Quiet Creature on the Corner and the Limits of Criticism
By Dustin Illingworth.
João Gilberto Noll, Quiet Creature on the Corner, translated by Adam Morris (Two Lines Press, 2016)
“For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it’s the Readers who keep pace. The journey may be long or short. Then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues on alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path. Then Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey toward solitude.”
Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives
Is there anything so quixotic as literary criticism? It has always seemed to me a compromised act, albeit a holy one; the mad realm of the starry-eyed critic, tilting at texts like a bookish hidalgo. The galling (and goading) nature of its failure is one of maddening proximity, an exquisite nearness; like Moses, we are both certain of a promised land—interpretive totality!—and just as certain we shall never find it. The critic’s triumph is a mirage, ever receding, the distant glimmer in the dunes of explication. This, then, is the gorgeous, exasperating truth of literary criticism: that we possess a formal energy almost commensurate with the art it aims to lay bare.
Allow me to state my belief bluntly: failure is, and always has been, the operative force of literary criticism. Between a book and its exegetes there lies an inadequate courtship, and the greater the book, the larger the gap. It seems apparent to me that the most successful critics discover unique—and uniquely beautiful—ways to fail their texts, the richness and complexity of said failure comprising the basis of their pedigree. Hegel called it “the labor of the negative,” while Terry Eagleton has written of literary theory’s fascination with “lack, belatedness, deadlock, self-undoing.” Unafraid of this contradictory impulse, strong critical work traces what has otherwise absconded into incommunicability, sounding a shout from beyond the mountain. As a critic, I find this process thrilling, the incompleteness of the enterprise, the scrabbling over sheer surfaces. Truthfully, the unfinished rooms in the house of criticism are where I linger, work that has transcended mere engagement or analysis and plunged into the chimerical, an ignus fatuus pursued with indomitable obsession. It is all I want, really: the criticism that dreams or bleeds.
But what of a work that resists the critical apparatus to such a degree that even failure itself seems out of reach? What of a text that begins to dissipate at the merest suggestion of a thesis, an angle? Enter João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 mid-career effort, Quiet Creature on the Corner, a work of sustained resistance to interpretation, a literary Rorschach blot that swells until the ink itself subsumes the sky. If a synopsis of the narrative reads plainly enough—an unemployed poet, after being thrown in jail for rape, is mysteriously taken to a countryside manor where all of his needs are met—the effect of its unfolding is anything but. This is a book of black humor and surreal menace, and thus, perhaps inevitably, it will be compared to the work of David Lynch and Franz Kafka. I find these comparisons tenuous at best. They have become reflexive critical responses to any aesthetic of lurid unreality. In Noll, I find neither the grace of Kafka’s harrowing logic, nor the disquiet of Lynch’s curtained repressions. There is something else going on in Quiet Creature, something that locates its existential terror not in the apprehension of dream—or at least not exclusively—but rather in the intensification of the mundane, the cruelty that lurks beneath banal reality.
João Gilberto Noll
If that sounds farfetched for such a profoundly strange novel, consider the lingering concerns of our protagonist: the passing of time, the body, sex, fatherhood, art, the urban environment. They are nothing if not familiar, made revelatory only insofar as Noll is able to inflate them, to expand their fundamental capacities. Take, for instance, the book’s curiously accelerated process of aging (a natural enough anxiety for a nineteen-year old poet): “Kurt had gotten even older, I could see that now. How? I wondered, and shook my head without understanding this strange dose of aging.” This example is, I think, indicative of a larger field of anxiety surrounding the body, one whose leaking, failing, excreting reality Noll intensifies to great (and often disorienting) effect. Our poet regularly finds himself “collapsing,” “trembling,” “screaming,” “swimming,” “swallowing.” His sex with the mysterious Naira is referred to as “a drowning wetness”; as they fuck in the mud, “it felt like she was pissing on [his] hard-on the whole time.” As in Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, the amplification of the body and its functions can lead to either metaphysical dissolution or physical revelation:
Suddenly my body calmed, normalizing my breathing. I didn’t understand what I was doing there, lying with my head in a puddle of piss, deeply inhaling the sharp smell of the piss, as though, predicting this would help me recover my memory, and the memory that had knocked me to the floor appeared, little by little, and I became fascinated, as what had begun as a theatrical seizure to get rid of the guy who called himself a cop had become a thing that had really thrown me outside myself.
In her introduction to Blecher’s novel, Herta Müller writes about “the eroticism that lurks in every ordinary object, waiting to ensnare a person” and Blecher’s preternatural ability to articulate that eroticism in his work. I think there is something similar at play in Noll—if not an eroticism than perhaps a fecundity of bodies, of perceptions. I do not find the dream logic of high surrealism here; rather, Quiet Creature presents something more tactile, more immediate. Its brief and perplexing episodes, as escalations of the self-in-time, refresh and reveal the surpassing strangeness of waking life itself.
And the cruelty of it, too. The ghost of Georges Bataille lingers here, the French author and critic whose literature of transgression highlighted the ambivalent nature of prohibitions—namely, that they both establish limits and create provisions wherein those limits may be violated or exceeded. In Quiet Creature, these violations are both frequent and insistent; however, they often create the possibility for a radically negative transcendence within the young poet: “I felt the pleasure that I usually felt when I told a fat lie, the feeling of completely pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes. . .I got swept up in euphoria, as if I were close, very close, to a state that would represent for me, just maybe, a kind of emancipation.” Violence as a form of regeneration has long been employed in literature, from Joseph Conrad to Cormac McCarthy, particularly as frontier myth. Quiet Creature, written during Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy, presents a kind of frontier of etiquette, of morality (or perhaps a crossing of the border into its absence). Noll’s work may be another expression of this trope, in its way every bit as savage as Blood Meridian.
The brevity of the text, too, is worth discussing. Though referred to as a novel, Quiet Creature weighs in at a svelte 109 pages, the length of a respectable novella. I would argue that this narrative economy comprises no small part of the book’s curiously potent effect. It allows for a particular concentration of heat, like the gathering of a fever—and when it breaks, you feel it. In this way, Quiet Creature practically demands to be read in a single afternoon, a gauntlet to be run in a handful of hours. And while I do not much care for flash fiction, this single-sitting text retains something of that genre’s best qualities—vigor, pace, immediacy—while remaining capable of effortlessly exceeding its boundaries at any time. No abbreviated world, this; rather, a masterwork of compression whose lid we open at our peril.
Or so it appears to me after a second read through. I have done my best to sketch the shape I see within the smoke, a shape that already begins to rearrange, to shimmer and swirl. Throughout my time within its pages, Quiet Creature on the Corner has resisted me; even now I can feel its pressure building within the flimsy critical edifice I’ve constructed. Perhaps it shouldn’t be—can’t be—contained. What I know for certain is that, as a literary critic, I need more encounters with these kinds of texts. I need to be pushed back upon. I need books that refuse me entry, books whose covers contain a fog. They bring me up against the limits of criticism, and, in so doing, offer opportunities to dare, to experiment, to pursue. These words may only be another layer of ossified thought on Bolaño’s “trail of bones.” So be it. But in outpacing us, Noll’s work has given critics—and readers of all stripes—a gift. We cannot hope to overtake it, though we will try. Call it failure as a form of exaltation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dustin Illingworth is a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and The LA Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 23rd, 2016.