An interview with Ross Benjamin on Clemens J. Setz

Book cover of Indigo by Clemens J. SetzWhat makes Clemens J. Setz such a compelling author? While I was writing a review for CulturMag of   Indigo by Clemens J. Setz, I sent Ross Benjamin some questions about his work as Setz’s American translator. What came back was enlightening and hugely enjoyable to read and we both decided to share it in full.

(Lucy Renner Jones): For starters, Clemens comes across as a collector of oddities – photographs, scraps, bizarre newspaper stories – a geek, as it were, and it seems as if “Indigo” has grown from this love of the bizarre. You have the feeling that if he hadn’t become a writer, he might have become a professional ladybug torturer or a director for an asylum for the insane…is that what you feel too or do you think he’s just brilliantly funny? (And in danger of being misunderstood?)

(Ross Benjamin): Yes, Setz is indeed a collector or curator of unusual anecdotes, neglected footnotes to historical or current events, cultural and pop cultural marginalia, which he incorporates into his fiction as well as his public appearances and interviews. In its role in his work, however, all this is more than just bric-a-brac. On one level, it has something of the encyclopedic abundance of someone like David Foster Wallace in his impulse to do justice to the mushrooming information environment of contemporary life. It’s at least a similarly expansive sense of what literature can be and what can be literature – which does not exclude all the random bits that currently constitute our media-saturated perception of the world. But I wouldn’t argue that this technique is some sort of reproduction, parody or even celebration of the Internet. Rather, my impression is that Setz pieces his fiction together in a mosaic fashion. Scenes and vignettes featuring a range of characters are as much a part of the assemblage as the sorts of moments we’re talking about. One result is that there’s no clear-cut status distinction between main plot and subplots or central themes and digressions. This form seems suited to a readership accustomed to Internet surfing, clicking from one thing to another, but that doesn’t mean it’s unique to our age; after all, you could describe Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities in much the same way. It’s important to add that Setz isn’t just indiscriminately throwing in a bunch of ingredients and mixing them together. He’s artful in his selection and arrangement. The various parts end up working together like musical counterpoint. Setz is a jazz pianist, so it’s no wonder that he can perform astonishing flights of improvisation without losing sight of the ultimate integrity of the composition as a whole. That’s why his digressive style never makes the reader worry that the author has lost his grip on the reins of his novel. Everything in it seems no more and no less interrelated than things in the real world do. But Setz, with his penchant for the idiosyncratic, makes us aware of connections and disconnections that might otherwise have remained invisible to us. For that reason, as well as the appeal of the intelligence and humor with which his writing is infused, I count the offbeat and even the grotesque or bizarre in Setz’s fiction among its riches.

I don’t think there’s anything to compare to this novel, at least not within my frame of reference – is there for you? Perhaps Bret Easton Ellis was called to mind in Setz’s meticulous attention to detail and the unempathetic, ‘autistic’ character of Robert. Are there any US writers who do what Setz does? 

Well, I mentioned David Foster Wallace above, but only in reference to one aspect of Setz’s writing. Certain elements of the novel remind me of the films of Terry Gilliam – its mix of the imaginative, the comic and the paranoid, the uncanny atmosphere and the characters’ disorienting confrontations with the absurd and unmasterable. There’s no doubt Setz has read his DeLillo and Pynchon, though he is confident enough not to ape their voices; he merely takes for granted the far-reaching terrain they’ve claimed for fiction. But I’ve never understood, at least from a literary standpoint, why the English-speaking publishing world seems to require a foreign author to be comparable to some native one, or at least someone already in English. We already have a Bret Easton Ellis — why would we want another one who happens to be from Graz and write in German? Don’t we want something new, different, exciting? What would translating an Austrian Bret Easton Ellis add to English-language literature? And, of course, that’s not who Setz is (though that would never stop a publisher combing through this interview for a blurb from excising that phrase from my previous sentence and announcing He has been called the “Austrian Bret Easton Ellis,” if they thought it would increase sales). What makes Clemens Setz so fascinating is that he is Clemens Setz. And that’s actually saying a lot, with so many international writers imitating successful American authors like Jonathan Safran Foer or producing work that’s derivative or conventional in other ways. Setz is that rare thing, an original. Which is interesting when you go back to my answer to the previous question and note that he takes material from everywhere and avails himself of tropes from different genres, such as science fiction, and yet he opens up new literary horizons in the process.

