, and I’ve always imagined what kind of psychological impact such an event would have, of finding the one group you could commune/communicate with only to be struck back into even more desperate and hopeless isolation. Given the havoc wrought by the tatars/mongols on Hungary itself soon after the sad news hits home, however, the story rarely plays a role other than as an ominous warning — at least that I’ve seen. To me, it is not a story about personal devastation, but of the curse of being left unharmed to witness your own inability to follow the thread of meaning in the world — an inability caused by circumstance, sure, but shrouded in the sense that some entirely impersonal force will always be there to thwart (and punish) your efforts. The way you’ve framed the problems of isolation in these two books, I feel like maybe they approach the effect that this story (or at least my romanticized version of it) has had on me. Needless to say, I’m interested to check them out. Thanks as always.
18 May 2009 at 06:34
Wouldn’t another problem be just how goddamned many last-person-on-earth novels have already been written? Your summary conveys an all-too-canny feeling of deja lu.
18 May 2009 at 06:51
I recently read Night Work, as well. While I certainly took note of the fact that the power never went out (I also kept waiting for it to happen), I was untroubled by the philosophical front-loading, as you put it. I think he gets more and more frantic, trying to carve out some element of normalcy within his bizarre reality. That said, I agree that the book kicked into a different gear when The Sleeper was involved.
Thanks for the tip on the Karinthy book.
21 May 2009 at 08:26
I was reminded very much of the dream novel The Lost Traveller by Ruthven Todd, first published in 1943. Based on a series of dreams, it involves a protagonist who finds himself in a surrealist landscape with inexplicable customs. The title comes from the Blake Poem.