Reading C. D. Rose’s new collection of stories made me think of Walter Benjamin’s dream of composing a book solely out of citations of other writing. This is hardly surprising, and it’s quite likely something Rose expected me to think of—it’s that sort of book. But while there are citations galore to be had in Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea, Rose’s Benjamin, in the title story, sits on a bench on a Los Angeles beach in an imagined continuation seven years after the man himself took his life at the edge of a different body of water in Portbou, Spain.
Given an extension of his time on Earth, Rose’s Benjamin imagines writing a different book about Los Angeles. Instead, he decides to go to the cinema, where he contemplates reporting himself missing and starting a new life as Ben Walter, a private detective. There is a lot of wishing and hoping, but no one else gets much writing done in these stories either, not Augustine, improbably stuck on Twitter, or Henri Bergson, improbably unstuck in time, or the unnamed MFA writer in Tucson, Arizona, very predictably writing about not being able to write.
An awful lot of stories in Benjamin Stares at the Sea are told out of this familiar stasis, floating somewhere between the postmodernist vacuity of Rose’s earlier years and the decidedly unplayful autofiction of today’s literary landscape. These stories should not work as well as they do, but the wit, range, and sheer absurdity of Rose’s story world somehow pull together just enough to not get locked into the cul-de-sac of either form. They resist adding up to anything, but the sum stubbornly remains greater than the disparate parts.
Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea is Rose’s fourth collection in ten years and the first since completing what his online biography terms “a loose parafictional trilogy about lost books and forgotten writers, about who is forgotten and who remembered, and how, and why.” These stories, too, are populated by the lost and forgotten, intertwined with many who are neither. Readers will (sometimes quite explicitly) be reminded of usual suspects like the Oulipian constructs of Italo Calvino, the “games with time and infinity” characteristic of Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 ur-paratextual fiction Pale Fire.
They will also encounter a loosely connected sequence devoted to the stories of obscure figures in the history of photography and motion pictures, the filmography of a (presumably) imagined German starlet named Magda, a recurring retelling of Guy de Maupassant’s hoary 1884 classic “The Necklace”, and a respectively blind and deaf pair of brothers constructing and deconstructing a memory palace out of matchsticks on a train somewhere that really should be but is never actually named as the Transiberian Express. Despite the unrelenting self-referentiality, it’s better than it sounds, partly because Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea‘s stories or fables or whatever they are are often extremely funny and partly because every once in a while, they’re also quite affecting.
Like many collections and novels where the formal conceits dominate the storytelling, the sum total can be tiring or enervating, and all the more so because Rose both carefully controls meaning and connection and also because he refuses either to settle into them or to constrain the resulting ambiguities satisfactorily. So, yes—Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea remains postmodernist in its emotional withholding.
At the same time, unlike, say, 1980s Paul Auster, who is everywhere and nowhere in these pages, Rose ranges more globally and, at key moments, touches on the rich formal lode that makes contemporaries such as Benjamin Labatut, Valeria Luiselli, and Teju Cole so powerfully exceed the limited stakes of so much of today’s autofiction and fictionalized nonfiction. At these moments, staring at the sea evokes not only coldly rolling waves of nearly identical lives passing and ungraspable temporality but something warmer, more finely grained, and more relevant to the lives we live, without losing sight of the absurdity of that desire or the impossibility of maintaining or even attaining it.
It’s not as if Rose is unaware of the pitfalls of his approach; indeed, the collection is both compelling and exhausting in its ceaseless circumnavigation of those pitfalls. The opening story is a lively round-robin of indirect free style set in a hotel bar. Its myriad of characters both exemplifies and questions the portentous title. “Ognosia”, the Acknowledgments inform us, is Jennifer Croft’s translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s coining.
The Internet tells us agnosia is the ability to perceive the world as meaningful and connected; a footnote to the story “What Remains of Claire Blanck” implies that it’s quite similar to “apophenia … the mental condition in which the sufferer sees everything as being connected.” That is, if you’re the kind of reader that either seeks “agnosia” or suffers from a surfeit of “apophany”, you’ll find abundant grist for your mill in Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea. And if you have perspective on your condition, you’ll probably decide like I did that the gap, or perhaps the overlap, between an ability and a mental condition seems a reasonable description of what Rose seems to be getting at.
I certainly enjoyed the Borgesian biographies of dimly remembered French inventors and the refusal to take Bergson, Augustine, or Benjamin as seriously as they are usually taken without thereby losing sight of an iota of the complexity of their ideas. “St. Augustine Checks His Twitter Feed” is as laugh-out-loud funny and as effortlessly erudite as a classic Monty Python sketch. I was less persuaded by the more Austerian paradoxes of stories like “One Art”, in which one man’s world progressively vanishes only to accumulate in a woman’s drawers, or “Sisters”, in which one of a non-identical pair of identical twins similarly fades into nothingness. I was irritated by the intentionally emptied story “What Remains of Claire Blanck”, not because I didn’t enjoy the cleverness of taking Pale Fire one step further into notes without a text (get the name?), but because it’s in those notes that Rose unfolds with one hand and deauthorizes with the other the closest the collection gets to a raison d’être. When postmodernism doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions, I, like Benjamin, lose interest.
On the other hand, the two stories that precede “What Remains” are good enough not to be so easily undermined by their complex armature of form. “A Brief History of the Short Story” is a virtuoso variation on Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style, in conversation with numerous threads elsewhere in the collection, and with each variation on the short story formula spiraling around the previous one. It’s followed by “Proud Woman, Pearl Necklace, Twenty Years”, which appears intended as Rose’s own contribution to the prior French, Russian, and American models, and which echoes the multiple opening voices of “Agnosia”, except that here it’s an ESL classroom somewhere in Europe and a teacher is retelling the tale of “The Necklace” as a teaching device seamed with the varied experiences of a multilingual and multi-everything-else classroom. And not even my awareness that Rose writes it as a honeyed sop to the gatekeepers of today’s literary tastes keeps me from falling for its charms.
It’s moments like this, which escape knowing winks, ironic nods, and formal pyrotechnics, that make reading Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea feel like more than just another of those unremarkable afternoons that so many of its characters spend their days living through and trying to write about.