ross benjamin

FROM WORLD LITERATURE TODAY, NOV/DEC 2010

Clemens J. Setz. Die Frequenzen. St. Pölten / Salzburg. Residenz. 2009. 714 pages. € 24.90. ISBN 978-3-7017-1515-2

Alexander Kerfuchs, the first-person narrator of young Austrian author Clemens Setz’s novel Die Frequenzen (The Frequencies), shortlisted for the 2009 German Book Prize and awarded the Bremen Literature Prize, at one point recalls his childhood fascination with the idea of the Rube Goldberg machine: “I dreamed of it for several consecutive nights, as if it were a vision of my own future.” The protagonist’s life does indeed unfold as part of an intricate chain reaction, much like one of those constructions that performs a simple task in an exceedingly complex fashion. The example given in the narrative is the “scalping” of an egg. The violence of this word choice presages the outcome of the story’s own elaborate causality, which will lead to a brutal assault and a fatal head injury.

The concatenation of elements that culminates in this event includes a number of characters with crisscrossing fates in the city of Graz. Among them are Valerie, a therapist with whom Alexander, who meets her through his job in an old people’s home, falls in love; an aspiring actor named Walter, whom Valerie recruits to play a role as a patient in her group sessions and who also happens to be Alexander’s childhood friend; an increasingly mentally unhinged woman named Gabi, who suffers from tinnitus and joins Valerie’s meetings; Alexander’s father, who abandons his wife and son shortly after a dinner with Walter’s family, and befriends Gabi’s husband, Wolfgang, when he, too, has run away; Valerie’s father, who is in a vegetative state and once worked for Walter’s father, a famous architect; and a stray dog, Uljana, who had belonged to Valerie’s father, was then cared for by Valerie, and finally wanders forlornly through the city and the novel (several scenes are told from the dog’s perspective). 

A key motif of Die Frequenzen, signaled in the title, is the limits of perception. Alexander evokes it when he notes that every rainbow extends beyond the visible sphere into ultraviolet and infrared regions, where its bands of imperceptible colors “invisibly pave the sky.” But the parts of the optical and acoustic frequency spectrum that are not immediately accessible to the human senses contain the threat of madness: “Some birds can see these frequency ranges, and perhaps that is why they so often lose their minds” (as do several characters in the novel). Yet however dangerous the attunement to ordinarily unheard and unseen frequencies might be, it lies at the heart of Setz’s fiction and its brilliance. Whether in a fleeting image (a contorted tangle of branches is reminiscent of “a failed imitation of Chinese calligraphy”) or an extended riff (one chapter tells the story of Y2K for a page and a half as if it had happened before revealing that, although the global catastrophe did not come to pass, a character’s wife had committed suicide on New Year’s Eve), the novelist’s language itself exemplifies the capacity to open up hitherto unknown realms of perception.

Ross Benjamin

New York