Over the past few months, bookstores have seen a spike in the sale of dystopian novels. George Orwell’s 1984 reached the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in January, followed soon after by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Predictably, this news was fox chased by trend piece writers — who then became the target of protesting think piece writers: “Forget Nineteen Eighty-Four. These five dystopias better reflect Trump’s US” shouted one; “Grave New World: Why “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is not the book we need in the Trump era,” claimed another.
Meanwhile, away from the mud and scrum, in the hothouse of independent publishing, French author Antoine Volodine’s eighth book in English translation, Radiant Terminus, was released by Open Letter. Deftly translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, it’s the first major apocalyptic novel to come out in a year stacked with books in the genre, notably Omar El Akkad’s American War and David Williams’s When the English Fall.
As with most titles without big marketing budgets, Radiant Terminus may struggle to find its way into popular discourse. This is a shame. Not just because it’s the most stylistically courageous, entertaining dystopian novel in recent memory, but because of all possible scenarios leading to our cataclysmic end, the one imagined by Volodine might be among the timeliest. Rather than caused by the direct result of aggression, he envisions the world ruined by a bright idea.
Far in the future — keep following, this shouldn’t take more than a minute — engineers of the Second Soviet Union beat warheads into sizzling fuel rods, transforming their planet into a hive of energy self-sufficient cities, resource extraction centers, and prison camps, each powered by a nuclear reactor. But after generations of implied slack and harmony, the reactors fail, a cascade of nuclear meltdowns follow, and this “project of the century,” born of the purest egalitarian spirit, collapses society. Entire continents become uninhabitable. Dog-headed fascists lunge from their dens. Counter-revolutionary armies raze oblast after irradiated oblast.
It’s here that Radiant Termius begins. And where the fun begins.
Narrowly escaping the fall of the last fortified city, comrade-soldier Kronauer flees into the Siberian taiga. In scenes evoking visions of present-day Chernobyl — birch roots wedging cracks in irradiated concrete, atomic heaps steaming under evergreen canopies — he seeks help from a settlement believed to be across the steppe, within a dark wood.
As if stumbling into a folk tale dreamt by Strugatsky Brothers, the crippled kolkhoz that Kronauer enters is nuclear-powered yet primordial, existing in a fabulist realm between dreams and reality. This community of “Radiant Terminus,” whence the book gets its title, is led by the monstrous Solovyei, “a gigantic muzhik in his Sunday best, with a beard and a wreath of hair sticking out here and there as if run through by an electrical current.” Unfortunately for Kronauer and all those who meet him, Solovyei is a jealous giant, a twisted psychic tyrant. In the words of one victim:
Nobody was permitted to exist in the kolkhoz unless he’d gotten control over them in the heart of their dreams. No one was allowed to struggle in his or her own future unless he was part of it and directing it as he wished.
Rather than fell Kronauer with his axe, Solovyei makes him a prisoner of the communal farm. Expected to work on pain of being cast as a drain on socialist society, Kronauer meets Radiant Terminus’ residents: Solovyei’s three grown daughters, all prey to their father’s incestuous, oneiric violations; a handful of shambling proles; and Gramma Ugdul, the witchy keeper of a radioactive well, two kilometers deep, at the bottom of which lies a reactor in eternal meltdown. Together they join in the endless labor of gathering and “liquidating” irradiated items by hurling them down Ugdul’s abyss.
The book’s heroic narrative progresses with dreamlike logic, leading, as most would expect, to an almost unbearably tense confrontation between Kronauer and Solovyei. What results isn’t an end. Instead, it precipitates a pivot in the narrative — or, better described: a concussive break of the central narrative, cracking the skull of the story, opening a consciousness unable to differentiate between nightmares and waking life, declamations and ramblings, physics and shamanism, she and they, he or I.
If this all seems odd, it is — in the best sense. Part of the joy of the book is the playful seriousness with which Volodine goes about his world building; another is spotting his influences. Samuel Beckett is clearly one. So are the aforementioned Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, perhaps best known for their 1971 sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, adapted into the feature film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The nightmarish, irradiated atmosphere of that world — a world in which the most terrifying perils lie unseen, often imperceptible — is reflected in Volodine’s. So too are other fantastic elements, including Solovyei’s psychic projections.
In Radiant Terminus, what Volodine brings to the French — and now, through Zuckerman, to the English — is perspective on a genre that’s refreshingly distinct from the two or three upsetting novels America read in high school. Unlike 1984 or Brave New World, he evokes a post-urban dystopia — a communal, agrarian dystopia, slowly receding into an apocalypse of open steppes and endless woodland. This may seem unprecedented, but not within the Russian tradition.