He adds the dimension of the internet to his writing. He almost wills you to go and google what he’s written, and if you do then you often find he’s playing a game, interweaving facts and fiction, so that at the end, you are led back to Setz and what he is reflecting on. He seems very aware of his position as a writer in the digital age.

That relates to some of what I’ve already said about the Internet age above. But you add the insight that there is a sort of four-way game going on between author and reader and book and Internet, where certain material in the novel that gives the impression it could have been cribbed from Wikipedia or plucked from some website of perhaps dubious reliability sends readers searching and then discovering something that becomes part of their interplay with the novel. So that aspect of their reading experience would already be anticipated in the construction of the book. The presumption that readers are active and interactive could be viewed as an acknowledgment of the way digital media have blurred the boundaries between producers and spectators of culture. If the inclusion of some odd-seeming factoid in the novel is an invitation to readers to Google or engage in online research, that is an elevation of their role from passive recipient to participant. Setz’s apparent awareness of all this shows that he is not pretending that literature exists in a vacuum. Knowing that readers of his work are likely to be immersed in the contemporary multimedia universe, he writes in a way that has — dare I say it — links to that universe. My guess would be, however, that he can’t help it, because that is simply the universe he lives in, just as we do. It’s a very traditional role of the writer to put that universe as he experiences it on the page as fully as possible. Incidentally, I’ve heard Setz at a public event read a poem he claimed was produced merely by copying a Wikipedia entry, adding line breaks and making a few modifications here or there for rhythmic or lyrical purposes. That immediately raised the question: If a writer can find poetry in, say, a wintry landscape or the night sounds of a city, then why not in a Wikipedia article? If we expect writers to take in and depict our world with a certain special attention that enables us to see it anew, we can’t limit that world to only the things that were conventional subjects of literature in earlier times.

All along, the book has a feel that something terrible is about to (or has already) happened, and he’s pulling you along to the inexorable conclusion. Did you feel the atmosphere was uncanny, to use one of Setz’s own words? How do you think that can be transposed onto the English translation? Is the creepiness in the language or the social setting?

Specifically, Setz invokes the “uncanny valley” concept, another of those moments when he can presume many readers will stop and Google or Wikipedia the term. In a more traditionally intertextual way, this goes back to Freud’s essay “Das Unheimliche,” about the uncanny effect of things like dolls, doppelgängers, puppets, which lend the familiar an unsettling quality of strangeness. The “uncanny valley” notion extends that argument to fields like robotics and computer simulation. The valley, to quote Wikipedia, is “the dip in a graph of the comfort level of humans as a function of a robot’s human likeness,” the sense of unease or revulsion that comes about when something very nearly but not perfectly replicates the human. In the novel, characters talk about it in terms of Data from Star Trek, a human actor altered with make-up to look like robot, and in terms of digital animation, which goes in the other direction, starting from pixels and ending up with something eerily humanlike but still not 100% human. All this seems highly relevant to Setz’s technique in the novel. The fictional world he portrays is close to ours, but slightly dislocated, not just temporally (Setz depicts the near future), but also in terms of its many close resemblances that are nonetheless slightly off. One character channel-surfs through programs that range from the absolutely familiar – home shopping networks displaying jewelry in extreme close-up – to the only slightly strange – a game show in which people with different disabilities are pitted against each other, such as a blind person versus a wheelchair-bound person, which seems shifted just a millimeter beyond what is plausible in and recognizable as today’s reality television. Such tiny estrangements are the very definition of the uncanny. And, of course, we are reading about a character with the author’s name and biographical background living in this parallel universe. It is him but not him, or a version of the “real” him having fictitious experiences – again, similar but not identical. All that, for me, is where the creepy effect comes from. It is a fitting atmosphere for the dystopian story Setz tells, of course. And yet the actual grotesque or perverse aspects of the story are effective only because they have this proximity to the familiar. The reader’s ears prick up when the characters start talking about the “uncanny valley,” because it helps explain the way this novel itself works. Of course, novels in general are parallel universes, simulations, doublings, and it can be argued that this one just exploits that fact, drawing out and drawing attention to the Unheimlichkeit at the heart of all necessarily imperfect attempts to capture and reproduce life in art and literature (see Kleist’s marionette theater essay).

