Indigo by Clemens J. Setz
“If it doesn’t interest you, don’t sweat it, but if you felt so inspired, you’d be doing the Liveright gang a solid.” That was my editor at Liveright, in an email, asking me if I’d take a look at a new translation of Indigo, a German-language novel by a young Austrian novelist named Clemens J. Setz. They were having trouble finding anyone in America interested in reviewing it, and Will—that’s my editor—was making a calculated appeal, knowing, as he would, that a novel involving a mystery disease, a wandering narrative, a sort-of conspiracy, and pages upon pages of dialogue about Star Trek will almost certainly be up my alley. Of course, there’s a certain conflict of interest here; I will at some point try to sell Liveright another novel, and I will hold this review, which, Spoilers, will be a fairly rapturous one, as a kind of currency of its own—if not cash money, then something like a slightly better APR rate and more frequent flier miles on a credit card. Anyway, this is the Full Disclosure part of this essay: I got this book from my own publisher.
But actually, and this is the point I meant to make in the first paragraph, I feel a kind of sinking regret at having discovered Indigo through this connection, not because I worry that I may violate some obscure codicil of journalistic ethics—I’m not a journalist, and those aren’t really ethics—but rather because it suggests a broken belt flapping around uselessly deep in the machinery of literary discovery. How else would I have ever heard about this book or its author? I wouldn’t have. America, its reading public and its major book-reviewing organs, have notoriously little interest in works in translation. Despite the diversity of global Anglophone literature, book reviews large and small have habits of consensus and unanimity. The fellow who runs the Largehearted Boy website, for instance, embarks on an amazing yearly labor of collecting and collating all of the annual “Best of” lists of books—the collection is voluminous. Yet it is striking and spookily uncanny just how similar they all are, how the same titles appear again and again. This is a sensation related to, but distinct from, the weird déjà vu of finding the New York Times regular book critics reviewing on a Monday some ponderous, best-selling tome that the Sunday Book Review had covered just the day before. A glitch—as the scifi-loving characters in Indigo are fond of noting—in the Matrix.
So, I discovered this book because I know a guy who knows a guy, and I admit that the whole sequence was a little annoying, because, I mean, I like the Liveright gang and all, but that “don’t sweat it” hung like Don Corleone’s “one day I will call on you to do me a favor” over the first page when I sat down with Indigo for the first time. And I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t like the first page very much, nor the next couple. The novel begins with a letter to one Clemens Setz—a narrator of the novel, the first of its two main protagonists, who happens to share the author’s name—from one Marianne Tätzel, who is the mother of the second main character. The letter alludes to an ill-defined unfortunate incident involving a spell or a fall or an episode from some years ago. The pages are printed to look like old or dirty paper, and I thought, sinkingly, ohhh. I don’t mind illustrations in a novel, or diagrams, or footnotes, or photos, but I tend to get a little grouchy when a book begins using typography and page design to suggest that it is actually rather than artificially documentary. I know that this is a variety of the curmudgeonly grumptitude that invented, for example, the term “hysterical realism,” which grouchily disapproves of any novel that embraces the messy elements of collage, but when a book opens with such gimmicky artifice, I can’t help but dread the slog.
This is where I ought to reassure you that Indigo proceeds fleetly, poking jolly fun at ponderous metafictive experimentation, ultimately resolving itself into a portrayal of the peculiarities and particularities of consciousness. But it doesn’t let you off quite so easily. From here, it skips into a medical report, then into a brief history of the scuttling of the German Imperial High Seas Fleet after the First World War. (Did you know that, protected from the 20th Century’s radioactive fallout by over a hundred feet of water, the steel from these ships is still salvaged for use in sensitive sensory equipment, such as Geiger counters? Me neither!) Then Clemens Setz—the narrator—visits “child psychologist and education theorist, Monika Häusler-Zinnbret,” from whose book, The Nature of Distance, that snippet of history is drawn, and has a fantastically weird, circumlocutory, and inarticulate conversation. Even in these opening pages, the writing is suffused with a feeling of comic dread. Page 8:
Frau Häusler-Zinnbret kept me waiting for a long time outside her door. I had pushed the doorbell—under which her two last names were inscribed, liked by a wavy ≈ instead of a hyphen—several times, and as so often in my life, marveled at the fact that female psychologists and education theorists always have double names. I heard her walking around in her apartment and moving furniture and other fairly large objects. When I at one point thought I detected her footsteps very close to the door, I rang again, in the hope of finally catching her attention. But the footsteps receded, and I stood in the stairwell and didn’t know whether to go home.
When she finally lets him in (through another door behind him), she leads him through her immense apartment and appears to derive some odd diagnostic conclusion from his preference for tap water. Setz is out of sorts himself:
The night before, someone had dismantled my bicycle into its component parts. They had been left neatly in the yard that morning, the wheels, the frame, the handlebars, in an arrangement roughly corresponding to a quincunx pattern.
