The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer & Three Other Books By Exciting Women Writers
Elisa Gabbert, Muriel Spark and Liliana Colazi
The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
The Appointment opens with an unnamed narrator telling her Jewish doctor that she once dreamt she was Hitler. She then segues into imagining Hitler’s private life and the marketing opportunities the Nazis missed with Hitler and concentration camp themed merchandise. We then realize Dr. Seligman is no ordinary doctor or therapist: “And I don’t mean to offend you Dr. Seligman, especially now that you have you head between my legs, but don’t you think there is something kinky about genocide?”
From this opening you could easily get the impression that this book is going to be a juvenile and childish, although well written, attempt at transgression, but as quickly as she works her way through her thoughts on Hitler and other self-consciously provocative topics, the narrator loses herself in mournful and self-wounding introspection. For example, a Japanese scientist has invented a new type of robot and the narrator’s fantasy of writing the scientist a letter requesting he make her a sex robot begins as a gag, but ends up revealing a deeper pain:
… and all because I suddenly remembered my broken heart and thought that writing that letter would make fate regret some of its decisions. It is one of my many deformities that I always think of fate as some dramatic fat person on a chaise lounge, stroking a pathetic pet, waiting for their whims to be humored. And I always think that there is a way to get to them, to influence their decisions by wearing a special earring or not getting on the obvious train. Or by thinking of an extra-special way of committing suicide. It’s just my way of denying that nobody hears my thoughts and that most of my life has taken place in a dark void.
The entire book is a 100-page monologue in this erratic, ironic, and wounded voice. The narrator was born in Germany and has fled her home country’s food and culture of simulated guilt to live in England. But beyond her more abstract complaints about Germany itself, the reality is that she is trying to escape from her past and destroy her former self. This is a book about identity and transition. It uses the setup of its narrator preparing for a medical transition to explore the struggle of having an identity in the 21st century. The pain of trying to conform to what our family and peers expect of us and the liberation that can come from inventing ourselves in the image of what we see inside. It’s all extremely relevant and could easily have been an overly simplistic and on-the-nose comment on identity politics, but its intentions are far more complex.
Katharina Volckmer, from Germany and living in England like her narrator, understands the agony of living in the world today where virtually nothing is in our control. In an interview with The Paris Review she discussed her intentions with The Appointment:
For me the easiest has been to say it’s about identity. It’s obviously about gender identity. One of the questions I often ask myself is, What is it about your identity you can possibly change? Is there anything you can really change about it? Or is there nothing you can change about it? Obviously you can’t change the fact of the language you’re born into or the geographic location you’re born into. And she’s trying. She doesn’t want to be German necessarily, she doesn’t want to live with that burden and that guilt. But the only thing she can really change is her gender, that’s something she can do.
Today in our world of pandemic, disasters, violence, and political corruption everywhere you turn, all things we as individuals can do little if anything to change, we are all desperate to find things in our lives we do have control over. And what do we have control over more than our own identity? However, the world we live in is frightened and desperate for security, and the unknown of nonbinary sexual identity is something that to most is impossible to understand. But maybe the answer is to stop trying to understand and just accept. In the same interview Volckmer says “I personally don’t really understand gender, I find it hard to always relate to. Something I try to explain to people is that, for me, it’s my perception of people as much as it’s my perception of myself… I think there’s so much beauty in not labeling something and just letting it breathe.”
This book rejects the idea of clear and rigid explanations, easy answers that evade rather than reckon with the truth. On Germany’s attempts at facing its Nazi past the narrator sees a culture of delusion.
And in our music classes we had to sing “Hava Nagila” in Hebrew, Dr. Seligman—thirty German children and not a Jew in sight, and we sang in Hebrew to make sure that we remained de-Nazified and full of respect. But we never mourned: if anything we performed a new version of ourselves, hysterically non-racist in any direction and negating difference whenever possible.
The performance of grief and healing where differences and diversity are eliminated for the sake of unity has only grown more pervasive in these times of pandemic and political conflict. But Volckmer rightly sees this as a way to blind us to the issues of race, sex, and identity that are the true cause of all our divisions.
Volckmer sees little to be hopeful about in the world as a whole, but sees possible solace in the future of individual identity. By taking control of the person we present to the world, allowing it to reflect the image we feel inside, is a way to steal a little bit of power from a world that does everything it can to keep us docile and mentally neutered.
Now that I’ve talked more than I intended to about my interpretation of Volckmer’s ideas, it’s time to talk a bit about her thrilling writing style. The two comparisons I’ve seen the most to her style are Thomas Bernhard and Portnoy’s Complaint. I agree with both of these. The breathlessness of the narrator’s monologue is closer to the ravings of Bernhard’s work, but the gleeful embracing of the lurid and profane (and the simmering parental disdain) is distinctly reminiscent of Portnoy’s. But the mark of a great writer is that while you can see Volckmer writing in conversation with Bernhard and Roth, the work itself merely nods in acknowledgment and moves on to its own focuses. Her fury is disdainful and mocking, and nothing is sacred.
The Appointment shows that novels can still be a place to say things that outside of fiction would get you in trouble. Cancelled in today’s parlance. The blasphemy of Hitler and Nazi jokes while everyone else is comparing every real life buffoon world leader to Hitler and every extremist group to Nazis (not ignoring the reality of actual neo-Nazis). And to your Jewish doctor. Or lines like this: “… but it’s just that once I get to know someone, I always want to masturbate in their bath and steal a little souvenir, an object of their everyday, like a teabag, a pen, or in some instances, some of the hair I find on their pillows. Are you laughing, Dr. Seligman?” Laughter and shame belong together in this 21st century of Eternal Guilt. Novels should be the home for artistically unfiltered ideas. We need writers that aren’t afraid to capture the manic fear, anger and futility of these times and have the courage to let us laugh at it. Volckmer does this. But more than that letting us laugh, she even lets us have a bit of hope in these bitter times.
Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark (Triad Granada)
Muriel Spark is such a deliciously cruel and entertaining writer. This one follows Fleur Talbot, a writer with a temperament quite similar to Spark’s, who is recruited by a mysterious organization called the Autobiographical Association where a select group of people have committed to writing their unfiltered memoirs to be released 70 years in the future so that they will serve as a definitive portrait of the times. However, Fleur’s embellishments and outright invented additions to the memoirs are encouraged and AA’s leader Sir Quentin Oliver appears to have hidden intentions.
Fleur is a willing and fascinated participant in the intrigue until the manuscript for her novel Warrender Chase is stolen. The book is narrated by an older Fleur looking back on the time the novel takes place. She is not an entirely reliable narrator, but just how unreliable she is is left up in the air. She tells us about strange parallels between the organization and her already started Warrender Chase manuscript. Members of the AA act similarly to characters in her novel, and even real life events seem to reflect plot points in the novel to a degree. But is an older Fleur playing with her audience (us)? We have no way of knowing whether the parallels are those eerie yet bizarrely common similarities between art and life or if she did steal real life events and personality traits for her fiction. It is all further complicated when Sir Quentin Oliver steals the manuscript and appears to try to recreate developments from the novel.
I won’t go into anymore detail. Spark is wonderfully inventive with the directions she takes the book. I love her weird tendencies so much that I often find that I wish she would have make her work even weirder. But not every book can be as maniacal as The Driver’s Seat, I suppose. However, I am amused by her habit of giving her books surprisingly clean and happy endings. She does that with this one, but in rather charming way that gave me the impression she was aligning Fleur’s fate with her own.
The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert (FSG Originals)
Full disclosure: I have about 30 pages left in this one but I am going to write a bit about it while my thoughts are fresh.
I am blown away by how this collection of essays feels as if it explores every cultural development worth discussing. Compassion fatigue, the impossibility of living ethically when the media forces us to know everything, the way pain and fear can spread like contagions, and the crushing power of mobs.
In “The Great Mortality” Gabbert explores the struggle to live when we are faced with endless evidence of how fragile our lives are. This is an overly simplistic explanation that doesn’t do it justice, her essays are never about one thing but follow various threads that always feel like they go perfectly together even when it’s hard to explain why. Anyway, in this essay Gabbert ends up researching pandemics (it was written in 2018) and ends up arriving at the question of whenever countries are faced with epidemics or pandemics why government officials so often react in ways that go against reason and the best interests of the country. And why do businesses continue with their relentless pursuit of growth when it’s obvious that endless growth is destroying the environment? These two questions have become the central questions as we approach a full year into a pandemic.
Perhaps my favorite essay of the entire collection is “Witches and Whiplash.” Another oversimplification: in this one Gabbert explores how “hysteria” is a bogus and reductive classification of very real anxiety issues, and how the gendered response has lead to centuries of women having their mental problems taken less seriously or even ignored outright. She finds a fascinating and chilling parallel in how trauma victims who experience whiplash from car crashes often see a return of their trauma symptoms and how insurance companies, and culture in general, turn a blind eye to the effects of trauma and instead label these people liars. In another thread she likens the current chaotic responses of blame and denial in the #MeToo movement as following historical traits of mob mentality, the unfortunate reality being that with all of these dramas happening on social media how do we avoid important subjects being overrun by the “baiting crowds”?
I think the most important essay in the collection that everyone should read is “I’m So Tired”. Gabbert writes about compassion fatigue, and I don’t think there are many feelings that just about everyone on this planet in 2021 is feeling more than this. We turn on the computer and it’s an endless cycle of pain and despair, and this despair his infiltrated our day-to-day lives with the current pandemic. More and more it feels impossible to keep from giving up and turning off our empathy. How do we fight the temptation to quit trying to help and let other people do the work of trying to make things better? Gabbert once again poses one of the key questions we will face going forward even as we try to survive a pandemic. The prospect of never leaving the house again, creating as little garbage as possible, and spending the rest of my days reading feels hard to ignore.
Our Dead World by Liliana Colanzi (Dalkey Archive, translated by Jessica Sequeira)
Our Dead World is made up of eight stories and is a little over 100 pages, and in that small space is an incredible amount of haunting power. Liliana Colanzi is particularly skilled at blurring the lines between madness and the supernatural. A number of her stories are either narrated by or focus on a character who is likely mentally ill and experiences fantastic events.
In “The Wave” a tortured college student is followed by a mysterious wave that brings with it a surge of despair and suicides. Is she causing the wave, is it following her, or is the wave the new reality? Colanzi doesn’t specify this, we see it all from the eyes of the young woman who after years of flight grows resigned to the wave being a permanent part of her life. “Cannibal” sees a man and his drug trafficker girlfriend arriving in France at the same time as a notorious cannibal. The man’s anxiety about the transitory state of his relationship with the elegant and mysterious trafficker is consumed by an obsession with the lurid news surrounding the cannibal and the fantasy of encountering the murderer. He literally can’t stop thinking about it. Paranoia and fear as infectious diseases.
“Family Portrait” has no supernatural aspects, but treats the artifice of photographs and simulated appearances as a barrier separating the image we present to the world from reality, a ever-weakening barrier that ultimately collapses with violent consequences. “Our Dead World” is set in a future where Earth is collapsing and people are selected by lottery to serve on Mars in a perverse version of military service. Strange occurrences begin, but is it the workers losing their minds or is something ominous happening on the planet? Colanzi is brilliant at exploring the way madness infects everything around its sufferers.