25 Points: The Mandarin

The Mandarin
by Aaron Kunin
Fence Books, 2008
209 pages / $17.95 buy from Fence







1) Language is a form of disobedience.

2) Or: words have no loyalty. Or: language facilitates perversity. Or: to speak is to be reminded of language’s inescapable techné. Or: to employ language is to court malfunction. Or: to write is to run the risk of making more sense than you ever intended. Or: language is always on the cusp of being carried away. Or: talking is almost always talking back. Or: language was designed in emulation of water, a force, a flow without shape but the rare ability to hunt direction down and wear it out. Or: nothing could be more nonsensical than if our every utterance were understood literally. Or: you teach a child to say “no” at your own peril; those early “no“‘s are no ventriloquism act. Or: the so-called precise word is precisely that, so-called, a chimera. Or: to speak is to confuse irrevocably the matter of whether one is announcing something before it happens, or whether one is announcing something as a way of compelling its presence to coincide with its occurrence.

3) Aaron Kunin’s novel The Mandarin is a self-conscious (perhaps even sentient) construction of language, some phenomena I wish to differentiate from the notion of a linguistic construction… For I want the suggest that The Mandarin is more like a self-organizing discourse than it is a “work” composed-slash-authored. The Mandarin is thus less a novel as commonly defined in terms of “long story” than it is an exercise in novel-ese, or the novel as style. This is not to say that either text or author fail in any way to fully realize whatever metaphysical potential is latent in the novel-as-form. Rather, what I want to claim for this book is that it is a brilliant, occasionally scathing, yet ultimately poignant tribute to the inherent limitations of an imagination whose eide and eidola alike are utterly—dimensionally—verbal.

4) Or: The Mandarin is an exceptionally manneristic “novel of manners.”

5) Or: if you squint at it in the proper way, this is a conceptual novel. Kunin supplies a 3-page synopsis that you need not read past, excepting you wish to satisfy your curiosity regarding the novel’s execution. Quoted in full, however, I find that this explanation is just a scheme for disclosing a question that, in order to be dramatic, cannot remain undisclosed; that is, must be secret, only formerly. Is this synopsis a lie?

6) In a sense, the book is naming itself every time one look at its cover or spine, insisting that it has to remind you that it is a novel, a book that has to be taken “seriously.” And, as much as this title’s prodding is about a kind of salesmanship, the relationship between word and world is more suspect than that. Most “things” can’t speak the way a book can, nor do they suffer the arc of the Lomans. (The main character and narrator upon whom Kunin depends is a Willy.)

7) And what is a mandarin anyway? A living etymology, thus a kind of fossil, a word that survives despite going largely unused; a museum exhibit that does not have to be put on wheels because it installs itself everywhere around you the moment you decide to judge it into being. (And every time you recall Henry James.). Mandarin: it’s a pejorative, and what makes our mandarins so worthy of disdain—and so funny—is the complete un-self-consciousness (rather: blind narcissism) of the pose. Such is pedantry, this trying-so-hard-all-you-do-is-drown-flailing-in-gelatinous-effort. Even if taken as an adjective, “mandarin” is a point-of-view compact in its three syllables. An evaluation, and a coping with something which looks familiar but which we, uttering, would like to believe has naught to do with us or our position. But the use of a term like this is a power-play: it elevates us, uttering, to some superior vantage from which we can describe a sham noble. And phoniness makes of such rare essence the cheapest cardboard: what a noun like “elitism” names, just as that The here qualifies and specifies. So I think.

8) As one reads, one discovers that The Mandarin is a novel-in-conversation, but it could not be more different in tone and (apparent) intent than similar “experiments” such as Duras’ The Square or Gaddis’ JR, to take but two examples. For the exchanges here do not move toward revelation via vaguely Socratic gestures; unlike The Square, very little is asked in The Mandarin. Instead, much is pronounced. But neither does the narrator evince an obsessive’s commitment to “how people really talk”, the kind of photorealistic prose that, in Gaddis, turns everything into plastic and a kind of dense, you’ll-knock-your-knee-or-elbow-against-it nausea.

9) Rather, Kunin, through careful application of a few linguistic effects, seems to be after a parody of novelistic prosody. Example: here are “characters” who speak without relying on contractions.

“I have written a play for Natasha,” said Hallamore. (9) “Without our burnt offerings,” said Mercy, “St. Peter would have to eat in the kitchen.” “St. Peter must love abandoned restaurants, because he made so many of them,” said Hallamore. (13)

Perhaps it is not so much that contractions are absent here, absence in this instance implying a forgetting, or a negligence: a grammar active, but only in the form of exiting / having left the stage. Rather, the contractions feel avoided. They have been deliberately excluded, so long as the characters retain control of their emotions or do slip from the perch of their poses.

