A short novel like Newspaper looks like the correct choice for light reading on these balmy days, and in appearance it resembles other Edouard Levé works, all of which are easily placed in the pocket of a summer jacket. On reading it, though, we see that Newspaper contains more than its size lets on.
Three years ago I wrote about how the form of Levé’s Autoportrait (2005; English translation 2012)—one declarative sentence after another forming one book-length paragraph—allowed the reader to see a mind in action. (A revising mind, but the illusion is that the sentences, seemingly unconnected, come from the narrator spontaneously in our here and now.) In Works (2002; English translation 2014) readers are given summaries of 533 art projects that Levé (or his persona, or both), for the most part, contemplated without actualizing. It opens with a clear statement: “1. A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being.” A brief sample of the ideas includes:
24. A house designed by a three-year-old is built.
74. The body of a car is covered with whistles emitting noise depending on the vehicle’s pace. At a certain speed, they all sound off.
294. Accompanied by a suspenseful score, a long tracking shot ends with the cinematographer falling down.
348. A political lobbying group aims to have zoo animals paid a monthly salary.
A novel written in declaratives; a novel listing potential installations, films, and so on; another, Suicide (2008; English translation 2011), ostensibly about a (real or fictional) friend’s suicide that Levé (1965-2007) delivered to his publisher days before killing himself. Jan Steyn says in the afterword to that work that it’s “taken as a sort of literary explanation of his decision to die.”
With that background, then, a novel called Newspaper will continue Levé’s scrupulous adherence to providing a text that matches the title. This is not an updated version of The Front Page but a fake newspaper, perhaps placed just slightly into the future, broken into familiar sections: International, Society, Other News, Economics, Science and Technology, Classifieds, Weather, Sports, Arts and Culture, Entertainment Guide (with subdivisions), and Television. The first words of the book establish the general mood: “Approximately twenty people have died in a suicide bombing at a seaside resort hotel.” Levé is careful not to use names of countries or cities, and every currency is referred to as a monetary unit. World leaders go unnamed, but when certain phrases crop up, such as “‘axis of evil,’” identities will suggest themselves, and some literary works are summarized without their titles being given. (One example is César Aira’s Shantytown.) There is the rare reference to something that is at once definite and vague: “After Islamic attacks and bombings…,” for example, and the World Trade Organization.
Careful attention is given to a basic problem with journalism: that by presenting both sides “fairness” is achieved, with the more desirable aims, facticity or truth (as in evolution versus creationism), left to the side. Mealy-mouthed stories contain prose with neutral qualities. Sly humour resides in such clever mimicry. In a “small municipality” a center will open to “study and archive… the dictatorship that made this village its temporary headquarters during the last war.” The previous leader’s home is turned into a “five-star hotel wherein delighted tourists pay the equivalent of one month’s salary to spend one night in the ‘big man’s’ bedroom suite.” News comes in levels of importance, with attacks and wars in International news easing into natural disasters, for instance, followed by civil protests that are handled with severity. Government figures resign in humiliation or are killed by revolutionaries, and entire governments collapse. Throughout this section we could insert place names: Israel, Tunisia, Greece.
Overarching constraints to do with location and style govern the book, and each section poses further hurdles. (Though Levé was not a member of Oulipo, he clearly found their methods attractive.) Society pages deal with domestic violence, health care, seniors’ issues, and those who are jailed, but there are the stray stories that catch one’s eye, as in any newspaper: “The army is putting together a manual for urban warfare, intended for its troops. Cities have become battlegrounds, where attempts are being made to both contain rowdy crowds and attack enemy forces.” We might think we know what kind of country readies itself to unleash soldiers on its own population—and it’s not said by the fake reporter who defines “rowdy” and who is the “enemy,” as if everyone knew of and agreed on these details—but if we think it’s far away, that might make us too complacent. More revealing is how much this is like many real reports where what is presented is a skewed view of the situation without all the facts and, in the case of the manual, demonstrating a lack of scrutiny.
“A simulated airplane crash has gone badly wrong,” begins one story (and we are reminded of a brilliant work by another Frenchman, anarchist Félix Fénéon, Novels in Three Lines, a collection of published newspaper entries that briefly encapsulate a strike, a disaster or a murder in mordant fashion). In a real news story laughter may not come to mind, but packaged in a book like Levé’s the humour in that laconic opening is evident, although it is far down to the subdued scale of humour, unlike this ad under Classified: “Internet site seeks numerologists and astrologists. Work from home, flexible hours. Urgent.” In a nicely barbed sub-section of Entertainment Guide that deals with music, Levé allows himself more leeway to make comments that appear bland but which contain a sting:
The many mentors who have influenced free jazz over the years can be proud of this young, virtuosic saxophonist, who blends energetic grooves with cozy merriment, much like his last few albums have done.
After a flirtation with heavy metal, then death metal, these four exceptional musicians return to their bread-and-butter version of industrial goth.
