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Henri Lipton

‘The Organs of Sense’ by Adam Ehrlich Sachs: The Pleasures of Misdirection

Adam Ehrlich Sachs novel The Organs of SenseGottfried Leibniz may have discovered calculus, but really he had the soul of a novelist. You might be forgiven for thinking so, anyway, after reading Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s first novel, The Organs of Sense (227 pages; FSG), which tells the story of a young Leibniz, hungry to understand the world, its inscrutable rules, and its even more inscrutable inhabitants. You might also see the novelistic sensibility in Leibniz’s philosophy. Calculus offered a neat method for the world and its rules, but neat methods aren’t all that useful unless you’re trying to ace the SATs or go to the moon. It’s a genuine boon to human thought that Leibniz’s groundbreaking work in mathematics did not get in the way of his inventing a rather batshit metaphysics of his own, the Monadology, which basically posits a simple substance—the monad—endowed with intention and appetite, busy at work acting as the substrate of the universe. Luckily for Sachs, it’s quite possible, probably even necessary, to be a world-historical genius with an innate understanding of the underlying structure of the universe and a weirdo with a crackpot theory.

Here’s some Monadology:

“Since the world is a plenum all things are connected together, and every body acts upon every other, more or less, according to their distance, and is affected by the other through reaction. Hence it follows that each Monad is a living mirror, or a mirror endowed with inner activity, representative of the universe according to its point of view.”

It’s just about the perfect metaphor for human interaction and, even though it doesn’t appear in the novel, it’s the kind of deep background that might have made Leibniz an especially appealing investigator into unusual phenomena. The Organs of Sense opens with word reaching a young Leibniz, fresh off a failed attempt at a law degree, of a mysterious astronomer’s prediction:

“At noon on the last day of June 1666, the brightest time of day at nearly the brightest time of year, the Moon would pass very briefly, but very precisely, between the Sun and Earth, casting all of Europe for one instant in absolute darkness, ‘a darkness without equal in our history, but lasting no longer than four seconds,’ the astronomer predicted, according to Leibniz, an eclipse that no other astronomer in Europe was predicting…”

Note the coiled sentence structure, slightly parodic academic tone, and nested narration—all constant features of the novel. Leibniz’s every thought and action is mediated by a conjectural scrim, and the narrator sometimes draws on extant writings or other, more spurious, attributed language. This narrative voice does, in fact, belong to a character—there is an “I” attached—but the absence of a locus of narration or any identifying clues (except that he is a translator, which is mostly a recurring half-joke) makes it hard not to make your inner novelist queasy by throwing up your hands and saying it’s probably just Sachs himself.

The astronomer, who claims to possess “the longest telescope known to man, and therefore the most powerful, a telescope said to stretch nearly two hundred feet,” is not merely scientifically gifted but possibly oracular, “not merely completely blind…but in fact entirely without eyes.” Being “an assiduous inquirer into miracles and other aberrations of nature,” Leibniz sets off at once, and before too long he finds himself in the astronomer’s tower, somewhere in Bohemia, trying to figure out whether this eyeless man is off his rocker. How is he to know?

“The problem of getting inside another head, and seeing what that head was seeing (or not seeing) and what it was thinking (or not thinking), now struck Leibniz as a profoundly philosophical problem. Neither cradling it nor cracking it open would do it, for the barrier involved not only bone but also a thick layer of philosophy. The human skull consists, one might say, Leibniz wrote, of a quarter-inch-thick layer of bone and a quarter-inch-thick layer of philosophy. Of course the brain is also cushioned by various membranes and fluids. A skilled doctor can penetrate the skull with a drill, and he can cut through the membranes with a knife, and he can drain the cerebral fluids with a pump, but his instruments are utterly useless for penetrating that solid, condensed layer of philosophy. ‘Even the most state-of-the-art medical instrument wielded by the best doctor in Paris will simply bounce off the cerebral-philosophical membrane,’ Leibniz wrote. That left language.”

