Michael Lewis launched his successful career as an author with his book Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, which is both a youthful memoir and a journalistic look at the inner workings of Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street firm that grew fat trading bonds and then crashed and burned. The book takes place, roughly, between the years 1984 and 1987, and so I wasn’t surprised that the book reminded me of the movie Wall Street – just replace Gordon Gecko with Salomon’s head John Gutfreund. At the beginning of the book, Lewis has just been hired, quite unexpectedly, by Salomon, and he takes us through his trajectory at the company, from the cut-throat training process to his days as a bond trader in London. From this vantage point, Lewis was able to watch the company, emboldened by spectacular success in the 1980s, become a symbol of corporate gluttony. Along the way, Lewis profiles many of the company’s outsized personalities. He also delves into the intricacies of the bond market in such a way that the arcane becomes pretty readable. The book is also filled with anecdotes about the conspicuous consumption of those times and the raucous, inelegant trading floor, filled with foul-mouthed traders who threw phones and insults and reveled in their gluttony. Lewis’ revelation was that the company (and its competitors) made profits at the expense of its customers, and, while the period that Lewis chronicles is interesting in its own right, its impact is somewhat diminished by the many corporate scandals and Wall Street improprieties that have occurred since the book was first published. Against this backdrop, Liar’s Poker is no longer an exceptional story that defined an era, it is merely another moment in the cycle of Wall Street corruption and ensuing retribution that continues today.
László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below has been hailed as a book about the sacred. For the fictional artists described in the collection, transcendence comes through the act of creation. In one story, a Japanese theatre master takes the stage and feels the goddess Seiobo coursing through him. In another, a maskmaker’s chisel moves nearly of its own accord, fashioning a series of wooden faces that are almost alive. But Krasznahorkai also turns his attention to another genre of protagonists: average people who encounter the sacred, completely unequipped to contend with its impact. While the book’s artists find transcendence, other protagonists experience utter bewilderment — and their crisis is the focal point of the 17 stories in Seiobo There Below.
Seiobo translator Ottilie Mulzet notes in her interview with Krasznahorkai that he addresses what has effectively become taboo: “The question of ‘sacred’ in a world which has no need for it anymore.” The Hungarian author’s works are known for their promise of higher meaning and their tendency to approach, but never quite reach, resolution. Krasznahorkai’s previous titles in English (War & War, The Melancholy of Resistance, and Satantango) earned critical recognition from Susan Sontag and James Wood for their strange, apocalyptic impression. Rife with peculiar characters and sealed into sophisticated structures (Satantango adopts the form of the tango dance, while Seiobo There Below, though billed as a novel, presents distinct stories numbered by the Fibonacci sequence), Krasznahorkai’s fiction makes contact with the otherworldly.
But the stakes are higher in Seiobo There Below. For one, the global nature of the collection is a marked departure from Krasznahorkai’s former English-language releases. The novels that earned him his reputation in America were texts with deeply Hungarian roots. The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango were both set in crumbling Hungarian villages; War & War featured a Hungarian protagonist newly moved to New York City. Seiobo, in contrast, spans locations from Kyoto to Persia and Perugia. Its narrative voices are equally diverse; we hear from a nascent murderer, a fanatic lecturer on Baroque music, a Parisian museum keeper in love with the Venus de Milo. Moving beyond localized meaning, the stories challenge us to examine the psychology of our moment, a time in which our inability to understand the sacred paralyzes us in its presence.
This bewilderment manifests itself in several narratives of Western European travelers knocked spiritually unconscious by the impact of sacred art. In “Christo Morto,” a traveler is drawn into Venice’s Scuola de la Roca to revisit a painting of Christ he had seen 11 years prior. He witnesses the image of Christ opening his eyes and is frozen by disbelief:
BUT HE IS OPENING HIS EYES, he registered within himself; then again he tried to muster the courage to fix his gaze onto the two eyes of Christ, BUT HOW DARK are these eyes, it was spine-chilling, as although NOW THEY REALLY WERE ALMOST COMPLETELY OPEN, you could hardly see the pupils, and nothing in the white of the eyes, it was completely clouded, a dark obscurity lay in these eyes…and here is Christ REALLY AND TRULY
The capitalization, the quick cadence of thoughts, the terror in beholding the eyes: this man’s franticness is palpable in the text. Bewildered, he sits and stares, then decides to turn away from the painting and leave the Scuola in hopes of dismissing such terrible thoughts. But the last line of the story — “For him there would never be any exit from this building, not ever” — reveals the inescapability of his new, disoriented state.
The next story, “Acropolis,” reiterates this feeling of bewilderment. The protagonist of the tale journeys to Athens fulfill his lifelong wish of visiting the ancient site. He arrives at the site only to find the limestone so bright that his eyes ache and tear. Unable to bear its radiance, he stops his ascent in pain and bitterness, asking himself why no travel guide, no art historical account, had warned him about the blinding light. His bewilderment grows from the expectation that he could have foreseen, let alone overcome, this trial. How could he have known the luminosity of this place?
