Month: October 2021

Jessi Jezewska Stevens, The Exhibition of Persephone Q

Percy gets a book of pictures. Are they of her? Nobody knows. She’s captured nevertheless. The photographs—which are one photo digitally altered to look like a woman lying unaffected in her bed as her bright red room and the New York skyline deteriorate around her—don’t include her face. Percy recognizes the room, and then herself, in the photos, while couching this claim in admissions that she lacks a sense of self: she has no long-term plans, no strong opinions, it took her a long time to understand ambition, her own name at some point slipped away from her (in the novel she goes by the name given to the woman in the picture by the photographer, her former fiancé). Identifying herself with the photographed woman, however, gives her some power of assertion, the wherewithal to insist to her friends, her fiancé, the gallery, the press that she is Persephone Q. The ambiguity of these images, and the ensuing doubts expressed by those around her, do nothing to dampen her insistence. In fact, they spur her forward. An image from nowhere, a take from another that she takes to be about her—it’s enough to impart sustained direction to Percy’s otherwise reactive, drifting life, and enough to make her defend the fragile momentum she receives from the photograph’s wake.

But she’s ready to be taken when the momentum arrives, with no anchoring self to resist the pull of the image. In the middle of the novel Percy checks the responses to her comment on a beauty blog asking about waxing. She finds the thread so derailed that she’s received a tl;dr from Incognito Mode David Hume, who explains that Percy will never get a definitive answer on proper waxing frequency because our idea of ourselves is composed of nothing but sense data, linked over time by chains of association and anticipation, so she should abandon the hope of certainty for mere probabilities. The novel has been employing this theory of self from the start: the short chapters are assembled from brief, discontinuous paragraphs containing Percy’s impressions of an action or two, some dialogue, maybe a judgment. Bit by bit Percy’s character accrues, fitfully, erratically. Her husband Misha’s startup operates on the same model of selfhood: using cookies to aggregate views, clicks, and sales, ad companies produce probabilistic models of user behavior from elementary acts and perceptions. Misha’s company encrypts personal data, to make it more tolerable to shoppers that online retailers store so much information about them. But the fact that this information can be encrypted and remain useful, that a theory about who you are can be advanced without anyone knowing who you are, wasn’t something that internet advertisers did to people. It’s something startups discovered about people as they found them, selves that were already particulate and fortuitous.

At the end of the first part, Percy’s tenuous identity suffers a crisis when she confronts her fiancé and he has no idea what she’s talking about. Her personhood granulates back into a mass of expectations. She attempts to reconsolidate her ego on the floor of her fiancé’s apartment through a long narration of her life, from her mother’s death until she quits her job at the auction house. This account is supposed to give heft and consequence to her biography, infusing it with density so it can bear the weight of truth. But the gambit fails: only a handful of details from this narration exist outside the second part, and her life in the rest of the novel is impacted trivially by the events described here. The only immediate result of this narration is recalling a scar that her fiancé could locate by magnifying the originals; she’s left staring at a cluster of ambiguous pixels.

Percy’s telling of her life fits nowhere, thirty pages of self-contemplation jammed edgewise into a novel where the longest unbroken run of text beforehand was an empiricist’s copypasta. She calls this spurious biography “the other exhibition, the one that couldn’t be viewed.” It cannot be viewed and is therefore irrelevant: all that counts is what can be represented in the image, or recorded as data that prioritizes what is viewed. Percy’s self-narration resembles nothing so much as an overstuffed bio in a social media account, where it’s not disallowed to write all of that, specifically, but the UI does everything possible to prevent anyone from ever reading it, because stories are no longer significant. You can understand why someone would think otherwise: there are so many stories circulating in the economy, sometimes with such fervor accompanying even the most blatantly commercial of them, that they seem profoundly important. Stories can shape and change and radically transform specific varieties of personhood, but we don’t have any of those. Stories slip between the swarm of experiences we call ourselves without affecting them very much. We sit just prior to, or just beneath, being narratable.

In the last chapter, Percy is wandering the city, and happens on her acquaintance Buck, whose face is marred by a frostbite sore. She benevolently dupes him into accompanying her to the hospital where he can finally receive medical attention from a doctor she knows. Returning home, she regrets never having joined Misha metal detecting on the Rockaways. Now, sure that he’s going to leave her, she fantasizes about both of them side-by-side exploring endless coasts of junk: “The world was trash…There was never enough…yet how much remained for us to sift, to sort.” Her “other exhibition” having effected nothing, Percy dreams of the world as an abundance of cruft, mingling by chance, heaping ever higher with time, that we endlessly search for valuables. Her tricking Buck was one such valuable, a nice serendipity in Percy’s collection, a disfigured gentleman and her physician friend; her marriage to Misha is another; so is their unborn child.  It’s a gentle resignation, even a welcoming one. But it’s a resignation made by selves submersed in nostalgia for when these trinkets amounted to more than a hoard.

