:: Article

Shklovsky’s Zoo

By Richard Marshall.


Joanna Walsh, Shklovsky’s Zoo, Piece Of Paper Press, 2015

It has a probing quality, pivoting without fumbling to strike its successive targets, moving at cantankerous pace. It has a low-key urgency in its tone, a sequence of discontinuities that assigns expressiveness to its inquisition. The very naturalness belies its vast metaphysical strangeness & all done in miniature of course. The impression by the end is of conceivable dark and silence or an indefinite approximating towards them. At the last the voice speaks over herself with a possibly apocryphal story about Franz Kafka. Kafka looms large in this. His parables free up narrowing limits. Something expires before our very eyes before the last syllable and what we end up with is that odd kind of actuality Beckett in a letter writes down, i.e.:

‘… the pigeon helping with its wing the too frail branch on which it lights.’

So the actual Elsa Triolet, let’s suppose. She loved Mayakovski, married the French officer Triolet and lived for forty two years with Louis Aragon but it’s not clear how Shklovsky fits in with her biographical details. He may be fictional. Kafka intersects with Triolet and Shklovsky somewhere, possibly Berlin zoo, or the zoological gardens. The narrator doesn’t know if Shklovsky existed. The title of the short story by Joanna Walsh is the name of a book of letters between Shklovsky and Triolet. They might be real letters or fictional. The volume of Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo, and the zoo, they might be some way or other in the actual world or may be versions in another. So might Kafka come to think of it. And Triolet. Felice. Melina. Dora. All, some versions. Seems (let’s suppose) all concrete real is physical. Then they are concrete real. So they are physical objects. Seems (again just suppose) too all physical objects are literally processes. Every self, being a physical object is therefore a process. In this respect there is no difference between a self and a rock. The self is not a person (& let’s suppose there are selves). A person designates the many successive selves that make up a person. The self is simply the experience people have of themselves as a mental something. My sense of self is located somewhere behind my eyes, perhaps up a bit, centred. Perhaps yours too? It’s a metaphysical object. It’s thought of phenomenologically which is why it’s not easy to think it’s physical. Language bewitches us like that. The world is as it is one way or another never mind what we know or mean. So too in a fictional world we follow the injunction: keep separate the triage, epistemology, semantics, ontology on pain of – banality.

Joanna Walsh’s narrator is attending to a parade of objects – Berlin, Kafka, Kafka’s women (horrible phrase the narrator derides in a suppressed critique), Triolet, Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’ etc – and we attend her self as she does this. She doesn’t slip into this parade however. She slips into ours. She is a sequence of suppressed rages. She is alarmed and desperate, frustrated and confined. Her thoughts are the way her selves are. To think of them as properties of the self would be to suggest that there is a relation between self and properties. Selves are ultimate fields of reality. The philosopher D.M. Armstrong follows Kant to rightly point out that properties and ultimate fields are too intimately together to speak of a relation between them. The thisness [haeccitas] and the nature are incapable of existing apart from each other. Bare particulars are vicious abstractions . . . from what may be called states of affairs: this-of-a-certain-nature…’

Suppose this short story is a metaphysical fiction, the same in kind as Kafka and Borges. So to approach the story is to approach the necessity of metaphysics (kind of). Of any world it must be one way or other. And before the world came into being – any world you choose – there was nothing. But where there is that nothing before everything comes into being then that nothing is something. Nothing is both nothing and something. The contradiction is the puzzle at the heart. Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’ is some way or other. It may be the very object that unifies the narrator’s self. There is a Nietzschean substrata in play that is pure process, and this needs addressing though far too cursorily. Pre-theoretical talk assumes that for there to be a process there must be something being processed. But metaphysically the pre-theoretical talk is misleading. Just as physicists can discuss pure process without the need to add on something so too the narrative holds apart the regions of epistemology (what we know), semantics (what we mean) and ontology (what there is) to create its haunting. This is a locked-in shriek of horror, despair and revulsion. Beginning as a search ‘for some things that can’t be found on the internet’ the narrator drifts through an uncomfortable stay at some theological college. She completes neither her own writing project nor her research, and as the narration goes on there’s an impending sense of doom. She completes nothing, not even the reading of Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’.

