Vladimir Nabokov recently did it. So did Ralph Ellison, Roberto Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, and Stieg Larsson. Now an immortal god of noir fiction, James M. Cain, has done it too – published a novel from the grave, a move that’s sure to delight Cain’s fans while dismaying those who feel that the publishing world should have the decency to let dead authors rest in peace.
Cain’s lost last novel is called The Cocktail Waitress. Like two of his early masterpieces, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, it tells the story of a sexy young woman, Joan Medford, who’s caught in a vise between a prosperous older man and a younger, more desirable, more dangerous one. Since this is a James M. Cain novel, you know there will be lust and there will be blood and things will not turn out well for either of these guys. Same goes for Joan Medford’s first husband, who is already dead when the book opens.
There are stories behind this book’s classic noir story. One is the story of its author, once famous but nearly forgotten late in life, still sweating out the words as his health fails and death closes in. Another is the story of the manuscript – or, more accurately, the manuscripts – the last things Cain produced, which never got published, then got lost for 35 years, then got found. Luckily – or unluckily, depending on your bias – the manuscripts got found by a dedicated Cain fan who also happens to be an accomplished writer and editor. And he was willing to take on the daunting task of sorting out and polishing the chaotic manuscripts, then bringing the finished book to light.
The story of the publication of The Cocktail Waitress began to unfold at the corner of Broadway and 112th Street in New York City on a fall day in 1987, when Charles Ardai, a bookish freshman English major at nearby Columbia University, was walking past a table of used books. The title of a slim volume caught his eye: Double Indemnity. He had never heard of its author, James M. Cain, but he was about to become a hopeless junkie.
“I read it in one gulp and needed more,” says Ardai (pronounced ARE-die), now 42. “I found Cain’s bleak worldview shockingly sympathetic. His world was brutal, unfair, unjust. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, you learn that the world is an uncaring place. It’s indifferent to your suffering.”
Ardai, who had started selling articles about video games while still in high school, sold his first short story, “The Long Day,” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for $250 while he was at Columbia. He was specializing in the British romantic poets at the time and embarking on a program to read every word James M. Cain ever published.
After graduation, Ardai put his writing ambitions on hold and went to work for a finance/tech company called the D. E. Shaw Group, where he worked on the early free e-mail service, Juno. Down the hall a co-worker named Jeff Bezos was putting together the concept for an online bookselling service he would eventually call Amazon.
One day Ardai and another co-worker, the graphic designer/novelist Max Phillips, were having a drink and chatting about their shared love for Cain and his pulp peers, the writers of fast-paced, blood-drenched tales that used to appear between colorful paperback covers featuring slinky women wielding a knife or a gun – or a nice dependable baseball bat. The two friends lamented the fact that the genre was in a state of eclipse, and many of the form’s masters were either dead or getting there quick.
“There’s a body on page one,” Ardai says, ticking off pulp fiction’s irresistible appeals. “The cover art is classical realism with a heightened sense of sexuality and menace. The stories are heart-stopping, a wonderful blend of high and low culture. Max and I asked ourselves: Why doesn’t anyone produce books like that anymore?”
They decided to do it themselves. Phillips did some mock-ups of cover art, and three years later he and Ardai launched a new line, a blend of reprints and paperback originals called Hard Case Crime. Their first book, Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block, has been followed by more than 70 others by such writers as Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, Madison Smartt Bell, David Goodis, and Ardai, writing under his own name and the pen name Richard Aleas. Some of the titles will stop your heart, such as Blood on the Mink, The Vengeful Virgin, and The Corpse Wore Pasties. Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid has been Hard Case Crime’s best-selling title by far, and it became the basis for the TV series Haven, now in its third season on the SyFy channel, for which Ardai has served as consulting producer and occasional scriptwriter.
Which brings us back to James M. Cain.
In 2002, while Hard Case Crime was still in the larval phase, Ardai was exchanging e-mails with Max Allan Collins, a prolific crime writer and dedicated student of the genre. While discussing possible authors for the series, they discovered they shared a passion for Cain’s work. This put them in good company. André Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre were also admirers of Cain’s stripped-down prose and bleak worldview. So was Albert Camus, who said he used Postman as a model for The Stranger.
Ardai thought he’d read every word Cain ever wrote, but Collins mentioned a book Ardai had never heard of, one that Cain had noted in an interview shortly before his death in 1977, a book that was sketchily summarized in Roy Hoopes’s 1987 biography of Cain. The book, Collins told Ardai, was called The Cocktail Waitress.
Ardai then embarked on an odyssey that would last nearly a decade. He started digging for the missing manuscript, contacting Otto Penzler, the founder of Mysterious Press, as well as academics, the Cain estate, book collectors, fellow writers. No one knew a thing. Then serendipity intervened. Ardai’s agent, Joel Gotler, inherited the business of an old-school Hollywood agent named H.N. Swanson, who had died in 1991 at the age of 91. Swanson once represented many famous writers, including William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, and, as it happened, James M. Cain.
“I asked Joel to look into Swanson’s files,” Ardai said, “and a week later an envelope showed up in the mail. It was a photocopy of The Cocktail Waitress manuscript.”
Ardai then learned that there were Cain papers in the Library of Congress, and he promptly took a train to Washington and made a heart-stopping discovery worthy of a pulp novel: more than 100 boxes of papers from all stages of Cain’s life, including other completed versions of The Cocktail Waitress, along with partial manuscripts and fragments of the novel, notes Cain wrote to himself, lists of possible names for characters, alternative titles, different versions of key scenes.
