A drab morning in nowheresville provincial France, 1981 or environs. A teenager stands at a bus stop, waiting, thinking, fuming, pining. For one unbroken 84-page paragraph we are inside the boy's head, witnessing his deliberations on the nature of childhood, existence, truth, and love. The unnamed boy suffers an impossible love for the girl waiting at the bus stop on the opposite side of the street. Impossible because, whereas the boy's bus will take him to his high school, hers will take her to an institution for the mentally challenged. She never acknowledges him, nor anyone or anything around her. As he stands there, nothing happens, he merely stares at the girl and ruminates on the ironies that make up his life.
The language Valtat (b. 1968) and his translator, Mitzi Angel, chose to embody the boy's internal narration in 03
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) is consistently evocative, a single page quite early on yields these two descriptions of eyes: the narrator's "brain blowing on my eyes as though they were embers, trying to make my 'passion' seem that much more notable, more incandescent"; those of the girl "black as the inside of closed fists, reflecting less the outside world than the abandoned interior of a skull". This constant internal perspective allows intimate access (perhaps especially to smartass readers who were praised, as I was, for using quotation marks ironically in a high school admission essay).
In his newfound teen age, the boy is realizing his own psychological mechanics, and his love for the girl is:a blissful reprieve from the war I was waging against the 'world,' a war that basically depended on getting grown-up approval for what I was good at, and on my belief that I was using this approval to play them, to play them so well, in fact, that it was sometimes hard to tell where the lines of battle were actually drawn.
This battleground sketch is reminiscent of Alice Miller's massively popular psychology book The Drama of the Gifted Child
(1979), which argued that high-achieving children perform so well because they somehow believe only these achievements will make them worthy of their mother's love. This makes parent and child both, in Miller's terms, 'narcissistically disturbed'. David Foster Wallace, as Maria Bustillos guttingly shows in her piece on Wallace's self-help library marginalia
, deeply identified with this diagnosis, highlighting and underlining passages such as the following:An adult can only be fully aware of his feelings if he has internalized an affectionate and empathic self-object. People with narcissistic disturbances are missing out on this. Therefore they are never overtaken by unexpected emotions, and will only admit those feelings that are accepted and approved by their inner censor, which is their parents' heir. Depression and a sense of inner emptiness is the price they must pay for this control.
Our narrator in 03
, feeling equally split between being the adults' favorite genius and living his own vicious circle of depression, shows that the tragedy of gifted children perhaps most poignantly lies in the distancing effect of their constant self reflection, a reflex that to them is as automatic as their jockier classmates' pitching aim.
Much like another great enfant tragique
, Rimbaud (who famously discovered "Je est un autre"), this boy has come to believe "I was not this world and the world was not me". It seems as though the narrator believes a Platonic romance with the bus stop girl is at least theoretically "soluble" in the sense that his
feelings are the only unknown quantity, and he can attempt to rationally approximate those. Furthermore, since he is not sexually attracted to her, he can try to untangle his seemingly oppositional feelings of love and desire, a state that Valtat grotesquely chooses to describe as "the basic incompatibility of two organs which, if they could be grafted together, would produce no more than horrific disappointment".
His own messy imperfection he can deal with, hers is meaningless, irrelevant to him. Her mental state is "frozen in this astonished state since words were too small to contain what was vast and unknown", in other words, like that of a child, a state the narrator is not nostalgic for but does acknowledges the inherent difference of. As alien as this world around him now is, and as alien as the self is from anything outside it, the alienating division 03
most deeply examines is that between the self and its own previous incarnation, one's own childhood self:The only good thing about childhood is that no one really remembers it, or rather, that's the only thing about it to like: this forgetting. What else could possibly lie beneath that blissful oblivion but shame: a dark knowledge of that terrible badge of weakness, that inescapable servitude (bearable only thanks to the slow revelation that we could inflict cruelty and evil on the weaker kids), a sickening awareness that just about everything there is to understand was beyond us, made even worse by the lies and inaccuracies that adults feel entitled to spread around.
