Author: Henali Kuit
Publisher: Deep South
Translated into the Afrikaans, as Geruisloos, Ongemerk, by Henali Kuit
Shift in Being: Henali Kuit’s The incredible beat of my heart.
A Critical Review
by Warren Jeremy Rourke
Henali Kuit’s debut collection of fiction is literary-theoretical, which is to say, following the Soviet-suppressed formalists of the Prague Linguistic Circle, for instance, that her text ‘foregrounds’ utterance and expression over the determinate practical uses of language, generally associated with ‘story’. Or in poststructuralist terms, her fiction ‘destabilizes’ its own acts of signification, and thereby achieves a ‘literariness’ more than what prose literary fiction of today generally does. Kuit’s The incredible beat of my heart is also, a unique type of literary-theoretical – in that it attains to the quality of ontological postmodernist.
The application of the referent construct of ‘postmodernist’ as a literary classification for this first collection by Kuit, relates to an axiomatic of the ‘dominant’ of literary art – not only the diachronic and synchronic of art and culture’s history, but also, that of individual texts and its aesthetic relation to their unfolding moment – as developed by the early structuralist, Roman Jakobson. According to Jakobson, “The dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components”. Brian McHale, in an early and extensive “descriptive poetics” of postmodernist fiction, argues convincingly for Jakobson’s ‘dominant’ as a conceptual tool for a general thesis concerning the differentiation between specifically modernist and postmodernist fiction: that is to say, epistemology (modes of knowing) is the dominant of modernist literary works, while ontology (modes of being) is the dominant of postmodernist texts. A helpful basic analogy from genre fiction, provided by McHale, is that a detective story is the epistemological mode par excellence, while science fiction is the ontological. The dominant of the former is a question of ‘knowing’ while the latter, is of course, ‘worlds’.
And certainly, all of the thirty-two flashes in the flickering galaxy of human experience that Kuit generates in this collection, have to do with articulations of unstable modes of being-in-the-world(s). And where ontological focus is the dominant of the collection, an active destabilization of this postmodernist focus of being of the whole, leads to an interesting, though perhaps unexpected, overarching representational value.
As this is a critical review with theoretical exposition, it gives the fictional episode, “Maps,” which initiates Kuit’s The incredible beat of my heart, a concerted amount of attention. I do so, on the one hand, as there is remarkable literary artistry at work in all of the short prose pieces and homing in on one in particular, helps to demonstrate this more than what at a glance, here and there, across the whole makes possible. On the other hand, the ontological premise of each narrative that I’m arguing for, is prefigured in “Maps” in such a way as to offer an exemplary typological example of the nature, and extent of meaning, we find here.
This is, in no way, to give the sense that there is not hard differentiation, as well as loose connectivity, between the thirty-two short prose pieces – they do for the most part act as discrete entities – and where this serves the possibility of lifting Kuit’s remarkable empathetic and creative range distinctly into view, it also, in my opinion, leads to not having the collection’s full potential realised. Given the limitations on space here, I will only give brief attention to two other narratives that I find demonstrative of the collection’s polyphonic focus of being and the distinct representational value of each. With collections, both in fiction and poetry, there is always the question and potential of ‘composite linking’ and where there is a permeable membrane at work in The incredible beat of my heart, which takes place through the use of a leitmotif (as well as character transposition and continuation), this leitmotif’s recursion is not held to, which instantiates being-in-the-world(s), but not, I would argue, postmodernism’s becoming.
The first-person ‘mad monolinguist’ of “Maps” – unbelievably, a prose fiction of only four paragraphs long – presents a woman suffering with mental illness. We begin with her telling us the reasons for moving into an old lady’s flat:
I saw the ad at the library when I was drunk. It said in all caps, ‘very independent, goes to job and to group-fitness daily.’ How romantic, I thought. Renting a room from her would not be about the room at all. It would be more about her than it would be about me. She made no mention of requiring sober habits or a reference from an employer. This was good because I didn’t have either.
