Kleinzeit touched the paper with the brush, drew in one smooth sweep a fat black circle, sweet and round.
That’s it, said Death. My present.
The first and, probably, recurring item that must be addressed by a reader of Kleinzeit is how to understand the Big Guys. The Big Guys are such characters as Sky, Death, Hospital, Underground/Underworld, God, Glockenspiel, Yellow Paper. Often they speak to Kleinzeit, to Sister, to Redbeard. Sometimes they do things on their own, as when Glockenspiel wonders when it will be played in the underground, before Kleinzeit has dreamed or encountered it. One way of understanding this — which Brad has broached in his post — is that Hoban is “unshackling” objects, in a sense, from their correlationist shackles: making them, simply put, characters rather than accessories and scenery. Certainly they are characters — for instance, I would say Hospital, Underground, and Death are as well-rounded as Redbeard — but I find it difficult to believe that we can understand this to be an object-oriented novel. On the contrary, I would make the case that it’s a supremely human-centered novel, one that enters the solipsistic world of those “characters” we breathe to life with our own words: when we curse the table that stubbed our toe, chat with ourselves, pray, resent the building where we lie sick, or communicate with the instrument we play best.
To be fair, I should point out the remainder this theory leaves behind: these characters, whom I have called residents in a solipsistic world, bring their own ideas to the table. Word rapes Yellow Paper, without which intervention presumably Kleinzeit would never write his novel. Hospital and God, and even Death, have presents for Kleinzeit and Sister. Yellow Paper nearly drives Redbeard mad with its insistence upon phrases that are meaningless to him. Moreover, the world in this novel echoes in a strange Heideggerian eternity (if that’s possible) where conjunctures, meetings, conversations, exist before their participants have arrived, are remembered before they have happened, or recur in strange mythic ways — as if the pattern of interconnection were more real than the discreet elements within it. Kleinzeit spends much of the novel searching for something, some combination, that will feel right, that he will know when he sees it, and this suggests a powerful notion of fate or predestination to which the “objects” often seem more privy than the humans.
Nonetheless, I will psychologize. My sense is that the Big Guys are intended to clearly delineate layers of experience — abstract personalities representing ordinarily unclear tides of feeling and thought while yet, by their mutual interactions and the equality of their personalities on the stage of the novel, making up the unified, plotlike elements of a whole experience. — In this case, the experience of going to a hospital, falling in love, finding a new line of work, and writing a first novel.
Before I launch into my grandiose reflections on theme, I’d like to note two sections of the book that seemed from my perspective as a fiction writer to be especially well-written:
First, the hospital. The character Hospital is an accurate abstraction, full of order and habit that seem out of place given his life and death purpose, yet also unexpectedly savage in its appetites. We see it waking for a morning cigar but also playing cat and mouse, cruelly, with Kleinzeit. But most of all, I appreciated Hoban’s treatment of hospital beds — like unwanted lovers, seeking sweaty sex when all you (being in pain) want is cool, silence, oblivion. Also, at one point, he describes a vision of life support and IVs that I myself have shared when I worked in a hospital:
Readbeard was still there on the other side of Schwarzgang. Kleinzeit nodded to him. Redbeard nodded back, looking at him through the funfair of Schwarzgang’s machinery. They ought to light the old man up at night, thought Kleinzeit. Then it occurred to him that he too might suddenly find Hospital growing on him like a mechanical man-eating vine. Already two thin tendrils bound him to the monitor.
Second, writing a novel. Generally, Kleinzeit’s novelistic interactions with the yellow paper follow the form of a sexual relationship: the romancing, the foreplay, the early fear, the ecstasy, and finally the fruitful regularity. As any writer of fiction knows, the blank page can provoke erectile dysfunction, also six pages earned by sweat, seemingly inspired, can prove barren, can fall off the page, and the only way a novel may be conceived is to try again and again, day after day. One way — one of many — to read the novel, is as a description of the novel-writing process, the formation of a writer.
Reading Kleinzeit can occasionally feel like solving a problem or puzzle, albeit one whose premises are dreams and emotions and whose conclusion is a lifestyle. But the last few pages do solve the puzzle, mostly, suggesting that Hoban didn’t intend the book as an exercise in pinning the tail on the allegory. A second time through, I think, one reads better, experiencing the novel as a novel, where deep themes are explored in the special manner of literature. Themes which stood out to me were memory, freedom, and death.
