A Crazy Trolley to Nowhere and Back Again: Gert Jonke’s The System of Vienna

November 18, 2009 | 4 books mentioned 3 5 min read

coverWith books that you planned to read this year still sitting on your shelf unread, and countless other recommendations swimming in your head, why should you even consider making room on your reading queue for a one originally published ten years ago in German and containing pieces dating back to 1970? But there is plenty fresh about Gert Jonke’s The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square. Like the bulk of his work, this novel is musical, innovative, and difficult, not in a dusty academic way, but as a delightful puzzle, as a well-constructed argument, as a challenging game of chess. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press, readers may now become acquainted with Gert Jonke’s work. Prior to Dalkey’s releases, Jonke’s books were unavailable in English. Having already published his Geometric Regional Novel and Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique, with this new edition of The System of Vienna, Dalkey has distinguished itself as the American purveyor of the work of one of Austria’s most important writers.

coverJonke’s The System of Vienna is a sprawling autobiographical novel (some describe it as a collection of linked stories) full of outrageous characters bustling through even more outrageous scenes. Beginning with a recounting of the narrator’s birth, and how his skin was tinged blue, the novel proceeds with descriptions of events that helped shape his personality, his consciousness, his obsessions: he encounters a man who thinks the French Embassy was built in the wrong place; he meets another who is unsure whether he is or isn’t the Chancellor’s confidant; he bumps into an eccentric stamp collector in the woods he thinks was imitating a tawny owl’s call; he meets another man (perhaps Jonke’s tribute to André Gide’s The Counterfeiters) who hands him a book called The System of Vienna; and he meets a paranoid fish merchant who believes that he masterminds Austrian politics from his stall.

Jonke is adept at blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. And he ably navigates metafictional and musical composition elements with comedic and fabulist registers while also experimenting with language, with unique syntactic strategies that convincingly depict a person’s psychology, particularly one that is in crisis, on the page. The reading of the novel is hurried along by expressive hyphenations like “wrinkled-lined-shriveled” and “sheen-glinting,” and brimming with portmanteaus like “eveninglikemorningishly afternoonnight” and “opendoorclosedoorslyness.” These neologisms visually capture the speed in which the character experiences his rush of thoughts and sometimes even threaten to take over the narrative:

And were you not then actually inside the bakery and suddenly seated on the padded red plastic chair, and did you in all likelihood not even really take notice of the closingtheglassdoorbehindyou, your enteringthecoffeehouse-aroma, lookingforandchoosingaseat, goingovertooneofthosepaddedredplasticchairs and the seating of your person in such a way that it seemed to you as if nothing like this had ever occurred before…

And the rush of cumulative sentences, insane, qualifying and self-correcting sentences that collapse upon each other, perfectly mirror the narrator’s decreased confidence, his fragmented consciousness, his quickly devolving sense of self:

Therein was to be sought the reason and the cause why things are sometimes, mostly sometimes, rather often, sometimes rather often, mostly sometimes rather often, mostly rather often, sometimes mostly mostly, mostly mostly not as they should be.

As the novel progresses, the narrator falls into endless repetitions. It reaches its apotheosis in “Philosophy of Household Management”:

Since that time I don’t put flowers out onto the hallway window any more; I’ve given up putting flowers onto the hallway window, because it makes no sense to put flowers onto the hallway window, no, it’s not just senseless, but impossible, for that matter, since it’s not a common thing to set flowers onto hallway windows, and setting flowers onto hallway windows can even be grounds for having your lease canceled.

And so it continues for pages. In less accomplished hands these repetitions would prove tiresome, but the voice here perfectly meshes with the narrator’s desire to get things right, captures his tendency to get lost in mundanities and life’s day-to-day minutiae, and also reflects his mind’s slow dissolution.

As much as the novel is a series of progressions from one trolley-stop to another, many of its encounters are driven by digressions, that is, characters are likely to deliver tangent-filled monologues that go all over the place. Jonke’s meeting with the sculptor in “Furniture Show—Main Promenade in the Prater” is as stunning as it is baffling, where the sculptor’s speechifying is marked by constant qualifications, apologies, and all kinds of circuitous asides.

The narrator is plagued by his dreams. At one moment he dreamed he saw his great-aunt flying over hills “powered by two gigantic wings of a nose out of her shoulder blades.” But as bizarre as his dreams are, his waking life is sometimes just as vivid and overwhelming:

I look down at the dark spots with which the sidewalks and streets here are strewn, as if I were being drawn to the ground by these faint patterns of glinting mica eyes in the paving material.

At first I believe they are the remaining marks of large raindrops fallen out of the night onto the sidewalks and streets. But when the spots have not been absorbed by the heat of midday, I can only think that the sidewalks and streets are constantly being spit on in profusion by the burning sky of the given day or much likely, by the good people of Vienna themselves, the latter speculation making it no surprise at all to me that these blotches never disappear.

We find the narrator increasingly losing control of his hold on reality, where at one point he asks:

Is it not altogether possible that the course of our life in its entirety is determined by nothing other than an unremitting and regrettable or even lamentable captivity founded on a curious aggregation of altogether ceaseless and incredibly unremitting post-hypnotic suggestions?

But it is the novel’s penultimate chapter wherein we observe the fullness of Jonke’s imaginative, visionary writing. In “Caryatids and Atlantes—Vienna’s First Guest Workers,” the narrator discovers that he is able to commune with stone sculptures. He learns that they “apprehended” time “as a physically concrete reality” and that they “required eternity-dimensional masses of time clouds” in order to exist. But their relationship isn’t one-sided: he teaches them about sleep and dreams. His “sleep performances came to be esteemed” by the stone sculptures as a

wondrously exotic, serenity-inducing form of Gesamtkunstwerk or all-encompassing work of art matchlessly flung high aloft by [him], in all its incalculable vastness, into the air of those day-nights and night-days, aided by the sheer force of [his] individual personality.

It is an imaginative end to a highly experimental and visionary novel.

And this hasn’t even covered the narrator’s grappling with suicidal thoughts, his synesthetic experiences where he often feels like he were hearing with his eyes, his repeated anthropomorphizing of the elements and inanimate objects, or how the narrative, even with its many bifurcations, still closely resembles the structure of the hero’s quest wherein the hero meets and overcomes numerous challenges and emerges victorious. The System of Vienna, with its commanding cadences, self-absorbed insistence, and entrancing repetitions, not to mention its childlike surrender to fantasy, is boundless fiction that both puzzles and entertains.

edits the forum Big Other and the journal The Chapbook Review. He is published widely and most recently in The Collagist, Flatmancrooked, The Prairie Journal: A Magazine of Canadian Literature, and Word Riot. His fiction is forthcoming in Opium Magazine and Corduroy Mountain. He's editing a collection of essays on the craft of writing (Publishing Genius Press, 2010). Read more about him at his website.