On Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and Robert Creeley’s Selected Poems, 1945 – 2005
Bend Sinister, the first novel Nabokov wrote after immigrating to America, is the sort of tale I would like to tell. In it, Adam Krug, the pre-eminent philosopher of an unnamed country, the childhood enemy of Paduk (now the leader of this country), loses his wife to complications from a surgery. In the aftermath of this loss, Paduk’s Ekwilist government attempts to recruit Krug to their cause by kidnapping his son, David. But in a bureaucratic mishap bleaker than the bleakest of Kafka’s gaffs, David dies. And with this death, Krug is cast at last beyond hope of salvation. His path is set. All that he has to do is go to his death, and to do so with as much anger and grace as possible. Which he does his best to do. Which he does, and dies.
Held up against Pnin, the novel that would make Nabokov famous among American readers, Bend Sinister is the superior novel. And it’s not very close. As I age, I find myself gravitating toward stories whose characters, in the end, are helpless against the oppressive forces that abound in this world. After David dies due to Paduk’s administrative mistake, Chapter 18 opens with the following lines: “This ought never to have happened. We are terribly sorry.” Here, as he so often does, Nabokov tunes his voice to the tone of the scene, trading the rapture of Krug’s interior monologue for a mock-formal coldness. In a lesser story, this bureaucratic, Kafkaesque pastiche would either exist alone or be conquered by our hero, the wounded Krug. That neither scenario plays out, that the novel’s comedic cruelty exists in balance with its moments of genuine sentiment, is why it is the success it is. And it’s why Krug’s death at the end lands with such weight. He had a chance, we were led to believe. Except he didn’t, not really. Not in a world such as Bend Sinister’s, which resembles in so many ways our own.
Robert Creeley’s Selected Poems, 1945 – 2005, which I finished the same day I reached the end of Bend Sinister, explores the same bifurcated territory as Nabokov’s novel. Across his long career, Creeley continually expressed a reverence for the simple, for the essential, for the ineffable, for the good. Such is the case in a poem like “A Picture,” which begins, “A little / house with / small / windows.” The object described—a house, perhaps a painting or photograph thereof—is unnoteworthy without Creeley’s taking note. As in almost every Creeley poem, the succession of short, rhetorically compact lines compels one swiftly to the end, then to go back to the beginning and begin again. It is a house—no more, no less, just enough. And yet is worthy of our attention, and Creeley’s awe. There is a vulnerability to Creeley’s writing reminiscent of the wound at the center of Krug. As I read these two works, the two men seemed to converge, Krug’s conflict raising the stakes of Creeley’s end-of-life reflections, the poet’s truths chiming satisfyingly with those of the fictional scholar.
But the main reason the two narrators echo each other so perfectly is that they recognize how unlikely their admiration for the world is, how improbable the world itself is, and how fortunate they are to experience it for the short stretch of time they’ve been assigned. In his early career, Creeley’s admiration centered upon his romances with others; in his final years, he dwelled upon his looming death. This is the case in “The Movie Run Backward,” a poem in which Creeley looks back upon his relationship with language. “Nothing so much in this talk,” he writes, “just words.” His facility with language is not enough to save him, only to allow him to act with grace. This is the case with Krug, too. He is doomed, and yet he goes to his doom with bravery and calm. This, I think, is how I myself would like to act. Or at least to write.
On Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts
Dead Astronauts is my least favorite of the five Jeff VanderMeer novels I’ve read, and it’s still excellent. In nonlinear fashion, it follows the three dead astronauts that appear in Borne—now given the names Grayson, Moss, and Chen—as they embark on a mission to take down the very Company that made them the time-traveling, universe-jumping, shape-shifting things they now are. But this summary doesn’t come close to doing Dead Astronauts justice. The novel’s plot, after all, is secondary, functioning in a similar fashion to the stories told in games like From Software’s Dark Souls or Bloodborne, where the narrative exists primarily to distill the themes already woven into the world.
In From Software’s games, just like the Greek and Norse myths that influenced them, these themes orbit around mankind’s hubris. All six of their games present us with a decaying, cyclic world doomed by the mistakes of the gods who founded these worlds, then doomed again by the mistakes of the people trying to save them. The best any character in any game can manage is a pyrrhic victory. Loss might be staved off, but only for a moment. The catharsis of a more traditional narrative gives way to a cumulative, keening lament. Entropy will win the day, and sooner than anyone wants, and it is largely our fault.
Dead Astronauts transplants these themes to a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi setting that feels, in its own right, like the world of a video game. In Borne, we find a flying, kaiju-style bear; a mysterious figure known as the Magician; a fallen Company whose biotech has overrun an unnamed City; and the titular Borne, a sea-anemone-like creature capable of consuming other living beings and adopting their characteristics. In Dead Astronauts, these horrors, as compelling as they are, exist in the background. Taking their place in center stage are a demiurgic blue fox, an evil duck, and a series of overlapping timelines, each of which either do or do not end with the destruction of the Company that gave birth to these horrors.
Rather than attempt to stitch these elements into a conventional three-act arc, VanderMeer leans into the fragmented nature of Borne’s world. The mission of the three dead astronauts of the book’s title makes up only the first third of the book. The rest of it is a collage of vignettes and fables, prose poetry and ergodic flourishes that reminded me of Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Unlike in Borne or the Southern Reach trilogy, no ultimate clarity is reached, no backstory at last revealed. The center does not hold. And although this results in my least favorite of VanderMeer’s books, I think this is for a reason. Dead Astronauts is a dirge for a doomed world. It is not meant to be easily enjoyed.