Michel Houellebecq, Serotonin

Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin is an update on Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours. The premise is the same—wealthy Parisian severs himself from a declining civilization—even if the mechanism of their flight necessarily differs. The hermetic isolation that A Rebours’ Des Esseintes achieves wouldn’t work here, but Serotonin’s Florent-Claude Labrouste manages the same effect by quitting his job, setting up a new bank account, and ghosting his girlfriend. The ending of Huysmans’ novel, however, has somehow become too optimistic for Houellebecq. Reviewing A Rebours, Barbey d’Aurevilly famously remarked that having written this book, the only options left for Huysmans were the pistol or the cross. Houellebecq suggests that the intervening hundred and forty years have made another response more plausible.

The most obvious inroad for theological comment on Serotonin is its overtly religious conclusion, which describes the cross as Jesus’ last-ditch effort to warn human beings against letting our hearts become hard. Most of the novel follows the hardening of Florent-Claude’s heart, in the sense that he insulates himself from encounters that could change him. In A Rebours, Des Esseintes decamps from Paris and designs a mansion that will make further interaction with the human race unnecessary. Florent-Claude uses a drug, Captorix, which makes him capable of routine daily behavior but otherwise mutes his emotional responses. He doesn’t need to literally remove himself from society; society happens around him, without him becoming entangled. It makes it easy for him to live at a distance, and he often describes events that way—through the remove of memory, or viewed through a rifle’s sight. He watches from a hilltop as his last friend publicly kills himself, and then spends the following chapters processing this death through its media coverage. His final act in the novel is printing out a selection of his digital photos and gluing them to the wall of the apartment where he’ll die, a facsimile of a Facebook album. The album depicts the ossification of his heart, now impenetrable to any further “surge of love” from God; his life as a completed story, finished and irrevocable.

This obvious tack from the novel’s peroration, however, needs to be supplemented by Florent-Claude’s complaint in the middle—that God is a mediocrity, and that all creation “bears the stamp of approximation and failure.” The specific failure for which he there indicts God is his breakup with Camille. But this relationship and its end don’t occur in a vacuum. Camille first turns to Florent-Claude after witnessing the horror of a French poultry farm that supplies eggs to Canada and Saudi Arabia. They break up because Florent-Claude cheats on her with a woman from the British delegation he meets on EU business in Brussels. This is the lousy scriptwriting that he attributes to God: clichés thickly plastered over with exotic detail. Yet “God” here is simply the globalized market: every scenario in the novel that Florent-Claude endures is latticed into the framework of international trade and its consequences. This Absolute accumulated from regulatory commissions, partnership agreements, global competition, etc., links all persons and nations together through transactions and redistributions that are far from optimal. It cobbles together something for people to live that resembles life, but stripped of cultural or historical roots. Like a bad script, things happen in a way that passes for meaningful but without depth or resonance.

Nevertheless, Serotonin suggests a “hope beyond all hope” that can deliver us, which contrasts with the failed salvations described in Houellebecq’s previous novel. In Submission, Houellebecq presented a solution entwined with nativist reaction: Robert Rediger’s idea of submission, unreserved acceptance of the world as God’s flawless “masterpiece.” This pseudo-Islam was an attempt to absolve oneself of global politics, asserting that creation will tend to itself while the nationalists attend to their nation. Submission also pronounces on Huysmans: his retreat into the cross is recognized as a compensation for the inability of fin de siècle Paris, enfeebled by mass movements and bourgeois values, to deliver him traditional domestic contentment. Serotonin knows that escaping the global market is idle fantasy; neither submission nor ascesis can protect us from the stressors of a civilization intent on ending.  But despite God’s ineptitude, he really does care, and the misery of globalization also provides us the network within which “surges of love” become possible. Our hope rests in contemporary society’s readiness for its own defeat, civilization’s abnegation before fleshly warmth. Through the passion it facilitates, the global market dispenses happiness to those who, by fanning the sparks it lets fall to human coupling, pass its test.

Florent-Claude does not pass; Serotonin conveys its idea of salvation by charting its wreck. The novel ends with Florent-Claude fixed between two surfaces that display the choice offered by d’Aurevilly. On the wall, his life in the photographs, testifying that it remains stone-dead to grace.  Adjacent to that, his death, deferred for now, presented by the window out of which he plans to drop when his bank account is empty. Florent-Claude confronts this choice, yet finds himself having already refused to make it. He’s squandered the mercy of God by letting the love that previously burst into his life extinguish, so there’s no petitioning for another chance. He recounts the end of his relationship with Kate; she gets on the train to Copenhagen, looks at him and tears fill her eyes, and he does nothing. “For that I deserve death.” Much later, he’s planned out how to die, but the thought still makes him uncomfortable. He doesn’t look out the window very much. There won’t be anything like the resolution or intention that would accompany a decision: one day he’ll just open the window and lean forward.

In A Rebours, Des Esseintes was finally forced back to Paris by his physician. Although his evil civilization will shortly swallow him again, he still has enough fury to appeal for mercy from a Christ in whom he does not believe. Florent-Claude acknowledges Christ as an unheeded dream, affirms God’s special and affectionate hand in our lives, and avails himself of the conveniences of his evil civilization while he waits for living to become unbearable.

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