- Black Heron Press, 240 pp.
A Depersonalized Divine Comedy
Milhouse Moot, the narrator of Kirby Olson’s autobiographical comic-allegorical novel, is severely depersonalized, rendering the story he tells both hilariously funny and signally difficult for Olson to end. Because the depersonalized Milhouse is the source of every characterization, every description, there is hardly a line in the novel, right up until the last few pages, that doesn’t strike us as disturbingly and deliciously strange. But Olson also sets himself the task of curing Milhouse’s depersonalization, offering a novelistic “solution” to the psychological disorder, and doesn’t quite know how to go about that—maybe because Milhouse’s psychological trajectory is a comic refraction of his own? In any case, after loving Temping all the way through, I finished it in a state of considerable discomfort.
Milhouse’s depersonalization means that he feels cut off from all other human beings, and can only take pleasure (namely, malicious laughter, which he theorizes as “humor”) in other people’s ugliness and degradation. He hates everyone and everything, including himself. He temps and doesn’t want a regular job, “because it would mean establishing normal relationships and then dependence sets in and especially being yelled at.” Being yelled at is Milhouse’s deepest fear, and seems to lie at the core of his depersonalization: “I hated everybody, although I often smiled in their face so that they didn’t harass me,” “it would have meant getting to know people, and having them get mad and yell at me,” “I hate people. And if you’re around them long enough they start trying to have a meaningful relationship, which is just a lot of screaming.” The paradigmatic childhood experience that laid the foundation for this assumption was that “My parents rarely ever talked to me, and when they did, they would yell.” And as his shrink reports:
“You said in a session a few weeks ago that your mother tried a new technique on you when you were a baby. She let you cry without feeding you or changing your diapers until you finally shut up. With a background of slumping in a high chair, you have a big deficit to make up. You have to reestablish a relationship to the outer world and see in it a good mother, something that will always bring you plenty, even though your most basic coordinates taught you something else.”
The only real problem with that prescription is the re- in “reestablish.” If Milhouse has never had a relationship with the outer world, if he has always been depersonalized, in what sense is there anything to be reestablished?
In its attempt to offer a kind of idealized theoretical (which is to say, radically depersonalized) solution to or cure for depersonalization, the novel reminds me a lot of Leo Tolstoy’s 1882 book A Confession, which seems to promise a conversion narrative (“I was lost but now I’m found; I used to find myself and the entire world strange but now I’m at home and loved and at peace”) but can offer only more estrangement, in ever renewed forms. In fact early in the novel Milhouse echoes Tolstoy’s late depersonalized disgust with high art (“I’d make all the great artists in history, busy working for capital, busy working for the church, trudge up into the mountains to be eaten by a gang of vicious chipmunks”), and like Tolstoy he finds the only possible solution to his depersonalization in religious love—in Milhouse’s case, the love of a good Christian woman and the love of Jesus Christ as interpreted by Martin Luther.
Also like Tolstoy, Olson keeps feeding Milhouse conversion experiences that do not convert him, moments of clarity and focus and loving connection that do not clarify, do not focus, and do not connect him with other people in love. “It was strange to kiss her,” he says of his first sexual experience, at almost forty, with Liisa, the Finnish Lutheran woman who becomes his wife. “I felt love float into my old tired skeleton, like fresh blood into a corpse.” But the blood drains right out again, and he almost instantaneously reverts to his walking corpsehood. “The shrink was right,” he says a few lines later. “I had just needed to get laid in order to see the meaning of life.” But he doesn’t see the meaning of life—or if he does, it’s a momentary flash that has no transformative effect on his life. He continues depersonalizing himself and others, including Liisa, to the very end of the novel, to the very last words. We still find Liisa accusing him of not being emotionally or physically present to her, and Milhouse promising “I will feel.”
The same thing happens with Milhouse’s religious experiences: “I felt Christ come into my heart. I had never experienced this before. Then the congregation began to sing.” But if the reader thinks that now Milhouse has been utterly transformed, that illusion is soon dispelled: “What’s the world about?” Milhouse is soon asking, very much like the depersonalized Tolstoy in A Confession. “Why was it ever made?” Several more conversion experiences follow, and yet Milhouse keeps telling us that he doesn’t really feel it: “I sensed that a belief in God was like a deep feeling, and only experienced in a congregation, perhaps. For me, the love of God was almost pure theory, as was my love for the world. In order to make my life into a poem, I knew I would have to try harder. I felt as if I was about to burst into tears.” He doesn’t feel God; he doesn’t feel that God is a deep feeling; he senses that other people experience God like this, and knows that he’s different, and thinks that the only way to become like others is to “try harder.” The tears he is about to burst into are presumably tears of frustration and despair.
