Brian Conn, The Fixed Stars: Thirty-Seven Emblens for the Perilous Season, FC2, 2010
"The Nothing is the only ground—or background—against which we can apprehend existence. It is existence. It is existence's potential of absence and nullity, but also of energy...In this sense, things only ever exist ex nihilo. Things only ever exist out of nothing." —Jean Baudrillard, from Impossible Exchanges
Brian Conn's debut novel The Fixed Stars is a fable, a myth, an image, a rant, a mantra, a spell, a vision of a time past time. What it is not is a game. At first read, it is tempting to try to puzzle out cause and effect, to suss the gimmick of this fragmented, episodic novel from its scant, but tantalizing, clues. There are repeated characters (Molly and the man like a bear, the children and the builder, both young and old,) repeated settings (the bathhouse, the arachniary, the proscenium meadow, the river and the road) and specifically structured chapters which descend from category to subcategory like a scientific catalog. At about the mid-point of the book, when the vast majority of the characters are celebrating in an orgiastic summer festival, there is even a take on Hamlet's play within a play, but with characters who faintly echo Demetrius, Helena and the rest of the players in A Midsummer Night's Dream and whose action is performed on the Starship Theseus, Duke of Athens, in case one missed the joke. Yet, for all the referential, self-referential and linguistic play it is only when the reader relaxes, stops trying to mash together pieces of a puzzle that cannot and will not fit, that the true work of Conn's novel becomes apparent.
At its most fundamental level, The Fixed Stars is an anti-capitalist manifesto. The setting, in as much as there is a specific setting, is located in a post-apocalyptic, anti-Promethean world. Here humanity has simultaneously descended to "life...solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," as Thomas Hobbes would have it, and ascended to a utopic agrarian existence where the needs of the community are provided for, sexual appetites are freely satiated and the people neither mourn the past nor fear the future, as violent as that future often turns out to be. Whatever happened to the world of the reader, the world from which this one is descended, happened out of human memory or record keeping, long enough in the past to have distilled into powerful myth. The structures, habits and mores of the "late capitalists," as they (as we) are called are feared and scorned, and yet the society of the novel habitually operates on a sophisticated pseudo-technological platform that involves genome manipulation and bacterial cultures, spiders who weave elemental metals, spores which are capable of transmitting messages instantaneously and over great distance. However, far from being a simple romp through the tropes of sci-fi parody or a dystopic alarm-system in the style of 1984, Conn has chosen to defamiliarize his novel on all possible levels in order to create a larger anti-structure: that of the void.
There is no narrative cohesion in this book. By this I do not simply mean that the narrative is fragmented, elliptical, intermittent or written in any other mode of Modernist or Post-Modernist method. Rather the pieces of this novel actively resist any sort of logical organization, and do so with a gleeful insistence. Every time the reader seizes upon a repetition that might serve to create story-line, the structure of that story is dashed so thoroughly its original existence actually serves to underscore the empty center of the novel instead of to build scaffolding upon which Conn's clearly joyful sense of language could hang. For example, in the first chapter, Molly and the man like a bear (who are not main characters but merely named characters in a novel largely populated by interchangeable folk described through their duties to the community: the sorter of the larder, the nurturer of cabbages, the deliverer of infants, and so on), are tricked into a level of the bathhouse from which it is often impossible to return. Much later, however, these two do return to the novel and, what is more, after a long journey of impossible circumstance, they return to the same valley at the foot of the same mountain from which they originally were cast. This is known because Molly recognizes the goats they encounter on their way down the ridge and unearths several items she herself buried there long ago; yet, when Molly and the man like a bear do descend into the valley they find it empty of people, the landmarks familiar but somehow wrong, a strange dust in the air, a strange track on the ground. "Perhaps we are in a place not quite the same," Molly says, and then, "Can it be that the same goats are here,..but not the same people?" In this book, that is indeed possible. When Molly and the man like a bear take abrupt leave of the novel shortly thereafter, their brief, haunting, but ultimately anti-epiphanic resurfacing underscores for the reader how little can be counted on to remain consistent in this world. Not characters, not place, not even the goats can be trusted to remain what they appear.
The seemingly multi-dimensional wandering of Molly and the man like a bear, as well as the strange calamity that befalls the society of children at the book's climactic peak, calls to mind a very early description of one of the society's central landmarks: the bathhouse.
"Just so," said the man like a bear. "But the chambers of the bathhouse climb so innocently, and curve so cunningly, that we misperceive them, and, stepping within, believe ourselves in a suite of ordinary rooms; but in fact we stand in a spiral chamber, and similar chambers lie above and below us; for in this shape each chamber lies at once above and below every other chamber."
This nautilus, Escher-like shape—with its echoes of both fractal theory and the Fibonacci Sequence—is a guiding metaphor for the book as a whole. Time does not progress on a line, but rather in a spiral. The future does not supplant the present, but exists in tandem with both the present and the past. Identity is not fixed because it is not singular and the rituals that keep the spirits of darkness at bay are, at another point on the spiral, the same rituals that call them down.
If capitalism at its most basic level can be defined as a system in which production of a good or a need is carried out to generate and sustain profit, then it clearly follows that the reality necessary to maintain this production must be essentially entropic. If energy—manpower, horsepower, fossil fuels, or, in The Fixed Stars, spiders—were inexhaustible or available without manufacture, then the product itself would be innumerably accessible, so common its value would be as nil. Capitalist philosophy hinges on the idea that energy can be expended until it is used up, at which point another source of energy must be discovered or, in the case of western theology, resurrected. What Brian Conn's novel does is reject this idea on every possible level. Time is renewable, helical. Identity is dependent on use and thus fluid. Gender, even as it pertains to procreation, is unfixed, often hermaphroditic. There is no ownership of goods, dwellings or sexual partners, and even the binary relationship of children and adults is turned on its head as, in this world, the children seem to be much older than their adult counterparts, though they are neither "other" than the members of the community nor, as they mature into sexual beings and strike out onto the road, do they appear to be fixed in some loophole of time.
For whatever authority any static determination of meaning holds over this fluid, slippery novel, by the end of the book, it is clear that the Fixed Stars is about language as much as it is about anything else. Conn writes simultaneously about the joy and the void of the word. When the word is sundered from its role as a commodity to be meted out in limited quantities for specific tasks, when it can be equally, simultaneously, and interchangeably used to signify any character, any place, any unfixed point in time (and the sweet plum woman and the lemon peel woman can be the same; the green olive woman and the string bean man can be the same) the result is a language that flashes rather than beams, that sways rather than builds. The sign and the signifier do not divorce each other so much as they tease each other and the novel is unbidden by its form.
"The Nothing does not cease to exist as soon as there is something. The Nothing continues (not) to exist just beneath the surface of things," says Baudrillard. Ultimately, he concludes that, without a mirror held up to the world, without a kind of verification he determines to be impossible, there can be no such thing as reality. The constructs of our familiar society—economic, political, legal, aesthetic, and so on— have no meaning outside themselves and thus, in the true spirit of the capitalist agenda, no value. Yet, within this seemingly grim pronouncement Baudrillard finds the potential for a surprising kind of happiness. "The world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible," he says, "and the task of thought is to make it, if possible, even more enigmatic and unintelligible."
"For we prefer that all images consist side by side in our minds, none dominating any other, but each gathering to itself the singular strength that belongs to it, that we might enjoy them all equally and all at once," says Brian Conn. I believe he is saying something very similar to Baudrillard. In The Fixed Stars joy and fear, grief and love, ritual, superstition, doom and salvation exist in the same moment. The result is a book as remarkable for the sheer joy of its voice as it is for the implacable terror of its emptiness.