transgressive

A Playground for Insomniacs

For some, sleep is a peaceful proposition. For others, like me, lights out has always been more of a punishment. The latter is the intended audience of Evil Hat Productions’DRTB Don’t Read This Book, a collection of 13 waking nightmares for the hard of sleeping.

These stories are set in the world of the Don’t Rest Your Head RPG, which I haven’t played, but seems perfectly designed for someone like me. My loose understanding of the game, based on reading this book (despite the admonition of its title) and researching a little about the RPG, is that it takes place in a dystopian dreamland (Mad City) populated with clockwork cops, shadow stalkers and any other gritty creature your mind can conjure up. You are among the Awake—insomniacs who have stayed up far too long and find themselves within the freak show of Mad City.

The Awake are in quite the pickle. Fall asleep and you die. But stay awake for too long and you’ll go mad and permanently inhabit the nightmare.

This is genius. Having been lifelong frenemies with the Sandman, I recognize this world, and it is more terrifying than most fictional places. Probably because I know what it feels like to go to work on your fourth day awake. I know the psychedelic side effects of clocking out from your graveyard shift and then clocking in at your day job a few minutes later. Things move in ways they shouldn’t, you lag a few seconds behind in every conversation and, worst of all, a mechanical noise fills your ears—not a buzz or a ring, but a machine-like pulsing that clouds thought and creates the sensation that someone is constantly following you.

Hallucinate from staying awake? Been there. That’s why the nightmares within Don’t Read This Book, edited by Chuck Wendig, are familiar territory for me.

And thoroughly enjoyable.

Standouts include Stephen Blackmore’s “Don’t Lose Your Patients,” Mur Lafferty’s “Don’t Bleach Your Memories” and Harry Connolly’s “Don’t Chew Your Food,” but this is a solid anthology front to back.

Gamers, steampunks, urban fantasists and horror fiends will find something to love in here. But those who may enjoy it most are us insomniacs.

Those of us who know that the torture of falling to sleep is worse than any nightmare that may be lurking on the other side.

Peter Clines: 14

If I’ve learned anything from my lifelong obsession with horror, it’s that:14

  1. If someone introduces you to an opportunity too good, and too convenient, to be true, you probably shouldn’t take it because it can only mean trouble. And,
  2. If someone introduces you to an opportunity too good, and too convenient, to be true, you definitely should take it because you are guaranteed adventure—most likely one shadowed with conspiracy and gore.

So it goes in 14, by Peter Clines, in which an apathetic data-entry temp (Nate) is referred to a cheap apartment, where rents are suspiciously low, utilities shockingly free and the neighbors… well, the ones who stick around are… interesting.

The setting for this quasi-Lovecraftian, quasi-apocalyptic story is the Kavach building, which seems odd even by L.A. standards. Early in his stay, Nate notices some curious features of the old building: all the units have different dimensions; the plumbing is an inefficient web of pipes; there are discolored lights; green, mutant cockroaches; and, best of all, certain apartments are padlocked shut.

Among them, apartment 14.

This is where Clines truly excels. He develops a chilling atmosphere and social dynamic within the walls of the Kavach, and I absolutely devoured the first half of the book. The dialogue is shallow in spots, but the characters are as mysterious as the building, and as more secrets unfold, we follow a resilient crew of tenants into the deep tunnels beneath the Kavach.

Of all that I loved about the first half of this book, the tunnels were by far my favorite. The subterranean setting is magnificently drawn, and it’s that sweet spot in the book where the characters are fully realized and revealed, and the reader is absorbed in their struggle.

The second half of 14 is very entertaining, particularly the third quarter, but lacks the literary muscle of what came before. The first half was tight, focused, suffocating. It narrows until we get to the bottom of the tunnels, but then we begin expanding and things get a bit turbulent. Clines does a solid job of planting intriguing clues to be sussed out later, but the ending suffers from too much revelation.

