In A Perfect Vacuum, Stanislaw Lem steps outside of his fictional comfort zone to try his hand at reviewing the literature of others. The only catch is this: None of these books have actually been published—or even written—he just made them up.
These sixteen satirical and brilliantly insidious commentaries on non-existent books cover the gamut of unconventional writing techniques: from a Joycean review that doggedly dissects every word to a critique that is written entirely in negatives to an analysis presented in fragments for the reader to assemble as he or she likes. Along the way, Lem presents his trademark examinations on topics ranging from modern art to computer technology to philosophy.
At once a disarming delight and a clever mental exercise, A Perfect Vacuum lends credence to the assertion that Lem is “Harpo Marx and Franz Kafka and Isaac Asimov rolled up into one and down the white rabbit’s hole” (Detroit News).
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A Perfect Vacuum
Reviewing nonexistent books is not Lem's invention; we find such experiments not only in a contemporary writer, Jorge Luis Borges (for example, his "Investigations of the Writings of Herbert Quaine"), but the idea goes further back — and even Rabelais was not the first to make use of it. A Perfect Vacuum is unusual in that it purports to be an anthology made up entirely of such critiques. Pedantry or a joke, this methodicalness? We suspect the author intends a joke; nor is this impression weakened by the Introduction — long-winded and theoretical — in which we read: "The writing of a novel is a form of the loss of creative liberty. ... In turn, the reviewing of books is a servitude still less noble. Of the writer one can at least say that he has enslaved himself — by the theme selected. The critic is in a worse position: as the convict is chained to his wheelbarrow, so the reviewer is chained to the work reviewed. The writer loses his freedom in his own book, the critic in another's."
The overstatement of these simplifications is too patent to be taken seriously. In the next section of the Introduction ("Auto-Momus") we read: "Literature to date has told us of fictitious characters. We shall go further: we shall depict fictitious books. Here is a chance to regain creative liberty, and at the same time to wed two opposing spirits — that of the belletrist and that of the critic."
"Auto-Momus" — Lem explains — is to be free creation "squared," because the critic of the text, if placed within that very text, will have more possibilities for maneuvering than the narrator of traditional or nontraditional literature. One might go along with this, for in fact literature nowadays fights for greater distance from the thing created, like a runner on his second wind. The trouble is, Lem's erudite Introduction doesn't seem to want to end. In it he discourses on the positive aspects of nothingness, on ideal objects in mathematics, and on new metalevels of language. It is all a bit drawn out, as if in jest. What is more, with this overture Lem is leading the reader (and perhaps himself as well?) afield. For there are pseudoreviews in A Perfect Vacuum that are not merely a collection of anecdotes. I would divide the reviews, in opposition to the author, into the following three groups:
(1) Parodies, pastiches, gibes: here belong "The Robinsonad," "Nothing, or the Consequence" (both texts, in different ways, poke fun at the nouveau roman), and perhaps also "You" and "Gigamesh." It's true that "You" is a somewhat chancy entry, because to invent a bad book, which one can then lambaste because it is bad, is rather cheap. The most original formally is "Nothing, or the Consequence," since no one could possibly have written that novel, and therefore the device of the pseudo-review permits an acrobatic trick: a critique of a book that not only does not exist but also cannot. "Gigamesh" was the least to my taste. The idea is to give the show away; yet is it really right to dispose of a masterpiece with those kinds of jokes? Perhaps, if one does not pen them oneself.
(2) Drafts and outlines (for they actually are, in their own way, outlines): "Gruppenführer Louis XVI," for instance, or "The Idiot," and "A Question of the Rate." Each of these could — who knows — become the embryo of a decent novel. Even so, one ought to write the novels first. A synopsis, critical or otherwise, only amounts to an hors d'oeuvre that whets our appetite for a course not found in the kitchen. Why not found? Criticism ad hominem is not "cricket," but this once I will indulge in it. The author had ideas that he was unable to realize in full form; he could not write, but regretted not writing — and there you have the whole genesis of this aspect of A Perfect Vacuum. Lem, sufficiently clever to foresee precisely such a charge, decided to protect himself — with an introduction. That is why in "Auto-Momus" he speaks of the poverty of the craft of prose, of how one must, as an artisan at his workbench, whittle descriptions to say that the Marquise left the house at five. But good craft is not impoverishment. Lem took fright at the difficulties presented by each of these three titles, which I have mentioned only by way of example. He preferred not to risk it, preferred to duck the issue, to take the coward's way out. In stating, "Every book is a grave of countless others, it deprives them of life by supplanting them," he gives us to understand that he has more ideas than biological time (Ars longa, vita brevis). However, there are not all that many significant, highly promising ideas in A Perfect Vacuum. There are displays of agility, to which I alluded, but there we are speaking of jokes. Yet I suspect a matter of more importance — namely, a longing that cannot be satisfied.