And there’s softness for you: shit. [Mercy speaking] (5)

10) Grammar is being acted upon. All of which reinforces or superimposes again, needlessly, the presence of authors, narrators and characters (the narrator, Willy, writes novels that may also be soporifics), the last two of which are authors manqué anyway.

11) So, The Mandarin invents, over and over again, realms of conversation which are not “conversational” as that expectation has been created by the majority rule of contemporary American literary fiction. Instead, they are words in a novel, have the pretense of being “real”, vocal, but belong to no voice, only to the text itself. They are neither interior nor exterior to anyone involved here: characters, narrator, author, readers. They have hollowed out some third space which they then must occupy. And how they do sprawl all over the elapsed Minneapolis of The Mandarin in setting up residence where they once lived.

12) Chekhov, quoting De Maupassant in The Seagull: “And it goes without saying that it is as dangerous for society people to pamper and encourage writers of novels, as it is for corn merchants to breed rats in their granaries.” What Maupassant means, I think, is that nothing uttered in a novelist’s presence, no matter how inane, innocuous or intended to be impermanent, is ever innocent. Almost as if the novelist him-/herself, in his/her compulsion to transform every experience into “material” (and, in The Seagull, it is Trigorin, the writer but also perhaps the least aesthetic of the play’s characters, who gives eloquent expression to how dissatisfying existence in that minor circle of Hell—The Realm Of The Once-Removed—is), destroys the order that ensures the social, and precisely by recording that order. Preserving it. Rendering it perceptible. In other words, much of what is “said” in novels is the normally-unsaid posing as the enunciated. Call it subtext, or circumlocution, or the dictates of repression. Perhaps this explains why Kunin’s various voices all aim for a narrational authority—to speak in the voice of the book—to escape the quotation marks between which they are condemned to appear. Or: the quotations marks which are the basic condition of their appearance.

13) The only way out of the prison of voice for these characters is via another kind of constraint, a volunteered-for deafness to themselves, and themselves only. This is quite different, I think, from a phenomenon we often note in “bad” novels: that all the characters baldly ventriloquize for the author and the author’s agenda. The authenticity of any given literary voice is always fraught with artifice. Is Kunin’s point—or one of his points—that the real, in its dreams of power, always aspires to be ideal?  That seems awfully heavy for a book filled with voices that have a certain frothiness to them.

14) But do the subjects of The Mandarin actually qualify as people, much less constitute a family (brothers and sisters), i.e., a miniature society? Hard to know in a novel such as this, in which setting is so ghostly, and “society” is constantly in a state of dysfunction. I.e., unstable, all positions contested if out of grasp.

15) On page 162 of The Mandarin, it occurred to me to write: “If it is true of most novels that one need not read every word, then how much more true in this novel. A novel, from a certain poetic perspective, is a tremendous waste of language. And breath. The novel as a rubber dinghy that can never be inflated, hand to mouth.” This is not to say that The Mandarin‘s language is not painstaking. But one feels this meticulousness most whenever Willy (also known as Aaron and Flavio), Hallamore, Mercy and Natasha (who only speaks in one chapter) become participants in dialogue… as conducted by the Marx Brothers on barbiturates. So, where does this waste accumulate? In the novelistic convention of “he said,” “she said,” and “I said,” of course. This constant marking or accounting (I originally wrote “flag-planting”) punctuates every vocalization, and in only one of two ways. A) Fermata: “Spoken falsely,” said Mercy, “like a true novelist.” (66); B) Decrescendo: “There’s not enough room for truth in the novel!” I said. (66).

16) I suspect Kunin wants to direct our attention to this clutter, this clatter, the busy hands of identification. And I will confess that there are times when it is easier and more enjoyable to read this novel as a rhythmically supple weave of interruptions and underminings. To hear it as a subtly modulating drone of “I / he / she said”‘s rather than a play of pretend voices.

17) But what happens as your attention penetrates further and further into a drone, which is, from one vantage, just silence in an excited state? Individual particles (or is it valences?) begin to emerge and command or at least magnetize the attention. I would say The Mandarin is quite comparable to a filed of coded information, the dimensions of which make it impossible to “take in” in any perceiving’s present. As any novel is… further, I think of the first time I experienced Robert Altman’s Nashville and its multi-tracked, “natural” (an authenticity artificially crafted) sound. I knew I was hearing many different voices speaking simultaneously, over-lapping, at times canceling each other out—sensibly, and at the level of frequency and wavelength—even as I could not actually perceive all those voices in all their difference all at once. And, were I to try and puzzle each voice out (to “read every word”, truly), I would miss the more crucial if hazier effect.

