Personae, wonder, vetch: 'Crowd Conditions'

John Ashbery at the Writers House. Photo by Arielle Brousse.

“Crowd Conditions” (click here to read) appears near the end of Ashbery’s 2000 book Your Name Here. As the title indicates, this is a book centrally, if playfully and earnestly, concerned with “you,” the mercurial second-person, singular and sometimes plural, pronoun. Your Name Here invites the reader to title it after her or himself, but this turns out to be a partial tease, since we are invited in, but never given full grammatical purchase. Despite the offer or exhortation, it will never be named after you, but always after you naming it after you.

Throughout Your Name Here, poems address both a general and a particular you. The particular, for instance, likes Wheatena or the cookies with a very little sugar on them. This is the you with whom the speaker has lived a life “like that of the great dead poets.” This said, the poet just as often addresses a less intimate or locatable you, a roomy, inviting, taking-every-comer you — a you that can very comfortably accommodate the reader and which often offers the reader grip and traction in difficult poems.

“You” in later Ashbery offers a flexible site of identification and sympathy. Either you are you the reader, and the fond poet addresses you and asks you to put a candle in his wreath and he’ll kiss you, or “you” provides a tender launching pad for the poet to address a lost but beloved other. With this pronominal activity in mind, “Crowd Conditions” is unusual for the book, and in fact, for Ashbery’s oeuvre more generally, since it is most convincingly read, whole cloth, as a persona poem — by this I mean that the poem invites us to read it as spoken by one specific person who is not the poet. But in its oddity, it is illustrative, even programmatic. It schematizes the tension and splay between an attention to landscape and an attention to attention itself. In a sense, the poem offers a take on the condition of the crowd of Ashbery’s later poetic output, poems torn between shaking everyone’s hand, or ducking into a waiting car.

The poem’s closure, its last word even, shows that what seemed on first read to be a free associative train is in fact a train with a destination. The seeming randomness of landscape, address, and invitation, a kind of suspended solution, crystallizes when a single persona is introduced: the president. Throughout the poem, the “we” so prominently featured becomes very possibly a “royal we,” or in this context, these days not so different, a “presidential we.”

Each stanza features a specific mood — manifest in increasingly negative reactions to the imperfections of the world. The first stanza finds the speaker cozening his listener — “Does this interest you, ma jolie?” — into being interested in the landscape. This apparently fails, since the speaker continues to cozen by suggesting that things just might have been postured differently, “perhaps” “more to your liking.” “Yet,” he continues, there are certain things that can’t be undone about the landscape, so it will pretty likely always disappoint. Most of the important things the speaker notes have been obliterated to bring us the landscape we’re left with — this could be night which makes the light show of the sky and landscape possible, or something more like the way in which focusing attention on one thing inevitably takes attention from another. Further, the speaker intuits that his interlocutor in the poem is uneasy with the sexual posture the landscape provides as a “free gift.” This is someone who might wish to “undo the sexual posture of everything.” One might speculate that the idea of a “free gift” in its redundant insistence implies a sort of overzealous posing, or sexual (and commercial) posture. In this case, a double positive might make a negative. A “free gift” may be neither free nor gift, but grift: a showy gesture eliciting return.

The second stanza, then, finds more than the speaker’s interlocutor discontent with the landscape; here, the landscape is fed up with itself. “The ocean sighs, finding the process of striking the shore / interminable and intolerable.” And as in the first stanza the speaker offered the “possibility” that things could have been different to soothe his companion, the speaker here, in the second stanza, tries again to placate his companion by offering a game of “Let’s pretend.” But just as this game gets increasingly complicated and builds a more and more elaborate world, the speaker finds that he has qualified his pretend scenario out of its usefulness — the ability to distract from reality. He starts confidently enough with “Let’s pretend it’s back when we were young / and cheap, and nobody followed us.” Then he backpedals slightly: “Well, the poodle followed us,” then heaps on a more dramatic and suggestive situation: “… men in limousines followed at a discrete distance, the back seat banked with roses.” The let’s pretend game develops until the speaker (and ostensibly his pretend companion) recall getting older and not being able to take a step “without creating crowd conditions.” Presumably, the crowd conditions called up here are crowds that require management by police or security. There are “men dressed as reporters” and “old ladies … crooning about the loss they supposed we shared with them.” The final line of this stanza suggests that the speaker is posing as a sympathetic figure, but in fact doesn’t care about those who imagine he shares a loss with them, or at least doesn’t care very much. His sympathy for the crooning old women is to say the least “imperfect.”

The final stanza, then, begins with the speaker giving up trying to put together some kind of more tolerable or convincing past, landscape, or reality: “Forget it. It all comes undone sooner or later.” In part this has to do with the crescendo of the second stanza, where the speaker sees what is expected of him and realizes he can’t fulfill it: he can’t both fill in the myriad details and individuals of a crowd and be sympathetic to them all. He can tarry in the general and experience one kind of imperfect sympathy, or get netted by specifics and feel another. Thus, at the limit of patience or caring or fellow feeling in a complicated and big world feeling itself comes undone.

As we’ve seen, “Crowd Conditions” begins eager to please and becomes increasingly exasperated by its inability to do so. The speaker starts by trying to tell a pleasing story, trying to grip his listener: “Does that interest you, ma jolie?” — but the project of pleasing others, making a world to his or her or their requirements, comes apart in his hands. At the peak of discontent in this poem, and at the peak of the inadequacy of description, or at the very limit of its interest: “The vetch goes on growing, wondering / whether it grew any more today.” This finds even the landscape’s landscaping not just discontent, but entirely unsure of its own actions, let alone dimensions. At this point of extreme alienation, we come to the final line: “Such, my friends, is life, wondered the president.”

