When I think about different world cataclysms (cataclysmic for the human species, anyway)—natural disaster, famine, nuclear fallout, genocide, slavery—the idea usually resides in some abstract part of my brain. In any event, it’s usually nicely framed. It seems there are few reasons to feel immediately concerned by the prospect of a major disaster. I’m living in a home, and a country, and a relatively safe historical moment for people in my demographic. Even those of us who discuss the possibilities from a privileged historical and socioeconomic position usually reserve real urgency—the material kind—for a later, never-to-arrive date. That’s probably a fair position to take for the time being for people like us, even if it is cynical and myopic. But if you’re interested in writing Marxist post-apocalyptic fiction, or if you want to make people feel immediately concerned about the ahistorical reality of humanity’s failure, which usually presents itself at the bleak and neglected margins of the event horizon (which is temporal as well as spatial), then it would seem to be of the greatest importance to make that reality feel both immediate and visceral. In Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels we find ourselves thrown into a strange world composed of forty-nine short stories, which Volodine calls “narracts.” The novel takes place in the centuries-old wake of an apocalyptic event, after the rise and fall of Communism. In this world, Volodine’s characters (which feel more like ghosts, fading into and out of identity with one another and even with the author—who contains many of his own pseudonymous creations) are left to cope with the aftermath. While the event that led the world and its forty-nine survivors to their current condition is never precisely or definitively articulated in the text—something to do with nuclear fission, maybe?—it becomes clear that the mysterious narrators of Minor Angels are coping in very real, strange, and uncanny ways with the fallout of the disaster which is humanity at large. In this way Volodine makes the wages of his text boldly universal while we, the readers, are left to sift through the wreckage of the disaster.
In the twenty-second of Volodine’s narracts, the text performs a metafictional gesture that goes beyond our typical understanding of the metafictional impulse as a reflexive act. Narrated by Nayadja Aghatourane, we soon learn that the text’s relationship to the world outside its borders is much more complicated, interesting, and affective than that:
Twenty-one, and soon twenty-two strange narracts, no more than one each day, composed by Will Scheidmann in your presence, and when I say Will Scheidmann I am of course thinking of myself. (68)
So if we map it out, the narrator of this narract is telling the reader that her act of narration is in fact being narrated by Will Scheidmann, and that this is all being done in the presence of a “you.” And then we can’t forget the image of Volodine himself sitting down to write his forty-nine narracts, “no more than one each day.” The reason this metafictional impulse reads differently than something we might have seen in a story twenty or thirty years ago is that the reflexive act isn’t presented as an event to be discovered but as something taken for granted, an inexorable, omnipresent reality that is always at work in the text.
On the most basic narrative level, while living in a nursing home Will Scheidmann’s witch- and fury-like grandmothers have created Scheidmann through an act of magic in the hope that he’ll save the world from destruction. Instead of doing this Scheidmann eventually restores the fundamental dynamics of the capitalist system, to the detriment of the world at large. As punishment for his decision to reestablish the capitalist order, Scheidmann is sentenced to death by firing squad, but at the last instant, with their guns drawn, the grandmothers change their mind. Rather than executing him for his crime, Scheidmann’s grandmothers listen to Scheidmann as he recites the forty-nine narracts that make up the entire text of Minor Angels. This makes the grandmothers the subjects of the second person narration quoted above. So, when the “when I say Will Scheidmann I am of course thinking of myself” moment arrives (and moments of destabilized and disseminated identities like this—both human and non-human in nature—are profuse throughout the forty-nine narracts of Minor Angels), it isn’t just another transparent reflexive meta-textual moment at play. In a way it’s actually the opposite. It’s the text’s refusal to recognize its creator. It’s a deflection or déplacement of the narrator, the arranger, the author. The text tells us, and I paraphrase: “It isn’t me who’s writing this. It’s her. No, it’s him. No, it’s him.” The text never stops pointing fingers. The text is a refusal, a coping mechanism. And if we can agree on this point then it starts to look like the whole of Minor Angels is a kind of diary of coping mechanisms, written within a historical reality from which the bleak end is always already playing itself out.
As the twenty-second narract continues, it’s hard not to see the world described as our own. The walls are down, but it’s as though there’s no one there to see what has been left:
I would have liked someone to speak to me of the men and women I’d told of, [I would have liked them to say to me]: ‘We also belong to the dying humanity you describe, we too have come to this point, to these final moments of dispersion and nonexistence,’ or else ‘You were right to show how the joy of remaking the world has been stolen away from us forever.’ But there was no on whispering beside me, no one encouraging me to continue. I was alone, and suddenly began to regret it.’ (69)
Is this a story about the bleak end of humanity and its world, or is it about the deep solitude and loneliness of one anachronistic person, or is it about the end of literature and of the generative act of creation itself? We ask ourselves the question, and the answer has to be “Yes.”
