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In 1991, unhappily married Sylvie and her husband set off on a journey across Eastern Europe in search of a Romanian orphan to adopt.
Sylvie wanted to believe that misery could simply be replaced with happiness. Time was a straight line, stretching out before you. If you 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.
Set at the dawn of the New World Order, Chris Kraus's third novel, Torpor loops back to the beginning of the decade that was the basis of I Love Dick, her pseudo-confessional cult-classic debut. It's summer, 1991, post-MTV, pre-AOL. Jerome Shafir and Sylvie Green, two former New Yorkers who can no longer afford an East Village apartment, set off on a journey across the entire former Soviet Bloc with the specious aim of adopting a Romanian orphan. Nirvana's on the radio everywhere, and wars are erupting across Yugoslavia.
Unhappily married to Jerome, a 53-year-old Columbia University professor who loathes academe, Sylvie thinks only of happiness. There are only two things, Sylvie thinks, that will save them: a child of their own, and the success of The Anthropology of Unhappiness, her husband's long-postponed book on the Holocaust. But as they move forward toward impoverished Romania, Jerome's memories of his father's extermination at Auschwitz and his own childhood survival impede them. Savagely ironic and deeply lyrical, Torpor is Kraus's most personal novel to date.
About the Author
Chris Kraus is the author of the novels Aliens and Anorexia, I Love Dick, and Summer of Hate as well as Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness and Where Art Belongs, all published by Semiotext(e). A Professor of Writing at the European Graduate School, she writes for various magazines and lives in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
By Chris Kraus
MIT PressCopyright © 2006 Chris Kraus
All right reserved.
"The Sugar Maple is easily distinguished at any season of the year. In winter the cone-tipped branches are distinct and characteristic. In spring the beautiful yellow green blossoms in pendant clusters are different from those of any other Maples. In summer the broad leaves with their rounded sinuses enable one to identify the species at a glance. And in autumn the key fruits and brilliant yellow, orange and red leaves serve a similar purpose. In woods, the trees grow straight and tall, and in open situations they develop a wide expanse of foliage, which makes them ideal for shade." - Our Trees How To Know Them, copyright 1936, Clarence M. Weed, D.Sc., Teacher of Nature Study in the Massachusetts State Normal School at Lowell
THERE IS A BROAD dirt path behind Brant Lake that slopes up gently through the woods along the ridge between Hawk Hill and Sand Beach Mountain. The path begins where Ike Hayes Road dead-ends. Originally a wagon trail, it was used later as a logging road, but now no one uses or maintains it.
On this mid-October Wednesday afternoon, Jerome Shafir and Sylvie Green, two rootless cosmopolitans who split their time between investment rental properties in the depressed upstate New York town of Thurman and Springs, East Hampton, are walking onthis path with their little dog. Though Jerome is a professor at Columbia University, the pair can no longer afford an apartment in New York City. Their two "homes" are seven hours apart, in quaint rural slums adjacent to resorts. Both locales involve a grueling four-hour drive from Manhattan. Still, they find this arrangement preferable to living in a cheap apartment in Hoboken or Park Slope. At least, they think, they get to see America.
It is a classic bright fall day: the kind of picture that still gets cranked out on the mimeograph machine by teachers at North Warren Central School in the picture-postcard town of Brant Lake Village. Incorporated in 1838, this southern Adirondack town boasts a duck pond and a water-mill, a white clapboard Episcopal church, a granite Roman Catholic church, and an unreconstructed general store called Daby's that still sells hardware, blankets, cigarettes and groceries. Brant Lake is one of Thurman's richer cousins, and Daby's is the kind of store that will soon inspire product lines by Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. Hunting season hasn't started yet. The town has emptied out for autumn.
It is 1989 or 1990. George Herbert Walker Bush is President of the United States and the Gulf War has just begun in Saudi Arabia. "Collateral damage," a military term coined to describe the accidental wasting of civilian populations, is just beginning to crossover into self-help therapeutic terminology. Somewhere in the Persian Gulf, civilians cower in the rubble while in New York, Sylvie's friends discuss the "collateral damage" of their break-ups. Everywhere, there is this yearning for simplicity.
