by Martin Nakell
Spuyten Duyvil, 2008
The synopsis for Martin Nakell’s new novel, Settlement, seems simple enough:
The unnamed Narrator of this novel had become the bureaucratic Governor of The Emergency Settlement of the Western Quadrant, a government-established enclave of refuge for its citizens in a time of war and social collapse. But eventually the Settlement itself collapses. The Governor alone remains. He begins to keep a journal. That journal constitutes the novel.
Thus, Settlement establishes itself as an epistolary novel, which traditionally consists of personal letters, diary or journal entries that recount or contain allusions to events, conversations, memories, etc. But here is where the similarities to the traditional epistolary begin and end. Plot, characters, structure, narrative devices, movement, language, motifs are multilayered and multidimensional, like a series of unending and surprising Russian nestling-dolls. Nakell pulls off experimental literary techniques like a master prose magician, leaving the reader (after not only first, but repeated readings) to sit and marvel, “How did he do that?” Not only does he pull all of this off, but he makes it look easy.
“It’s strange to think of it,” the Narrator writes early in the journal, “of how I’m writing myself, without hope of being read. I am even tempted to elation by the idea of never being read, as though the writing is in some way and by that fact liberated, utterly free.” “To think that I am writing for no one. Why?” Why are human beings compelled to create art (even in the direst of circumstances)? This is one of the central concerns of Settlement: the common writerly dilemma that Margaret Atwood describes as, “Who's going to read what you write, now or ever?” In Settlement’s post-apocalyptic setting, the words “or ever” take on even more gravitas. In reading the novel, we “overhear” the Narrator at points in his journal claiming he is writing for no one – because there is no one left, but then at other times, he muses about what would happen if the journal did survive and someone discovered it. This is one of those Russian-dolls-within-Russian dolls Nakell has constructed for the reader, because (paraphrasing Atwood again) we wouldn’t be reading the Narrator’s fictive journal unless Nakell had written it and published it for us to read.
Nakell ventures into territory previously explored by Borges, Derrida, Beckett, and Barth. One of Settlement’s most influential precursors, however, may be the Russian author Viktor Shklovsky’s 1923 experimental epistolary novel Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, which he wrote when living in exile in Berlin. In Zoo, a man is allowed to write letters to a woman Alya under the condition that he not discuss love. Zoo was based on a real event in Shklovsky’s life, in which he became infatuated with a woman who would accept letters from him only if he did not write about love. On the surface, the letters contain observations on Berlin and Russia, musings on art and literature, and short portraits of Russian writers and artists, but the pain of unrequited love and exile is apparent between the lines.
In his epistolary novel LETTERS, John Barth posited the idea that the writer is creator of his own world, or that the world is "what one writes it to be." At one point in Settlement, the Narrator echoes this idea, “I’m Adam with a name, a word for each thing…”. Also in "The Literature of Exhaustion," Barth described the imitating of "the form of the Novel, by an author who imitates the role of Author." And: "When the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they're in, we're reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence, one of Borges's cardinal themes..." Nakell employs this post-modern metafictional strategy, obscuring the boundaries between fiction and reality and exploiting that ambiguity. Is the Narrator’s lover Alina real? Is his wife and daughter? What really happened to them and the other characters? Did he invent them? Is he going mad – or has he already gone mad?
In most epistolary works, an injunction or prohibition against writing (for example, Orwell’s 1984) triggers the narrative – and even the compulsion to write. In Settlement, however, the Narrator is alone, in exile, and is not under any prohibitions or restraints to writing whatsoever. As Governor of The Emergency Settlement, he is The “Author-itarian” who is free to write what he wishes, and the only constraints he must abide by are ones that he imposes upon himself.
As the sole remaining inhabitant of the Settlement, the Narrator is also Bureaucrat, Governor, Appointee of the President, (former) Husband, (former) Lover, (former) Friend, Hunter-Gather, Re-collector (of memories), Survivor, Writer, Editor, Reader and Self-Critic. These multiple roles and personas of the Narrator engage in a continuous, polyphonic, contested dialogue throughout the novel. The Narrator's voice is often interrupted by the Writer's voice, which is encouraged or scolded by the Editor's voice, which is countered by the Bureaucrat's voice, which is interrupted by the Husband’s voice, and so on. The Narrator (or one of his other personas) also often directly addresses former inhabitants of the Settlement within the pages of the journal. One is reminded of the game of "Telephone," where a line or story is told and retold and retold until, by the time it reaches the final communicator, the original meaning has been significantly altered.
This discourse between voices (Barthes calls it “contrapuntal”; Derrida, “postcarded”) creates much of the movement within the novel and, as a post-modern narrative device, disrupts the reader, causing her to examine the nature of interior dialogues and realize, ironically, that as a reader, she is also in exile, too. As Walter Benjamin writes in “The Storyteller”: “A man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller; even a man reading one shares this companionship. The reader of a novel, however, is isolated, more so that any other reader.” The Narrator is aptly unnamed, underscoring both his exile and that of the unknown and unnamed reader(s), and undermining a first-name basis intimacy between writer and reader.
