Impossible Object very nearly won the first Booker Prize in 1969. Two of the judges - including the renowned literary critic Frank Kermode - favouredImpossible Object very nearly won the first Booker Prize in 1969. Two of the judges - including the renowned literary critic Frank Kermode - favoured it, but were "soon silenced" by the others - it seems a particularly impossible one objected.
I waited a long time to get hold of a copy. It is an old book so I was in no hurry, but it intrigued me the way the library copy I was waiting for was continuously out on loan for several years - apparently someone was constantly renewing it, unable to let go. Why? It's not a long book. Finally it turned up - and, having read it, I think I understand why the previous borrower held on to it for so long. It's brilliant, but impossible.
"I wanted to write you something impossible," we are told at the end, "like a staircase climbing a spiral to come out where it started or a cube with a vertical line at the back overlapping a horizontal one in front. These cannot exist in three dimensions but can be drawn in two; by cutting out one dimension a fourth is created. The object is that life is impossible; one cuts out fabrication and creates reality."
It's a fascinating observation: some things that can be drawn in two dimensions are impossible in three. Like an Escher stairway; a triangle whose inside becomes its outside; or love.
Impossible Object mainly comprises eight short stories, one of which - A Morning in the Life of Intelligent People - is an extraordinary, bravura depiction of the internal monologues of a married couple who, from the moment they wake up, are trying to second guess each other - like chess players locked in a battle of attrition, anticipating their opponents' every move. In their mental calculations breakfast becomes a battlefield, and eggs grenades. After the husband leaves for work, his wife digs out some old love letters and reads this:
"I have a terrible compulsion to do as much hurt as I can while I can. I think this is what love is, an attempt to get what you can't and then to destroy it. There's a shred of sanity left which tells you what's happening; but this doesn't help, it only means you can't escape it."
Love: impossible to live with; impossible to live without - making life impossible either way? As another writer/character, in another story (A Journey Into The Mind) puts it:
"All life is impossible; you hope for reality."
Published in 1968, this is meta-fiction that makes Paul Auster's career look like one long game of catch-up. It's the sort of book you have to read more than once. The first time in puzzlement, the second in awe. The writing is full of classical allusions, philosophy, and some eye-popping sentences:
"My sons were embarrassed. They went downstairs like ambulance men."
In Public House, a writer spends several lunchtimes eavesdropping on the assignations of a man and a woman who are having an affair, and who each narrate later stories. In Life After Death the man arrives home to find three men waiting outside his flat looking for the woman. Are they police? He fears she has murdered her husband. Then in The Sea, she describes the events of a holiday in North Africa previously glimpsed in Public House. Like the game of hide and seek in a dark cellar in the first story, Family Game, it doesn't end well. But which is the story, and which is the story-within-a-story? Which ending is true? Is reality the impossible object of fiction?
I said "This is a fairy story. None of it is quite real." She said "Do you think you're God?"
I wanted to review something impossible. Like a book full of stories that are subsumed by other stories within them. The object is that this is impossible; one cuts out certainty and creates circularity.
"Nietzsche said that everything goes round and round; have I told you this before?"
"He said that everything eternally recurs; or rather, that we should act as if everything did."
"As if everything we do were such that we were going to go on doing it for ever."
Does any of this make sense? Does love? Does life?
"All life is a struggle; then you come to the end of it."