Clive James pithily said, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” What a pat late-nineteenth-century inheritance. It is a persistent fantasy of mine, perhaps an appetite for work that is articulately mundane, or tedious enough to become transparent in such a way that it exists as an extension of the real world rather than a representation of it, to find a work that is as innocuous as an average person walking by on the street, and to parlay that dull mystery into the focus of an entire work without ever allowing them to blossom fully. Many non-narrative works of literature achieve this already, but it is more of a feat to undertake as a narrative project. Can you spend an entire work with a character and still feel as though they are not the focus? Watch Saving Private Ryan and wonder why it isn’t about the 1-A-O draftee typist who goes quietly to bed every night at 8 o’clock. Read Gravity’s Rainbow and wonder if it would be possible to write much the same book, but about the person who cleaned Grigori the octopus’s tank without knowing his role in the greater scheme. It’s a strange request, no doubt, and perhaps born from a concern that the perpetual heirs of naturalism in fiction have drifted further and further from “the real”—if ever they were capable of the real—in the transposition of their fixation to “the interesting.” Real life is rarely especially interesting. And when it is, it is more frequently in hindsight. Thus, although a tale, or a memory, may be interesting in its accumulation, the urge for a tale to appear interesting in the moment—the moment of the reader—is but facile artifice. Can we occupy the biography of an individual and have the true-to-experience sense that everything is happening around them, and rarely to them? Atlantic Hotel, the last novel by João Gilberto Noll to be translated into English prior to his death, is the closest to realizing this fantasy I have read.
This is not to say the body of literature has never approached this feat of soft focus. Two prior benchmarks in this pursuit—that I will unpack against Atlantic Hotel—come to mind: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Both are dramatic works rather than novels. Unlike prose, drama has—what might be described as—the liberty of allowing a physical body to replace the text. On the stage a body can sit in silence, can listen, can pose, and emote, without overly bringing attention to itself.
I will return to this, but consider for a moment Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities. In what may seem very satisfying, the text—across its enormity—belabors the emptiness of its protagonist, Ulrich. Musil writes:
Walter was frustrated. He searched, he wavered. Suddenly he burst out: “He (Ulrich) is a man without qualities!” / “What’s that?” Clarisse asked, with a little laugh. / “Nothing. That’s just the point—nothing!” / But the expression had aroused Clarisse’s curiosity. / “There are millions of them nowadays,” Walter declared. “It’s the human type that our time has produced.”
In Ulrich’s centrality—the protagonist, yet not the protagonist—in the consciousness of his choices, and also with the omniscience of the text—every word is pointing back at him—he becomes thick, poignant, and symbolic. The fixation on Ulrich as a man of emptiness makes him full and flesh. Three pages later, in the same conversation, Walter continues:
“A man like (Ulrich) isn’t really human at all!… He says everything is dissolved, nowadays. He says everything has come to a standstill—not only himself… He gave me a long talk once—if you analyse the nature of a thousand human beings, all you’re left with is two dozen qualities, feelings, forms of development, constructive principles and so on, which is what they all consist of. And if you analyse the human body, all you’re left with is water and a few dozen little heaps of matter floating round in it.”
The text strains its point. The notion that people have become unburdened of their humanness and are simply unqualified meat-heaps is the argument, but Musil allows the argument to flow through the heaps as a conscious, life-sustaining concern.
His oblique exposition satisfies the philosophical burdens of the text, but in a way that rhetorically controverts its own philosophy. Ulrich is a man with more real, relatable qualities than anyone knows what to do with.
In addition to the foregrounding illusion of consciousness, prose must animate the body, it must singularly call attention to it in order to make it visible and flesh. This has nothing to do with Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” of apparent omissions. It is not about meaning, but about the physicality of beings and objects in a text. It is impossible to make a figure apparent in text without delineating it and allowing it to float to the surface. In this way, it becomes conspicuous. So, prose is functionally completely different than drama. And although it may be an aspiration to find ways for beings and objects to become latent in a text, it seems more useful to look at these two dramatic works for how they compound the flatness and absence of their protagonists even in their immediate physicality on the stage.
Waiting for Godot spends the entire play focusing on a figure who is not there, whom we know nothing about, yet is telegraphed almost entirely through the two leads. They occupy space, and spend the play emptying themselves of any possibility that they could do anything more than be physical. Still, Godot usurps Didi and Gogo in three-dimensionality. Of the characters who actually appear on the stage, Pozzo and his man-dog, Lucky, are far more fleshly and psychologically cumulative than the poor tramps. They even undergo a transformation of sorts between acts. In fact, Gogo and Didi seem to simply be on stage as artifice, without importance, without self-awareness, without momentum, until Pozzo arrives to validate their humanity, to transform them out of simply being Beckett’s intellectual game.
estragon: (hastily) We’re not from these parts, Sir. / pozzo: (halting) You are human beings none the less. (He puts on his glasses.) As far as one can see. (He takes off his glasses.) Of the same species as myself. (He bursts into an enormous laugh.) Of the same species as Pozzo! Made in God’s image!
