Brian Conn’s debut novel is called The Fixed Stars: Thirty-Seven Emblems for the Perilous Season. It is such a singular achievement that I would urge him to never publish another novel again – or at least to do so under a pseudonym – lest the idiosyncratic distinctiveness of his achievement be burdened by associations with and comparisons to his future – and in all likelihood, one would hope, quite distinct – output. I often think of how sullied Anthony Burgess’ oeuvre has been by A Clockwork Orange – I don’t particularly like the book; undoubtedly, many find that the pall of his most successful novel only heightens the appeal and effectiveness of his other works, imbuing them with unseemly potentials that might not otherwise therein exist – and I do not want this to happen to Conn.
I mentioned, just several clauses ago, that “one would hope” that Conn’s future works be distinct from The Fixed Stars; this is not because the territory that he has explored here has been mined to its fruitfully-mineable extremes. Quite the opposite: he could continue with such similarly elusive works forever, and it would undoubtedly find him a place – a niche, at the very least – in the twenty-first century literary canon; he could very easily, I imagine, pursue the myriad narrative innovations he has made with his debut for the rest of his life. I say this merely because The Fixed Stars reads to me as so entirely distinct from anything currently being published that, for entirely selfish reasons, I would not want the uniqueness of the work to become part of a “club,” so to speak, even if it were a club whose sole members were Conn’s other publications. I imagine that, had I been a canny enough prepubescent to read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline when it was first released, I would have wished the same thing for George Saunders; had I had the wherewithal and unprecedentedly premature birth to speak to Don DeLillo after he published Americana, I would have told him to quit while he was ahead; had I been born before the release of Lydia Davis’ first collection, The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories, I likely would have urged her, too, to give up writing entirely. But, like Saunders, and like Davis, and like DeLillo, Conn is likely to only further develop and engage with his Weltanschauung, and The Fixed Stars will soon appear merely a spotty blueprint for the more considered and masterly work of his literary maturity. I look forward with immense impatience to this period, for it is his alone to pursue, and, unless he reins himself into less unique territory, whatever it yields will prove as exploratory and exciting and unforeseeable as Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation, as Samuel Johnson Is Indignant and The End of the Story, as The Names and White Noise.
What has Conn done to deserve such anxious considerations of his future as a writer? He has written a remarkable, unique book. It exists in a largely timeless and placeless environment – references to time and place come not infrequently, but they render the world only more limitless and unfathomable – delineated in a prose style that reads as though in literal translation from some mock-Slavic language. The narrative – peppered with pronouncements and aphoristic statements that are absent, to the reader, of any easily relatable or fully comprehensible meaning or consequence – proceeds with a fascinating inscrutability comparable to a largely forgotten folk tale for which contemporary Americans can summon little immediate empathy. The prose is clear and concrete, and everything reads as solemn and forceful; yet the clarity and concreteness only make the world more foreign and incomprehensible, as the reader may find little correlation between the clarity and cohesion of the novel’s world and his or her own.
The world is intensely insular and circumscribed, yet it is difficult to get a precise sense of it, so that, to the reader, it has an opaque expansiveness and breadth that feels entirely distinct from its characters’ experiences of it; we are consistently at odds with the characters’ understandings of the rules of their world, and yet we are able to gather a certain intuitive sense of what fits and what does not. Occasionally, the narrative ventures into areas and expands certain sections in ways that seem out of place with my intuitive understanding of his world; I would imagine that other readers’ intuitive senses of the limitations of the novel’s space are wider than mine, and that such allowances would seem entirely in order. Conn does not make any demands on the readers’ understanding of this world; he merely makes inferences, which we can find fitting or out of place. Conn’s responsibility to remain arduously attuned to his intuitive understanding of the world becomes all the more important, then, as does the meticulousness with which he expands it; there is an almost palpable sense that Conn restricts his narrative from his wilder impulses, so as to maintain the intuitive clarity of his structure.
The narrator’s inability, unwillingness, or unconcern in expressing or articulating precisely what is happening and where it is happening, or to cogently convey a deeply involved image – the essential incompatibility between the clarity of the characters’ comprehension of the world and the opacity of the reader’s – ultimately works quite well, uncomfortable though it may be at times. The reader is invited into this world merely as an observer, albeit a somewhat blinded and deafened one; to gain any sense of this world means relying on senses not usually required – at least not foremost – while reading a novel: one feels as if one must touch and smell what is being given – merely reading it leaves one cold, unmoved, and exasperated, because any standard articulation and evocation – of how things and people interact, of the meaning of their interactions, of the sense of all of this – seem perennially just beyond the capacity of the descriptive passages.
There is much talk of love, particularly in extremes: characters often profess that they love something more than they do or have anything else; but what does this love mean? What is the sense of this love? We only get pronouncements; we rarely get articulated meaning. This creates an emotional divide between the characters and the reader, for we cannot quite empathize with their fears, loves, jealousies, and sadnesses; that two of the final sections are very moving is then entirely unexpected, and it is because, within this unempathic yarn, Conn has fashioned a sneakily subtle method of conveying feeling – it is quite unlikely that, were I to have read these sections earlier or separately from the novel, I would have done so with the same lump in my throat that Conn’s slow, indoctrinatory storytelling method coerced me into having.