The last group of works in the volume convinces me that I am not mistaken: "De Impossibilitate Vitae," "Civilization as Error" and — most of all! — "The New Cosmogony."
"Civilization as Error" stands on their head the views which Lem has more than once expounded in his books both belletristic and discursive. The technology explosion, there condemned as the destroyer of culture, here is put in the role of the savior of humanity. And for a second time Lem plays apostate in "De Impossibilitate Vitae." Let us not be misled by the amusing absurdity of the long causal chains of the family chronicle. The purpose lies not in these comic anecdotes; what is taking place is an attack on Lem's Holy of Holies — on the theory of probability, i.e., of chance, i.e., of that category on which he built and developed so many of his voluminous conceptions. The attack is carried out in a clownish setting, and this is meant to blunt its edge. Was it, then, if only for a moment, conceived not as satire?
Doubts like these are dispelled by "The New Cosmogony," the true pièce de résistance of the book, hidden in its pages like a Trojan horse. If not a joke, not a fictional review, then what precisely is it? A bit heavy for a joke, loaded down as it is with such massive scientific argumentation — we know that Lem has devoured encyclopedias; shake him and out come logarithms and formulas. "The New Cosmogony" is the fictional oration of a Nobel Prize laureate that presents a revolutionary new model of the Universe. If I did not know any other book of Lem's I might conclude that the thing was meant to be a gag for the benefit of some thirty initiates — that is, physicists and other relativists — in the entire world. That, however, seems unlikely. What then? I suspect, again, that there was an idea, an idea that burst upon the author — and from which he shrank. Of course he will never admit to this, and neither I nor anyone else will be able to prove to him that he has taken seriously the model of the Universe as a game. He can always plead the facetiousness of the context, and point to the very title of the book (A Perfect Vacuum — that is to say, a book "about nothing"). And besides, the best refuge and excuse is licentia poetica.
All the same, I believe that behind these texts there hides a certain gravity. The Universe as a game? An Intentional Physics? Being a worshiper of science, having prostrated himself before its sacred methodology, Lem could not well assume the role of its foremost heresiarch and dissenter. Therefore, he could not place this thought within any discursive exposition. On the other hand, to make the idea of a "game of Universe" the pivot of a story plot would have meant writing yet another work, the umpteenth, of "normal science fiction."
What then remained? For a sound mind, nothing but to keep silent. Books that the writer does not write, that he will certainly never undertake, come what may, and that can be attributed to fictitious authors — are not such books, by virtue of their nonexistence, remarkably like silence? Could one place oneself at any safer distance from heterodox thoughts? To speak of these books, of these treatises, as belonging to others, is practically the same as to speak — without speaking. Particularly when this takes place within the scenario of a joke.
And so, from long years of secret hungering for the nourishment of realism, from notions too bold with regard to one's own views for them to be voiced outright, from all that one dreams of and dreams in vain, arose A Perfect Vacuum. The theoretical Introduction, which ostensibly makes the case for a "new genre of literature," is a maneuver to divert attention, the deliberately exhibitory gesture of the prestidigitator who wishes to draw our eyes from what he is actually doing. We are to believe that feats of dexterity are being performed, when it is otherwise. It is not the trick of the "pseudo-review" that gave birth to these works; rather, they, demanding — in vain — to be expressed, used this trick as an excuse and a pretext. In the absence of the trick all would have remained in the realm of the unsaid. For we have here the betrayal of fantasy to the cause of well-grounded realism, and defection in empiricism, and heresy in science. Did Lem really think he would not be seen through in his machination? It is simplicity itself: to shout out, with laughter, what one would dare not whisper in earnest. Contrary to what the Introduction says, the critic does not have to be chained to the book "as the convict is ... to his wheelbarrow": the critic's freedom does not lie in raising up or tearing down the book, but lies in this, that through the book, as through a microscope, he may observe the author; and in that case A Perfect Vacuum turns out to be a tale of what is desired but is not to be had. It is a book of ungranted wishes. And the only subterfuge the evasive Lem might still avail himself of would be a counterattack: in the assertion that it was not I, the critic, but he himself, the author, who wrote the present review and added it to — and made it part of — A Perfect Vacuum.
(Editions du Seuil, Paris)
After Defoe's Robinson came, watered down for the kiddies, the Swiss Robinson and a whole slew of further infantilized versions of the life on the desert island; then a few years ago the Paris Olympia published, in step with the times, The Sex Life of Robinson Crusoe, a trivial thing whose author there is no point even in naming, because he hid under one of those pseudonyms that are the property of the publisher himself, who hires toilers of the pen for well-known ends. But for The Robinsonad of Marcel Coscat it has been worth waiting. This is the social life of Robinson Crusoe, his social-welfare work, his arduous, hard, and overcrowded existence, for what is dealt with here is the sociology of isolation — the mass culture of an unpopulated island that, by the end of the novel, is packed solid.
