(New Directions, 2015)
“Information,” writes Walter Benjamin, is “incompatible with the spirit of storytelling.” For Benjamin, “half the art” of telling a story lies in learning not to tell the news; narrative should suppress reportage, achieving instead “an amplitude that information lacks.” Another name for this “amplitude” might be what Flannery O’Connor calls “mystery”— fiction’s capacity, as she puts it, “to penetrate the concrete world” of everyday facts, revealing “the image of ultimate reality.” What she means is that reading allows us to face away from the world, and, in so doing, see through it. We read because we want to be somewhere else, but the best books make us realize that “elsewhere” is where we already are. So, writing can turn toward or away from the known and the knowable, aiming at either information or mystery. One direction reports, reproduces, represents; the other points elsewhere, bringing the unprecedented into presence.
At every turn, Jane Unrue’s writing interferes with the flow of information—repressing, erasing, and reshaping it, aiding the amplification of mystery. Her new novel, Love Hotel, goes even further in this regard than its predecessors: the short story collection Atlassed, and the novellas Dear Mr. Erker, The House, and Life of a Star. Put simply, it’s almost impossible to ascertain what this book is “about.” On the surface, it seems to concern an unnamed narrator (apparently a prostitute) absorbed in a search for what may be a man, a child, or a ghost—his identity, like hers, is profoundly uncertain. Her journey takes her from a haunted mansion owned by her employers, or clients (a creepily seductive couple, seemingly capable of controlling her mind) to the titular hotel. This transient space is at once spectral and subtly erotic—populated by “fleeting shadows” who tellingly “go for just one night.” It’s what the anthropologist Marc Augé would call a “non-place”—a location defined by oblivion, where we forget who we are, and can’t come to rest. Within this indistinct world, some sort of sexual assignation occurs—although its significance, like so much else, is unclear.
That lack of clarity is important: trying to paraphrase the book’s “plot” fails to capture its formal and stylistic strangeness. Really, reading Love Hotel is less like following a storyline and more like looking up at an unknown constellation—a new and nameless arrangement of language. The opening sentences set the stage for this unsettling experience:
Immediately striking was the silence
no faint music
low lighting inducing a feeling of
One morning a man and his wife were working in the hay.
I felt none of what I had imagined feeling before I left my apartment
none of what I felt when I got on the train.
Line breaks like these run through much of the book, like faults or fractures, jolting us forward from word to word, page to page. Again and again, abrupt transitions scramble our concentration, stopping us from catching up with ourselves, or settling in one place. Like Unrue’s narrator, we’re constantly shuttled between situations, with no control over our speed or trajectory (notably, locomotion in Love Hotel tends to depend on trains, taxis, and elevators: Unrue’s “I” never drives; she’s passively driven.) The novel’s fragmented sentences feel like the ruins or remnants of earlier structures, broken apart as if by tectonic motion. If this is a book about transience, its language is likewise in transit—folding and turning and interrupting itself, evading cohesion or explanation.
Throughout all of this, incongruous phrases crystallize briefly, only to vanish, unfinished: “One morning a man and his wife were working in the hay.” The effect isn’t unlike an analogue radio, picking up snatches of speech before phasing back to white noise. In contrast to the urban milieu through which the narrator moves, these snippets hint at rural stories, heavy with folkloric menace: an enchanted forest which swallows wayward travellers; a man whose sons transform into murderous wolves. Another intertwined tale recalls the wrongful death of a child, whom we are told “was meant to be alive.” These echoes and traces may or may not relate to an “apparition” haunting the country estate of the couple who plan the narrator’s journey. “That’s how it’s creeping into there,” one of them tells her, gesturing at the cracks in a tattered painting: “he meant of course the evil in the air.”
Indeed, the essence of Unrue’s novel lies not in the plot, but “in the air”—in a particular kind of atmospheric pressure or density. Before an ambiguous sex scene, the narrator is instructed to “impart […] the information that if hands approach, you will collapse into an aura that will take the form of mist.” Something similar could be said of the book itself: its meaning evaporates upon approach, leaving only an afterimage—like the memory of being touched, or a photograph of a ghost. Later on, the narrator reflects that “I felt the background penetrate the foreground.” Likewise, reading this novel means feeling the foreground fall away; being penetrated; losing our bearings. In this respect, that cracked painting reflects the book’s structure: its “angles” and “shapes” are “composed against a background” which, we are told, is “clouded, as if to suggest eternity.” Foreground and background, angles and clouds: Unrue’s peculiar brilliance lies in the way she brings narrative content into collision with something deeper—something which seeps through its cracks, intangible and eternal.
