Heart of Darkness is indeed a “story of a man who is looking for a man.” Marlow joins a company, enters the Congo, and looks for Kurtz, another company man, in a period now historically entitled “The Scramble for Africa” (1881-1914), during which 90% of the African continent was colonized: Belgium’s King Leopold II ruled the Congo from 1885-1908, and during this at least 8,000,000 of the estimated 16,000,000 native inhabitants died. Leopold is now remembered for his brutal mandate to cut off the hands of natives who were not productive enough; Amiri Baraka remembered this brutality in a long poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” which is remembered now, and maybe him with it, for what it countered about 9/11: “Who cut off peoples hands in the Congo / Who invented Aids / Who put the germs / In the Indians’ blankets / Who thought up ‘The Trail of Tears.’”
Heart of Darkness is perhaps a “story of a man who is looking for a man,” but it’s also a story about a man who is mansplaining the colonization of Africa to a bunch of sleeping men on a cruising yawl, 20 miles from London. That’s where Marlow sits, in the pose of a Buddha, telling his whole long tale: he had moved in the Congo towards Kurtz, a mysterious company man who had maybe gone insane, or native. Man, man, man, it’s a book about men, and Marlow says as much: “They — the women, I mean — are out of it — should be out of it.” However, Joseph Conrad, author, keeps women in (if in parenthesis) — there’s Kurtz’s “Intended,” a fiancé who pines for him back home, and the native woman who Kurtz must really be in love with. And if not in parentheses, then female inhuman — the novel is told on the back of one (Nellie is the name of that cruising yawl), and beneath that, a sea, that rocks and sways this narrative, “like a mistress.”
The women, I mean — are out of it — should be out of it — very fitting Anti-Oedipus Press (a press that has published only 1 book by a woman out of 13 titles) is a publisher of a new book, by a man, from the perspective of the man the man was looking for — Mistah Kurtz! by James Reich. This book is beyond (“au-delà l’au-delà”!) marvelous. But it’s strange. There are so many holes, enigmas, untold stories, and railroaded-potential-narrators left to potentially attend to in H of D, and to my mind, none are Kurtz: try the microscopic smear of “savages” being leveled off into death every other page, or the native woman who comes forward for Leni Riefenstahl style cameos here and there, the gesture loud and untranslated. Like Jean Rhys who in her Jane Eyre fanfic, Wide Sargasso Sea, wrote from the perspective of Bertha (Rochester’s beastly, colonized wife) maybe I’d try to find, in H of D, a story from the attic, sidelines, the masses (8,000,000 died), or even from the sea. But Kurtz? That putz!
Kurtz surely first tantalizes Marlow, who longs to be in the sway of his powerful discourse — his voice — but by the time the book is done, and Kurtz is done, dead, he’s really had enough: “Oh, yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too. A voice. He was very little more than a voice.” And this voice, like all of them, makes, what, a “dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense”? The horror, oh, right, them, they — men, Europe’s men, white men, Trump’s men, us — are horrible. Case solved! To shift a narration from the first white male colonizer in the book to the second is . . . uncataclysmic, but this small slide, rife with repetitions, allows Reich to expose the verdant extravagance of sentences. Fanfic often brings me, as a writer, right back into the sentence, because of this genre’s special drainage of plot, the material that has already been flexed (which is the intertextual case for everything, but fanfic exposes it beautifully). Instead the plot in Mistah Kurtz! is a kind of architecture — or series of evil, fantastically kinked displays — to furbish with sentence, sentence — and what is demanded but moment? Sentence is moment, and Reich enacts something which remains the miracle and pleasure of his book: the decadence of the sentence has to do with the material of this earth. Here’s Kurtz stepping into an elephant corpse:
Sunrise, indigo to pink — I was standing erect within the eviscerated corpse of an elephant . . . The beast I wore splayed out in one giant cadaverous robe, as I became its spine, skull and operator . . . Then, slowly, from some instinct, I pushed my hands, my forearms and then the full extent of my arms down into the tusks, until I was clad to my shoulders. As I strove to enter them, their weird marrow slopped out like blue clay.
The raw material of this earth being the obsession of Africa’s colonizers, who wanted copper, cotton, palm oil, rubber, and tin, and who wanted ivory, and slaves. Africa was this world of material, some of it sentient. Reich gives the sentient, historical material, in the mode of Conrad, who also moved his “savages” in masses of mass death; Reich moves these masses as “oil through coral,” a mass grave, “the soft wreckage of so many human beings. They resembled some orgy of trunks and rubber stopped in time, their eyes fixed, dilated, the shocked sclera turned to a dull ivory . . . Wrists without hands projected from the pile.” But the moments I remember best were without history, were their own squishy extravagance: Kurtz’s dead mom appearing in his dream “bearing her intestines across her shoulder like a pet octopus.”