“It was like a moment out of Indiana Jones – prying the lid off the sarcophagus, blowing off the dust,” Ardai says. “It was breathtaking. I was thrilled. To find new words from an author you thought would never speak again – it was magical.”
Ardai spent three months sifting through the drafts and notes, cutting, stitching, smoothing. If anything, he had too much material to sift through. Here’s how he describes the arduous editing process in the Afterword to the published book:
Not only did Cain try out multiple variations of key scenes, he went back and forth with regard to his choices…. All of this leaves an editor in a somewhat odd position of having to choose the version of each scene – where there are multiples – that works best in and of itself and also fits best into the overall architecture of the plot. And that means deciding what pieces to leave out, a painful set of decisions. Editing the book was difficult for other reasons as well. Some lines and paragraphs needed to be excised or altered for consistency…or for pacing and focus…. On the other hand, a few excellent scenes Cain wrote in his first draft inexplicably didn’t make it into later drafts and I took the opportunity to fit them back in…
I gave particular care to the sections Cain worked over the most himself, aided by the notes he left behind, which ranged from details of setting…to chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of events and motivations…and notes on atmosphere…. It almost felt – almost – like having Cain sitting there with me at the keyboard, watching over my shoulder, keeping me on the straight and narrow.
And now we arrive at an unarguable conclusion and a delicate question. The conclusion is this: While The Cocktail Waitress has its virtues – most notably the unease Joan Medford stirs in the reader, the way it’s impossible to know if she’s a repeat killer – the book simply is not in a class with Cain’s three early masterpieces, Postman, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. Despite Ardai’s deft job of editing a messy mass of material, the book tends to lose its sharpness from time to time. You’ll cringe every time Joan Medford says “lo and behold.” For me, the setting in a bland Maryland suburb gives the proceedings a fatally tepid feel, the opposite of the smoldering dread and doom that bled through the California sunshine in Cain’s dark early masterpieces.
Ardai disagrees, sort of. “Some writers peak early and their powers wane,” he says. “Cain tried screenwriting in Hollywood and was a failure. He moved back to his native Maryland, and he hated it. He tried to write a novel set during the Civil War, and it failed. He tried to get labor unions and politics into his fiction. He seemed to have a desire to deal with Big Issues, and he just wasn’t good at it. It was almost like he was embarrassed by what he was good at – depicting individuals whose lives are coming apart. With The Cocktail Waitress he was trying to get back to the kind of story that he was known for and that he did best – brutal stories about desperate people in dire circumstances doing terrible things.”
The delicate question is this: Shouldn’t books that went unpublished in a writer’s lifetime, for whatever reason, remain unpublished after the writer’s death – especially if the writer expresses the wish that they not see print?
“If an author expressly asks that a book not be published, I would respect that,” Ardai says, quickly adding that he believes there are exceptions even to this rule. He cites the case of Franz Kafka, who ordered his friend and biographer, Max Brod, to destroy his unpublished manuscripts after his death. Brod ignored the request, and we now have him to thank for three enduring classics, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.
Ardai also cites the more recent case of Vladimir Nabokov, who ordered his family to burn the manuscript of his final, unpublished novel after his death. The “manuscript” consisted of 138 index cards, in no discernible order. Nabokov’s son and literary executor, Dmitri, kept the cards in a bank vault, occasionally showing them to scholars after his father died in 1977. Finally, in 2009, Dmitri contravened his father’s wishes and published The Original of Laura (A Novel in Fragments). “In fact,” David Gates wrote in the New York Times, “it’s simply fragments of a novel.” Even so, Ardai believes that Max Brod and Dmitri Nabokov did the right thing.”If it’s a cultural treasure – a book by a Kafka or a Nabokov – I would make an exception,” he says. And while he doesn’t claim that Cain is in Kafka’s and Nabokov’s league, he makes no apologies for bringing The Cocktail Waitress into the world.
“I don’t think it’s a classic,” he says, “but I definitely think there are things in it that are exceptional. I’m proud to publish it because of the exceptional parts and because of its historical value. You publish it not to cash in, but because major writers deserve to have their entire catalog available not just to scholars, but to readers. And it’s a good read.”
No argument there. It falls short of Cain’s best work – most books do – but Charles Ardai has done us all a service by unearthing it, lovingly shaping it, and sending it out into the world.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
How far would you go to learn the truth? In AMC’s detective drama, The Killing, “the truth” is the identity of 15-year-old Rosie Larsen’s killer in a perpetually-overcast Seattle. Would you risk losing your teenaged son, like Detective Sarah Linden? Ditch your fiancé? Would you work fifty hours straight, like her partner, Detective Stephen Holder? Endanger your sobriety by stepping into the den of your old meth dealer? Would you wrench your family even further apart, like Rosie’s father, Stan Larsen? Would you fight City Hall? Would you give up your badge and your gun?
Would you watch 13 hours of television? 26? 39?
This is, essentially, the question asked of us by The Killing, which just ended its controversial second season. The show began as one of the most critically acclaimed new shows of 2011, nominated for three Critic’s Choice awards and six Emmys. Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter declared it “excellent, absorbing and addictive. When each episode ends, you long for the next – a hallmark of great dramas.” But a few months later, that same reviewer was singing a different tune. “Did The Killing Just Kill Itself?” his review of the first season finale asked.
