Initially published in 2006 by Semiotext(e), Torpor’s just hit the UK shelves following the massive success – well, massive in the cult/feminist/art-world corner of the literary fiction section of your local indie/academic bookstore – of Kraus’s earlier, also reissued, book, I Love Dick. Like its predecessor(s) – because she’s written plenty of other books, though they haven’t yet been launched on the UK mass market – Torpor is a genre-bending extravaganza, bludgeoning through the boundaries of memoir, theory, political analysis, art(-world) criticism and fiction, as it follows the misadventures of what must surely be one of literature’s worst couples, Sylvie and Jerome, as they set about saving their relationship by trying to adopt a Romanian orphan.
If you’ve read I Love Dick (and having bought it just to be seen with it on the bus or at your in-laws’ house doesn’t count: sorry), you’ll already be familiar with Kraus’s style; if not, prepare to be left reeling by how she juxtaposes biting take-downs of real-life cultural figures (watch out, Félix Guattari) with painfully funny scenes from a marriage characterised by sentimentality and bickering, and scathing dissections of the misogyny of the NYC art world. In Torpor, most of this is transposed onto a European background: Jerome, a Jewish academic whose father died in the camps, is now rootless, surrounding himself with artists and academics more successful than himself who use him to further their own careers; he outsources his actual work (papers, editing) to Sylvie, his much younger and much less famous wife, who refers to him late in the book as ‘French theory’s wandering pimp’; and he is gleeful in his hatred for almost everybody he works and socialises with, whom he sees as ignorant of ‘History’, as stand-ins for the Nazis, as anti-Semitic by descent or nationality. The trauma of the Holocaust, and the transmission of trauma on an intergenerational scale, is the backdrop to the book and to Jerome’s life; it becomes, too, the backdrop to Sylvie’s life, who increasingly sees herself as having sacrificed her youth – and her various aborted pregnancies – to a man who will never, either by chance or by design, be happy. Their 1991 roadtrip from Berlin to Arad forms the spine of the novel; while their hunt for a baby is a mirage – a lie that they’re embarrassed to speak to others, and that ultimately helps along the collapse of their marriage – the journey itself allows both Sylvie and Jerome to confront the effect of his past on their present, and it allows Kraus to hold a mirror to the vacuity of the Western art-world in the context of the collapse of the East and the fading away of the History that Jerome has fetishised.
If that’s to make it sound difficult and bleak, well, it is – and, more: you’ll be weeding out who’s real from who’s fictional with every new character – but it’s also very funny. Sylvie isn’t the victim and Jerome the villain: Kraus switches between each of their points-of-view to skewer the self-centeredness of each, and while Jerome is, by any standard, a dreadful husband, he’s also pinioned by his past and by the deaths of his father and his extended family: Torpor is a really sensitive treatment of inherited trauma and survivor’s guilt. Sylvie, too, is both tragic (an ‘Ugly Girl’ in a world that’s sensitive to the plights of the ‘Pretty Girls’) and unsympathetic: her anxious baby-talk, her subsuming of her own interests into anything that will please Jerome, and her failure to actually leave him until years after the ill-fated Romanian mission, work in tandem with the acuity of her criticisms of the contemporary art scene to give us a character that’s brilliantly complex.
I can’t leave out the feminism, of course, though Kraus (and Sylvie) is quick to point out the failings of much that’s called feminism in literature and theory: in Aliens and Anorexia, she remarks on the apparently ‘unshakeable belief’ of some that ‘the formation of a gender-based identity is still the primary animating goal in the becoming of a person, if that person is a girl’. In Torpor, it’s the male-ness of the art world, and its dismissal of female bodily autonomy, that comes under fire: in Berlin, Jerome, who rarely reads and ‘avoids the poets’, is tasked with coming up with a list of ‘who was hot within the American literary counterculture’, and Sylvie, who’s embedded in that particular scene, listens as ‘three men reel off the names of other men. All white. [She] finds the reality of this unbearable’. Finally, she interjects to talk about poetry and ‘female lived experience’, and the men gape at her until Jerome cuts her off, ‘thoroughly embarrassed’. Sylvie’s furious, but not surprised: ‘she’s been around this world for 15 years and knows that there are never any women on the list’, and that ‘sex [is] still the only passport to success if you were straight and female’. It’s a roaring, still relevant diatribe (hello, male editors of The Zoo of the New!). And as for the female body: Sylvie gets pregnant three times with Jerome, and each time, while making assurances that they’ll eventually have children, he encourages her to abort. ‘He sees her girlish urge for nesting as a further proof of Sylvie’s flightiness, her total lack of seriousness’, and each time ‘insists that motherhood would mean she’s ‘given up’ on her ‘career’’. Ouch, eh?
Any Cop?: Fascinating, hilarious, and infuriating. All the thumbs up.