Sometimes the shortest novels can be the most unsettling. Consider the disquiet and upheaval that can be found in even the briefest of novels by Kathy Acker or Ann Quin; remember the haunting book-length monologue of eccentrics or corrupt leaders in works by Roberto Bolaño and Bohumil Hrabal. In a recent interview, Brian Evenson, whose novels typically fall on the slimmer side of the spectrum, succinctly summarized the strengths of working at a shorter length. “There’s a certain surface tension that you can maintain in that form that you just can’t in a very long book,” Evenson said–and talented writers from Marilynne Robinson to Dennis Cooper have worked wonders with shorter works.
João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novel Quiet Creature on the Corner, newly translated into English by Adam Morris, also uses brevity to boldly evoke chaos and unrest. In this novel, time turns fluid, bodies undergo strange alterations, and identities, both personal and national, shift rapidly. It begins in a milieu of working-class realism and rapidly turns into something much stranger, a meditation on crimes and violence that leaves no one unscathed.
In the book’s first sentence, the narrator talks about the “dark broth running” as he washes accumulated grease from his hands after losing his job. In the middle of the second sentence, time jumps forward three months, and what had been a sudden loss of a job has transformed into a more pervasive condition of unemployment. Noll makes use of abrupt narrative leaps again and again to achieve a host of effects. Initially, it’s temporal; a few pages later, it will be to advance a much more horrific development in the plot. After leaving the apartment where he lives with his mother, the narrator goes for a walk throughout the building; he hears one of his neighbors, a young woman named Mariana, singing “a romantic ballad by a singer who was hideous.” He approaches her and, in a passage that’s brief but nightmarish to read, rapes her.
What follows is a surreal narrative of imprisonment and disengagement from the world. The narrator’s perspective has already seemed disjointed: first from time and then from morality. The novel’s narrator frequently comes off as a sociopath; in an interview, translator Adam Morris referred to him as “at once eager to please and insensitive to the effects of his actions.” And in the opening pages, Noll has, from an authorial perspective, established a work in which critically important events can take place in the midst of a sentence, with almost no warning.
After his imprisonment, the narrator is moved from prison to a clinic, and he becomes even more detached from those around him, and alienated from his own body. At one point, he catches sight of himself in a mirror and realizes that he’s grown a beard: “Some time had passed, I could now see, and not a little: those long hairs and that thick beard were signs of its passing.” From there, a peculiar kind of imprisonment continues, one where the people around the narrator age mysteriously and events take place in the distance that defy explanation.
Reading Quiet Creature on the Corner, one can find traces of the television show The Prisoner and novels like The Unconsoled and The Stranger–but laced with something horrific and corrosive. This is not an easy book to read, both in terms of its narrator’s capacity for violence and thoughtlessness, and for the dizzying events that isolate him from society throughout much of the novel. It can be read as a surreal work, one in which reality breaks down; it could also be seen as away in which the narrator’s altered reality is somehow punitive in nature.
Throughout the book, political allusions are made–Morris, in the same interview referenced earlier, observed that Noll’s novel was part of the “first wave of writing that was free from censorship under the military dictatorship.” A reference early on to “a photo I’d seen of a street in Vienna in the thirties” seems very telling, calling to mind the specter of totalitarianism, regimented violence, and death. But ultimately, this is not a rational novel; instead, Noll taps into haunting anxieties and unsettling imagery to depict a setting and a character who both veer on the monstrous. In many ways, it’s unsettling precisely because of its surrealism and its ambiguity, which pervade the narrative but never restrain the more realistic horrors at its core. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, but this novel does it, to disquieting effect.
Quiet Creature on the Corner
by João Gilberto Noll; translated by Adam Morris
Two Lines Press; 109 p.