“The Combinations ranks on my Holy Shit-O-Meter! in close proximity with Ada, or Ardor, by Vladimir Nabokov and Against Nature, by Joris-Karl Huysmans.”
Provocation: The Combinations is the greatest novel of the 21st century
The Combinations is a vast sprawling novel, 64 chapters, 888 pages, and a convoluted plot taking place in Prague, a city beset by ghosts, history, conspiracies, and a fascinating literary history. The novel centers on the misadventures of Němec, a hapless schlemiel caught up in events beyond his control, mirroring the troubled history of Czechoslovakia, a pawn too-easily sacrificed to the whims of ideological assertiveness and Cold War spheres of influence. “Mongo pawn in game of life.”
Throughout the novel Němec deals with the prodding, harassment, and riddles from Prof, a ghostly angel of history surveying the wreckage of history with jokes, clues, and asides. Němec and Prof represent another installment of Hero and Sidekick, joining the likes of:
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus
The Tick and Arthur
Gaius Baltar and Head Six
In this mock-heroic quest, Němec must solve the mystery about the Prof’s death. That’s the plot in a nutshell. But novels of this sort are never really about plot, at least the forward-progressive movement resulting in the predictable narrative climax and denouement. It’s a sort of thriller, the sort of thriller in the mold of Crying of Lot 49 or Pattern Recognition. It’s less about the destination than the ride. And, holy shit!, what a ride!
Before engaging in the aforementioned quest, Němec must first deal with the vagaries of personal freedom. He has left the confines of a state-run mental institution and found himself plopped in post-Communist Prague. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of its former client states, the onrush of Capitalism and Democracy have not ushered in a New Jerusalem. This is less about the Invisible Hand and all its glories, but about a new globalized economy bringing “corpses to the banquet” (to steal the poetics of literary genius/epic poet/anti-Semitic traitor/fascist tool/crank economist Ezra Pound).
Along the way, Němec forages through the Prof’s old apartment and finds a copy of the Voynich Manuscript. Yet The Combinations barely dwells on this epic revelation before it dives into another digression, another character’s rant, and another fever dream. Plot becomes less a propulsive force than an inconsequential encumbrance. The Combinations blasts apart the trendy creative writing technique known as “invisible style.” This is a novel written in a self-consciously exuberant and excessive style. While parallels with Ulysses are inevitable, the mock-heroics hew closer to Gargantua and Pantagruel. While Rabelais mocked the holy trinity of Church, Monarchy, and Academia, Armand skewers contemporary sacred cows like Soviet Communism, Western Free-Market Capitalism, and the Literary Form.
Němec may be hapless, but he’s not stupid. An early chapter has him prowling the Klementinum Library in search of information about Jan Mydlář, an executioner under Emperor Rudolf. (The details are in Chapter 3: Poppylopping. Later in the novel, we revisit another Lord High Executioner, Reinhard Heydrich, in Chapter 30: Pragerschinken. For all of its verbal pyrotechnics and stylistic churrigueresco, there resides an underlying narrative schemata. Just don’t burden me with creating some Stuart Gilbert-esque schemata for the book. I’ll let better heads prevail in the groves of academe … or, better yet, have a fanatical vanguard author a Wikia, replete with annotations, sources, wild mass guesses, and organizational taxonomic rhizomatic reverie.)
Our hero is a not-quite-sane vagabond battered about by forces high and low. He wanders, he listens, and he contemplates. Throughout he struggles with the false promises of overarching ideologies and his place in a strange new world not of his making.
Occupy Golem City
Prague plays center stage in this epic novel. The psychogeography of Golem City reflects amid the aimless wanderings of Němec, the urban landscapes more relevant than the gossamer-thin plot. Armand paints Prague as Mitteleuropäisch fever dream, a city whose location and history have made it a pivot on which empires turn. Prague has been a cog within the Holy Roman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazism’s Greater Germany, and the Soviet Empire. The little nation has also been a pawn international alliances have been all too willing to sacrifice. This geopolitical vulnerability and the Machiavellian chicanery by The Great Powers has cultivated a cynical and paranoid literary heritage. Prague has Franz Kafka and the Vienna has Karl Kraus, two writers of genius giving voice to the anxiety, insanity, and bigotry calcifying within the sclerotic husk of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of the Great War.