Anyone who’s ever been stuck at a party trying to have a meaningful conversation with a philosophy student knows that a quarter inch can seem awfully thick, and language is itself an imperfect instrument. What follows is a self-consciously tangled pattern-building exercise, as the narrator relates the astronomer’s tale, as told to Leibniz, of how he lost his eyes—basically the story of his life as an aspiring chronicler of the cosmos in Bohemia. His father hopes to curry royal favor by presenting a showstopping mechanical head to Emperor Rudolf, King of Bohemia, descendent of the august Habsburg lineage, and holder of sundry other titles. In the first great Greek tragedy of the astronomer’s life, he betrays his father in order to be installed as the Emperor’s Imperial Astronomer. There is genuine movement and pathos to this part of the story, but it mostly sets up a suspended preamble to the astronomer’s sudden turn into eyeless-ness, meaning it’s an opportunity for copious riffing. To wit:

“Then his father went to bed and the astronomer—by the light of a single candle lit only after he heard his father’s sixth snore, for one snore could of course be faked, as could two snores or three, even four simulated snores is not unthinkable if his father had suspicions, and the idea of feigning five snores to catch your son in some verboten act is, if absurd, not impossible, whereas after six snores his father was probably asleep—read, for example, the portions of Friar Bacon’s Opus Majus concerning the physiology of vision or his Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature with its depictions of those ingenious devices of antiquity that according to legend made distant things seem near or near things distant…”

The same structure occurs later, when the astronomer slowly recognizes that a room containing a glockenspiel is actually a room containing many glockenspiels, in fact it is lousy with glockenspiels, basically a plenum of glockenspiels. Once the glockenspiel situation has been sorted out, the story continues.

Sachs runs these perspectival recursions often, and while all are smart and some very funny, many only have the tone of being funny, and don’t really work. When they do, though, they follow an absurd and exuberant logical momentum and accrete surprising valences, like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill. In one riff, a ditty about a butcher chopping a pig into limit-approaching sections (quarters, halves eighths, sixteenths, etc.) turns out to be an ode to the beautiful insanity of the infinite: “The song, [the astronomer] realized, had taken a mathematical turn.”

What is the point of all this? One of Sachs’s characters conveniently offers an explanation on his behalf, telling the astronomer that “the true artist walks straight toward the insignificant, while slyly keeping an eye on the significant, and moving at all times away from the gorgeous…” Indeed.

The astronomer finds himself caught up in some palatial intrigue having mostly to do with the Habsburg brats, whose names I couldn’t keep straight. Here, as the novel sprints toward the insignificant, it begins to wobble a bit. It’s not clear whether we’re supposed to care about this submerged plot, or even to follow it. The problem is not necessarily that these sections are syntactically convoluted or demanding. It’s that, as the voice luxuriates in its own convolutions, it teaches you to pay less attention, to gloss. I suspect Sachs knows where the reader’s attention is likely to ebb and flow, and, again, he suggests a larger reason: “One wants above all to understand the Sun,” says the astronomer, “but one cannot aim one’s telescope right at the Sun!” The “sun,” in this case, might also be the thing we want to communicate. Sachs knows that seeing into someone’s head requires their head to do a lot of work with language in order to produce a series of gestures back toward some always-inarticulable idea. Not every utterance is worth paying attention to, unless you’re the one talking.

We are periodically re-situated in the tower, where the clock is ticking on the astronomer’s prediction. A cat, Linus, stalks the room. (A perfect syllogism, courtesy of the astronomer: “A man delighted by a cat is discomfited by existence, a man delighted by existence is discomfited by a cat.”) The astronomer occasionally presses socket to telescope and writes down long strings of numbers, a refrain that mostly works to remind us that Sachs is in control.