Cue the right music, in filmic terms, or given another few thousand words of narrative development for genre fiction, and we’d have begun a thriller. Within the ambit of McHale’s basic division, the dominant of the thriller genre, is epistemological. But Kuit’s fiction has neither the intent, nor the need for the lengthy development of plot (none of the flashes in the collection are more than a few hundred words in length) and the text’s slice-of-life performances all slide definitively into the foregrounding of idea and effect, making the thriller aspect of the “Maps” vignette, something of a foil for the play of signification that a dysregulated, or “unstable,” consciousness allows for.
Mental illness is often accompanied by what in psychiatry is termed – especially for those undiagnosed and untreated – ‘self-medication’. Sufferers, not understanding the nature of their own condition, often resort to any means available to them to alleviate their symptoms, and alcohol and drug abuse is therefore common practice. Though the mark of humour is there, for “Maps” to open with “at the library when I was drunk” is in fact a realistic representation of the behaviour of someone with an undiagnosed mental illness. There is also no indication from the interiorized discourse of “Maps” that the character is aware of her condition. At the same time, Kuit by this opening, activates the subtle workings of prejudice inherent to conventional thinking in the thriller genre where, “madness” all-too-easily and often, is what makes the villain.
Kuit in her écriture of mental illness, imbues “Maps” with a subtext though that, on close reading and in the fullness of its expression [and for someone who suffers from mental illness writing a critical review on an author fictionalizing mental illness], destabilizes the prejudice. “At first I wanted to make friends,” continues our ‘mad monolinguist’ in the second paragraph:
because I was sick of being alone. I saw myself in the old lady and it was plain that she wanted to see herself in me. If we could make friends, I thought, we would have no need for mirrors, or men. But it didn’t work out for us. We were both occupied with the webs we had spun around our days. She had to drive from the library, to church, to spinning class, to the traditional healer, then back to church, day in and out. And I had to continue, simply to worry.
The gesture here is that between unemployment and lack of support of any kind, the character inevitably spends her days alone in the old lady’s flat, where she worries. A further step into the nature of her disorder is then given by way of the third paragraph where “worry” takes its extreme manifestation, as paranoia. The representation here of paranoic fear by Kuit, is highly unusual though, in that it contains an ambiguity between the relation of content to form. Formally speaking, the thriller function is activated by the association of ideas in object and action, to do with violence:
I worried that the old lady would go into the kitchen after I had made my dinner and that she’d step on a knife I dropped and somehow hadn’t noticed. Or that she’d bump against a pot of steaming water I had brought to boil but somehow didn’t empty. I worried about finding her on the kitchen floor, writhing, her thin skin coming off like tissues. I checked for things I might have dropped, sharp things. I checked, again and then again, for boiling things that never cool.
Well enough, the implication and mood generation is that of ‘danger,’ but what is interesting is the fact of ‘empathetic’ paranoia, or we might say, delusional ‘care,’ being shown. The hallmarks of paranoid thinking, as per any simple dictionary definition, are cogito-based in the self-world complex and characterised by ‘delusions of persecution,’ ‘mistrust of others,’ and ‘self-importance’. That is not the case here as the textual tension becomes an ontological one, determined by the reader’s reception of the discourse. If I knew nothing of mental illness, I might be encouraged by the explicit form of the thriller mode of “Maps” to have my prejudice of the danger of “mad” people, ratified. However, as someone who has been hospitalized for paranoia, my recognition is different, and I’m therefore on the interpretive and evaluative plane of my own reading experience, alerted by the defamiliarization of the form of paranoia being re-presented by Kuit.
As subject, our ‘mad monolinguist’ states that, “I am compulsively compulsive. I tap and blink and clench my fists. I had to make lists too, because lists helped me to remember what I should be checking. Lists helped me worry into the right directions”. Compulsive disorder, and goal-directed activity, are other behavioural traits of those with mental illness, as Kuit must have insight into, but the mode of being of the sufferer is here not merely caricatured and an emotive appeal is imbedded into the paragraph’s ending: “I am not a lavish kind of person but I made lists of what I wanted for my room and compared these to lists of what I already had and to lists of what I couldn’t afford”. The syntactical structure of this last sentence; its haste and lack of pausal emphasis; together with its juxtaposition with the idea of violence, overrides the humanizing quality being stitched into the signification, and which perhaps only slow reading and analysis, that is, literary engagement, would gain purchase on. Another way of saying this would be that the surface structure and formal play has the potential to take precedence over the subtext of “Maps” – which, I would further say, is still dependent on the receptive ontological positioning of the reader.
