Review of Louis Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight (London: Equus, 2012), “Victorious Corruption,” by Richard Marshall, originally published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 26th, 2012.
Armand has written a perfect modern noir, presenting Kafka’s Prague as a bleak, monochrome singularity of darkness, despair and edgy, dry existentialist hardboil. From the off it reeks with sour milk, bad Turkish coffee, grim suits, rain, sadistic sex, corpses and a melancholic weariness that provokes philosophizing of hard won ennui and grainy angst.
Armand’s novel is a reprise for a coven of readers and cineastes, a way of reminding us of the permanent aura and atmosphere that noir styles into the imagination, that prolonged anti-meditation of souls going to hell in a hand cart. The book has that kind of plaintive wakefulness, where along with all the other noirs we know and love we recede into the same distance. And this is a book to be read measuring the distance, a distance that is for each individual the period between now and the first time you watched or read your first noir and knew there and then that it defined a sensibility that would continue to process and create you forever as a victorious corruption.
This is literature for the damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And it also takes your measure of that receding distance between the first time you read Kafka and became one of his Prague’s impossible characters, hurled into an insane quest for meanings that drop away each time they’re grasped and leave you half ridiculous and half bereft, a character evaded by her own plot. In Kafka noir becomes an epistemological puzzle that defeats all strategies.
We are familiar with the strange paradoxes that a self-referential sentence like ‘this sentence is false’ or ‘this sentence is a lie’ can spandrel into the works. Nodding to acquiesce, we seem to commit ourselves to therefore denying our assertion. And that in turn seems to imply that we are committed to our initial assertion, which in turn… The threatened infinite regression is transformed by Kafka into the endless labyrinth of shadowy streets and rooms, where each protagonist seems to be progessing and getting ever closer to his goal – the Castle, the Trial and so on – and yet as he moves forwards somehow the goal recedes.
But perhaps the strangeness is made too clear and straightforward in this analogy. The ‘liar’ sentence can be made stranger. Try this: ‘this sentence is true.’ We don’t seem to be in the same universe as the liar with this sentence. Asserting it seems to commit us to no such turmoil as the first one. The analogy seems to break down. However, there is a secret horror attached. Borges asks us to consider the Coin of Odin in one of his stories. This material coin is strange because it has only one side. And return now to the sentence: ‘This sentence is true.’ There is no other side to it. It asserts a one sided proposition. It is a malfunctioning assertion and though its secret nightmare is not the obvious paradox of self reference of the liar’s ‘This sentence is false’, the weird payload is there nevertheless, hovering in the corner of your mind like a stranger in a long coat always just edging into your vision. But things can be stranger.
Consider this list.
1. ‘The narrator killed his father for what he did to Regen.’
2. The second sentence in this list is circular.
3. If the third sentence in this list is true, then every sentence is true.
4. The list comprises of exactly four sentences.
Well, here is a formula that embeds a paradoxical nightmare in its third sentence, even though the list itself seems innocuous. This is a structure to the noir, to Kafka, to Armand’s little dark gem. Each move forward through the list seems hooked to a commitment that the narrator cannot release without having then to continue. Rather than movement towards completion, the narrator is condemned to endless bouts of guilt, fear, defeat, the pressure of an existence that refuses to release him from repeats, perhaps in a different tenor but after a while, merely in a change of clothes or backdrops. It all blurs into the horror. What horror? The defective truth of every sentence. This is precisely the horror of Conrad’s Mr Kurz as the last century sloped towards Jerusalem. The list is a version of Curry’s paradox. The third sentence in the list is the key. A conditional that if supposed true commits us to every sentence being true. So too the noir sentences, and Kafka’s parables, if true, condemn the narrator. Round and round we go, endlessly. There is no redemption possible. No stepping off the roundabout. Armand’s male narrator seeks redemption in a woman, as in all noirs, but all the characters are in their own private hell and so this is hardly true. It’s just enough, though, to complete the sense of harrowing anguish at the novel’s core.
A kind of infallibility lurks in genre writing. Genre requires a special sort of reading. We go wrong when this isn’t understood. Infallible, the only rational kind of reader is one who broods on interpretation. There should be no question of interrogating whether the genre is not omniscient. Yet again, noir, as a genre, and Kafka’s noir parables, invite us to discover their truths, not retreat to accusations of failures in the formula genre offers. That’s why someone (maybe John Wayne) once said of a different genre, but the thought generalises, ‘There are no bad Westerns. There are just Westerns and great Westerns.’ And again, in this lies a structure of the epistemic defeat embedded in noir. The novel and the parables claim they know that the characters cannot ever know their own existence and what it means, no matter how hard they try. The puzzle then becomes another level of horror and catastrophe: the narrators know that they don’t know. But then, we have a contradiction. Knowing nothing, they know something (ie that they know nothing) and yet know nothing (knowledge implying the truth). All that’s ever left is a version of Dietrich’s line at the end of A Touch of Evil – ‘he was some kind of a man’ which, when you take it literally, was something we already knew, and is really a confession that frankly we don’t know a damn.