For those who have not become as addicted to this show as I have, all you really need to know is that, after thirteen incredibly tense episodes, all the evidence began to point toward the charismatic Mayoral candidate, Darren Richmond. Most damningly, a photo from a toll booth showed Richmond driving away from the scene of Rosie’s abduction in the car where her body was later bound inside the trunk. But then, seconds before the credits rolled, Detective Linden discovered the photo was a fake. Meanwhile the innocent Richmond was shot by a friend of the Larsen family. The season ended, and the show’s fans rioted.
When I first began to watch The Killing two months ago, I told a friend who’d been watching since day one. His reaction was vehement. “Goddamn FUCK THE KILLING. I keep watching it and it keeps NOT GOING ANYWHERE. I keep thinking “OK, THIS is it” and theeennn… nope. And yet I cannot stop watching.” This same friend directed me to the website, fuckthekilling.com, which is essentially a short, explicit open letter to the show from its fans.
Most critics were just as outraged. Many cited the fact that The Killing is based on a Danish TV drama Forbrydelsen, or “The Crime”, and the pilot episodes were nearly identical, shot-for-shot. They argue that while the first season of Forbrydelsen ended satisfyingly, by disclosing the true identity of the murderer, The Killing broke that unspoken pact between itself and its audience: watch this show for 13 weeks and you will be rewarded with the truth. Subverting our expectations has brought great acclaim to other AMC shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but with The Killing, the move appears to have backfired.
As the second season began, Goodman issued the show a stern warning. “By not revealing who killed Rosie Larsen in season one, this season could implode.” But in this same breath he complained that Veena Sud was compounding the problem by speaking out and directly assuring fans that the Larsen case would be solved by the end of season two. This creates a major suspense problem. “In the first 12 episodes, viewers will never believe a suspect is about to be revealed or that detectives closing in on a suspect in, say, episode seven, has any real relevancy. It certainly doesn’t make that storytelling immediately essential. Secondly, it’s telling viewers that they will be rewarded with a resolved mystery after 26 hours of television. If you see the appeal in any of this, please fire off a flare.”
Well, Tim, consider this my flare.
Think about it. How can we be upset when the truth is withheld just when we most expect it, and when someone promises that it will be delivered, right on time? But we in the audience always want to have it both ways: we want to have our expectations met, and at the same time, confounded. Novelist Elizabeth Bowen observed that “Story involves action[…] towards an end not to be forseen (by the reader) but also towards an end which, having been reached, must be seen to have been from the start inevitable.” Figuring how to get out of this double-bind has been the failing of many a writer. In all mediums, we reserve a large segment of our judgment until we see how well an entertainment ends. A great ending sends reverberations back through everything that transpired to reach it.
In the second season finale on Sunday night, The Killing achieved one of these great endings for the Larsen case. Sud kept her promise and revealed the truth about Rosie’s murder. The conclusion was satisfying, in that it did not satisfy. Rosie’s killing turned out to be caused by two different villains, one somewhat expected and the other utterly unexpected. In the end, these truths bring neither clarity nor comfort. Not to the Larsens or to the detectives. The truth behind Rosie’s killing turn out to be so meaningless and darkly ironic that we almost wish we didn’t know it. We know how Detective Holder feels as he shakes his head in his dark office. “Just the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes it just comes down to that I guess. Just randomness.” He comes to understand, as we must, that the truth is never as holy a grail as the quest we took to find it.
“Sounds like LOST,” another friend of mine scoffed, when I described my love of The Killing, “Never making that mistake again. LOST took away my ability to trust other people.”
Like The Killing, LOST steadily alienated its huge initial audience when writers decided to take the show in unexpected directions and then readily admitted to viewers that they did not have the truth about the mysterious island quite worked out, but that they’d figure it out as they went. The result was seven seasons filled with great drama and action, but also dead-end plots, quickly forgotten clues, and pointless characters. All of this stalling produced one loose end after the next, and there was simply no way to tie them all together in the end.
Tim Goodman likewise criticized the first season of The Killing for introducing too many “red herrings.” A red herring is a staple in most mystery stories. It is a misleading clue planted to distract us from the eventual truth. It is a kind of intended misdirection, which keeps an audience on their toes. The term originates in the training of dogs. A red herring would be run along the ground away from the scent that the dog was meant to follow. The idea was to train the dogs to eventually recognize when they were being fooled.
But while LOST dropped misleading clues haphazardly here and there to buy more time, The Killing has thus far used red herrings intentionally to lead both viewers and detectives in the wrong direction, not simply to kill time, but to make us interrogate our own assumptions about these dead-ends.
Did candidate Richmond really fit the bill? Wouldn’t it have been pretty lame for the oh-so-charming politician to wind up being a sociopathic killer? And why would he have been stupid enough to arbitrarily snuff out a call girl, two weeks before his election? And did it ever make sense that sweet, sheltered Rosie Larsen would work part-time as a high-priced underage hooker? Sud turned Richmond into yet another red herring, and this should have made us, like the detectives, wonder why we were so desperate for the truth that we’d have preferred that patently ridiculous answer. The innocent Richmond was shot and crippled for our eagerness, just as the previous nonsensical suspect, Rosie’s teacher Bennett Ahmed, was beaten nearly to death. Did anyone really think they’d make him into a secret terrorist? Now that we know the truth, it is easier to see how red those herrings really were.
