||Much Ado About Nothing
by Paul Keen
If your idea of a good novel is an unbroken paragraph one hundred and twenty pages long, most of it a groggy interior monologue spiced with a steady dose of disdainful misanthropy and worldly self-pity, then David Albahari's Snow Man may be the book for you. The story-to the extent that there is a story-focuses on the relocation of a writer from war-torn Serbia to an unappealing house in a nondescript Canadian city where he has agreed to become a writer-in-residence at an unidentified university. "You came here to write," the Dean of the unidentified university in the nondescript city tells him, "and we will do all we can to make sure that nothing disturbs you in that." But that doesn't turn out to be quite so easy a proposition. On the contrary, a sense of disturbance is a big part of the baggage this writer carries with him. The result is a potentially valuable evocation of the charred psyche of a traumatized survivor.
The only problem is that Albahari is not content to allow the character to remain in the sort of free fall that would have enabled him to chart this sense of implosion. This protagonist may have lost all sense of identity or purpose, but psychic disintegration hasn't stripped him of the will to pass absolute moral judgments, which includes disgust for the banality of life around him. But then, if we take him at his word, the events of his own country have had no impact on his writing at all. On the contrary, the atrocities of his native land seem to pale in comparison with the atrocity of everyday life in his new nondescript city.
None of this is helped by his loathing for all things academic: "I hated the university, I hated academia, and that hatred, which I no longer felt as hatred but as a discomfort you can't avoid, mixed with the exhaustion crawling over my body." This hatred is one of the few things we ever learn about him, but we hear about it in spades. "My whole life I had hated the university and academia, and now," having accepted this university's rather ill-judged invitation, here he is "sitting in the very heart of academic life." The problem, other than the sheer monotony of this after the first dozen times we've heard it, is the arrogance and dismissiveness with which the various elements of academic life are set up to be castigated for their arrogance and dismissiveness. "Nothing kills a person as much as conceited education, as a system foisted on him as unquestionably accurate." The anti-academic schtick-university education as some kind of Masonic Lodge ritual-is an old clichT, recycled here with unquestioning faith in its own accuracy.
What exactly is there to hate? The very fact that some conceited fools seem to believe in the value of education, for starters. "It's not so much the university as such, I thought, as it is the belief in education, in a system of learning that, supposedly, allows a person to see things more clearly than anyone can from outside that system." Those annoying student activists are some of the worst offenders, naively mobilizing on behalf of progressive causes. So are aspiring graduate students, such as the one whose face has already been "inscribed with the grimace and poison of academia." But the professors are the worst of all. "To sit so far from everything, I thought, ensconced in the armchair, and to be convinced you see things better than someone who has felt it all on his own skin, and on top of that to pontificate, hold forth and preach, despite the fact that in reality everything is different and, to say the least, you have no idea what is really going on." This sounds a bit like someone holding forth and preaching, maybe even pontificating.
One particularly annoying character, "the professor of political science," is always referred to as viewing world history as a kind of elaborate chess board that allows him to offer endless pompous theories of how history unfolds. He stands in as a kind of ugly academic everyman for all of this arrogance, delusion and blindness. The problem, of course, is that he is a fictional character, not a real person, and there is a contradiction in conjuring up a character who can be so easily dismissed and hated precisely because he feels that everyone else can be so easily dismissed and hated. It winds up being a ludicrously simplistic and anti-intellectual attack on university life for being simplistic and anti-intellectual. But the real problem is that however misguided or just plain annoying this judgmental streak might be, it feeds a kind of ugly self-righteousness that short-circuits the nihilism that would have been the novel's main achievement. For a character in free fall, some things are still remarkably black and white, which detracts from an otherwise challenging account of the meaninglessness of a burnt-out life.
Stream-of-consciousness writing had its moment for important reasons. Its central point-that few of us think in tidy paragraph form, that our ideas move more in lateral leaps than linear steps-offered a revolutionary insight that merged novelistic form and content in compelling ways. It highlighted just how psychologically unrealistic the narrative form of the great realist novels actually was. And in the hands of its great practitioners, it made fascinating the fragile and often fraught psychic landscape of its main characters.
But when that sort of story is written from a first-person narrative perspective, and especially in a novel which declines to submit to the middle-brow literary convenience of paragraph breaks, the particular consciousness being portrayed better interest us. Not that we actually have to like or approve of the character. Memorable novels are rarely that easy. But these characters should at least intrigue us, spark our imagination in ways that makes us want to sustain the encounter, even if we resent them throughout. Snow Man might best be read as an attempt to push that logic to its breaking point, to see how far it can be taken before the navigation of the stream of consciousness being proffered isn't worth the effort.
Arguably, David Albahari has the artistic merit of having refused to compromise a particular aesthetic theory no matter how unappealing the results might be. That theory, to which he has remained true throughout this 120-page paragraph, would go something like this: Let us take a character about whom there is nothing to like, and worse, who is not even unlikeable in any captivating way; his bitterness should be completely sub-charismatic, his cynicism rarely witty, and his jaundiced self-absorption can never begin to approach anything vaguely Byronic. Let us keep our sights firmly on the mundane world of existential tedium, rather than the sexier domain of existential angst. Let us associate him with an important historical event-the atrocities in Serbia-and then let him insist, again and again, on wanting to have nothing to do with the issue because none of the simpletons in this other country (i.e. Canada), to which he has travelled, could possibly know or say anything remotely meaningful about it. And then let us do nothing to redeem him or even to make him more dastardly in a way that might make readers want to keep turning the pages. Above all, let us make sure that he doesn't stop sulking or feeling superior. Let us make sure, to quote a memorable line from Seinfeld, that "nothing happens", that the inertia which reverberates throughout the novel is never broken, that the monologue never gains any traction until the enigmatic but predictable collapse which marks the novel's culmination.
In all of these ways, Snow Man is an artistic triumph, a monument to stuffy self-involvement. Its opening pages evoke the out-of-focus grogginess of trans-Atlantic jet lag with its scrambled rhythm of days and nights better than any other attempt I have read. Its obsessive fixation on particular details conveys a vivid sense of a mind struggling in vain to regain its cultural bearings. And, in spite of itself, Snow Man actually does become interesting as the interminable paragraph progresses and the narrator has less and less to do with the university and with the high-handed pettiness that his encounters with it inspired. Despite the narrator's insistence that none of us can know enough about the great tides of world events to have anything to say on the subject, the narrator even manages to rise to a contemplation of precisely these events. Disturbed into what finally passes for some sort of emotional response by an historical atlas the professor of political science has given him, whose pages bear witness to the implacable forces of change that govern the histories of nations, the narrator becomes obsessed with maps he has found in the basement of the otherwise sterile house that he has been given to live in. He pins them on the walls, surrounding himself with reminders of the brutal indifference of epochal change. Until, as he gallops around and around the house one fateful night, the maps begin to fall off the walls around him. In the end, Snow Man opts for absurdity rather than tragedy, or perhaps for a bit of both. History, the author seems to want to tell us, is a nightmare from which we are trying to wake up, but in the solipsistic world which is this novel, that hope remains less a reasonable aspiration than fashionable delusion.
Paul Keen, who teaches English at Carleton University, may not have been the ideal reviewer for this particular book.