Other horrors loom. Not knowing the answer, how would you know it even were it given to you? Which seems to imply that only first knowing the answer to a question are you in a position to recognize the right answer. But then, of course, if we already know the answer, why would we even ask? One way is to dimly know, to partially know, to have a shadow of what the truth might look like. A dictionary, for example, is useful, but only to those who aren’t perfect spellers or totally ignorant of spelling.
How best to think of this ‘partial’ knowing? Perhaps not as a definition but as conditional. ‘If the rain begins again, and your hands are bloody, then you’ve killed your father.’ Consulting the weather and the state of his hands, the narrator gains knowledge of the antecedent. Here then, might be a smooth way of resisting the impossibility of bottoming out the existential questions in the novel. But there’s no guarantee. But if knowledge closes enquiry, then believing something to be the truth licenses closing down any counter-evidence. This justified intransigent dogmatism carries a deadly threat that is always tangled up in this genre. The fears of guilt, of paranoia, of the endless sense of doom become fixed points, unassailable by any new evidence. No girl, not even the sweetness of a disjointed love, will be able to break through. The dogmatism is an error, being mistaken about how new evidence can change things. New evidence helps us change what we know. The horror is the way the novel fixes the knower so that this flexibility is never granted to him. New knowledge here never undermines old knowledge.
Armand has Blake, one of his characters, say this: ‘… there was Pavel Tichy – 1995- you probably never heard of him. A philosopher. Before the revolution, he wrote a thesis about the vicious circle of definitions. Suicidal algorithms of pure logic. …’ A novelistic flourish, combining a vague handwave in the direction of Tichy’s work as a philosopher and a hooded reference to Tichy’s mysterious suicide. But what Tichy was concerned about was truthlikeness.
‘Some false statements are truer than others’ is the sort of idea being labeled here. We might say that some statements have more truth in them than another, even though both are false. But let’s say that Blake has a theory that is false. However, let’s say that his false theory entails a true sentence. And assume that Regen’s lover has a false theory that doesn’t entail this true sentence. Then we might say that Blake’s theory is truer than the other character’s, even though they are both false, because it entails more true sentences. But Tichy showed why this kind of thinking fails. Blakes’s theory entails both the true sentence and all its entailed false sentences. This makes the true sentence and all the false ones a conjunction entailed by Blake’s false theory. And the conjunction is a falsehood, and so increases the falsehood entailed by Blake’s sentence. Given that the sentence entailed by Blake isn’t entailed by the lover of Regen’s theory, it cannot increase the falsity of this alternative. So it is only through increasing the falsity of Blake’s content that we can increase the truth.
Tichy is important for Armand’s character Blake because he speaks through Blake to the quest nature of the story, the journey into the dark heart of the lost soul. Issues arising in the literature of falsehoods, where one falsehood is closer to the truth than another falsehood, raise questions about why just reducing the content of a false proposition doesn’t make it truer. And similarly, in the other direction, why increasing its content doesn’t either. More relevantly for the novel, Tichy moved away from pure syntactic analysis of logical form to considering a semantic, meaning and content range of propositions for an answer to whether some falsehoods are more truthlike than others.
Verisimilitude is a wobbly, cunning trade. Novelists are liars in some harsh worlds, but their lies are truer, in great novels, than straight truths. Armand uses lists of place-names as placeholders for his propositional range. We know where we are through the likeness given in assumed associations inferred from the lists. Kafkaville, for example, becomes a tense sequence of names that conjure areas of Prague that straight away remove us from the semi-hospitable tourist sections of the city and take us elsewhere, to where dreams are suffused with dread. This is not fine-grained, but perhaps fine-grained enough. And besides, it’s the way noir works, giving us an insider internal dialogue that flatters us with its narrative contract to give us the inside track, though much of this dark world remains hidden, secretive and forever out of bounds.
