I Don’t Know If Hilbig Actually Uses the Word “Pace” Anywhere in His Novel Old Rendering Plant [BTBA 2018]
This week’s BTBA post is from Adam Hetherington. He lives and works in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is the author of the forthcoming novel Ontogeny Is Beautiful.
My clever idea was to very briefly quote him in the title of this blog, then claim that any extended quotation does him a disservice. I was going to tell you that Hilbig (published by Two Lines Press and gorgeously translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) cannot be fruitfully exampled. He can’t be fractaled. I really believe this to be true, but I don’t have time to reread the book tonight, looking for the word “pace” or “pacing,” so I don’t really actually have a good way to start talking about the way pace works in a few books I’ve read recently. Sorry about that! We’ll all just have to settle for this wonderful paragraph you’re finishing.
Old Rendering Plant puts me in mind of a cruel teacher I had as a child. She would hit us with her homemade ruler, or pull our hair to physically turn our heads to face exactly what she wanted us to see. Other things that very old people teaching elementary school 25 years ago could do—I’m sure you can imagine. Anyway. So she was cruel, but the book doesn’t remind me of her cruelty. It reminds me of her absolute demand of our attention. The complete pacing of her order. The experience of reading Old Rendering Plant is like being led by the scruff of your neck, at a slow and even speed, gorgeous line by gorgeous line. Except you should imagine this experience to be just incredibly pleasant and addictive. I read it start to finish two days in a row. I doubt many people read this in more than one sitting.
I remember reading Patrick Suskind accurately describe smells in his novel Perfume (translated by John E. Woods and published by Vintage) and thinking, “How in the exact hell did he do that?” even before I finished the sentence. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Knopf) made me ask the same question. The bulk of the novel takes place at a small theatre during a show by an aging, declining, but still relatively famous comedian. Second by second, Grossman and Cohen take us through Greenstein (the comedian) killing, totally blowing it, bombing, kind of almost saving it, arguing with the entire audience, connecting with individual audience members, driving the audience to leave, reacting to their leaving, then repeating the process. If you’ve seen much live comedy, you know the room lives and dies almost syllable by syllable. A Horse Walks into a Bar perfectly shows how tone can change between—or even because of—Greenstein’s breaths. The touch and go (then pause, then rush, then stop completely, etc) pacing here is masterful.
Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories (published by Soho Press and translated by Roy Kesey) comes as a kind of encyclopedic mania, though tempered by the author’s incredible grasp on academic language. The practical uses, the surface-level absurdity, and especially the way that academese in modern philosophy lends itself to ridiculous framing of pet issues: Oloixarac gets it all right. A wild, horny energy propels nearly all of the characters’ actions, but that same horniness serves as a lens through which they—ugly, lonely, and overeducated—contextualize (and repeatedly recontextualize) their lives and ideas. But the trick here is that Oloixarac and Kesey somehow manage to use this specific kind of university jargon at a rapid, whirlwind clip while managing to be funny. Oloixarac is a truly hilarious writer, and Kesey is a deft (and probably funny in his own right) translator. The plodding crap of academese is entirely absent under their watch. It’s all electric movement.
I just realized I didn’t quote anyone, so I didn’t actually need to justify not quoting Hilbig, but if I change it now I worry the whole post’s pacing will be off. Thanks for reading.