Disclaimer: I did not finish Parallel Stories. The book seemed to get heavier and heavier, and then: someone threw Widow Basquait my way, then, The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño (which I had little choice but to start immediately), then, Said the Gun to the Head by Saul Williams, and then the latest edition of Dossier arrived in the mail. To Dossier I committed two afternoons. I find myself landlocked at page 295 of Parallel Stories‘ 1133. I’d like to go on. I mean, I’d like to go on and reach the finish if only because I feel much better about myself as a reader if I finish what I’ve started. If only more attractive distractions would cease presenting themselves. At any rate, what I’ve read thus far has inspired the following:
The general consensus is: Péter Nádas is an experimental writer. What of plots? What of a reader’s expectations? What is this structure? Why not discuss, with all candor called for, each trembling movement of a pubic hair? Why should it surprise anyone that he decided to forego the quotation mark in his mega-noval Parallel Stories as well?
Please note that Nádas is not by any means the first author to dismiss quotation marks. Cormac McCarthy has created something of a mystique around this idiosyncrasy. The literary landscape has taken this in stride, given it praise, made it fashionable. Yet it was in reading Parallel Stories that I started to consider the missing punctuation, missing it truly, with an analytical fascination that I’d never employed elsewhere. Nádas has mercilessly denied his readership any visual cues designating speaking from thinking. Does this blur the lines between externality and internality? Or has he simply written a book in which no one speaks and all is lost in thought?
The quotation mark. For all intents and purposes, it breaks the phrase to lend another voice, perhaps, another place, and certainly another mind. For we find, in the chunk of quote-less text that comprises the 1152-page tome by Nádas, that we’ve never left the eye of the lens, just one lens, presumably Nádas, which focuses ceaselessly on the interiority of his characters with a blood-shot intensity that burns through the subconsciousness not unlike what D.H. Lawrence examines in Women in Love. But Lawrence permitted each character their own interiority where Nádas assumes all of the examination himself, smudging the distinction from one character’s internal life to the other character’s internal life. For Lawrence, you’ll notice, has retained the quotation mark; permits, amidst the sea of dizzy soul-searching and subconsciousness, his characters to establish themselves apart from himself. Ursula’s voice is not Gerald’s voice is not Gudrun’s voice is not Lawrence’s voice. Punctuating dialogue establishes exterior voices. Parallel Stories seemingly gives us every character all in one breath, leaving us wondering several times over, “How is this possible? At this point, is he not blue in the face?”
Consider too the exhaustive cast of characters, for there are many that rise and fall from focus: Döhring, the German student whom we meet immediately, his art-collecting aunt, a shop’s assistant at a men’s intimates boutique, those observed at the park, those observing him at the park, and now jumping back to Hungry in 1962, Lippay-Lehr, whose illness has him ready amnesic by the time we meet him, his wife Erna, their son Ágost, their housekeeper, their gatekeeper, Kristóf, Gyöngyvér (Ágost’s lover), János and András (friends of Ágost)… of each whose world contains another catalog of characters. They are all there, not a single one speaking for his or herself really. (I especially appreciated a review of Parallel Stories found in The National by Tod Wodicka, who describes the manner in which readers experience Nádas’s characters resembles the way we navigate Facebook: “ We have primary and often recurring characters – yes, our friends – but then we have our friends of friends, too; and then, scrolling deeper into the work, our friends of friends of friends […] stalking through photographs or memorabilia of people you are vaguely familiar with, or who your friends know, getting detailed, immoderate personal snippets of stories that, by their design, can’t ever be resolved or expanded on.” Retaining this Rolodex of characters within the singular realm of the author’s interiority impresses the reader of the intricacy of imagination and memory as the story continues to increase its complexity. But whose mind? Every mind? Or the author’s alone?
There is, undeniably, something egocentric in writing over 1000 pages in which the perspective swims in the author’s eyes only. One is accustomed to parsing internal dialogue from a first person narrator provided this interiority is punctuated with other characters who are allowed to breathe by themselves: a change of key so to speak. How does the mind’s ear process Nádas’ narration then? I would say the same way that hearing the same key, let’s call it e flat, pressed on a keyboard over and over again would cease to be musical. Without any relation to other tones, our e flat has become incessantly meaningless.