Blecha, aka The Bugman, rants about recent history in his rooftop bower. He tells Némec:
“Pogroms, just like with the Zhids, justified & legalised by that witless Beneš & his eighty-something decrees. They drove around in trucks, like Henlein’s thugs before Munich, spreading the Fear. Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer! Only now it was for the sake of the greater Sklavic socialist brotherhood. Heil Stalin! Švejks the lot of ‘em.”
Later in the novel, Armand switches the frequency to that of legend and tells the story of Chesk & Lesk. These two “bucktoothed, pimply, skinnyarsed brothers from the shtetl of Chełm [were] trudging across the flat middle of fair Europa” and “happened upon a giant beetroot sticking out of the ground.”
Seizing the Means of Production; or, Applied Groucho Marxism
And here’s where we talk about political ideologies. Poor Němec, during the Communist years, was subject to “the official phrenologists who visited the Home on a monthly basis.” He exhibited the traits
“of the counter-revolutionary bourgeois parasite in utero, so to speak, the diabolic egg waiting to hatch, programmed in its very genome by 1. a wilful subjversion of the People & the State, 2. a congenital exceptionalism, 3. an ingrained unnatural attachment to the first-person pronoun singular, 4. a characteristic refusal to muck in with all the other proles to get the collective dirty work done of building the Great Socialist Utopia.”
When finally freed of the gray claws of Soviet Communist oppression, he finds himself in a Prague awash in capitalism and democracy. Great, right? As the Bugman says early in the novel, “All ideologies are false, but some are more false than others.” (Echoing Karl Kraus’s aphorism about truths and half-truths.)
What did the Wall crumbling bring? The words of the prophets are written on the urinal walls:
“We Luv Amerika is the writing in public lavatories, cheek-by-jowl with smiley faces, telephone numbers & promises of handjobs, blowjobs, sodomy & coprophilia. The whole City was like the last stop in a shoestring road-movie running on fumes: Aňa Geislerová in a gangbanged Trabi, coal-stained Bohee tricolours tied to the exhaust pipe, Yankeedoodle stars&stripes undies waving from the aerial, doped-out hippy rainbow freedom bunting strung out the windows, Bolshie-Go-Home graffitied all over the doors, ghettoblaster blasting a medley of Franco Zapatista & late ‘80s backmasked Western Imperialist Record industry mindwash”
Armand exposes the two major ideologies of the last century – Soviet Communism and Western free-market capitalism – and turns them into burlesque. Beneath the empty slogans and commodified distractions lay only savagery and power games. The Great Recession has taken the gloss off of Post-Cold War Capitalist Triumphalism, but Capitalism remains the better of the two systems. Not the best. It also depends on selling the sales pitch. Movers and shakers in Western democracies – businessmen, politicians, etc. – commiserated with the Soviet nomenklatura during detente.
It is naïve to claim there’s no major difference between the two major systems, but it also naïve to claim one sided acted with more honor and ethics than the other side. The Soviets had their Eastern Bloc tinpot dictatorships acting at their behest; the United States had their South American dictators acting the same way. The Combinations just has the balls to say both systems suck. To borrow the famous Tolstoy line from Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Neither system has yet to provide a pain-free way of attaining the New Jerusalem, so stop trying to sell us on that.
Esoterica, Kabbalah, John Dee, Emperor Rudolf II, the Voynich Manuscript, and a Dwarf
“Like many who court the avant garde, Armand ends up disappointingly conservative. There’s little that feels new, even in spite of the relentless tide of name-checking and references. It’s all rats, alcohol, asylums, Mitteleurope, masons, Faust, alchemy, dingy laboratories, Enoch, Babbage, Hermes Trismegistus, John Dee, Rorschach blots, the sphinx, mysterious bookstores … It’s sometimes obscure, but mainly predictable.” – Sam Jordison, The Guardian
Yes, well, what were you expecting? Is this a genuine complaint? Or is this akin to saying, “Bullitt was a relentless tide of shootouts and car chases.” Or complaining film noir is too noir.
Granted, the name-checking and references can be a bit much to some readers, but it all depends on what the reader wants. The same charge can be laid against Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, and the TV show Community, a show easily renamed as Pop Culture Reference: The Series. Jordison may be implying that all the references result in creating a work largely derivative, thus undeserving of its ambition to shoulder its way into the heroic pantheon of the literary avant garde. (But since Ulysses is fast approaching its centenary, doesn’t the additional accusation of the text’s inherent conservatism [because conservative = old] come across as bad faith?)
