no critical faculties layers upon layers edition: stanislaw lem’s a perfect vacuum

…literature in an age of faith does not lie, it only serves. Its emancipation from what was necessary service gave rise to a crisis whose manifestations today are often pitiful, if not outright obscene.

Pitiful, because a novel that depicts its own origination is half confession and half humbug. It, too, contains a residue, and even a good amount, of the lie. Sensing this, the next literati wrote gradually more and more about how one writes, to the detriment of the thing written, the story, and this method followed a failing curve down to works, finally, that were manifestos of epic impotence. And so the novel invited us to step into its dressing room. But such invitations must always be suspect–if they do not actually amount to propositioning, then they turn out to be coquetry, and to flirt instead of lie–it is like going from the frying pan into the fire.

The antinovel strove to become more radical; that is, it made every effort to demonstrate that it had no illusion of anything. While the “self-novel” was like a magician who reveals to the public all that he is holding up his sleeve, the anti-novel was to become a pretense of nothing, not even of the self-unmasking magician. What then? It promised to communicate nothing, to tell of nothing, to signify not a thing, but merely to be, as a cloud is, a table, a tree. Fine in theory. It failed, however, because not everyone can be the Lord God tout cort, a creator of autonomous, and a writer most certainly cannot. What decides the defeat is the issue of contexts: on them–on that which is completely inexpressible–depends the sense of what we say. The world of the Lord God has no contexts, hence it can be successfully replaced only by a world that is equally self-sufficient. You may stand on your head if you like, but it will never work–not in language.

What then was left to literature after the fatal knowledge of its own indecency? The self-novel is a partial striptease; the antinovel, ipso facto, is (alas) a form of autocastration. Like the Skoptsi who, outraged in their moral conscience by their own genitality, performed upon themselves horrid operations, the antinovel has has mutilated the unfortunate body of traditional literature. What then was left? Nothing except a romance with nothingness. For he who lies (and, as we know, a writer must lie) about nothing surely ceases to be a liar.

It was necessary, then–and herein is the consequence–to write nothing. But can such a task make sense? To write nothing–is it not the same as to write nothing? What then?…

Later, Lem would write:

The premise behind this book, was not what I said in my autoreview, i.e. that I had created these synoptic pieces because I could not write them out in full. Rather, I became convinced that I could capture what was cognitively essential about these unwritten books in the form of concise fictional reviews. Thus, although I was definitely seeking to insert a hefty element of playful humor, the content of my stories was absolutely serious.

A Perfect Vacuum, a collection of satirical reviews of nonexistent books, is funny. While the “reviews” cover a variety of works on a variety of topics from a variety of invented angles, it is not disjointed. There’s subtle through lines, commonalities, things that make the work worth reading as a whole. Many of the faux reviews are of remakes or sequels to existing works. Some function as parodies, while their reviews function as parodies of the analysis the thing parodied is often subjected to. In the book’s early chapters, when the reviews focus fictional novels, Lem’s pitch-perfect pastiche of academic criticism seems to take the piss not just out this mode of analysis, but on the idea of of finding deeper subtextual value in his own work. He presents his ideas, and then tears them slowly apart.

As the book progresses the works reviewed become more theoretical, less novels unwritten than the framework Lem might have hung a novel upon. The ideas explored here are often related to self-reflexivity, to fictional contrivance.

A Perfect Vacuum has self-awareness with rigor, without preciousness. “Meta” directed not toward wankery, or the veiling of deficiency, but toward self-criticism.

In its variety, here is the creative spirit of that certain period of genre fiction I always return to, of people who turned out one-off novels of discreet, bewildering invention and then moved on, in the next moment, to the next story, the next invention. In A Perfect Vacuum, I see that spirit distilled. It’s refreshing, in a time where genre is bound to trends tied in turn to massive, door-stopper novels which are themselves merely parts of ever-lengthening, plodding series.

I have so little to say. It is beyond me.

A Perfect Vacuum is also somewhat dangerous. Like with Borges, I feel some desperate itch to, as an exercise, expand poorly on the things I find here. Hopefully, I won’t repeat the folly of my lengthy coda to The Immortal. Hopefully I’ll be able to restrain myself from writing Gigamesh, as filtered through the too-obvious modern implications of its title.


~ by ironcupshrug on 01/07/2010.

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