Under the Nihil
San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2011
Like a hellhound on the heels of his last book, The Doctor and the Heretic, comes snarling in Andy Nowicki’s Into the Nihil (pronounced, as the characters do, as “Nile,” as in Land of the Dead).
Here we have another one of Nowicki’s “cockroach” heroes — perhaps he really should get out more — but with a bit more gumption than usual, having early found the Church (or “run to it” as his brutish father sneers) and persevered through schoolmate taunts (“Bead boy! Peed Boy!”). You might think he’s related to the titular heretic of his previous collection until he is undone by the Mother Church itself; its once hippy-dippy post-Vatican II superiors no longer interested in Kumbaya but desperate now to keep out the weirdos like . . . him.
Frederick Rolfe, another “spoiled priest” convinced of his vocation, took a thirty year vow of celibacy, sponged off a series of friends in lieu of secular employment, wrote a sequence of exquisitely unpublishable novels (“Caviar, but from a real fish,” D. H. Lawrence called them) and then, his vow expired, perished in Venice during spell of “furious pederasty” (according to my old Penguin edition). Our unnamed narrator moves into a crack neighborhood rather than a working class rooming house, writes a blog rather than novels (“which shows you just how far away I truly was from salvation”), but the main difference is that he finds what Rolfe always wanted: a benefactor with a big checkbook. This “Mister X,” who represents “a privately-run organization which sometimes consulted for the interests of American security,” provides a weekly stipend in return for participation in the trial of a secret, experimental drug: Nihil.
But at this point I’d like to step back and take a look at the book’s unusual narrative form.
The first thing you notice is that it’s written in the second person. There must be something hard or unsatisfactory about such convention, since the number of second person narratives you can think of, to say nothing of whether you’ve read them, or if they’re any good, can be counted on the fingers of, well, slightly less than one hand.
There’s Faulkner’s 1934 Absalom! Absalom! which, as you can tell from the title, no one reads. Then there’s Edna O’Brien’s 1970 novel A Pagan Place, but more recently, and more relevantly, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984)— and that’s the one you’ve probably read.
Asked by the Paris Review about her unusual choice, O’Brien said:
The reason was psychological. As a child you are both your secret self and the “you” that your parents think you are. So the use of the second person was a way of combining the two identities. But I tend not to examine these things too closely—they just happen. (Edna O’Brien, interviewed by Shusha Guppy)
McInerney’s use has a different psychological effect. Consider his novel’s opening:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.
The effect here is to implicate the reader — or rather listeners, given the conversational style — in the narrator’s point of view. “You” means “If you were me right now at this here bar.”
Nowicki’s “you” however is not the reader but our “Mister X,” who lassos the protagonist into a deranged “fight terrorism through drugs” scheme that seems all too plausible given the history of the half-assed “bright ideas” produced by the decayed Ivy Leaguers that make up our “intelligence community.” (See Tim Weiner’s excoriating history Legacy of Ashes.)
And like so many of our “best and brightest,” his “Big Man on Campus bearing, incongruously clashing with the foot-shuffling false modesty” reaches the peak of annoyance with a Boston accent.
It’s a small detail, that Nowicki goes on to milk for a few laughs, but it does set up a series of reverberations in this reader’s pop sensibilities, sort of like a round of “Kevin Bacon” (who appeared in JFK, which connects him to . . . you’ll see).
Once the detail emerged, I began to hear Mr. X’s interview, and his subsequent ones, in the tones of Martin Sheen’s character in The Departed. Like the young men Sheen interviews there, Nowick’s hero is playing a double game, going along with Mr. X in order to “punk the punkers.” He thinks he’s smarter than this James Bond wannabe played by Thurston Howell III, and, like most of the CIA’s foreign “assets,” he probably is.
The younger Sheen starred in Apocalypse Now, a fitting title for most of Nowiki’s work, where he is pulled from a drunken, self-destructive delirium in a disheveled Saigon hotel room – comparable to Nowicki’s “dump of an apartment, in the middle of a massive colony of roaches, rats, meth-labs, and gang-bangers [where] I set up shop, and began my downwardly-mobile descent . . .” — to be interviewed by another unctuous CIA type (who delivers the famous “Terminate . . . with extreme prejudice” line) before receiving his own secret assignment that, like this one, will also be subverted by an encounter with moral nothingness and end in a blaze of napalm:
The chaos! “The horror, the horror.” The same conflagration of faith-eroding poison that had washed through society in the latter half of the 20th century, throwing all of our lives into the wretched mire of purposelessness, making us absurd, faceless, soulless mannequins tumbling through a terrifying abyss . . . this same poison now pumped through my veins, eating me away from the inside.” (p. 12)
The “faceless, soulless mannequins” are the interchangeably baby-faced young actors in The Departed, instructed by older men like Sheen and Jack Nicolson that:
Frank Costello [Nicolson]: I was your age they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?
Or as Nowicki says: “One can fall both ways—gravity often reverses from generation to generation.” (p. 15)
Billy Costigan [Di Caprio]: Families are always rising or falling in America, am I right?]
Oliver Queenan [Sheen]: Who said that?
Billy Costigan: Hawthorne.
Dignam [Mark Wahlberg]: What’s the matter, smartass, you don’t know any fuckin’ Shakespeare?