To answer your second question, I don’t see any obvious barriers to transporting these effects into English. One way the language itself enhances the familiar-yet-strange atmosphere is the naturalness (or even hypernaturalness) of the dialogue: People stumble, stammer, trail off, misspeak, interrupt themselves and each other, speak confusedly, frenetically or inarticulately, are often out of their depth. The verbal tics in the German dialogue would have to be mimicked convincingly in English. The weirdness of the plot is rendered so lifelike in part by the characters’ reactions to it, much of which comes through in the way the dialogue is written, so that’s one area where I think the translation would have to be strong in order to maintain that familiarity of the unfamiliar.

What’s with the character named after him? How are we supposed to understand that? Is it a Paul-Auster-type of device or is something else going on? And why do so many other characters fail to say his name right?

My take on the character named after him I’ve provided to some extent above. These days, readers have been trained by critics not to conflate a fictitious character with the author, which leads to a funny reaction when novelists include characters with their names in novels (like Philip Roth in Operation Shylock, for example, which is also a self-reflexive story about impostors and impersonation), a kind of knowing resistance to taking it at face-value that a character “is” the author. But then why do they share a name? I’ve seen Setz express (and perhaps play up as another aspect of self-staging) in interviews his discomfort calling the Clemens Setz character “he” and his preference for saying “I,” although he will then often end up reverting to “he” anyway. (This vacillation between self and other is also essential to the theory of the uncanny, incidentally. Freud gives the example of sitting alone in his train compartment when there is a jerk that causes the door to swing open; at the sight of an elderly man he assumes is coming in by mistake, he jumps up but then realizes it was his own reflection in the glass door.) I’d go out on a limb and say we are supposed to take it pretty much at face-value here that the character named Clemens Setz is Clemens Setz, is invested with his personality, life experience and responses to the world. It’s a version of himself projected into a fictional world. I’ve already talked about how that relates to the whole theme of the uncanny. But it doesn’t have to be read as some crafty or complicated metafictional contrivance. It’s admittedly a little tricky that this novel is constantly blurring the boundary between fact and fiction with its quasi-documentary or mockumentary format, not only at the textual level but also at the graphic level, thanks to the brilliant Judith Schalansky’s role in the book’s design. So it’s not that I want to resolve or foreclose this ambiguity or interplay between fact and fiction, which we also talked about in terms of what I’ve called the “factoids” interspersed throughout the book, the tidbits that seem gleaned from surfing the Web. But there are also ways that fact and fiction aren’t really difficult at all to sort out in this novel: for example, every reader can be presumed to know from the outset that the whole science fiction premise that is the engine of the story is fictitious. And I’m wondering whether the Clemens Setz character isn’t more of a straightforward act of self-portraiture than a point where readers are supposed to scratch their heads all that much. I’d be more inclined to suppose that the author decided to enter his own story as a character, as simple as that, something that is doable and has been done before. It’s interesting to see how it’s done and what it does to one’s “self” to fictionalize and double it in this particular way. The fact that it’s done should challenge at least a little bit our insistence that an author and a character are never “the same.” Well, why not? Of course, they are not identical. But people aren’t identical to themselves either. What about an author in his private life versus an author on stage presenting himself to the public? We can let the character be Clemens Setz and Clemens Setz be the character if that’s who the novel says he is. Can’t someone living in the real world also live in literature? Indigo shows that those borders can be porous. We don’t need to police them so strictly. How can we prove the Clemens Setz in the novel is not Clemens Setz? Ask him for his papers?

