In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, thanks to a combination of cheap rent, easily available visas, the euro, infrastructure investment, budget air travel, lax drug enforcement, liberal sexual mores, a DIY political and artistic culture, a neoliberal-curious Red-Red ruling coalition, and a storied history, Berlin became a major post-industrial hub for tourists and expatriates, with all the splendours and miseries that entails for the people already living there. Although known abroad primarily for its electronic music and visual-arts scenes, the city also became a popular destination for Gen X and Millennial Anglophone writers, which is why it has begun to appear as a setting for their books, including, most recently, Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill (2020) and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (2021).
Because it is Berlin, the ghosts of the twentieth century – of Weimar, the Third Reich, and the Cold War – are always present. Of these periods, the cloak-and-dagger city of spies seems to have cast the longest shadow on the Anglophone literary imagination, as both subject matter and ambient mood. Recent events – CIA spooks at the US embassy tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, Laura Poitras editing Citizenfour from an apartment in Mitte, Russian secret agents assassinating a Chechen rebel in the middle of Tiergarten, Alexei Navalny’s periodic visits to Charité hospital – have done little to diminish its reputation for international intrigue.
This is the Janus-faced city to which Englishman Robert Prowe, his Swedish wife Karijn, and their two daughters relocate in London-based short-story writer and literary critic Chris Power’s debut novel, A Lonely Man. Selling their house in ‘polluted’ London at the height of the market has enabled them to quit their respective jobs in advertising and HR in order to pursue their respective passions as a writer and an upholsterer full-time in the ‘cheaper, greener and less crowded’ German capital. They pay 600 euros a month for their rent-controlled apartment in bourgeois, international Prenzlauer Berg, send their children to state-subsidized day-care, maintain a small circle of friends drawn from Robert’s salad days spent clubbing at Tresor and Berghain and seeing World Cup matches, and summer at Karijn’s family dacha in rural Sweden.
Unfortunately Robert – the author of a well-received if modest-selling collection of short stories – has developed a bad case of writer’s block, which has kept his agent waiting to see the first draft of his novel for the better part of two years. He has had to lean on Karijn, and supplement his income by writing reviews and teaching for an English-language creative writing workshop. But Karijn has grown tired of his self-pity, which has begun to affect their relationship, as well as his relationship with his daughters, with whom he is often impatient and irritable, in part because he blames them for taking time away from his writing.
The stories in Robert’s collection ‘had come from episodes in his own life and anecdotes told to him by friends, family, and strangers he met while travelling. People he had been stranded with; got drunk or got high with. Back then he was always running into people who had stories to tell him’. But thanks to his domestic situation in Berlin, the stories have dwindled, except for one told to him by an Australian woman about her relationship with a man in Vietnam who turned out to be a secret service agent, which probably indicates the tenor of those in the collection. The reason for Robert’s writer’s block turns out to be quite simple. He believes that the value of a story can be measured by the drama of its plot; he believes his own life as an upper-middle-class expat father lacks drama; and he lacks both the imagination to invent a story he has not lived and (if the prose of A Lonely Man is any indication) the stylistic chops to compellingly render the one he has. He fancies himself a devotee of Roberto Bolaño, but this is how our book reviewer and creative-writing teacher describes his idol’s work: ‘It’s definitely not conventional, but that’s one of the things I love about him. He wanted to break the forms, you know?…He took what he read, and things he did, and other things he made up, and…mashed them together’.
Imagine his luck, then, when Robert reaches for the same book – Bolaño’s Antwerp – as a drunk Patrick Unsworth before a reading at the local English-language bookstore. This contrivance, which opens the novel, is the first in the series out of which its plot is constructed. Afterwards, Robert and Karijn run into Patrick again and break up a fight he has got into at a bar in upscale Kollwitzkiez. Patrick offers to take Robert out to dinner to thank him, and despite Patrick having shown himself to be a boorish, violent drunk, Robert accepts. Over dinner and drinks, Robert learns that Patrick has ghostwritten a bestselling footballer’s memoir. On the strength of its performance, he was hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of Sergei Vanyashin, a minor Russian oligarch living in exile in England. Vanyashin possesses information about Putin that he believes, when revealed in the book, will bring him down. There is only one problem: Vanyashin has been recently found hanging from a tree on his country estate. Patrick is convinced that Vanyashin’s death was no suicide and now he – the man who knows too much – finds himself on the lam in Berlin gushing to a total stranger. You can almost see Robert’s eyes widen as he realizes what his long overdue novel’s going to be about.