But his is a fine control, and it’s surprisingly propulsive, this mystery of whether the forecasted event will occur—at once banal (four seconds in the dark, big deal) and galactically meaningful (the sun occluded for four seconds is a very big deal for those of us who rely on its warmth and light for our survival). It’s a kind of structural suspense, reading to see whether Sachs will pull it off, wondering which threads will be tied neatly, which left frayed. Wondering what, for God’s sake, happened to the astronomer’s eyes! Happily, the dénouement of the novel is excellently wrangled, and its grotesquerie depends in part upon a demonstration of the horrors of a vacuum, which made me wish that more inventors had shown up in its pages to blow everyone’s minds. (To be fair, there’s also the aforementioned mechanical head, a perpetual motion machine, and more.) Sachs’s chosen historical moment bristles with so much metaphysical weirdness in large part because discovery and mysticism are not yet at cross-purposes. Cutting-edge scientific discoveries are intimations of reality’s as-yet-unexplained properties and thus, in their uncanny mixture of the mechanical and the unimaginable, seem tinged with magic.

The Organs of Sense, too, turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. Sachs has written a misdirecting novel about the pleasures and perils of misdirection, and the contraption works exquisitely, proving that it is impossible to be a person on whom nothing is lost. I must be one of those cat-lovers discomfited by existence, because after uncountable moments of frustration, by the novel’s end, I was actually charmed to feel that I, like Leibniz, was the butt of some cosmic joke. The Organs of Sense invites us to wander around in Sachs’s head; of course it’s messy and annoying. On the verge of throwing the book across the room, I would reach an unanticipated reprise or an incredible morsel of history or the end of a deftly completed feedback loop, cackle gleefully, and fall back in love. The people around me might have felt their constituent monads twinge and wondered, if only for a moment, what was going on in my head.

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A Long March, Both Taxing & Fascinating: ‘The Dying Grass’ by William T. Vollmann

The Dying GrassWilliam T. Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series traces the history of the colonization of North America, beginning in the ninth century and stretching into the twentieth, focusing on the bloody conflicts between the continent’s native inhabitants and its settlers. The fifth volume, The Dying Grass (Viking, 1,356 pages), chronicles the Nez Perce War of 1877, a series of skirmishes that took place over the course of several months, and more than 1,000 miles, between the eponymous Native American tribe and the United States military, and which resulted, predictably, in harsh sanctions and the relegation of the Nez Perces to a reservation.

Most of the novels in the series have employed a variety of perspectives and attention-grabbing authorial intrusions; The Dying Grass is no different. Vollman’s proxy in the series, William the Blind, figures as both scene-setter, excitable reader, and actual narrative character, particularly in the novel’s beginning, as he describes in bewildering detail his efforts to recover writings by and daguerreotypes of the novel’s fictionalized historical figures. Vollmann clearly delights in stylistic flourishes and satirical affectations, apparent from the novel’s first page, which includes the sort of unwieldy subheading found in tedious 18th century virtue novels. Vollmann clearly pays attention to literary and historical tradition, and his dry sense of humor breathes life into the more academic sections of the novel, turn out to be its most successful.

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Always More Stories to Tell: Q&A with ‘Landfalls’ Author Naomi J. Williams

Naomi J. Williams (photo by Kristyn Stroble)

Naomi J. Williams (photo by Kristyn Stroble)

Naomi J. Williams’s first novel, Landfalls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 336 pages), follows the Lapérouse expedition, whose two ships and nearly two hundred sailors left France in 1785 on a global trek to explore and fraternize in the name of science, God, and country. Although they never made it back, vanishing in the Pacific several years later, firsthand accounts and historical scholarship of the voyage remain. From the available facts, Williams has fashioned a smart, surprisingly hilarious, unusual, and moving story less concerned with maritime adventure—although Landfalls is an exciting and enjoyable read—than with carefully imagined dynamics of petty squabbles and momentous encounters alike.

Williams’s reimagining of the expedition and its participants is deeply compassionate even as she acknowledges and incorporates the mission’s staunchly imperialist spirit, and she is careful not to let a tragic end completely overwhelm this fact, or vice-versa. Her characters are at once neurotic, courageous, stubborn, spiteful, gentle, and human. And the novel itself is a meditation on colonialism, nationalism, the frailty of ego, the durable potency of friendship, and more. We spoke via email to Williams (whose story “Sunday School” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 82) about her approach to writing fiction and her interest in exploring the personal drama and quotidian humor that is lost in maps and historical records.