He seems to address the discrepancy between meaning to the reader and meaning to the novel's characters early on, speaking to the attempts of representing a road in mosaics: “no two mosaicists could agree what the new road looked like. Perhaps indeed it was many new roads, a different one for each of us.” Conn makes the enlivening suggestion that his is merely one interpretation of this world. It is to me a novel proposition; usually, the worlds of writers of, for lack of a better signifier, speculative fiction are distinctly their own; no one understands the worlds of Philip K. Dick more than Philip K. Dick, and no one can represent the worlds of William Gibson more accurately than William Gibson. Conn is more inclusive: his representation, he seems to suggest, is merely one of an innumerable many; he has no more mastery over his allegorical world than any realist author does over those in which we all ostensibly live. It is an invigorating proposal.
There is a certainty not just to the prose but also to the way in which everyone approaches and understands their surroundings – this is a staple of fairy and folk tales: everything is governed by rules that, no matter how seemingly inscrutable or superstitious to the reader, are true and irrefutable within the tale. There is a fixity to everything that lends the novel a certain intractability. It is only the presumption that Conn’s telling of this story is a mere one of many that saves it from become somewhat tiresome: this is a world more malleable than the one suggested by the rigidity of the prose.
The numerous stories told within the novel bear structural similarities to those specific to fairy tales, such as foreshadowing and resolution, but Conn refuses to strictly adhere to them, often leaving a tale largely unresolved, or resolving it in a manner not dependent upon any presumed foreshadowing. They read like last-minute dismissals of, or departures from, the styles to which they are otherwise indebted. Tropes are used for the purpose of abandoning them. While this may seem a tired postmodern trick, the progression of the novel, and the characters’ seeming unconcern for any such fairy tale-esque resolution, serves only to further bolster the idea that this is a world comparable to but far from compatible with “ours”: resolution is neither expected nor necessary. There is an effectively unnerving lack of clear consequence to anything, an unrelenting weightlessness to each part of the novel; even when events are endowed with a consequential flavor, the significance is supplied through a sheer exposition that beguiles far more than it informs. When the final two chapters of the novel build toward a resolution of sorts, it feels anticlimactic and unnecessary: we have long since abandoned the world of resolution.
It would be difficult to discuss this novel without at the very least addressing its postmodern elements. Conn takes a nearly Mannerist approach to his telling, but there is a sincerity to his tongue-in-cheek style – indeed, this sincerity is all that allows the work to sustain itself; otherwise its already considerable self-imposed limitations would only further encroach upon the connotative expansiveness of the work, and it would collapse under its own self-conscious cheekiness. This is not to say that the work is not cheeky: the syntax is of a kind of mongrel fairy talese, and references to “post-late-capitalism” abound. This latter term beckons the likes of Frederic Jameson and Francis Fukuyama, and in many ways these invocations are the weakest part of the novel: such allusions seem out of place to my increasingly intuitive understanding of it, even while it was precisely these allusions that initially allowed me to feel as though I had gained access to any such understanding. The term seems designed to create a framework for understanding the novel as a kind of post-postmodernist work, as a take on Robert Coover’s take on fairy tales – a return to the source, in a way, but a return dependent upon discursive postmodern departures.
Is a description of the novel’s plot necessary? I don’t believe that it is; at the very least, my enjoyment of it was not dependent upon the plot – indeed, many of the more plot-oriented passages were for me the least engaging –, and many of the finest passages – most notably, a simply terrific short “historical” play, which details the events surrounding the marriage of the Commander of the starship Theseus, Duke of Athens to the daughter of the ambassador from Neptune – do little to advance the narrative. Suffice it to say that there is a plague, an annual celebration of great import to the society, considerable preparation for a pageant, kidnappings, messenger-delivered children, quarantines, efforts on the part of the society's children to accumulating knowledge about their society’s history and culture, and a great much more: people get lost, people get in fights, people have sex in unusually pungent or asensual ways, people grow jealous and suspicious of each other. The events take place in some distant future, after all that we have taken for granted in some fashion or another leads to the destruction of contemporary civilization. Wonderfully bizarre aphorisms – “Let peace erupt within you” –, beautifully unexpected descriptions – “The binder of brooms leapt into the room and struck the boar-bristle woman behind the ear with a young pumpkin” – and hilariously stilted dialogue – “'I am only playing a haunting melody in this dell, in order to frighten the children’” – abound, but, after the abundant quirks and whimsies pass and fade into memory, what is left is a singular portrait of an obtuse, alien, and impossibly knowable society. There is a distinctly patriarchal quality to this largely collapsed society, despite certain efforts to place female characters at its forefront; but Conn does not use this to offer any analyses or interpretations of patriarchal societies, as perhaps he shouldn’t – it would read entirely at odds with the style of the rest of the novel, even as it might make it a more comfortable or comforting read.
Conn’s achievement is not so much in his fantastical and stoic fabrications as it is in the unexpected inclusiveness of his telling of them. The frame of the narrative is so tenuous and its contents so weightless that any story held solely within it seems to evade memory; those that extend beyond the narrative frame – the play, an early passage between two girls on a river, a later passage between two men and a corpse – are indelible in their alternately funny, sweet, and chilling singularity. The vagueness of this world is charted in concrete terms and phrases, but, between the limited and wonderfully awkward vocabulary and syntax and the incomprehensibly meaningful pomp of everything, Conn lets his readers in to roam and make of it what they will. This world isn’t Conn’s; he’s just its messenger.
The image used for this post is a detail of the cover of The Fixed Stars. The cover design is by Lou Robinson and the photos are by Dreamstime.com.