18) Since this novel is not about elaborating any sort of plot, why are these attributions necessary at all?  If no one is actually going to be affected or incited to change by what anyone else says—and saying is all that occurs here—why is it important to keep one voice sorted from another?  As Kunin notes in his prefatory synopsis, only when these characters agree on what is happening in their world—read: are all playing the same game, each equally a contestant—does the story achieve any propulsion. In fact, this possibility haunts the book, this suspicion that The Mandarin is actually one of Willy’s novels. What difference is there, if any, between this narrator Willy and the author, Willy, of such unread (within The Mandarin) titles as Sick of Irony, a novel?

19) But what is one of the cardinal rules of narrative? “Agreement makes for poor stories.” And, true, the agreement to which Kunin refers scratches out a space in which these these voices jockey most fully for co-existence. Agreement for the sake of a differentiating disagreement, or, conflict for the sake of conflict. Perforce, imitation—a weapon most cruelly and expertly wielded by children and idiots—injects protecting coloring into what would otherwise be a dispiriting or spiritless sameness, making that sameness rational… just as all warfare is.

“I’m making fun of you, Willy!” said Mercy. “I’m imitating you!” “You don’t know me well enough to make fun of me,” I said. “In fact, I love it when you make fun of me, because it only shows how little you understand me.” “I know you well enough to telephone you,” said Mercy. “So I can make fun of you even if I don’t understand you.” (124)

20) Or: Kunin (better: The Mandarin) likes to repeat phrases and certain syntactical formulae, and have them pass from character to character, too, like a benign parasite. This wandering anaphora confuses consciousness, of course, but it also creates a certain continuity, and it certainly gives the prose here a distinctive cadence. Because metaphor does not seem to work or be terrible relevant in this fallen Midwestern metropolis, parroting serves as a characteristic trope here. The emphasis remains, again, not so much on the personalities behind or responsible for the words, but the words’ as wearable, discardable characters… the sheets these ghosts are donning as they float up and down these corridors that are actually closed to their haunting (so they keep bumping into things, maybe because, Schulz-style, they forgot to cut eye-holes in those sheets.)

“You’ve become a Board of Welfare for me,” I said. “You control my thoughts by making it impossible for me to think of anything else.” “I must learn to content myself with proximity,” said Mercy. “To become indispensable… until there’s no difference between the contents of our heads, yours and mine.” “Being inside a person’s head is not the same as knowing a person,” said Hallamore. “It’s not even a way of knowing.” (125)

21) And, as I read more and more, I feel this is becoming a “bigger deal”: are these characters jockeying for the power to narrate, to write their own novel?  Or is to be a narrator to put in a kind of straitjacket, forced by form to repeat the obvious, to be redundant, with every action?

22) Oh, and objects speak in The Mandarin. They deliver dialogue. They offer commentary. They hail and farewell. They name. And these objects speak more like recognizable human beings than the novel’s ostensibly human actors. Maybe because the objects are given some rather funny lines. “Great wine, Flavio,” said the Christmas cactus. “Yeah, not from concentrate,” said the dust-ruffle.” (150). Yes, these toenail clippings, T.V. sets and so forth are comic characters in a rather traditional novelistic sense. They are Forster-flat, and are possessed of more exaggerated linguistic capabilities than the ostensibly creative, adaptive, “fleshy” characters here. Really, Shakespeare is being invoked… the depth of shallowness when it comes to relief. A fool will say anything, thank god. And, always, always, Kunin’s characters are talking without saying-qua-materializing. They are always talking about speaking, as if speaking begins and ends with explaining.


What is certain is that the characters are speaking—and the speaker is always clearly identified—but it’s never certain that their speech accurately describes the situation in which they are speaking. They may be talking about what they’re actually doing in the place where they’re really standing [read: narrating], or they may be remembering or imagining something they did or would like to be doing in another place [read: acting]. (ii)

24) I have just finished reading The Mandarin. It is a much more tragic book than I could have allowed myself to imagine.

25) Do we really know what we’re volunteering for when we say, so blithely, that novels are capable of a “greater truth”, of materializing it? Or: language is a machine, perhaps even the primal machine. And novels are particularly complex instances of heavy industry, constructed out of many intricate, minuscule parts that have been wrought out of some obdurate, graceless material. A contraption powered by steam, poised in its reproductions between the noxious and the efficient. Novels manufacture consciousness, and this novel is somehow no different. Except The Mandarin is very different in the way it runs its assembly line. So long as one reads The Mandarin, one remains in the same predicament as The Mandarin‘s characters, trapped, coerced, a servant and a mouthpiece. Yet, reading or not, as creatures never apart from the levering power of language, this is our common predicament. Our realization of this dependency may or may not be cathartic, but surely it counts as anagnorisis, and a most ennobling brand of irony.


Joe Milazzo is the author of The Terraces (Das Arquibancadas) (Little Red Leaves Textile Series, 2012). His writings have appeared in H_NGM_N, The Collagist, Drunken Boat, Black Clock, and elsewhere. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is

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