This line grounds the movement of the poem: the scanned frontier, the poodle, the limos with their roses, the reporters in their visors and the crooning old ladies. The final word reorganizes what seemed a kind of poetic flypaper, catching what flies past, and transforms it into a train of thought that moves from possibility, “frontier,” to resignation, “such is life.” Significantly, it hitches this development to a specific persona: the president.

This location of the speaker as “the president” refigures the first two lines as less an image of the night sky than one of the snapping of jostling cameras. In fact, the “imperfect sympathies … twinkling” and the “gaga sky” both drop from some poetic height to the sidewalk of politics described from a particular point of view. What seemed a kind of unmoored Stevensian lexical flight proves instead a focalized description of a very particular kind of “crowd condition.”

That the president’s one real verb is “wonders” is curious. He shares it with the vetch. They both wonder. The phrase, “such is life” is neither a stoical stance, nor a statement of meditation; rather, it is the frayed end or vernacular cauterization of wonder. This could be a statement the president makes aloud, but it seems, with all its sighing commas, to be interior — the friends, then, phantoms. Imaginary friends. In other words, the crowd conditions of the title aren’t just snarls of interest in the exterior world; they are the way in which one person, a president, navigates the immensity of the world, an immensity which forces any sympathy to be an imperfect one.

The imperfect sympathies of the first line, those camera flashes that desire to fix the image of the president, soak through every image and speech act in the poem. The president, while offering the reader access to and an axis through the poem, finds himself ill at ease, unable to connect with “ma jolie,” and like the vetch in its unponderable immensity, not able to sympathize with those he represents. His location occasions his dislocation from the landscape just as the statement of his dislocation occasions our location within the poem. The president represents more than he can feel for. He retreats from this impasse to a position of resignation: such is life.

And Ashbery one-ups this imperfect sympathy: the president may just be talking to himself, internalizing his own “royal we,” being his own crowd of friends. The poem, which started out flirting with the pathetic fallacy, those lights twinkling their imperfect sympathies, then diving wholeheartedly into it with the sighing ocean, ends doubling back on itself in a sort of fallacious pathos.

But weirdest of all is the fact that this poem, this crowd of images and propositions and observations, does in fact crowd around a persona once it is added. The poem, when given a single persona, ALL MAKES SENSE. It is a relief — AND our relief is EXACTLY the discontent the president feels. And we were warned: early on the speaker reports that in order to have a petit suite of lights under the gaga sky “most of the important things” would have to be obliterated. We are satisfied to have the poem become a petit suite exactly to the extent that our sympathy is imperfect: we fill in the blanks, provide the timeline, perhaps even draw analogies to contemporary figures. No persona, the poem suggests, ever goes anywhere without creating the clog and jostle of crowd conditions.

On the other hand, this poet is careful not to suture his poem too snugly to its persona. Perhaps the president is just one of the crowd (of images, of possibilities) and the poet dares us to read the crowd of images always as if for the first time; put differently, resisting the magnetism of a single persona becomes central to rereading the poem.

The poem invites us to consider ourselves the occasion for “crowd conditions” — do we shake everyone’s hand? Or do we duck into our waiting car? How willing are we to maintain the tension of a landscape always threatening to explode into the impossible generality of “vetch” and simultaneously contracting to the ponderings of a single official personage? A persona, it must be said, who is characterized above all by his exasperation with the effects of our making him a persona.


Crowd Conditions
by John Ashbery 

Across the frontiers, imperfect sympathies are twinkling,
a petite suite of lights in the gaga sky.
Most of the important things had to be obliterated
for this to happen. Does that interest you, ma jolie?
Something else would have happened in any case,
more to your liking, perhaps. Yet we can’t undo the sexual posture
that comes with everything, a free gift.
Now the blades are shifting in the forest.
The ocean sighs, finding the process of striking the shore
interminable and intolerable. Let’s pretend it’s back when we were young
and cheap, and nobody followed us. Well,
that’s not entirely true: The poodle followed us
home from school sometimes. Men in limousines followed us
at a discreet distance, the back seat banked with roses.
But as we got older one couldn’t take a step
without creating crowd conditions. Men dressed like reporters
in coats and hats with visors, and yes, old ladies too,
crooning about the loss they supposed we shared with them.
Forget it. It all comes undone sooner or later.
The vetch goes on growing, wondering
whether it grew any more today.
Such, my friends, is life, wondered the president.
“Crowd Conditions” was first published in Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Copyright © 2000 by John Ashbery. All  rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Georges Borchardt Inc. for the author.


Three FARMS dotted with various punctuation and a few hanging words — the only remaining, yet distinctive, characters of three short poems by John Ashbery — fenced in (along with various photocopy noise) by musical staves. A fragment of each poem casts moonglow down on the constellated marks below, which sparsely outline the poem’s transposed typographic space. In “Farm,” Ashbery writes:

               … the geometry remains, 
A thing like nudity …

Poem scumbles whitish page, breaks through in so many little ways, creates an opening when dense opacity (huh?) gives way to oh, what’s this? — becoming immediacy: suddenly all the world is close at hand, pulsing darkly. For my least part, I take it down. This is how John’s poetry has struck me, and this is music as he has given it to me, again and again. The way a typed mark occasionally breaks paper and lets in light, as indeed happens in the FARM pieces, each poem’s notation literally imprinting the world beyond — the space and time that we occupy, unveiled by dark light of the poem.


