The No World Concerto
A novelist tries to make very modern music out of a work of fiction.
By Scott Esposito for The Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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In 1984, two young writers made their Spanish prose debut with a strange dual novel titled "Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce" ("Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic"). The book was not a commercial smash and in truth is not a great novel, but it is noteworthy for launching the career of the Chilean co-author, Roberto Bolaño.
Whereas Bolaño continued to write and publish after "Consejos," eventually delivering his second novel in 1993, his collaborator, Barcelona-born A. G. Porta, went dark and reportedly abandoned literature, not returning until 1999. (Bolaño claimed that Porta spent the decade and a half wrapped up within a deep study of "Ulysses".) He quickly made up for lost time, publishing a total of five novels within a decade. The first of Porta's books to appear in English, 2006's The No World Concerto, has now arrived via Dalkey Archive Press in a co-translation by Darren Koolman and Rhett McNeil.
"The No World Concerto" is a strange, ambitious title, a work that attempts to combine the forms imagined by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and serialist composer Arnold Schoenberg: It might best be described as a book that wants to exist as a performance of a score residing somewhere in the confines of Porta's skull. Or, as Porta himself writes, "it has an unsettling rhythm, like something that's always approaching but never quite arrives."
In its constant insinuation that it is governed by obscure formal rules, the book feels reminiscent of writing from the famous French collective the Oulipo, yet it also has the feel of a Christopher Nolan film in its frequent upending of what we understand to be the book's reality, and the slick, sketchy landscape of surfaces in which it takes place. Sentence by sentence, "The No World Concerto" is stylistically unremarkable; the book's innovations, such as they are, occur at the level of large structural features that sit behind the action of this novel.
If I'm reading Porta correctly, the idea behind "The No World Concerto" is to construct a literary text as one might compose a twelve-tone musical composition. Before the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg, composers chose a certain key in which to compose their works (that's why you may see, for instance, "in A Major" in the title of a composition). This method of composition necessarily privileges certain notes and harmonic combinations above others, an artifact that twelve-tone meant to change: instead of granting primacy to notes contained within a certain key, it would force a composer to use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale equally in any given piece – essentially, a composer must cycle through the notes with a systematic regularity.
In addition to leveling, twelve-tone also hastened the demise of music's tendency to have a beginning, middle, and end (listen to a composition of Schoenberg's at random, and you will be hard-pressed to say if it is just starting up or about to close down); thus, it necessarily brought to the fore previously neglected aspects of music. Modeling "The No World Concerto" on twelve-tone principles has much the same effect on Porta's book, which resolutely declines plot or character in the traditional sense. It seems to be arranged less according to standard plot dynamics than to certain recurrent images, phrases, and even minor episodes. As do the notes in serialist music, these images and phrases appear with equal measure (perhaps even according to some preordained set of permutations). And, like musical themes, the plot points in this book continually recur, each time in elaborated and embellished form, only finally exhausting themselves in their ultimate expression.
This is all well and good, but as the great Oulipo author Harry Mathews once said, no matter how ingenious or intriguing the idea behind a literary experiment, its execution must produce "valid literary results." So how does "The No World Concerto" stack up?