I’d like to illustrate this with an anecdote.

My first apartment was a crumbling duplex on Tamplin Street in Sharon, Pennsylvania. It was dumpy and narrow, but the perfect incubator for two eventual writers (me and my roommate, Todd).

Particularly inspiring was the basement.

There was a biohazard sign on the basement door, with the words “Fallout Shelter.” The house was old enough that the sign could have been legit, though we suspected it was decoration. The basement itself was a throwaway slab of concrete—functional, boring, filled with spiders. The only thing scary about it was the rickety set of stairs.

And the unexplained, nailed-shut door on the northern wall.

The mystery door was almost a square, shaped more like a large window than a door, and rather than starting at the floor, the bottom edge was two feet off the ground. The top edge was only a few feet higher. It was the size and shape of a cupboard or a crawlspace. But why was it nailed shut?

Horror fanatic that I am, I tried to pry it open at least enough to glimpse what was on the other side. Thankfully, I wasn’t able to. Most likely, it was just a collapsed storage space (this was a mining/steel town, and it was fairly common for back yards to become ravines). It contained probably nothing more than the earth-packed remnants of a sinkhole.

But because I never got a look behind the mystery door, it has never lost its magic. Instead of a sinkhole, in my mind that door seals off a series of tunnels that burrow beneath our town, perhaps an old Prohibition-era bootlegging route, or perhaps it connects with the old cemetery two blocks away. Instead of storage space, there is a cache of forbidden scrolls. Or, befitting my Poe-obsessed youth, this is the subterranean vault where our slumlord buries alive his tenants.

Who knows, maybe even a bomb shelter.

The point is, I’m still fascinated by that shuttered basement door.

And that’s why the first half of 14 is an absorbing read. This is literature for anyone who has searched every new apartment for secret passages, hiding spots or trapdoors. Crawled through cobwebbed eaves, the musky underbelly of mobile homes and believes, always, that every building has a secret history to tell.

But unlike that basement door on Tamplin Street, we do learn what’s inside those padlocked rooms at the Kavach building. What we find there is original, for sure, but it dispels the magic. Each new revelation takes us further away from believability until 14 enters camp territory. And I’ve got nothing against camp. Truly, this part of the book is fun.

But it doesn’t mesh with the earnestness of the setup.

The action-packed finale further untethers the reader. The sequences are rushed, and where dialogue and observations from the characters should anchor us, we get snarky quips and CGI visuals. There is a nice homage to Lovecraft throughout, but HPL’s great trick was that we seldom saw what his creatures did. Rather, he hinted at what they could do.

Clines is a hell of a writer and storyteller, but here, he opens one door too many.

But that’s not entirely a bad thing, and certainly not a deal breaker (I just have a preference for more existential horror). This is a book I highly recommend. It’s fun, engaging, and I only give it four stars instead of five because of the overload of revelation at the end.

I’d prefer to leave a door or two shut. I want to imagine what’s behind it. A body? A tunnel? Treasure? Or nothing?

The best part is that I’ll never know.

Review: Tenth of December

Proud to be a Dystopian

by Vince Darcangelo

It was a warm autumn evening at the Gramercy Theater, Oct. 5, opening night of the 2012 New Yorker Festival. The room was thick with literati, and on stage were threeSaunders heavyweights: Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) and George Saunders, whose new collection of short fiction, Tenth of December, was released on Tuesday, Jan. 8.

The theme of the panel was “Utopia/Dystopia,” and Atwood led off with a brief history and deconstruction of the genre. Utopias and dystopias go hand in hand, she said, because with any utopian idea “there’s always a catch, and the catch is this: Everything’s going to be fine, but first we’ve got to get rid of these people.”

And then we came to Saunders, whose works, such as the exquisite CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, often contain dystopian themes or settings, along with healthy doses of humor and satirical absurdism.