“I hadn’t realized until then that I wasn’t the only one with feelings,” he says, but then he keeps acting as if he were, indeed the only real human being on earth, and everybody else were a grotesque automaton; and he keeps telling us that “The peace in my heart never came.” On close to the last page, he gives us his philosophy of life, which reiterates his depersonalized sense of other people while positing a transcendental divinity that theoretically might make it possible to rise above other people:
“Life is a horrible, demented circus in which we look at others as if they are horrible mistakes, only in order to laugh. It is only with pain that we can learn to really laugh. There is however something higher than laughter that takes place when we look up into the stars or into our lover’s face. That is, beyond the natural comedy, by looking up in quiet and wonder, and allowing the beauty of Christ to walk within us. We cannot do this alone, but most do it in a community, overlooked not by psychiatrists, who are all insane, but by pastors and priests and rabbis.”
But of course this remains “almost pure theory” because the “community” of believers he keeps imagining are other people, who are inescapably those “horrible mistakes” in the “horrible, demented circus” that for him is the human race.
Touting this as a “happy ending,” as the dust jacket copy does, makes me very uneasy. Does Olson really think it is, or is this his publisher’s idea? Technically, the plot is a kind of attenuated comedy—hinging not on whether Milhouse can get the girl (she is perfectly and effortlessly available to him) but whether he can keep her, whether he can learn to stop depersonalizing her, stop distancing her, stop trying to sabotage their relationship—and in that he is ultimately successful, sort of. This makes the ending structurally happy. But psychologically, phenomenologically, it’s difficult to believe that Milhouse has attained the kind of loving connection with the world that would end his depersonalization and thus constitute a true happy ending. Olson is honest enough not to try to force his ending into a fake happiness; but he clearly wants the ending to be happy, and tries to construct the rhetoric of the ending as if Milhouse’s biggest problems were now somehow behind him.
If the novel is plotted like a comedy, it’s actually a mock-divine comedy, a kind of Dantesque allegory of depersonalization, with three stages apparently intended to lead Olson’s unfeeling Dante to salvation: temping as hell (depersonalization as a series of mindless impersonal jobs, but also the ghastly temporariness of all human life and human connection, the basis for the novel’s title), academia as purgatory (depersonalization as speeding students up and slowing them down, like robots), and the circus as paradise (depersonalization as dramatically stylized suffering in order to make people laugh and turn a profit).
The Divine Comedy parallel doesn’t quite work, in fact, since at the end of the Paradiso circus section Olson’s Dante finds himself not awaking from his theological dream but returning to academic purgatory. But it is a useful template nonetheless. Olson’s Beatrice is Liisa, the most beautiful woman in the world, representing not only the author’s Finnish wife Riikka but all beauty in the world, that which Milhouse is trying to come to terms with, trying not to despise or destroy. His Virgil is Marcel Nations, the evil “midget” ex-clown he meets in Finland (given his bow legs, enormous penis, and foul humors, Marcel is actually not a midget but an achondroplasic dwarf), representing all ugliness and ruthless exploitation in the world, but also all creative brilliance, the creativity of depersonalization, the brilliantly skewed understanding of the world that depersonalized estrangement from normal socioemotionally connected perception engenders—what Milhouse calls his “inner midget.”
Each of these allegorical domains has its own structural role in the novel, its own style or flavor, its own form of social satire, invariably a depersonalized despairing satire that is hilariously if disturbingly funny. The temping section that begins the novel is severely depressed, but so sharply funny that I laughed out loud several times on every page. When Milhouse starts suspecting that there might be something wrong with him, he goes to a shrink, who becomes what narratologists call the “implied reader,” the novel’s stand-in for the “normal” (non-depersonalized) reader; she castigates Milhouse for his imbecility, threatens him with a hot poker, laughs at his misery, and falls asleep when his rants become boring. She recommends that he go to grad school and become a professor, because academia is the perfect environment for the depersonalized; and in fact Milhouse thrives there, and ends up there, because it’s so easy to interact with students and professors (and later colleagues) as with badly functioning automata.