It is telling that Veena Sud’s upcoming film project is a remake of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion. Hitchcock was the rare artist who managed to entertain audiences and subvert their expectations at the same time. Hitchcock achieved this most often by using a “MacGuffin,” allowing the initial mystery itself to become the red herring. Use a MacGuffin right and you can accomplish almost anything; do it wrong and your audience will never trust you again. Just ask M. Night Shyamalan.
The Killing is often compared to the Hitchcockian TV drama, Twin Peaks, which captivated America in 1990. Director David Lynch brought us Detective Dale Cooper, who was also searching for the killer of a young girl deep in the woods of Washington State. Twin Peaks used Laura Palmer’s murder as a MacGuffin to lead its viewers closer to the bizarre townsfolk, through surreal dreams, and chasing after a one-armed man. It became the most popular show on American television, but when Lynch ended his first season without delivering answers, audiences were rabid. Lynch gave in and revealed early in the second season that grieving father Leland Palmer had killed his own daughter.
And after this reveal, Twin Peaks lost its audience anyway. Soon the show ranked 85th out of 89 shows on the air. Now that Veena Sud has kept her word and revealed the killer, she runs the risk of finding her audience evaporating just like Lynch’s.
Fans and critics might well be outraged at The Killing’s anticlimax. Some might even wish Sud had decided to just leave us all in suspense for another year. But hopefully this ending will encourage viewers to stop trying so hard to see The Killing as a typical police drama and wake up to the fact that it long-ago metamorphosed into something much more fascinating. It has been, from the start, a show that makes us question – like Detectives Linden and Holder – the value of the truth, and what we will invest of ourselves in order to know it.
Last year, in an interview with Alan Sepinwall, Veena Sud defended the integrity of the show. “We said from the very beginning this is the anti-cop cop show. It’s a show where nothing is what it seems, so throw out expectations. We will not tie up this show in a bow. There are plenty of shows that do that, in 45 minutes or whatever amount of time, where that is expected and the audience can rest assured that at the end of blank, they will be happy and they can walk away from their TV satisfied. This is not that show.”
Veena Sud worked for four years as a writer and producer for the CBS cop show Cold Case, a cop show which follows a tight formula: a long-forgotten case somehow surfaces and eventually is solved through the use of “modern techniques” of DNA processing and microfiber analysis. In truth, cold cases are rarely solved, and lawyers today cite The CSI Effect to explain how juries accustomed to TV crime dramas have come to expect an unrealistic level of certainty in evidence. An FBI study done in 2010 showed that since 1980 only 63% of murders have been solved, nationwide. This ranges from highs of 82% in North Las Vegas and lows of only 21% in Detroit. Perhaps this explains why we are so buoyed by the prospect that a single hair follicle might lead detectives to a killer within hours of a murder. No one ever said red herrings didn’t smell good.
Perhaps Sud asked herself what it says about audiences that we will watch essentially the same unrealistic episode of Cold Case, again and again? That show ran for seven years. CSI has run for thirteen years so far and has spun off two other series, both still running. Law & Order ended after twenty-years, after spinning of four new series. There’s NCIS, times two. Bones. Criminal Minds, times two. Hawaii Five-O all over again. Each show, in its own way, comfortingly repeats the formula, delivering the truth right on time, usually with an arched eyebrow and a wry quip. Perhaps The Killing isn’t breaking a pact with us, but staging an intervention.
It’s suggestive that Detective Holder is a former meth addict, and some of the dialogue between him and Linden revolves around the nature of addiction: what you’ll give up for your high and what rock-bottom looks like. Linden too, is depicted as an addict, not to drugs but to the case. She is, like us, addicted to the truth. Years earlier, Linden had a similar case which was never solved, and it landed her in a psychiatric institution. Then, facing the impossibility of knowing the truth drove Linden crazy. But at the end of the second season, she sees that knowing the truth is almost as unnerving. When Holder insists, for the second time that day, “We got the bad guy,” Linden’s only response is a chilly, “Yeah, who’s that?”
Because The Killing began as an adaptation of the Danish TV drama Forbrydelsen, many compare it to Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. But while it has some of that same icy edge and atmosphere, I think a better comparison is to the novels of another introverted writer from a gloomy European locale, whose work also went on to great acclaim only after his death: Franz Kafka.
Kafka’s most famous story, The Metamorphosis, is about a man who wakes up one day mysteriously transformed into a bug. But this strange mutation is a MacGuffin. We want to find out how poor Gregor turned into a bug, and so we delve deeper into Gregor’s sad predicament. Like Hitchcock’s The Birds, Kafka gives no explanation in the end, by which time we are so moved and awestruck that we’ve forgotten what we came for.
Another classic tale, “In the Penal Colony,” involves a man journeying to a remote prison to see a machine of elegant torture. An Officer there explains that it painfully tattoos a criminal with the phrase “Be Just” until they eventually receive a mystical revelation and die in ecstasy. The Officer is so excited by this magnificent torture that he jumps into the machine – only it breaks and kills him before he can find out truth the criminals received.
The Killing would fit right in with Kafka’s two best-known novels, The Trial and The Castle, which each feature a protagonist known as “K”. Both novels stretch on for hundreds of pages as K attempts to learn some sort of unobtainable truth. In this absurd pursuit K loses everything, breaks down utterly, and gets nowhere. And because neither novel was even finished at the time of Kafka’s death in 1924, even K’s total ruination is never quite completed.
Both novels show K toiling futilely against the systems of the law. In The Killing the inverse proposition is examined: two lawmen attempt to bring justice and to uncover an important truth. Their truth becomes just as elusive as the one sought by poor K. The deeper they dig, the further away it somehow gets.