Brad touched on one pervasive aspect of the novel: Kleinzeit’s attempt to recover himself by remembering himself. There is that place where he seems to be making up memories, which Brad pointed out, but I don’t think we can take that too literally as Hoban later ties Kleinzeit’s quest into the myth of Orpheus. (That, by the way, is a very common allusion in Hoban’s works.) According to Hoban, Orpheus is dismembered, but then re-membered under his own power. So while I grant that Kleinzeit seems to engage in a lot of autonomous self-construction, I don’t think he does so without a history: behind him, perhaps in those first few pages where he is sacked and begins to wince from A to B, lies a dismemberment, and before that — not self-construction but his given, unawakened and unreconstructed, self. I take memory, then, to be the location of the conflict: Kleinzeit has been dismembered there, suddenly finding himself socially, physically, and economically disoriented and torn apart. The novel asks, apart from the selves held together by our structures of money, status, class, health, etc., what resources for a self does our memory possess?
To discover the answer to this question, Kleinzeit must take a lot of wrong turns (which aren’t entirely wrong turns). For instance, he imagines himself to be patroned by some caretaker of busking bums — until he discovers that the key which prompted this fantasy fell by accident from a hand that wants it back. He also attempts to identify himself with the Athenians, to borrow their courage and (he believes) ultimately their success — until he discovers they lost the Pelopponesian war, that he has aligned himself with the losers. Is he a hero? Then he must some kind of hero — that is, some hero already existing. Even Orpheus, though, is a red herring in that respect. For all Hospital’s snide comments, Kleinzeit gets the girl, escapes the Underground, and re-members himself, all at once, which Orpheus didn’t.
Fallen out of the social, physical, and economic orders that used to sustain his self, to hold him together, Kleinzeit madly searches for another already existing order to stuff himself into. But he fails. Instead, he discovers his own moments of harmony, in memory and the present, which are utterly unique, part of no existing order but constitutive of a new one — freedom:
Untwisting all the chains that ty
The hidden soul of harmony.
Inside him he felt a pause, as of an uplifted hand. Then it was as if a fat brush drew with black ink in one perfect sweep a circle, fat and black on yellow paper. Sweet, fresh, clear and simple. His whole organism was strong and sweetly rhythmic with the perfect health of it.
‘What is harmony,’ said Kleinzeit, ‘but a fitting together.’ He wasn’t saying it to Tede but he had to say it aloud.
‘That’s an awfully good line,’ said Tede. ‘What’s it from?’
‘Nothing,’ said Kleinzeit, and cried some more.
But for all this to happen — the re-memberment that is — Kleinzeit really required the help of death. All the other guys in the yellow-paper ward are dying away — mainly because they aren’t accepting the gift of death, I think. Even the one who expresses an interest in getting a bargain coffin isn’t really accepting the lesson of death, because that lesson isn’t about ceasing but about discovering the singularity of oneself, the uniqueness of one’s organism, and relying on that rather than anything else. So many little deaths — the successive failures of Kleinzeit’s narrative lifeboats — lead to a big disenchantment and, ultimately, a real life.
Finally, as a note for An und fur sich theology regulars, I’d like to dwell for a moment on one intriguing Big Guy: God. He begins his career in the novel as Sister’s special conversation partner. She wants to pray to him, he wants her to chat with him. He’s unimpressive. No omniscient knowing of needs before they’re asked. No obvious overarching plan for his own glorification. Instead, he seems uniquely unempathetic, really curious about what humans are feeling because he genuinely doesn’t get it. He gets jealous of Shiva at one point, but otherwise his only real personality feature is a pervasive boredom and social awkwardness.
I wondered — tell me what you think — if this didn’t resonate at all with the freedom pursued by Kleinzeit, a freedom of self-constitution by re-memberment that escapes the claims of other things, peoples, stories. Only God is the logic of this freedom completely played out: all-powerful… and rather indecisive and unsympathetic. Sister wants him to be the God of Christian orthodoxy, but that’s a standard he doesn’t much care about (to her occasional frustration). In this sense, to be human is better than to be God, for a finite singularity is much more… I don’t know, empathic, interested?… than an infinite one.
There are a lot of things I should have fleshed out here — no time at the moment — but hopefully we can do so in the comments.