I made this piece after a failed attempt at choreographing a very mathematical solo using John Ashbery’s “Default Mode” as a movement map. It was tiring and the words weren’t sticking with the individual movements. I made a “seed phrase” for “They were living in America” that was repeated with different variations for each line. I didn’t get past “Does this doughnut remind you of a life preserver?”! 

I read “Uptick” and found it to be a rather chewy poem, meaning it’s terse but there’s so much there about time and sequence and viewing. After reading it about twenty times aloud in the studio with Marissa (my collaborator) I decided to make a duet that never left the floor where the dancers never touched each other. I was interested in extremes of timing and creating a certain reverberation in the air between the bodies. The piece, to me, feels like two different audio frequencies on one side of a very strange phone call.

Editing by Cory Antiel. Videography by Adam Fitzgerald.

Dispatch from Havana: Ricardo Alberto Perez

Ricardo Alberto Pérez, Reina María Rodríguez, and Ramón Hondal out on the terrace as the sun sets over Havana.

It is a Tuesday evening in January at the azotea, the home of Reina María Rodríguez, where so far two writers have stopped in for a coffee and conversation. Others might or might not come tonight; there’s another gathering in a couple of days. Reina lives a short walk away from the Capitol building in Havana, in an apartment building a few blocks from the ocean. The apartment itself comes with a literary history. Reina used to host much larger gatherings here, particularly during Cuba’s “Special Period” of economic crisis in the 1990s, when artists and writers met regularly. Nowadays she remarks that the work of hosting all those salons in her home is too much to undertake.Still, she continues to work as a literary organizer, and the azotea is still a place where smaller events happen from time to time, and where university and cultural tour groups listen to readings by local writers.

Formal or informal, an evening at the azotea generally includes established writers as well as others who are just emerging. It’s also common to find a mix of people who still live in Cuba and those who are partially or completely based abroad — a regular thing in the everyday life of the capital city in the post-Soviet era. The intensity of emigration and the growing acknowledgment of diasporic Cuban life do not erase all of the tensions around this subject in Havana, but many individual Cubans and institutions are increasingly comfortable referring to the phenomenon.

At my side today is Richard: Ricardo Alberto Pérez, whom I have met at the azotea in the past. He continues to live and work on the island.

Ricardo Alberto Pérez with Reina María Rodríguez in the living room at the azotea. Photographs by Kristin Dykstra, 10 January 2013. 

While Richard has published work in other countries, relatively little has appeared in the United States or in English, despite the fact that people here refer to him using the English version of his first name. I ask him to answer some questions for me. Where were you born? In Havana. What part of Havana? Arroyo de Naranjo, which is to the southeastern side of the city (but we have to consult two other people to confirm this point: Richard explains that geography is not his strong suit). When did you begin to write poetry? At age sixteen, and those early poems were very bad. Reina refuses to make any more coffee now, having made croquetas and the first round of coffee, so Richard disappears into the kitchen for a short time. The conversation continues nonetheless, including some dark humor about whether or not it will make one a famous poet in the US if I write here that said poet’s immediate family includes several suicides, including his mother, who made eighteen attempts before the one that took her life in the Special Period. This is, in fact, all true of Richard’s life. It leads to some remarks about Angel Escobar, the poet whose suicide from the late ’90s is still a regular point of reference here. Many of the poets from the greater Havana area had known Escobar well for years. Nearly all are careful not to overstate their friendships with him, perhaps in part because his worsening illness eventually affected his personality and ability to exchange his writing with them.

Despite the significance of these digressions I return to my questions for Richard. For years he has been a regular at the azotea events and those at the Torre de Letras, which has a very small space for workshops and readings granted by the Cuban Book Institute (Instituto Cubano del Libro) on Obispo Street in Old Havana. During my very short visit I’ve heard a great deal of debate about how official the Torre has become, what degree of officialness to attribute to it. This is a debate about where the borderline of the margin begins and whether you can really locate it or hold it in one place. Reina maintains that the Torre is the most alternative of spaces that has still been able to publish some books here and there, while allowing writers themselves to make editorial decisions rather than bureaucrats. This is not the same thing as being an independent press, since the Torre group depends on assistance from institutions in the sense that it must await access and permission for printing its work. Whatever one’s exact argument about degrees and forms of marginality, it is still certain that the Torre has a different and less central status than projects run straight out of UNEAC or Casa de las Americas, or the University of Havana. (There is general interest in the future possibility that truly independent literary presses might come to exist. Perhaps it will involve new digital options, although Reina emphasizes that the majority of Cubans can’t access that type of space, let alone do so regularly: Cuba has the lowest rate of connectivity in the hemisphere, and government regulation of email and internet access remains a central, vexing issue, alongside questions of economic limitation. Print, then, continues to be important here.) 

Like many established Havana writers, Richard has spent time outside the island, which not only gave him a broader perspective on literatures and cultures but also led to publishing projects like the anthology La Habana Medieval, his edited collection of contemporary Cuban poetry released by a Brazilian university press and available in some US libraries. Among his other books are Geanot (1993, poetry), Nietzsche dibuja a Cosima Wagner (1995, poetry), Turin sin pájaros sin reloj (1999, Brazil, bilingual edition of poetry), Trillos urbanos (which refers to a song by Caetano Veloso; 2003, poetry), Vibraciones del buey (2004, poetry), Catorce poetas brasileños (2006, translations of Brazilian poetry), Perhappenis (2007, anthology and translations featuring the work of Paulo Leminsky), Oral B (2007, which won the Nicolás Guillén prize for poetry), and Para qué el cine? (2010, a collaborative work with artist Ezequiel Suárez). Richard has another book in press as I write: Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia, a poetry collection. 

