ross benjamin

FROM THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, DECEMBER 12, 2014

Blue Moods

John Burnside

Clemens J. Setz's alarming and surreally beautiful novel Indigo includes a man named Clemens Setz, who, having once worked at the Helianau Institute for "Indigo" children, is now investigating not only the nature of their condition but also their treatment by the authorities. Indigo children, it seems, are the carriers of a bizarre disease that causes anyone in their immediate vicinity to develop severe headaches, nausea and vertigo. Naturally, many parents of these children find it difficult to cope and, fearing for their own health, and for their other uninfected offspring, hand them over to the authorities, who are pledged to care for them as humanely as possible. But is that really what they are doing? 

Part postmodern thriller, part essay into the darker reaches of prejudice, Indigo offers a set of terrifying hypotheses, many of which remain hauntingly unrealized. Setz has conducted a masterly interrogation of the prurience, morbid curiosity and exploitation that informs contemporary society, introducing a cast of memorably repellent characters. At the same time, he creates a psychological atmosphere in which it is possible for us to feel compassion even for some of his more sinister creations. These include his namesake, whose compulsive investigations have rendered him unrecognizable; the former Indigo child, Robert Tätzel, in whose wrathful fantasies the reader lives for a good part of the novel; the terrifying, half-man, half-fantasy figure, Ferenz, who, like an escapee from a David Lynch movie (Robert Blake in Lost Highway comes to mind), sits behind all the evils committed in the book. 

Neither the novel nor any of the characters are what they first seem. Drawing on a vast well of pop culture, especially the old Batman television series and horror movies, Setz (the author) creates a world in which fantasy and reality are almost casually interchangeable. It may come as no surprise that an Austrian writer should locate Freud at the heart of the psychological mess he sees before him, but when Ferenz (mastermind, Mephistopheles, madman) finally makes his appearance, the diagnosis is clear: 

"The bird sculptures seemed archaic and could have stood next to the many-armed god statuettes and erotic carvings on Dr. Freud's desk on Berggasse in Vienna, while the hats floated ownerless through his dreams and meant all sorts of things, anxieties about the future or geometrically impressive family constellations, or whatever, there was no salvation from interpretation, no more than there was an emergency exit from history." 

So much is going on in this intelligent, utterly compelling novel that it would be wrong to single out one idea -- but this critique of twentieth-century interpretation, conducted in an ad hoc, uninformed, almost gratuitous manner, is one of the book's highlights. Today, Setz seems to be saying, authority is meaningless: anyone can set himself up as an expert, whether on dreams, or Indigo babies (there are times when we suspect that the condition does not even exist, that it has been manufactured by the press and mass hysteria). Meanwhile, the truth is lost. In its place lies only expertise.