Torpor, by Chris Kraus, Native Agents/Semiotexte 2006From the description below, you will not get how deep and devastating this novel is. Sylvie and Jerome have houses that they own but no home. They head to Romania to adopt a child and never make it to the orphanage. Jerome is a philosopher and cultural critic with a traumatic childhood. Sylvie is much younger, a filmmaker and writer who is deeply insecure. She is also hilariously funny and it is her view of the passing world that drives them along, her self-deprecating, ironic but naïve certainties about what they are doing going to Romania. They love a dog in common. But abortions haunt them as signs of the torpor that is the state of the novel.They share an aesthetic in their work of buying houses to fix up and rent. They want the most bourgeois kind of smug nostalgia imaginable, the kind that is embellished by kitsch from thrift shops. The dog Lily helps. “Look, Jerome!” Sophie would have exclaimed, “this is Lily’s season.” Lily’s small rust-colored body would have blended perfectly with the fallen leaves. “Ahhh ,” Jerome would have replied, “she is a dachshund,” although they both knew well that like them, Lily was a mongrel. Each of Jerome’s approving utterances about the little dog would have brought the couple closer. Their rhapsodies about the dog were practice in the basic words of parenting, a language which—it was becoming clearer every day—they’d never speak first-hand with each other.”For Jerome “History was a code-word for Holocaust.” His childhood was detoured by war, in France, as a boy, when his parents disappeared and he was taken into foster care and made to change his name. His life is like a fairy tale, one of the early and perplexingly surreal Grimm stories that seem to prophecy the sadism to come. The grotesque figures and obstacles in those stories characterize his life, and have set him on a permanent course with no fixed resting place. He hates everywhere. He “sees a prescience of horror in the disjointed texts of Georges Bataille and Simone Weil; Artaud, Celine. It’s as if these people had experienced, alone and in their bodies, events that would be massively played out a decade later.” Sylvie mistrusts almost everyone, especially people in the art world, and so Jerome and she are perfectly matched, and a thoroughly modern comedy team to travel with.A road of prose is unknown in advance. Where it goes is both the reader’s and the writer’s guess. When you set out on such a road, the words write the words to follow. If you have an intention, it quickly gets lost in words you never expected to see in the first place. It is as if you have taken a wrong turn onto a wide toll highway, with a destination in mind at first but now missed. The wrong miles stretch ahead of you and you may not have enough money to pay the toll to turn around and go back again. Your ever-accumulating outrage and alienation turn into the content of your journey now. The prose becomes a story about the progress of a hope.If a dog crosses the highway, it becomes part of the prose road, because it is by now a story where there are contingencies, surprise entries, relations. The story is like the driver of a car who is lost. The driver has heightened, even burning consciousness of the weird, the accidental, the dangers of weather and health. The driver laughs by herself. Surreal flash-memories of her known life take on a comic dimension. She curses herself as an idiot who, despite everything, wants things to control the world. She wants that so much she might think, “I meant to get lost.”She might pause by a cliff and consider suicide. Feel the gravity haul at her bones when she stands at the ledge of air. But she backs away and drives on. She never mentions this episode to anyone. The reader might pause at the same time and think of abandoning the book, but be unable to do so. It would be too intentional in the situation of complete randomness in which she and the heroine are living for this time. Such a long error with repetitive surges of hope and disappointment, the error becoming the actual fate (perhaps even the pre-determined one!) can develop into a metaphysical desire or stay wholly modern. In this latter case, there is little distinction between living people outside the book/car and imaginary people inside the head/car of the driver/writer. Not only a dog might wander by, but also Michael Jackson or Vaclav Havel. There is nothing metaphysical here, only the developed world bouncing on air.The marriage of Sylvie and Jerome, grudgingly agreed to, over the issue of health insurance, actually seems to be a marriage of something deeper, funnier, sadder, truer than romantic love. It is of course tested on this strange erroneous journey where the future is worse than empty, not a place to which you are going, but a study of tread-marks, skids, spilled oils, infertile fields, a Chernobyl landscape….these are what you pass and enter simultaneously. All experience moves in a cocoon, as if swaying back and forth on a stick, rather than in a direction. Is No Time the New Time? They travel to Germany where he has work (an unwritten book she calls “The Anthropology of Unhappiness”) and then on to Central Europe to look for orphans. It is here we enter the desolating perplexity of modernity. “We are the last generation to whom things really matter,” said Gilles Deleuze. It is 1991. The Serbo-Croatian war is brewing. Peace-keepers are fleeing. Sylvie and Jerome pass through Prague as tourists and head on to Austria, not knowing where it is. She doesn’t want to go; they argue; they go. And then the journey fizzles before they return to New York. “There was a gorgeous Rheingold sign above the bar: a large electric clock featuring an autumn scene, with two red setter dogs looking up above the blazing maples at a pheasant. Each smiling dog had one of its front paws pointed. Outside sanitation trucks thudded over potholes onto West Street, but on the Rheingold sign the pheasant soared against the sky’s heroic turquoise plastic surface.”What is torpor outside of this brilliant, entrancing and heart-rending novel called Torpor? A condition in which not even collapse or entropy occurs. A fertile field wreathed in yellow watery matter where Yes, Maybe and No rub together without consequence. You have to read this book to get the great ride it gives. A ride where torpor steams in all directions without interruption, minimal will or curiosity; torpor is the name of the spirit of the leftover world.
– Fanny Howe