All novelists are parasites: just ask their estranged family members, ex-lovers, and former friends and acquaintances. If you have the misfortune to know one you should expect that details about your life will wind up as material – gallingly recognizable, gallingly distorted – in their published work, which is why the first fiction in every novel is to be found on the copyright page: ‘any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental’. Realist novelists in particular cannot help but operate in this ethical grey zone. Wherever the line is to be drawn, however, Robert clearly crosses it. Instead of using Patrick’s story as a mere premise – which he could have taken from the headlines of any major newspaper – Robert courts his friendship in order to pump him for information. It is necessary to A Lonely Man that Patrick’s account both is true within the world of the novel and that Robert does not believe him: without the former the plot would have no import; without the latter it would not be able to continue. But Robert’s initial belief that Patrick is inventing the story about Vanyashin makes what he does more, not less, like theft.
It is difficult to determine whether parasitism is at the core of Robert’s character, or whether he is simply an exemplary member of his class. Either way, his political and aesthetic attitudes, as we will see, work hand in glove. The year 2014, in which the novel is set, saw the first signs of the bubble that would make Berlin the fastest growing real-estate market in the world. The bubble was driven in part by migration from the wealthier Bundeslände in the South, but also by that from financial capitals with higher median salaries, stronger currencies and inflated property values like London. Robert knows well enough to express ‘regret’ for participating in the gentrification of neighbourhoods where he once did drugs and partied, but his regret does not inspire him to learn even the most basic German. As soon as living in Berlin becomes in any way inconvenient for him – and thanks to his behaviour with Patrick, it does – he leaves it. ‘This mess with Patrick only increased his sense of the city as a place to be abandoned’, Robert muses from his wife’s Swedish dacha. In these pastoral surroundings, he vows to ‘write in the early morning and take care of tasks around the property before lunch…He would be competent, patient and productive, every flaw – his negativity, his temper, his selfish need for solitude – sieved away, leaving only the good’. This is so improbable that the passage reads like a parody of an epiphany. But even if you were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, one thing is certain: Robert will never learn Swedish.
Meanwhile, 2014 also saw the beginnings of a far more consequential movement of persons: the arrival of refugees and migrants to Germany from Syria, Libya, and Kosovo. Robert and Karijn take their daughters to see the protest encampment on Oranienplatz set up to draw attention to the atrocious conditions at Lampedusa, the Italian island that became the point of entry to the European Union for people fleeing and being smuggled from Northern Africa. Here, too, Robert knows well enough to lament the fact that the camp has become ‘another stop on the Berlin tourist trail’, while treating it just like that. Naturally, when one of his daughters asks whether one of the migrants can come and live at their house, he says no, though he is proud of her for asking, and feels guilty for declining. Robert’s politics are a politics of affect, not action, and as with his writer’s block, the affect is impotent self-loathing. The bourgeois household may take the blame for Robert’s failures of self-expression, but when the chips are down, it must remain inviolate.
Which is why it is unusual that Robert expresses genuine indignation when Patrick, who has discovered what he is up to, accuses him of stealing his story. Robert’s justification is telling. ‘Stories are like coins’, he thinks, ‘passed from one hand to another. When you tell someone a story, you give it to him’. The analogy between language and money is as old as coinage itself, and writers, who operate at the intersection between aesthetic and commercial value, have been uncomfortable about it for just as long. But not Robert, apparently. Perhaps that is because on top of being a parasite, he is also a snob. The reason he feels entitled to Patrick’s coin is that he is the lower-middle-class ghostwriter of a footballer’s memoir, that is, in publishing-speak, a downmarket genre. Robert’s real literary training, it turns out, comes less from his reading of Bolaño than from his decade as a copywriter at the advertising agency in London: he knows how to take someone else’s product and rebrand it for the desired market segment. The personal risk of being in the circle of a dead Russian oligarch may have fallen to Patrick, but to tell the story well, Robert implies, requires the literary techniques of a well-reviewed, prize-winning short-story writer such as himself.