The studied ordinariness of the idiom casts a darker shadow out of its own shadow. As everything accumulates the result is a sense of things draining away. There is a muting that becomes loud. Epistemology cuts down the semantics and refuses to feed in. The world as it is is elsewhere. What can a short story like this possess? The very things that are refused by speech. In the letters that make up the unread Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’ volume there is to be no talk of love. Similarly in the story of the same name there is no overt discussion of amour. But the narrator is working on a project involving emails between herself and a former lover. She discusses the unsatisfactory relationships of various women with Kafka, hotel rooms where ‘they don’t fuck’, a lamentable tale of things done long ago and ill done. What is not spoken about is indicated by what is. We are reading about someone not reading Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’, not fucking, not loving, not writing, not, not, nothing….

The mysterious text of Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’ raises for the narrator the question; in what way or other is it (or is it not)? This is not a question about whether it exists. Whether or not it exists is beside the point. The issue is profounder. What is the peculiar nature of its ‘being’ is the question. ‘Being’ here means ‘being an object’ and being an object means having properties. (With the understanding noted above that property-less objects and object-less properties are incoherent). The properties we choose are important. They have to be able to do the metaphysical heavy-lifting. They are preferably sparse rather than abundant. Abundance smacks of arbitrariness. The hunger for stories had better be for the right stories then, the right characters. Walsh is careful to stitch the narrative together, realizing that to attribute ‘x feels torn apart’ to x as a property of x is too random to lift anything. Her goal is to reach the goal of sparseness. The momentum of the story drives towards close to zero. This is the nature of its metaphysics. It is seeking the right species of sparse.


[Photo: Maja Nilsen]

Everything we think about has ‘being’. Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’ has ‘being’ because the narrator thinks about it and so do we now. It doesn’t matter whether it exists. Reading and writing fiction is not about existence but about knowledge and predication, relations of ‘being’ and every relation to oneself. Fiction makes concerns with existence vulgar and an artificial constraint. ‘Being’ and unity come together: every ‘being’ is a unity. The way an object is, that is the question of ‘being’. The narrator wonders what it is by virtue of which she is – and anything is – one, a unified being. The press release from the mighty Tony White’s enthralling ‘Piece of Paper Press‘ has other issues, or these same but at a different angle:

‘Written on a residency during which the author was unable to find and read a copy of “Zoo” by Viktor Shklovsky—a novel based on real-life letters sent between the Russian critic and the unwilling object of his desire, Elsa Triolet—“Shklovsky’s Zoo” plays with the line between autobiography and fiction. What is the purpose of a letter? Is it a story, or an honest account (or both)? Does it depend on who is sending, who is receiving it? What happens when letters are made into books? Is there any truth in Shklovsky’s “Zoo”, or “Shklovsky’s Zoo” at all?’

But the truth, if that’s the way to put it, is about the narrator. What are all those parts adding up to? The very articulation of her ‘being’ seems odd, perhaps inadmissible. There is a paradox lurking about. What is it that grounds the fundamental grounding of everything? We’re in territory that makes us think thoughts that bend heads out of shape. If the grounding object requires its own grounding object then that object too will require a grounding object. The regress is vicious and infinite, freighted, like ‘all those girls he didn’t marry’ with a bitter judgment – ‘what a bastard!’ This isn’t about Kafka, Triolet, Milena, Felice or Dora et al, but is about the narrator. It’s through them the narrator reveals herself. She does so whilst simultaneously asserting the inadmissibility of such a self-revelation. All that ambiguity of motive, meaning and knowledge mustn’t be bungled by resolution. But her imbeddedness is as noticeable as possible, a version of Winnie in ‘Happy Days,’ and steered as clear as willing from being an emblem of some kind. The contrast between that refusal to tone down her dailyness and materiality and the metaphysicals swarming around is what gives the piece momentum. A similar thing is in ‘Moby Dick’: Ishmael is noticeably more lively, and experimental as narrator than he is as a character in his own narration.