The most popular TV show for Jerome and Sylvie's white, college-educated, 28-54 demographic is Thirtysomething, but they rarely have a chance to watch it, because they're never in one place long enough to rationalize spending $40 a month for cable. Thirtysomething is a well-written, well-performed ensemble drama about lives of people like Jeff and Carla, the nice young couple who are subletting Sylvie's small, rent-stabilized East Village tenement apartment. Carla, a model, is taking classes in fine furniture restoration because at 28 she wants to keep her options open. Jeff quit his band three years ago and now makes money doing high-end apartment renovation. Like the cast of Thirtysomething, but unlike Jerome and Sylvie, Jeff and Carla lead lives that they are invested in, where cards like Marriage, Family and Career are played closely to the heart, and small decisions matter.
Sylvie is amazed by the tremulous sincerity that grips these people when they talk about their futures. Having grown up with Iggy Pop and the Sex Pistols, she remains faithful to a philosophy so brilliantly contained in just two words: No Future. The only thing that really matters to her is their small dog, Lily, who is bundled up this afternoon in her cable-knit blue sweater. October days up here get chilly after sunset. Beneath their feet, the trail is softly bedded down with tiny hemlock cones and pine needles.
"The 30s are all about heart," Melanie Griffith confided recently to People. She meant, of course, that decade of her life, and not the century's. Melanie and her formerly-abusive husband, Don Johnson, have just gotten back together. After completing residential rehab programs in Boca Raton and Minneapolis, respectively, the pair bought a 200-acre ranch outside of Aspen, Colorado so that the children of their blended family (two of their own, two from Don's last former marriage) could have a "normal" childhood. Melanie's scaled back her on her career to try and be a better mom: "I'm learning now how much family really matters." Meanwhile, her rugged husband Don stumps around campaigning for the re-election of George Bush I, because, he says, "I like his strength and character."
Likewise, each week on Thirtysomething, new parents, Hope and Michael, and their best-friends, Elliot and Nancy, move backwards through a poison fog of culturally-induced reflexive irony towards a New Traditionalism. The births of their amazing offspring have led these former hipsters to rethink everything. As the network TV season advances, their childless former friends move closer to the fold. Ellyn, Gary and Melissa (a city planner, college teacher and photographer, respectively) begin to recognize the foolishness of thinking they can fulfill themselves through careers in education, art or social activism. Unlike these three, alpha-couples Hope and Michael, Elliot and Nancy have had the courage to grow up and come to terms with the empty, idealistic posturing of their Princeton student days. They no longer want to change the world. Now, they are creating families.
Post-punk, pre-grunge, the United States stands behind its President to Support Our Troops somewhere in a Persian Gulf sandstorm. Sylvie and Jerome have never felt so alienated. 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. There is no longer any way of being poor in any interesting way in major cities like Manhattan.
It is the beginning of the New World Order, which means that wars can now be fought and won without any US military casualties. Yellow ribbons line the road on trees from Brant Lake to New York City. Yellow ribbons-a symbol of Americas Norman Rockwell past salvaged just in time by Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan-had long ago bedecked front porches, mailboxes and office doors during the First World War. In those times, the yellow ribbons symbolized a nation's willingness to put aside its minor differences (racial lynchings, union busting, the accumulating wealth of trust conglomerates) and join hands across the great divide to pray Our Boys Will Come Home Safely.
And then again, after the Black October stock market crash of 1987, the Ladies Home Journal leapt to restyle itself as the bible of "The New Traditionalism." Full-page color ads appearing everywhere depict the soft, expressive face of a female Ivy-educated Thirtysomething. Once a lawyer or a stockbroker, she has rethought her choices. A banner headline runs above her earnest, pretty brow:
She was looking for something to believe in ... And guess what she's found? Her family, her home, herself.