Regarding people getting his name wrong, one could get into a whole interpretation about the question of identity, the arbitrariness of names, and so on, but based on my understanding of who the Clemens Setz character is, I’d assume that this is merely something that has repeatedly happened to the author throughout his life. I recall when people were just beginning to talk about him after his debut novel, before he became better known among German-speaking readers, I’d often hear variations of his name, Seitz and Seltz and such. If I were a literary character, everyone would have to reverse the character’s last name and first name and call him Benjamin Ross, since that is what people have always done with my name in real life.

What does the novel tell us about our attitude to illness and isolating the sick?

That’s a big question, of course, sort of a dissertation topic. All I’ll say about it is that I’m not sure whether the central point of this novel is to say something about our attitude to illness, although it might be considered something of a cop-out for a novel that’s all about a mysterious illness to say nothing whatsoever about that theme. And of course people’s attitudes and reactions to illness drive much of the story. (It also seems to me to target social attitudes toward impairment, disability and mental illness, and does so with a particular edge in depicting the pedagogical and therapeutic sphere.) And yet I wonder whether it doesn’t say as much about our attitudes to anything we can’t understand, explain, master or control, to what we’ve been calling the uncanny, the strange and creepy and slippery and elusive. A frequent “attitude” explored in this novel seems perhaps a very basic human one: a simple incapacity to get a complete handle on things that profoundly and uncontrollably destabilize our world. It’s in some ways a novel about the limits of our ability to absorb such shocks as individuals and as a society. The notion that the novel seems to me to be pointing to, though, is that it doesn’t have to be a sudden inexplicable epidemic. People can react that way to life’s everyday strains and struggles, such as having children – and, of course, our relationship to, treatment of and responsibilities toward children are equally key themes of the novel. It’s probably impossible for a book with a science-fictional epidemic scenario to avoid gesturing to an allegorical level. And yet it seems to me less of a parable about illness and social malady than, say, José Saramago’s Blindness. Rather, it seems to me more an exploration of our all-too-human responses to overwhelming experiences – which include revulsion and anxiety, pain and incomprehension, as well as a potential for compassion, empathy and benevolence, though that too, we see in the novel, can be perverted.

How did you react to the Star Trek references? And Tarkovsky, eg “the zone”?

I mentioned Star Trek above. I’m particularly fond of the references to Bob Ross and the 60s Batman and Robin TV show. None of this strikes me as particularly uncommon in contemporary literature – after Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon and a host of other writers since the 1990s at the very latest, no one is surprised to find novels littered with pop cultural references, and geeky ones are perhaps even more to be expected. The way the Star Trek one is used to illustrate the concept of the “uncanny valley” is something that even professional philosophers do all the time nowadays. Seinfeld, The Simpsons, superheroes have all been fodder for philosophy texts, and the Data example would have been totally at home in the work of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. I already mentioned above what I called Setz’s expansive sense of literary subject matter. What seems to me worth emphasizing is that it’s a seamlessly integrated aspect of the novel’s texture, just as it belongs to the texture of the contemporary world. For example, Setz has one character muse about how the deep voices of Bob Ross and Adam West are related, for him, to the voice of God. A poet of another era might have written that thunder is the voice of God. The success of such moments depends on the reader’s thrill of recognition or discovery. Setz’s fiction is filled with these thrills, and if he were writing about thunder as the voice of God, it would most likely be less so for a twenty-first century reader. That leads me to an important point: Besides all the bigger topics you’ve touched on in your questions so far, there is the sheer pleasure of reading Setz’s writing, for all the little flashing gems, whether it’s his startling images and similes, his intriguing digressions, his playful thought experiments, his capacious intellect, his shrewd humor, or the simple musical cadences, grace and precision of the prose.

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