What nothing is in here?
The novel in a virtual absentia
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, 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.”
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. 
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.”
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.”
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?
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.”
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?”
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.”
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
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.
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.