The philosopher Graham Priest thinks that some objects are contradictory. His paraconsistent logic and dialetheistic metaphysics enables him to solve problems such as inclosure paradoxes. ‘I’m lying when I say this’ is an inclosure paradox. It’s truth seems to involve it being false, which in turn seems to involve it’s truth. It is contradictory. Accepting the contradictory object, rather than taking contradiction as proof of error, resolves the problem. The liar sentence is both true and false. If we return to the ‘being’ of ‘being’, the object is contradictory. It both is and isn’t an object. As an object it grounds ‘being’. But it is also not an object and so doesn’t need another object to ground itself. The threatened regress is blocked. It’s a way of not being too interior and having to throw your hat at it in the final, you know, rondo.


[Photo: Maja Nilsen]

Everything in the story – Berlin, the zoo, the letters, the narrator, Kafka, the library, the bed, the books, the absent former lover/boyfriend, Triolet, Milena, Felice, Dora, the married doll , the theological seminary – everything becomes a totally unbounded object. As such it takes on the paradox of inclosure, an exact simulacrum of the set of all sets paradox where we ask: does the set of all sets contain itself? Standardly, this set of all sets leads to impossibility. Paraconsistent set theory has a set of all sets however. It is contradictory but is constrained so that not everything follows. ‘Everything’ in the story is a contradiction: this is the expectation and set up. ‘Everything’ has contradictory parts so the unbounded totality of the fiction remains coherent. ‘Everything’ is a contradictory object that exists with non-existent objects in it, just as our actual world can and does, containing such non-existent objects such as – why not? – unicorns and Captain Ahab.

Does Walsh’s story ‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ exist? In that she writes about a world other than the actual world then perhaps it’s a non-existent object containing existing objects such as beds, Berlin and breakdown etc. Is this a narrative of a breakdown shown from the inside? Do we catch this amongst the mental parade passing before us? The letters Kafka wrote to comfort a little girl who had lost her doll were written to deceive the girl into thinking they were from the doll. There was of course nothing from the doll. ‘Nothing’, like ‘everything’, is an object. What has happened as the story moves towards its end is that Walsh has threaded, through the cunning of her remarkably taut and spare prose, an increasing mood of dread and anxiety. The deadly pessimism of her story presses in on the reader in extremis at the end where the uncanny aura reveals ‘Nothing’ as an object that shows itself at sinister moments of extreme angst. The problem the story resolves is how to do this whilst keeping the narration at a conveniently visible level. Walsh pulls this off by aiming at the maximum of naturalness.

‘Nothing’ isn’t an object that exists of course. The direct acquaintance of ‘nothing’ is what fiction, working all its levers, can sometimes do as it crawls towards its grey carcasses. ‘Nothing’ is a contradictory object undoubtedly – as an object it’s something but it’s also the absence of everything too. It is and isn’t an object. It has no parts other than itself. The story works off proximity and distance. Distance seems to repel and fail. The retreat to the seminary, intended to create distance from the pressing world, people and such, merely triggers increased awareness of failure and loneliness. But so too proximity: ‘Most people, when too proximate, are unbearable.’ There is a distance in the closeness and all things seem to have no nature. Everything thought about seems stripped away. The object of her project never appears although by the end it has been ordered on-line and will be there for her on returning home. She has represented everything and nothing. She resists doing so in ethical terms, nor does she do it in affective, nor psychological terms either. Rather it is in the space created in the nothingness created by not reading Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’ that the terms are resolutely metaphysical. Or so say I, which may be like putting money on a monkey.

Walsh has written a story to be the image of those objects. She relies on preconditions of application for the representation to run on smoothly. There is information she relies on us having, information that transcends what she has put into the representation itself. Such information is ineffable from in there. This is like locating a co-ordinate system using the co-ordinate system: all places are located somewhere and can be expressed relative to a coordinate system – except for the location of the system itself. The narrator doesn’t find Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’ but maybe does the zoo ;

‘Nevertheless I have found that there is a zoo in Shklovsky’s ‘Zoo’. Perhaps it is where Triolet (Alya in the book) and Shklovsky met. (Why would lovers go to the zoo: to show that they are different from animals, or to rejoice that they are the same?)I also know there is a U-Bahn stop in Berlin called Zoo. I have never got off at that stop though I have been to Berlin several times. As I remember, it is in the middle of the city between East and West, and is, I think by a park (the zoological gardens?).’

