January 24, 2020KR Reviews

“A Feverish Dream”: On João Gilberto Noll’s Lord

Translated by Edgar Garbelotto. San Francisco, CA: Two Lines Press, 2019. 164 pages. $12.95.

Have you ever had that dream where you arrive at an auditorium and someone you don’t know says, There you are! You’re on! and pushes you onto a stage where you only stand there, unable to remember your lines? Through your panic you start to wonder: Where am I? What is this place? What am I supposed to be doing here?

If you have, then you already know exactly how it feels to read Lord by João Gilberto Noll (translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Edgar Garbelotto). The book begins with an unnamed novelist from Brazil arriving in London after accepting employment by a mysterious benefactor known only as the Englishman. The narrator isn’t entirely sure what his new job will be, but he welcomes the opportunity for a lifestyle change.

It turns out, though, that upon arrival, he experiences more change than perhaps he’s bargained for. The book is largely preoccupied with questions of identity and memory, with the narrator continuously forgetting or misremembering who he is. As the book goes on, the narrator feels as if he is being “born again” on numerous occasions, transforming and re-transforming into different individuals. He explains in the beginning of the book:

I needed to reinvent myself; I needed to allow the other to be born inside me, inside this very person I used to call ‘I,’ but who seemed to dissolve lately . . . I needed to continue my transformation . . . to become the other and then another and then another . . . To be only one person was not enough for me now.

These “transformations” begin almost immediately upon arrival. As time goes on, the narrator can recall less and less of the details of his life in Brazil until it’s hard for him to remember anything from before he arrived in London. “All I had lived until then seemed to be slipping away,” he notes, comparing himself to an amnesiac. “Only what I was experiencing in that moment seemed to exist, the house I had to inhabit, the new language.” This change is the first of many moments he feels as if he has become someone new.

Such an opening means right away the book begins with surreal, dream-like disorientation—and it never allows you to gain your feet, just as the narrator never seems to gain his. Shortly after forgetting his former life, and perhaps as a result of such a memory loss, the narrator grows obsessed with mirrors, constantly looking for reflections of himself in the city, “because,” as he says, “I needed evidence that I’m still the same, that another has not taken my place.” When he does finally see his reflection, he is disappointed, and sets out to change his appearance by purchasing makeup and dyeing his hair, causing him to feel like yet another new person once again.

All of this happens in the span of a few pages. These are tense, frightful moments, driven largely by the panic that results from not being able to grasp who he is, but the novel does not pause long enough to linger in this discomfort—the book is short, less than two hundred pages, but contains no chapter or section breaks for the reader or the narrator to catch their breath. Scenes change quickly, and there are several hours- or days-long time jumps, often in a single paragraph.

This fast-paced structure feels intentional, however, or at least matches the urgent tone of the book. As the narrator’s mind is unraveling, he spends a lot of time wandering the city without motivation or destination. In matching this purposelessness, the story swirls and loops in increasingly unpredictable and nonsensical patterns, following the narrator on his delirious wanderings along the Thames, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, the British Museum, the National Gallery. He grows increasingly unmoored to his body and reality, at times describing himself as “crazy,” “a ghost,” an individual “mechanically created for other people,” someone in “a feverish dream,” and “nobody.” As far as plot is concerned, there isn’t much of one, and what scenes are included are muffled and distorted through the narrator’s memory. This is a book driven more by philosophical and thematic questions than it is by narrative impulse.

Nonetheless, Lord is engaging, if not always intuitive or understandable. There are multiple scenes to make you gasp. A young man is stabbed in the neck and bleeds to death. The narrator is invited to a meal at a stranger’s house, where the host invites the novelist to take a bath with him. The narrator doesn’t sleep for days, or he sleeps too much. If it seems I am moving quickly through these events, it is because the book itself moves quickly. Before you can make sense of one experience, there is another, equally perplexing, event already happening. He comes home to find the Englishman with a strange woman in his house. He witnesses a suicide. He’s in and out of the hospital. There are a lot of urgent and unusual sexual encounters, most—but not all—of which are imagined.

Speaking of imagined, it’s hard in this book to determine what’s real or not—how much of this is a kind of fugue state or fever dream and how much happens just as he says it does? While he’s in the hospital the first time, he explains that he “died during the time [he] was sedated,” and when he leaves his hospital room later he says, “I knew I was not a tenant of my own body any longer, a piece of me had stayed behind, lying in that hospital bed.” These, and similar, statements might suggest most of this book is imagined, that the narrator only dreams these things while hospitalized with an unexplained illness. However, I believe readers are meant to interpret these events literally—not as delusions from a lunatic’s ramblings but as a representation of how surreal the world feels when one is disassociating.

The culmination of the narrator’s slow disintegration of self happens near the end of the book, when he leaves London for Liverpool and decides (again) to start over. Though this part is the most surreal moment in the novel, it also feels like the slowest, the easiest to settle into and understand. In the most tangible, concrete scenes of the book, the narrator meets a man in a bar and takes him to his hotel room to have sex, and when he wakes the next morning, the man is nowhere in sight; he’s alone. Until he looks in the mirror and sees the same tattoo on his arm that the other man had—in fact, it’s the exact same arm: “I was not who I thought I was,” he says. “George had not escaped, he was here. There it was, only one man in the mirror: him.” He realizes in a Jekyll-and-Hyde-style twist that he and George have merged—and feels more powerful and sturdy than he has in months. His gestures “widen” and he “grows,” relishing in this union. “I would absorb the matrix of the other’s soul,” he says, “with one intent: to store the essence of more life inside the chambers of my brain.”

Though I’m deeply attracted to the surrealism in this ending, I couldn’t help but feel this finale might be more satisfying had these same themes not already played out so exhaustively and metaphorically throughout the book. One does not get the sense in this last moment that the narrator has finally found an identity that will stick—rather, it seems to be but the latest in a long line of transformations, just a stop on his journey to become “the other and then another and then another,” a sentiment which he already shared with the reader within the first fifty pages.

While such repetition indicates the novel’s careful planning and the consistency and potency of its themes, I can’t help but wonder if it also causes the novel’s ideas to feel too belabored. I bookmarked more pages than I didn’t, a testament to how philosophical and reflective this book is—nearly every line feels like it could be a thesis statement on identity, personhood, aging, anxiety, memory—but many of the sentences are saying the same thing. Nonetheless these themes are powerful, and the novel, though perhaps at the sacrifice of other story elements, is certainly adept at unpacking what lies at the heart of who we are.

The result is novel reminiscent of Lynchian and Kafkaesque traditions, physically trim but intellectually overflowing; though perhaps best enjoyed with a healthy appetite for confusion, Lord is delicious: provocative and evocative and unforgettable.