Benjamin Kunkel, n+1 co-founder and author of the 2005 novel Indecision, has published two books this year. One, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis, is a collection of political essays introducing contemporary Marxist thinkers, from David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, Boris Groys, and Slavoj Žižek to the (anarchist) David Graeber. The second, Buzz, is a play and a story. Both are slim, broadly political volumes, and together they seemingly attempt an answer to the uncertainty experienced, if not widely, then at least by those on what I’ll call the literary left, who wonder whether to write fiction and criticism or political commentary. But as Kunkel’s work shows, there can be other messages than the medium.
And yet Kunkel has written a play that isn’t reticent about its medium: Buzz likes to reflect on itself, its audience, its minimalism, and the theater in a formally experimental way that doesn’t take after Brecht’s estrangement techniques or Luigi Pirandello’s grand use, in Six Characters in Search of an Author, of the theater as metaphor. Instead, at its best, its self-consciousness seems somehow novelistic.
How should we read plays? As scripts with a fundamental lack, a flatness that must be carefully imagined into being? In part yes, and the exercise gives the reader a literal-mindedness that sometimes gets lost working through a novel. (Nabokov said one of the greatest rewards of his teaching was when students would write to him, years later, and tell him they finally understood “the arrangement of rooms in the Samsa household.”) But there’s also something to the feeling that the performance, no matter how incredible, could never live up to the script’s imaginary possibilities.
Buzz has only been performed once, in 2011, in Buenos Aires. It features Tom, a playwright who has become successful, in the limited way of the playwright, by having his latest comedy turned into a movie; Sasha, his wife, who’s pregnant, works a sad office job and finds ambivalent meaning in the knowledge that her life is being sublimated into Tom’s new play; a female interviewer from a college newspaper with a “tremendous body”; and a couple, Dan and Melanie, who come for dinner. They don’t eat anything, due to the emptiness of the glasses and plates, but they pretend to, and with the exception of Sasha throughout the play the characters wear only their underwear.
At the beginning all is quiet, and Tom is straining to hear something. A noise flits past and disappears; he looks up; the lights dim: scene one is over. This is the type of play that propels itself by introducing the indefinite edges of a mystery that takes on a series of forms, some minor, some tauntingly symbolic, and others large and allegorical. Here is Sasha’s opening soliloquy, after listening for a noise at the start of scene two:
Oh, it almost makes you glad you had the nightmare, now that you’re awake and safe, you know? Nightmare’s too strong, obviously. Because where’s the seriousness, or dignity, in just being annoyed to death by . . . ? Part of the nightmare, for me, was that it doesn’t even qualify as one. It’s like Irritation: A Tragedy. I don’t think so. . . . Not that they necessarily even grated on me so much, at first. Whenever that was. It’s weird that people can’t say. Though I don’t really ask. I mean, one thing Tom and I noticed, in talking about it, is that other people don’t.
The ellipses, the vague pronouns, the mention of a terror defused: the first two scenes circumvent, qualify, and drop hints like Henry James’ ghost stories, until you realize what the characters have been talking about. “Obviously there was going to be widespread general growth in pest control for a while, for obvious reasons,” Dan says over an empty plate. The flies swarm in this unspecified part of the world, a result of environmental changes bound up with global warming.
An allegory then unfolds, beginning with a tinge of farce and finally tipping over, as if in historical reverse, into tragedy, or at least a kind of stark psychological exhaustion. Tom and Sasha worry endlessly about the ubiquitous flies — hiring exterminators for their apartment, discussing these exterminators at their minimalist dinner party, relating the flies and their spin-off economy to civilizational collapse — and for this they are both thoughtful, sensitive people, and people who show shades of madness. The flies are a symbol of our descent into ecological devastation; also they remain flies. There’s room enough between the triviality of the symptom and the enormity of its cause for intelligent people to lose their minds.
This is never quite what happens with our main characters, though the play’s other characters may disagree. One of Buzz’s subtler achievements is showing how broadly, on a personal level, the effects of global warming can disperse. Dan, a flat, utilitarian character, uses his expertise as an equities analyst to explain the development and regional variation of the pest industry. As a result he’s called “financial Dan the dickhead.” The college journalist who comes to interview Tom reveals that at age 15 the flies became a projection of her self-doubt: she thought more hovered around her than others, making her “some lesser person.” The flies change things for everyone, but in a temporary or niche way, a way that can be repressed. Only for Tom and Sasha do they become existential. Environmental disaster, and the flies in particular, are for them what death is in a DeLillo novel.
Death is a faint undercurrent in Kunkel’s play, too, but before we go there we might mention what the play says about life. Coupledom and marriage recur as themes: co-habitation’s shameful excess of self-revelation and forced over-identification with another act as background to Tom and Sasha’s tragicomedy. In a scene in which sentiment at times gushes, Sasha talks directly to the audience, an extension of a practice she does throughout. She wants Tom’s new play about their lives to give her the value she doesn’t get from work, and in her anticipation she has begun to address an imaginary audience. The other option, though, is that she exists outside the confines of the play. It’s this snowballing ambiguity that makes the play’s formal experimentation seem novelistic.