It is in the final paragraph that the title is activated, beginning with, “I also drew maps”. What is interesting – as with the shift of being of paranoia of the previous paragraph – are the types of maps being constructed:
Me standing in my new room and existing with my coordinates. Me surrounded by the old lady’s things, making eye contact before I extended my index finger and flicked something precious into the graticule of a deep hole with a concrete bottom. Or me standing next to her and us both pulling faces – the lines our faces made working like alidades: pointing into directions that are significant if you look well enough.
Directions “significant if you look well enough” indeed. We may be tempted to assign the highly subjective interiorization of this passage as belonging to a modernist literary practice. And that, according to the representation of consciousness and the free-play of association we find here, would be plausible. But the ‘destabilization’ is in fact ontological.
Firstly, the linguistic representation of the fictional character’s psychosis here, re-instantiates the surface structuration for the formal idea of a thriller – someone having lost touch with reality. But the literary device of a ‘mad monolinguist’ is also the perfect archetypal signifier for the destabilization of paramount reality and an ontological shift, from the ostensibly objective and external world, to a highly subjective one (the notable modernist stylistic is therefore being ontologically referenced).
Which then lays the ground for a secondary destabilization, that of the signification itself, where utterance and expression no longer function within the bounds of an ordinary sonic realization of a speech act. This defamiliarization of language is a complex parole, the literary quality of which, is undeniably modernist. However, the keywords “graticule” and “alidades” are both denotations of spatialization from surveying and astronomy, and as with a map, operate on the figurative plane. The seamless ontological shifting from the situational, “Me standing in my new room and existing with my coordinates” / “Me surrounded by the old lady’s things” to the projected life-world, “making eye contact before I extended my index finger and flicked something precious” / “us both pulling faces” to the figurative metaphors, “into the graticule of a deep hole with a concrete bottom” / “the lines our faces made working like alidades” are shifts between the character’s available modes of being: abstract, lived and significatory. The destabilization is here operative at the level of signification, but also, importantly and throughout The incredible beat of my heart, in shifting ontological registers.
In terms of thriller, this remarkable passage at once expresses the dyadic breakdown between herself and the old lady, but also acts as an erasure of the common-sense practical experience of language, which serves to heighten the character’s status as a “mad” woman. It is followed immediately by the return of the ambiguous relation of content to form – empathetic subtext to idea of thriller – as when we are told: “Sometimes I printed my blood group in the top-left corner of my maps. When I was feeling nostalgic, I added my emergency contact, a number no longer in service, that my father made me memorise 27 years ago”. As with the objects and actions brought into relation to violence in the expression of her paranoia of care, here too the signifier “blood” and this abnormal behaviour, has the potential to detract from the empathetic interpolation being brought into focus: her utter loneliness, hopelessness and “feeling nostalgic” – the fact of having no recourse to help from anyone. Which, if it were the ending of “Maps” would generate an altogether different meaning than the pole we are left to hold to: “Sometimes I get mad and I write vengeful notes in the top-right corner of my maps. Then I shut my eyes and picture the old lady blowing up in slow motion”.
In the ontological nexus of subject-author / text / reader-auditor, I believe Kuit has here made a remarkable literary contribution to the diachronic representation of ‘mental illness,’ with just four paragraphs. I applaud the subtextual destabilization of reader prejudice I discern; the empathetic interposition, and find the character, relatable. I only wish the past tense of the narrative mode was for a fifth paragraph, in which the narrator has received the care, she so desperately needs.
Representational value, by which I mean the relation of aesthetics to culture, has polyphonic range in The incredible beat of my heart. In a tender, melancholic and yet humorous story of the third section, titled, “I carried your oxygen”, a female character addresses, past tense interiorized, the man she’d been stranded alone in space with:
I wanted to touch you. Being inside your suit with you is something I still daydream about. But there was nothing to do but wait for you to attempt to touch me and the empty clank of our helmets that followed. You would laugh at that – as though it were not sad – and I would imagine your penis shrinking again, after the silent clang rang out in space, where things do not, in fact, ring […] Or that you and me were pterodactyls, and we did exactly what we saw in the pterodactyl-porn that night we got very high and ate cake mix from a box – the night before our colony removed itself from orbit.
