I discovered Tavares late last year with his fantastic riffs collected in The Neighborhood (my review here). Over the past few years, though, Dalkey Archive has been publishing the pieces to another of his projects, the four-book Kingdom series. The first book of that series has yet to be translated (apparently they are loosely connected, so you can read them in any order), but this past year the second book became available to us, Joseph Walser’s Machine (A máquina de Joseph Walser, 2004; tr. from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil, 2012). What a strange, cold, satisfying, perplexing book.
“He was a strange man . . .” That’s how we are introduced to Joseph Walser, a married, childless man who works operating a machine in an unnamed city. He’s quiet, set in his routine, and is unsettled when his boss finally tells him how stupid his shoes look (the shoes he’s been wearing for years). We soon learn that his boss, Klober Muller, is the man Walser’s wife is sleeping with. Again, this distresses Walser, until it becomes normalized and part of the routine. Even the anger he feels toward her and his boss is only satisfying when it too becomes just another part of the day, at which point one can hardly call it anger.
It’s a world of machines and routine (“We’ve made the future redundant, and therein lies the danger.”). Walser’s relationship with his wife is never presented as particularly warm or caring — quite the contrary, actually; we get the sense that they are together simply because that’s what people do. There is no intangible benefit to the relationship:
Being happy no longer depends on the things that we commonly associate with the word Spirit. It depends on concrete substances. Human happiness is mechanism.
Indeed, the moments when Walser seems to feel true joy, the sense of something beyond himself, is when he is operating his machine, a machine he must respect because any misstep on his part could cause his death or dismemberment. He is subservient to the machine, and he fully accepts his place in this hierarchy. The machine beats, and Walser feels as if it is connected to his very heart. How could they be separate? How terrible to be separated.
From the first page we learn that a war is coming (“Death had not yet been introduced as an everyday element, but this next month was going to be tough, vile even, according to some forecasts.”). War itself is presented as a machine, and it too can be normalized once people have been around the violence long enough — and it doesn’t take long, not in this society, at any rate (“The machines approaching the city aren’t the problem: it’s the machines that are already here.”).
Joseph Walser’s Machine is structured strangely. While it has a straightforward, chronological plot, the presentation of each element is, well, strange. Often, a new element is introduced out of the blue, or perhaps something is introduced but any real discussion of it is deferred until later (like Joseph Walser’s strange collection of pieces of metal). It reads almost as if it is episodic, almost as if one section is separate from the one before and after it, yet it all actually flows together. I’ll use the word again: it’s strange.
Strange is an important word in the context of this book. It’s the strange that is unsettling, the strange that must be tamed, the strange that has the ability to break us out of the slow descent into nothingness (“Existence itself, my dear Joseph, is ceasing to exist, which is startling, if you look at it from a certain perspective. The circle is shrinking toward its center until it is reduced to just a dot.”). It makes sense, then, that Tavares tries to make everything strange.
Besides the structure, we already know Walser is strange because Tavares told us at the beginning. He’s passive by choice:
From an early age it had been clear to him that he didn’t want to be a protagonist, just a witness. And his difficulty with existence lay in precisely this concrete problem: on many occasions Walser had seen himself, from a distance, being happy; just as he had also observed, from a distance, his own sadness or exasperation. Nothing more.
I find it interesting that if I try to picture Walser, I picture him from behind. He’s either operating his machine or sitting at a desk looking at his collection. I don’t know what his face looks like, and I haven’t even tried to imagine it. He lives in his private world of routine, and I’m not really part of it. (If I were to imagine him, he definitely resembles Henry Spencer from David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a film I thought of often when reading Joseph Walser’s Machine.)
Tavares also uses strangeness to feed us details, often describing some simple, ever-day object before giving us its name, if he ever does give us its name. Here’s a man explaining how he is going to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head: “I’m going to insert a detail into it, but an outside detail, a metal one.”
It’s all quite clever and often confounding. And there’s a lot more to this than what I’ve written above. That said, while reading it I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I enjoyed The Neighborhood. Joseph Walser’s Machine is perhaps a bit baggy in parts, perhaps hits some themes on head too many times despite trying to go about all of this in a roundabout manner. In the end, though, I found it very effective. The plot, as it is, comes together nicely with troubling implications, and, despite the chilliness throughout, I felt genuine emotion at the end.