“I never really thought I’d write a dystopian (story),” he said, adding that he first tried to emulate iconic writers like Hemingway and Raymond Carver. It wasn’t working, so he tried something different.

“If I set something in a theme park or the near future,” he said, “the language comes alive.”

And thus, a great writer, and celebrated literary subversive, emerged.

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Tenth of December is a short and bittersweet 10-tale offering of gripping short fiction, incorporating science fiction and otherworldly elements (similar in tone, in my opinion, to Kurt Vonnegut). The book’s opening tale, “Victory Lap,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 2009, concerns an attempted abduction of a teenage girl and the hijinks that ensue.

That’s right, hijinks.

As silly as it is serious, it is the humor that sharpens the dark edge of “Victory Lap.” This is a bold piece of work. Saunders takes chances by shifting points of view and writing from the interior voice of teenagers, but he pulls it off as only he can. There’s a jazzy rhythm and flow to the piece, and it deserves to be read aloud. The story really came to life for me when I heard Saunders read it at the University of Northern Colorado in 2010.

Probably my favorite story from Tenth of December is “Escape from Spiderhead.” It has the classic elements of his fiction: people in the near-future in a seemingly powerless position; the intertwining of corporate and institutional control; wacky goings-on; funny, yet fitting, product names; and an unlikely hero who somehow manages to carve out his acre of humanity within this madhouse.

Specifically, our hero, Jeff, is a convict in a research prison, where his punishment is to be a lab rat for chemical experimentation. As part of a sex study, he is given drugs that create feelings of intimacy and attraction to another person; another that induces loquacity; a performance enhancer (Vivistiff™) that makes Viagra seem like a sugar pill; and another chemical that lowers one’s “shame level.”

The experiments take a dark turn when he is enlisted in a Darkenfloxx™ study. As Jeff describes the drug: “Imagine the worst you have ever felt, times ten. That does not even come close to how bad you feel on Darkenfloxx™.”

The scene is reminiscent of the notorious Milgram experiments, and it concludes brilliantly—somehow both uplifting and tragic. It’s a reminder that great literature doesn’t resolve with the hero winning or losing, but rather redefines what it means for that character to win or lose.

“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” for example, is set inside a rundown theme park overrun with violent gangs (to the point that the Civil War re-enactors pack live ammunition in their muskets). The protagonist is a working-class dreamer and father of two who endures disappointment and the threat of violence for the sake of his family. But his idea of winning and losing changes in this theme park.

“Sea Oak,” from his 2000 collection, Pastoralia, is a genre-bending story incorporating new-wave male strippers, a post-industrial ghetto and a dead aunt who refuses to go away. Likewise, it concerns a poor family burdened with violence, and takes a fantastical turn that recalculates the stakes for all involved.

“Sea Oak” won an O. Henry Award Prize and was also nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. How many Bram Stoker nominees have received gushing praise from the New York Times?

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At the heart of Saunders’ fiction are class issues (he comes from a working-class background and earned an engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines); the impact of an ever-invasive corporate culture (see “I CAN SPEAK!™” from 2006’s In Persuasion Nation); and the absurdity of the modern workplace.

An example of the latter in Tenth of December is the story “Exhortation,” which is told in the form of a memo from a boss to his underperforming crew. The memo is in reference to “March Performances Stats” and attitudes toward the work being done. He begins by comparing their duties to cleaning a shelf, but of course, it becomes apparent that their labor is far more sinister:

“Even you guys, you who do what must be done in Room 6, don’t walk out feeling so super-great, I know that, I’ve certainly done some things in Room 6 that didn’t leave me feeling so wonderful, believe me…”

Whatever goes on in Room 6, it clearly has nothing to do with shelves. This story calls to mind Saunders’ classic short story, “The 400-Pound CEO,” concerning a worker drone whose job is to kill raccoons for the company Humane Raccoon Alternatives.