In addition to composing his own writing, Richard does a radio program dedicated to international poetry. And recently, he began to publish essays about Cuban artists, pieces that are more accessible to readers of English than most of his other writing to date. The art essays are being translated into English and appear online at the British site Cuba Absolutely.

When I finish adding italics to all the book titles in my list, I look up and find that everyone has disappeared. I find them clustered by the bathroom. Richard is attempting to fix the sink. No one has been able to stop this week’s especially pernicious leak, Reina says. Watching nearby is Ramón Hondal, who has recently finished writing his third book of poetry and is next in line to fix the bathroom sink. He adjusts a large plumber’s wrench.

Ramón Hondal.

Ramón’s books are not yet published, but Reina is encouraging him to move forward with them and thinks the latest one is especially good. Meanwhile, he has been amassing a collection of audio recordings of poets, including material by Escobar. I go back into the kitchen to see how the sink is coming along and find Richard with a broom: “This is going really well,” he says to me, and I realize that the sink problem has escalated and the entire floor is covered in water, which he’s sweeping out onto the roof. “We’re going to be cleaning all night!” Reina says. It will take a while for the floor to dry, so everyone goes outside as the sun sets. Richard and Ramón spar about who has done more damage to the sink. This episode might seem to be irrelevant — another digression derailing my dispatch — and yet there’s a material impact for local poetry. It is the sort of occurrence that causes Reina to reflect on why she has not returned to hosting more large-scale readings out of her home.

Problem sink at the azotea.

Life intrudes again on literature: another poet, Carlos, calls to say that his car has broken down. After literally pushing it down the street, he will have to spend the evening running around in search of parts, so he can’t make it today.

Richard’s poetry has changed in recent years. Earlier books, the ones up to Oral B, are collections of poems he conceived one at a time, individually, then organized into groups afterwards. His most recent manuscripts are evolving differently. The concept comes first, and individual texts are subsidiary to it; some have no title. These newest manuscripts can even be seen as partner projects. The content of one book engages moments of strangeness within national culture. He comments that his most recent works are most influenced by North American writing, emphasizing shorter poem lengths and a certain quality of agility he associates with English-language writing. Two of his manuscripts in progress are currently entitled Miedo a las ranas and Piñera en el balancin (he points to a rocking chair to illustrate what “Balancin” means, and emphasizes the reference to Virgilio Piñera).

We look at the title poem of the book that is just about to come out, and I write up a translation.

Come! and see the pigeons of Warsaw

Come! and see the pigeons of Warsaw.

 The pigeons of Arezzo.

 Their biological activity the counter-attack.

 Pigeons are deceptive specimens,

 an unreal music,

 a piece the virtuoso refuses to play.

 Once they consecrate the ruins, definitively,

 pigeons will become a musical staff attracting attention.

 A symbol

 over which the walls shed antiquity

 with uric acid.


Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia

Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia.

 Las palomas de Arezzo.

 Su actividad biológica a contragolpe.

 Las palomas son piezas engañosas,

 una música falsa,

 una obra que se niega a tocar el virtuoso.

 Al consagrarse las ruinas definitivamente

 las palomas serán un pentagrama atendible.

 Un símbolo

 donde los muros desgranan antigüedad

 ante el ácido úrico.


Why Warsaw? I ask Richard, taking advantage of this opportunity to ask the little questions. He smiles: he’s fascinated with post-Soviet nations, with the complexities of their relationships to the past and the present. In this respect, Eastern Europe exists in a sort of parallel space to Cuba. Why Arezzo? Personal touch. It’s where a former girlfriend lives.

When I come back to this commentary two days later, before a reading at the azotea for a literary tour group, I remember that I once translated a handful of poems from one of Richard’s earlier books, Vibraciones del buey, but never published them.


Regarding swine, the Chinese, and Catalans

Some Chinese brought a handful of
tattooed swine to Barcelona,
the Catalans didn’t understand the ideograms
and stared suspiciously at the swine.

The ART fair

 placed the swine in the most seductive location.

 The swine more Chinese than swine,

 more white than yellow,

 recognized themselves inside the web of seduction

 and directed ironic gazes toward the Catalans.

 The Catalans understood nothing and the swine

 less swine than ideograms

 returned to China,

 leaving an expression on the Catalans: dumbfounded, as if suspended.


Sobre cerdos, chinos y catalanes

Unos chinos llevaron a Barcelona

 un puñado de cerdos tatuados,

 los catalanes no entendían los ideogramas

 y miraron con malos ojos a los cerdos.


 La feria de EL ARTE

 puso en el lugar más seductor a los cerdos.

 Los cerdos más chinos que cerdos,

 más blancos que amarillos

 se reconocieron en la membrana de la seducción

 dedicándose a mirar con ironía a los catalanes.

 Los catalanes no comprendieron nada y los cerdos

 menos cerdos que ideogramas

 regresaron a China,

 dejando pasmada, como en vilo, la expresión de los catalanes.



Critical essay about my father’s hands

My father had hands perfect

 for applauding at the circus.


 The tightrope walker

 gave me less pleasure than my father’s fingers, dancing

 with folkloric passion.


 My father’s thumb was the high ground

 to which I climbed every day.


 (manufacturer of perfumes)


 He came back with a bandaged hand:

 the circus held no more meaning for me

 until the politicians’ speeches grew less consistent.


