[Unnamed Press; 2023]
James Elkins is a sixty-eight-year-old much-published historian and theorist of visual arts, a professor who holds a chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Weak in Comparison to Dreams is his first work of fiction, and it is the most courageous and fascinating debut I have read since Mark Z. Danielewski’s multi-media House of Leaves in 2000. Other precursors—obsessive and excessive first fictions—include William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Thomas Pynchon’s V, and Don DeLillo’s Americana, all concerned with images as Elkins’s novel is. I hasten to add that the origin of “fascinating” is negative, all the way back to a definition as an “evil spell.” Elkins’s courage is casting a binding spell some readers might consider a curse: writing a six hundred–page novel about obsessive compulsion in the voice of an obsessive-compulsive character. His first name is Samuel. Whether or not Elkins wanted the name to remind us of that master of repetition—Samuel Beckett—he is another one of those courageous fascinators.
Elkins’s Samuel Emmer grew up in natural surroundings in Watkins Glen, New York, the son of a “corrosive mother” about whom Samuel says next to nothing. In one of the novel’s two presents, Samuel is a near-forty part-time professor and scientist testing drinking water for amoebae in Guelph, Ontario in 2019. His wife has gone back to Bratislava, his daughter has gone away to college, and Samuel is going off the rails, even off the trails he has followed in his routines both inside and outside his lab. He is, for example, methodically deconstructing the furniture and electronic devices in his apartment. His supervisor, sensing Samuel’s incipient derangement, sends him—maliciously, neutrally, or charitably—on a series of visits to zoos to check on their handling of animals presenting troubling patterns of repetitive behavior.
Samuel empathizes with the animals and tries to imagine the lives of the zookeepers at the first two sites. But his imagination becomes progressively active and then aggressive. He fantasizes his host in Finland is a cyborg, does an existential analysis of a monkey’s mind in Nashville, talks to a host in the voices of spiders in Salt Lake City, and in Basel indulges in total fabrications, insisting at length that his host see suffering animals within a Freudian psychoanalytic framework, and encouraging the children of visitors to pretend to shoot the animals. Samuel feels he is losing his mind and control—and he is—but he is also coming out of his former isolated routines to make connections with others, both humans and animals.
Think of Samuel as Bellow’s professor Herzog forced to visit problematic zoos rather than retreat from his loss of family to the Berkshires where he writes zany letters. Samuel becomes wackily inventive about his credentials (he has none) and charmingly crazed in his identification with animals: “I used to be safe with my amoebas. Little gluey animals, tiny spots of sick. Now animals demented by despair shuffled across the stage of my imagination.” Elkins pushes Samuel along toward paranoia by including documents about animal compulsive behavior that are sent to him between zoo visits by his intern and by Samuel’s former student whom he calls “Viperine.” The more those documents are supposed to help Samuel recognize his own compulsive behavior, the more he imagines hearing the two “helpers” whispering and plotting behind his back. My spot check of the documents finds some are invented, so perhaps Samuel is right to be suspicious of the senders.
When reports of Samuel’s behavior at the zoos get back to his supervisor, Samuel is offered a leave of absence but chooses to abruptly quit his job, take his pension, and leave Guelph. Here there is a break in time in which Samuel writes a manuscript about his breakdown. Never published and almost forgotten, the five hundred–page manuscript is discovered by Samuel in his basement forty years later when he is moving from his home in a rural area of northern Canada where he has been living alone. In the last hundred pages of Weak in Comparison to Dreams (entitled “Notes”), Samuel reflects back on the manuscript and describes his present life. Ah, the old discovered manuscript trick, a timeworn way to show a character’s change. Not for Elkins. Though superficial features of Samuel’s life are different now, he is psychologically essentially the same, still obsessive-compulsive. Maybe he’s even worse off than in his zoo days, for now he doesn’t recognize his problem, has almost no imagination, and cares little about contact with living creatures. “Notes” may make Weak in Comparison to Dreams look like a recovery narrative, but it’s actually a re-cover-up story. As I said, Elkins has courage, perhaps because he’s not a young guy trying to lift off a career as a novelist.
In both parts of the novel, Elkins himself seems obsessed—with the writing workshop’s mantra “Show don’t tell”—and his way of showing reflects his long interest in photography. In What Photography Is, Elkins suggested it’s “a good time to say goodbye to photographs of people.” When Samuel remembers Watkins Glen, Elkins includes a few photos of nature. Then come many photos of ugly zoo cages and enclosures without animals. Stressed by his visits, Samuel most explicitly reveals his repetition compulsion by describing over and over nightmares of forest fires. For each of these dreams, Elkins provides numerous photographs of fire and burned-over land. The documents Samuel’s helpers send also stimulate visuals included in the text: diagrams of animals’ repetitive pacing, of planetary motion, and of Samuel’s routes around his apartment, all of which have a vague figure-eight or infinity form, perfect for OCD. The only humans pictured in the novel are threatened individuals such as Icarus in a few old woodcuts. An “Envoi” has nine pages of individual animals.