At the end of the twenty-second narract, Nayadja Aghatourane asks Scheidmann: “‘[W]hat are these strange narracts you’re hoodwinking us with? Why strange? … Why are they strange?’” (70) And Scheidmann, a moment later, narrates: “I wanted to answer Nayadja Aghatourane, to scream through the hot night that strangeness is the form taken by beauty when beauty has no hope, but I kept my mouth shut, and I waited” (70). Our current social and political moment has been inundated with the rhetoric of hope, but I can’t think of the idea as anything but vulgar. The idea of hope existing in a world where the suffering we inflict on one another and the suffering we inflict on the planet knows no limit and is literally always under way seems entirely cynical and without any cause beyond the establishment of political consensus through the dissemination of an easily digestible message that requires nothing from its recipients but that they continue to demand convenience. It is just this kind of insipid rhetoric that leaves us utterly drained of vitality and finally, as Volodine reminds us, of “the joy of remaking the world [which] has been stolen away from us forever.” Hope is a malady, a pervasive illness, the antipode of the vital energy that is needed to imagine another world.
The revolutionary potential of the original metafictional project had to do with the idea that the reflexive act or the breaking of the fourth wall would somehow incite a real life discourse about political, historical, cultural, and even metaphysical realities. But in fact it revealed its weakness as soon as it became a plaything for consumer culture at large. All of this is skillfully discussed in David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Plurum,” where he describes the ease with which a commercial viewer understands a reflexive joke about the commercial-as-commercial. (“I’m selling you a Coke. You totally understand the medium.” The pretty girl winks.) Volodine refuses to play by the rules of metafiction, instead making the fictional world he’s created so air tight that the reader comes back to reality not by metafictional reflection or refraction but through full and utter immersion.
If metafiction in its traditional structure performed a kind of Hegelian dialectical play between “reality” and “fiction,” then Volodine’s Minor Angels works more like Walter Benjamin’s famous dialectical image. Benjamin describes this image as an image that enacts “dialectics at a standstill,” where an opening of history to something outside of time reasserts itself within the still life of modernity’s relentless sameness. For Benjamin, this revolutionary potential is realized with an image that exists outside of the vulgar succession of temporal events. It is the revolutionary image, an image that tries to establish true, messianic history. It is the interruptive image of Volodine’s text, then, that makes Minor Angels so arresting, so alive with potential, so impossible to be co-opted or inscribed into any kind of vulgar historical, literary, or philosophical program.
So if Scheidmann’s statement is true, if strangeness is the form taken by beauty when beauty has no hope, then the strange field where strange figures lurk is also the field from which real, disruptive activity is provoked. Or rather, even more strongly, the strange figures are themselves disruptive activity, rhetorical tremors that shake the body from the boredom and complacency of living here right now:
I propose no ideology of poetic distortion or of magical or metaphorical transmutation of the world. I speak the language of today and none other. Everything I tell you here is one hundred percent true, whether I say it partially, or allusively, or pretentiously, or barbarically, or whether I turn circles around it without really saying it. Everything happened exactly as I described it, everything has already taken place just like this at some point of your life or mine, or will take place later, in reality or in our dreams. In that sense, it’s all very simple. The images speak for themselves, without artifice; they contain nothing other than themselves and those speaking. (138-139)
This is literature at its most basic, a bare bones display of literature as such. It’s Volodine, the anachronistic revolutionary performing an homage to what’s lost but at the same time carrying out an impulse that strives toward another possible world. Old fairy tales worked this way when they first arrived to the reading public. They were filled with arcane figures that navigated their way through strange worlds. It was only later that they took on the cultural weight of allegory. Volodine leaves this task to the reader, the task both of interpretation and of being in the world. And since we have already decided that hope is not our operative term here, it has to be something else, a kind of striving against all reason toward something other than what exists here right now.
The penultimate narract of Minor Angels ends with what seems to be an authentic, single entendre call to its readers:
Fred Zenfl’s books […] often…depict the landscapes of abjection where those who made it through the abjection alive were forced to live and breathe, and you’ll also find some marvelous scenes of sensual tenderness, because in spite of everything these novels do not always refuse to speak of amorous fidelity and memory, they’re build on what’s left when nothing is left, but they depend entirely on you to be admirable. (161)
When Volodine says that the full meaning of Minor Angels will be found not in the book’s pages but in the dreams people will have after reading it, he puts the burden of proof on the reading public, on humanity at large, to take part in the creative act. Creation is a regenerative act. It is an act of revolutionary praxis, Volodine reminds us, and in searching for the joy of remaking the world we would do well to dwell awhile in the marginal spaces of our own dreams, of fairy tales, of ideas and language and spectral figures before they’re subsumed by the violence and creative scarcity of capitalism, fascism, or any oppressive reality at all.
Robert James Shaw lives, works, and writes in Providence, Rhode Island, where he’s an MFA candidate at Brown. You can find him and talk to him here and around Providence generally.