Ensayo crítico sobre las manos de mi padre

Mi padre tenía unas manos perfectas

 para aplaudir en el circo.


 Más que del equilibrista,

 yo gustaba de sus dedos danzando

 en una pasión folclórica.


 El dedón de mi padre era un terreno elevado

 donde escalaba cada día.


 (fabricante de perfumas)


 Regresó con la mano vendada:

 el circo dejó de tener sentido para mí,

 hasta el discurso de los políticos parecía menos consistente.




Oxen are brains of moss,

in husbandry

 they climb another evolutionary step;

 the heron who shits

 on their heads

 improves the texture of the breeze,

 a different rain awaits her

at harvest’s close.


Los bueyes

Los bueyes son cerebros de musgo,

en la labranza

escalan otra evolución;

la garza que caga

sus cabezas

mejora la textura del aire,

otra lluvia esperará por ella

al fin de la cosecha.


8 and 10 January 2013, Havana

What nothing is in here?

The novel in a virtual absentia

Andrew Levy (photo by Tim Trace Peterson).

I found myself talking to myself saying there must be an identity I’m getting acquainted with living in the postmodern — or is it the post-postmodern? It’s an identity I know nothing about. It knows nothing while seeming to know everything. It’s not the everything of the Victorian age, though, nor the ignorance of the perspicacious liberal skeptic. Those are identities with a past, ones I am familiar with, through usage as well as tradition and education. This one has no particular past it is not so sketchy about that it seems an abstraction.

Rather than puzzle out the why or how or origins of the identity I’m talking about, a task I feel beyond me, I had better identify it somehow. I can use my words and thoughts as well as referencing some literary fiction I’ve been reading lately, culminating in Andrew Levy’s Nothing Is in Here,[1] that seem to manifest this identity. If it’s an identity, it’s not a fact, a thing, or a given, but then I’m not sure in what sense it’s a construction or a premise, nor whether it has a nature. 

An identity may emerge somehow and invade, by osmosis, our pores, or mine, and become familiar, barely ever noticed, without defining who I am. My identity is plastic, mercurial, adaptive, like, I would suppose, anyone else’s. I don’t seem to be seen as the same at work as I am at home, though I’m the same guy; I’m not given the same identity by those I serve at work as by my kids.

In a postmodern or post-postmodern age, identity may be more generic and more plastic than ever, close to collapse into a liquid. The avatar doesn’t much count as an identity. What remains is vague. Vagueness and plasticity may be afunctional or dysfunctional by known standards, but might be one’s best shot at adjustment to the dystopia or atopia one may feel increasingly destined to envision as well-nigh hegemonic and definitive, and yet not quite. People still relate cooperatively, at times and in places. Dystopia and atopia are, like utopias, imaginative constructions that draw on experience (experiences of fantasy and of consensual reality). Even if they’re visionary and delusional, such constructions can become shared and come to condition and tailor one another’s response.

[The use of a-, as in atopia and afunctional, is intended, as in apolitical or amoral, to mean “without regard for” or “without reference to.” An amoral orientation has no investment in whether it’s morally right or wrong, whereas an immoral orientation clearly defies moral standards. An immoral choice violates morality; an amoral choice doesn’t reference morality. So an atopic orientation has no particular sense of place; an afunctional activity has no particular expectation regarding its function.] 

The afunctionality of the atopia may begin to supersede the wobble between utopia and dystopia observed through recorded history, or better still, to triangulate with them, the better to evaluate our own times. For all their hopes for enlightened consciousnesses in the postmodern period, people have also suffered perennial and acute betrayals of promises, abdications of premises, and hard-hearted brutality and trauma-reenactment as standards for their operating procedures, hard truths to look in the face day in day out, for which compromise, civilization, and progress have served as justification and cover.

Robert Musil’s unfinished second (and last) novel, The Man without Qualities, written from 1921 until his death in 1932, over 1700 pages long in a current Vintage paperback edition, is to me as uncanny and familiar a read as Tristram Shandy or De Rerum Natura, but represents a different age, so close to our own as to seem to bleed through it, indistinguishably, ours being an age in which the residues of the past seem ridiculous, hopeless, and pointless, in which the promise of the future may be lost in speculation, potentiality, and questioning.

The central character, Ulrich, is so absorbed in his idiosyncratic ideological dilemma regarding his technocratic orientation and his intuitive tendencies that he barely seems to do anything but pontificate at tangents, given opportunity for conversation, and the manner of his musings and pronouncements is as one with that of the narrator. Walter, a compulsive romantic and, like all the other characters, a perspicacious yet unreliable authority on that with which he is intimately familiar, says of his old friend Ulrich,

“He is gifted, strong-willed, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, circumspect — why quibble, suppose we grant him all these qualities — yet he has none of them! They’ve made him what he is, they’ve set his course for him, and yet they don’t belong to him. When he is angry, something in him laughs. When he is sad, he is up to something. When something moves him, he turns against it. He’ll always see a good side to every bad action. What he thinks of anything will always depend on some possible context — nothing is, to him, what it is; everything is subject to change, in flux, part of a whole, of an infinite number of wholes presumably adding up to a superwhole that, however, he knows nothing about. So every answer he gives is only a partial answer, every feeling only an opinion, and he never cares what something is, only ‘how’ it is — some extraneous seasoning that somehow goes along with it, that’s what interests him. I don’t know whether I’m making myself clear —?” 

