Monday, April 9, 2012

On Objects without Subjects (or John Darnielle as "a way more emo Robbe-Grillet")

In an interview during the promotional cycle for The Life of the World to Come, John Darnielle is asked about the literary influences on his writing. He's reluctant to find any direct resemblances between himself and any of the totemic figures he cites elsewhere – Joan Didion, Faulkner, Aeschylus – but makes one telling comparison. He likens his work to 'a way more emo Robbe-Grillet.'

Alain Robbe-Grillet was a French novelist and film-maker who came to prominence in the nouveau roman movement of the 1950s and 60s. One of the most notable features of his novels is a singularly flat style that privileges objects over plot and character psychology. In place of examination of people's motives or their subjective emotional responses to the world, Robbe-Grillet's texts present us with objects in their essence – their geometric dimensions, their hard edges, their irreducible thereness, indifferent to human life.

He's also known for his repetitive, cyclical narratives – scenes are replayed endlessly, from multiple angles, on multiple levels of reality, until there's no way of recapturing what really happened in what order; until such questions are entirely meaningless. It's a world of mechanical patterns broken only by startling violence: The Voyeur follows a watch-salesman on his circular trip around an isolated island. He works out methodically how long it will take him to get from house to house on his bicycle. How long it will take to make each sale. He sets up a suitcase on a table to display the models on offer. And he thinks about the body of a young girl, sexually assaulted and thrown to her death from the top of a cliff. This is a typical passage from Richard Howard's translation:

'At low tide the remains of these crabs strewed the naked mud in front of the quay. Among the flat stones with their manes of rotting seaweed, on the barely slanting blackish surface, in which sparkled here and there a tin can that still had not rusted, a bit of crockery painted with little flowers, a blue enamel skimmer almost intact, their arched, spiny shells could be distinguished next to the longer, smoother shells of ordinary crabs.'

These objects are placed before our eyes without commentary, without inherent emotional resonance – their existence is a kind of challenge; they possess what Darnielle in 'Baboon' refers to as 'pure power, stripped of meaning'. And the songs of the Mountain Goats are full of such descriptive passages; of objects that stack up, surrounding Darnielle's characters, without asking their permission, or ours. Take the opening lines of 'Broom People', for example:

‘36 Hudson in the garage
All sorts of junk in the unattached spare room
Dishes in the kitchen sink
Used straw for the old broom'

Or these, from 'Letter From Belgium':

'Susan and her notebook
Freehand drawings of Lon Chaney
Blueprints for geodesic domes
Recipes for cake'

Or these, from 'All Rooms Cable A/C Free Coffee', on the Extra Glenns' 'Martial Arts Weekend':

'Thunder, lightning, hot rain
Sweet smell of rotten grain
Holy basil, wolf's bane
Crows tapping on the windowpane'

I'm not suggesting that all, or even most Mountain Goats songs are made in this mould, but it's a common enough feature to bear some scrutiny. What's striking about these lists of noun phrases in each case is how disconnected they are – they're free of articles, definite or indefinite, or deictic pronouns to mark them as 'the', or 'a', or 'some', or 'these', or 'those'. Part of what gives Darnielle's songs their feeling of concision is this elision – the intense, distilled quality any attentive listener will be familiar with is generated by what the lyrics don't express, even on the fundamental level of grammar. A common, banal thought experiment will serve to illustrate what the Mountain Goats don't do:

'Susan and her notebook
[In which there were]
Freehand drawings of Lon Chaney
[Along with]
Blueprints for geodesic domes
Recipes for cake'

Which isn't to say that John Darnielle doesn't encourage you to join the dots, to make the connections. That's the whole game of narrative, after all – a fact of which Darnielle, who in another interview declares himself the author of 'not one, but two theses' on the human need for narrative in every aspect of life is only too aware.

This is one big point of divergence from Robbe-Grillet – without going into specifics, a large part of what the French author's writing does is obfuscate the details to the point of obliterating the idea of chronological narrative development; everything's happens at once, like a cubist painting (not my own description, it must be said), and it's the reader’s task to process the work on hand as it creates itself, rather than to search for a pre-existing narrative structure that we can recreate like detectives. Indeed, to do so is a disservice to the text before us.

For John Darnielle, however, it's impossible to stop investing the things around us with meaning, even as they possess none in and of themselves, and it's impossible to separate the events that life, or writing, presents us with without engaging in the furious search for narrative order. Or in other words, 'there's a monkey in the basement – how did the monkey get there?'

Maybe this is where the 'way more emo' part comes in. It's hard to think of Darnielle as a cold-eyed photographer of objects, because his songs are also full of humans – tense, broken people, with their lust and their obsessions and their fury. A Mountain Goats song can never simply be about 'Carpenter ants in the dresser/Flies in the screen', because there's always someone at the middle of it, afraid it will be 'too late by the time we learn/What these cryptic symbols mean' ('Palmcorder Yajna'). Ants and flies don't mean anything, of course, other than that your house isn't particularly clean; though it's interesting to note that Robbe-Grillet returns obsessively to insects and crustaceans, small insignificant creatures who hover on the edges of human scenes until a boot stamps down. But what's more important is the doomed and inescapable desire for sense-making, a speaking person's need to situate events and objects in their proper order.

Which isn't to say that Darnielle creates detailed characters, either. Character, as well as plot, is suppressed in Robbe-Grillet's work, and here Darnielle also uses the technique of elision. Yes, his songs are full of 'I's and 'you's – but look at the verbs. Time and again, Darnielle conjugates his verbs without a subject. We assume, in most cases rightly, that the person singing is the one performing the action, but take this verse from 'How to Embrace A Swamp Creature':

'Meet up with you in the kitchen
Where the air is hot and dry
Open up all the faucets
Be fruitful and multiply'

The first line is obviously the narrator's action – [I, or I will] meet up with you in the kitchen. But does he also, alone, 'open up all the faucets'? Or do they do it together – 'we open up all the faucets'? Or is it an imperative, from the speaker to his addressee, that segues into the next line of Biblical command? And who's that addressed to – her, himself, or us all?

A verse from 'Genesis 3:23' seems simpler in its grammar, but its literary function is similar:

'Touch nothing move nothing stand still
Keep my ears open for cars
See how the people here live now
Hope they’re better at it than I was'

The first line has that same inclusive, imperative presence – it puts us in the room with the dispossessed narrator, facing us with the same decision he has to make about his actions. The rest simply elides the subject, foregrounding not who is speaking, but what he is speaking about and doing – his actions. Actions come first, and narrative comes later; as well as keeping the song snappy and familiar, the lack of the first person pronoun creates a kind of universality, or to be pessimistic, perhaps an even greater dispossession. Like the elision of articles elsewhere, it gives us the actions in their raw form. But for the listener, this absence plunges us directly inside them, making the pull-back of the chorus even sharper – 'I used to live here'. We are so close to the verbs, we might be forgiven for briefly thinking that they only applied to us.

The above are just observations, and the can of worms they open up is hard to contain within a brief essay; but if we want to find literary forebears for John Darnielle, he himself gives us the clue to start the search in an unexpected place. When Darnielle declares 'this song is for the stick pins and the cottons/I left in the top drawer', it might be an avant-garde French novelist of the 1950s who we should be thanking for the dedication. After all, someone's got to keep your pretty things from danger.

By Richard O'Brien. Mr. O'Brien is 21 and comes from some damned English city. He almost has a degree in English and French and writes reviews at