Modern detective work, despite microfibers and DNA, is still rooted in the rational principles of the 16th century scientific revolution, when thinkers began to re-embrace the Classical idea that logical inquiry could lead us to the truth. The scientific method makes a kind of pact with us: collect evidence and probe it until the rational world gives up its secrets. Develop a logical hypothesis and test it out. If it fails, then you have at least eliminated something that is untrue. Start over. Try again. Keep looking. You’ve almost got it.
Four centuries later, we live in a world in which astronomers have discovered incredible things about the nature of matter, right down to the tiniest subatomic particle, and charted the expanses of the universe for light-years in all directions. And yet each answer has given us a hundred new mysteries to solve. We’ve interrogated the human body down to the smallest acellular organisms, and for each truth we have learned, ten more questions have popped out from behind it. We’ve learned much, but for all that we understand, perhaps the greatest thing we’ve learned is how much more there is to learn.
In the case of killings, there will are always unsolved cases, wrongful convictions, and unreliable witnesses. But even when we do know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that one person killed a second person, and we arrest and punish that first person, there’s still so much we don’t know. The Killing makes this uncertainty its very heart. Is imprisoning the killer any justice. Is killing them? Can we ever understand how the killer did what they did? What is the measure of that lost life? What is the measure of the killer’s?
Don’t get me wrong. The pursuit of truth is a noble ambition. Asking if this pursuit is futile is itself but one more truth we should keep pursuing.
People often mistake Kafka for a nihilist, but his books can be very uplifting. In echoing the human struggling we often feel, we can feel less alone in that struggle – we may even laugh at it. Novelist David Foster Wallace explained how he would get his students to see the humor in Kafka. “You can ask them to imagine his stories as a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is, but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward – we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.” (Roughly translated, this means, “That’s pretty funny.”)
The Killing does not want to tell us an easy truth, but a difficult one. Hollywood Reporter Tim Goodman has himself argued that difficult shows can be worth the effort it takes to understand them. “You know what else is difficult? The first chapters of War and Peace. Also, great gobs of Remembrance of Things Past. Did you also know that diving in to William Faulkner can leave you wondering what the hell is going on?”
Plenty of us, of course, don’t have the patience to read the classics, or to even watch The Killing, but this does not mean that we wouldn’t be rewarded if we developed some. By embracing the entertainments of difficulty, we can learn, like Detectives Linden and Holder, to become more aware in our pursuit of the truth. We can begin to see that we are the ones who are forever tattooing that fervent Kafkaesque wish upon the world, “Be Just.”
If there is one element of László Krasznahorkai’s prose to which critics are most often drawn, it is the length of his sentences. Indeed, they are long: comma-spliced and unrelenting. They run on, at times, for pages, requiring diligence of even the patient reader. George Szirtes, the award-winning British poet who has translated three of Krasznahorkai’s novels, describes the effect as a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” But Krasznahorkai’s prose is not singular in this regard. Post-war Europe has produced a cabal of writers responsible for similar feats of syntax: Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, Bohumil Hrabal, and Witold Gombrowicz, to name a few. Amid such company, Krasznahorkai feels a bit like the uncle whose throat-clearing at holiday dinners causes those at the table to shift uneasily in their seats. He is obsessed as much with the extremes of language as he is with the extremes of thought, with the very limits of people and systems in a world gone mad — and it is hard not to be compelled by the haunting clarity of his vision.
Satantango is the most recent of Krasznahorkai’s novels to appear in English, twenty-seven years after its publication in Hungary. It will be released this February by New Directions, the publisher responsible for the rest of Krasznahorkai’s English-language oeuvre: The Melancholy of Resistance was first published in 1998 (in Hungarian in 1989), followed by War & War in 2006 (in Hungarian in 1999), and AnimalInside, a slim pamphlet-sized book translated by Ottilie Mulzet with art from Max Neumann, in 2010. Satantango is perhaps best known as the seven-hour film of the same name by avant-garde filmmaker Béla Tarr, with whom Krasznahorkai often collaborates. In Tarr’s long, spare, black-and-white shots, the movement of Krasznahorkai’s sentences — if not their vitality or their rhythms — find an appropriate analogue:
He decided to watch everything every carefully and to record it constantly, all with the aim of not missing the smallest detail, because he realized with a shock that to ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order. However apparently insignificant the event, whether it be the ring of tobacco ash surrounding the table, the direction from which the wild geese first appeared, or a series of seemingly meaningless human movements, he couldn’t afford to take his eyes off it and must note it all down, since only by doing so could he hope not to vanish one day and fall a silent captive to the infernal arrangement whereby the world decomposes but is at the same time constantly in the process of self-construction.
The sentences have what the critic James Wood, in his The New Yorker essay last July, called a “self-correcting shuffle, as if something were genuinely being worked out, and yet, painfully and humorously, these corrections never result in the correct answer.” One sees similarly recursive patterns in Bernhard and can spot his influence in Krasznahorkai’s later work, most notably in the mad, maddening, György Korin, the protagonist of War & War, to whose machinations Wood refers. Satantango, by contrast, is a quieter book. It is more Beckett-like its sparseness, as though Krasznahorkai, for his novelistic debut, chose to privilege the formal architecture of the novel, the neatness of its structure, over the extremity of his prose. The result is a more mannered brilliance.