The destabilization of genre is once more active, though here for the generation of an allegory of a woman’s love and devotion to a man. But I touch on this only to bring to the fore the representational value of the real-world connective tissue of the collection – it’s “political unconscious” as Frederic Jameson terms it, and which in this narrative has its own distinctive focus of being.
The characters in this story, having gotten high the night before their colony departed, have been left behind, opening a distinctly post-colonial subtext, implicit to the allegory, and which shifts the ontology of its science fiction mode. In the play of presence and absence of “I carried your oxygen”, what Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling” is realised, as being-positioning – referencing those not having left with their colony – an experience English-speaking white South Africans with friends and family that have now immigrated, can relate to.
Another example of the principle of representational value in the collection, can be taken from an altogether different focus of being, in a narrative from the fourth section, titled, “Beau”. Here, the empathetic interpolation is active as a woman who, in the presence of a foreign military base in her country, develops “an interest in men in the military”. Before becoming intimate with one of them, the basis of the narrative, the reader is told:
These men are stationed at the edge of my town. A few of them learn to say please, thank you and good morning in the local language. They do not learn how to adjust the volume of their voices to the quiet way people speak here. They are not permitted to drink in public but they do. They chant the name of their country and everyone else stares. They have very good posture and clean haircuts, but they ogle women and make loud remarks about tits and ass.
For South Africans, such as myself, who have taught English in Asian countries, the deplorable behaviour of Western men touring there is a familiar story, but what makes the shift in the focus of being here of particular literary interest, as opposed to contemporary cultural, is the discursive exploration by Kuit of a consciousness native to that experience. Kuit, as her biographical blurb on the back cover makes known, herself taught in China and South Korea for six years, and is therefore able to provide a fictional account – in the mode of an undeniably courageous literary realism – of the experience of Asian women. Empathy, we find, is the core of ontological shifting in The incredible beat of my heart.
“I carried your oxygen” and “Beau” both give a demonstration, along with “Maps,” of Kuit’s incredible empathetic and creative range of being-in-the-world(s). Though near-to-all of the narratives have this vast difference in type and theme – in representational value and shifts of ontological focus – there is nevertheless a recurrent literary topos, or leitmotif, in the collection and which acts as a permeable, though unstable, membrane. Though the leitmotif of ‘hole’ is too numerously and diversely incorporated throughout to sufficiently engage, we can take but one example of its use, from the second paragraph of “Beau,” well-worth quoting in full and following directly from the foreign military men who, “ogle women and make loud remarks about tits and ass”:
There is a cold hole halfway between my tits and my ass that gapes a little larger each time I picture the bombs falling. I think of the bombs and what will happen inside of me when they come. I am not afraid of the bombs as such. I am afraid of how I will feel when I realize that I am done for. In one sharp flash – or a series of flashes perhaps, lord knows I’m no expert – every feeble attempt at connection I made over the years will be retroactively obliterated by the bigness of the bombs. You have not done enough, boom! You barely loved, boom! It is comforting to know that death will come right after that, when I will most need it.
That such an array of modes of being within one fictive collection is possible, is an extraordinary feat, and certainly a postmodern one. The realization of micro-narratives, as opposed to any singularizing meta-narrative, is as Jean-Francois Lyotard gave us, the essence of the postmodern condition. And though we may not realize the wave of our own moment, for being in its fold, the full extent of postmodernism’s realization in our lives, is foregrounded by a collection such as this. But what do we make of the existence of the leitmotif of ‘hole’ that Kuit invites us to attend in her text? Though profuse, it is not – as far as I am able to tell – relationally sustained between the micro-narratives of The incredible beat of my heart. The permeation (by leitmotif) in fact, destabilizes the discrete ontological strata of the collection – its membranes – which is a notable topos of ‘literary’ postmodernism, where world(s) collapse and collide, where boundaries are crossed, and the formation of text-continuums occur. By implementing this loose composite link, Kuit attains to the full representational value, of postmodernism. But perhaps within the horizon of the art of literature and our own shift in being, it is the fully realized connecting principle, a stable permeation of the membranes, within difference, that we most need now. Whatever may be, if this is Henali Kuit at the sprint, I look forward to her marathon.