ZYZZYVA: You dedicate the novel to your grandmother, “who also loved maps.” How did your love of maps inform the strong sense of place in your writing? How many of the “landfalls” did you visit, if any, and how does visiting a place, or not visiting it, affect the way you write about it?

Naomi J. Williams: I’m so delighted you’ve mentioned my grandmother. She was Japanese, and one of my early memories is of sitting on the tatami floor in her tiny apartment in Fukuoka, a city in southern Japan, and poring over a map of the city. I remember being fascinated by the notion that you could have this logical, colorful paper representation of where you lived.

I’ve loved maps ever since, and indeed, the whole idea for Landfalls came from a misidentified antique map my husband bought for me about fifteen years ago. I tell that story in some detail in a recent blog post, but briefly, it’s a map from the Lapérouse expedition, of Lituya Bay, Alaska, the setting for two chapters in the novel.

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A Fevered Vision in the South Seas: ‘Imperium’ by Christian Kracht

ImperiumIn the early twentieth century, a young German named August Engelhardt sailed to Kabakon, a small island in the German territories of the South Pacific. His goal was to establish an outpost from where he could promulgate his ideas, chief among them the belief that the proper way to live, spiritually and practically, was to be naked, to worship the sun, and to eat nothing but coconuts. From Kabakon he managed to disseminate frugivorist and utopian literature to Europe, and to entice to the island numerous followers, some of whose travel he funded. By the end of his life, though, Engelhardt was malnourished, disconnected, and delusional, a leprous skeleton who barely reached middle age and who seemed to prove by his own dwindling health the untenable idiocy of his philosophy. In Christian Kracht’s newly translated novel, Imperium (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 179 pages; translated from the German by Daniel Bowles), Engelhardt is not merely an anthropological subject but “our friend,” and the protagonist not only of the book but of “the new age.”

Imperium is funny and short, but vigorous in its exploration of ideas and ambitious in its scope. Fiercely erudite, it is clearly the work of a man who has ingested all sorts of philosophies and literary traditions. While comparisons to classic adventure and maritime tales are inevitable, Kracht’s narrative sensibility echoes the self-conscious playfulness of 19th century French and Russian tale-tellers, and his obsessive focus on coincidences and ostensibly dissimilar yet interrelated phenomena reminds one of Pynchon’s intricate cataloguing of stories-within-stories, regardless of whether they are germane to the plot. (A digression, for example, concerning the alleged creation of the yeast by-product Vegemite under the aegis of the Kellogg brothers is particularly Pynchon-esque in its interpretation of corporate hegemony as a mechanizing force guiding individual wills.)

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Note of Grace Among an Unhappy Family: ‘The Loved Ones’ by Mary-Beth Hughes

The Loved OnesEven if Tolstoy was right about happy families, unhappy families in Western literature often bear striking resemblances to one another. The unfaithful, existentially-tormented husbands; the beautiful, unfulfilled wives; the precocious yet emotionally unformed children caught up in family affairs far beyond what they are capable of properly assimilating into their senses of self—we recognize these tropes partly because they are, sadly, representative of many actual families, but mostly because, also sadly, they make for instantly recognizable and compelling dramatic structures. It is, perhaps, unfair to levy such a generalization against the many writers who choose to tackle dissolute spouses and dissipating family units, but it is certainly incumbent upon these writers to bring something new to the table, if only for the reason that it is one heavily laden with offerings. Mary-Beth Hughes’s new novel, The Loved Ones (Grove/Atlantic; 289 pages), is in many ways a familiar portrait of a family tearing itself apart through avarice and ennui. But its contribution to the genre is its unflinching and intelligent exploration of the ways in which the characters—particularly the women—attempt to keep their pain from spreading to those around them.