Satantango begins with the epigraph: “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it.” In the original Hungarian, the line is attributed to “F.K.” — Franz Kafka — borrowed from his novel The Castle. It is unclear why Szirtes has chosen to translate the selection this way and also to leave it unaccredited. In that scene, while waiting for Klamm outside an inn, K. is approached by a man who insists that K. come with him. K. refuses, and the man cannot understand why. “But then I’ll miss the person I’m waiting for,” says K. “You’ll miss him whether you wait or go,” the man replies. Here, in Mark Harman’s translation, K. says, “Then I would rather miss him as I wait.” The implication is comical: faced with evidence to the contrary, we would prefer to believe ourselves better off should we elect to stay. And yet given the choice, who would choose otherwise?
The inhabitants of the nameless, rain-battered village in which Satantango is set are caught in a similarly fraught waiting game. There is the lame Futaki; the libidinous Mrs. Schmidt; the neglected child, Esti, who kills her cat with rat poison; the god-fearing Mrs. Halics; the landlord; and the doctor who, in order to “preserve his failing memory against the decay that consumed everything around him,” maintains extensive dossiers on them all. They are connected by the spiritual poverty — though they suffer different strains of it — that has settled over “the estate.” The estate resembles a failed collective; it has gone to ruin after the closing of a nearby mill, the circumstances of which, like the history of this seemingly forgotten place, are alluded to — often in dreams. Those who have remained on the land do little more than pick fights, sleep with one another’s wives, and toss back shots of pálinka at the landlord’s bar, that is, until Irimiás and Petrina, both thought to be dead, are spotted on the road to the estate. News of their alleged resurrection spreads fast, and with it, the potential for deliverance or destruction. As the citizens of the town continue to wait (a premise owing much to Beckett and Bulgakov), dancing drunkenly late into the night — “Time for a tango!” one man shouts — Mrs. Halics wonders, “Where was the hellfire that would surely destroy them all? . . . How could they look down on this seething nest of wickedness ‘straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah’ and yet do nothing?”
It is at this point in the book that the novel’s two main figures, Irimiás and Petrina, arrive. In a long and impassioned speech, Irimiás offers absolution, promising to lead the villagers to a nearby estate, “a small island for a few people with nothing left to lose, a small island free of exploitation, where people work for, not against each other, where everyone has plenty and peace and security like a proper human being.” But if Irimiás is a prophet, he is a false one. One sees behind his words the same illusions of the very system which has, not long before, broken the villagers themselves. Here, as the people of the town rally behind Irimiás with renewed hope, we begin to get a feel for the dance. The structure of the novel mimics that of the tango: the chapters go six steps forward (part one) and six steps back (part two), with the pivot marked by the arrival of Irimiás and Petrina, and the ending, by the repetition of the first two pages, as if the dance were to continue on in a closed purgatorial loop, the day of judgment remaining just out of reach. And so we, like the denizens of the town, begin the dance again: six steps forward, forever hopeful, forever waiting.
In the late David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, IRS employee Claude Sylvanshine is a “fact psychic.” This means he is periodically overwhelmed with cascades of “ephemeral, useless, undramatic, distracting” information about other people. When he eats a cupcake, for instance, he knows where it comes from, who baked it, and a sprinkling of vital statistics about its baker–his “weight, shoe size, bowling average, American Legion career batting average.” As the details proliferate, it becomes obvious that the sum does not add up to a person. What Sylvanshine learns about others isn’t, and can’t be, insight: it arrives with no context and no narrative, touched off by minimal contact or none at all, and he has no means of organizing or using what he knows. The information is raw, “fractious, boiling,” and its accumulation oppresses him. Some of it presents visually, “queerly backlit, as by an infinitely bright light an infinite distance away.” Sylvanshine’s gift gives him a headache.
Wallace himself, of course, was something of a fact psychic, possessed of freakishly sensitive awareness and unsure of its human use. To read his work is to encounter great drifts of detail, drifts which have contributed, along with his books’ sheer length, to the perception of his work as excessive or maximalist. Wyatt Mason notes in The New York Review of Books that those who characterize Wallace’s fiction this way sometimes imply a failure of control or restraint, as if “however smart he was, he wasn’t smart enough to write fiction that didn’t distract the reader with yieldless shows of virtuosity.” But Wallace’s canonization, now close to complete, means these criticisms no longer have much bite. Mostly we feel that Wallace’s headlong, encyclopedic, garrulous manner was born of necessity, not indulgence, that the stylistic innovations, including the massed detail, grew not from vanity but from some kind of mimetic imperative to reflect back to us our dizzy, painful, teeming, inconclusive lives.
This vision of Wallace is of an artist in full possession of his art, his every choice considered and confident. Even so, D.T. Max, writing for The New Yorker, finds traces in the years before Wallace’s death of a different sort of author, one who had come to doubt the style he’d become known for and grown dissatisfied with himself as a writer, even believing, Max suggests, that he might not be “the kind of person who could write the novel he wanted to write.” How deep this unease went it’s impossible to say, though it does seem that Wallace was conscious early on of the costs exacted by his stylistic choices. In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery, he worried about writing “sentences that [were] syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them.” Still, if he was aware of the risks of his approach, he seemed certain, at least in 1993, that they were worth running. About his project at the time (probably Infinite Jest), he said, “Whether I can provide a payoff and communicate a function rather than just seem jumbled and prolix is the issue that’ll decide whether the thing I’m working on now succeeds or not.”
