Jakob Nolte takes us on a breakneck journey through an imaginary America of the 1990s. The novel is driven by an irrepressible wonder and joy at American cultural imperialism, which is at a turning point between the death of Kurt Cobain and 9/11
Jakob Nolte, Alff, Trans. by Léon Dische Becker and Emily Dische-Becker. Fiktion, 2015.
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Jakob Nolte’s debut novel ALFF tells of a series of murders at the High & Low High School in Beetaville, New England. A “fencecutioner” has killed Benjamin, the head of the debate club, and sewed his corpse to a fence. The murder sets in motion a string of bizarre events in the teenagers’ lives: from the founding of the band La Deutsche Vita to the establishment of the Anachronistic Youth. After a second murder, Agent Donna Jones is summoned and is flummoxed by the seemingly unsolvable case. In the style of a high-school mystery thriller, ALFF takes us on a breakneck journey through an imaginary America of the 1990s. The novel is driven by an irrepressible wonder and joy at American cultural imperialism, which is at a turning point between the death of Kurt Cobain and 9/11. Like the German novelist Karl May, a fantasist of the American Old West, Jakob Nolte writes about a country without the muddling interference of personal experience. The 25-year-old takes on film, TV, literature, and real life—and wins.
Robin Detje in conversation with Jakob Nolte:I was given some prohibitions and requests before this interview, like, for example, I am not allowed to ask you anything biographical, because you said, “I don’t want to know anything about myself.” You could also have said, “I don’t want to talk about myself.” But you said, “I don’t want to know anything about myself,” which I thought was really brilliant. I am, however, supposed to say that ALFF is the feel-good book of the summer. Reading it, it occurred to me that this is not a family saga; there are no Nazi grandparents. So thank you for that, first of all. But I also wondered whether Fiktion put any pressure on you in that sense, saying something like, “Can’t you make it into a family saga?”
No, they were pretty okay with it. Although, actually… there are definitely several families in the novel.
“Family” is also one of the last important words in the book. And one of the first sentences describes what Maggy is missing: “a functional family unit.”
Yes, I think the topic is definitely in there in a way. Like where do you grow up, where do you become an adult. Whether that is in a family or in a school or in a place. But it is not a family saga. That’s more of a coincidence, I think. I do not despise the family saga.
And then your book has the same name as a television series with a stutter, like a TV series with one letter too many.
Yes, that also occurred to me later. I had never heard of Alf at all, and then everyone pointed out that there was also this television series. But I didn’t want to change the title anymore. I thought it was phonetically strong. The television series also worked extremely well, I later discovered. One wonders, however, whether it might not have been even better if they had dared to hang one more F on the end.
The story is set in a city called Beetaville. I, of course, thought right away—and feel free to beat me with a bucket if I’m overinterpreting here, just like beating with buckets is a method of execution in your book—… Beetaville, New England: half Beetlejuice, Tim Burton, 1988; half Alphaville, Godard, 1968.
And then I found a description of Alphaville on Wikipedia. The German Wikipedia calls it a “bizarre, disorderly film with an intentionally unbalanced plot. The film is dark—in terms of its economical lighting, but also the elliptical-philosophical dialogues and cynical humor.” I thought that was great in terms of looking at the various layers, because I can actually describe what I saw and read in your book with a Wikipedia entry on Godard. Is Godard a thing for you, or is the question too biographical?
No, it’s okay. I do think it is very great what he did. I mean, he’s still making movies; he was even at Cannes this year with some nonsense. I think that’s impressive—also the way he made movies, definitely, and I mean, Alphaville is just a film that acts like it is set in New York, but it takes place in Paris, and it acts like it’s playing out in the future, but really it takes place in the present. And I thought I would write about the past the way Godard made his film about the future.
I’ll try to start off with the facts, so that we can understand the story. The story centers on the murder of Benjamin McNash, a student at the High and Low High School. Whereas I thought that the name of the school—High and Low—pretty well describes the tone of your book, because you are really mercilessly switching between high and low. By that I mean you have a way of somehow putting it into a Rilke machine, totally high, getting this really high, poetic tone, and then you go completely Dada.
I don’t think Dada is right. It is maybe more like slapstick. Dada… it sounds like gaga or dumdum, but it is actually more like a completely concrete description of a poetology with rules and no rules and a cause that I wouldn’t directly find in my text.
There is a serial killer called “the fencecutioner” because he weaves people into a fence. Which you also describe at the very end—how people are weaved into it.
Yes. First the victims are anesthetized or killed and then tied to the fence with rubber bands, so that they don’t fall. Then he knits them in, stitch by stitch, and then takes the rubber bands off and hopes they don’t fall down. And it works.
The whole thing starts in the year 1994. That confused me at first, because here I have a novel full of allusions to television series and film titles, a novel with an FBI agent who lives in a hotel called Chacal, which sounds almost like Schakal, the German word for “jackal,” and this FBI agent goes into the forest, speaks with “wise badgers,” and subsequently takes an eighty-nine-minute nap. Here I have a novel where three nine- and ten-year-olds are interrogated and say, “We are the dog-ears in a history book.” And in which there is a dog called Nadja, a name that means “little hope,” and this dog is shot dead because she’s beautiful and won a contest, stuffed, and hung in the entryway to the small town. She then holds an inaugural speech as a dead, stuffed dog, saying: “Though taxidermy is usually an act of honoring and imitation, at once a substitution and a glorification of life, I would like to martyr myself for the stuffed condition and imitate the imitation.” That is a lot of stacked levels of unreality, and then this novel is set smack in the year 1994 – a real year on earth.
