What of the avant garde? What of the epic? What of literature itself?
Structured around the conceit of the chess game, The Combinations by Louis Armand symbolizes the endgame of the literary epic. The massive tome didn’t necessarily resolve itself in a traditional denouement. If I remember correctly, Némec discovers a trove of Voynich Manuscripts hidden in a dumpy apartment. His ghostly friend, the Prof, had a hand in creating black market Voynich Manuscripts to sell to Nazi relic hunters. And then the novel succumbs to its own inertia, Němec losing the will to move … to exist … to be.
For all its Joycean majesty and Rabelaisian excess, the novel ends in a sort of riff on Malone Dies:
He’d never been any good at elegant solutions, born haphazard & always wise after the fact. The only real question was what the situation required to complete itself.
But if all that was left was this
(here, in this present & no other)
alone with a wall,
keeping to the facts. …?
A wall & nothing.
A no thing.
Thereafter follows the Coda, to “spiral-off into some lugubrious mirrormaze of the baser emotions.” After the Beckettsian elegance of the last lines, the Coda strips off the costumes, throws on the house lights, and exposes the narrative as nothing more than a literary contrivance. (Mirroring the Renaissance automaton of the Overture.)
All is artifice! All is vanity!
Yes … and …?
The Combinations is a Big Book with Big Ideas. The challenge thrown down by this epic of baroque complexity is twofold. It exposes the raw artificiality of the fictional narrative. It draws the reader in with conspiracies, labyrinths, comic relief, erudition, esoterica, dick jokes, suicide, decadence, drunkenness, Nazis, Commies, Capitalist pig-dogs, and much much more in its overwhelming muchness. It draws you in and then throws you out. Jerking the carpet from beneath your feet. Second, does these postmodernist shenanigans, themselves wrapped around and within a traditional narrative, make criticism and analysis an act of futility? Or is aiming for a totalizing critique a Sisyphusean errand? Academics and fans are still plucking out new insights from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake all these decades later.
Or is attempting to wrest a Skeleton Key to unlock the novel’s mysteries missing the point? Seriously, the novel was a rollicking fun read. It was learned and irreverent, valuable traits to cultivate in this age of devout idiocy. While alt-right üntermenschen genuflect to their game show host God-Emperor of Diet Cokes and Europe curdles under a resurgent racist nationalism, there are still authors out there who can say, “Yeah, fuck all that shit.”
Social media has exacerbated an apocalyptic hysteria fatiguing in its near-universal need for clicks and likes. History hasn’t ended as Francis Fukayama falsely prophesied when the Berlin Wall fell. Then the Twin Towers fell. Then the economy melted down in 2008/9. Then a black man became President of the United States. Then a broke-ass game show host became President of the United States. And then … and then … tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
History hasn’t ended. Nor is it a nightmare from which we must awaken. History is a nightmare we must deal with and wrestle with. An endgame in chess lacks the soteriological promises of redemptive narrative arcs and ideologies. We are all hapless schlemiel’s bumbling through existence searching for meaning, redemption, and another round we don’t have to pay for. Despite the official livery of the powerful, two things remain constant no matter who sits on the throne: Bullshit and incompetence rule the world.
Tune in Tomorrow for: The Louis Armand Interview