On stage alone is Sasha. She begins her soliloquy, and before long is telling the story of her and Tom’s relationship. At this point she functions as a sort of chorus: she’s detailing something that doesn’t fit the traditional action of the drama. Then as her soliloquy delves more into the realm of a flashback Tom enters, wearing not underwear but clothes and “even a scarf.”
What’s happened? She talks about Tom, and then Tom appears, or rather a remembered version of a past Tom. The couple dramatizes their relationship’s early days, we learn Tom isn’t sure about having children, and meanwhile we never exactly learn which Tom is on stage — whether he’s real or imagined, independent or existing only as Sasha remembers him. Unless, that is, you read the script, which instructs Tom to effect “his transformation from an apparition of memory into a live man in the present moment.” But even here the questions don’t end. How would you describe what’s happening at a narrative level? The theater has had its share of unreliable narrators — the frame story, for instance, in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie — but here we’re only deceived for one scene in the middle of an otherwise reliable play. The slipperiness of it reveals how close unreliable narration can be to free indirect discourse, to borrow a novelistic term. When Dan appears as an “apparition of memory” the play’s narration throws us into doubt, like when a novel narrated by an objective and distanced third person suddenly drops the mask and slips, if only for a moment, revealing a personal prejudice. What happens to our certainty about the materiality of the characters if some are just inventions, shades from the minds of others?
By the next scene present day Tom is back. As the play goes on we see him as more and more flawed, the way people seem in life the better we know them. Civilizational collapse is his obsession, and civilizational collapse is also the noble shield he uses to protect himself from life, love, and commitment. He’s afraid not only of some eco-apocalyptic future, but also, among other things, of dying.
There’s a moment in DeLillo’s White Noise when the death-obsessed Jack talks with his friend, the brilliant and mysterious Murray Jay Suskind, in which Jack wonders why he’s so afraid of death. “It’s obvious,” says Murray. “You don’t know how to repress. We’re all aware there’s no escape from death. How do we deal with this crushing knowledge? We repress, we disguise, we bury, we exclude. Some people do it better than others, that’s all.” But Jack wants to know if there’s not also another way to look at it. Is he not a hero by confronting his fear so incessantly? “Do you feel heroic?” asks Murray. “No,” admits Jack. “Then you probably aren’t.”
Tom spends all day not writing his play: the final line is “there is no play.” The opacity (and obvious irony) of the line makes it tempting to decode something big and ominous about art’s incapacity to deal with the environmental crisis. But I’d rather have it suggest effective time management.
If Tom cannot accomplish much of anything because he’s too distracted by swatting flies, self-loathing, and the specter of ecological devastation, than would it maybe be better if he were able to repress, disguise, and bury away the slow burning of the world? I’m not sure the play has an answer, and if it does it seems to me an equivocation: perhaps for some people, it seems to say, but not for us. “I am afraid either that we’ll run out of oil or that we won’t,” Tom says. “I’m also afraid that economic growth will continue, or that it will stop.” The difference between Tom and White Noise’s anti-hero is that Tom is foremost an anti-hero with a political conscience, albeit in a play where having a political conscience doesn’t count for much, apart from having a political conscience.
What makes Buzz the best climate change allegory I’ve encountered — and I count them generously — is its attachment to the historical moment. Its contemporaneity is why it almost feels strange calling it an allegory: there’s nothing far-fetched or too allusive about the story’s correspondence to the situation it refers to. It takes place “in a city of near future or recent past,” and recalls that climate change is already upon us and that it’s worst effects are yet to come. Political action is only brought up once, as a joke: call it a dose of realism. And the end takes a grotesque psychological turn that reminds you that environmental devastation, perhaps especially during our fleeting period of history, is as much a psychological issue as any other.
In the final scene the play’s secondary characters have become flies — ones, also, that can speak, dramatizing our main couple’s interior thoughts. They jest and taunt, mocking little Marxist things, mocking poetry, mocking mortality, and at one point declare themselves jellyfish. Jellyfish are soon to take over the oceans, which are rising and are soon to spill on to the land, and in a similar vein the flies have taken over our character’s minds and brought them to a breaking point. Tom “strikes” one fly and pounces on another, yelling aloud and beating it to death. Sasha almost screams. The theatrical effect is to have one man murdering another, and at last the seeming triviality of the flies is overcome. At the same time, however, we’ve reached the height of Tom’s madness. The allegory’s central paradox — the distance between the symptom (flies) and the cause (climate change) — is intensified to such an extreme that it’s almost resolved.
This is why Kunkel’s allegory is so contemporary, and most likely so fleeting: the experience of climate change today isn’t purely the threat of civilizational collapse, as recent allegories tend. It’s more the imagining of devastation alongside the banal feel of daily life, a situation apparently ripe for a kind of comedy that’s best when it’s sly and deadpan. Tacked onto the back of the play is a story about a spider.
William Harris lives in Shanghai.