The protagonist of Atlantic Hotel in his flatness on the page, also alerts us that he needs to reflect himself off those around him in order to realize his physicality. Such an act of ennui tends to render the mirror more real than the figure.
I stopped from time to time at a stall, asking the price of something just to hear the sound of my voice, killing time until lunch.
I let out a sigh that did me well to hear aloud.
Stoppard’s play etherizes its protagonists with our foreknowledge of their insignificance in the original context of Shakespeare’s play. They only become especially real, or validated, in the company of Prince Hamlet or Polonius, et al. Otherwise they have almost the sense of interminably looping dummies.
rosencrantz (at footlights): How very intriguing! (Turns.) I feel like a spectator—an appalling business. The only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that somebody interesting will come on in a minute. …
But not all drama is able to render its players with such a lack of qualities. Someone as quintessentially dead as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, through his longing and sadness, is full and whole in his failure. In a different manner than Musil’s characters lamenting their emptiness, the figures speaking on the stage in Beckett and Stoppard, in that they need not speak to become physical beyond their emptiness, are speaking in order to empty themselves. In Beckett this is found nearly everywhere, from the yammering about carrots and radishes to the feeble attempts at recapturing memories. Just as ubiquitous in Stoppard, it is especially apparent in the game of “questions,” in which one may only respond with interrogatives.
rosencrantz: How would I know? / guildenstern: Why do you ask? / ros: Are you serious? / guil: Was that rhetoric? / ros: No. / guil: Statement! Two—all. Game point.
We expect that the spoken lines of a drama exist as propellant. When words simply fill the stage and die, they erode their orators.
This is not precisely a quality I would assign to Atlantic Hotel. It is still a novel. It is a silent text. As a novel, the words are not passing (real) time, but fabricating the skew time of the book. But, it is impossible for a book to function without resonance from its antecedents. Atlantic Hotel cannot help capitalizing on the physicality of actors on the stages of Beckett and Stoppard because of its other affinities to them, particularly: point of view, unreliability, and lack of agency.
One of the benefits of drama is that there is not an easy analog to prose’s narrative point of view. With some exceptions, every word is first-person. Perhaps the most generally effective strategy for suppressing the presence of a figure in the text, strangely, is use of the first-person voice. Think here of the extreme disembodiment of Sebald’s “I”, a figure that is more the necessary corpus of what it means to be a written text—the text itself, or the text of history, is the “I”—than a three-dimensional representation of a body. Not because it is narrated, but because it is a transcribed consciousness, the text undergoes an involution from something that must see the figure, as in third-person, to something that can only see everything but the figure. The mode of Atlantic Hotel is first-person. It is not remarkable in its application. However, although it is a step forward, not every first-person narrative succeeds in approaching this threshold of emptiness.
A beneficial feature rather particular to the first-person mode is unreliability of the narrator. As part of this rhetoric, Beckett’s and Stoppard’s protagonists make it abundantly clear to the audience that they exist only in the frame of the work. They are aware of only what has transpired in the text, and they could not hope to provide any context to what we are seeing even if we asked. They cannot be trusted, and it doesn’t really matter. For instance, in Act I of Waiting for Godot, Didi and Gogo spend a great deal of time attempting and failing to recall what has happened in the day and night prior to our meeting them. They have very little context and no agreement for anything outside the text. However, in Act II, in nearly identical mnemonic exercises they possess a—albeit limited—frame of reference based on Act I in the form of the tree from which they discussed hanging themselves and the physical evidence of Pozzo and Lucky’s visit. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the protagonists struggle to cement their own identity, as if we are watching infants sorting out consciousness in real time.
guildenstern: And a syllogism: One, he has never known anything like it. Two, he has never known anything to write home about. Three, it is nothing to write home about. … Home … What’s the first thing you remember. / rosencrantz: Oh, let’s see. … The first thing that comes into my head, you mean? / guil: No—the first thing you remember. / ros: Ah. (Pause.) No, it’s no good, it’s gone. It was a long time ago. / guil (patient but edged): You don’t get my meaning. What is the first thing after all the things you’ve forgotten? / ros: Oh I see. (Pause.) I’ve forgotten the question.
rosencrantz: My name is Guildenstern, and this is Rosencrantz. / guildenstern confers briefly with him. / (Without embarrassment.) I’m sorry—his name’s Guildenstern and I’m Rosencrantz.
A very similar mechanism can be in play in works of prose. For example, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita or A.M. Homes’ The End of Alice—both books narrated by sexual predators—utilize unreliability as a form of leverage, an active practice to manipulate the reader into thinking that perhaps they were not as monstrous as it would seem. Atlantic Hotel is different. Like Beckett and Stoppard, it utilizes a much more passive unreliability.
Noll cultivates a sense of unreliability in that the narrator is so ambivalent that we hardly have any reason to take him at his word. He either tells us outright that he is lying, “I filled out the registration card, lying that I was married…” or passively accepting other people’s assertions. Whether these are true or false we never can ascertain.
The black-haired guy got up. He came over to me and asked, “You wouldn’t be the actor from that film The Man Who Wanted to Be God?” / “That’s me,” I said.
