Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit

I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? said Kleinzeit
Not my problem, said the mirror.
(p. 7)

I always love it when the first page of a novel paves the way for the all that follows. These are very nearly the first words of Kleinzeit, and already Russell Hoban has laid out where he is going and more or less how he is going to get there. As becomes clearer still in subsequent pages, we find that his is going to be a path of not-quite blank sheets of A-4 paper lead leads us to places that are, in a sense, familiarly foreign. We encounter diseases unlike any we’ve heard of before and that are identified by words whose otherwise recognizable referents do not at all match up with what is being described. Hypotenuse. Hendiadys. And even the (fat) human condition (aka, “chronic ullage”) (p. 34). Deadly stuff, these, it turns out, so it behooves us to be on guard of the symptoms: for Kleinzeit, the flash of pain to make Pythagoras proud, from A to B, coupled with  the “seething in a perfectly silent room” (p. 12).

For such a short novel there are a ton of great exchanges, and one of my favorites comes very early. Here, I find that the fat man suffering from chronic ullage/the human condition gives us our first serious clue into what’s going on with Kleinzeit:

‘Where are your friends and relations?’

‘What do you mean?’ said Kleinzeit.

‘What I said,’ said the fat man. ‘I’ve been here for three visiting periods. Everyone else in the ward but either gets visited or neglected in a bona fide way. [ed. I esp. like that last sentence.] You’ve seen old Griggs regularly not visited by three daughters, two sons, and fifteen or twenty grandchildren. You’ve seen me regularly visited by my wife, son, daughter, two cousins, and a friend. Now, what you to say to that?’

‘Nothing,’ said Kleinzeit.

‘Not good enough,’ said the fat man. ‘Won’t do. . . . You’re not visited and you’re not neglected. There’s something about you that’s not quite the ticket, not quite the regular human condition, if you follow me. . . . Childhood memories?’

‘What about them?’ said Kleinzeit.

‘Name one.’

Kleinzeit couldn’t. There was nothing in his memory but the pain from A to B, getting the sack at the office, seeing Dr. Pink, coming to the hospital. Nothing else. He went pale.

‘You see?’ said the fat man. ‘You simply won’t bear examination, will you? It’s almost as if you’d made yourself up on the spur of the moment. (p. 35)

Which, of course, is exactly what’s happened. Or seems to have happened. Soon after this exchange, Kleinzeit creates a childhood home, the gravestones of a father & a mother, and a brother on the other end of the phone. This is one way of looking at it, anyway. Another, and there are surely other ways, is that he simply discovers these “creations” — i.e., that they, like all the other myriad objects he (and we) discover to have thoughts and feelings of their own (my favorite: the existential crisis of a mirror with nobody looking at it [p. 17]), have a certain life of their own, apart from his discovery. That’s a crucial aspect, I think — that these self-conscious objects to which we do not normally ascribe consciousness, except when we’re children or intoxicated, things like knees and paper and hospitals, they are not necessarily products merely of Kleinzeit’s imagination. Hoban’s, yes, who is surely lurking in these pages, just behind Kleinzeit in most cases, as I believe he has admitted in interviews, but not the Kleinzeit-as-character, in whom we have to invest some degree of interest if the novel is to work for us at all. To make everything simply a product of Kleinzeit’s imagination, I feel, is to render the novel far more psychological than it is. Which is to say, the focus here does not not to be the psyche. This is not a journey into the self, as it were. Rather, it is a journey, if anywhere, we find as the novel progresses, Underground. (If there is a spoiler in the novel, I suppose it is this, so I’ll leave this intentionally vague for now.)

This next observation is not at all fleshed out, so do with it what you will. But I’m actually tempted to identify Kleinzeit as a participant in the “More Materialist Than Thou” debate (such as it is) going on lately in the philosophical blogosphere, with respect to Object-Oriented Ontology [OOO[!] — that most orgasmic of philosophic acronyms].  This is not to say Hoban “resolves” the issue. Rather, and, yes, I realize I’m very likely shooting way beyond my interpretive rights, as both a literary critic and a philosopher, Hoban perhaps provides us with a narrativized version of the debate. On one hand, we have a world where objects are freed from the subjectivism of their correlationalist shackles. And yet, in tandem with this, there remains the struggle to internalize this freedom. Where to converse with the objects, or even to depict the freedom of these objects, is to recognize them as objects (“This is what what is” [p. 38].) Arguably, once you’ve done that, their freedom-as-objects (shall we create a German word for this?) is, to some degree, curtailed  They become (for us anyway — what they do on their own time is not for us, or our novels, to know) as subjectively shackled as the smalltime/hero (Kleinzeit).

