October 2013

Jessica Michalofsky

fiction

Two or Three Years Later by Ror Wolf, translated by Jen Marquart and Spaces, Poetics and Voids edited by Marc Schoonderbeek

Because I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another. Because today there are only states of being -- all stories have become obsolete and clichéd, and have resolved themselves. All that remains is time.
-- Bela Tarr, in an interview about why he makes movies

German author Ror Wolf's novel Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions avoids description for reasons that are difficult to describe. In Wolf's art as in life, banal things happen to ordinary people: a man says something, a man loses his violin, a man cries out, a man (a waiter from Cologne) gets a bean stuck in his ear, a man buys a sausage at a bockwurst, a man makes a throaty moan ("but it's entirely trivial and hardly worth mentioning") and a man, a flat roof specialist (but also a different man, a man from Unterschleißheim) has his hat sat on.

But far from being boring, the book's numbered chapters are deliciously surreal and subversive. Striking a precarious balance between nonsense and gnosis, Wolf steers his reader into one digression and out the next. Certain incidental mysteries -- lost hats, stolen luggage, an explosion during the singing of "Happy Birthday," a body found "in a lockable bathroom alcove in the American city of Tulsa, in northern Oklahoma, two hundred and thirty-three meters above sea level" -- are almost, but never quite fully, described.

If Wolf's narrative is a snake eating itself, inside that snake, there are two smaller snakes: Laurence Sterne and Robert Walser.

Then again, Wolf's digressions and meta-fictional mischief (respectively) make his predecessors' narratives seem linear and unaware by comparison, for Forty-Nine Digressions is a book that unwrites itself in its telling. One that -- in (a)voiding the monoliths of character and plot development -- consumes itself in the narrative process.

Take for example, this passage from the chapter "A Gradual Expansion of Dread":

Then I wrote down the following sentence: Around 80 degrees latitude, the rats had bred to such an extent that nothing could be saved from them. They devoured pelts, clothes, shoes, the beds and blankets, they devoured the provisions, they devoured the entire ship and went under; they sank, and while they sank they continued to devour and breed. The dogs that had been brought on board to kill the rats had also been devoured -- their howling could be heard in the fog before it became completely silent.

Then I stood alone on a piece of floating ice a meter thick, around 80 degrees latitude and in the middle of the night. I bent over the rigid paper and wrote down an entirely incomprehensible sentence.

In Spaces, Poetics and Voids, prize-winning architect Simone Pizzagalli's project for a London prison based on the concept of voids, which is featured in a new series from TU Delft, Pizzagalli makes concrete what Wolf does in language.

His prison, "composed in a logic that follows a narration of absence," begins with the idea of language as representation. Pizzagelli shifts from an initial photographic survey of a specific location in London ("an insignificant and fragmented strip of city") to a textual description. He then modifies the resulting text, cutting into, overlapping, and creating erasures, composing the parts into a new formal story. The result is a transformation that makes the void visible, a plan for a prison (think: otherness, isolation, rupture) in the heart of the city, a void in plain sight.

Pizzagelli takes as his inspiration Wenceslaus Hollar's map of London after the Great Fire of 1666, in which it is the buildings that were razed by fire that are mapped, their disappearance that is charted, demarcated, and the traces and memories of their former existence represented. It's a map of what isn't, or what was, not what is.

One of Pizzagalli's influences in the London prison project was Anarchitecture movement member, Matta-Clark, who is well known for his "Building Cuts," a series of works in abandoned buildings in which he cut into and removed sections of floors, ceilings, and walls. The voids the cuts created afforded new passages ways and views into existing structures, and the buildings' emptiness and neglect, ironically, meant that they were free for him to use. Says Pizzagalli:

Matta-Clark's interest in emptiness and voids was not limited to cutting openings into existing structures, it also included research related to abandonment and forgetting within city structures and daily routines: '[...] we were more interested, from a metaphorical point of view, in voids, gaps, abandoned spaces, undeveloped places, etc. For example the places where you stop to tie your shoes, places that are interrupting your everyday movements.' For the Anarchitecture group of artists, collecting, intervening in, and preserving those spaces from disappearance, drawing them into a structured artistic representation, was a way of proposing a critical alternative to the commonly accepted concepts of architecture, urban planning and the American myth of land ownership. At the same time, this interest led them to conduct experiments that produced new forms of representation and interpretation of the emptiness of those forgotten and fragmented places in the city.

Cutting into the used (-up?) (abandoned?) (Kaput?) fabric of "story," Wolf (a)voids the fragmented and empty establishment of the narrative that Pizzagalli and Matta-Clarke make visible, calling into question, as the book jacket claims, "the very nature of what makes a story a story."

It was Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, who pointed out that "In art, 'content' is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes of transformation." And it is Wolf's character, Netzenstein (who "certainly seemed to have no clue as to what he was doing in my story") who makes it clear that the content of the story is not the whole story. In fact, far from it. Because stories are always pretences for some other, unspeakable, non-existent truth.

Forty-Nine Digressions is a book that makes the reader aware of the act and the experience of reading. Continually thwarting expectations, the stories induce a kind of hypnosis, a kind of numbness that arrests the reader's despotic demands that the story do something. A monotony sets in. We go way out, until there are only ice floes, fathomless green seas, holes within holes, sinkings, drownings, and other allegorical states related to the feeling of being helpless, stranded, abandoned, and tumbled into the void. One possible response to Wolf's act of unmooring the reader is Pizzagalli's "Prison," which creates out of the disorder of language a new narrative, one that houses and makes room for aberrance and rebellion. Audre Lourde's aphorism that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" is more true than ever -- however, the master's language, it turns out, may be (de)constructed to imprison him, freeing him of his tyranny.

Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf, translated by Jen Marquart
Open Letter Books
ISBN: 978-1-934824702
142 pages

Spaces, Poetics and Voids edited by Marc Schoonderbeek
Architectura & Natura
ISBN: 978-9461400260
160 pages