According to Ricardo Piglia, the history of short fiction involves a continual tension between the surface text and “the secret story”—an undercurrent “constructed out of what is not said; out of implication and allusion.” Love Hotel secretly speaks of myths and folktales and ghosts; its subtext is, as the narrator says, “a story of events occurring in a time behind this time.” As readers, our impulse is to disentangle this secret story, to “trace it back,” as the narrator says, to “where it started from.” However, like her, we fail to do so, only becoming more entangled. Whatever lies behind Love Hotel can’t be reduced to meaningful information. Nor can its implicit “narrative” quite be resolved: if Unrue hints at a haunting caused by wrongful death, the novel never suggests that this wrong has been righted. We want to find a pathway through the woods, a thread to help us make sense of the text. Instead we’re thrust further into a thickening mystery.
So, Unrue’s narrator can’t turn back to the source of the story, nor can she bring it to a resolution: hers is a motion of incomprehension. Throughout the novel, her unthinking, unknowing movements resemble those of someone in a hypnotic fugue. She drifts through the city, and through the unlit rooms of the hotel, “as if acting in accordance with the orders of an unknown mechanism, operating from an unidentifiable location.” A literal reading of her movements might rely on the novel’s allusions to mind control: her enigmatic employers mention being able to “insert […] thoughts straight into you”—another kind of penetration. A more metaphorical interpretation would be to say that she moves in step with an unconscious time signature—what we might call the time of desire. To desire something is to succumb to a distinctive kind of motion. Desire is mesmeric and magnetic; it always draws us unthinkingly forward. In this respect, it’s often in conflict with memory, which it erases or falsifies into myth. This sense of restless, forgetful “towardness” suffuses the novel, although its ultimate object remains unknown.
Ultimately, this motion gives rise to a purified form of attention: an absolute state of orientation, which points toward something just out of sight. On one level, this manifests as an obsession with loci and coordinates: descriptions of the country house capitalize the names of particular places (“the STAIRCASE led us back into the STUDY,” and so on) while the hotel’s fixtures and furniture are italicized (“I will pray to bed to floors to windows even to my walls to be delivered.”) The emphasis brought to bear on these objects is such that they hint at something behind or beyond them: “upon the surfaces,” the narrator notes, “I made out traces of a presence.” But the novel’s knowledge of the connection between the seen and the unseen—between what O’Connor calls “the concrete world” and its invisible outside or underside—is best captured by a description of classical statuary:
I stepped through the doorway to the stately hall of statues Roman
Greek an elevated grand arrangement of cracked heroes
their bodies turned in different directions
the ones that had them
the faces pointed at a variety of spots well in the distance of that
limited although eternally unknowable majestic city. Their gaze was
fixed as by coordinated effort on a set of points beyond those parchment tinted walls. Effect of having eyeholes rather than real eyes I told myself. Their expressions possessing vacancy as well as depth each searing cold stone look was trained upon a destination far too distant formless timeless for the living seeing person even to envisage.
The passage recalls both the disturbingly “eyeless” taxi driver who transports the narrator to the couple’s estate, and her encounter with a portrait whose “eyes appeared to gaze into the eyes of someone something just behind the painter.” Each of these sights could be said to express what she calls “patterns of anticipation”—where anticipation, much like desire, is largely defined by the absence of information. Of course, describing this absence gets us no closer to an account of what Unrue’s mysterious book is “about.” But maybe it helps us to formulate what it feels like to read it. So, here goes: reading Love Hotel feels like tracing someone’s gaze as they stare at something you can’t see. Or like feeling someone or something moving behind you, and turning to find nothing there. That tracing, that turning, that feeling marks the way art draws us into its mystery: the clocks stop, the world falls away, and suddenly, somehow, something appears.