Monday, June 11, 2012

Melon-Collie Baby

Like everyone I know, I have more books that I want to read than books I can read. Since I'm a nerd, I handle this situation via an online Google Docs spreadsheet that includes the titles of the novels I want to read, along with pertinent information like their authors, the source of the recommendation, their availability in my local library, and perhaps a few brief notes. The list isn't a queue, so some books can languish for many years before I get the chance to pick them up.

One book had been on there for so long that I remember its presence on the list far better than I can recall any reason why I put it on the list: "The Melancholy of Resistance," by the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai. It's one of the few titles on my list to have come from a review in the New Yorker. I almost always read the fiction reviews in the magazine, far more often than I read the actual fiction. The few New Yorker recommendations I've read have included Murakami's Kafka on the Shore and Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, so it's a pretty high bar. Basically, a review has to not just say "this is a good book," but also "this is a very weird book."

Melancholy's weirdness is of a whole different order than my other weird books. While there is a slight tinge of supernatural atmosphere within the book, the vast majority of it is very ground-level, realistic, and grimy. However, its form is very different and challenging; even when the author is describing a fairly mundane scene, like a widow's pantry of jarred preserves or the behavior of feral cats, the author uses very purple prose and a visually impenetrable block of text. I'm curious what this book looks like in the original Hungarian, but I imagine it looks almost identical, because I can't imagine any translator cruel enough to invent this style. Each chapter is exactly one paragraph long, so every page is one solid block of end-to-end justified text. The sentences tend to be quite long as well, many about a page long, although there's no great consistency to their length. The other oddity in format is the author's use of "a veritable plethora of" quoted phrases, inserted into the middle of sentences "without a care in the world," often using expressions that are "dull as dishwater." Sometimes these quotes appear to be verbatim snatches from dialog; very little straightforward conversation appears in the book, instead we get long descriptions that summarize what a person is saying, peppered with those periodically quoted words. Quite often, though, the quotes belong to the narrator and not to a character, and I still don't really get what purpose they serve. They're kind of self-evidently cliched, and I can't tell if they're being quoted as a way of apologizing for them, or to expose their artificiality, or what. It's cool, just a bit mind-boggling.


The book seems focused on decay, in all its forms. The surprising and saddening opening chapter focuses on the perspective of an elderly woman who is returning to her hometown after a shopping trip, and we see her bemoan all the ways in which the world is getting worse. People are getting increasingly rude or even violent; the town's infrastructure has decayed, such that buses no longer run late at night and even street lighting has been lost; everywhere the city is in disrepair, and nature itself is either reclaiming land or destroying itself, as when a giant tree simply topples over, lifting up all of its roots and a wide chunk of pavement around it. This sense of disintegration spreads throughout the book, growing blacker and darker. Great public minds have been reduced to bizarre private obsessions; petty ambitions win out in an environment of absolute lethargy; goodness and innocence is swept up in a silent, ominous swell of violence.

I found myself often thinking of Thomas Pynchon. Although in many ways these books are complete opposites, Pynchon's books are keenly interested in the idea of entropy, which seems closely related to Melancholy's theme of decay. Reflecting on it, I came to the tentative hypothesis that entropy, as explored in Pynchon, is primarily about inorganic systems, like physics, or abstract systems, like conspiracies. Decay, as explored in Melancholy, is primarily about biological and organic systems, like human health, the human mind, wooden structures, and the psychology of crowds. To put it bluntly, decay is a sadder topic than entropy, probably because it's closer to our daily experience and harder to separate from ourselves. And Laszlo doesn't give us the feel-good new-age solution of decay and death being part of a cycle of rebirth and grows. We never see anything good and new being created in this book, just the corruption of what was once good and its replacement with something lesser, something evil, or nothing at all.

The few truly active forces in this book are primarily destructive in aspect, and they are never seriously opposed by anything else. Mrs. Eszter is a shockingly venal person, who seems willing to bring down the whole town in exchange for a better house, an impressive title, and some of the respect that she feels she was missing. She plots, but her plots just seem so petty and so ineffectual that it's amazing she succeeds as well as she does. Much more interesting, and much more mysterious, is The Prince, whose seemingly supernatural control over the army of ruffians is the most inexplicable part of the book. Laszlo does an amazing job of creating an intense atmosphere around the circus, filled with dread and wonder. (Between this book and Something Wicked This Way Comes, I have very little desire to ever visit a carnival again.) We never get a truly satisfactory answer as to... just WHAT the Prince is, how much control he has over the acts of the mob, whether he has long-term plans and what they might be.