Sylvie herself has flirted briefly with the New Traditionalism. A punk-formalist film and videomaker in her early 30s, she's in Brant Lake to do a Warren County Artist-in-the-Schools residency. It's the only grant, or job, she's had this year. Since they've moved upstate, she mostly lets Jerome support her. When Sylvie isn't writing applications for grants she'll never get, or in bed, depressed and reading, she decorates their "homes" with ideas adapted from The American Girl's Guide to Handy Homecrafts, a 1920s book she discovered in a thrift store. Jerome has little interest in these "homes." He only grudgingly agreed to marry Sylvie so she could be on his medical insurance. Happily, Columbia matches his payment on her premium, so without having to petition anyone for a raise, he can extract another $150 a month from the institution. Jerome has little interest in the bittersweet significance of family life. French, and 18 years older than his "wife"-a term he never uses without airquotes-he's never heard of People magazine, much less of Thirtysomething. Jerome stopped listening to contemporary bands around the time that DNA broke up and Lydia Lunch retired. Joy Division left him cold, with their earnest, pretentious pop lyricism.
It would have been Jerome's 53rd or 52nd birthday, that day when they were walking in the woods: the height of autumn foliage upstate, the 15th of October. Although Jerome doesn't use the word "upstate." Instead, he calls it "upper state New York," in phraseology borrowed from Edith Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though he's lived in America now for almost thirty years, his English remains defined by the expat-Englishmen who taught at the Sorbonne when he was a student in the 1950s. He fills his drug prescriptions at the chemist, speaks derisively of the Middle West, and gets his shoes fixed by the cobbler. Verbs like "make" and "give" continue to bewilder him, despite all of Sylvie's best efforts to correct him. He "makes" a party, "gives" some phone calls. It's as if for 30 years, he's managed to not hear a thing.
Birthdays, for Jerome, had never been a cause for celebration. Each new and passing year just sucks him farther from the source of who he really is, though who he really is, is hard to say, and no one guesses his identity. Born on the heels of Crystallnacht in Paris, 1938 to two bewildered Jewish immigrants from Poland, Jerome imagines he is history. He is the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1942, though France will always be a country that he hates. His father was deported two years later, thanks to the collusion of the French, and all of Jerome's early years were spent in hiding. His father died at Auschwitz, and Jerome is hiding, still. Before he says his name, Shafir, few people even realize that he's Jewish. Jerome has light brown hair and ice-blue eyes. He speaks a soft and traceless French, and pronounces his name Chezfaire, a little private joke.
Jerome observes Sylvie's dabbling with the symbols of the New Traditionalism with blank stupefaction. It is ridiculous, her notion of a happy home. His home will always be the camps, but no one-not even Sylvie-knows this. Like most of her ideas, this domestic mania comes straight from television. Gathering pinecones in a plywood bushel basket to put beside the woodstove, making scalloped window treatments out of plywood dowels and sheets she buys at thrift stores, putting up two dozen quarts of zucchini pickle ... Jerome cannot imagine why she bothers. For him? They have no kids, it's hardly worth it.
While Melanie Griffith has two children with her husband Don, and Thirtysomething's Hope and Michael have their daughter Janet' all Jerome and Sylvie have is Lily, an aging temperamental lapdog Sylvie rescued from the City Pound. Part dachshund, part cocker spaniel, Lily was abandoned at age 7 in a feeble and emaciated state. The dog is arguably the only thing they'll never sell or give away, and now she is 11.
Recently it's occurred to Sylvie she could turn this New Traditionalism into a cottage industry, renting out their two unhappy homes to happy couples who could afford to pay top dollar. When Jerome's mother sold the two Israeli seaside condos purchased for her by Yvette, Jerome's vivacious, self-made older sister, Sylvie thought long and hard. Yvette, a graduate of secretarial school, had saved her whole extended family from poverty by making real estate investments. The $100,000 given by his mother to Jerome wouldn't even buy a small 2 bedroom co-op in their gentrifying East Village slum. The monthly maintenance fees alone would be higher than the rent in her rent-stabilized apartment. Why not fix the apartment up, then rent it out, and use the rest to make down payments on two houses in the country? She'd rent the Long Island house for summer, and live there in the winter while renting out the Thurman house to skiers. These rents would more than cover up both mortgages!