The narrator of Atlantic Hotel is unreliable in that he seems to not even know the truth about himself, or to believe it is so inconsequential that we tend to agree with him.
The sequestration of the characters in literature to the confines of their works while making them unable to affect anything outside the text, also renders them unreal, as cogs of the text’s mechanisms. The characters in both plays are very conscious of or make very apparent their lack of agency. They are activated by a force outside themselves, are subservient to fate. In Stoppard, we know Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be forever processing into their doomed fate at the hands of Shakespeare (who isn’t though really?).
guildenstern: No, no, no … you’ve got it all wrong … you can’t act death. The fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen—it’s not the gasps and blood and falling about—that isn’t what makes death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all—now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back—an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced…
No more distinctive execution of this acquiescence to fate exists in literature outside of Waiting for Godot. This refrain sums up the entire play:
estragon: Let’s go. / vladimir: We can’t. / estragon: Why not? / vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot. / estragon: (despairingly). Ah!
Through all of this interminability, we are left with the feeling that the real story is being told elsewhere. But the reality is that there is no real story. Everywhere we focus, the periphery becomes of interest.
Another allusive mechanism that Atlantic Hotel uses, as perhaps a nod to the power of drama, while acknowledging the flat atemporal quality of the page, is cinema. Cinema, perhaps more than stage drama, allows figures in the frame to diminish by utilizing a lenticular focus and framing that is not native to our eyes. We are shown what to look at, but do not have to be told. In Atlantic Hotel, the protagonist is constantly peripheral or adjacent to actual events. We first meet him arriving at a hotel where a corpse is being wheeled out. Later he happens to be sitting next to a woman on a bus who commits suicide by overdose en route. At another point, wearing a priest’s frock, he administers the last rites to a dying old woman. He even finishes the book in a state of semi-invalidity, being toted about by the more powerful—physical and tangible—Sebastião. He often seems afraid he may not even exist at all, to himself or to others.
I thought of saying something to the usher, maybe telling him I’d already seen the previous showing, and I was just passing time before meeting a friend at ten thirty. But when I fixed my gaze on the place from where he’d been speaking to me, he was no longer there.
As I accompany the ephemerality and tepidity of this narrator, I am reminded persistently of a line from Stephen Holden’s review of the 2005 movie Monster-in-Law in which the lead, Michael Vartan, is described as, “A typical modern Hollywood prince, Kevin is a cipher with a cleft chin, carefully groomed stubble and flashy teeth.” It is further noted that any instance in which Vartan shows signs of a personality are, “bizarre.” Likewise, the protagonist of Atlantic Hotel is barely there, a cipher—possibly a former soap opera star, if we believe him—in the truest sense, grazing past other people’s experiences and demises, but never fully existing because nothing ever directly causes him to exist, except, perhaps, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his own ultimate demise. Not only does the protagonist lead us to believe that he is an out-of-work actor, there are numerous other refrains, including the above visit to a movie theater. We are, filtered through the narrator’s perspective, anaesthetized by the notion that the protagonist is merely watching his life pass by as though trapped in a movie.
Nélson spoke in enigmas. But all the words he was saying, the house, it all seemed to me like something out of an old film.
Without context, such allusions would not do much heavy lifting in a novel. But given the abundance of other subductive techniques applied to the narrator and the tale, every event or reflection seems to become part of his erasure. Following the quote in which he is asked if he was a film actor, the protagonist notes that he had been on three soap operas, “but never in a lead role.”
I acknowledge a very important place for giving a voice to people through storytelling, and I also acknowledge the benefit of escapism, two of the special powers of narrative. But is there also a benefit to my fantasy of emptiness, or peripheral focus? Yes. It is a healthy contextualization of actual human experience.
It is the inconsequentiality of Beckett’s, Stoppard’s, and Noll’s protagonists, and their acquiescence to it, even in the face of self-preservation, that makes their physical being disappear. It is what makes this fantasy truly accurate. We all have some recognition about how unimportant we are.
The attempts to aggrandize human experience through false pantomimes of narrative agency and voice and physicality are a conscious act to delude the reading public into either thinking that they can be something more than a happenstance animal who will die and be forgotten, or that they should, when they can’t.
João Gilberto Noll (1946–2017) is the author of nearly twenty books. His work appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he was a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of more than ten awards in all, he died in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the age of 70.
Adam Morris has a PhD in Latin American Literature from Stanford University and is the recipient of the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize in literary translation. He is the translator of João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel (Two Lines Press, 2017) and Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press, 2016), and Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House Books, 2014). His writing and translations have been published widely, including in BOMB magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. He lives in San Francisco.
John Trefry is an architect and the author of the novel PLATS, the caprice THY DECAY THOU SEEST BY THY DESIRE, and the forthcoming novel APPARITIONS OF THE LIVING, his work has appeared on The Fanzine, Black Sun Lit, and forthcoming on Plinth. He contributes to Entropy Magazine, Full Stop, minor literature[s], and forthcoming on The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and on Twitter @trefryesque.
Atlantic Hotel is published by Two Lines Press. Author and translator bios courtesy of the same.