Even if this were true, the writing presented in A Lonely Man would not justify such a claim. Although we are led to understand that the flashbacks describing Patrick’s work for Vanyashin are Robert’s handiwork, there is no stylistic, tonal, or vocal distinction with the rest of the novel. The prose is homogenous and – to use Robert’s preferred term – entirely ‘conventional’ throughout. Power’s transitions to the flashbacks are telegraphed with the subtlety of a cinematic dissolve, as though a future screenwriter were their intended audience. The characters are stock (beefy bodyguards, chatty factotum, barely legal model mistress) as are the scenes (a decadent party featuring ketamine, vodka, and mounds of caviar; a boozy brunch at Vanyashin’s country estate). The treatment of post-Soviet history is framed by Western fantasies/anxieties about Russia and is sometimes delivered in expository dialogue that reads like paraphrases of passages from the nonfiction titles listed by Power in the Acknowledgments. The foundational premise of Patrick’s story beggars belief: if you were a minor Russian oligarch with damaging information about Putin would you put it in a memoir – let alone one ghostwritten by your factotum’s old university friend who speaks no Russian and knows nothing about international financial crime? No, you’d leak it as soon as you could to the Russia desk at, say, the Guardian.
Early in A Lonely Man, Robert reads a novel by a ‘woman who had written about a strange real-life encounter with an ex-lover, and a sequence of subsequent conversations she had about it with her family and friends. She made it clear in the text where she had departed from actual events and where she returned to them, but did so in a way that made everything – the declared fiction as well as the declared fact – feel much more real and consequential than a conventional novel’. Power employs this template for Robert’s encounter with Patrick, but in his hands it produces the opposite effect. Because he uses close third- rather than a first-person perspective from the outset, the reader is unlikely to mistake Robert for an actual person, his meeting with Patrick as a ‘real-life encounter’, or anything either says as a ‘declared fact’. Parsing the differences between the ‘first-order fictions’ (what we are told directly about Robert) and the ‘second-order fictions’ (what we are told about Vanyashin via Patrick via Robert) draws attention to Robert’s status as a fiction and not away from it, which in turn diminishes the consequence of knowing what is real in the world of the novel and what is not. A Lonely Man is not, as its protagonist would have it, a series of ‘stacked realities’, but a series of stacked fictions, and with no formal differentiation between ontological registers, the stack collapses on itself. Ultimately the buck stops with Robert, who would do well to remember that just as with coins and stories, literary techniques that are passed between too many hands end up being worn featureless and smooth.
What about Power? Novelists generally dislike when readers judge the morality of their characters – after all, to present a repellent worldview is not to endorse it – and this is often treated as a sign that the reader lacks the sophistication to know the difference. But the dirty secret of middlebrow literary fiction is that moral readings are just as often generated by its own genre conventions. In the absence of compensatory literary pleasures (e.g. an exemplary prose style, formal innovation, insight into the human condition or contemporary life) or compensatory genre pleasures (i.e. entertainment) moral judgment becomes a way of answering the question all novels must answer: why am I reading this? While there are indications that Power is aware how contemptible his protagonist is, hermetically sealing the reader in Robert’s oblivious consciousness limits his reader’s ability to view his novel as satire, or to enjoy sympathizing with the villain. Worse still, the novel’s structure reproduces the ostensible object of its critique – Robert’s parasitism – at the level of its form. In A Lonely Man metafiction is nothing more than the name for the process by which the conventions of a putatively tired upmarket genre (literary novel about the bourgeois family) can suck the blood out of the conventions of a putatively vital downmarket genre (spy thriller) without doing any damage to its status. There is, however, another, less flattering name for it: gentrification.
Read on: Ryan Ruby, ‘Reading the Room’.