Despite these positive attributes, Newspaper is not a book one can love for its deadpan style, and clearly not for lyrical beauty, characters or plot development. Jason DeYoung grappled with its worth in his review for Numero Cinq: “As a formal experiment, Newspaper is worth reading,” he states, words that won’t excite the hearts of most people even though they express praise for technical adroitness. “The ‘novel’ didn’t move me in any way except toward the bigness of life and its confusion and its ultimate banality.” These are pertinent observations, for really, apart from the way things are told, enlivened by occasional jabs, and the successful execution of this thought experiment, what does Levé’s novel offer? I’m going to put forward a possible answer that could be seriously wrong.
Throughout this work of fiction—and the same can be said of other works by Levé—there resides a recurring, disturbing theme. Already we have read of terrorist acts, wars between and within nations, and how the police and the military are preparing to kill, if not simply subdue, the people they are meant to protect. Nestled amidst accounts of pedophilia, corruption, and discovered bodies in Other News is a bizarre story: “Two people are dead and five wounded after an explosion near a business that sells moving walkways. Grenades were recovered at the scene by firemen. Investigators have not yet ruled out accidental causes.” We hear no more about this.
The same section ends with another story that starts: “A forty-eight-year-old man and his nineteen-year-old nephew have attacked a police station with grenades.” It’s made clear this is completely unconnected to the earlier incident. Under the next section, Economics—where the prevalence of stories about renewal, restructuring, and takeovers signal significant job cuts and the swelling of monopolies—these lines, from two separate stories, leap out: “Radio broadcasts are experiencing new losses in annual audience numbers, for which even the uptick caused by the violent events at the beginning of the school year has been unable to compensate”; “A giant of the global audiovisual electronics industry has announced record quarterly revenues, in addition to an unexpected increase in operating income. Evidently, the most recent wave of bombings has not decreased the demand for video games and consumer electronics.”
Before considering the possibility of a theme in that string of stories, we can pause to look at how, for radio networks, increased violence is almost blamed for not providing better market share. Violence has been co-opted as a promoter of a greater listenership (much like reports of weather bombs have), but failed to do its job in recent rating periods. Meanwhile, the “global” citizenry either has become too frightened of death on the streets or too apathetic to leave their homes and wrest control of society (if it exists, which many International stories indicate might not be the case) back into their own hands or have succumbed to an “audiovisual” opiate that supposedly keeps them safe.
When we are buried in the world of a work of literature we become, for a time, an inhabitant, and in Newspaper territorial boundaries have been removed through Levé’s practice of not providing a geopolitical landscape. As there are no countries that can be classed as Us and Them, we are prevented from differentiating our troubles from those heard about on some other continent; each country becomes our country, and their atrocities and failures become our collective guilt, shame, burden, and evil inheritance. More exactly, as the familiar quote has it, “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” Even the natural world is hazardous. As one story has it, a “leading insurance company is predicting that it will end the financial year with a loss, due to an increase in claims for unusual disasters.”
Climate change may be reflected in the Weather section, where temperatures have a narrow range (from 9-19C), winds are frequently high, the sun comes out only now and then, and rain occurs, but not snow. The winter that just passed took out bridges and stranded communities where I live, left a record-breaking amount of snow, and closed schools and businesses many times in slightly over two months. The previous winter featured the polar vortex (successor to the weather bomb in terms of hysteria-inducing terms) that made the outdoors almost unbearably frigid for weeks. The “unusual disasters,” added to the manmade ones—though if climate change is what Levé is indicating, then some of those disasters are manmade as well—indicate a world on the brink of a long-running disaster.
Constant revelations of financial thievery and political machinations, and the impact of globalization and its offspring, precarity, which appear in various sections of the novel, are symptoms of a decaying society. Added together, we could conclude that civilization itself is endangered. This is the theme that, I suggest, arises in and unites apparently discrete stories. The theme is not presented as an arc or in one piece, but is left scattered in a way that reflects how difficult it is to comprehend the world’s many systems and their interlocking and, at times, competing mechanisms.
Levé began as a painter, and then turned to photography and writing, so it’s intriguing that there are no visuals—I mean comics—in his mocked-up newspaper. But the funnies can’t exist in a book that begins in terror and ends drearily, in the Entertainment section, with a television schedule for the day ahead that describes what movie is playing at 11:15 p.m.: “An out-of-work actor is loaned an apartment equipped with a telescope that lets him observe his neighbour across the road. He is then embroiled in a sinister plot.” (This sounds like Brian De Palma’s Body Double, which uses certain Alfred Hitchcock movies as inspiration.) Maybe there is no sinister plot, or main theme, in Newspaper, but I incline to think Edouard Levé has a serious intent that goes beyond pastiche.
Newspaper, by Edouard Levé, trans. Jan Steyn and Caite Dolan-Leach | Dalkey Archive Press| 160 pages | $13.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1564781956