It was a profitable scheme, but consequently, the pair are homeless. Because Jeff and Carla are still living in her renovated slum apartment, and when the Thurman ski idea had not worked out, she'd had to rent the house at cost through May to a family of locals. So when the Long Island summer renters offered another $3000 to stay on through the fall, Sylvie took it. Consequently, to do the Warren County Artist Residency-which after all, paid less than the Long Island rent-she'd had to scramble for an off-season upstate autumn lease. The Brant Lake cottage that she found belonged to two gay women who'd built the place from scratch and taught at SUNY Albany.
With nowhere else to go, Jerome comes up and stays there with her several days a week. Tuesday through Thursday, he's in New York to teach his classes at Columbia. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, he crashes on a graduate student's sofa.
It would have been the height of Adirondack autumn, and they were walking on the path over Hawk Hill that Sylvie had discovered within a stone's throw of the freezing cottage. She wanted to bring Jerome up to the clearing at the summit that she'd found. Standing on it, you could see all the way across Brant Lake to First and Second Brother Mountains.
"Look, Jerome, a Balm of Gilead tree," she would have called excitedly. A conversation would have then ensued on arboreal etymology. Gilead, Jerome would have recalled, was a mountain town in ancient Palestine that had been annexed, a century ago, to Jordan. "Gilead" meant "rugged" in ancient Aramaic, which was originally the source of Hebrew and Arabic. These languages diverged, Jerome would have continued. "But," asked Sylvie, "why did they call the tree a balm? Does it have medicinal properties?" The leaves were shiny-smooth, a distant cousin of the poplar.
Sylvie would have wondered what Ike Hayes and his neighbors had been thinking when they named the things around them. The Balm of Gilead tree, First and Second Brother Mountain. She imagined them alone in snowbound huts, with just two books to last through an entire winter: Grimm's Fairy Tales and the Bible. The trail they walked on would have run beside an old stone boundary fence. That afternoon the woods were very stately, glorious. White birch, silvery and smudged like naked skin, flashed between the thicker trunks of oaks and maples.
"The day is warm," Sylvie would have observed as they moved higher up the mountain. At 3 p.m., the sun would hover up above the crest of Second Brother, and they might make the sunset, still. Warm light filtered through the leaves and a fiery iridescent maple would have cast deep shadows.
"And yet, the bottom of the air is cool," Jerome would have replied. This utterance expressed Jerome's affectionate familiarity with Sylvie. It was the key-line to fond de lair, one of the word exchange routines they'd made up together. Fond de lair-top and bottom of the air-was one of Sylvie's favorites in their current repertoire. While other couples had careers and homes and babies, Jerome and Sylvie had a handful of routines that echoed the repetitive games they'd played as children.
Since they were not children but full-grown intellectuals, these routines transcended fart jokes and took in everything they knew. Their routines giddily embraced an entire panorama of world consciousness.
Excerpted from torpor by Chris Kraus Copyright © 2006 by Chris Kraus. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
What People are Saying About This
"Chris, and her generation of feminist theoreticians, e.g., Avital Ronell, Jane
Gallup, Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, did much more to embody the possibilities that were made possible by May 1968 and the critical writing of Tel Quel, etc., than the men who staked out all the early positions before succumbing to tenure." Rick Moody
" Torpor is as good a Grand Tour love story as James or Wharton,
as good a memoir of Upstate New York as Edmund Wilson or Frederick Exley, a brilliant study of a
Holocaust survivor, a brilliant study of the moral character of philosophers, the art world,
academia, ambition, real estate, sex, orphans, and the fall of Romania. Kraus is as fun a travel writer as Ian Fleming, with a touch of Travels With Charley, and she writes about the strangeness of the world in a clear American prose filled with emotion, but with no vapors of style and forced effect to hide behind. I"ve read all of her books. Chris Kraus is a great writer."
Michael Tolkin , author of Among the Dead