Not all characters in Seiobo There Below reveal such blatant bewilderment. Several try to understand the sacred by cycling through methods tried and true: scholarly intercourse, scientific inquiry, mathematical analysis. Ironically, the characters who pursue answers down these clear pathways are among the most disconnected. At intervals throughout “Christo Morto,” for instance, we learn about an art historian who had tried to restore the Scuola’s painting of Christ. She brings the painting to a chemical restoration workshop in hopes of discovering the original artist, a mystery over which the board of San Rocco holds its breath. When the chemical restorer X-rays the image and examines the gesso, he finds an underwhelming signature. The painting is left half-forgotten in a small corner display. The art historian is so focused on the work’s scholarly evaluation that she misses the essence of the painting.
This intellectually fueled oblivion percolates through the stories. When a European scholar tries to study the rebuilding of Japan’s Ise Shrine, she misunderstands the tradition to such a point that she obscures the rite’s actual meaning. When a group of travelers camps out in the Carpathians to foster creativity, they grow so preoccupied with their routine that the true artist among them — an elusive man who carves an enormous earthen sculpture — becomes a spectacle.
As one bewilderment follows another, the repetitions themselves start to hold higher meaning. The arrangement of narratives into the Fibonacci sequence is no coincidence. Like the mathematical series, the stories in Seiobo There Below evoke a spiral, both recursive and unexplainable. Plots reoccur, protagonists resemble each other, and narrators repeat phrases as they circle around the topic at hand, always one inch short of final revelation. As one narrator remarks, “Not to know something is a complicated process, the story of which takes place beneath the shadow of the truth.” This is the philosophy of Seiobo There Below. László Kraznahorkai has given us a work that shimmers under a prism of hidden meanings. Our task is to connect the dots, experience the mystery of the text, and embrace moments of bewilderment with patience, openness, and preparation for a deeply meaningful encounter.
In the fiction-writing course I took my junior year of college, a professor assigned a story by Deborah Eisenberg, a writer of whom I’d never heard. We’d been studying the art of dialogue, and I knew enough to admire the characters’ hesitations and evasions, but somehow the story didn’t quite ignite for me. This is a polite way of saying that I was impatient and stupid, and a bad student to boot – I think I must have skimmed the reading in the half-hour before class, still hung over from the previous night. Later, in graduate school, I had a chance to hear Eisenberg read a newer story, and the sound of her voice – surprised and surprising, hilarious and human – made me regret everything my undergraduate arrogance had hidden from me. Well, I’ve spent the years since making up for lost time. After ripping through 2006’s Twilight of the Superheroes, twice, and then All Around Atlantis (1997), I managed to track down a $32 print-on-demand paperback of The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg, which combines her first two collections, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986) and Under the 82nd Airborne (1992). (Surely it’s time for these to be reissued separately. Paging FSG Classics!) As I started in on Under the 82nd Airborne – the last remaining unread stories – I found myself slowing down, like a kid conserving candy. This gave me some time to think about why Eisenberg’s work affected me so strongly, and why she had vaulted, during that 2005 reading, directly to the head of my list of favorite writers.Eisenberg writes slowly – 28 stories in about as many years – but her body of work hardly feels insubstantial. Rather, each of her unhurried narratives attains the philosophical and psychological depth of a novel. Where a more conventional writer persuades the reader through the accumulation of realistic detail, Eisenberg pays minute, almost Proustian attention to the phenomenal space in which those details occur. She understands that to be human is to be continually “thrown into” the present, and so her characters seem as surprised to find themselves caught up in stories as we are to find them there. Visual features – animals, faces, furniture – list and loom out of defamiliarized landscapes. The characteristic mood is a kind of beguiling bewilderment.In “A Cautionary Tale,” for example, a protagonist named Patty is subletting a studio in an apartment building full of mildly deranged New Yorkers.When she went back down the hall, there was no sign on the floor of Mrs. Jorgenson or her blanket, but as she passed the spot where they’d lain a psychic net seemed to be cast over Patty, and later, trying to sleep, she flopped about, struggling, unable to disengage her mind from the phantom form of supine Mrs. Jorgenson. How tender Mrs. Jorgenson’s puffy ankle had looked, where it was exposed by her rolled-down stocking.There is a kind of deadpan comedy here, the clash of linguistic registers (“flopped” vs. “supine”) undercut by the rhythmic banality of “Mrs. Jorgenson,” but there’s also a great compassion, both for Mrs. Jorgenson and for tender, mixed-up Patty. The imprecisions – “a psychic net” “phantom form” “puffy ankle” – are echt Eisenberg: not loose writing, but an attempt to capture on the page the looseness of consciousness. That is, we can see Patty’s world only as clearly as Patty can herself.The sum of Eisenberg’s comedy and her compassion is a rich and