The narrator of Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes, originally published in 1998 and now available in the U.S. in an able translation by Michael Hofmann, is a young Swiss writer who has come to Chicago to research a book on American luxury trains. In the reading room of the Public Library he meets Agnes, a graduate student in Physics. They have little in common. The narrator values his freedom more than his happiness. Agnes is prey to various fears—of windows that don’t open, of air conditioners, of elevators—and locks herself in the bathroom to change. It’s unclear that either likes the other, though each claims to be in love.
Despite these unpropitious signs, the two embark on a relationship that is aimless until they turn it into a narrative. “Write a story about me,” Agnes asks the narrator, “so I know what you think of me.” At first both enjoy the challenge she’s set him. But what begins as a flirtatious parlor game soon turns darker. When tragedy strikes, the narrator turns to the story to reverse the past. But eventually he no longer writes their story; the story writes them.
Agnes is most affected by this turn of events. Having already expressed her difficulty with reading—“It feels to me as though I’ve become the character in it, and the character’s life ends when the books does . . . I didn’t want books to have me in their power”—she now becomes one with her character in the fiction within the fiction, leading to an ambiguous ending in which the end of Stamm’s novel mirrors the end of his narrator’s tale.
It’s clear the novel’s most important relationship is not between the characters, but between fiction and reality. But it’s equally unclear what the nature of that relationship is supposed to be, especially because the novel regularly teases us with metaphors that promise but fail to tell us how to understand it.
At one point, for example, Agnes explains her research into the atomic structure of crystals in terms that seem to offer a key to understanding the narrative: “Almost everything is symmetrical at some level,” she tells the narrator, before adding, “it’s asymmetry that makes life possible. The difference between the sexes. The fact that time goes in one direction.” This claim chimes with the narrator’s belief that “life doesn’t go for endings, it goes on.” Does Agnes adhere to these ideas about form? Is the way the story and the story within the story are symmetrical a sign of its impossibility, to use Agnes’s term? In offering an ending that loops around to the beginning, is the novel mimicking the narrator’s idea of life, which doesn’t go for endings, or only emphasizing how different narratives are from life?
Similar questions arise when, in the course of his research, the narrator studies the Pullman Strike of 1894, interpreting it not in political or economic terms, but as a reaction by workers against “the complete control of their lives by their employer,” who “had planned for every contingency, except his workers’ desire for freedom.” We could read the narrator’s criticism of the patriarchal industrialist as an unintentional self-critique of his attitude to Agnes. Or we could understand it as a way to describe the author’s relationship to his characters and his work. But in what way does this carefully controlled novel allow for anything like its characters’ freedom?
The effect of these allegories for our reading—at once so overt and so enigmatic—is destabilizing, as if Stamm were proposing, through the very superfluity of these possible keys to understanding the text, the very failure of interpretation. Just as we are desperate for the control over life’s contingencies promised by narrative, so too, Stamm teasingly suggests, we are similarly insistent, as readers of those narratives, on making sense of them. At its most interesting, Agnes hints that its readers might be as domineering as its narrator. But Stamm never explains what it would mean to let Agnes, or Agnes, be free. How can we read without interpreting? And why must the possibility that a text could exceed interpretation be offered through the clichéd and misogynistic idea of woman as enigma?
Ultimately, Stamm’s metafictional sleights of hand are more tiresome than vertiginous. Agnes has neither the balance between possibility and aimlessness of Stamm’s early short stories about young people adrift, published in English as In Strange Gardens and Other Stories, nor the emotional impact of the two more recent collections combined in We’re Flying. Its concerns are as airless as the narrator’s climate-controlled apartment that Agnes, and ultimately readers, longs to escape. Agnes offers a writer whose cleverness hadn’t yet been enriched by compassion.