Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I Am Omega (A Review of Night Work)

After ten minutes, the figure stood up and walked around. It was covered from head to foot in white paint, or possibly dressed in a white leotard. Its hair was invisible, creating an impression of baldness. Everything was white: eyebrows, lips, ears, hands. It walked around the room in a seemingly aimless fashion, as if lost in thought or waiting for something.

Without a sound.

Thomas Glavinic's Night Work (translated from German by John Brownjohn) is hardly the first novel of its kind. The "Last Man" (or variations of it) has long been a prominent theme in contemporary popular fiction. There's Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and its movie adaptions, telling the story of Robert Neville and his solitary stand against marauding mutant-zombie-vampires. There's also Dean Koontz's Phantoms, about two sisters finding everyone in their isolated hometown either dead or missing, as well as Craig Harrison's The Quiet Earth and Danny Boyle's film 28 Days Later, both of which open with their protagonists waking up and finding the England abandoned and in ruins. We also have David R. Palmer's Emergence and Robert O'Brien's Z for Zachariah, both about teenaged girls who initially believe themselves to be utterly alone, as well as George R. Stewart's Earth Abides, about a biologist returning from his remote study location to find the world devoid of people, and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which centers on Snowman, the last normal human left, surrounded by the simple-minded "Children of Crake." Like most modern works of the overall post-apocalyptic genre, "Last Man" stories often focus on the fall-out of some spectacular catastrophe. Sometimes it is supernatural in origin (I Am Legend, Phantoms), but, as in most post-apocalyptic fiction, many of these books and movies seem to be "what if?" scenarios of WMD's, social philosophy, or bio-/genetic engineering gone wrong.

Night Work is different. One fine summer day in Vienna, Jonas woke up and found all humans, animals, and insects gone, replaced by dead silence and stillness under the cloudless blue sky. Now if you're the type of reader who looks forward to a big revelation at the end, this is not the book for you. I will tell you up front that we never find out what happened to everyone, as the exact cause of the mass disappearance is irrelevant to the story Glavinic wants to tell. Night Work is acutely psychological, focusing on Jonas's memories and his relationships to the now-vanished people. It is also paranoid and even vaguely grotesque, recalling that famous image of the last man on Earth, sitting alone in his room and suddenly hearing a knock at the door. There is another version of that, which imagines the last man on Earth, sitting alone in his room, with a lock on his door. Against what? The loneliness closing in on all sides? Or. . . ?

When there are no fellow humans to contend with, what are other potential sources of conflict? Who or what could be your enemy?

In essence: the point of Night Work is not so much what does happen but what could happen, especially once the line between the internal and the external has been blurred, and it turns out that conflict with yourself can be as intense as clashing with other individuals, especially in a world gone horribly wrong. The juxtaposition of a massive, sudden trauma (everyone on the planet is mysteriously gone) and the subsequent lack of any human interaction whatsoever eventually leads Jonas to turn on himself. His personality splits between "Jonas" and "the Sleeper" - the nickname he gives his own sleeping image on the camera he set up after noticing unsettling changes in the apartment, despite the locked doors and windows. All Jonas remembers of the nights are haunting, surreal dreams, but the Sleeper is clearly challenging him, thwarting his plans and engaging in bizarre and increasingly menacing behavior.
Jonas couldn't interpret the look in those eyes. He saw no hint of kindness or friendliness. Nothing that might have inspired confidence or conveyed intimacy. But he also saw no anger or hatred. The expression was one of cool, calm condescension and a sort of emptiness that clearly related to himself. It became so intense that he noticed he was displaying signs of mounting hysteria.
Jonas's waking hours are dominated by mounting paranoia driven by both his nightmarish situation and his own fevered imagination. He thinks he hears sounds or notices movement out of the corner his eye. At one point, walking down a street, he envisions a woman waiting for him behind a nearby van, wearing a nun-like wimple and having no face. Then he develops his own version of ManBearPig.

Glavinic's book is ultimately a study on the power of fantasy. Jonas often meditates on a world - revealed by his many video cameras - that exists even when there are no humans around to see it. (If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?) He recreates his family and friends out of his memories of childhood, travel, dating, and ordinary moments. ("These fragments I have shored against my ruin. . .") Do humans make the world or does the world make humans? Jonas watches film after film of empty scenery, and yet his own subconscious concocts threats and hazards - physical and imagined - that do not exist.

Night Work is by far one of the creepiest books I have ever read. It has a couple of irritating plot holes in that the water and electricity continue to function perfectly; plus, a world without insects is ecologically impossible. But none of that detracts from the overall story, which is gripping and fast-paced, despite its complete lack of action. "No zombies," gripes one Amazon reviewer. "No marauding gangs of outlaws looking for fuel for their cars. Just a boring guy in Austria." Granted, it's not the post-apocalyptic book for everyone, especially not readers more interested in Matheson-style monster-whacking. (In fact, in a sad display of literary injustice, Night Work is currently averaging only 3 stars on Amazon.) But I found Glavinic's subtle, understated atmosphere far, far scarier than any shambling corpse or pessimistic war/environmental cautionary tale. Night Work is both an awesome book and an original take on the post-apocalyptic genre.


Larry said...

I'm glad you decided to read and review this book, since I unfortunately got so wrapped up in a few matters related to changing jobs that I never got around to doing it. I agree (of course!) with your assessment of the story and Glavinic's strengths as a writer.

Haven't done one of these in a while, but I might just link to this review shortly, since I think it's well worth the time for others to read it as well :D

E. L. Fay said...

Thanks a ton, Larry! I hope you get around to reviewing this. I'm really interested in what your thoughts are.

Emily said...

"Granted, it's not the post-apocalyptic book for everyone..."

This sentence made me giggle. People definitely do look for different kinds of creepy, don't they? I'm into more of a quiet, gradually-building creepiness myself, and it sounds like this book would be a good option. Thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

This sounds like an excellent book. I'll put it on my list. Emily directed me to your review after reading my thoughts on "Fiskadoro". I was curious about other post-apocalyptic books. Thanks for the review!

E. L. Fay said...

I promise you won't be disappointed. Don't listen to Amazon!

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