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An intelligent, challenging and entertaining page-turner

The Straggler

Yves Petry
'I write for people who are wide awake'
Conversation with Yves Petry about The Straggler by De Morgen (Dirk Leyman)

‘Good literature deserves good critics. A good critic is someone who can make an abstraction of what captivates him personally.’

‘Houellebecq does his best to deceive his readers into thinking he has a vision for the future of mankind. I don’t. I wanted to demonstrate how people can fall under the spell of extended technological fantasies.’

 

In his fourth novel, 'The Straggler', Yves Petry, an angry young man, demolishes the superior cocoon of the young computer expert Gram Goetleven with a sinister pleasure. Like an assassin, Petry lets psychological collapse strike home. The Straggler couples perverse notions and mocking profundities with merciless humour in the Martin Amis style. This is a conversation with Yves Petry about fanaticism, mystic science, sexual identity and inextinguishable ambition: ‘I want to match myself against the very greatest.’

It is indeed an alarming machine on which the unworldly Dr Miami and his scientific slave Gram Goetleven are working. This vehicle, innocently named ‘Baby’, is intended to be the triumph of ‘total and sexless intelligence’ and to reduce the whole of mankind to a pathetic bunch of superfluous nitwits. This pipedream initially appears to assume concrete form. Yet you soon get a whiff of the absurdity of the undertaking, such as when Goetleven manically measures his ‘information quotient’ – the performance curve of his daily intellectual output. And look, on the way to what was meant to be a triumphant lecture on the cybernetic phenomenon, this empty headed mathematician loses his way completely. Goetleven, the faithful scientific foot-soldier, who feels elevated above his fellow men, is forced to endure the company of the virago Dr Bitschkowa, ‘a coat of chain-mail made of Y-chromosomes’ and a relentless rival of Dr Miami. During the flight to the US, Gram becomes entangled in some solipsistic reasoning, troubled thoughts about his father, who had lost his mind and recently died, and also some panicky behaviour. Goetleven, the almost sexless clone, who does however occasionally seek distraction in darkrooms, forgets himself. He becomes in every sense a rather pitiful, washed out straggler.

Of course, for Petry, who anticipates everything, the anecdote is of no importance. This exceptionally well thought out book quietly takes stock of disastrous scientific mysticism and is bursting with philosophical and sociological asides. There are also plenty of cynical outpourings and clever remarks about sexual mores. On just one occasion rather long-windedly, but usually horribly to the point, and with astonishing ease, Petry keeps the dazed reader glued to the page. Petry clearly has something to tell us. In its morbidity, this novel of psychological ideas is perhaps indebted to Michel Houellebecq, Arnon Grunberg and Martin Amis, but it also has that slight touch of lightness found in Douglas Coupland’s 'Microslaves'. ‘The secret of your art of literary seduction lies in your novels, that so smoothly and naturally make the most awkward and unnatural subjects perfectly reasonable’, to use Frank Hellemans words from the launch of 'The Straggler'. Petry is also able to stand on his own two feet without all these names behind him. He is satirical and scornful, but sometimes unexpectedly sensitive, and is more than ever the man to keep your eyes on in Flemish literature. And he knows it. He dedicates himself full-time to writing, and in everyday life exudes a coquettish sort of self-awareness. He is like a missionary for his own books, a control-freak who eagerly makes use of every snippet of media attention, though he does sometimes look at it with a mild irony: ‘As long as 'The Straggler' doesn’t live up to its title in the bookshops’, he laughs. This writer, who speaks in a slightly sing-song manner, accompanying his distinct statements with a slight smoker’s cough under his breath, has for the time being little to fear on that score: initial reactions to 'The Straggler' have been distinctly positive.

I interpreted 'The Straggler' as being the story of Goetleven almost autistically unable to move forward or backward. He wants to be impersonal at all costs, but is actually constantly knocked off balance by ‘inconvenient’ personal matters such as his father’s death.

'The Straggler' is about someone who has absolutely no wish to be solely the vehicle of his own ego – which nowadays is most people’s fate. Gram Goetleven wants to be the instrument of something superior, something heroic. With hindsight, it appears that my main characters are always cursed with this need. They are constantly thinking about the position they occupy in society. They rarely opt for the obvious. Gram represents a type of person who may unexpectedly turn up in the news. Sometimes they take the form of a terrorist, sometimes a crazy gunman. Or a young man who sacrifices himself for something abstract: a belief, science or, in Goetleven’s case, the dehumanised super-machine, Baby.

However inconspicuously Gram Goetleven behaves, in his most intimate thoughts he has all the qualities of a walking time-bomb: ‘I had forbidden thoughts, you can be sure of that, and in the midst of this mass of people in all its ugly superfluity I felt as if my thoughts were made of Semtex or smuggled Uranium’.