Which isn’t to say Reich turns from the politic of his project. There are wise enough moments: “In the pre-colonial age, anything could be currency. The colonial age narrowed the gauge of currency — and within that was the irony that for all of this stolen flesh to become valuable, it had first of all to be rendered worthless.” And after all, it’s a book that is deeply explicit about the use of guns to dominate, and use, African people: no wonder, on this continent, in our country (Reich is British but resides here), they’re seen by some as valuable as slavery was profitable. And I wouldn’t say Reich keeps the women out of it, either. If Marlow’s narrative is told from the vessel of a female, that yawl, Kurtz’s is told to one, in a letter (an intention) to his Intended — and the native woman does come a little closer than the beach. But the intrigue of this text is Reich’s cataclysmic use of material to make the sentences pump, and it had an effect — I felt like I was walking near horror, and color, for days. The horror, the horror, of this earth, men, yes, but of color, I mean colorfulness, of the sentience of the sentence, which renders small the writer, any self. “Parrot flowers grow in champagne bottles”; “A spare uniform, unworn, hangs from a buffalo horn” — there’s decadence to this rhyme and half-rhyme, a prose a bit touched (in a way not good) — mad.
I liked those moments, yes, when the prose swam off to be with itself in its madness yes, offriver. In places that don’t count.
. . . there . . . right at the moment he’s turning towards the window . . . there . . . he’s bored . . . good cop, bad cop . . . he really is bored, he stares at the sea, he’s thinking about something else. And the director has kept the take, he saw, that’s why he makes films, for moments like these, the moment when the film slips away, taking advantage of a mistake, a moment of detachment, of reverie, a shift — there: an actor stares at the sea and his grace detonates the image . . .
Is how Solange, in Marie Darrieussecq’s Men, observes her new lover in an old cop film. They are both Hollywood actors, her white and from France, him black, born in Cameroon, Canadian. The keenness of this insight about art is, to me, astonishing. Grace detonates the image . . . — its intelligence about how to make art, what to look for, hope for, what persists, is why I ever want art, to make or behold. It is the amazing intelligence of Darrieussecq and it is, in a third person that stays close with her, Solange’s awesome insight. But Solange, already 36, a bit player, a woman, will have little chance to direct a film, or star in one (Matt Damon knees her dead in a big film for a very minor duration — though wow, for 50,000 dollars!).
If Darrieussecq ever wanted to write an earnest retelling of Heart of Darkness, she scratched it. Maybe she laughed uproariously at the hubris, and the potential for horrendous identity politics, of that project. Like a man!, she might have laughed, carrying around the solemnity and weight of his big project! Men have had big projects — funding, agents, anti-oedipal presses . . . — women’s artistic traditions have had more to do with swiping at work from the side, in between domestic enslavement, suppression, and insult. Solange’s new lover, Kouhouesso Nwokam, is the coordinator of such a solemn and weighty project, a Hollywood movie of Heart of Darkness, to be filmed onsite. Though they only make it to Cameroon — a nod, I hope, to Claire Denis’ first film, Chocolat (1989), a 1950’s H of D update, tender and fraught, the French colonists about to be expelled after all this time (it was shot in Cameroon). Denis has said of her film: “I’m not interested in critiquing colonialism. It’s too late for that.”
Solange can only swipe from the side. She is in love with Kouhouesso, desperately so, but he is not in love with her; the weight of his big project sits at center. She longs to play The Intended in the film, to become closer to him, but seems incapable of looking at the irony squarely, or as Reich’s Kurtz puts it to his Intended: “You had no chance — not against the phosphorescent white lure of that lost map flickering inside my skull.” Like other of Darrieussecq’s women, this one does not quite know what’s going on — and as I have said elsewhere about this author, it’s a brilliant tactic. The witless narration, and its sillier goals, moves as alibi for the author to say anything she wants; to be angry. Solange, in her desire for Kouhouesso (and for a major role), sizes up H of D quickly, a “story of a man who is looking for a man . . . It was striking how so little of the novel was devoted to women or to Africans (so what role was Jessie going to play?). She thought about possible improvements.” The character, Solange, is interested in improving on Conrad for purposes of love + career; the author, Darrieussecq, swipes sideways: “George [presumably Clooney]-Kurtz was on his deathbed, and the Intended wafted before him. It was her idea — taking liberties with Conrad, but he could go to hell.” The women, I mean — are out of it — should be out of it — Go to hell.
If Heart of Darkness is a story about a man looking for a man, it’s also about a man mansplaining the colonization of Africa, and Men is a story of a man mansplaining that and “hormonal fact” about women’s nipples and everything in between to Solange: “And she loved it that he explained things to her, that he cared enough to explain things to her. If he spoke to her it meant he loved her.” Solange is not in a position to explain anything, including her astonishing insights, which she frequently has in passing, about something else, out of the focus of the plot, grace detonating . . . “She would no doubt be perfect,” jokes Kouhouesso to a cadre of laughing male film industry professionals, speaking about who can play The Intended, “but first I have to see her naked.” He explains to her, “To be African has no meaning, except to be frightened of losing what you have.” Men is often really funny. Solange’s Bel Air naturopath, for the big trip, gives her essential oil of quinine. It’s funny Kouhouesso’s definition of Africa is actually Freud’s definition of masculinity — you’re afraid of castration, of losing what you have. That’s not so much a swipe as a cut.
Caren Beilin is the author of a novel, The University of Pennsylvania, and some short fictions, Americans, Guests, or Us. She lives in Philadelphia.