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6 Responses to “Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ve just read through the book much more quickly than I anticipated, and though I’m not sure what I think of it, if I were to think something it would be something along the lines of your last paragraph.

    It really can be hilarious, though I’d say more in the first half than the second. (My favorite exchange is when Redbeard is complaining about the difficulty of finding a truly bare room.)

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Then it is official, my reading is definitive!

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    Well… off to a rousing start, no! It’s your job, Minto, to do a better job than I.

  4. Robert Minto Says:

    Sorry for my late entry into the convo here — I was camping, and fervidly re-reading and note-taking on Kleinzeit between dreams of a full-body mosquito slapper and pangs of longing for a clean bathroom.

    After my third re-reading, I am convinced that the novel is, in fact, pretty deep. I will bloviate regarding this conviction on Tuesday. For now, some responses to your thoughts to maybe get discussion rolling along:

    (1. Starting at the end: you’re right. I think one can hardly move in the blogging-theory circles and also read this novel without thinking of OOO. Seems like something Harman would dig in principle but deplore in execution. As you pointed out, the emphasis on objects tends to restrict or bind them rather than emancipating and centering them. Personally, I don’t think Hoban was going for animate *objects* with the Big Guys (as I think Death calls them), but rather clarifying constituent portions of an experience, making explicit the drama of the psychic stage where the actors are otherwise characteristically muddled. I feel that mythology of the Big Guys is built up that allows them to be both constituted by Kleinzeit’s various forms of delirium yet also slyly relevant to those who would grant them independent life. After multiple re-readings, I feel like I understand the role of all the Big Guys — except Shiva, for whom I would love an explanation — according to my interpretation. I’ll try to lay it out as comprehensively as I can on Tuesday. (Since this is at least some of the time a theology blog, by the way, it might be interesting to think about Hoban’s God character, with his characteristic ignorance of everyone’s experience but eagerness to converse anyway. I think it suggests a rather interesting theology of freedom.)

    (2. But anyway, I think you’ve hit on what will be the over-arching question for our discussions: what are we to make of the abstractions, the Big Guys, whatever you want to call them. The other over-arching question will of course be this: apart from that more formal question, what theme(s) does the story and its oddities of style, character, and narration seek to address? My interpretation’s top three themes are Memory, Freedom, and Death. (On which, as usual, more Tuesday.) I’m wondering (if you do that sort of thing) how you would summarize your impression of themes?

    (3. Funny story illustrative of the greatness (which you pointed out) of the exchanges. I had my wife read some of the book aloud to me while driving to the airport a few days ago. She hadn’t read any of it previously, and we started toward the back of the book, where the sun tells Kleinzeit “running today.” She read that Kleinzeit then tells the mirror, “running today,” and it responds, “Can’t. Haven’t got any legs.” And she stopped, read it again, incredulously, then burst out laughing for a good full minute. She told me, “this is like a big, complicated, dirty children’s book.” Exactly.

  5. Dan Says:

    Robert,

    Not sure if I should reply here or wait for your post.

    Without anticipating my own post too much, I would suggest that “meaning” is a central theme, and one that encapsulates the themes of memory (which is related to the meaningful construction of one’s “self”) and death (which often creates a significant crisis for constructions of meaning). What one chooses to remember of the past and what one chooses to hope for in the future are often constitutive of the significance one finds in the present moment. Of course, I think Hoban is kind of short-circuiting this whole idea but that doesn’t take away from the centrality of the theme.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    I think you’re pretty spot-on in a lot of this. I don’t disagree with your outline of the prominent themes, although we may deviate in how we understand what’s happening in those — esp. the one regarding freedom. Even the theme of Death is kind of perverted from its typical thematic contours, because I don’t see Hoban placing much stock in it as an overarching existential “dilemma” — something hanging over us, as it were. Death, rather, is one amongst many “Big Guys” — and, as such, is one of any number of, as you characterize them here, “constituent portions of an experience.” I find it significant, for example, that by the end of the novel Death is an explicit ally of Kleinzeit, rather than a figure of immanent or transcendent menace or threat.

    W/r/t to Freedom, I think this particular theme definitely needs to be nuanced. Because, once again, the freedom being described is that of harmony — versus that of, say, anarchic self-creativity. I.e., the freedom to own up to your place in whatever is allotted to you by circumstances. Not simply accepting those circumstances, mind you — that’s hardly “Athenian.” Rather, it’s a matter of almost redefining those circumstances, and your relationship to them; but not the fact of your relationship to them. If that makes sense.


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