“Quite clear,” Clarisse said, “but I think that’s all very nice of him.”[2

This world is in its own way timeless, not as a traditional, ahistorical, and unchanging culture might be but as a moment that doesn’t resolve, pivoting between the decided and the undecidable. Wonderfully, events do transpire and have consequences, including other events, although whether any of these events matter, on any scale, is difficult to determine. As the author, or the narrator (no distinction is attempted), says in parsing Ulrich’s development, as a reflection of Ulrich’s own thoughts about it,

The drive of his own nature to keep developing prevents him from believing that anything is final and complete, yet everything that he encounters behaves as though it were final and complete. He suspects that the given order of things is not as solid as it pretends to be; no thing, no self, no form, no principle, is safe, everything is undergoing an invisible but ceaseless transformation, the unsettled holds more of the future than the settled, and the present is nothing but a hypothesis that has not yet been surmounted. [3]

Ulrich attempts to orient as follows, at least in one discussion with his cousin Diotima:

“For quite obvious reasons, every generation treats the life into which it is born as firmly established, except for those few things it is interested in changing. This is practical, but it’s wrong. The world can be changed in all directions at any moment, or at least in any direction it chooses; it’s in the world’s nature. Wouldn’t it be more original to try to live, not as a definite person in a definite world where only a few buttons need adjusting — what we call evolution — but rather to behave from the start as someone born to change surrounded by a world created to change, roughly like a drop of water inside a cloud? Are you annoyed with me for being so obscure again?”

“I’m not annoyed with you, but I can’t understand you.”[4

Women think in this book too but mostly quietly and to themselves, patronizing the ravings and ramblings of their male friends in a sort of abject appreciation. If Musil respects women, he doesn’t take this further than he can handle it, and he certainly represents a prefeminist realm.

One either cares, or doesn’t — never for the characters but perhaps rather for what happens in the thinking and writing committed to their consideration. The reader feels as if lost despite never leaving an orderly and unremarkable progress of personal and diplomatic relations that provide convincing contexts for unpredictable tides of reflection and realization that wash up breathtakingly from page to page. The present appears never to have impact or direction; its persons are alive with understandings that feel redolent with startling and yet unpurposed significance. People want things and hold huge ambitions, and yet one doesn’t sense their efforts lead them toward any sort of achievement.

“Now please don’t think,” he said, turning to her in all seriousness, “that all I mean by this is that everyone wants what is hard to get, and despises the attainable. What I mean is this: Within reality there is a senseless craving for unreality.”[5

J. M. Coetzee’s 2007 novel, Diary of a Bad Year, is set in Australia, where he became a citizen in 2006. It presents itself initially as a set of brief essays on topics he feels strongly about — gripes, or critiques — which we gather he’s prepared for publication in a proposed anthology of such pieces, but this might be a fiction. Here they are juxtaposed (passim, on the same pages, separated by horizontal lines) with brief passages in a developing account of his intrigued acquaintance with an attractive younger Filipina he takes on as typist and impromptu critic. After a second horizontal line is introduced on later pages, we also read her own sympathetic and acerbic reflections on both Coetzee and the man with whom she lives upstairs. Juxtapositions of passages from these superficially unrelated and yet approximately contemporaneous discourses break time and space into fragments, focusing a tension in the unmanageability of personalities that soon seem all too contracted in value and abilities.

One full sample page reads so:

In the days when Poland was under Communist rule, there were dissidents who conducted night classes in their homes, running seminars on writers and philosophers excluded from the official cannon (for example, Plato). No money changed hands, though there may have been other forms of payment. If the spirit of the university is to survive, something along those lines may have to come into being in countries where tertiary education has been wholly subordinated to business principles. In other words the real university may have to move into people’s homes and grant degrees for which the sole backing will be the names of the scholars who sign the certificates.

If you wanted a CV you should have asked for it at the beginning, she says. Instead of hiring me on the basis of my looks. Do you want to call it quits right now? That would suit me. Then you can find someone else who meets your high standards. Or go to a bureau, like I suggested in the first place.

Alan comes into the room while I am typing. So what are you up to now? he says. Typing for the old man, I say. What is it about? he says. Samurai, I say. He comes and reads over my shoulder. Birth certificates for animals, he says — is he crazy? Does he want to give them all names? Clifford John Rat. Annabel Rat. What about death certificates too, while he is about it? When are you coming to bed?[6

The power of thought, plainly reactive and responsive to circumstances, stymies any efficacy in altering them, even as it scores high points with remarkable consistency. As in The Man Without Qualities, little beyond discoursing occurs, and what does is commonplace and predictable, such as might have happened anyway, despite characters’ word-bound development of ambitious possibilities never pressed toward realization. Setting the novel in 2005 Australia serves little but to anchor it to Coetzee’s actual biography.

Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel, Chronic City, is set in Manhattan, across the East River from its author’s most accustomed stomping grounds. Lethem does not appear in this book, nor anyone who might appear to stand in for him, though he may share predictaments with all those he represents here. “Predictaments” are predicaments that are not only wholly predictable on the basis of what’s already been told as known but also more than likely to result in outcomes well-anticipated in advance, which themselves may seem more more-of-the-same than novel.

That Lethem frames such a pedestrian progress in an alarmingly comic and charismatic field of peculiar suspense, reverie, and disintegration is remarkable enough, but that he does it without ever suggesting one believe in, much less sympathize with, his characters or their commitments, in a prose style by and large unmarked and yet as vital as anyone’s circulatory system, evokes my running astonishment. So what? One gets acquainted with a way of seeming and reflections on it that seduce and betray attention, animated as it is in regions of reality more alternate than actual, in which representation, symbol, fantasy, and the quotidian are looped in a fatal web of perpetually reconditioned actuality the persons, if they are such, collude against and with, discovering further intrigues or, failing that, explanations that feel sooner or later beside the point.