In both of these stories, Saunders guides us through a sausage mill as unpleasant as any Upton Sinclair encountered. We see characters doing menial and often unpleasant work, and manipulative and often cruel bosses attempting to put a positive spin on their duties, if for no other reason than to create a healthy façade for the buying public. Greed and rampant corporatization has left the working class in the absurd position of having to abase themselves and others to get by.

I can’t think of a better description of dystopian fiction. Often, the term calls to mind an enslaved, automated world gone grey: a dramatic vision complete with conflicts worthy of the Thunderdome. But with Saunders, the dystopia is more workaday, which makes it all the more chilling.

For Saunders, it’s a way “to say here’s the way we look at habituated reality,” he said at the New Yorker Festival. His fiction breaks the surface of this habituated reality, and it offers us a fresh and not-always-pleasant look at our daily lives.

But it’s not all bad. It’s a world filled with humor, even if it’s of the gallows variety. It’s populated with colorful and unexpected heroes, bizarre-yet-feasible scenarios, and it’s always a fuzzy line between winning and losing.

“For me, the ideal position is to say, yes, it’s horrible,” Saunders said, “but yes, it’s wonderful and let these two things play out.”

Audio Interview

Sorry for the delay in writing, but we’ve been busy prepping for the holidays. From now until Dec. 24, we’ll be posting a daily review of a literature-themed Christmas gift. You can make it a last-minute gift for the literary subversive in your life, or just enjoy the reviews for review’s sake.

We begin with an audio interview with best-selling author Carrie Vaughn, whose new novel, Kitty Steals the Show, would make the perfect stocking stuffer for the lycanthrope lover on your list.

Unsettling Chapters: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

As promised, we’ve come back to one of our favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates–the queen of disquieting literature. For this Halloween installment of Unsettling Chapters, we’re discussing the Holy Grail of dark fiction, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Nearly a half-century since its publishing in 1966, this remains the most disturbing story I’ve ever read. I was introduced to “Where Are You Going…” in college, where it was read aloud by our English teacher, and my former employer, Julie Papadimas.

What I remember most is gripping the side of my desk, trying to keep from screaming at Connie.

This is as visceral a reaction I’ve ever had to a work of fiction. I wasn’t just affected by this story. I was pissed. I felt sick. I wanted to dive into the pages and lock the front door.

Though a lot of readers, I’m sure, are familiar with the ending, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it. I will only say that halfway through the story, it dawned on me just how it had to end. You feel the bile rising in your throat, yet there’s no looking away. There’s no putting it down. There is only the suffocating gaze of Arnold Friend and his sociopathic schmooze.

This is not a trick-or-treat brand of spooky, but the essence of true fear. The rare story that forces the reader to accept their vulnerabilities and realize that we can’t always protect the ones we love. Can we even save ourselves?

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” unnerves me in a way similar to Flannery O’Connor. It’s fiction that replicates that moment on a roller coaster when the train is briefly suspended at the top, about to descend, but seemingly frozen in place. When you feel the bottom drop underneath, but you have yet to tumble after. The breathless space where time knots into an excruciating paralysis.

This is the way Oates entwines and consumes us. With the patient grace of a constrictor. And her grip has yet to slack.

I pray that it never does.

And finally, for a Halloween treat, you can read (or re-read) “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” at the University of San Francisco’s Web site.

Enjoy, my Samhain sweets.

…And sadly, that brings us to the end of our 31 Days of Dread series. Tomorrow, like a post-rampage Hulk, we will return to our proper form as Ensuing Chapters, where we’ll produce a monthly column for Transgress Magazine and write semi-weekly blog posts.

Thanks for reading. If you have any suggestions for disturbing books or stories we may have missed, please send them along. We’re always looking for a new unsettling read… and we’ve got 11 months to kill until next October.

Unsettling Chapters: The Fall

I’ve always felt a deep kinship with Albert Camus. We both come from working-class roots, and we each found our way to journalism. That’s about where the similarities end. While I broke into newspapers as a music and features writer, Camus was editor of Combat, an underground political paper that was part of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II.