The premise of Settlement seems very politically and socially timely in a post-9/11 world in which the “War On Terrorism” seems endless. As Walter Benjamin wrote in “On the Concept of History” in 1940: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule.” Settlement’s Narrator certainly lives in an emergency situation that is indeed the rule, but there is no obvious oppression or repression (except perhaps that of his own making), because no Government interferes with his life or his writing. He responds to this emergency situation by writing with an urgency that suggests a psychological battle to keep his wits – writing as if to save his own life.
And write he does. Constantly and compulsively. About himself. About the Settlement. His original plans there. His everyday, routine activities (of which he has few, because there’s nothing really left to do). About his failure, as Governor, Bureaucrat, Husband, Lover, Father, and Friend. About desire, love, friendship, survival. And above all, about his compulsion to write and about writing itself: his motives, output, rereading, self-criticism, and self-editing. About the seeming futility of it all.
He writes, indirectly, about the Divine Comedy of life. In one of the Narrator’s recollections, one of the characters recites part of Dante’s Divine Comedy from memory. The Narrator could very well have begun his journal by describing The Emergency Settlement with the Dante line, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” but recasting it with a post-apocalyptic twist: “All hope has been abandoned; no one enters here.”
In his journal, the Narrator questions everything “aloud”: the passing of time, whether or not events actually happened, happened as he remembers them, or if they actually happened anywhere else except in his imagination. Nakell’s poetic prose takes on a hallucinatory quality, summoning up the picture of a solitary man wandering in a desert of language, questioning his words, questioning himself, seeing what he believes might be an answer, only to find when he arrives, it, too, is another linguistic mirage. And everywhere, everything is in ruins, both literally and metaphorically.
Despite its post-apocalyptic setting, all is not gloom and doom in Settlement. Its plot bears some parallels to the 1966 French film, “Le Roi de Coeur (The King of Hearts),” in which a Scottish ornithologist named Plumpick is mistaken for an explosives expert during WWI. He is sent alone into a small French town to investigate a report about a bomb planted by the Germans. He finds the town filled with eccentric, lovable inmates of the local insane asylum, who coronate him King of Hearts in a ceremony complete with costumes and surreal pageantry.
The inhabitants of Nakell’s fictive Emergency Settlement also display the humorous and absurdly surreal human traits and behavior found in “Le Roi de Coeur” that survive even in the grimmest of situations. Take, for example, some of the “honorary titles” that members of the Settlement gave the Narrator: “The Enlightened High Prince of the Emergency Settlement,” “The Prince of the Emergency Settlement,” “The Prince of the Physical Loneliness of (Alina’s) Childhood,” “His Most Bountiful Beneficence,” and “His Excelling Excellence.” And the Narrator describes, with a complete palette of emotions including joy and happiness, the most poignant, human moments he has experienced or seen others experience while living in the Settlement.
The emphasis of the plot in Settlement is not on actual physical movement, for the other characters are gone, but on “settlement”, evoking the multiple meanings of the word “settle” in its active verb form, as well as the noun “settlement.” In the absence of other people, the Narrator has only his own internal “voices” in the form of thoughts and emotions – and the page – with which to interact. Unlike other epistolary novels, it is written in one long journal entry, undemarcated by date and time. The Narrator eventually tells us the narrative is to be a description of a day in the Narrator’s life in The Emergency Settlement. By using one long, undated journal entry with chronological displacement and digression, Nakell disrupts temporality, causality, and logic. His prose creates a Moebius-strip-like movement, always leading the reader back to the Narrator simply performing the act of writing itself.
Another fundamental convention of epistolary novels is that the central characters are writers as well as readers (of letters, diaries, etc.). The Narrator occasionally re-reads what he has just written or written the day before “out loud” within the pages of his journal, actually exposing the mechanics of writing and the internal dialogue that takes place during the writing process itself. Gradually, the reader comes to realize that Settlement is an actual accounting (or story) of the book’s own meaning, purpose, structure, origin, and an extended allegory of the act of its own creation.
Nakell has achieved something in Settlement that is nearly impossible and would likely be disastrous if undertaken by a less skilled writer. He has taken illogical, disjointed, confused, stream-of-consciousness-like, and often irrational thought processes of the Narrator and his multiple personas, and combined that with jarring, deliberately disruptive experimental narrative techniques and multilayered prose to create a unique and ground-breaking work of literature. And he brings the novel to a close celebrating the Narrator’s – and Every Human’s – primal urge to create something from nothing.
Martin Nakell has published several books of fiction and poetry, including Two Fields That Face & Mirror Each Other (Sun & Moon), Goings (Margin-to-margin Press), Form (Spuyten Duyvil), Settlement (Spuyten Duyvil), and others, some in progress, some not yet written. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the fictionalist, Rebecca Goodman. Martin, Rebecca, and the Los Angeles poet, Christopher Reiner constitute the &NOW ’08 Committee, hosting the &NOW Conference/Festival of Innovative Art & Literature in Southern California in April 2008. (please go to www.andnowfestival.com)
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Excerpt from Settlement (@ Narrativity)