Cop, or criminal? Nowicki’s narrator chooses a third, more traditional path:
I decide I’m going to be a priest! The lovely sense of calm that accompanies this thought. I have a CALLING, instead of just a FALLING. . . . Now that I’ve declared my calling, in fact, I feel more lonely, more isolated, more doubtfully dubious than I’d ever felt previously . . . (p. 15)
The interview between Sheen and Di Caprio essentially conflates the two sequences in Under the Nihil, Sheen tells him he’ll “never be a cop” but offers him the chance to “serve and protect” in the role of a rat; Nowicki’s hero is told he’ll never be a priest:
“Not ‘no,’ but ‘not yet,’” he said. Oh, but he was wrong! It was no; the profoundest of nos, to every possible question! (pp. 2–3)
But he can help win the “War on Terrah” by becoming a lab rat.
I COULD’VE been a priest, and been happy. I COULD’VE said the Mass reverently, could have composed and delivered worthwhile sermons, could have lived simply, could have counseled people who were in pain or faced difficult straits.
Yet they drummed me out. I didn’t make the cut; I was deemed defective. (pp. 24–5)
And we know from Oliver Stone’s JFK what happens when spoiled priests meet up with CIA agents and start living in filthy apartments filled with lab rats:
David Ferry: All I wanted in the world . . . was to be a Catholic priest. Live in a monastery. Pray. Serve God. I had . . . one terrible fucking weakness. And they defrocked me! Then I started to lose everything.
But what if your vocation really is something else? Perhaps he really does need to become a criminal after all. Maybe this is a blessing in disguise:
They wanted me to snort and snivel and jump through their hoops, to prove myself worthy of their post-Vatican II norms, and I failed their examination, so it was off to the scrap heap for me . . . (p. 25)
Frank Costello: Church wants you on your place. Kneel, stand, kneel, stand. If you go for that sort of thing, I don’t know what to do for you. A man makes his own way. No one gives it to you. You have to take it. “Non serviam.”
Maybe, like Sheen in Apocalypse Now, you need not a career but one more mission. And if you’re bad enough, maybe you’ll get it.
Yes, I was “saved,” but not really. I came “back,” but only partly. I hadn’t hit bottom, because in spite of everything I still found myself hoping against hope for hope. Still a poseur: not a hardcore bone in my brittle frame, my spirit still pitifully seeking its Savior, aching to fill its God-shaped hole with something, anything, unable to reconcile my God-hole to the Void that is, in fact, the very essence of God . . .
The fools who treated me, of course, mistook my relapse for a recovery. It’s the typical response of the world to one who almost escapes its clutches, only to be pulled right back into its infernal orbit, as I was. (p. 29)
Under the Nihil is relatively short book, and you can sense that perhaps the middle section, devoted to the narrator’s one Nihil-powered adventure, the seduction and humiliation of an older woman and her younger daughter, is only a sample of what could have been, like a Grail romance, or a picaresque novel, or most closely one of those overlong “great books” of the 50s, an Augie March or Sot-Weed Factor or Recognitions, an indefinitely multiplied, ramshackle series of grotesque, literally nihilistic “anti-adventures” in which the stupid, unhip world is one-upped by the anti-hero. Perhaps Nowicki thought one would be enough to make the point, and decided to spare his reader such a numbing and depressing trudge. (Even when Terry Southern did something similar in The Magic Christian or Candy, he kept it short and did it with humor, albeit of the then-fashionable “black” sort, and it still left a bad taste in the mouth.)
Having acquired a certain notoriety by describing Nowicki, in reviewing his last book, as “the Aldous Huxley of the Alternative Right,” I may dare to go further by suggesting that this is his Brave New World, with our narrator as The Savage, whose confrontation with a world run by pharmaceutical manipulation — Soma rather than Nihil — ends in an equally futile public suicide. His final rant could have come equally well from The Savage’s interview with the World Controller:
Freedom, you say? Freedom from what? Freedom to do . . . what?
Freedom to drop their venerable old traditions, which gave their lives a sense of meaning and their deaths a sense of closure? Freedom to jettison their connection with the ancient, and embrace un-shackled materialism? Freedom to degrade themselves, debase themselves, corrupt themselves, turn themselves into animals, into something worse than animals? Freedom to elevate their loins over their brains; to make sure their sons become pimps and your daughters whores; to condemn their progeny to Hell forever? (p. 100)
While The Savage has to stage his suicide at a mere lighthouse, Nowicki’s narrator has the Statute of Liberty to play with. Still, I find the final scenario —
I hope to light a fire in the big, stony Whore’s head, a blaze that will light up the sky over Manhattan Island. I hope to turn many a head, provoke the posting of many a YouTube video, inspire a headline or two. (p. 101)
— a bit of a letdown, in comparison with passage at the beginning:
I have always been falling, falling, falling, but only lately have I had the opportunity to reject and utterly erase all of the faux-scenery in my sight that ever led me to assume the existence of a ground under my feet. I am now a burning, falling man, hurtling through a heartless void, but falling is no different from flying when there’s nothing substantial beneath you. To be aware that one is sinking forever may be a disconcerting feeling at first, but it soon becomes a pleasant, even a blissful condition. To float into eternal nothingness is to be truly free. (p. 9)
It’s a really remarkable image, recalling, perhaps, one more cinematic analogue: the bravura opening of Scorsese’s Casino (and recently reprised by the opening of Mad Men): Robert De Niro as Ace Rothstein, falling endlessly through a blaze of light composed of the flames of a car bomb, Las Vegas neon and Hellfire.
Nowicki’s “hero” presumably dies, but the world goes on without him (quick, name one of the 9/11 terrorists) while Rothstein improbably survives — his kind always land on their feet — but it is a living death; everything he loves, from his wife to Vegas itself, having died already.
For Nowicki, as for the producers of Mad Men, this is probably the best we can hope for. At this stage of the Kali Yuga there aren’t even any tigers to ride; perhaps we can convince ourselves that our falling is really flying after all.