A man is invited to a remote Institute to pursue a research project, and finds it difficult to focus.
Peter Mendelsund clearly has a great command of language. Unfortunately, he appears to have little to say. Alternatively, his message is intended for a very select group. While Same Same’s prose has style and rhythm, the entirety of the book suggests that it’s a an in joke about publishing for publishing insiders – all allusion and implication, with no substance. That may be deliberate – to the extent the book is about anything, it’s a satirical comment on the triumph of form over substance, of framing over results. What that says about Mendelsund’s view of his day job as a cover designer, I’m not sure.
Overall, the book comes across as self-indulgent, heavy-handed commentary, and yet it’s unclear what it’s commentary on. It’s a high concept novel, but only for those in the know – an elaborate experiment that somehow got published. Even Mendelsund seems to recognize this – his narrator is forever reading an interminable novel that he describes as “torturously long-winded” and “too high minded and complex for me (though its protagonist, strangely, seems to be a simpleton”. Meta-references aside, Mendelsund seems to have attempted to demonstrate sophistication through a deliberate opacity appealing to as small an audience as possible. While it draws heavily from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, it doesn’t add anything substantive to the concept.
With great tenacity, I made it about halfway through before I started to skim. Toward the end, the book turns more sharply toward metafiction, but in the end, the exercise struck me as almost completely pointless. I don’t doubt that somewhere, there’s an in-crowd that gets all the references, or that it would be possible to convince ‘sophisticates’ that this is a work of profound depth. It’s not; it is a book about emptiness that is itself empty.
20 March 2019 SFF | Peter Mendelsund |