That’s right. In the same way as terrorists and crazy gunmen are half invisible and remain as aloof as possible, until they strike. I have always been fascinated by the way that sort of personality relates to the world around them. In fact there’s a man like that whom I know very well. Until I was about thirty I was like that myself. In my innermost self I was a fanatic, but one without a cause. I wanted to lose myself in a higher level, I let myself be led by quasi-religious ideas and lived in a selfdetermined reality. It is a need a surprising number of young men have and it can assume a wide variety of forms.

In Goetleven’s case it is above all self-destructive.

Gram is ultimately too mild-mannered and too cowardly to ‘explode’. It leads more to an implosion of his dismantled personality. At the end he is ironically enough reduced to the state of a helpless baby. He is above all a danger to himself.’

Gram condemns virtually everyone who does not fit into his mental framework: his sex-obsessed father, his mother and her new boyfriend, the robust Dr Bitschkowa. Only Dr Miami, who is on the same scientific wavelength, passes muster. Is his role that of a substitute father?

You might certainly say that. I would actually like to emphasise the fact that 'The Straggler' is above all a psychological novel. Dr Miami’s attraction lies initially in the ‘impersonal’ that he is always accentuating. He is not engaged in science in the service of man, but willingly sacrifices man to science.

Which leads to almost mystical dimensions?

Dr Miami and Goetleven assign Baby religious qualities which in classical theology are attributed to God. They undertake a journey with heart and soul, but do not actually know where they will end up. That is the case in all mystical traditions. One tries to be engaged in something real that cannot immediately be imagined.

In that respect you like to allude to Ray Kurzweil’s theories on artificial intelligence. But the results of that research are to say the least uncertain.

Artificial intelligence is very much like metaphysics in a new coat. There is absolutely no consensus on the possibilities of that sort of advanced computer technology. No one actually knows which way it should go. How would I, an unassuming novelist, know? There is nothing new at all in the countless abstract ideas I develop in connection with Baby. Leibniz, Spinoza and others were already thinking about possible non-human machines before computers ever existed. Then there was
Turing’s universal solution machine. Look, my work is here and there compared to that of Houellebecq. I find that unjust. Houellebecq does his best to deceive his readers into thinking he has a vision for the future of mankind. I don’t. I wanted to demonstrate how people can fall under the spell of extended technological fantasies.

In fact everyday reality is constantly overtaking Goetleven. You appear to derive a sardonic pleasure from the clash of paradoxes in his personality.

In Goetleven’s case, the paradox is that he wants constantly to prove and explain himself, while not wanting to exist as an individual. At the same time he is packed full of individual fears and desires. That becomes very strikingly obvious in a passage where he holds forth on Baby’s capabilities: ‘Baby lives, ladies and gentlemen, but has no personal life and does not expect anything from yours. ... Do as you like in the fanciful nature of your personal existence. Wriggle, prowl, flicker in the wind. Baby wishes you a pleasant flight as you dissolve in the wind.’ It is a passage filled with a disregard for death, full of the sacrifice to Baby. But immediately afterwards he boards the aircraft and comes face to face with his overpowering fear of flying. He is then reduced to a physical, petty loner. To the reader’s amusement, I hope.

You can rest assured on that. Does humour save you when your book is in danger of becoming too ponderous?

These novels would not be mine if they contained no humour. It’s true I don’t put in an annual comedy revue, nor do I aim to get people rolling in the aisles. A little disorder simply creeps in of its own accord.

Misogyny and confusion about sexual identity also crop up all the time in your writing. Where does this fascination for gender confusion come from?

I suspect it’s the consequence of a lack of sex education. (Laughs) I read a lot about sex, and although the dailies and weeklies are bursting with it, not much of it is sensible. There is so rarely anything that really corresponds with my sexual feelings. Which is why I write it down myself. That’s the only place I can do justice to the complexity of my sex life. A lot of people see sexuality as being entirely separate from the other relationships in life, something isolated. I don’t think that way at all. I think that sex is always connected to a whole lot of other, abstract, thoughts, relationships and a sense of power. Sex is just as huge and unfathomable as life itself.

In 'The Straggler' Goetleven often finds it annoying that sex has to be dressed up in words, that there is so much talking involved.

Yes, that’s because he wants to completely neutralise sex. It doesn’t fit in with his pursuit of the impersonal. He ignores the friction between the sexes. Fifteen minutes of sex is more than enough for him and then life just carries on as before. To see sex as something isolated is a form of puritanism, and it’s increasingly common among young people these days.

'The Straggler' is packed full of long, flowing sentences and stylistic tours de force. Does that mean you are not a fan of economical writing?