After witnessing the Terror Famine of 1932 and 1933, Andrey Platonov wrote The Foundation Pit, a brilliant short novel brought to English by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson in 2009. Unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, it follows a team of rural workers tasked with excavating the foundation of an unimaginably brilliant edifice, a “future building for the proletariat.” With little prospect of seeing the project realized, they spade deeper into the clay, oblivious to the pit’s semblance to a mass grave. Meanwhile, in the village where the workers are barracked, an activist hurries along the process of total collectivization — culminating with the gathering and liquidation of the region’s kulaks.
The satiric atmosphere of The Foundation Pit is so toxic with jargon and slogans that the prose itself mutates; description becomes sooty with language from official mouthpieces: “Most likely the rooks felt like departing ahead of time,” the narrator muses as a worker scans the sky, “in order to survive the organization collective-farm autumn in some sunny region and return later to a universal institutionalized calm.” In Radiant Terminus, Solovyei’s psychic intrusion into his subjects’ minds, his joy at “walking supreme throughout [their dreams]” seems only a fantastic reframing of what Platonov’s diggers experience when they return to their barracks, “furnished with a radio … so that during the time of rest each of them might acquire meaning of mass life”:
This oppressed despair of soul from the radio was sometimes more than Zhachev could endure, and, amid the noise of consciousness pouring from the loudspeaker, he would shout out: “Stop that sound! Let me reply to it!”
Adopting his graceful gait, Safronov would immediately advance forward.
“Comrade Zhachev, that’s more than enough…It’s time to subordinate yourself entirely to the directive work of the leadership.”
This same imperative hits Kronauer when he first steps into the boundary of Radiant Terminus, halting at the sound of a piercing whistle. Hands over his ears, he looks to his guide, one of Solovyei’s subordinated daughters.
Her eyes were obstinately focused on the tips of her boots, as if she didn’t want to watch what was happening.
—It’s nothing, she said finally. We’re in one of Solovyei’s dreams. He’s not happy that you’re here with me.
Kronauer walked up to Samiya Schmidt and looked at her, aghast. He kept his ears covered and he found it necessary to talk loudly to make himself heard.
Within the communities of both novels, truth is subservient to the barreling pace of activity: neither Solovyei nor the unseen spirit of Stalin would pause to consider the objection to a posited statement: in company, with frenetic movement and reprisals, they act as their will dictates; in seclusion, behind doors barred to dissent, they recuse themselves from question. Unlike the urban 1984 and Brave New World, where rigid control is needed to maintain the hard science fiction of the state, the rural setting of these two microcosmic dystopias can tolerate facts that counter its leaders. They’re simply ignored or dismissed, brushed away by hapless followers. Existing within a cycle of work and days, the power of these tyrants becomes as intemperate and natural to them as the weather — even, to some, as entertaining.
All considered, it wouldn’t be wrong to view the kolkhoz of Radiant Terminus as reconstruction of the village of The Foundation Pit. Stolen from the Russian, charged with psychosis, radiation, and incest, Volodine rebuilt it slat by slat, hut by hut, within a darker world.
In his foreword to the novel, Brian Evanson reminds us that Radiant Terminus is just one book in a forty-nine volume set that, when complete, will form Volodine’s ambitious, interconnected “post-exoticist” project. “One of the key features of [his] work,” Evanson explains, “comes in the echoes that operate both within individual books and between books.” Certainly, within the book’s last quarter, these echoes rebound — becoming as taxing on the reader as they are to Volodine’s characters:
—It’s just repetition, Noumak Ashariyev insisted. It’s hell.
—It’s not just hell, Matthias Boyol corrected. It’s more that we’re within a dream that we can’t understand the mechanisms of. We’re inside, and we don’t have any way of getting out.
Long after the point is taken, the book persists, nearly to the point of page-flipping exhaustion — the same exhaustion that meets every reader of Bouvard and Pécuchet — but it would be cruel to dismiss Radiant Terminus on this charge.
In truth, to be fair — what other conclusion could we expect? “Death occurs,” John Berger wrote, “when life has no scrap to defend.”
At the end of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, as either implied by or explicitly stated in their respective appendices, future academics discover the texts or recordings that form the books’ core narratives. But in Radiant Terminus, in a future irreversibly collapsed from the start, there are no academics — only snow, steppes, a shamble of survivors, “existences wasted and millennia gone for nothing.” Without the ability to rebuild civilization, the novel, its world, and its world’s inhabitants lose common language and temporality: overcast months become years, years become decades, decades become “one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six years or more.” As humanity atomizes and recedes, surrounded by Platonov’s “universal enduring existence,” its narrative deltas into a frozen sea.
