Monday, June 12, 2017

Götterdämmerung, the Reader's Digest Version

Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left: a Novel

A successful screenwriter rents an AirBnB in the mountains to write. His studio wants a sequel, and his family needs the money. But secluded on a vacation cabin with his glamorous, bored actress wife and their daughter, the words begin to flow. Until the bad dreams begin. And right angles don’t add up to ninety degrees. And his little girl wakes up speaking prophecies of doom.

Veteran novelist Daniel Kehlmann is a household name in Germany, but remains largely unknown to English-speaking readers. This novella might change that. Mixing elements of Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and Elizabeth Hand, Kehlmann creates the kind of creeping dread that American paperback readers love, channeled through the kind of linguistic mindset that gave us Thomas Mann and Günter Grass.

The story unfolds as our nameless narrator’s journal. On one hand, he jots notes for his screenplay, a John Hughes-like coming-of-age comedy where two “Besties” adjust to an adult friendship. The story provides ironic commentary on events building around him, as his vacation home apparently grows new bedrooms overnight, reveals a massive mountain nobody else can see, and insinuates itself into his marriage. Symbolism abounds.

The story immediately invites comparison to King’s The Shining and Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Kehlmann doesn't even pretend to deny such allusions, though he doesn't acknowledge them either. But such comparisons, while accurate, are nevertheless incomplete. Kehlmann doesn't so much present a horror novella, as a novella of what Freud calls “the Uncanny,” the subconscious made manifest in the protagonist's senses.

The house seemingly accentuates its inhabitants’ identities. When the narrator and his wife fight, they fight like feral cats cornered in the same Dumpster. When they agree, they mesh like two hemispheres of the same brain. And when their daughter begins speaking grim, powerful words beyond her ken, they realize, almost without words, that the problem isn't them, it’s the house.

Daniel Kehlmann
Much more happens, of course. But not, I fear, enough. I like this book, and don’t want anybody to ever say I said otherwise, but man, this book is short. The story itself runs under 110 pages, which makes its $18 list price awfully steep. I read the whole thing inside three hours. And though Kehlmann is easily King’s or Jackson’s equal in scene-setting, his conclusion is abrupt, without resolution, leaving only questions.

Horror, after all, is a genre of balance. Writers must reveal enough to keep readers engaged, but withhold enough to maintain suspense. No wonder I mainly write poetry.

So I vacillate on how to review this book. For most of the reading experience, I wanted to lavish praise upon it: though he reuses tropes horror readers have seen before, Kehlmann employs them in ways that create tension and make us care about his characters. Then he just stops. His characters, complex and deeply humane, deserve more explanation at the denouement than he offers. It’s like he just got bored.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical. Kehlmann clearly comes from a literary, rather than genre, background. His emphasis rests on creating nuanced characters and telling details, rather than dawning fear. In that case, rather than Stephen King, his work more closely resembles Brian Evenson or Thomas Ligotti. As with those writers, the why of the situation matters less than its imminence for the characters.

Nevertheless, Kehlmann’s audience reads works like this every day. Veteran readers recognize both the similarities, and the differences, with King’s Jack Torrance or Liz Hand’s Julian Blake. We deserve some explanation of how our nameless narrator finds himself in this situation. Without that, the final four pages appear weirdly disconnected from what came before. Like Kehlmann was writing for a predetermined end, rather than one arising from the situation.

Translator Ross Benjamin has a long history of translating German-language writers into American English. His CV reads like a Who's Who of contemporary German writers, though most will remain unfamiliar to English-speaking audiences. The one readily familiar name also clarifies his qualifications to translate this novella: Benjamin has won awards for translating Franz Kafka.

On balance, I suppose I should recommend this book. Some of my favorite authors, like Joseph Conrad and Salman Rushdie, have difficulty writing resolutions worthy of the novels they’ve crafted. And King himself extols the short form because it exonerates authors from the imperative to explain. My disappointment arises not because this book is weak, but because it's so strong that it sets itself a high bar. This is a good novella. I just wish it was great.

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