He and his co-workers were jailed and sometimes murdered. If you want to read some amazing and inspirational writing, pick up Between Hell and Reason, a collection of his war journalism. There is an immediacy to his writing, because he knew that every article could be his last.

If this book doesn’t get you up and off the couch (at least to go to the voting booth), nothing will.

However, that’s not the book I want to discuss today, although there is plenty disturbing about Nazi occupation. Truly, any Camus offering is unsettling, in the truest sense of the word, because that’s his intent. These are not pastorals. Camus does not soothe the reader with hugs and rainbows. He couldn’t care less about your spiritual nourishment.

Camus challenges the reader. He inspires the reader. Discomfited? Good. That’s a natural way to feel. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

So it goes in all his works, both fiction and non. My two favorite books of his, and two at the top of my all-time list are The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The Plague is one of his darker (and classic) works, but for our purposes at Unsettling Chapters, nothing matches The Fall.

Here we have the long-form confessional of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who haunts the smoky confines of a lowlife bar in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. He tells his story to an unknown, unseen audience, and that juices the narrative with an intimacy and informality we don’t always get from Camus.

It’s also inherently unreliable. What do we make of Clamence and his wild tale of falling from grace? Can we believe it to be true? Is it the ravings of a madman or a drunkard? Clamence even says, when describing a motto for his house, “Don’t rely on it.”

I’ve read The Fall twice, and I’m still not convinced that “we’re” even there. At the end, there is a shift suggesting that Clamence has been having a dissociative episode and talking to himself the whole time: “Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one…”

Clamence takes us on a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is designed, he says, in the nature of Dante’s rings of hell. We move through the city via his dramatic monologue.

But though setting has an important part to play, it is the narrator’s interior landscape at center stage. Clamence presents the anxieties of his time, and they look very similar to modern anxieties. He speaks for the fragility of man, and how one’s descent is incremental.

Camus nails the pathway of anxiety and how we are our own worst interrogators. He touches on thought perseveration, self-sabotage and even has an incident of road rage—perhaps its first mention in literature?

In turns hopeful and hopeless, Clamence is a man buried under the rubble of his failings, held down by his own hand. It’s a reminder that we make poor choices, focus our attention on the things that scar us, and ultimately, author our own demise.

Now that’s an unsettling premise.

I don’t imagine a film version will displace It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday tradition, but for anyone curious about the workings of a mind in distress, you should wind your way into this twisted narrative.

Unsettling Chapters: King Apocalypse

In “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “This is how the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”

It’s obvious that Eliot never read any Stephen King!

King has destroyed the world many times over, and by many different means (plague, cars, cell phones, even exploding meth labs), and each time it is most certainly with a bang. My personal favorites are The Stand and The Mist, but there’s something for everyone on his buffet of world-ending visions.

Any longtime reader of King’s knows that his strength is character development. His end-of-days narratives are so strong not because of the impending doom but for how his characters respond to it.

For example, The Stand is horrific when Captain Trips decimates the globe, but heroic when its survivors stand up to Randall Flagg. The Mist enthralls with the interpersonal conflicts that emerge within the grocery store. I’m not afraid of fog-shrouded aliens, but I’m terrified of religious extremism in closed quarters.

Another favorite trick of King’s is what I call the extrapolated horror. “Trucks,” the short story that inspired the film Maximum Overdrive, focuses first on the ordeal of the survivors holed up in the diner. In many ways, the story is quite silly (a semi-trailer apocalypse!), but where it haunts the reader is its ending: The moment when you realize that all the horror that has come before is merely the opening act for something far, far worse.

This is a small sampling of King’s apocalyptic works:

The Stand

The Mist

Under the Dome (sort of)

“Night Surf” (prelude to The Stand)

King has also penned his fair share of dystopian literature:

“The Long Walk”

“The Running Man”

“The Children of the Corn”

With more than 100 novels, stories and screenplays to his name, King’s bookshelf is long. Pull one or two down from the shelves this Halloween. Believe me, the end of days never sounded so good.

