I was persuaded to read Thomas Glavinic's Night Work by Steve Mitchelmore's thoughtful review of the novel. I do believe that Steve's defense of its strategy of non-revelation is more convincing than the complaints made by some reviewers that the novel fails because it does not adequately account for the circumstances motivating the story, but ultimately I wasn't quite as taken with Night Work as was Steve or some other of its reviewers. I'm not sorry I expended the time to read the book, although it has turned out to be one of those books that, for me at least, has been more stimulating to think about in retrospect than it was while reading it.
To some degree I expected to not like the book much at all, however much I generally trust Steve Mitchelmore's judgment. If it's not exactly a "post-apocalytic" novel, it sounds when first described to be close enough to that sub-genre, and I can't say I've ever been one of its fans. (And I don't mean just its SF version in particular; the post-apocalyptic novels written by Denis Johnson and Paul Auster and Cormac McCarty haven't done much for me, either.) These novels always seem to be striving so hard to "say something"--about technological development, about human nature, about what the future might bring if we don't watch out!--that I am unable to take much pleasure in them as works of fiction on a purely aesthetic level. It's not that the "vision" of human life after the ultimate catastrophe is itself unpleasantly dark; it's that the formal resources of fiction have been so thoroughly subsumed to rhetorical ends that I feel I'm being lectured.
Night Work mostly avoids this problem, although questions about what has happened and why must inevitably persist about a narrative that posits a world emptied of all human and animal life save for the story's protagonist, Jonas. But not only does the novel resolutely refuse to disclose the source of the protagonist's dilemma, it becomes clear rather early on that the source of this dilemma is really beside the point. This is a novel set in an apparently calamitous future that is not going to resolve itself into a meditation on that calamity or a satire of human folly but is instead going to explore through the actions and state of mind of its solitary main character what it would be like to be the last vestige of conscious life in existence.
The narrative does playfully leave the suggestion that the "night work" performed by Jonas's sleeping self might be the cause of his predicament, perhaps a kind of half-awake dissociative state. Jonas begins videotaping himself asleep, and he does witness what must be episodes of sleepwalking (which also start to become evident in other ways as well, as when Jonas apparently locks himself into the trunk of his car while asleep). The moment when Jonas watches his sleepwalking self peer into the camera at his awakened self (or vice versa?) is almost vertiginous in its self-referentiality. But even if sleepwalking provides some sort of "explanation" of Jonas's experiences--and it would be a pretty lame one, if we were to take it literally--it doesn't finally matter to our own experience of Jonas's story. Whether it is "really" happening or not fades in importance, as does whether it occurs in the aftermath of a plague, or an alien invasion, or through any other "logical" explanation, to the comprehensive accounting of Jonas's response to the new realities of his situation, literally dreamed up or not.
One inevitably thinks of the night work named in the title as being the work of fiction as well. What Jonas confronts is something he desperately hopes is fiction--a forced encounter with "reality" on a transformed, elemental level--but that increasingly forces itself on him as reality, however uncanny it has become. If it is possible to emerge from the structured dream of fiction with an expanded sense of reality, Jonas is unable to emerge from his dream at all, and he learns that the reality it has become is ultimately unbearable. But this is where my appreciation of Night Work begins to break down. I'm not really sure how much Glavinic himself appreciates the literary/aesthetic implications of his novel, and this reservation is reinforced by both the novel's narrative method and its prose style.
Night Work is presented to us through a more or less conventional third-person narration. It begins on the morning Jonas enters into his anomalous state and ends with his apparent death. Although we are restricted to Jonas's own actions and perceptions, we are not immersed fully into his "deep" consciousness as in much "psychological realism," and while this is to some degree a deliverance from this now stale approach, it creates another problem in a narrative so reduced to activity and event. The narration is mostly concerned to relate what Jonas does:
In the station concourse he trotted from ticket office to ticket office, shop to shop, smashing the windows with his wrench. He didn't disconnect the security alarms this time. Having broken the window of the bureau de change, he waited to see if its alarm would go off, or if he would have to continue his orgy of destruction. Perhaps some-still surviving guardian of the law would think a heist was in progress and intervene.
To the ear-splitting accompaniment of the security alarms he rode the escalator up to the platforms. Taking his time, he began by exploring platforms 1 to 11 in the east section, where he'd seldom been before. Then he boarded the second escalator.
He also smashed the windows of the shops in the south section. They weren't equipped with burglar alarms, which surprised him. He raided one for a bag of crisps and a can of lemonade, plus a packet of paper handkerchiefs for his runny nose. From the newsagent's he grabbed a stack of newspapers two days old.
The level of detail provided here (and throughout the novel) is so generic I almost feel I am reading a screenplay, or at least a novel heavily influenced by cinema. This wouldn't necessarily be an inherent flaw--Robert Coover's A Night at the Movies and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre are both ingenious appropriations of film for literary effect--but the straighforwardly episodic structure of Night Work is not particularly enlivened by its prose, which, as in the passage quoted, remains rather pedestrian. If Night Work becomes particularly laborious in its middle sections, its uninspired language seems to me the immediate cause.
Or at least so it seems, as I am judging Glavinic's style as rendered in its English translation. Perhaps the banality of "trotted from office to office" and the cliches of "orgy of destruction" and "guardian of the law" are fair equivalents of Glavinic's German phrases, or perhaps they are as close as the translator could get to Glavinic's more felicitous words. Since my German is near non-existent, I really have no way of telling, so while I am inclined to think that the bland prose style is authentic enough Glavinic, I was sufficiently engaged with his story and his intrepid commitment to its ultimate indeterminacy that I'd like to think this translation is not appropriately faithful to the German text.