Given Milhouse’s perfect depersonalized fit with academia, in fact, it feels a bit as if Olson were phoning it in when, later, supposedly converted to loving Christianity (but actually still depersonalized), Milhouse rather piously and hypocritically attacks “the academic mind, and the terrible need to give up real feelings in exchange for cheap fun.” As his shrink keeps telling him, he has never had real feelings, and he has just spent several years in Finland exploiting depersonalized cheap fun for profit in the circus; by this late stage in the novel, the piety of his attack on academia rings very hollow. I have this sneaking suspicion, in fact, that the hypocrisy of this attack is not so much a characterization of Milhouse as it is an unrecognized expression of Olson’s own depersonalized disgust with academia.
Upon his arrival back from Finland at the end of the novel Milhouse (or Olson?) also imagines a Christian Right solution to depersonalization, teaching God-centered “family studies” in a world of left-wing “women’s studies,” and asks: “Could I frame an entire academic career on the return to family and the notion of an upstairs? If so, where would I find a school that would support this?” Here my eyes go wide with amazement: are these questions just ignorant, or are they politically tendentious? Does Milhouse (or Olson) really not know about Bob Jones University, or Liberty University, or Oral Roberts University, or, since he’s a Lutheran, Valparaiso University, or Pacific Lutheran University (right in the backyard of the secular University of Washington, where Milhouse takes his Ph.D. and ends up after Finland), or, since he’s married to a Finnish Lutheran, Suomi College? Or is this just a right-wing jeremiad about how American academia is entirely dominated by the left? (The uncomfortably pious ending also makes me wonder to what extent the harshly militant “religiosity” of the Christian Right arises out of widespread depersonalization—the inability to feel a God that they think ideologically they have to believe in.)
The temping allegory gives the novel its title, and the academic allegory in a way frames the whole book—it’s a kind of freakishly depersonalized campus novel—but it’s the circus allegory, I think, that is Olson’s definitive literary conceit. For example, Olson spent three years teaching in the English department at the University of Tampere, by freakish coincidence a department I spent four years teaching in a decade or so before; in the novel, that academic setting is transformed into a clown school, and Milhouse’s greatest academic rival is the “midget” ex-clown Marcel. “Life is a circus maximus,” Milhouse tells us, “and everybody has to play their part, feeding themselves as entertainment to the mob.” “Whenever I met anybody, or saw anybody,” he says later, while managing a circus, “I now looked at him as within the frame of my circus. How could I exhibit people and make money from them, and keep my circus going? Life was a circus.”
Almost everybody in the novel, in fact, is more or less randomly referred to as a clown, including Milhouse himself, repeatedly (though he turns out to be a lousy clown, and Liisa loves him all the more for that), major writers and thinkers (“the great psychiatric clown Jacques Derrida,” “all the minor clowns, like Alfred Jarry and Ronald Firbank, but you should go back to the giants, like Proust”), workers (“Now everybody was a clown, but no real work was being done”), the unemployed (“Armies of snow removal machines with unemployed clowns began the task of scraping snow off the street surfaces”), and on and on. This is the part of the novel that works least well for me, possibly because Olson hasn’t really thought through what it is about clowns that make them good allegorical symbols for people. In fact Milhouse tells us that “I didn’t fully understand the role of the clown, his necessary insufficiency, which makes him so enjoyable. It’s something nobody wants to be in life, but which everybody wants to be in the movies.” Are people clowns because they act clownishly? Because they put on smiley faces to hide their sadness? Because all we can see of other people are their smiley faces? Because depersonalization cuts (some of) us off from the true underlying sadness of clowns? Inundated with apparently random and fairly superficial equations of individual humans with clowns, the reader is left guessing.
But as with Tolstoy’s fiction at its best, none of this really matters, because Olson’s depersonalized prose style is a sheer delight, from the first page to a few pages from the end. The back-cover blurbs that describe the novel as laugh-out-loud funny are absolutely true. Like Tolstoy, Olson is so estranged from ordinary perception that the absurd, the strange, the grotesque, the sick hilarity of human life all come extraordinarily easily to him. Not that he writes like Tolstoy, except that both are estranging realists: Olson doesn’t bother to give us a lot of psychological depth in anyone but his narrator (the other characters, after all, are “horrible mistakes” to Milhouse); in fact, the book reads a bit like a comic book described at great length by a precocious but weirdly fucked-up thirteen-year-old. But there is something the two writers have in common, some boredom with the conventional, some edgy need for the detail that pushes a description over into the unexpected, and the reader into an explosion of clownish laughter.