The photographs are all black and white, generally about a half page in size, and not particularly artful. Most of the photographs “illustrate” dreams, which are usually frightening to Samuel and yet praised as a release from his daily life, which he says is “weak in comparison to” dreams. Since the sleeping mind is not yet capable of taking photographs, Samuel hunted around for images that would show what he was experiencing at night. Samuel’s accompanying texts follow along, words telling and interpreting what is “shown.”
The photos are numerous and repetitive but, because of their pedestrian quality, are not particularly affecting. Maybe I’m missing Elkins’s intention, but it seems Samuel’s obsessive inclusion of images in his manuscript is yet another sign of his separation and desperation. The photographs don’t connect him to the world, only to its dull and miniaturized simulacra. Elkins’s photographs don’t create a sense of mystery as those of Sebald, or Catherine Lacey in this year’s Biography of X. Instead, Elkin uses the images to imitate his character’s reductive mania. Although the photographs are not what I would have expected in a novel by Elkins the photography critic, they do again demonstrate his courage, his dedication to a unity of subject, style, and media.
“Notes” also has visual materials, not photos but partial representations of scores by experimental composers that Samuel repeatedly plays for himself in his isolated home. He describes the sounds as discordant, harsh, noisy. I don’t read music, but if Samuel is right then the music-producing visuals in “Notes” have an effect similar to that of the earlier photographs. From composing a manuscript often ugly to the eye, Samuel has “moved on” to collecting and playing music even he admits is ugly to the ear. His location and his medium have changed, but Samuel remains locked (like the animals) into himself, trapped in a fugue-like state, a musical term become a psychological one.
Weak in Comparison to Dreams fortunately has several stylistic registers. Even post-Pynchon, the scientific reports, graphs, and formulas would be considered—though ingenious in invention—ugly in a literary novel. Samuel’s commentaries on his dreams are thankfully not surreal; the style is that of an earnest but mystified scientist who can be quite eloquent:
It became difficult to think. It was hard to keep seeing the world on fire, to keep trying to make sense of the onslaught of images. The fires meant something, they needed to be understood. They were like people waving frantically at me, trying to get me to understand something.
In “Notes,” Samuel, now in his nineties, writes in a rather banal, washed-out late style. The novel’s language is most vivid (and novelistic in the manner of those precursors I mentioned) when Samuel is talking to zookeepers or thinking about their animals. That style is not weak in comparison to the style he uses to describe his forest fires and his life in retreat. Either Samuel or Elkins has not, however, lost all imagination, for near the novel’s end are seven pages about one Asger Gaarn, a Danish composer who compulsively wrote throughout his whole life hundreds of preludes and fugues to memorialize other composers, friends, strangers, even pets. Google could not locate Asger Gaarn, the final symbol of obsession.
Because of “Notes,” which is much about the art of experimental music, Weak in Comparison to Dreams has a self-referential or metafictional implication. Once Elkins decided on repetition compulsion, he seems to have adopted exhaustiveness, the stacking of analogues as important as plotting. Musical scores are piled high in Samuel’s home. Speaking of an animal, Samuel says, “The more it becomes disturbed, the longer its behaviors last.” Writing about Protopopov, Samuel says the music is “compelling, and then after a while, it’s boring. It’s fascinating because it’s so alien.” Weak in Comparison to Dreams doesn’t have the worldly variousness of first novels by Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, but its repetitive excess makes it more alien, and fascinating. Seen as a whole and from some distance, Weak in Comparison to Dreams does connect to a world wider than Samuel’s mind. Humans are like pacing and punding animals, the planet is burning, artists like those Samuel plays are creating work that may be innovative but without content, the music even further from representing the real than the visuals. Elkins is not one of those artists.
Elkins has said his novel is an outtake from a fifteen-year project that includes four other, apparently finished novels that he has described in extravagant detail on his website which is—no surprise—obsessive. I mentioned House of Leaves earlier. Reading Elkins’s website, I see that his novels resemble Danielewski’s multi-volume Familiar project, which is now unfortunately stalled. I hope Weak in Comparison to Dreams receives enough attention so that his small-press publisher will bring out the remaining volumes that will, it seems, add material about Samuel’s life and introduce other characters.
Samuel is a desperate man. I admit I may be desperate to “recuperate,” as the French say, Elkins’s novel, to give its obsessiveness a useful social function. Or, as someone who has written five novels about the same character, I may be desperate to interest readers in a book that casts a spell by repetition. Or after reviewing hundreds of novels, I may be desperate for one that risks a “splendid failure,” as Faulkner said, to make something new, even if that “new” is about humans’ and other mammals’ resistance to or escape from the new.
Tom LeClair’s eighth and final novel, Passing Again, is a hybrid fiction and memoir with fifty photographs.
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