An unfinished novel almost by definition doesn’t provide a payoff or carry out its “function.” This means we can’t know whether the unfinished book was also unfinishable, an insoluble puzzle. (Though some novels–Kafka’s Castle for example–seem more eloquent and even “successful” for being incomplete.) Certainly Wallace had set himself a problem masochistic or quixotic in its difficulty: how to write an interesting novel about that byword for tedium, the IRS? And how to write a religious novel–which is what The Pale King is, in its preoccupation with grace, illumination, and purpose–about the most disenchanted and secular of professions, namely accounting? Employees of the IRS, fact psychics or not, don’t want for hard numbers. The question is whether, along with the data, they can acquire a sense of vocation and vision, of meaningful work in a meaningful world. It is a question whose implications point inward, to the novelist’s own profession, and outward, to the status of human activity generally in what we have come to call an “information society.”
If Infinite Jest was about addiction, entertainment and distraction–about avoiding the truth–The Pale King is about the opposite phenomena of boredom and attention, about staring at the world instead of looking away. And if Infinite Jest was quintessentially a novel about fuckups and misfits, The Pale King is a novel about reliable employees, people who go to work each day and get there on time. Claude Sylvanshine is one of a handful of primary characters, low-level IRS employees mainly (many of them rote examiners, or “wigglers,” in IRS lingo), whose stories appear and reappear over the course of the book’s 539 pages. Among these narratives, assembled from Wallace’s manuscripts and notes by his longtime editor Michael Pietsch, glimmers a constellation of minor characters, all linked by their association with “the Service.” The relations among the cast blink on and off as the book progresses, alternately intensifying or falling away. There is no central protagonist per se, unless you count David Wallace, the self-described author of what he claims is a memoir written primarily for financial gain.
Not a lot happens in The Pale King, exactly. The plot, such as it is, emerges from a left turn in early-eighties-era tax policy Wallace calls the Spackman Initiative, an attempt to narrow the tax gap (the shortfall between what is owed to the government and what is actually collected) by increasing the efficiency of collection (essentially, cracking down on non-compliance) so that the government can lower marginal tax rates without losing revenue. As their elephantine employer struggles to reinvent itself, the wigglers, in varying states of mental and bodily discomfort, writhe in place: “R. Jarvis Brown turns a page. Ann Williams sniffs slightly and turns a page. Meredith Rand does something to a cuticle.” Wallace wants us to see what the examiners, at the height of their boredom, can’t, quite: the relation of the human skeleton to the bureaucratic thumb bone turning the page.
The world of The Pale King is, with a few exaggerations and inventions, our world, where the baroquely ramified division of labor has given rise to jobs only distantly related to their purpose. The low-level examiners at the Midwest Regional Examination Center suffer a common plight: jobs of drastic tedium and invisible value. Some employees try to survive, improbably but amusingly, by treating their work as a vocation in the religious sense of the term. So Chris Fogle is bewitched by the eerily composed teacher of a high-level accounting class who describes tax preparation as a heroic calling. “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is,” the teacher declares, absurdly, as if he were a POW. In Fogle’s moment of conversion, the physical world amplifies, details announce themselves, and Fogle sees so much so keenly that he can intuit even the little he can’t see:
I was aware of how every detail in the classroom appeared very vivid and distinct, as though painstakingly drawn and shaded, and yet also of being completely focused on the substitute Jesuit, who was saying all this very dramatic or even romantic stuff without any of the usual trappings or flourishes of drama, standing now quite still with his hands again behind his back (I knew the hands weren’t clasped–I could somehow tell that he was more like holding the right wrist with the left hand) and his face’s planes unshadowed in the white light.
Advanced Tax isn’t the first place Fogle has looked for redemption. In his earlier “wastoid” phase, he tells us, he took a drug called Obetrol for the quality of consciousness it afforded, especially “an ability to choose what one concentrates on” which differentiated it from smoking pot. Pot made you think about whatever your eyes lit upon, but Obetrol let you select and name your perceptions–“The cigarette burn is black and imperfectly round.” It was this final level of awareness, Fogle says, which he calls “doubling”–perceiving yourself perceiving, aware you are aware–that made the feeling special. Accounting appeals to him aesthetically–it is orderly, and in its orderliness, beautiful–but also (hilariously) spiritually.
A similar state of awareness possesses Meredith Rand when she engages a hyper-perceptive examiner named Drinion at a bar. Under Drinion’s observation she receives an infusion of attention like nothing she’s ever experienced. Importantly, the experience reminds her of paying attention herself. Here is another of Wallace’s spiraling (and attentive) sentences:
The only kind of experience she could associate with it involved their cat that she’d had when she was a girl before it got hit by a car and the way she could sit with the cat in her lap and stroke the cat and feel the rumble of the cat’s purring and feel every bit of the texture of the cat’s warm fur and the muscle and bone beneath that, and that she could sit for long periods of time stroking the cat and feeling it with her eyes half-shut as if she was spaced out or stuporous-looking but had felt, in fact, like she was the opposite of stuporous–she felt totally aware and alive, and at the same time when she sat slowly stroking the cat with the same motion over and over it was like she forgot her name and address and almost everything else about her life for ten or twenty minutes, even though it wasn’t like spacing out at all, and she loved that cat.
As Wallace inventories the varieties of distraction and absorption, he proposes that the burden of meaningfulness falls not on the task or the object at hand, but on the quality of the attention paid. It is one’s orientation to work that matters, not the substance of the work, one’s orientation to circumstance, not the circumstance itself. Happiness nests in perception.