For me the central axis that spins this coil of existence out of control is expounded halfway through the narrative, when three central characters address the premises of “simulated worlds theory,” which posits that computing power can grow to simulate an entire universe in every detail, down to the avatars’ conviction that their experiences are genuine and their perceptions spontaneous, that “the odds are overwhelming that it’s already happened” and therefore that their lives and conversation occur within a gigantic computer simulation, “one of innumerable universes living in parallel, a series of experiments just to see how things will develop.”

“There might be trillions of these simulations going on all at once.”

“Why couldn’t we be the original?” I asked.

“We could be,” said Oona. “But the odds aren’t good. You wouldn’t want to bet on it.”

I didn’t protest to Oona that we felt like the original, to me. I knew she’d say that every fake universe would feel like the original, to its inhabitants. Yet everything around me, every tangy specific in the simulation in which I found myself embedded, militated against the suggestion that it was a simulation: the furls of stale smoke and gritty phosphenes drifting between my eyes and the kitchen’s overhead light, the involuntary memory-echo telling me one of the rock bands Perkus had played was called Crispy Ambulance, a throbbing hangnail I’d misguidedly gnawed at and now worked to ignore, the secret parts of Oona Laszlo I’d uncover and touch and taste within the hour, if my guess was right.

“The problem,” she continued, “is that our own simulated reality might only be allowed to continue if it were either informative or entertaining enough to be worth the computing power. Or anyway, as long as we didn’t use too much, they might not unplug us. That’s assuming there remains some limit on that kind of resource, which all our physical laws suggest would be the case. So the moment we develop our own computers capable of spinning out their own virtual universes — like Yet Another World — we become a drastic drain on their computing power. It’s exponential, because now they have to generate all our simulations, too. We wouldn’t be worth the trouble at that point, we’d have blown the budget allocated to our particular little simulation. They’d just pull our plug. I mean, they’d have millions of other realities running, they’d hardly miss one. But, you know, too bad for us.”[7]

This theme is virtually eclipsed, scarcely addressed, through the remainder of the novel, one of many subtexts that subtend the functioning of its narrated evolution. What is this miracle of life? Why am I here? What can I do with this opportunity? These questions reverberate, pointedly unasked, in the halls of spectacle, capital, and intentionality. The non-actor as actor, the actor as non-actor, unwittingly cased within a script preset by conspiracy within the higher ground of capital, cannot, does not leave, without an opportunity arising. The text recoils on itself, rejecting its own resolution as foreign matter, consigning the reader to nocturnal indeterminacies and considerations that fail to link content with context so that they hold. Unlike Coetzee, Lethem makes mincemeat of sentimentality, while recognizing and condoning sentiments’ compulsive functions in the human world. Much occurs, much of it dismaying, its implications, however directly elaborated, nevertheless all up for grabs. Manhattan here becomes so nebulous, so problematic, it ceases to exist — even while the existence of its boroughs and suburbs, sites of possible awakening, remains an object of speculation.

Andrew Levy’s only novel so far as I know, Nothing Is in Here takes place in an everynow in which the foreseeable future slips barely recognizably through the immediate present into the accepted and yet contested history of the past. In this present, things are as vague, rubbery, and slippery as attention’s swiveling between self and other, artifice and gut reaction, capital and helpless evaporation. Rereading is necessary, as a reader experiences focus sliding backward, skipping ahead, bushwhacking through the present — the text makes itself instantly available, yet collectively absent. Like a series of false starts that stand for the way things really are but cannot lead one to understanding it, the sections, which are segments laid out diversely as prose, verse, collage, lead into a world of trouble less Manhattan than a streaming of consciousnessness, here a drizzle, there a backed-up polluted quagmire, now a gushing torrent, then some muck, and again a spreading puddle stamped on by unknown soles. Writing, Levy sticks his neck out and follows it as far as it will go, at each glance, which at times means stumbling, sometimes tumbling head over heels into a world any reader might not know rabbits share with us.

Reading takes precedence as protagonist of this untoward picaresque. Any and all books make up the narrative of this bildungsroman. Our earliest hopes, expectations, and disappointments in literacy might be the ground or subject of this book. Perhaps “nothing is in here” because this is all projection. Ideals of reading the book we’ve severally inherited from childhood, the mystery that was made of it by our not yet reading and our coming to read: a time, I take it, when we could know, experientially, the emptiness of the book, a cypher, along with its profound fullness when read aloud by another and its absorption of others reading silently alone.

Neither big nor small, Nothing is as shapeless as the left half of a Rorschach blotch. It finds scale and orientation, shape and form in the reader’s apprehensiveness, dissolving and reshaping in response to that. The reader suffers narcissistic injury — realizing: it’s not about you, it’s not here for your convenience.

It’s the kind of text one might open anywhere and, doing so, discover it’s the farthest thing from logical, despite its often standard syntax. Existentialist, however, a Nausea for our time, I can’t deny. After a fragment of uncredited dialogue from The Brothers Karamazov reflecting on the inevitability of crime and amorality premised on the death of God, comes a question, without apparent connection,

“Is beauty made, perceived, witnessed and felt in a momentary bump in the minutest cessation of desire?”[8]

Then, in the same paragraph, reflection on how any instance of reality or revelation might manifest unremarkably, or just barely remarkably, as “a blip on the radar, a blink” — too much to think about, embedded in a throwaway line. Is beauty, then, an exceptional incident to be, possibly, encountered in the relentless progress of corruption? Is there beauty here, in this poetry, er, fiction?