He has also just had a minor accident. Oh, right. From the letter! So…
The book’s title refers to a peculiar malady suffered by a small number of children, including Robert, the son of the letter-writing mother from the opening page. Indigo children—and there is a complex and utterly believable history of how the strange disease acquired this odd, innocuous name—suffer no physical symptoms themselves, but make others around them terribly ill with a whole variety of fairly horrible symptoms: vertigo, nausea, migraine-like headaches. The disease is a crazy mashup of our era’s own real and imagined endemic illnesses and syndromes: autism, Morgellons, Münchausen syndrome by proxy. “It’s all in the head, Indigo nonsense, my father said. You know, the people of his generation and the way things were in those days, the low level of awareness in the general population, so…” Each child has a zone of proximity, some a few feet, some many meters, within which anyone else will suffer these symptoms—sometimes immediately, sometimes after some period of time has passed. The disease seems to resolve itself in early adulthood, but in the meantime, in Austria, a special school called the Helianau Institute has been created, where children and teachers coexist respecting strict rules of proximity. Setz is, briefly, a teacher of mathematics there. Robert is a student.
There are two roughly parallel narratives: one in the “present” (around the mid-2000s), in which Setz investigates what he believes to have been a series of strange disappearances from the school, and one in the future (2021 is the given date), in which Robert Tätzel, now a rather aimless young man, learns that his former teacher has been accused, though acquitted, of an unspeakable crime. But Setz—the author—sets the pieces of the story in their own little bubbles at the borders of which other pieces quail and recoil. The stories keep turning back on themselves, and almost everyone is totally crazy. Tätzel is an asshole. Setz—the narrator—is a drunk and possibly a murderer. The photographs, histories, and asides keep intruding. Like so many really great novels, Indigo teaches you how to read it as you go. I struggled through the opening, then found myself reading the most entertaining book I’d read all year, at once charming and horrible, like a serial killer on a TV show.
I think the moment I fell in love with it was about eighty pages in, in a chapter called “Going to Get Cigarettes.” Robert, reflecting on the absconded father of another of the Indigo children, wonders:
How do they do it, the men who say, I’m just going out for a few minutes to get cigarettes, and then never resurface? They must be out there, somewhere in the world, they’re all roaming around, those hordes of cigarette refugees, they sit in cold hotel rooms, without a passport, without a credit card, without much cash, and wait. For what? Perhaps it’s an ancient secret of the cigarette machines themselves, a secret code you enter by pressing the buttons for various brands, and then the box opens with a hissing hydraulic sound, revealing a passage into the underworld. From all the cities on earth, through the openings on street corners and in the walls of public restrooms, the men descend into the galleries, greet one another with a brief nod, because they’re not in the mood to speak, for far too long they have been asked by their wives and children at home how they’re doing and where they’re going and when they’re coming back, and they follow the glowing signs to the Great Underground Transit Station, the secret hub for all those who want to escape their lives. Under the large neon signs on which the logos of the cigarette companies glow, they wait on vast platforms, each of them alone, each withdrawn into himself, for further connections.
So you see, Indigo is a book obsessed with both proximity and disappearance, closeness and absence. Aren’t these the great obsessions of our time?
None of this is to say that Indigo is an especially heavy book. Like that serialized network serial killer, it’s having more fun than you, and you can’t help but be swept up in its absurd confidence. It pauses to contemplate the German-language dubbing of Adam West’s Batman, and the archetypal conflict between Data and Lore on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Its 2021 future world is full of winking, all-surveying iBalls—I never did figure out what they do, precisely, which may be the point. Bruce Lee makes an appearance, as does Chuck Norris, as do the poor animal test subjects we shot into space in our early experiments and the poor animal test subjects we pumped full of LSD. Maybe this is the other deep thematic imponderable of the book: the desperate and cruel human search for abilities that serve no purpose but their own acquisition, and answers to questions that needn’t have been asked.
I should mention that the novel is skillfully translated by Ross Benjamin, surely not easy for a book so stuffed with oddity and idiom. I mean, buy the book if for no other reason than to keep this guy working. What other mad Austrian novelists are out there, and who will pierce the queasy borders of proximity where our lousy American handle on other languages recoils dizzily at the knowledge that there are so many damned books in them?
Here’s a terrible cliché: this is a book that deserves to be read. Do you want the pitch? It’s like Ned Bauman and Tom McCarthy had a drink with Jennifer Egan and wrote an exquisite corpse. It’s like a collaboration between Thomas Pynchon and Thomas Harris. It’s like a transporter accident fused Adam West’s and Christian Bale’s Bat… men? Look, I’m a big, big fan of the post-apocalypse, but do we really need so many on the year-end lists? Isn’t there something wrong when we so frequently find ourselves all reading the same thing? Isn’t it a kind of unintentional conspiracy, this literary sameness and closeness? Why are so many hundreds of great books floating around out there as if surrounded by an invisible but impenetrable force field, unread if noticed at all? I read a fair portion of Indigo in the Newark airport on a seven-hour layover on a busy, pre-holiday travel day, beer-drunk and feeling slightly depressed at the thought that quite possibly none of the thousands of other people in that writhing, arguing, sneezing, crying crush of too-proximate people had ever heard of this great novel that I got my hands on purely because I knew somebody. Hey, I know that Indigo is too kooky for the Hudson Books in Terminal C, but it at least deserves a mention somewhere. So, here it is, in The Rumpus, and not because I owe it to anybody. Holy Indigo, Batman! One of the best, craziest novels I read in 2014.