Coffee House Press ($23.95)
by Kelly Everding
In an essay on Robbe-Grillet's fiction, Roland Barthes writes: "'The human condition,' Heidegger has said, is to be there.' Robbe-Grillet himself has quoted this remark apropos of Waiting for Godot, and it applies no less to his own objects, of which the chief condition, too, is to be there." Stripped of some "something," the object can just exist without any meaning projected onto it by the writer. As I attempt to ascertain Laird Hunt's The Impossibly, I turn to my warehouse of evidence--books that share similar sensibilities and techniques. So upon reading the first paragraph, having to do with the purchase of a stapler, I'm reminded of Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers. Further, as I read the twisting plot (it never unfolds), I think of the avant-noir of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Others come to mind: Kafka's "The Trial" and, of course, the aforementioned Waiting for Godot. A definite flavor is suggested: intrigue and absurdity with a dash of existentialism. Dark humor and occasional slapstick accentuate the absurdity and make this pathetic protagonist, albeit a murderer, loveable.
Let me begin again. As Hunt's protagonist relates, "beginnings were quite extraordinary things, there being nothing and then there being something, a prelude and an aftermath . . . many beginnings were a positive morass of the unlikely, the bizarre, the insignificant but intriguingly odd, the innocently calamitous, the highly charged mundane." The novel's beginning is mundane enough: the hero helps a woman find a word for an object and later falls in love with her. However this sort of mundanity can't be trusted in the world Hunt has created in The Impossibly. Our hero is a nameless operative working for a nameless organization in a nameless city. Just about everyone seems to be working for this "organization"--everyone is involved in one intrigue or another in a part-time capacity--so the whole society is complicit in the reign of violence and uncertainty that pervades the culture. When he receives an assignment which he does not complete, he is subjected to the violence he himself had perpetrated. "In picking me for the assignment, the boss hadn't counted on what might become the ramifications of my having fallen in love."
The intensified atmosphere of this world finds expression in the language where contradictions, corrections, fragmented messages, and holes in the story reveal the deep-seated psychological break incipient in the protagonist. Unable to trust his own perceptions, or perhaps bowing to the impossibility of true certainty in any occasion, he often takes back what he just said. For instance: "it was the best time of all, though not really. Never really"; or "Perhaps there was a hint, in my mind, of something sinister about her. Perhaps it was because there was no hint of something sinister about her, ever, and yet she was." The protagonist, in relating events, chooses not to divulge the true nature of conversations or any actual information--instead we are left with a skeleton of events, just body signals and insinuations. Love especially suffers a lack of expression, maybe because it is so rare: "We had not yet developed a vocabulary that could accommodate, in this line, any kind of elaboration." The reader must fill in the holes and become the necessary detective of the story, in effect, piecing together evidence and stray references to partial descriptions of horrendous acts--blood, the smell of burning flesh, screams.
The reader receives hints of atrocities and acts of murder, but there is no objective laid out, no reason or goal of these operations. It's just the way it is. Yet although there is no objective to the violence, there are many objects that make up the world Hunt has created, mundane objects that take on sinister meanings or are used for sinister deeds. (I will personally never look at a feather duster in the same way again.) The objects seem to carry more significance because of their mundanity, as opposed to the human-designed horror witnessed everyday in the city--like the box carried around by the soldier in Robbe-Grillet's In the Labyrinth or the fixation on erasers in The Erasers. Objects are immediate things that take on symbolic meaning whether we want them to or not. We fetishize them and derive comfort from them, from their familiarity, from their nostalgic emanations, especially in times of uncertainty. Hunt not only fetishizes the objects, he fetishizes the names we give them--names which take on their own kind of beauty. However, as the hero's girlfriend explains, "it is not the fact of the objects or the fact of the words, really, it is the fact of establishing the correct establishments on which to place them, that is all. Each combined expression can mean one of these, she said, i.e., what, how large, what kind, related to what, where, when, how placed, in what state, acting or suffering." The protagonist himself is enamored of the "realia" his job requires--yet these objects, harmless in themselves, are employed in horrible acts by human beings. It is the mind that establishes relationships that result in suffering or happiness. Ultimately, the objects we love are projections of who we are. "I was told once in a big bed in the countryside by the woman I loved that what made it always so difficult, all of it, was being an interior in a world of exteriors."
And that brings me to memory, the mind's lackey, which really sets the narrative of this story apart from others. Although the general arc of the novel is chronological, following the life of the hero, his falling in love, his loss of that love, his immersion in the doings of the "organization" and finally his "disaffirmation" from that organization, within the telling of the story time is jumbled and stutters and skips around. Stories will generate other stories told to or remembered by the hero. This interruptive narrative seems to be an accurate map of the human mind trying to make sense of the world, trying to create or establish relationships and meaning from the myriad events we are subjected to in our lifetimes, but the failure of memory to record these events accurately becomes a source of distress:
But perhaps I am misremembering and am subconsciously overlaying what it is I remember now onto what it was I remembered then. In fact, when I was still in the process, some years ago, of actively learning, or of actively acquiring knowledge, I once read that this overlaying process was not possible, I do not say difficult, I say not possible to avoid.
And again, later in the novel, the hero admits:
In fact, given my condition at the time and my condition now, not to mention the considerable interval, it would be irresponsible not to admit the possibility that these memories were inaccurate, i.e., that they did not substantially adhere to the real, or at least to some satisfactory approximation thereof.
We are subjected to the hero's selective memory of what he may or may not have heard, heightening the sense of uncertainty or unreality. Dreams assert their influence as well and become as significant in the uncovering of the mystery as any investigation, and often we do not know if we are witnessing reality or dream. Ultimately, the hero is a pawn in this world, manipulated by the devilish machinations of the organization who are alternately his friends and enemies--often within the same sentence--depending on his compliance with their requests One of the fragmentary covert messages from his boss lays out the threat quite nicely: "Dear Sir, Do not, under any circumstances." In this existential universe, love is a liability, but the hero holds onto his illusion of love into his old age and retirement, even after taking on a new investigation that will lead to information he would rather not know. Does love ultimately redeem him? Or is he doomed to repeat the horrible crimes he committed under the aegis of higher powers? Perhaps a little of both as he moves from one stage of his life to the next: from young love, to fat middle age, to gaunt old age and reconciliation with his own death, and beyond to the next life where love lifts him up beyond the scope of any investigation.
The Impossibly, Laird Hunt's first novel, is a challenging and inventive work, alternately chilling and humorous, that breaks new ground in the world of speculative fiction. Diffuse with noir tropes stripped of their origins, it leaves the reader with a map of the complicit mind trying to deal with perversity and adversity in a violent world.