Some Thoughts on Mark Fisher and João Gilberto Noll

Last week, Necessary Fiction published my review of Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll, a novel that I recommend. The review can be read here. I hope you enjoy it.

But early on, within the first paragraph, there is a sentence that bothers me, one that contains the phrase “a galaxy of questions swirl,” a disappointing choice in hindsight. If not a cliché, it comes close enough. The language we leave behind has various dates of expiration.

Anyway, here are some more thoughts on Atlantic Hotel:

Noll’s fiction, the two novels I have read, has what Mark Fisher called an “eerie” quality, which he set in contradistinction to the “weird”. These definitions constitute, with aid of various examples, a book on the subject, named, appropriately enough: The Weird and the Eerie. It was the last book Fisher published before dying, by suicide, earlier this year. Many passages from it merit a block quote.

The feeling of the eerie is very different from that of the weird. The simplest way to get to this difference is by thinking about the (highly metaphysically freighted) opposition—perhaps it is the most fundamental opposition of all—between presence and absence. As we have seen, the weird is constituted by a presence—the presence of that which does not belong. In some cases of the weird (those with which Lovecraft was obsessed) the weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our capacity to represent it. The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something.

A great deal is absent in Atlantic Hotel. The narrator (unnamed) literally falls apart. His leg is amputated for no apparent reason. In the last few pages, his sight begins to fail. His hearing goes too. This is not the mannered, philosophical blindness of Jorge Luis Borges. This is a dimming of mind as well as body. But the prose continues, not far, but it continues.

And then there is the matter of style. Without reference to its content, you have difficulty finding many distinguishing characteristics: irony, simplicity, concision, and then what? These are can be found in abundance nowadays, in any text message, any clickbait article. What makes them so compelling here?

My suspicion is that these qualities, so highly prized, are symptoms of existential malaise. Better minds than mine have come, quite separately, to this determination. But it does bear repeating. And, in a striking way, without pleading its case too much, Atlantic Hotel evokes a much broader condition.

The narrator never speaks honestly. He can elaborate to a certain degree, but not at length, not with much intimacy. The subject here is not so much divided as atomized and inert. More than merely isolated, he is mostly void.

“Never connect,” Noll seems to say, to turn E.M. Forrester on his head. The author provides, through his fiction, an interesting case in which this holds. The frightening (or eerie) thing is the degree to which that holds in the real world.

I Miss Gorgon

In the back of my apartment building there’s a box garden measuring about 7 feet long by 2 feet wide. Following years of neglect (not my own) the soil has become poor. In dry times, it’s sandy. Under a steady rain, it turns to paste. The steady application of compost has improved the garden but only somewhat.

A few herbs can thrive: thyme, oregano, lavender, and winter savory. A rose bush casts shadows in the evening. Its leggy branches sway in the almost nonexistent breeze. As the blossoms die away, they tumble onto the courtyard floor. A carpet of petals, dry and crimson, leads toward the basement laundry room.

But other plants (or plans) refuse to grow. The elephant garlic has rotted away. So have the sweet onions. The basil remains as pale and stunted as the day I planted it. An epazote bush droops into the lavender. Its leaves are withering. Beyond the garden, over the cinderblock wall, stand three newly built townhomes, their blank facades lit by the evening sun. Some luxury cars (Audi, BMW, Mercedes) are parked in the narrow driveways between units. Occasionally I’ll hear a door being shut, the beep of a car alarm set to activate, and then silence.

A single story rental house once occupied the lot. Its crooked walls were painted a fecal shade of brown. An elderly German Shepard named Gorgon lived there. He would escape on occasion, shambling up and down the block on his weak hips, whining softly to himself. The people I met only briefly. Their names escape me. None of them were as striking as Gorgon. A few days a week a band would practice there, at the house, playing an amateurish blend of indie rock and funk. Dingy quilts hung over the windows to baffle the sound.

Further on, at the end of the block, was a motel fronting Highway 99, one of the main north-south thoroughfares in Seattle. The name of the motel escapes me, despite it being one of the last places Kurt Cobain was seen alive, in early April of 1996, a few days before he retired from music, at his mansion facing Lake Washington, with a shotgun and a fatal dose of heroin.

The motel lot has proven less tractable for redevelopment. The sound of traffic echoes through its empty foundations. A few box vans park there during the night. In fissures along the concrete fennel and blackberries grow wild. Rats scurry between clumps of vegetation.

Every week my landlord gets mailed offers to sell his property. I’m uncertain how long he will hold out. At any rate, eventually, the box garden will demolished, the plants composted, and the soil (the soil I helped rehabilitate) sent to the landfill.

Since moving to this apartment, nothing has really changed for me, not really, not yet. I tend to my garden, sit on stoop. But I do miss hearing from Gorgon, his voice mixed the rustling of leaves, the muffled beat of drums, and the traffic as it diminished slowly toward nightfall.