All this said to not say what lies beneath it, or at the other side of the language. And in the very next paragraph, after expressing some glum rage about Kafka and his women, she begins to talk about her ex again in terms of what is not and elsewhere:

‘ Kafka, not an exile, but a visitor to Berlin – which is not one of the places I met my ex though we have both visited the city, and although we have also been to a hotel where we did not fuck, but elsewhere…’

Walsh maps out her system of representations. What we read is a meta-text of some convolution that (again Beckett), say of his ‘Murphy’ he says, ‘ I don’t think that Murphy can have committed suicide, in the material sense, but the possibility can’t be ruled out.’ There will be things in this unity that can’t be expressed. How it functions as a system of its representations will be unsayable. This is what makes it ineffable. But by describing it like this, it is bewilderingly effable. Walsh’s precise object is contradictory.


[Photo: Maja Nilsen]

What is this object she has written out for us? Perhaps it is ‘nothing.’ You can’t talk about ‘nothing.’ And I just did. Am. Again, in the seconds at a readers’ disposal, some literal contradiction is being wrung out. Nothing is an absence of everything. There is nothing to talk about. Nothing is the object all objects depend on. Graham Priest, the paraconsistent logician and dialetheist metaphysician writes that: ‘…nothing is a precondition of the possibility of anything at all being an object; that is, ‘nothing’ is a precondition for the possibility of objects.’ The emptiness of Walsh’s fictional narrator is perfectly rendered through the paradoxical object of nothingness, about which no one can speak though I am obviously doing so. We are at the limits of expression. We are at the brink of the abyss. Perhaps we wonder whether language is possible after all. Inclosure paradoxes like the liar – ‘This is a lie’ – they include ‘nothingness.’

There is no inner peace in the story, not even an inconsolable beautiful sadness of a Zen poem, no bitter-sweet wistfulness at the thought of the transience of things or a hope of moving on. The narrator’s voice is combustible and barely manages to keep her hidden things hidden. There is an incapacity of peace in the voice. It is a voice almost not characterized. Nietzsche’s voice blathers in the undergrowth when she rages against Kafka knowing that he is her revered writer, of all writers. Nietzsche writes:

‘… the real philosopher lives ‘unphilosophically’, unwisely, in a manner which is above all not clever and feels the weight and duty of a hundred experiments and temptations of life – he constantly puts himself at risk, he plays the rough game…’

Kafka always played the rough game. ‘And now I am going to tell you a secret that I don’t even believe myself at the moment (although the darkness that falls about me in the distance at each attempt to work, or think, might possibly convince me), but really must be true: I will never be well again precisiely because it is not the kind of tuberculosis that can be laid in a lounge chair and nursed back to health, but a weapon that continues to be of supreme necessity as long as I remain alive. And both cannot remain alive.’ This from a letter to his ex Felice. Canetti considered it the most distressing he ever wrote, ‘an unworthy myth and a false one’ that ignored the woman Felice but spoke rather to an imaginary audience, calling her, ‘… my human tribunal’ to avoid admitting the down-low games he played.

The shocking exit of the story is not the Kafka story about the doll recounted in the last paragraph of ‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ but is rather the second part of the last line of the penultimate paragraph where the narrator says: ‘ … and, when I have finished my residency I trust that I will return to find it there.’ It’s that twisty ‘I trust I will return…’ phrase that wakens us up to the crisis we’re witnessing. It’s a lurid balancing act above the abyss. When we’re told by someone that they’re not mad because doctors have checked then their story directs us to a conclusion contrary to that supposed by the narrator and any literal take. Similarly, Walsh’s narrator insisting that she ‘trusts she will return’ pulls us in a quite other direction supposed by the throw-away. And we fear the worse. The story reminds me of Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer,’ a huge downward swoop to where ‘being’ is in its last word ‘… empty.’ There’s a sense that ‘Shklovsky’s Zoo’ isn’t a story confronting the fact that all things will eventually empty and run to their ruinous but essential nothingness. This is a post hoc voice circling those ruins.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 12th, 2015.