TORPOR by Chris Kraus
A review of

Torpor

by Chris Kraus

Central question: Must happiness and history always be at loggerheads?
Format: 285 pp., paperback; Size: 8.9" x 6.4"; Price: $14.95; Publisher: Semiotext(e); Editor: Marc Lowenthal; Book design: Hedi El Kholti; Typeface: Garamond; Number of cupcakes author ate while writing novel: 0; Number of cigarettes smoked: 2,117; Places author lived while writing this book: 5; Representative passage: “Had she been so busy wallowing in the distance between her inane dreams of happiness and her real life, that she’d forgot to have one? It was time for her to have a child, not be one! She should have focused more on her real life, despite the fact that it was dumb and shitty.”

There are a number of reasons to read Chris Kraus’s new novel Torpor—some of them better than others. Based on real events and people, laced with art-world arcana and academic quarrelling, there’s a certain pleasure in descrambling the names here, figuring out who didn’t like whose Bataille book and who blew coke with Burroughs. The real gratification, however, is in the wrenching blood and guts that mix with the gossipy bits. Crappy feelings about messed-up relationships cut back and forth with painful proddings of historical events, all rendered in a kind of open prose that allows a dirt road to lead to Desert Storm and wind up in an analysis of thirtysomething without wandering astray. The effect is so startling that it resuscitates words long fallen out of fashion: Torpor is honest and true.

A frustrated video maker and former topless dancer, Torpor’s alienated protagonist, Sylvie Green, finds herself in a world in which meaning can only be derived from the infinitesimally personal. “Because the world itself is now unfathomable, the only complexities that really count are small moments of domestic life that combine to trigger deep emotion: … Strawberries and rhubarb! The month of June! Animal gut dried and threaded into snowshoes!” This New Traditionalism, as Kraus calls it, is more inevitability than choice, a survival strategy for getting by in a world in which “there is no longer any way of being poor in any interesting way in major cities like Manhattan.” Pushed out of the city, Green takes up residence in rickety houses in out-of-the-way locations like Thurman, New York. Fleeing from banality and searching for some kind of history, she ends up feeling nowhere.

History surfaces again and again in Torpor, propelling its characters into new attempts at life. A child of the Holocaust, Sylvie’s husband, Jerome, is haunted by it; it “affects everyone it touches. Long after the events themselves, the effects will linger. And these effects live on by breeding other causes.” And yet despite this, as if in an attempt to prove such a thesis wrong, Sylvie spends much of the book dreaming of having a baby, a desire that Jerome meets with a persistent and lame ambivalence. Even so, the two take off for an extended road trip through Eastern Europe, where Sylvie and Jerome have heard that it’s easy get a child on the black market. Romania, a land in the wake of revolution, might offer a new start; perhaps, if things worked out right, they “could create a golden kind of time and lay it right beside the other time, the time of horror. Bad History could just recede into the distance without ever having to be resolved.” But in Romania, Sylvie and Jerome encounter a country mired in forgetfulness, a poor antidote to Bad History; they return home empty-handed, left to fabricate stories to mask their far-fetched desire.

Though history is the master trope of Torpor, inner turmoil always bubbles up, most often in the form of Sylvie chastising herself. Though they often come off as clichés, Sylvie’s lamentations resist the streamlining of life around her; her insistent self-doubt, -scrutiny, and -torture are antidotes to the culture of empty-headed sure-footedness in which she moves. Leaving Jerome at the end of the novel and relocating to Los Angeles, where history crumbles into the sea, Sylvie feels better, throwing herself into work and sex with professional vigor. Even here though, pregnant memories turn up. History, it seems, haunts from the inside out.

—Alex Kitnick

Alex Kitnick studies art history at Princeton University. He is also a 2006‒2007 Helena Rubinstein Fellow at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program.

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