And, boy, that mob sure was brutal. At a couple of points I felt like I was reading Blood Meridian again. Laszlo's prose isn't nearly as gory, but it's at least as dreadful, in the literal sense of causing dread. Between that darkness of spirit, and the highly idiosyncratic writing style, these two books could be pillars in the tales of the awfulness of man.

Against these forces of evil we have two points of light who fill most of the novel's middle pages. Valuska is a simple-minded person, but I don't believe he's actually an idiot like the rest of the town believes: his mind just works in a very different way which is much less helpful and practical, but creates real good in the world: sharing his largely incomprehensible but deeply, profoundly felt awe at the movement of solar bodies provides the town with entertainment and a relatively peaceful way to wind down a night of drinking. Valuska's deep, almost spiritual connection with the stars is of a kind with Mr. Eszter's own profound connection with music; however, where Valuska's obsession gives him drive and a means of social engagement, Mr. Eszter's has brought him misery and isolation. I was fascinated by Laszlo's intense description of the crisis of faith Mr. Eszter underwent when he discovered the mutability of musical scales and tuning.


I don't think "crisis of faith" is too mild a term for the wrenching psychological upheaval that Mr. Eszter underwent; glum and despairing of any certainty in a relative world, he cast himself adrift from the warm companionship of the town to gloomily contemplate the meaninglessness of art. Valuska's presence is the only flickering candle that lights Mr. Eszter's existence, and it's utterly tragic that 

The book ends in an utterly fascinating way. Mrs. Eszter, triumphant, presides over a funeral and reads a speech. From here, the narrator abruptly departs from the story he's been telling for the previous 300+ pages and starts talking about a body. (I suspect that it's the body of Mrs. Plauf in the coffin, but there's absolutely nothing in the text that segues from the funeral to this section.) He gives a vivid, clinical, scientific description of the body succumbing to death. This included some of the most chilling passages of the entire book, including the phrase at the end of this sentence, that instantly reverberated within my mind:

"As a result of the endeavours of the enslaved enzymatic units the glycogen in the liver decomposed into its simple elements and this was followed by the autolysis of the pancreas, the term autolysis throwing a pitiless light on the truth it hides, which is that from the moment of birth every living organism carries within it the seeds of its own destruction."

Goosebumps! I felt like I recognized it; I may have picked up on it from the original New Yorker review. There's also powerful stuff like this:

"So, through various delicate channels, a superior organism welcomed them, dividing them neatly between organic and inorganic forms of being, and when, after a long and stiff resistance, the remaining tissue, cartilage, and finally the bone gave up the hopeless struggle, nothing remained and yet not one atom has been lost."

There isn't a single word in these last few breathless pages about the town, about the circus, about Mr. or Mrs. Eszter or Valuska or the Harrers or anything outside the body. The narrative slams you into a close-up focus and holds your gaze on the decaying, disintegrating, doomed flesh. It isn't as macabre as it sounds, but it's still shocking and a heck of a way to end this tale.


This book was originally published in 1989, and I can't help but think of the historical moment while reading it. Hungary, along with the rest of Eastern Europe, was emerging from the shadow of the USSR; it was a chaotic time, but in retrospect far less bloody than people had thought. I have no idea if the story is meant to be at all allegorical, and if so, what its target is. Is it trying to shine a light on the internal rot of the Soviet state, showing how everyone had given up trying and surrendered to apathetically enduring? Or, more worryingly, was it a comment on the revolutions of its day, arguing that changing leadership could not improve a poor situation, that revolution could only destroy and not create? It's perfectly possible that Laszlo didn't write this as a political book, but it's hard to believe that he wasn't influenced by the violence occurring in his country.

I think The Melancholy of Resistance is a great book, but also one that I'll have a tough time recommending. It's a downer of a story, and the prose is deliberately challenging. Still, those who can persevere through the technical and emotional challenges will be rewarded by the complex and deeply felt story.

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