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Old Souls and Deep Sadness: ‘In Another Country’ by David Constantine

In Another CountryReaders of British author David Constantine’s In Another Country (Biblioasis; 277 pages) may identify in his stories certain hoary elements of style and material that have been all but abandoned by contemporary U.S. writers seeking to depict modern life in all its fragmented complexity. Absent are the ingratiating narrative voice, the frenetic observation, the satirical punches to the gut dealt to unworthy characters. Constantine’s characters have souls, and do such un-ironic things as write long letters to one another, which they send via mail. The stories are simply plotted, harrowing, and enduringly powerful; the prose is uncompromisingly lyrical yet rarely overwrought. Constantine’s old-world sensibilities imbue his stories with grace and seriousness, and his characters seem to exist not in any recognizable world, but in their own personal Limbos, wherein ancient forces and quotidian difficulties converge to create an immense pressure threatening to tear them apart. There is a pronounced fatalism through many of the stories, yet Constantine’s great skill lies in his ability to create moments that feel not like authorial intrusions but rather fleeting recognitions, whether of insurmountable loneliness or inchoate hope.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard: Whose Struggle Is It?

My Struggle Volume FourWhen Karl Ove Knausgaard was in San Francisco to promote the U.S. release of the fourth book in his six-volume My Struggle series, he was quietly and generously discussing a project that had been completed several years ago, but whose trajectory among English speakers is still tracking with a fervor rarely seen in the literary world. My Struggle: Book Four (Archipelago; 485 pages; translated by Don Bartlett) deals primarily with the eighteen-year-old Knausgaard’s time as a schoolteacher in northern Norway; as in each of the first three volumes, he painstakingly chronicles tiny yet unendurable humiliations, fleeting moments of elation and revelation, and the abiding shame and existential dread that, for Knausgaard, are the costs of being alive. He employs a flatness of style, an insistence on detail, and an overwhelming candor to produce an effect few authors have ever been able to achieve, and whose qualities I can only compare to the experience of reading as a child: total immersion in a story, and the sense that the rhythms of writer and reader have been synced, producing a cosmically unlikely pleasure that hits like a fierce wave of energy.

Comprising Knausgaard’s admirers are novelists of every ilk and age; respected reviewers; and, judging by the sales, around one-in-nine adult Norwegians. Reckless hyperbole about his accomplishment abounds (such as that in the preceding paragraph), much of it merely in service of figuring out how he achieved what he did, which is to make interesting and appealing 3,600 pages of hastily-written, baldly autobiographical prose about a handsome, intelligent, successful man who describes the birth of his daughters and his bowel movements with equal reverence.

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A Crime of Dispassion: ‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

9780802123459In schools throughout the country, American children and teenagers tend to learn about the Vietman War—and by extension, the country of Vietnam—through the prism of U.S. culture. This is not merely to reaffirm that entrenched ideas and predilections form our understanding of historical events, but also that early conversations about the war often gravitate away from Vietnam-as-place-and-people, and toward what Vietnam-as-idea sparked in the American consciousness. Student-led protests, the creation of the most talked-about countercultural movement in our history, the unthinkable fallibility of the American military—even Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles are all likely to be mentioned before Ho Chi Minh or Saigon. To young Americans, if not most Americans, Vietnam is a jungle in which unlucky youths fought and died before they lost a war, came back home, and started their American families.

Dehumanization is a part of art, war, and life; it can be both a shield and a sword. American art mines senseless loss and unspeakable atrocities for poignant drama, political insights, and moral ironies, and does so expertly. But before a deathly moment of horror, there is a life that has been lived, regardless of the hemisphere in which it was. What does it mean to engage with a subject containing the histories and hopes of an entire people about whom we know so little?

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s complex and compelling first novel, confronts us with that difficult and often discomfiting question. Ostensibly a tale of subterfuge, the novel makes use of an engaging narrator and tackles issues of artistic representation and cultural identity. Its narrator is the half-Vietnamese, half-French (and therefore worthy of scorn and distrust from many of his fellow Vietnamese) aide to a jingoistic, uncompromising South Vietnamese general. He is also a mole, working undercover for the communist regime; we learn on the first page that his story is a confession beginning in April 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”

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