Think of the dartboard and its bullseye. The bullseye is the actual world. Imagine it nested inside a sphere which in turn is nested inside another. And so on. Each sphere represents propositions about the world. The sphere closest to the bullseye is the one with propositions that match the actual world exactly. The spheres further away from the bullseye contain propositions carving out worlds increasingly optional in the actual world. But this supposes that similarity relations on worlds are primitive. Tichy provides ways of working out hierarchies of similarity. Blake photographs the line between sex, death and the camera. A proposition expressing the proposition that Blake photographs the line between sex, death and the shadow is closer to the truth, though in fact false, than a proposition expressing the proposition that Blake photographs the line between platonic love, life and the camera. Truthlikeness is for Tichy as much part of what we assume as is our concept of truth. And so we read the novel in terms of truthlikeness, queued up by Armand via Blake.
The mystique of Kafka and noir is perhaps this: what we want is the meaning of our own catastrophe. What is this catastrophe? It isn’t an accidental feature of our experience, something bad that happened today, or yesterday, or something anticipated that will possibly happen in the future. No, the catastrophe is, to use a term of metaphysics, a power. The power is our own uniqueness, a sentence that carves out our essence, which is available only to the possessor of the power but which is unknowable to that individual. When K stumbles around in the shadows of his own sentences, he is in a crisis of wondering even what his own sentences might mean. And so his movement, his quest, the clarity, orderliness and well-managed processes that K uses only emphasise the totalizing catastrophe of the existential situation where all sentences are puzzles that are only for him and yet as such are absolutely indecipherable by him.
Armand’s novel continues down the same bleak road of puzzlement and despair, loaded with the glam sex and death tropes of a Marlene Dietrich film or the coves of a bad night in the fleshpots of any cramped urban space. The issue is not merely meaning, however. The questions about every word in this space are not merely ‘what am I trying to say? and am I making sense? and what sense is that? and finally, what sense then does that make of me?’ but reach further into the dark, gloomy prism of despair with ‘Can I, being in such a state of catastrophe, be sincere?’ The sincerity question posed is this: though this is what I say, and this is what I mean, how could I ever be sincere, given the pervasive ignorance that now, through these terrible states, tries me?
The automatic nature of noir, it’s mechanicals of genre that allow writing to confabulate and sketch without effort, allow for meanings to coagulate and become exposed as mere routine. They do so as prisms of the genre rather than of any personality, of either characterization or authorial intent. And so the author chooses the trap of the norms of the genre and writes to escape, fearing that this is quite impossible but perhaps not quite believing the message delivered by all previous attempts: it really is. This is the fierce and queer power of noir (perhaps of all genre writing) and Armand is spot on in identifying this as being, at its heart, the very haecceity of Kafka’s world.
To escape from meanings that run themselves in order to become exposed rather than hidden, this is the quest within the noir where the plot is secondary to the force of the revelation, but revelation is nothing but a plot device. Nothing, as explained above, is really exposed. Yet in the refusal of clear dénouement, are we supposed to ask if in that, is anything revealed? How are we to know? Sincerity in the face of the seemingly ineluctable traction and inevitability of meaning given by the norms of the genre threaten to shroud every attempt to escape. Kafka’s characters are forever closing in on their meaning and purpose, and closure is forever withheld in strict sync with this.
Armand brings to his darkness a sexy underground Prague of severe violation. Although just shorthand, it is quick and to the point to say that in this book we’re nearer Sin City than Camus or Chandler. Blake is a pornographer, so it says on the blurb, but this ascription is just a cover story, for the point is we don’t know if that is, sincerely, the best that can be said of Blake. It’s a shortcut to this: we ask where are the severest violations, the deepest cuts, made to escape the ferocious violence of the language and its sinewy, bleak grip. Prague is a maze, a labyrinth of hellish charms, windows of dusk-lit souls drowning perilously close to oblivion, and so is the metaphor for the prison of language that binds us up in conventions, morbid habit and rules that are autonomous of the will. Prague is the threat of language: it means what it means without our willing it. The great conceit is of language as Frankenstein, or maybe better, the Golem, a monstrous trick that frees itself from people believing that they have it controlled, that it will be their plaything. As Beckett, as Kafka, as Sterne all expose, this is the pernicious lie, the terrible mistake. A curse of hubris.
What would expose this? What if we could have a sentence, or a whole stack of them, one after the other, a story say, and as we read it we become aware, without any further enquiry necessary, that this is insincere. Perhaps the novel of Armand is a way of showing that this is indeed the telling of a story but nevertheless is not an act of storytelling. The telling is one that denies the norms and conventions that ought to hold. There is no conflict here with the idea that a story is indeed being told – so yes, we can rehearse the plot ‘Blake is a pornographer who photographs corpses. Ten years ago, a young man becomes a fugitive when a redhead disappears on a bridge in the rain…’ and on we go. Brilliant, intriguing, a story that hooks us in its delicious atmospherics and stylish hyper-descriptions that bend and swallow us up in a narrative vim. But for all practical purposes, the plot is uninhabited.
