The No World Concerto
A novelist tries to make very modern music out of a work of fiction.
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The book is narrated by an aging, down-on-his-luck screenwriter who has holed up in a drab Parisian hotel in order to complete a film script. He may or may not be having an affair with a young, beautiful pianist – he is for certain writing his screenplay about one, and occasionally he receives missives that he believes are from a girl much like her, the missives containing fragments of a novel-in-progress that the girl is writing. The screenplay that he is writing is almost identical to this real-life situation: it involves a pianist who has quit her career in music in order to write a novel obsessed with Wittgenstein and space aliens, which is almost exactly like the one the girl may be sending the screenwriter. Porta occasionally attempts to fill out the characters of the never-named screenwriter and the girl (there are very few proper names in this book), but for the most part they remain the playthings of the book's desire to mirror and entwine these stories.Skip to next paragraph
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This conceit plays out for nearly 400 pages of dense, single-paragraph prose. The plot feels almost salutary, as though Porta has included it simply because he needed to draw from the traditional novelistic toolkit in order to have something to hang his musical scheme upon. What little story there is builds around the fact that the screenwriter, estranged from his wife, is slowly running out of money and is accepting the fact that his life is a failure, while also hitting on every young, desirable woman in sight. The plot's other half involves the girl having second thoughts about quitting her career as a pianist to become a writer.
The book the girl is attempting to write is to be titled "The No World Concerto," and it grows out of a bastardization of Wittgenstein's "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus." It begins with the statement "The No World is all that is the case," emending Wittgenstein's famous sentence with that single negative, and its skeleton consists of invented quotes that are attributed to the aphoristic text. The book-within-a-book "The No World Concerto" is at one point described as, "simply a name for the all-encompassing thought, the thought of which all things ultimately consist," which is not a bad description of the main point of Porta's book. It seems that he means to imply that the screenwriter and the girl are simply emanations of one another's subjectivities, like the famous drawing of Escher's that shows two hands drawing each other. As such, the book constantly pivots around thoughts that one writes and the other has, as, for instance, here:
The story is his own invention, but he knows he borrows heavily from the girl, from the stories she tells him, from the extracts of her novel she reads to him or that get delivered to his hotel, with commentaries scribbled in the margins, which he incorporates into his own narrative. It's dawn. The girl's looking out from the balcony, standing almost exactly where she was the previous night while observing the front of the Grand Central Station, as if deliberating whether or not to go there....
There is no doubt that Porta's book is a carefully conceived and painstakingly rendered literary experiment, and noteworthy insofar as it brings Schoenberg's and Wittgenstein's ideas into conversation. Its main strengths are its inquiry into what exactly fiction is, and its twinned examination into how we conceive of the world around us and how it conceives of us. These aspects make the book, from time to time, a genuinely worthwhile experience.
But much of "The No World Concerto" drags: it is a far better book in the aggregate than in its particulars. Porta's examinations of the idea that the world is, ultimately, our impressions of it, as well as its portrayals of youth and old age, too frequently feel clichéd. Moreover, it is a lengthy and dense work, and too often one must wade through swamps of prose in order to finally reach a reasonably luminous moment. It is probably true that to have trimmed the fat would have been contrary to Porta's method – because here the fat is an integral part of the work – but that makes the book no less responsible for its failures.
In the end, "The No World Concerto" is perhaps just what an experiment should be: a thing that succeeds in some ways and fails in others, with both its successes and failures illuminating the deeper nature of that thing it is experimenting upon. One hopes there are writers paying attention to the results.