As Ben Ehrenreich wrote in his exploration of Volodine’s “post-exoticist” project for The Nation, “this, you’ll remember, is literature of defeat”; Radiant Terminus offers nothing in the way of hope. But perhaps an injection of French pessimism is warranted — overdue for those who still assume the spirit of humanism to be indomitable. Volodine reminds us of a truth we can easily forget, distracted, as we often are, by the luxuries of technology and moral outrage: namely, that the civilization we’ve inherited is an heirloom so terribly precious, at risk of shattering into one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six irreparable pieces, yet in constant motion — passed and plundered from generation to generation, hand to shaking hand. At the height of the Cold War, in his speech to the Swedish Academy, Solzhenitsyn claimed that the massive upheaval of Western society is “approaching that point beyond which the system becomes metastable and must fall.” Over the decades that followed, most considered his prediction delusional. Today, to many, it seems less so.
Future scholars may agree or disagree, but only in the chance they exist. As Radiant Terminus demonstrates, Kafka’s axe — the axe of a book that can split the frozen sea — is useless without the knowledge to wield it as a tool. Present circumstances considered, the thought alone makes Orwell and Atwood seem cheery.
I used to watch to a lot of DVDs with the audio turned to the commentary track. And not just the monumental works of cinematic wonder the every frame of which is worth analyzing and puzzling over. I worked at a video store — Sneak Reviews in Charlottesville, Va., one of those great labyrinthine stores stocked like an archive — and, bringing home DVDs indiscriminately, I found that even a terrible movie could be saved by simply flipping over and listening to the director, writer, or cast, chat away. Though some have taken great pains to push the commentary track to new heights of performance (see the one for the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, in which the possibly fictional artistic director “Kenneth Loring” claims scenes were shot upside-down and in reverse), I was more struck by the commentary tracks that are compelling accidentally: people going on tangents, revealing things obliquely they might later regret. Stallone may be dull as a dial-tone for most of his commentary on Cliffhanger, but the end, when he sounds apologetic and genuinely depressed about his life and career, turns out to be the only engaging and human moment on that disk.
A friend once even showed me a porno with a commentary track. While the director offers her insights into the filming process, along with increasingly belligerent rants about her colleagues, she gets completely shit-faced. After about 30 minutes, she passes out, and for the rest of the movie, you can hear her snoring breezily in the background. It’s bizarrely compelling, and if I could remember the title, I’d recommend it heartily. It was around this time that I considered writing a short story in the form of a commentary track for an imaginary movie. I never did write that story (it was probably a terrible idea), but it did get me thinking about all the ways that texts supplementary to larger stories — or “paratexts,” as they’re officially known — can themselves become stories.
Now, years later, I’m publishing my first novel, Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, which takes the form of one long cease-and-desist letter. Paul McWeeney’s sister is about to publish a nonfiction book in which she accuses their late father of being the Black Dahlia murderer, so in order to save their father’s name, Paul writes a letter to the publishers trying to refute his sister’s claims. As the novel started to take shape, and I realized that Paul’s story would become a discursive commentary on his sister’s story — which itself is a discursive commentary on their father’s story — I began revisiting other books with similar configurations. Pretty soon, I imagined these books forming a loose genre, the Paratext Novel, stories that take the form of — or at least have the pretense of being — explicit exegeses of other stories, real or imagined.
But perhaps “genre” is not the right word, since these books are not concerned with establishing and enforcing conventions. They are interested in exploring how commentary mediates our lives, how we are so steeped in supplementary material that we rarely directly experiencing whatever it is that material supplements: a phenomenon that these books respond to by making “commentary tracks” more human sites of engagement. Like a lot of people, I still haven’t gotten around to watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, but I found Geoff Dyer’s book Zona — in which he offers a commentary/summary (which he argues is an “expansion”) of the film — fascinating, in part for how Dyer’s parallel self-revelation reminds us how we understand our own stories by encountering others.
Now, when we pick up a novel, chances are we’ve already seen not just others’ commentary, but also the novelist’s self-commentary in the form of interviews and even articles like this. Whenever a writer comments on his or her own work, there’s inevitably an attempt — futile and foolish — to control how readers engage with that work. But, in these books, attempts at controlling the (ostensibly central) story spin wonderfully into their own stories, illustrating and celebrating the impossibility of narrative intervention and the chaos beneath the illusion of control.
Since listicles have become the new popular form of supplementary text, here are the top five paratext novels that have been buzzfeeding around my brain.