Yes, it goes from 1994 until the turn of the millennium, six years. Somehow I thought that was a good period of time. There was this kind of magical, apocalyptic mood, but at the same time it is also an era that I like, especially in the States. Kurt Cobain died, Clinton became president, and Buffy was taking off, and no one really knew what to do with postmodernism, which had just started to get old. I thought I would just set it then. Also to have historical material that I could process and work through. The novel is very painstakingly researched. If someone is listening to Madonna, for example, then he’s definitely listening to the album that just came out and stuff like that. I think it’s nice that I can avail myself of this time line and see what was going on, also to notice how a lot of things are completely outdated and many things are not. Like the listing of all the conflicts going on in the world. It is incredible and frustrating to see which war zones were active in 1995 and still are today.
And when you’re writing, how do you dose reality and these nails that you hammer into reality? How do you strike a balance?
I think I always want to be unreal, actually. I mean, I always like it when things happen in stories that couldn’t happen here, meaning not in this room or in this world, in this time. There was a moment in the editing… an airplane crashes into the Rocky Mountains and a parallel society forms, but then they all turn into cannibals, and one page later, a black hole opens up inside of a diner. And at that point Mathias was like, “Okay, come on. Maybe take out the cannibals.”
Yet another thing Mathias killed?
No, okay, maybe one or two sentences, where he would make remarks like: “All right, but in ten years would this and that really still be standing?” And I was like: “Yeah, uh…” Meaning some poetic exaltation was too heavy-handed for him or something.
You also forbid me from saying things that I like about this book, because somehow you think it’s stupid when people are always saying what they like. I’m going to do it anyway. Because you mentioned postmodernism: I like that about this book, that you are going way beyond postmodernism—so far that you don’t even stack these layers on top of one another, but merge them into each other and actually aren’t quoting, but make it into one. I see ALFF as a naturalistic novel. Badgers and talking stuffed dog and all. And with all the film references. Because I think that our media consumption and our television and cinema and anime and computer-game experiences have become so sincerely, intimately defined, so dear to us, that we can no longer separate them from ourselves. So I think this text is much more naturalistic than most of what I read otherwise.
I think the question of naturalism is always important. You described it really beautifully. I do actually see it that way.
Then it’s also nice that this book is first published in a machine. We also wanted to speak a bit about the type of publishing. You were saying before that you like things that happen all of a sudden, like magic. And you said you think it’s nice that suddenly, people in Boston can read it at the same time in translation. Like magic.
Exactly, that’s a great thought. Like, for all the horrors you find in this endless availability of information, it is just as amazing that someone is sitting on the subway—he or she is having a good or bad day, whatever—and then someone sends him or her a link and he or she just starts to read this novel. A long subway ride, you have half an hour and just start reading it. Out of nowhere. There’s something really great about that. Also, I think the idea that it is available for free is fantastic. Anyone can just have a look, just like I can listen to songs or watch movies or series; that impressed me. And if someone doesn’t like the book, then at least they didn’t have to spend twenty-five euros on a hardcover, which is also an extreme advantage.
In other words, just adapting the enjoyment of literature to the advantages of listening to a full album on YouTube. Right away, immediately. Creating a kind of contemporariness of media consumption.
Exactly. Hey, of course I like books, too. I think ALFF would also make a great book in terms of being an object, but this kind of publishing is not a decision against that. Not at all.
Do you have any questions?
You have translated some things…
I would be interested to know to what extent the text seems English to you or bilingual. Because of course it derives a lot from the other language and takes place in another country. Or do you see it as an extremely German text?
I think that for me, it ranges from this really high, nineteenth-century voice to a point where it sounds like a badly dubbed American TV series—which you also consciously wrote that way, the reader can tell. You write that someone orders a “Zucchini Bürger,” with an umlaut so that it’s also the German word for “citizens” or “townspeople.” These are of course moments that are really hard for a German-to-English translator to handle but that for me, as a German, are a real pleasure. Anyway, when we were preparing for this super-choreographed interview, you asked how a reader reads the book. You asked me whether I read it in one direction—whether I had the feeling I had to do that. And it wasn’t the case; I really did skip around in this book without having the feeling that something was being withheld from me or that I was completely missing out on something by doing so. At some points, it really felt like different episodes in a television series, where you can miss an episode but still come across the same characters. I really enjoyed that, actually.
Yes, exactly, that was one of my concerns. Because I ask myself: is this a text that you read for ten minutes and then go and do something else? Is it the kind of text where you are totally distracted and keep dipping into it, like a book of poetry, for example? Or do I read it in one sitting, because I want to follow the plot and want to finally find out who the murderer is?
That’s also the question: what do I as the author demand of my reader? Is it this kind of complete, blood-and-thunder-like self-abandon you have with a thriller, for example, so that you read it all in one night, or how much freedom do I give him or her?
A lot of freedom, probably. But I have had different reactions—from people who say they thought it was very exciting and wanted to know how it all ends to those who say they read it more like A Thousand Plateaus and just opened it up somewhere, really enjoyed one sentence, and then closed it. Of course the text is always very strict, like an action film, but… to be honest, I looked at the Fiktion e-reader for the first time this week, and I found it to be a very pleasant reading experience. It is a very good feeling; there’s something prayer-wheel-esque about it… like I don’t have to turn the page or do anything, it just goes on and on. I couldn’t really see what was going on around it, either, or what was happening; you keep reading toward the end, like a river.
Jakob Nolte was born in Barsinghausen on the Deister heights of Lower Saxony. He is the author of various comics, prose pieces, and theater plays, the most recent of which was performed in Salzburg, Bonn, and Vienna’s renowned Max Reinhardt Seminar. Together with Michel Decar he has won the Brothers Grimm Award of the Federal State of Berlin, and he was invited to the Autorentheatertage for emerging playwrights at the Deutsches Theater Berlin. ALFF is his first novel.