As with Kafka, Armand takes us further into his plotted specifics as if he wishes to erase them, or rather, to show that the sincere meaning, the one that passes through this long night of chaos and desolation, is actually running on a different track, running in the opposite direction. What noir has always done is fixed us in a world that is both degenerating but also fixed, so it seems it will never stop raining and it’s always 3am. It is this world, more a state of mind than any world, that hooks us into the recognition of the violation that noir enacts.
In the statement of simultaneous change and fixity a grotesque absurdity at the heart of the genre, of genre itself, is exposed. Assertions purport to show beliefs. But what of an assertion of something impossible to know, and not believable? If an assertion is sincere it shows the belief. How does this occur? The assertion just is the evidence that the speaker believes what she says. Yet the Kafkaesque novelist – and Armand is that – understands that assertions are controlled by their own linguistic forces. These are independent of his will. So he must assert what he must also deny. And so the novel shows a belief that must also be denied. Yet ‘show’ is a success verb, and so in asserting a belief that you also deny, we are confronted with a perverse error.
The error, like Blake’s dead image of a girl in a morgue, like the train journey that was as if it’d never end – ‘… Zerutky, Moravske, Budejovice, Lukov, Bohusice, Popovice, Lesunky, Horni Ujezd, Kotitice, Cechocovice, Hvezdononovice, Okrisky, Pribyslavic, Cichov, Bransouze, Dolni Smrcne, Primelkov, Bitovcice, Prebor, Petrovice,Bradlo, Maly Beranov, Hruskove Dvory, Jihlava…’ succeeds in violating the norms that bind us, and therefore intimate at a way out to sincerity. Or else they purport to show something that you don’t actually believe, and so show insincerity. Like variations of G.E. Moore’s Kafkaesque sentence, we might dream, or silently assert ‘My girl has gone but I won’t believe that until the end of this coming night.’ If we assume that assertion distributes over conjunction then we have both asserted I believe my girl is gone and also asserted that I don’t believe she has. So either it is a sincere assertion or not, but without having to enquire further we can see the violation of the norm. Armand’s novel tracks such a violation, Prague itself the setting for both asserting Prague and denying it in the same breathe. A fissure opens up between what appears to be storytelling and the telling of a story.
And deeper, Armand’s story takes, in the past life of the characters, a South American hellish region that charts the territory brilliantly limned by Malcolm Lowry in his masterpiece of existential collapse Under the Volcano. Again here in Armand, Latino America is a sketched out backdrop for disintegration, for everything in ruins, a horrendous geography of the dark night of the soul. We read and remind ourselves of Chomsky’s thesis that the focus on the Iron Curtain and the Cold war was a ploy to stop us looking at the US terror politics in the latin quarter. The personal becomes the political and Marquez’s magisterial 100 Years of Solitude becomes attached again to its central European hellhole. So now not only is the absurdity a personal catastrophe, but the geography of the novel develops a political signature too. The unleashed catastrophe of US interventions destroying civil governments south of Matamoras becomes another strand of geo-political and literary resonance here. Armand connects where the US state department would like to disconnect. Prague’s Kafkaville becomes a suburb of the Latin death politics of US anti-democracy interventions throughout the last century and more. In a subtle way the connection reinforces the rottenness that refuses to be just an individual collapse, but becomes a world of consciousness that makes political considerations inevitable. In this, the models of Camus, Sartre, Kundera, Llosa and Marquez are always giving the novel its perspectives, whereas oddly Kafka alone might resist this. But perspectival self consciousness moves in various ways, and nothing stays too intuitive.
The book ends – and there’s no need for a spoiler alert here – nothing is given away – ‘At the river bend, the long narrow fingers of the docklands stretched out of the early morning haze. Beyond, a vista of tenements and tower blocks spread across the horizon. We looked down at the grape vines clinging to the earth so tenuously, and wondered what they were doing there.’ There’s a sense in this that the demons have been laid to rest for a while. The hinted pastoral is, as the narrator sees it, a tenuous feature of this ending, and so this shouldn’t be set aside. But the vista in not pastoral with its tenements and tower blocks – and the question is whether they are assimilated into the tenuousness of the grapes or whether they are reasserting themselves. The novel has shown this vista as any kind of Kafkaville, and so implies a reassertion of that lowering threat, and dread.
Perhaps then, he’s Marlowe on his river brooding on the darkness visible in Mr Kurtz: ‘I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude – and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.’ Armand has written this again.