My problem is the question of why we experience anything. My problem is the question of why our bodies, with their intricate perspective and processing apparatus, in addition to all that perception and processing, also produce something like an oh, so this is what it’s like to be here and now and doing this specific thing, or not.
Existential angst in its various manifestations is both the underlying and overlying preoccupation of German writer Heinz Helle’s perfunctory and rather daringly experimental novella Superabundance – a work that is as much marked out by its acute brevity and biting directness as by its ongoing polar juxtaposition of the internal world of the psyche and the metaphysical and the external world, a world characterised by action and physicality which the anonymous first person narrator subconsciously loathes and which may also loathe him back. Helle’s work – originally published in German by Suhrkamp in 2014 under the rather more cumbersome title of Der beruhigende Klang von explodierem Kerosin (The Unsettling Noise of Exploding Kerosine) and here nimbly translated by Kári Driscoll – depicts a unnamed narrator who has moved to New York from Germany to teach philosophy and who finds himself questioning the nature of his life, his relationship with his girlfriend and indeed the very purpose of his existence.
The novella is comparatively rare in English-language fiction. In the case of Superabundance, and given its New York setting, one might think of the novella as a sort of brunch – an unmarked territory between the breakfast of the short story and the full lunch of the novel.
The first-person narration strives hard, but inevitably becomes tedious and annoying. Judging by the opening scene, that features the narrator as a schoolboy footballer, there is disappointment from the outset at the path that his life as an erstwhile intellectual has taken. What follows is an overly verbose, overly melodramatic and often tedious recounting of the narrator’s stay in New York where every incident, every fragment of conversation and every glance is over-analysed and pondered upon. It is not really until page 30 that the reader is invited to share in the narrator’s real dilemma:
My problem is the question of what a scientific theory to explain our consciousness what have to look like. My problem is the fact that it sounds cool to say I’m a philosopher so I study philosophy. My problem is that I’m drunk and I want to fuck, but I’m a philosopher and so really problems like consciousness and experience should be more important to me than women. My problem is that I love a woman but I think that I will at some point stop loving her and I renounce a world in which that is possible.
A writer perpetually on the precipice of crisis/breakdown/self-destruction and feeling themselves to be a prisoner of the overpowering and dispiriting urban environment that entraps them is hardly new. Nor is the all-pervasive sense of self-absorption and navel-gazing. Knut Hamsun’s classic work Hunger similarly charts the disenchantment and excruciating self-pity of a young intellectual manqué adrift in an urban landscape – in this case nineteenth century Oslo rather than twenty-first century New York. Although it has to be conceded that Helle’s narrator does seek romantic and sexual union with his erstwhile girlfriend and connection with others through football and philosophy,
Superabundance does demonstrate considerable intellectual bravura with its episodic nature and the density and surprisingly dexterity of its narrative prose, but these do not really make up for the all-pervasive vacuity that runs throughout. There are incidents and moments of insight in the course of the narrative – especially when the narrator embarks upon a relationship with a 21-year-old woman and the ‘I’ voice becomes for some time a hopeful ‘we’ voice – but there is little of interest in the descriptions of visits to a karaoke bar and the mountains to make the reader care about where the relationship is heading. Inevitably, it will end in failure like so much else that the narrator tries to believe in.
When his former lover tells the narrator, “I don’t think you even know what love is”, his reaction is as much a form of self-deceit as it is of trying to hoodwink the reader into believing that he is really capable of loving another.
By sheer coincidence, and on a personal note, this reviewer read Superabundance within the space of a few hours after returning from his first ever visit to New York. A trip of four or five days can be long enough to learn at least something of the character of the city expressed simply through its sheer physical presence. The mystique and power of New York, and Manhattan in particular, compels one to walk everywhere and everywhere one goes there are always vast crowds of people. As imagined by Elias Canetti in his classic work Crowds and Power, the urban masses become a means by which the urban space terrifies and intimidates the individual, and one can certainly feel a sense of one’s own vulnerability as an individual in a crowd of unimaginable size when one is walking through Times Square or down Broadway. In Superabundance it is more like the physical structure of the city which defines the individual narrator in all his powerless futility and his isolation. If the book has one valuable quality, then it lies in its exploration of the uncomfortable spatial relationship between individuals and the urban landscapes they inhabit.
Superabundance seeks to be a novella about how the multiplicity of choice and the complexity of existence can defeat individuals, but ends up becoming a prolonged and overly long examination of terminal boredom and meaninglessness, and one man’s seemingly endless capacity for self-pity. The first-person narration serves to alienate rather than endear, and the reader feels largely dissatisfied in spite of the relentless confessions of the central character, since little of value is said in spite of the narrator’s verbosity. The overall impression is of tedium and frustration. It’s not the tedium or frustration of the narrator which lingers, rather that of the reader finding themselves yearning for less self-absorption and urban concrete and rather more of a connection.
Superabundance / Heinz Helle / Kári Driscoll (translator) / Serpent’s Tail / 25 February 2016
Brian Gourley’s poetry has appeared in a wide variety of magazines including Anon, Acumen, The Interpreter’s House and The Irish Literary Review. He is currently working on his debut poetry collection and the publication of his PhD thesis in Reformation writing.