BOOKS OCTOBER 8, 2008
By Maxim Biller
Translated by Anthea Bell
(Simon and Schuster, 217 pp., $23)
The Game, that infamous black-imitation-leather-bound book about the seduction community, is a novel of sorts. There is a narrative. But really the writer, Neil Strauss, produced a guidebook with a glossary. I remember--the book appeared in 2005--how it spread through the dining halls and dormitories at Harvard, passed from one roommate to the next. This was not the game we played, or would ever play, or would ever want to play--well, or so we said. Yet the book held a certain attraction. No matter how much mockery was in our laughter, we flipped through it. Many started skimming and ended up reading the whole thing.
"push-pull--noun: a technique used to create or increase attraction, in which a man gives a woman indications that he is not interested in her followed by indications that he is. This sequence can take place in a few seconds--such as taking a woman's hands and then dropping them as if you don't trust her yet--or over time, such as being very nice during one phone conversation but then very distant and abrupt during the next one.
neg--noun: an ambiguous statement or seemingly accidental insult delivered to a beautiful woman a pickup artist has just met with the intent of actively demonstrating to her (or her friends) a lack of interest in her. For example: 'Those are nice nails; are they real?'"
The Game has a clear thesis, and it was this practical aspect that allured us can-do-calculus-but-can't-cook-chicken undergraduates. The Game claims that seduction is simply about ambiguous signals. The cultivation of desire requires only a single tactic: mystery. And in explicit allegorical fashion, Mystery is the name of one of the book's protagonists--not the narrator, but his teacher. The narrator, who ultimately supersedes his poor crisis-conflicted master, calls himself Style. But "style," when it comes to the game of seduction, is simply the artful manipulation of "mystery." The one is just the cunning dressing-up of the other.
The book is reductive and ridiculous. It will not teach you how to find true love or how to forge a deep interpersonal connection, or probably even how to bed the semi-intelligent being next door. But it does capture something about the power dynamics of conquest--something true. Excelling at seduction means knowing how best to frame a hand: what cards to show, and when. After all, one of the prevailing symptoms of sweeping infatuation--of the kind of tyrannical attraction that knocks you in the gut and recalibrates time to its appetites--is over-sharing. Infatuation is accompanied by a rush in the throat. And for many, the rush is verbiage bubbling and broiling, eager to simmer over the lip and spill into even the most unrelated conversation.
This irritating loquaciousness has been noted in literature. Charlotte Bronte, for example, observed in Villette that "There is, in lovers, a certain infatuation of egotism; they will have a witness of their happiness, cost that witness what it may." And yet some of the most moving accounts of relationships are those that share the least. Among this group, Raymond Carver is the hero. And Richard Yates--another shrewd and cold student of love--once remarked about his novel Revolutionary Road that it was originally
"very thin, very sentimental. I made the Wheelers sort of nice young folks with whom any careless reader could identify. Everything they said was exactly what they meant, and they talked very earnestly together even when they were quarreling, like people in some Sloan Wilson novel. It took me a long time to figure out what a mistake that was--that the best way to handle it was to have them nearly always miss each other's points, to have them talk around and through and at each other. There's a great deal of dialogue between them in the finished book, both when they're affectionate and when they're fighting, but there's almost no communication."
Now the German writer and journalist Maxim Biller, who makes his English debut with a dark collection of twenty-seven vignettes translated by Anthea Bell, takes non-communication to the next level. Not only do his characters talk around and through and at each other, but Biller's narrators talk the same way to us, his readers: not stylistically--Biller writes in direct, declarative sentences--but with regard to revealing information, namely emotions. Does the fact that these characters say so few affectionate or even kind things mean that they are not in love? Gripped by the mystery, we read on to see. The effect--somewhat surprisingly--of leaving emotions unaddressed is emotional heft.
Yet Biller's vignettes, however indirectly, draw an idiosyncratic taxonomy of contemporary relationships. Biller offers experiments in love, trial after trial of a few different types. The aesthetic is a control; and, as is the case with most fictional worlds, the characters share a general mentality, if not the same exact mind. Every writer fashions characters and settings of a particular time and place--in Carver, the motel or the tract house (now probably foreclosed); in Yates, the Greenwich Village apartment or the trim suburban home; and in Biller, the mod rooms and cafe lifestyle of a German- Jewish-Czech artist. Of each writer, one senses that his characters are of a single breed of mind, and that the plot merely tests them in different ways.
