TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 2018

books

NOTHING PERSONAL

Jean-Jacques Schuhl in his home, Paris, May 15, 2009. Photo: Richard Dumas/Redux.

Dusty Pink, by Jean-Jacques Schuhl, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman. New York: Semiotext(e)/Native Agents, 2018. 128 pages.

I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS about writing that draws on direct experience. I love the unabashed immediacy of journals, am less enthusiastic about the portentous tone that frequently tinges memoir, and have become increasingly exasperated by the quiet self-importance of the personal essay. The notion that the personal is political has perhaps fomented a general mode of self-reflection that is susceptible to the casting of individual dilemmas and anxieties in a universal light. The style of writing that this approach engenders tends to be gently yet steadfastly reverential, so that every humdrum detail of daily life is weighted with lyrical significance to the degree that ultimately everything means something. Appreciation of what that “something” is, the buzz of “getting it,” is a somewhat impaired form of empathy, and it’s become a central facet of the contemporary reading experience.

I run a mile from any publication that comes studded with emphatic words of praise such as persuasive, poignant, vital, or profound. Possibly I’m a heathen, but it is rare that I enjoy or benefit from those kinds of “important” works. What excites me as a reader, and as a writer, is the prospect of a book that has forgone the obligation to mean anything at all. Not “getting it” is a fairly accurate description of my relationship with art and life, and perhaps explains why I get my kicks from books I can make neither heads nor tails of. I’m thinking here of texts by Ingeborg Bachmann, Leonora Carrington, Anna Kavan, and Clarice Lispector, among others. Here is a subterranean sort of life-writing that was not created in order to be gotten. That’s not to say one can’t or won’t connect with these writers’ excavations. It just means these authors ruffle an unfamiliar and probably dormant aspect of the psyche, where the personal is also surreal, irrational, and unnerving. At the other end of the spectrum of great incomprehensible books are those written by the “New Novelists,” as a certain contingent of 1950s French writers came to be known. In contrast to those mentioned above, writers associated with this movement, among them Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Claude Simon, adopted an impersonal approach and avoided expressing their own predilections and preoccupations as a way of safeguarding against ulterior meanings creeping into the work and curtailing the novel’s heterogeneity. Distinct methods, yet all posit utterly compelling ways of portraying and thinking about individual experience. Nothing is explained, no sense is made, no lessons are learned: Thus, mercifully, no message is conveyed.

Cover of Jean-Jacques Schuhl’s Dusty Pink (Semiotext[e]/Native Agents, 2018).

Rose poussière (Dusty Pink), by Jean-Jacques Schuhl, appeared in France in 1972 and was recently translated for the first time into English by Jeffrey Zuckerman for the US publisher Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents imprint. Schuhl describes the book as a “manifesto for a sort of impersonal writing,” and though conceived in a later era than the prototypical nouveau roman, its formal mutations share fundamental affinities with that genre. His aim, Schuhl said, was to “capture the air of the time without being too present. It was about being a simple sensor-transmitter.” The writer’s stomping ground is Paris, but there’s a fair wedge of London in there too. The time is the late ’60s, a period in recent history that plenty of people have said plenty about. Speaking with an interviewer in 2008, Schuhl opined that the ongoing fascination with that era is due to its being a “period of emergence,” and the portrait he traces in this slim, eclectic volume isn’t so much concerned with what happened during that time as with how it happened.

The book begins with a declaration: “There are sudden things.” Among these things are the May 1968 Paris protests, British rock music, and the Chinese Red Guards, all of which, he recounted in the same interview, “happened without warning, strikingly and unpredictably . . . a dazzling and subversive rise that blurred immediate comprehension.” Bringing these events to the page, Schuhl refuses to contextualize or analyze them according to familiar sociopolitical frameworks; rather, events are presented to us in all their abstract immediacy. Unmediated by theory or hindsight, Schuhl’s record of the time is a dappled display of numinous immersion and freewheeling perplexity. The prose glimmers with a hallucinatory aura that is evoked and directed by his indiscriminating antennae; it homes in on the action, wherever it happens to be unfurling, in a way that is by turns fresh, bizarre, and archly fetishistic.