I want to urge the reader to read slowly and patiently, and in exchange I give him a serious dose of literary pleasure. In fact I advise you never to read any of my books if you are tired. I write books for people who are wide-awake. In a way it is to my disadvantage. Wide-awake people are unfortunately thin on the ground. I can imagine that not everyone is able to withstand the verbal energy and stylistic vitality of my books, in the same way as old people can no longer cope with the commotion children make.

Do you write easily or are you an endless rewriter?

I rarely struggle with my style. If I walk around a bit or cycle through the fields I immediately have a stock of metaphors available to me. I find meaningful names important. I can’t start writing until I have found the name for my main character. I also tinker a lot with the complexity of the main character. His lines of thought and reasoning have to fit, even when they contain paradoxes or nonsense. In fact it’s my tendency to be exact that is my greatest bother.

The fact that your past lies in mathematics obviously plays a part. As Gram Goetleven so nicely puts it, ‘it is our subtle and most noiseless symbolism’.

Unfortunately I only completed my Bachelor’s degree, because at a certain moment it started to pall. But of course it’s true that mathematics achieves a degree of abstraction and consistency that language does not. Power lies only in knowledge formulated mathematically. Literature has no power. It is dependent on the reader’s favour. In literature you can never calculate what you will achieve. It belongs rather among forms of seduction.

... ‘the voice of the cunning seducer’, as you make Dr Bitschkowa claim in a monologue on literature. What do you understand by good literature?

Good literature above all keeps us focused on the complexity of being human. In literature you hear a voice you rarely hear speaking to you, except perhaps in very successful relationships. Literature provides us with levers to break open the language, as a form of resistance to the uninspired repetition for which it is often used. I think literature should also offer aesthetic pleasure. Not just fine writing, but the combination of the richest possible content with the most flexible possible form. Even though the novel remains a simplification of real life, it can also help remedy a widespread loneliness. A good book is a fantastic friend. In fact you can recognise great writers by the fact that you can always re-read their books.

The luxury of the novel is also that you can put controversial words in your character’s mouth without making a social blunder. If they appeared in a column, some of Gram Goetleven’s opinions would put a lot of people’s backs up.

It would be absurd to create a scandal about things the characters in a novel say, as happened to Michel Houellebecq regarding Platform. The things I say in my books are not expressed in my own name. It is very precious to me that you are free to smuggle every possible contradictory opinion and idea into a novel. After all, as a novelist one must never impose self-censorship. Goetleven is very cynical about a lot of things, but it is rarely gratuitous. He doesn’t only want to put others into perspective, but also himself.

Your writing is not noncommittal, and is in fact very demanding. Everything points to the fact that you are an immensely ambitious writer.

The urge to be impersonal is at odds with my ambition to see my name appear in all the papers in the most favourable possible way. I confess I am full of contradictions. (Laughs) It may have something to do with the people who called me to take up literature. Certainly not people like Brusselmans, but ones like Willem Frederik Hermans, Thomas Bernhard, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Samuel Beckett and Martin Amis. They are the really great writers. The spirits of these literary ancestors force me to bring the very best of myself to the surface. I want to be accepted in the eyes of such literary judges as Beckett and Nabokov. That is no small task.

Is it that ambition that makes you react rather bad-temperedly to negative criticism. For example the story of your fight with a critic at the Flemish Book Ball. And only recently you paid back the critic Arjan Peters of the Volkskrant for a less than favourable review of 'The Straggler'. Do you see critics as a necessary evil?

What irritates me about literary criticism is that all too often one is faced with the mood and temperament of the critic and not with his competence to properly assess the qualities of a book. Good literature deserves good critics. A good critic is able to make an abstraction of what he finds personally captivating. He has to be able to view a book objectively and inform the reader about it. Of course that’s a lot more difficult than giving your whims free rein in a subjective mood piece.

Gram works on a robot which uses brain scans to load itself up with human intelligence, without the emotional ballast. The robot will ultimately far outstrip human intelligence, and will ‘reduce mankind to a self-help group for stragglers’. On the plane to a colloquium in Texas, he’s working on his speech about the future – unable to fully concentrate because his father has just died. To Gram’s relief his father succumbed to a physical disease, syphilis, and not a mental one. Gram is a devotee of cool intelligence who likes to regard people as machines rather than as creatures with a unique personality and psychology. However, he cannot function as a machine himself. He is constantly preoccupied with his past and overcome by doubts and questions about his existence. Gram becomes a prey to the thing he had always repudiated: emotions.

Petry is a very good, occasionally brilliant narrator with a good eye for meaningful detail.
De Morgen

Petry’s main character is a misanthrope who overestimates himself; someone who looks down disparagingly on what makes man human and on what he considers to be man’s limited intelligence, as expressed in spirituality or psychology. ‘The Straggler’ is an intelligent, challenging and entertaining page-turner that addresses the reader in a very personal tone.

Flair, intelligence, and humour are abundantly present in his book.
Het Parool