The monotonous tonal structure of Parallel Stories has critics rather divided, to be either using Parallel Stories as an example of the unbearable pretentiousness of experimental literature or lauding Péter Nádas, “thank goodness there’s someone out there experimenting still.” Indeed, Nádas has succeeded in creating a polarizing work. If not alienating one camp with grotesque crotch shots, raw foreskin and feverish clits, he alienates the other with his disregard for quotation brackets, leaving but a few to enthusiastically recommend this eccentricity.
Let us return to quotation marks. Why is their disappearance so disconcerting? They are gone, he’s removed them, like a magician kicking heretofore imperative supports out from underneath the freeway, and good god, everything’s still standing. For I can still read the prose. As the dialogue is no longer being indicated visually, I automatically look to the words themselves, noting changes from third to first person and responding accordingly. At this point I might ask, is written language and spoken language so disparate that they readily stand out from each other? Or is this not a question of written and spoken languages at all, but rather, la langue de Nádas? For I have sat, reading slowly as if in a foreign tongue, becoming complicit in his style. In removing a universally recognized structure from the text, has he forced the reader to assume a deeper understanding of his voice?
Yes, I would argue, as with any method of organization we’ve at our disposal when presented with complexities (humans being a prime example), punctuation allows for a more superficial reading. Only one aspect of the phrase is permitted once framed. Left, as the prose is left in Parallel Stories, loose-leafed, double-sided, bendable, unprotected, one is not only required, but invited, to delve deeper into the authorial psyche. The authorial psyche? The human psyche then, à la Montaigne, who argued that introspection of one mind (his own) is an introspection of any.
It is a mind then, that resists structure, as I suppose, would behoove an experimental author. In an interview with Csaba Károlyi, Nádas touches on the novel’s structureless structure: “ The structure is chaotic because the world is chaotic, and I, the novelist, do not want to create an arbitrary semblance of order in this chaos. I’m not capable of it; I would be telling a lie if I said I was.”Though he was discussing plot in this context, I don’t consider it too far a stretch to offer this philosophical stance as an explanation-in-part as concerns our quotation marks. We might accuse Parallel Stories of inaccurately depicting our world, it is written sans external voices, and Nádas might counter that we have imposed markers, brackets, etc., upon reality not to accurately represent it, only to make it easier to process.3 Parallel Stories is a celebration of chaos. Here, hidden in a dialogue between Irma and Mária:
“[…] That’s what makes people adaptable, my dear. Whatever happens, they must remain flexible. Nothing can compel them, or at least they feel no moral compulsion. That’s what produces their blissful chaos. You can stare at me like that all you want, but yes, this is your average human being. You talk as if everything had been already decided, and that’s why everything can be arranged. Well, nothing is decided. No, no, generally, I talk about two things at once, but people usually hear only one.” p. 295
Even the most attentive reader will have a hard time rendering this conversation more lucid: why are they talking about this now? What prompted the conversation to take such a dizzyingly philosophic turn? Are they talking at all really or is this Nádas commandeering their tongues for some introspection on this chaotic chapter entitled, “The Quiet Reasons of the Mind”? One has little choice but to reassure oneself of the unimportance of these questions and ponder instead on the ideas presented, for no matter who or what or how they are said, they have been said and they’re rather interesting.
“Interesting” is what sums of Parallel Stories for me. While his scenery and bodies are highly detailed, such distinguishing care is not extended to the personalities of his characters. Every character is restricted to his interiority, preventing readers from connecting with any one of the characters truly. This dynamic is exasperated by those missing quotation marks. The unceasing interiority of the novel makes it just about as emotionally satisfying as a dream. This was written for the mind. Observe: what grammatical cues indicate parole? And now description? And now thoughts? Twenty pages in, the mind hyper vigilant, increasingly comfortable with his style, the story becomes easier to follow… but the minds, reticent, unobligingly recluse, remain frustratingly inaccessible. Quotation marks, as it happens, are highly provocative symbols that trigger an almost musical ability in the reading mind, to imagine different voices. We well understand that reading is a visual experience that translates symbols to sounds, and nothing exposes this more efficiently than a reading sans one of the more imperative visual cues. The oscillating external/internal exercise this novel embodies is intriguing certainly, but I feel unmoved.