Unsettling Chapters: Notes from Underground

“I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.” Is there a better opening line in literature?

Most importantly, this sentence establishes the tone that defines Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Considered to be the first modern novel, there is no other work that as deftly captures the anxiety of despair and inadequacy.

Our narrator, the Underground Man, guides us through a dark and unpleasant world, recounting his drab civil servant’s life and the many insults that have shaped his misanthropy. Through this, he unearths the philosophy of the underground. It is a grim, but honest view, and with no connection to the surface world, the Underground Man simmers in his despair.

Actually, I’m not sure “simmer” is a strong enough word. The Underground Man doesn’t experience pain so much as he consumes it. He recalls past injustices when there is no fresh ones to sustain him. Misery exudes from his pores, his breath, his clothes, and rather than opening a window, he basks in the stench of his humiliation.

But his ordeal has only begun.

We come to section two, “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” in which the true horror is set in motion. Here, we get more action and less confession. Following a series of insults, the Underground Man encounters a young prostitute, Liza, and for a time, redemption—and through redemption, meaning—seems possible.

Inevitably, though, you remember that you’re reading Dostoyevsky, and things become even darker than they were before. Watching the Underground Man abase himself is one thing. Watching him do it to another is harder to bear.

But of course, this is necessary to Dostoyevsky’s theme. Denigration is a team sport, and it relies on the consent of both victim and aggressor. That’s why, sadly, in the cycle of abuse, victims become abusers. We need Liza in the story to serve as witness to the Underground Man’s suffering. We need her to offer him redemption, or else he remains only a victim (which would be neither believable nor compelling). Ultimately, he is a conspirator in the surface world that has forced him underground.

And with true Dostoyevsky flair, Liza reminds us that there is no bottom. We meet the Underground Man, and we believe him to be the nadir of humanity. And then he meets Liza. We can only imagine what other characters are waiting offstage, unseen, but their suffering no less palpable.

So, this book may not be everyone’s mug of Russian Caravan, but it should still make your to-read list (especially if you’re a fan of unsettling literature). Notes from Underground is a link to the past, as it shows us that modern anxieties aren’t so new. It’s a classic work of existential philosophy. And artists and analysts alike should read this as a guidebook to the darkest shadows of the subconscious.

Notes from Underground is available as a free ebook through Project Gutenbeg.

Unsettling Chapters: House of Leaves

We are all familiar with the parameters of dream logic—the mental space where things are out of place or time but follow an alternative, interior logic. You know, like you’re catering a dinner for all your ex-girlfriends in a gothic castle, and for some reason Dog the Bounty Hunter is pitching you a show about vigilante sea lions. You wake up and wonder: “Why did that make sense?”

It’s a fun diversion that is, unfortunately, difficult to replicate in waking consciousness. But you can come close by reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a 2000 horror novel that is more of an entity than a book.

Designed with multiple fonts and colors, footnotes within footnotes and text running backward, forward, upside down, even spiraling, the physical layout of the text manipulates the novel’s pacing and creates a somewhat interactive experience.

It’s probably as close as we’ve come to reading with 3-D glasses.

The narrative is equally layered and complex, and academics have taken multiple stabs at this book. I would guess it’s had the most scholarly treatments of any horror novel since Frankenstein. Therefore, I won’t even attempt to offer an academic account, as I don’t have anything particularly profound to say on that front (and would bore myself to tears in the process).

What I can speak to is the effect Danielewski creates by inviting the reader into a story that they can’t quite trust. We have multiple unreliable narrators; the ever-shifting dimensions of a house; drug-impaired testimony; unverifiable videotapes; and the ravings of a half-mad blind man. (He also borrows the Lovecraftian theme of geometry-induced madness, not to mention a mysterious tome.)