The boy narrator claims that the frightfully ignorant mental state of children, or that of the mentally challenged, is necessarily outside the ken of a mature mind. We can simply not un-know what we do know, and our imagination is similarly limited in its inability to scale back to a child's close horizons. This unknowability of childhood is opposed by a vision of adulthood as a "special series of arrested developments", and the best way to observe either is thus from the cusp of the latter, a position from which the narrator peers back through the foggy fumes of his own fading ignorance and across the road to the bus stop on the other side, all to figure out what separates him from his previous self, and him from her.
Published almost simultaneously, Valtat's much thicker Aurorarama
(Melville House, 2010) constitutes the polar opposite of this vitriolic slip of a book. A steampunk vision of a New Venice settled on the North Pole, Aurorarama
was written in English and shares none of 03
's perceptiveness or intellectual rigor. A Vernean pastiche
filled with terrible puns (Arcticocracy, snowcaine, etc.) and half-assed plotting, it manages to be neither truly original nor truly parodic, its mess of suffragette activism and polar colonialism only briefly alleviated when Valtat describes the New Venetian drone music cult
. Alleviated, that is, until you flash back to the sublime scene (one of many) in Werner Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World
(2007), in which Antarctic researchers start to jam with the sounds of their pallid habitat, at which point you again just wish the book was over. As someone who was fast taken with the book's gorgeous cover and promises of polar bears and air ships (zeppelins vs. polar bears? zomfg!), I'd have been better off rereading Philip Pullman's His Dark Material
series, which does deliver on its promise of adventures amidst northern lights and polar bears, and that alongside some sensational plotting and heady smarts.
In its own way, Aurorarama
is a great counterpart to 03
, showing the merits of art painstakingly created from an intense act of empathy and the weaknesses of pastiche for its own solipsistic sake.
Like Proust's In Search of Lost Time
, Valtat's 03
revolves around a youthful, misdirected passion. Contrary to Proust's luxuriously helpless drift on the lulls and rapids of the course of time, Valtat focuses his narrative on a short wait for a bus that will inevitably come. Instead of having characters appear in all their temporal incarnations, Valtat only shows us one at a single point in time. His teenager has recently awakened from his protected childhood slumber and is now ready to judge the world and all its denizens, all except for his elusive girl counterpart across the street.
Love, for our boy narrator, symbolizes the impossible ideal of human connection (all the purer, more transcendent, for its impossibility), a Platonic cave system that sees idealized emotions ever more deformed and distorted as they make their way down into the essentially locked-in human mind as shadows.
Valtat's central trope in this investigation is the delay: literally in the sense of waiting for the bus, but also metaphorically in the sense of the girl's mental 'retardation'. The narrator is indefinitely delaying any romantic advances towards the girl (or anyone), the delay offering him the chance for a pure interrogation of his own experience, his own thoughts, the only thing the boy is metaphysically sure of. Inevitable disappointment (and perhaps true adulthood) thus allayed, he uses his wait to attempt to experience the routine as new, the ad nauseam
rendered afresh ad aeternam
Waiting at the bus stop, the boy is intent on waylaying his own adulthood just as his childhood is closed off to him. The boy is, to paraphrase Ms. Spears, not a boy, not yet a man. Though the book vehemently argues against the idea that a child's ignorance is pure, it simultaneously strains to access this pre-nostalgic state of immunity, ending on an ambiguous note. It does eloquently describe the devastating moment when a teenage intellectual realizes he or she will never truly and literally be able to communicate what's inside them, how they feel, how beautiful the loved one really is to them, instead knowing that they'll always have to translate their experience into words or art, whether in the form of a crappy provincial punk band like the narrator's "Proletkult" or of a novel of internal monologue such as this. It suggests that the only mystic connection human culture allows us is through the senses, music and images sometimes reaching us unspoiled (note that the virginal narrator neglects to venture into the realms of touch, or of those powerful Proustian forces, taste and smell). In itself this novel thus delivers a narrator of great purity, one uncorrupted by relativism or political correctness, one that, perhaps more than Holden Caulfield, knows the difference between "phonies" and phonies, one that is hoping beyond hope that there is a difference between "love" and love.