Amid the riots, for example, he becomes fixated on the boots worn by the cops: “23,000 identical pairs . . . that don’t belong to anyone.” From this seemingly banal observation there emerges a chilling hypothesis: “Their strength (or their weakness?) and their beauty come from someplace outside themselves, from a great distance, from other people, from everybody.” He then conjures up “the armor and shields of Alexander Nevsky and the spears of Paolo Uccello’s paintings,” which, he says, “evoke—no matter what side they may be on—something else.” The final shift of this rhapsodizing train of thought brings us to a stunningly transcendent image of combat: “At the moment they trade blows, slowly advancing and retreating in their inhuman and communal finery, the riot cops erase the something else and are that something else.” This interplay of firsthand impressions and cultural artifacts is indicative of how Schuhl’s flickering eye is both alert to the present moment and haunted by iconic simulacra. It also alludes to the author’s fascination with the inhuman (“or say non-human manipulated thing”) and the remote—with ghosts, mannequins, clones, and borrowings.

But who is to say our consoling narrators should be sound of mind and clear-eyed, or even fully fleshed, for that matter?

“What is inimitable is uninteresting,” said Schuhl; “mediums laugh at genius.” Indeed, Dusty Pink is itself some class of cadavre exquis, strewn with elegant snatches of cadged material. Schuhl demurely describes it as a “friable and light thing” made from a “bric-a-brac” of observations, quotes, newspaper articles, snippets from old movie scripts; even an extract from an Edgar Allan Poe tale finds its way in. “Hardly a book at all,” he protests, “I should not have signed it!” This rhizomatic collage of materials and genres doesn’t exude the toe-curling self-consciousness that occasionally stifles a postmodernist meta-text, nor does it feel as staged-accidental and dubiously divinatory as a Burroughs cut-up. Books that contain a zigzagging mash of styles and perspectives are often criticized for being cold and inaccessible. Unassimilated experience, the nonsensical, the unaccounted for, can be alarming, infuriating, ungratifying. When we read in these increasingly discombobulating times, perhaps there is a need to feel that we are in the company of a rational and trustworthy mind, one that is at work, patiently piecing the world together, giving shape to the amorphous, casting a lucid light on the ineffable. But who is to say our consoling narrators should be sound of mind and clear-eyed, or even fully fleshed, for that matter?

Certainly not the writer Charlie Fox, who in his brilliant creation This Young Monster (2017) makes a compelling case for a more freakish point of view. “At a time when craven self-promotion and mock-confessional bloviating remain, unstoppably, all the rage,” he observes, “there seems to be a certain unheimlich power in zoning out, staged disappearance or vampiric imitation.” How is a book brought to life? Probably aspiring writers are still routinely advised that believable characters and a credible plot are the way to make a story leap off the page. Yet the allure of gothic literature testifies to our hunger for monsters and zombies, for hybrid creatures stitched together out of odds and sods, for cloaked vessels that are neither dead nor alive, whose necromantic vitality relies on their ability to siphon the scarlet life-flow of regular domesticated bodies. As Fox points out, many gothic novels were themselves composites of strange materials: Books such as Dracula (1897) and Frankenstein (1818) consist of letters, logbooks, recordings, personal diaries, “a fugue of different voices.” “I like that ominous sensation,” he writes, “of the book shape-shifting in your hands.” There’s more than a dash of unheimlich power in Schuhl’s notion of the writer as medium. “Borrowings come from afar to transform,” he writes, and Dusty Pink abounds with repeated gestures, show reels, electricity, legerdemain, mutants, the zoned-out—even a persona called “Frankenstein-the-Dandy” makes an appearance: “He does his hair, pulls his jacket or his scarf on or off the way one throws a flower into a still-yawning grave.” What a line! And there are so many more such turns of phrase that arguably affiliate Schuhl’s particular brand of the “impersonal” with the decadent eye of the gothic imagination. “Beauty is a sum of accidents”; “BE HOLLOW YOU’LL RESONATE BETTER”; “I don’t care if it’s Tom (Dick or Harry), on the contrary, what matters is that it’s anybody—bereft of his heft.” Barely human; barely a book. Dusty Pink is an entrancing, somnambulant creature with provocative eyes of crystal and sartorial smarts. It is quite indifferent to whether or not it is understood. And that blithe indifference is thrilling, enlivening. It gave me the space to forget myself, to fantasize that I too might be a dead ringer for something else.

Claire-Louise Bennett is a writer living in Galway, Ireland. She is the author of Pond, published by Riverhead in 2016.