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.

E.M. Forester on the Prophetic in Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experiences. They convey to us a sensation that is partially physical– the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on it’s surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.

E.M. Forester from Aspects of the Novel

E.M. Forester and the River of the Novel

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester describes the form as a kind of river bounded by two chains of mountains, poetry and history, that empties into the sea, which is time. Like all good metaphors, this one can be expanded or contracted according to the taste of the reader. There are more parts to this river (perhaps an infinite number) to be enumerated and explicated.

The river of the novel has a source: myth, where fear and wonder join themselves in the first act of creation.  On the path towards the sea, it passes through numerous bends, breaches, sloughs and oxbows. With each change in course, the river tends towards one range of mountains or the other, this time towards the practice of history, that time towards the writing of poetry. Sometimes the river cuts a deep canyon straight between the two of them.

And there is not one river but many, each with its own course that brings it through vague territories of language, nation, and custom. A river can be diverted, dredged, dammed, bridged or drained completely. Some rivers are better used than others. Some rivers never reach the sea.

And then there are the fish, who are, naturally enough, the authors, each species with its particular niche.  There are trout, who prefer the sober clarity of a mountain stream. There are tetra, brilliant but disposable. There are sturgeon, who skulk in the depths and possess an encyclopedic diet.

Some fish are more energetic than others. Each year the salmon leave the ocean and swim towards the source of the river. There they spawn and die. There are lampreys and there are piranhas in the river. Carp, catfish, and gar. And there are the dolphins, who can live and thrive in the river but are not really fish. They are the happiest. There are manatees in the river as well.