I’ll proceed to a nearby sentence cluster, which is still less than a complete paragraph (stanza, poem):

“To read a story and a table light to see by is something I can do myself. I’d thought I could do it myself, but I cannot. Whether he had known that, or had not, it was something that supported him that was always there. To act so that thought could possibly be read in ways different than one expected. His thought, from childhood, that it had been explained. These are the rewards for reading. The places you return to, to go over, again. The places that is more beautiful. That supports, that’s always there.”[9

Following any precise quotation from this text, one may well add “[sic].” Is this cut-up, free association, or a crafted exposition of some arcanely advanced kind? The text offers little traction to such queries, no gloss but variants of same. Close readings could bore through such verbiage a thousand ways, productively, I’m afraid, and remind us where things have been heading. Is this only a worrisome, cautionary, fatalistic, and burdensome text, or does it embody, also at all points, epiphany, home, transformation, and return to fertile potentialities? I think so.

Any reading has to reveal the text’s implicit code, that this is only one way of looking at it, telling it. The not-necessarily-so is embedded diversely and at all points, by the face (I had meant to write the fact, but face is better) that this is writing, not life; this is the trace of unsuccessful mediation, not a proof or justification, of the way things are.

The passage I copied out above, “To read a story …,” ends a paragraph and precedes a heading (or should I say, a centered line, with title caps?); it concludes the paragraph that began with the question about beauty, quoted further above.

Nothing, however, does not refer back and forth like I do. It just revises, alters, reframes, repeats, and ignores its own rhetorical gambits and assertions in the context of others. They all seem easy enough to make, though they may have taken Andrew Levy a lot of trouble to come up with, for all we know. Either he is a Dylanesque genius from whom this sort of thing just streams out, creating meaning through a logic peculiar to itself and perverse by any other standard, or he has sweated bullets to generate as nonviolent a text as this. Not that it’s perfect. In fact, his writing has achieved with extraordinary grace an imperfectness that deranges and then reconfigures one’s sense of time and sense as dramatically as electronics and corporate personhood, but in a different and humanly tuned key.

The passage quoted above does touch on or resynthesize themes recurrent throughout the text —beauty, reading, self, explainings, place, repetition. Repetition might not be as good a term as déjà vu, reiteration, or some kind of bargain-basement table of eternal recurrence.

“The places that is more beautiful,” then. Not “most beautiful,” but more than … More than they were, before one’s return, perhaps. I can accept that. Then what? Well, what about that singular verb, after a plural subject, in a noun phrase, is it?, not a complete sentence anyway. Is text missing? E.g., “The places that one preferred to that which actually is more beautiful”?

Levy’s Nothing proposes nature, as we cannot fail to know it, suffering the thrill of download and remastering with the electronic intelligence of a global corporate age, from the vantage point of some quotidien personal life in Manhattan. It may not be the life of any one person, any “I” or “he,” the self itself seen as in suspension as well as flux. Slippage of grammar and idea are congruent and consistent with slippage of identity and locus of control; in fact, any idea or image registered can only be a blip or bump in the perpetual slippage we enjoy or suffer, as circumstances and attitude allow. A startle response in the eye of the beholder — there are a million of them, and more await a second reading.

Thus, reading is not the author’s intention transposed to the reader’s assimilation and framing but the returned-as-different of thought, attention, and awareness. “These are the rewards for reading,” this text says. Why not “of reading”? Maybe there’s no reason, just slippage. Maybe this is how reading, like a kinder slot machine, spits out benefit, coinage negotiable but value undefined. Reading will not make sense; it will generate sense-accessible counters and their associations, and people, should they appear to answer their own apprehension, may make something of it.

But Nothing is hardly a desiring machine per se. It is a lot of parts that one is more or less familiar with from some of them, crowding one another illegitimately or dispersing by high-handed accident until we grab one and hug it to another and hit them both with a third. What? No! They actually connect? Short-circuit?

Luminous jets of nebulosity blossomed outward from a bright,
highly condensed nucleus.

These commentary fragments — countless bits
of metal and stone —

A meteor is not a particle of matter itself. It is merely
the short-lived streak of light produced by the meteoroid as it
is heated to incandescence by its plunge

The dollar was strong, the dollar was going up

When I listen to this it stresses me out

I don’t want to see that happen[10]

Perhaps Nothing Is in Here affords each of us the advantage of a virus (as does a vaccination — after all, it’s just a book, this is just “reading,” a mere infectious trace of the affliction) that may render the relentless insanity of the marketplace of logic less stressful and more available to re-vision and re-form, toward something we can only recognize so far peripherally and in fugitive skips in the metronome of the order of things that we depend on so often to navigate this matrix of need and desire that we think we know what it is and how it makes sense.


Author’s note: Lethem and Levy have both been friends of mine for more than a quarter-century, but they have never met. I have no shared history with Musil and Coetzee, aside from reading some of their works. — Steve Benson



1. Andrew Levy, Nothing Is in Here (Brooklyn: EOAGH, 2011).

2. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (NY: Knopf, 1995), 63–64.

3. Ibid., 269.

4. Ibid., 295.

5. Ibid., 311.

6. J. M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year (NY: Viking, 2007), 36.

7. Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City (NY: Random House, 2009), 228–29.

8. Levy, Nothing Is in Here, 22.

9. Ibid., 23.

10. Ibid., 58.