Biller's fragments are fresh and terrible--terrible being high praise. They are terrible in their effect, in their severe style and harrowing ability to arouse awe and anxiety simultaneously. The collection is called Love Today, which should set off some internal alarms. The two words are--or at least should be-- mutually exclusive. So before going any further, we should clarify that Biller's episodes are actually about the pursuit of love rather than what can assuredly be called love itself. In fact, whether love ever exists is almost impossible to tell. That is the ambiguity that makes Biller's texts so seductive.
When a woman, never named, returns from her travels in India to Jordi, the man who has been "waiting and waiting and waiting" for her, she gives him a little wooden elephant. (The story is called "The Mahogany Elephant.") He goes to the kitchen to grab drinks and tosses the elephant into the garbage. Having considered and rejected the bottled water she requests, Jordi re-enters the living room with the wine he had purchased for her welcoming. "'Jordi,' she said, 'I didn't want wine.' 'No,' he agreed, 'it's still too early for wine.'" He proceeds to pour some into her glass. He "laid his arm on the back of the sofa behind her and left it there for a few minutes, but then he took it away again. The arm didn't feel quite sure of itself." Giving the arm agency is the closest Biller gets to commentary. And it smacks. He makes us feel self- consciousness, makes us feel the uneasy severance between body and mind: here are my thoughts, there is that limb.
She starts to talk about the elephant. She swears it is the fourth that she bought for him, having lost all the others, while he wanders into the kitchen to reclaim it before she realizes it is missing. He spreads the trash across the floor while she continues to talk and finds nothing. "'Actually that's not true,'" she says. "'I didn't want to bring you anything back.' There she was behind him all of a sudden. 'I simply forgot about you.'"
The ease with which these characters are cruel! Could it be true that she does not care? From initially being baffled, shocked, even disapproving of Jordi's tossing, we start to accept that there is a complexity to their history that we cannot see. So could it be true that she does not care? Could it be true even though, at the very end of the story, she tucks herself into his bed, fully clothed, and looks up and says, "All right, let's get married"? Or is this perhaps what Neil Strauss would deem, in his vulgar way, an elaborate "shit test"--"a question, demand, or seemingly hostile comment made by a woman intended to gauge whether a man is strong enough to be a worthy boyfriend or sexual partner"?
Does Ariel, the narrator in the story "Ziggy Stardust," really not like Edna, his childhood friend, even though he's funneled each of their encounters into a little vignette? When they are kids, Edna lends the Ariel her Bowie record (hence the title of the story). As an adult, Edna comes to his readings--but Ariel says that "there were other people there who mattered more to me." Two pages on he adds, "When I threw out my record player and sold all the records, I didn't stop to think that one of them was Edna's Ziggy Stardust." A few weeks later he buys it on CD. "Once home I put it on before I'd even taken my coat off," Biller writes. "After two or three songs I turned it off again, and stored it with the less important CDs." This sounds like an elaborate push-pull to me. When Ariel and Edna meet again, they begin dating, until one day she does not show up, and the next morning he briefly considers suicide before getting up and going to the bathroom. "I spent a long time shaving, I ate breakfast standing up, and I wrote two pages more than usual that day. I didn't look for Edna. I never called her again." If Biller had ended the negations there, he could be dismissed as merely dramatic. But he continues, "and I didn't ask anyone what had become of her," as if to prove that he neglected all efforts to find her. And that is the extent to which Ariel ever admits that he might care--that and a bit of jealousy a couple pages earlier. The strongest evidence of affection is not anything written, but the fact of the writing itself.
So even though the characters do not admit to feeling fondly toward one another, the yoking of two names across pages, and often across many years in narrative time, suggests as much. To justify the recurrence of names in proximity to each other, the reader assumes--and in assuming, manufactures--an attraction. Biller's art is the composition of negative space. His blanks create a tension, a non-verbal force field that shuns articulation and viscerally invokes the shackles of attraction. Rather than superficially surveying a scene, the reader is thrust into the waves of emotion and left to intuit the fickle forces controlling the tide.
What makes this interesting is the human proclivity to read positive things into ambiguity. A psychological study led by Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School found that online daters assessed the profiles of those they were about to meet almost twice as positively on average before meeting them than after. "People are so motivated to find somebody they like that they read things into the profiles," Norton observed. Such a finding may help to explain the Biller effect. Biller writes a whole book about love and only once, at the very end, shows us why anyone would want to seek it.
