The No World Concerto by A.G. Porta (translated by Darren Koolman and Rhett McNeil) Dalkey Archive Press. $16.00. 364pp.
The No World Concerto, Spanish novelist A.G. Porta’s first novel to be translated into English, is a complex fictional riff on games, possible worlds, and the art of fiction itself. Porta is best known among English-language readers as an early collaborator with Roberto Bolaño, and, like Bolaño, he pays tribute to the innovations of the high modernists without exactly emulating them. The No World Concerto is structured as a Matryoshka doll, or as a hall of mirrors, fuguing seamlessly between authorial narration, third-person reportage, and inner monologue, a structure that becomes head-clutchingly complex when you consider that its two protagonists are writers with fictions in progress. The novel is set in Paris, but a Paris that resembles a half-constructed film set, referred to throughout as “the neighboring country’s capital,” with even the tactile pleasures of the place-names stripped away. Getting lost in this novel is a more dire possibility than the phrase usually implies.
Our protagonists are an aging screenwriter and a teenage girl. The former is working on a screenplay about a young piano prodigy who abandons her musical career to pursue literature. In the screenplay-as-reality, they become lovers. The teenage girl is working on a novel about a professor-cum-alien hunter who is exiled to a mysterious No World after having an affair with one of his students, who sounds a lot like a fictional version of the aging screenwriter . . . . . .thus The No World Concerto folds back on itself. It is a relentlessly recursive work. Almost every scene we encounter in the book is qualified as a possible fiction—as screenplay excerpt, novel chapter, erotic fantasy. Porta handles this structure with a great deal of technical skill. Within a single paragraph, the perspective can shift from the screenwriter’s actions to the script he’s writing to the girl’s thoughts within the script to a scene from her novel. As these fields intersect, the novel’s possible worlds overlap, as in a Venn diagram: at any given moment we may pass from one potential reality to the next, the narrative in constant vertiginous motion. “Nothing that continually creates itself can disappear,” Porta writes:
so long as it goes on existing through other beings, other characters—the number of which can be infinite, like a saga that goes on developing forever, a movie that never ends. There may only be so many actors, but there are many characters to play, and perhaps each actor changes roles continually, removing one mask, donning another . . . And the setting must remain the same, the mise-en-scene of an unrelenting pilgrimage: actors in their masks, stalking like ants around a globe that can never change, or not until . . . she was going to say its obliteration, its annihilation.
By focusing on two protagonists who seem to be writing each other, Porta captures the paradox of the fiction writer’s urge to find personal realization on the page through self-dispersal into a series of imaginary beings. Of the two writers in this book, the girl seems more idealistic, crazed, and genuine, as she dreams of her magnum opus and the aliens surrounding her in the city (they gather in concert halls, used bookstores, cemeteries). Her drama consists of her efforts to disentangle herself from the Little Sinfonietta, a small orchestra of child prodigies run by a perverse conductor, so that she can respond to the alien voices she hears; at several points she compares herself to the recording angel in the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire. These voices speak to the lure of the potential, uncreated world, her own unwritten self. The screenwriter’s ruminations are earthier, as he worries about money, lusts prolifically after café waitresses and prostitutes, and suffers pangs of nostalgia for an ill-defined golden age of screenwriting. Separated from his wife, his situation soon worsens and we see him exhaust his contacts, pawn his clothes and his typewriter.
The No World Concerto’s central allusions are to Wittgenstein and Schoenberg, not named as such, chosen presumably for their revolutionary impact on their chosen fields, their ability to redefine fundamental terms. The girl’s statements about the No World take the form of the numbered propositions in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Shakespeare and Joyce appear as “the playwright who influenced all who came after” and “the writer who revolutionized twentieth-century literature,” respectively. Proust, a favorite of the girl’s father, appears as “a man obsessed with jealousy, solitude, and the passage of time.” Translator Darren Koolman suggests that this epithetic method of referring to previous writers is a means of desacralization; certainly it resonates with Blanchot’s notion that the writer is always “denying books as he forms a book out of what other books are not.” Along with the lack of place names, and the generally pedestrian quality of the prose, this refusal to name heightens the novel’s hazy, qualified feel. It makes the novel’s narrative world feel small and sketched-in, confined to the radius of shabby hotel rooms, concert halls, and smoky bars. Intriguingly, the only full proper name I found in the novel was that of Leon Kowalski, the replicant character in Blade Runner.
Porta’s novel thus situates itself in the strain of postmodern texts that question narrative procedures and ask what it might be like to exist as a character in a story. This strategy makes it vulnerable to the line of attack James Wood mounted against Paul Auster in a 2009 New Yorker takedown: “Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched . . . Presence fails to turn into significant absence, because presence was not present enough.” The actions of the characters in The No World Concerto are always provisional, always potentially consigned to one of the text’s inner fictions, which can lead to a diminishment of stakes, a feeling that nothing matters. This is both a practical weakness and a conceptual strength of Porta’s book, which seems quite comfortable in the gray zones between potential worlds and does not go out of its way to assert any single reality too strongly. The effects of lyrical realism are largely eschewed here as Porta opts for a simple, vehicular prose that is rarely pretty and sometimes ungainly. Caught in this barely rendered zone, as if in a city under heavy construction, the reader can feel like one of the unwitting aliens that populate the girl’s novel—an unwelcome visitor in the narrative world, exiled from its deepest meanings.
However, Porta’s strategy begins to pay dividends in the novel’s second half, as the screenwriter’s desperation crescendos and he approaches the end of his script. The narrative takes dark, shocking turns, leaving us to wonder which of the novel’s several realities are affected or whether these are merely the third-act machinations of a hack script written out of financial desperation.
What he’s trying to say is that it’s difficult sketching in all the different characters’ stories while sticking to the essential idea of his screenplay. What he’s trying to say is that he’s only doing this because he’s lost his bearings and is trying to find a way to end his story. What he’s trying to say is that he’s writing because he wants to express what it’s like to be truly alone.
The No World may be a hazy vision of the transcendence offered by great art, but The No World Concerto offers a stern depiction of a mundane and incomplete world where that transcendence is perpetually sought after, but never achieved. Porta offers no easy epiphanies or grand vistas, instead giving us characters who might just be ciphers in a narrative beyond their control, or aliens with brains full of downloaded memories. There may be no significant presence or absence here, only an endless in-betweenness. The screenwriter and the girl may be denizens of a downgraded reality or figments of a half-baked fiction, yet they are also believable emissaries of a century where most experience comes at second or third hand, and the great innovations of the past return to us with an alien majesty. Longing for the sublime can easily lead to the cheap deus ex machinas of a B-movie screenplay. “A No World located in this one,” Porta writes, “if we must be specific: a heaven, hell, or purgatory, to which these beings have been sent, coming from other galaxies; perhaps it’s a heaven for some and a hell for others.” Purgatory does seem like the best word for what this novel achieves, the pleasures it elicits and scrupulously denies.
Eric Lundgren’s first novel, The Facades, is published by Overlook Press this September.
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