Dorothee Elmiger’s Hunger
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” The Second Coming, Yeats.
As is made clear right from the outset, the point of Dorothee Elmiger’s new novel Out of the Sugar Factory (Two Lines Press) is that the narrator—whether that is the author herself or a fictional character—has a desperate hunger. “Perhaps it would be correct to say that this hunger is the real object of my research.” Elmiger’s novel is ostensibly about the history of the sugar trade, along with the history of the slave trade and the raw reality of capitalism, both of which were indispensable to the sugar trade in the Caribbean and the American South. But Out of the Sugar Factory is filled with so many digressions, so many other topics, all of which seem to equally concern the narrator. She has a persistent fixation on insane asylums and on Ellen West (1888–1921), a woman who was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and anorexia nervosa and who died by suicide. She is deeply curious about the famous Russian dancer Nijinsky, about St. Teresa of Avila, and about the Swiss “lotto king” Werner Bruni, the first man to win more than a million Swiss francs but who became bankrupt in less than six years. She’s even fascinated with the history and famous inhabitants of Montauk, that village on the far tip of Long Island.
The obvious question is: how does the reader weave all of this disparate material together? Or do we? Early on, the narrator’s friend Annette tells her she has just read “a novel by an Australian writer in which a long series of abruptly appearing images was described; each image evoked the next, which is to say they were, at a minimum, loosely connected and thus formed a kind of path—a luminous path, she claimed, through the things.” By contrast, when the narrator looks back through all of the research files she created over the course of the past months, she sees “no path—no images or illuminations overlapping each other.” Instead, what she discerns is a single starting point and many lines radiating out from there. “There is no fixed order to this place; with each stride through the chaos. . . objects seem to enter into new relationships, new constellations with each other.”
This is how Elmiger’s novel operates. She’s not aiming to tell a story or even mimic a stream of consciousness. She’s after something more tenuous, more elusive, perhaps something more disjointed like real life. The reader has to be prepared to appreciate chaos—or perhaps disorder is a better word—because Elmiger doesn’t make any connections for us. There is no grand denouement or pull-it-all-together a-ha moment. This is a book in which to savor individual scenes, paragraphs, and sentences, one after another, as Elmiger slowly grapples with the topics that possess her.
These sentences, I have to understand, will never achieve any kind of pure, radiant clarity, ridding themselves of all additional and confused meanings. They are actually more flickering, difficult constructions, I think, dark whirlpools in which everything, including everything peripheral, swirls with deafening noise forever around an unstable center. And more is always being pulled in.
It is for this reason that Elmiger’s novel gets compared to those of W.G. Sebald, another writer who tried to break the linear structure of the novel by constantly sending the reader spiraling out from each page to follow new digressions, new veiled references, and the things we see in his strange photographs. While there are no photographs in Out of the Sugar Factory, at the end of the book there are 240 footnotes to sources for quotations and references that Elmiger has employed, sources that include a rather amazing array of books of poetry, novels, histories, biographies, and travel narratives. As you can see from the photograph below, even the physical space of the novel is broken into small segments.
Throughout the book there are conversations marked by em dashes, when it seems that the narrator is having a conversation with herself or interviewing herself.
—How are you?
—I’m in over my head.
—The underbrush you were talking about?
—Fine by me, if that’s what you want to call it.
—Can you say more about it?
—Everything becomes too much for me. At the beginning, I thought I had to somehow gather everything together, bring it all together, but now things are imposing themselves on me virtually—I see signs and connections everywhere, as if I had found a theory of everything, which is of course utter nonsense.
Nearly halfway through the book, Elmiger tries again to suggest how we might read her novel. Her narrator is thinking about a conversation she had with Annette about Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French philosopher (1908–1961) who emphasized the role that perception plays in our conception of the world around us.
And on the so-called “geometral”: Imagine, says A., for example, a house in France, not far from the Seine. High up in the air is a plane making its way. This house is always viewed from a certain direction, from a certain perspective; one sees it differently from the bank of the Seine than from the airplane or from its own interior, the interior of the house. But the actual house, the actual house on the bank of the Seine in France—Merleau-Ponty writes—is different from all these hundreds and thousands of views of this house seen from a great height, or from the other bank, or from the inside.
Not only is there no center, no focus, no linear narrative to her novel (or her “research report,” as she prefers to call it), but Elmiger is suggesting that every reader will perceive her novel from a completely different viewpoint. In some press materials, the publisher of Out of the Sugar Factory says that “Elmiger compiles a journal of reflections on global systems of capital through the medium of her personal patterns of experience.” If all of this seems to suggest that Out of the Sugar Factory is rather toothless as a novel about capitalism and slavery, I would have to agree. She has given us material straight out of her many research files, even out of her dreams. But she has not given us an argument. Let’s go back to the very beginning of the novel once again to see why. The narrator tells us that she finds herself watching a certain scene in a documentary video over and over. We will only learn the context for this scene on one of the last pages of the book. But through this brief, rather mundane event, Elmiger wants to explain to us her theory about her obsessions and the impact they have on her.
The more I return to this room, which I know only from a documentary produced in the 80s, the clearer it becomes that my urge to revisit this place has nothing to do with the chance that something might reveal itself with any particular clarity to me. On the contrary, I now suspect that these recurrent visits, my neurotic pilgrimages, are grounded in the fact that the scene is, so to speak, irresolvable: a brief convergence of the most diverse strands of history—as if disparate rocky objects, celestial bodies that had long been circling the sun, seemingly unconnected, suddenly collided, and their impact provided an illumination of things, of rubble and dust, one second long.
Emiger’s rather emotionless sense that history is essentially “irresolvable” doesn’t strike me as the most helpful perspective for someone who is obsessed with such serious subjects as the history of the sugar trade and slavery and the dangers of capitalism. Out of the Sugar Factory is, in many respects, a fascinating novel to read, but a very strange one to ponder.
Martin, my editor, says that in case of publication of these notes, “novel” must appear on the cover.
We drive through Munich in a small white car.
I say that it is a report about research, which is why “research report” seems incomparably more appropriate to me.
Dorothee Elmiger. Out of the Sugar Factory. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2023. Translated from the 2020 German original by Megan Ewing.
For excellent reports on Elmiger’s earlier two novels, I strongly suggest you head over to Joseph Schreiber’s blog Roughghosts where you can read about her first book Invitation to the Bold of Heart and her second, Shift Sleepers.
Thanks for the links, Terry. I will be curious to see how she pulls of such a range of interests with this approach. Her first novel is an enthusiastic if more conventional effort, the second is, in my mind an excellent “set piece” that works because she gives her various subject lines to different characters in a static setting which is never explained. A fragmentary tangential metafictional approach? That can be risky.