The Polymathic Spree
A review by John Isaac Lingan
"This is, after all, the century of the illusion of knowledge. We firmly believe that the world in which we live is ultimately comprehensible." The setting is Berlin in 1995, and the speaker, Auschwitz survivor Jozef de Heer, is reflecting on the 20th century from the vantage of man who witnessed some of its most brutal atrocities. But this passage also turns out to be something of a signpost for Paul Verhaeghen's Omega Minor as a whole; this is a book in which identities are fluid, narratives are never fully trustworthy, and the author unloads every conceivable setpiece and literary trick in order to illustrate his own multifaceted attempt at comprehending the world.
Omega Minor is impossible not to admire, whether for its wealth of brilliant descriptive passages, its imaginative and intellectual daring, or its author's ability to juggle thematic and metaphorical motifs. Verhaeghen has written -- and translated, from the original Flemish -- a novel with a narrow potential audience, but one that will be admired fiercely by readers who value Byzantine plots, stylistic pyrotechnics, and theoretical ambition. (It already has such an audience in Europe, having won the 2006 tri-annual Flemish Culture Award.) Little niceties like character development or narrative clarity occasionally get the short shrift, but that's par for the course with this kind of massive systems novel. Even as it flies off the rails -- it could use at least a hundred fewer descriptions of ejaculation -- Omega Minor always feels like the book its creator wanted it to be. It periodically suffers under the weight of its author's ambition, but Verhaeghen's vision and talent are rarely less than staggering.
The novel's first section introduces the main characters: Paul Andermans, a Flemish postdoctoral fellow in psychology; Professor Goldfarb, a Nobel-Prize winning German who assisted the Manhattan Project; Nebula, a burgeoning pornographer and neo-Nazi; and de Heer, who asks Andermans to write down his account of the Holocaust, the Soviet invasion of Germany, and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. As the many references to Wagner seem to indicate, this first section is an overture, a statement of themes. With Berlin/Potsdam in 1995 overrun with restless youth, be it the international cadre in Paul's university's gästehaus or the violent and bored skinheads milling underground, trouble is brewing:
What is likely to happen if you keep a dozen or so men, and of late also a few women -- Nebula's presence has made some of the men restless -- more or less captive in a more or less limited space? They need a hobby, a safety valve, right?
Verhaeghen introduces this Chekhovian gun in this first act, and, it isn't a spoiler to say that it goes off in the third. But in the middle, something remarkable happens: through de Heer's recollections in Part Two, Verhaeghen switches gears and plants us firmly, unflinchingly in the middle of 1930s Germany. His prose still crackles in the present-tense mode of the American postmodernists that he imitates, but irony and winking humor suddenly take a backseat to a fictionalized Holocaust memoir that is honest and powerful.
This section is a stunning achievement, as Verhaeghen ably describes how an entire society allowed Nazism to spread through itself. Before long, Jozef is transported to Auschwitz in the final days of the war, where atrocities are committed by dutiful Germans even though they know their cause is lost. Here we see violence and evil without even the illusion of morality or purpose -- "a bit boring, frankly," according to de Heer, although Verhaeghen's descriptions remain visceral and immediate.
Goldfarb's emigration from Germany in the 1920s and his subsequent studies at Harvard are interspersed throughout, culminating in the invitation he receives to work at Los Alamos. As the bomb comes together, Verhaeghen gets a chance to expound upon the symbiosis between intellectual creation and violent destruction. The brilliant minds gathered on "The Hill" in the American southwest are so fixated on their noble goal and its importance that they don't realize the monster they've created until the first mushroom cloud explodes before their eyes:
The thing works better than expected, and even gets out of hand […] Goldfarb watches the confusion around his with amazement -- did none of these boys ever stop to think they were building an actual weapon?
Verhaeghen is a cognitive psychologist by trade, and the unifying metaphor of Omega Minor (to the extent that there's unity at all) is the human brain's tendency to fill in memory gaps and the similarity this bears to the kind of society-wide complicity like that in Hitler's Germany. This is the true "illusion of knowledge": our ability to fool ourselves into believing that the world is a certain way. The novel's greatest flaw is that most readers will be far more interested in solving Verhaeghen's intellectual jigsaw puzzle than in the motivations of his characters. Even in the Holocaust sections, the reader's awe is always directed at the author's act of reimagination, the display of ventriloquism. Once Verhaeghen pulls out all the metafictional stops in Part Three, we're officially in the realm of pure ideas, even as the plot marches to its explosive conclusion.
Omega Minor is the kind of polymathic, prodigious novel that is so concerned with theories of humanity that its own individual characters can't help but seem insignificant. For some, this may be damming criticism, but any potential reader will likely be on board with this approach, as they would be for its spiritual godfather Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon's influence looms heavily over this book -- there's even an appearance by his recurring character Pig Bodine -- and if Omega Minor doesn't speak to its zeitgeist in the way that Gravity's Rainbow did, it does offer the similar experience of encountering a brilliant, generous writer trying to wrap all the threads of his intellect around the most protean century in our history. Insofar as it succeeds, it is an acquaintance well worth making.
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