Monsieur Coscat has not written, as the reader will quickly observe, a work of a plagiaristic or commercial nature. He goes into neither the sensational nor the pornographic aspect of the desert island; he does not direct the lust of the castaway to the palm trees with their hairy coconuts, to the fish, the goats, the axes, the mushrooms, and the pork salvaged from the shattered ship. In this book, to spite Olympia, Robinson is no longer the male in rut who, like a phallic unicorn trampling the shrubbery, the groves of sugar cane and bamboo, violates the sands of the beach, the mountaintops, the waters of the bay, the screeches of the seagulls, the lofty shadows of the albatross, or the sharks washed ashore in a storm. He who craves such material will not find in this book food for the inflamed imagination. The Robinson of Marcel Coscat is a logician in the pure state, an extreme conventionalist, a philosopher who took the conclusions of his doctrine as far as possible; and the shipwreck — of the three-master Patricia — was for him only the opening of the gates, the severing of the ties, the preparation of the laboratory for the experiment, for it enabled him to reach into his own being uncontaminated by the presence of Others.
Sergius N., sizing up his situation, does not meekly resign himself but determines to become a true Robinson, beginning with the voluntary assumption of that very name, which is rational, inasmuch as from his past, his existence till now, he will no longer be able to derive any advantage.
The castaway's life, in its sum total of hardship and vicissitude, is unpleasant enough already and needs no further ministration by the futile exertions of a memory nostalgic for what is lost. The world, exactly as it is found, must be put to rights, and in a civilized fashion; and so the former Sergius N. resolves to form both the island and himself — from zero. The New Robinson of Monsieur Coscat has no illusions; he knows that Defoe's hero was a fiction whose real-life model — the sailor Selkirk — turned out to be, when found accidentally years later by some brig, a creature grown so completely brutish as to be bereft of speech. Defoe's Robinson saved himself not thanks to Friday — Friday appeared too late — but because he scrupulously counted on the company — stern, perhaps, but the best possible for a Puritan — of the Lord God Himself. It was this Companion who imposed upon him the severe pedanticism of behavior, the obstinate industry, the examination of conscience, and especially that fastidious modesty which so exasperated the author of the Paris Olympia that the latter attacked it head on with the lowered horns of obscenity.
Sergius N., or the New Robinson, feeling within himself some measure of creative power, knows ahead of time that there is one thing he will definitely never produce: the Supreme Being is sure to be beyond him. He is a rationalist, and it is as a rationalist that he sets about his task. He wishes to consider everything, and therefore begins with the question of whether the most sensible thing might not be to do nothing at all. This, of a certainty, will lead to madness, but who knows if madness may not be an altogether convenient condition? Tush, if one could but select the type of insanity, like matching a tie to a shirt; hypomanic euphoria, with its constant joy, Robinson would be perfectly willing to develop in himself; but how can he be sure it will not drift into a depression that ends with suicide attempts? This thought repels him, particularly out of esthetic considerations, and besides, passivity does not lie in his nature. For either hanging himself or drowning he will always have time, and therefore he postpones such a variant ad acta.
The world of dream — he says to himself, in one of the first pages of the novel — is the Nowhere that can be absolutely perfect; it is a utopia, though weakened in clarity, being but feebly fleshed out, submerged in the nocturnal workings of the mind, the mind which does not at that time (at night) measure up to the requirements of reality. "In my sleep," declares Robinson, "I am visited by various persons, and they put questions to me, to which I know not the answer till it falls from their lips. Is this to signify that these persons are fragments untying themselves from my being, that they are, as it were, its umbilical continuation? To speak thus is to fall into great error. Just as I do not know whether those grubs, already appetizing to me, those juicy little white worms, are to be found beneath this flat stone, here, which I begin gingerly to pry at with the big toe of my bare foot, so, too, I do not know what is hidden in the minds of the persons who come to me in my sleep. Thus in relation to my I these persons are as external as the grubs. The idea is not at all to erase the distinction between dream and reality — that is the way to madness! — but to create a new, a better order. What in a dream succeeds only now and then, with mixed results, in muddled fashion, waveringly and by chance, must be straightened, tightened, fitted together, and made secure; a dream, when moored in reality, when brought out into the light of reality as a method, and serving reality, and peopling reality, packing it with the very finest goods, ceases to be a dream, and reality, under the influence of such curative treatment, becomes both as clear as before and shaped as never before. Since I am alone, I need take no one into account; however, since at the same time the knowledge that I am alone is poison to me, I will therefore not be alone. The Lord God I cannot manage, it is true, but that does not mean I cannot manage Anyone!"
Excerpted from "A Perfect Vacuum"
Copyright © 1971 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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