On the one hand, you could take what Biller writes at face value. The woman in "The Architect" is an Israeli in Germany anxious about going in to renew her visa on the last possible day, and possibly anxious about her relationship with her boyfriend, and perhaps even anxious about an insinuated affair with the architect who designed their apartment complex--which would be the most obvious explanation for why, in the facing building, the architect breaks down, thrashing against his office window when he sees the boyfriend force a kiss on his squirming girlfriend. The boyfriend is thinking about how nice it will be to have the girl gone--but when she says, "Suppose I have to go home," he answers, "If you have to go back, my angel, then I'll go with you, of course." Here, you can accept the surface scenario of such a story: they resent each other. Or you can read a little into them, embellish them, invent them a little more.
The disillusionment between the lovers is obvious. What holds them together despite it is not. Just when it seems certain that she is guilty, the girl stands behind her boyfriend, entwining her fingers in his belt loops as together they watch the architect's assistants drag him away from the window. The finger-looping is so intimate that despite all the other shirking and shafting, I began to doubt my own suspiciousness, and to think the best of the couple. If I projected anything into the ambiguities here, it was something warmer than what appears. (Maybe he loves her... special scrambled eggs!) The prognosis is still grim, but maybe, just maybe, there was once more to the relationship. In this way Biller's grimness strangely manipulates the reader into a bout of optimism, a passing will to believe.
The sparse prose of Carver, Biller's closest American cousin, does not elicit the same positive projections, in part because he simply is not as cold. Carver is, truth be told, sentimental. And the betrayals committed by his characters against their better inclinations makes it difficult to suspect that things might be rosier than they are. As soon as Carver's Duane mopes that Holly is his one true love, even though he cannot stop screwing the maid of the motel that he and Holly manage, we wonder. We stock the ellipsis with our own skepticism.
Unlike Biller, Carver discusses "love," the abstract noun, directly, in the words of characters with at least half a conscience. "What do any of us really know about love?" Mel asks in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." "It seems to me we're just beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don't doubt it. I love Terri and Terri loves me, and you guys love each other too. You know the kind of love I'm talking about now. Physical love, that impulse that drives you to someone special, as well as love of the other person's being, his or her essence, as it were. Carnal love and, well, call it sentimental love, the day-to-day caring about the other person." Biller can admit to carnal love, but his refusal to acknowledge fondness is part of his complete disavowal of everything sentimental. When he remembers, it is from a hazy distance. "I was sometimes so furious with her that I could have hit her," one of Biller's characters reminisces about an ex. "Of course I never did. Just sometimes, before we slept with each other, I pushed her arms down on the bed or put my hand around her neck. Then she got angry and sat on top of me and did something that hurt, I forget now just what it was." Even in this explicit confession, Biller defies sentimentality by refusing to remember the most intimate detail. More offensive than anything he did to her then is the fact that he does not remember anything about her now.
Whereas Carver largely restricts himself to the present, Biller often sweeps over years in a single sentence. Biller's shifting scenes dilate and contract almost at whim, like shapes in a kaleidoscope, ever at odds of rearranging-- drawing close or pulling apart in the flick of an instant. A life's worth of romances can flash by in several pages; or, as in "Aviva's Back," Biller can recalibrate the play of a single moment: "Now, I thought. Now you put your hand on her back, now you move it over her hip to her stomach, now you draw her close. And then I did exactly that." The premeditated action, sensually illustrated step by step, unfolds in real time, while the actualization of that action, signified by "And then I did exactly that," is given the span of six words in which to spring forth, and so it replays in a fast-forwarded fashion, at four times the speed. A mid-level recalibration occurs in "The Mahogany Elephant" when Biller writes of Jordi that "he waited and waited.... Finally he did nothing at all; he didn't even wait anymore. He was sleeping less and less, he ate nothing but bread and tomatoes and yellow supermarket cheese, and then at last she came back, they sat together on his sofa, and she said, 'It's been a long time.'"
Biller collapses time so that blithely plopped onto the end of a sentence about waiting and waiting is the end of that wait. The indenture to time ends as unceremoniously as it was served--in the company of the yellow supermarket cheese. That yellow supermarket cheese is the perfect Biller detail. Its very generality evokes emotional depth, calling to mind the industrial plastic wrap and the stale fluorescent lights of the supermarket that sells it. The cheese becomes a trace of banality and isolation. Preserved to outlive its natural course, the yellow cheese is a timeless substance, and yet its affiliation with place, with the trip to the supermarket, marks another stop in the tired routine of Jordi's waiting.