old-fashioned irony, which seem part of her authorial birthright, as natural to her as breathing. Two other legacies carried over into Under the 82nd Airborne are an ear for the eccentricities of speech (interjections like “well” and “obviously” leaven even third-person narration) and a gift for audacious, dreamlike metaphors. The two align neatly in a later scene from “A Cautionary Tale.” Patty’s new roommate, a dilettante named Stuart, has decided that they should have intercourse. She rebuffs him in a passage I can’t resist quoting at length:”I’m not attracted to you, Stuart””You would become attracted to me if you were to sleep with me,” he argued affably.”But I’m not going to sleep with you,” she said.”Don’t you see the beauty of it, Patty? It’s sound in every way – politically, economically, aesthetically. You and I would be an entire ecology, generating and utilizing our own energies.””I’m not here to…to provide physiological release for you,” she said.”Why not? I’m here to provide it for you. Listen, you’re going to start suffering from pelvic distress one of these days. There could even be colonic or arterial consequences, you know.”It wasn’t fair, Patty thought – Stuart obviously felt entitled to win every argument just because he knew more words than she did. She could only repeat herself stubbornly while he continued to whine and orate, disguising his little project in various rationales, until it seemed that one wolf, in different silly bonnets, was peeping out at her from behind a circle of trees.As wonderful as this is – his “little project!” “silly bonnets!” – Under the 82nd Airborne might represent merely a refinement of the technique of Transactions in a Foreign Currency, were Eisenberg not such an ambitious writer. Where the earlier collection plumbed the emotional depths of doomed romances and urban anomie, Under the 82nd Airborne strikes out for thematic territory the feckless Stuart can only gesture at: the political, the economic, and the aesthetic. As “A Cautionary Tale” unfolds, the dialogue will open up to admit long, idea-rich speeches from Stuart and from several intellectual foils. And in the stories that follow, Eisenberg will throw her urban characters into settings that force them to confront cultural difference and the ugliness of privilege.The most haunting of these, the title story and “Holy Week,” draw on the time Eisenberg spent abroad in the 1980s. Throughout Central America, the Reagan administration was funding a series of proxy wars against Soviet-backed revolutions, and Eisenberg and her partner, the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, spent time touring the affected countries. Shawn wrote directly and wrenchingly about his experience in a one-man drama called The Fever. In fiction, however, such directness can easily give way to didacticism. The method of Under the 82nd Airborne allows Eisenberg to avoid this trap. As in “A Cautionary Tale,” we stay rooted in the consciousness of the protagonists, with little authorial intrusion. Characters can speak directly about politics, but Eisenberg refuses to privilege or denigrate their positions. Her wayward Norteamericanos are no more mixed-up than Patty, and she extends them no less of her sympathy and humor.Absent any clear “message,” the chief effect is a radical raising of emotional stakes. When Patty makes a mess of her life in New York, she is the one who suffers. When Dennis, the peripatetic food journalist of “Holy Week,” fails to challenge the system that has put him in Honduras (or anyway, I think it’s Honduras), a whole country suffers with him. In each case, Eisenberg does not pretend to have solutions. “All right,” Dennis thinks at the end of “Holy Week.”Yes, the planet is littered with bodies…But will it improve, the world, if Sarah and I stay in and subsist on a diet of microwaved potatoes? Because I really don’t think – and this is something I’ll say to Sarah when she’s herself again, I suppose – that by the standards of any sane person it could be considered a crime to go to a restaurant.Nested within massive geopolitical conflicts, the tensions between men and women like Dennis and Sarah start to seem very much like dirty wars, the collisions of irresistible forces and immovable objects.Under the 82nd Airborne’s dialectic of power and powerlessness anticipates the themes and settings of subsequent Eisenberg productions including “The Lake” and “Flaw in the Design,” and, in its diary-like arrangement, a story like “Holy Week” presages the formal adventurousness of “Twilight of the Superheroes.” But, even as it consolidates its strengths, Eisenberg’s fiction continues to leave room for “enormous changes at the last minute” (in the formulation of Grace Paley, a writer Eisenberg sometimes resembles). The most wonderful thing about her short stories – the thing I wish were true of my own – is that it’s impossible to guess, from sentence to sentence, what might come next. As a kind of salute, then, I’ll close with a semi-non sequitur: The Friday after Thanksgiving last year, my wife and I found ourselves gridlocked on the New Jersey Turnpike. Our rented car and the tens of thousands stretching ahead and behind us were probably sputtering out enough greenhouse gases to kill several dozen polar bears and maybe a rare species of cancer-curing Arctic flower. Patience continued – well, continues – not to be among my virtues. I was halfway through Under the 82nd Airborne, so I took it out and began to read aloud, and there, in the failing light at the heart of the Eastern Seaboard, we finished the book. I can’t say the world changed, obviously. But for as long as those stories lasted, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.