Translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans
(Los Angeles, CA: Doppelhouse Press, 2017)
Is life a creation? Is the created life authentic? Or, like the work of art, does it two-step with commodification, a dance in which power over the creation is constantly changing hands?
These are some of the many questions posed by The Consequences, the highly lauded debut novel from Dutch writer Niña Weijers, newly released in a meticulous translation by Hester Velmans, courtesy of DoppelHouse Press. Given the weightiness of these themes, it seems difficult to imagine how such a novel could have become a bestseller in the Netherlands. But this philosophical heft is tempered with a raw, edgy tone, turning the characters’ obsessively analytical self-reflections into a kind of urban setting (here I picture the narrow canals of Amsterdam, the book’s setting), in which epiphanic plot twists lurk around every corner. Indeed, The Consequences is reminiscent of Milan Kundera. Yet where Kundera employs himself as the didactic narrator, using his characters as examples to illustrate a thesis, Weijers puts existential insights directly into the minds of her characters. The result is a much less controlled narrative, one which leaps from thought to thought without ever venturing an answer, and whose characters emerge as unsettling, flawed, neurotic, self-aware (sometimes uncannily self-aware) – in short, disarmingly real.
The plot, on its face, concerns a young and rather successful performance artist, Minnie Panis, who discovers that her ex-boyfriend, a photographer, has published lurid nude photos of her asleep. Instead of taking legal recourse against this violation, which the shockingly forthright and precise prose seems to suggest involved rape, Minnie decides to turn this event into a piece of performance art, hiring the photographer to shadow her, so that her daily life becomes a panopticon, an existence aware of itself as a performance. But she is not prepared for the contracted period of this experiment to coincide with some stunning revelations about her past, revelations that emerge in fits and starts as the plot sweeps back and forth in time, like a searchlight exposing the dark corners of Minnie’s existence.
Minnie’s motives in pursuing this “project,” as she calls it, are never made clear, perhaps for the simple reason that Minnie herself does not seem to know why she is doing it. The book’s overarching tone, at least in the passages where Minnie is reflecting on her rise in the art world, is one of cynicism. She both despises and indulges in the overly analytical artist’s statements that attempt to prize meaning and symbolism from the mundane. As she navigates the business side of her art – the meetings with her caricatured agent, the pretentious gallery openings, the grind of interviews and exhibition reviews – a sense of irony seems to be lurking just beneath the ambivalently earnest surface, so that, while one reaches the rather patent interpretation that this is a book about existence as performance, one also can’t discount the suspicion that the book itself may also be a performance:
She ordered a cup of coffee.
Saying the words – a cup of coffee please – suddenly filled her with excitement. There was nothing more banal you could do, and that was what made it so thrilling: she was someone ordering a cup of coffee, and at the same time she was someone who was only acting as if. She couldn’t wait for the coffee to arrive, the way the little spoon would clink against the saucer, the cellophane-wrapped ginger cookie next to it, the way she would sip it. From now on everything was part of the project. The possibilities were endless.
For form’s sake (woman reading in café), she took a book out of her bag.
Thus, it is as if the novel does not know whether to trust itself, just as Minnie, a performance artist who commodifies her own daily routine, cannot decide whether she actually wants the coffee or only does so “for form’s sake.” But is this not how all of us “make” a life, taking influences from the surrounding world and incorporating it into a rather artificially constructed sense of self? Where is the line between the trees, mountains, clouds, and those the artist paints onto her canvas, between the painted canvas and its reproduction slapped on mugs and posters and scarves in the museum gift shop? What a jaded thought, that beauty itself is suspect, and yet that’s what the book throws into relief, in prose that careens between lyricism and coarseness, profundity and slang, constantly doubling back on itself, so that the reader, like Minnie, ends up neurotically examining every detail, suspecting every insight:
Once outside, she was bowled over by the milky light tinting everything white. Even the air she inhaled was white, a cloud of cold and light in her lungs. The world shimmered, it looked like a goddamn stage set, a glossy winter-in-the-city travel brochure.
Velmans’ translation proves lithe, sinuous, negotiating these shifts in tone with ease, so that Minnie emerges as a paradoxically sentimental and hyper-rational character. It is a trait her mother shares, despite the narration’s outward insistence that the two are polar opposites. She is, therefore, not so much an unreliable narrator, but the artist of a life who, like any artist, loses control over the message once the work is out in the world.
And so, if we create our lives, write the script and paint the scenery for a performance we, too, can watch, do we not also orchestrate the ending of that show? This is the novel’s most provocative question, and one I wish it had given more weight to. The book’s final chapters, though absorbing, felt like an attempt to tie up loose ends, all in an effort to leave the reader with the kind of open-ended plot twist that Minnie herself might have criticized as overly contrived. Though perhaps that was the point. This is a novel with no easy answers, and that is what makes it all the more beguiling.
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Amanda Sarasien is a writer and literary translator whose stories and translations have appeared inThe MacGuffin, MAYDAY Magazineand FLAPPERHOUSE, among other publications. She also reviews at the sites Reading in Translation and The Mookse and the Gripes.