Can we trust what we see and read? Hell no. And that’s why House of Leaves is so unnerving.

I think of it as a literary haunted house. Every October, people line up outside strip malls, warehouses and amusement parks to navigate dark, disorienting hallways. They know they won’t be harmed, but will experience the thrill of uncertainty.

The same with House of Leaves. It elicits a visceral reaction in a way few other books can. We’re aware of what Danielewski is doing. When we need to rotate the book to read the text, we know it’s to recreate the impossible geometry of the staircase. When there is one word of text on a page, it’s to replicate the cavernous quality of the basement and to force us to read slower.

But we’re affected just the same, as when we’re knowingly manipulated inside a haunted house.

House of Leaves is not a quick read. It is an experience. If you started reading it today, I don’t know that you could finish it by Halloween. But I feel confident in saying that you’re not supposed to read it that quick. This is a book to be absorbed. It should age along with you.

Read correctly, you will internalize the disorientation. You will want to measure the length of every hallway in your house to find inconsistencies. To make sure, every day, that the dimensions of your world haven’t changed while you were sleeping.

Because in Danielewski’s world, they do change. Sometimes they’ll shift right under your feet, and they might even swallow you whole.

Unsettling Chapters: All the Names

As I’ve expressed in previous posts, loss of one’s identity is one of the more unsettling outcomes a story can provide. With life such a fleeting thing, rarely does one’s name live far beyond their years.

Fair enough. To be lost to the ages is understandable, but for some, the worst fate is to be forgotten in your own time. It’s a unique flavor of despair, born of an imbalance between social needs and social disconnect.

Nowhere is this curious space more poignantly explored than in José Saramago’s All the Names.

This book was published a year before Saramago, best known for the novel Blindness, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. All the Names is worthy of such honors.

The protagonist, one Senhor José, works in a nameless city (a stand-in for Lisbon in Saramago’s native Portugal) as a low-level clerk. Similar to Dostoyevsky and Kafka, Saramago presents us with a character caught in the gears of a drab, oppressive machine of unknown origin and inexplicable intent. He works for the Central Registry, which tracks the births, marriages and deaths of all citizens. Every life is reduced to an index card bearing these dates. The job of the Central Registry is to create, update and file each card.

“We all know that, however long old people may last, their hour will always come. Not a day passes without the clerks’ having to take down files from the shelves of the living in order to carry them to the shelves at the rear…”

José, who actually lives at the Registry building, makes nightly sojourns within its stacks. He hopes to escape his “bureaucratic alienation” by searching for meaning among the necropolis of index cards. Then one day, he finds something else. He becomes fixated on the card of an anonymous woman, and begins a clumsy search for her throughout the city.

Of course, what he’s really doing is working through an existential crisis. Or some other anxiety. The archives in the Central Registry are so large that clerks have become lost in their labyrinth. The metaphor is apt for José’s anxious mind. One bad thought, and then another. Disaster lurks eternal.

It’s unsettling to think that, in the end, we’ll be little more than forgotten statistics. The same goes for everyone we love and care for. We will all be forgotten. Time will make sure of that. What’s worse, though, is to feel societal mechanisms imposing anonymity while we’re still alive. To become a living ghost.

What makes All the Names successful, as with all existentialist writings, is that the answers seem more like questions. So, what is life if but a few dates typed onto an index card? Is there meaning or merely statistical data? Like Albert Camus, Saramago reminds us that the answer isn’t important—or even attainable. The meaning lies in the pursuit of, well, meaning.

Saramago empowers us with his narrative. He reminds us that in the face of mortality, victory is not an outcome. Victory is the fight itself. It is Senhor José taking those first bold steps into the archives, dwarfed by mountains of faceless information, to turn an index card back into a person.

I’m reminded of a favorite line from Camus’ The Plague: “And indeed it could be said that once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of plague was ended.”

Indeed.