Such a proposal unavoidably implicates the experience of reading this book. Also, more generally, the experience of reading itself. Does it matter what you read, or only how? In the case of The Pale King, I discovered that my eye sometimes wanted to trace zig zags instead of mowing steadily from one page to the next. Almost invariably I took the numbers and names pertaining to tax code as atmospheric and skimmed them. I at first resented the trademark footnotes. (But grew to love them: many explain vital information, and one even contains a blow job, or footjob, as I’m tempted to call it). As one might expect given Wallace’s sensibility, events receive a swirling, almost obfuscating treatment, the event itself nearly effaced by context or interpretation. It can be hard to figure out what’s happening, who’s talking, who’s who. But what generated the most readerly friction for me was not the quantity of detail so much as the difficulty of knowing how to take it. By non-avant garde standards, a detail is doing its job if you don’t question its function, if it fills out the portrait without puncturing it. But Wallace wants punctures. To McCaffery, he said he wanted to “antagonize” the reader, then corrected this to “aggravate” for its suggestion of intensification. (Or inflammation, I kept thinking: the detail as mosquito bite or bee sting). So we are more than once reminded that what is called Level 2 of the Midwest Regional Examination Center is not, as one would assume, the second floor, but actually the ground floor, due to an aborted excavation project. Such a detail says something about the contorted bureaucratic nature of the REC, but also suggests that the information will be necessary in terms of plot, that we’ll “need” it for something later on. But these hints are more often than not teases, tricks, feints.
Wallace’s characters themselves worry about such questions–what is the point of all this elaborateness? They frequently ponder the very elements that, in a less self-conscious book, would be charged with making them real to us. In a conversation about drug experiences in the sixties, an unnamed character complains, “I’m saying if I say Baxter-Bathing or Owsley or mention Janis’s one dress she wore you think in terms of data. There’s none of the feeling attached to it–this was a feeling. It’s impossible to describe.” Similarly, he isn’t concerned that “Sweater Puppies” produce no nostalgia, he’s concerned that they produce no feeling at all, that the fact, isolated, has no emotional valence.
In a day-long training session the new IRS recruits are taught something similar about the insufficiency of mere information. “Get rid of the layman’s idea that information is good,” two trainers tell a batch of trainees, among whom sits the fact psychic Sylvanshine. “That the more information the better. The phone book has lots of information, but if you’re looking for a phone number, 99.9 percent of that information is just in the way.” Sylvanshine’s interest is piqued as the second trainer chimes in: “Information per se is really just a measure of disorder.” The examiner’s job is ultimately the ability to sniff out a return worth auditing. The best can bypass vast amounts of meaningless information and in the exercise of his intuition concentrate on that small subset which is meaningful, a task any virtuosic performance of which requires virtuosic powers of attention. Thus the bureaucratic import of an examiner like Drinion, whose immense powers Wallace literalizes by making Drinion actually levitate as his focus crystallizes.
Drinion holds the mental secrets that, replicated, are the key to the IRS’s new goals. Capture Drinion’s tricks and the IRS can do away with its main obstacle–the limitations of the humble examiner. AAnd if the examiner’s needs are everyone’s needs–for stimulation, for a job whose value is visible, for work that requires skill and affords pleasure–there is something worrisome at work in Wallace’s fictionalized IRS. The Pale King closes, at least in Pietsch’s reconstruction, with a mysterious chapter in which an unidentified subject appears to study the techniques of deep concentration. “The way we start is to relax and become aware of the body,” a graying, pleasant-faced woman instructs. “It is at the level of the body that we proceed. Do not try to relax.” The subject must learn how to relax, presumably, so that he can work more efficiently, so that he can generate more revenue, so that the bureaucracy can grow. The mantras of meditation, co-opted in service of the Service.
The unfinished quality of the book means there is something especially undecidable about such a scene. Is Wallace in earnest when he proposes that anything at all, even tax examination, can be the object of religious mindfulness? Or is he parodying such a view? Probably he is doing both. After all, the optimistic proposition that how we interpret our lives determines our experience shades easily into a more sinister one. If the burden is on us to make the best of any awful circumstance, such a suggestion can be bent to excuse any amount of awfulness. Wallace seemed truly to believe in the virtues of attention and its capacity to afford grace, as can be seen from his now-famous commencement address at Kenyon College. And yet The Pale King reveals a tormenting quality to relentless mindfulness, to an unrelieved awareness of the world. Claude Sylvanshine, buried under the clutter of everything he knows, fears there is basically something wrong with him, that he is “simply ill-suited, the way some people are born without limbs or certain organs.” He suffers because he can’t exercise any authority over his perceptions, can’t choose, can no more piece together meaning from the fact-shards raining down on him from other people’s lives than he can from his own experience. This is Sylvanshine’s lament: “What if he was simply born and destined to live in the shades of Total Fear and Despair, and all his so-called activities were pathetic attempts to distract him from the inevitable?” And in it we hear the terrible sound of Wallace’s own worry.
When it first became known that The Pale King existed it seemed especially tragic that Wallace hadn’t left us with a finished manuscript, and it is. And yet the book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive his questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t. After my first reading was over, as I returned to certain parts, seeking out this or that thing I’d liked or thought I’d misunderstood, previously opaque information revealed itself to mean something, and the book, wonderfully, seemed to move and breathe. But this is an unfinished novel, one arranged (if quite beautifully) by someone else’s hand. As much sense as it settles into, it will still escape us. It escaped him.