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.
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).