Nonlocal, an intense, quirky work of literary fiction, is the story of two men a generation apart in age, and how their lives interact and their stories overlap and echo. There is Korean American Kohlhaas, who I assume is about eighteen years old, straddling two identities (American and Korean), at home in neither, and not accepted by the latter. And then there is Professor Berg, who teaches at the M School for Overseas Koreans in Qingdao, China, at which Kohlhaas has just enrolled.
In a wonderfully unhinged prologue brimming with misanthropy, arrogance, self-loathing, and philosophical introspection, we have Berg talking to himself in his bathroom mirror. He has just received a copy of his former student’s unreliably narrated memoir, which makes up the rest of Nonlocal.
Kohlhaas piqued my interest. He gripped my heart. He was a living tragic hero. Tragic for his isolation, heroic for his refusal to cower or concede. He was a stubborn sufferer. In him I imagined was a piece of my own story, my aspirations to make my own tragedy heroic. His trajectory, whether success or failure, would shed light on my own, could perhaps even influence it, or so I thought. But our interaction was cut short. We were like strangers that entered the same train carriage, recognised a significance in each other that we failed to reason into words, and then were forced out onto our private ways only to feel the pang of opportunity lost.
Kohlhaas is an odd name for a Korean-American protagonist, is it not? It’s a reference to the influential German novella Michael Kohlhaas (1810) by Heinrich von Kleist. In a recent article in the New Yorker magazine, “Michael Kohlhaas,” the Book That Made the Novel Modern, writer Dustin Illingworth called the novella the “greatest of German literary works.” Michael Kohlhaas tells the tale of the eponymous hero, an ordinary man pushed too far, taking on the state bureaucracy to obtain justice over minor mistreatment. Illingworth has praise aplenty for this “passionate, grotesque, hysterical, and deeply strange body of work,” even though he has trouble pinning down exactly what the novel is.
“Michael Kohlhaas” could be called a pathology of obsession, or a juridical riddle, or even a kind of magnificent taunt, though none of these is right, or right enough. One must merely read it, and then read it again, staggered by its sheer acceleration, its furious savagery, its vertiginous authority, its exquisite prolongment of closure as event follows improbable event.
Nonlocal has very little in common with Michael Kohlhaas in terms of plot or the life-and-death drama – it’s a story of and for a duller, safer time. There are, however, thematic similarities; both men are lone characters on a road of discovery and they are dealing with the chaos that comes from the clash between the rational mind and irrational will.
Additional literary influences, though not referenced in the novel, include two other German works: The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) a coming-of-age story of a young man at a boarding school, and Goethe’sThe Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which describes an artistic young man’s struggles to deal with realities of life.
Readers familiar with Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun’s novel Pan might see its influence in the magical Forest of Nonlocal. In Pan a lone hunter, Lieutenant Thomas Grahn, and Edvarda, a merchant’s daughter, become lovers in what proves an incompatibility between nature and culture. In Nonlocal, Evelyn, a young counsellor at the M School, is the undeveloped female interest, a catalyst for Kohlhaas’ conflict and development rather than a character with a backstory and strong voice.
For a while Evelyn stayed away from our forest cage. Then one night she was there waiting for me. Did she feel me pulling her, through my forest bars, as real as any hand? More likely her anger cooled or her boredom grew intolerable. Evelyn was all spleen and ennui, a savage girl. Other nights, when Evelyn was away, Catherine crept through the branches and leaves and into my circle, into my heart and spiraling consumption. On another occasion, when I laid with Evelyn under the city’s jaundiced sky, I saw Catherine’s face floating in the dark. She studied our movements on the ground. When I looked for her again, she was gone.
But it is the relationship between Kohlhaas and Berg which is central to the book. Despite not spending a great deal of time together, a strong connection is made, in many ways because of their similarities and how each man sees himself in the other. There is a great scene when Kohlhass, breaking school rules to visit a bar, spots his teacher sitting alone and oddly positioned.
… yet Berg sat with his back to the room and his face to the wall, like a weekend Bartleby. What could cause someone to enter a crowded room just to turn his back on the crowd? … The intellectual, the thoughtful, tended to be self-isolating, perhaps out of necessity, but like myself, he also tended to appreciate having that which he isolated himself from at arm’s length. … Like the lawyer staring in wonder at Bartleby’s inexplicable behaviour, I felt both the revulsion of mingling with the inhuman and the recognition of glimpsing a truth about myself in another’s actions. … I speculated the daily contact with students and colleagues and his teacherly pantomime before the blackboard so exhausted a part of him it became imperative to set his face to the wall while deliberately setting his back to the amity of the crowd in order to empty himself or perhaps fill himself with the thing that made it possible for him to complete the week as he did. Yes, it was the wall that strengthened him. It was a pitiful thought. Berg must have been a great sufferer. It was his suffering that he couldn’t conceal and I couldn’t name the very first time I had set eyes on him.
Bolduc’s writing is often brilliant, the novel full of highly original and memorable lines and passages. Demanding too – for example, how many readers will get the Bartleby reference quoted above? (It comes from Herman Melville’s short story masterpiece “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”) I got that one but there is much in Nonlocalthat left me confused. All in all, it is too enigmatic for my tastes, and I would have prefered a more meat and potatoes plot, with less blurring of the line between reality and fantasy. However, Nonlocal is worth reading simply for the quality of the writing. Bolduc is a writer’s writer, his fearless prose a compelling mix of the modern and Melville, at once introspective and yet with a driving tempo and strange intensity. Likewise, Professor Berg and Kohlhaas are characters who will stay with you long after you finish reading the novel.
Bolduc is surely a determined writer. He has written the story he wants and not made concessions to the market. Nonlocal is challenging literary fiction, a much harder sell than genre fiction. In addition, its setting – primarily South Korea and China but also the United States, and Hong Kong – is not specific enough to make it a “Korea” or “China” novel, so I fear this talented debut novel will fly under the radar. While it’s true that Nonlocal addresses universal themes, and thus making the setting irrelevant to some degree, having a strong single setting helps placement. The author told me that he had some interest from small publishers but decided to – together with some literary friends – found a publishing house: Gymnasia Press.
Nonlocal can be ordered from the Gymnasia Press website.