1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: The paratext urtext, or at least the best known, Charles Kinbote’s deranged commentary on John Shade’s 999-line poem features, on its first page, this non-sequitur: “[John Shade] preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” Kinbote’s first interjection here is absurd, hilarious, and even violent in how it forces himself into someone else’s story. As with Lolita, the narrative hinges on control. In that earlier novel, Humbert Humbert not only controls Dolores Haze physically but narratively as well, since he is the one allowed a voice. In Pale Fire, Nabokov more explicitly curates, but also balances, this dynamic, revealing John Shade’s story — the tragic loss of his daughter that is the impetus for the poem — before Kinbote tries to absorb it into, and suppresses it with, his own story. It wasn’t until I read Claire Messud’s reminiscent The Woman Upstairs — about a schoolteacher who becomes obsessed with her student’s family — that I realized Kinbote is not just infiltrating Shade’s art; he’s infiltrating Shade’s family.
2. U and I by Nicholson Baker: True, this is not technically a novel, but Nicholson Baker’s “closed book examination” of John Updike’s work reads like no other work of nonfiction I’ve read. Though I would never encourage anyone to not read Updike, ignorance of his oeuvre should not keep you from reading U and I. After all, occasional ignorance certainly doesn’t stop Baker himself, as he misremembers and misunderstands, corrects himself and confesses lapses. That is partly why this book is so strange and so funny, but also because it’s the most honest portrayal of a reader’s relationship with a writer I’ve ever come across: one-sided, heavily mediated, existing entirely in his imagination. In Baker’s literary hero-worship, we begin to realize what we probably knew all along, that it uncomfortably echoes a bastard kid striving for legitimacy, and for simple fatherly validation.
3. Edwin Mullhouse by Stephen Millhauser: The full title, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, hints at Millhauser’s interest in complicating the commentary track’s implicit attempt at narrative control and usurpation. This novel takes the form of a biography of Edwin Mullhouse, a supposed literary genius, who wrote a novel called Cartoons before dying mysteriously at age 11. His biographer and friend, Jeffery Cartwright, also a small child, is an insanely precocious Boswell whose relationship with his subject grows increasingly unsettling. Whereas in Pale Fire, John Shade has his brief moment at the microphone before Kinbote rushes the stage, in Mullhouse we have no unmediated access to Edwin — and no unmediated access to the ostensible cause for Edwin’s celebration, his novel Cartoons — which makes for a more disorienting reading experience. In the fictional introduction, the fictional Walter Logan White writes, “I myself have sternly resisted the temptation to read Cartoons, knowing full well that the real book, however much a work of genius, can no more match the shape of my expectations that the real Jeffrey could.” In creating a commentary track that seems to have supplanted Edwin’s novel, Jeffery seems to have supplanted Edwin, a figurative death equally resonant to Edwin’s literal death that illuminates the entire friendship we see develop between the two.
4. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: If we close Edwin Mullhouse wondering how much of Edwin’s genius is imagined and manipulated by his biographer-cum-creator Jeffery, in The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips — both author and character — relocates this distrust to the familiar battle between Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians. In the 250-page introduction to a recently recovered Shakespeare play, which might actually be a forgery by his father, the character of Arthur Phillips lays out a childhood fraught with questions of trust and veracity. After the introduction, Phillips presents us with the play in question, and it’s a stunning act of impersonation. Seeing the son’s introduction followed by (what might be) the father’s work reminds us how familial this narrative hijacking really is, just as all of these works ultimately boil down to simple family arguments, an interruption around the dinner table: No, let me finish this story.
5. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes: Though published in 1985, this novel, featuring narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite’s discursive commentary on Flaubert’s life and work, is my most recent addition to this genre. I borrowed it from my dad after a recent trip to France, where my girlfriend and I visited the Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine. Flaubert’s childhood house in Rouen is now a museum dedicated to both his work as a writer and his father’s work as a surgeon. Although the museum’s marriage of literary and medical does at first feel incongruous, it does form a kind of commentary track, inviting us to see the work of father in son in concert. For example, a sly curator has throughout displayed passages from Gustave’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, and the son’s quote that “all men of letters are constipated” is displayed not far from the father’s very invasive-looking devices to unblock reticent colons — both of which, consolation and cure, would be resonant to anyone suffering the effects of a French diet. Mostly, though, it’s the areas of seeming discord that are most striking. The room featuring Gustave’s childhood scribbles is right next to the room featuring the embalmed cadavers that good ol’ Dad tinkered with two centuries ago. And it’s not just human bodies that are preserved there; you can also see Flaubert’s actual parrot, taxidermied and propped on a bench in a closet. In the lobby, adjacent to an uncomfortable exhibit on Napoleonic-era gyno exams, they sell copies of Flaubert’s novels alongside Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which is “possibly the wittiest anti-novel since Nabokov’s Pale Fire.” Or at least that is how The Boston Globe describes it in the blurb printed on the back. Which is to say: I haven’t read the actual book yet — it’s still sitting patiently on my coffee table — but according to the paratextual commentary on the novel, the blurbs and reviews that I have read, it seems entirely appropriate.