With all the conspiracies, wunderkammern, history, and relics filling the novel, Ezra Pound’s command to “MAKE IT NEW.” seem rather ill-placed. Němec finds himself imprisoned in the nightmare of history. Even awake, the differences, for him at least, remain superficial. Instead of struggling beneath the jackboot of Nazism or the Russification during Soviet rule, Golem City lay beneath the warm blanket of Capitalism and Democracy. “New boss / Same as the old boss,” to quote the Who song.
All the meandering, digression, and conspiracy place The Combinations more in line with a penny dreadful or a potboiler. Yet it is replete with stylistic tomfoolery and typographic variety one would see in a Danielewski or Vollmann novel. The massive novel is neither an innovative experimental work or a more traditional exemplar of bourgeois kitchen sink realism. It is neither and both, thus creating a Žižekian “short-circuit.” As the MIT Press Short Circuit series explains:
A short circuit occurs when there is a wrong connection in the network—wrong, of course, from the standpoint of the smooth functioning of the network. Is therefore the shock of short circuiting not one of the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most efficient critical procedures to cross wires that don’t usually touch—to take a major classic (text, author, notion) and read it in a short circuiting way, through the lenses of a “minor” author, text, or conceptual apparatus (“minor” in the sense of marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, dealing with a “lower,” less dignified topic)?
Armand achieves a kind of literary short circuit when he takes a major classic (Ulysses) and refracts it through the lens of Prague (itself replete with minor literatures: Kafka, Čapek, Meyrink; and marginalized/disavowed conceptual apparatuses: wunderkammern, conspiracy theory, cabaret, chess, alchemy, etc.). Hence Jordison’s unalloyed snark and frustration. Unable to place the work in a predetermined taxonomic box, he throws his hands up in the air and dismisses it as an overwritten doorstopper written by a wannabe James Joyce. (But does Louis Armand want to be James Joyce? It seems odd to accuse the writer of being a stylistic conservative and throwing up a novel written in 1922 as the exemplar of the literary avant garde.)
The digressions about the Voynich Manuscript, alchemy, and esoteric lore give the novel a leisurely breathing space. Like other readers, I was disappointed by The Da Vinci Code, not because of its subject matter, but because Dan Brown is a terrible writer. The Combinations hit the right spot with me. It offered conspiracies, relics, historical and mythical digressions, and ranting characters, in addition to a reckless willingness to do things unburdened by commercial demands or expectations. By turns erudite, infuriating, silly, and decadent, the novel offers the reader a feast for the imagination. The greatest pleasure is rereading passages from the book, refreshing my memory since finishing it so many months ago.
Structured around the conceit of the chess game, The Combinations by Louis Armand symbolizes the endgame of the literary epic. The massive tome didn’t necessarily resolve itself in a traditional denouement. If I remember correctly, Némec discovers a trove of Voynich Manuscripts hidden in a dumpy apartment. His ghostly friend, the Prof, had a hand in creating black market Voynich Manuscripts to sell to Nazi relic hunters. And then the novel succumbs to its own inertia, Němec losing the will to move … to exist … to be.
For all its Joycean majesty and Rabelaisian excess, the novel ends in a sort of riff on Malone Dies:
He’d never been any good at elegant solutions, born haphazard & always wise after the fact. The only real question was what the situation required to complete itself.
But if all that was left was this
(here, in this present & no other)
alone with a wall,
keeping to the facts. …?
A wall & nothing.
A no thing.
Thereafter follows the Coda, to “spiral-off into some lugubrious mirrormaze of the baser emotions.” After the Beckettian elegance of the last lines, the Coda strips off the costumes, throws on the house lights, and exposes the narrative as nothing more than a literary contrivance. (Mirroring the Renaissance automaton of the Overture.)
All is artifice! All is vanity!
Yes … and …?
The Combinations is a Big Book with Big Ideas. The challenge thrown down by this epic of baroque complexity is twofold. It exposes the raw artificiality of the fictional narrative. It draws the reader in with conspiracies, labyrinths, comic relief, erudition, esoterica, dick jokes, suicide, decadence, drunkenness, Nazis, Commies, Capitalist pig-dogs, and much much more in its overwhelming muchness. It draws you in and then throws you out. Jerking the carpet from beneath your feet. Second, does these postmodernist shenanigans, themselves wrapped around and within a traditional narrative, make criticism and analysis an act of futility? Or is aiming for a totalizing critique a Sisyphusean errand? Academics and fans are still plucking out new insights from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake all these decades later…