But Biller is most acute not when he hopscotches through thirty years, but when he bends down to pick up the crumbs of a single conversation. He does this in his best vignettes: in "The Mahogany Elephant" (or in most of it); in "The Architect"; in "It's a Sad Story," about an uncanny incident on a singles phone service; and in "Baghdad at Seven-Thirty," wherein a couple discuss their sexual problems at a bar while looking not at each other, but halfheartedly at footage of the Iraq war. It sounds angsty and trite, but the bartender who "often failed to hear" (which Biller plainly states is "why many customers didn't come back, but many came back for that reason") misreads the situation, making it anything but. In fact he misreads the situation much as I might--he regards it positively, suspecting that the old sweaty man will be lucky with the lovely girl, even though it is the old man who is uninterested.
Biller's pieces confront mixed signals and misreadings directly, at the very forks that determine the direction of a relationship. He captures them moment by moment, word by word, gesture by gesture. He doles out his details sparingly, so that they are irradiated with the significance of rarity. His details feel a little like secrets. ("A lover without indiscretion," remarked Thomas Hardy, "is no lover at all.") And yet the whole notion of the detail, when it comes to Biller, remains something of a paradox. For his details are not so much fillings as the perimeters of smaller cells, themselves begging to be filled. "She had the kind of eyes you call dark and interesting, and can quickly get on your nerves." I suspect each reader can supply his own image. I, for one, see the kind of luminous crescents that follow too closely. But are the dark, interesting, soon-to-be-irritating eyes that I see the ones Biller wants us to see? The subtle allure of Biller boils down to just this: yes, they are. This is the allure of ambiguity. To read is to interpret.
Of course, not all details need coloring. Some are beautiful as is, such as the image of the little boy "relaxed in sleep ... lying on his back, arms outspread as if he were falling." Time stops for a moment at the foot of the boy's bed, only to liken him to someone mid-fall, only to underscore the transience of this stillness, and the gravity that presses upon it. But most of Biller's "details" and dialogue feel precise, and this precision is owed unexpectedly to the space that Biller leaves for the reader's own imaginings. Negotiating such a balance in writing is more difficult than it sounds: anything too general leaves a gaping hole through which all weight escapes. But the vignettes that Biller constructs are porous, and concentrated so that more diffuses into them than out.
There is another way in which Biller's minimalism differs from Carver's. Carver's (mainly working-class) characters suffer from circumstance and often from an inability to articulate just what they want. Biller's characters, more solidly upper-middle or middle-middle class, are suppressed not so much by inability as unwillingness. Had Biller fleshed out his stories any more, his characters would become insufferably irritating. When Carver's stories are released unedited--the title story from his What We Talk About When We Talk About Love has appeared in The New Yorker under its original title, "Beginners, " and Carver's widow is agitating for the unedited republication of all seventeen of the stories in that collection-- they will seem less evocative and less poignant, not because his characters will become irritating but because they will become a bit too pathetic. The less room we have to interweave our own emotions into the text, the less invested we become. This style--Biller's, Carver's-- ought to retain the courage of its own minimalism.
It is fitting that Biller, although he speaks English, did not involve himself as Anthea Bell translated his vignettes. "I was happy that she agreed to translate them--that's it," he declared. "I would never interfere with other people's work." It is as if Biller writes in direct sentences so that his dialogue and his situations speak for themselves. Any ambiguities introduced by translation cannot ruin a style that is essentially ambiguous. They may even enrich the situation, since these are stories about the inevitability of mistiming or misinterpretation. These stories actually improve as the possibility of clear communication lessens.
Even the characters understand the value of obscurity. In "The Statement by Amos Oz," Biller writes:
"Before they disappeared into the night, Bella said, 'Why do you think anyone wants to conquer someone else?''I don't know.''Really not?''Maybe to discover that person's secret.'"
"Conquer," of course, is Biller's synonym for "seduce." His characters recognize the power of knowledge, and when they are not keeping the knowledge of themselves from one another, Biller is artfully keeping his knowledge of them from us. Is Biller's vision as dark as it appears? Are no conquests amicable? As it turns out, the answer doesn't much matter. Biller's characters are all too weary and aware for there to be any unwitting conquering at all.
Lovers are naturally hypercritical of each other, and so discovering a lover's secret--their vulnerability--before loving them has a chilly, demystifying effect. As Flaubert wrote in Madame Bovary, "The disparaging of those we love always alienates us from them to some extent. We must not touch our idols; the gilt comes off in our hands." Maxim Biller plucks these idols off the shelf and ponders them. He tosses them back and forth, and then returns them for another buyer, or another spectator. He goes home with his golded hands, hoarding the gilt so that when he writes it can snow onto his page.
Francesca Mari is a former assistant to the literary editor of The New Republic.