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To the Back of Beyond destabilises everything in the most stable of lives

Peter Stamm's haunting new novel is simple, yet irreducible and mysterious.

The forensic study of heterosexual desire in Seven Years, the Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm’s first novel to be translated into English, announced a formidable European writer to the Anglophone world. Reading To The Back of Beyond, his third novel, one begins to discern recurring themes in his work: man-woman relationships, marriage, desire, infidelity, family, a particular bourgeois matrix of life that can become a trap despite it – or even, because of it – being the end-point of the individualist desire that lies at the foundation of capitalist societies.

The story of To The Back of Beyond is simple yet irreducible and mysterious. On the day Astrid and Thomas and their two children, Konrad and Ella, return home to their small town in Switzerland from summer holiday in Spain, Thomas opens the garden gate in the evening, while Astrid has gone inside to settle the children in bed, walks out onto the street and keeps walking. It’s not giving away a crucial plot-twist to mention that he will never return to the life he walks out of, nor is it an unwelcome divulgence to note that we will never be told the motives behind this act. The book will alternate, in short sections, between Thomas and Astrid, and while we will be let inside her head, we will be kept out of his almost entirely.

The Thomas strand of the narrative follows him walking into the valleys and mountains of Switzerland, avoiding populated towns to prevent being noticed by people who may be questioned later about a missing person. He sleeps outdoors while the weather is favourable, then takes to living in mountain huts, engaging in short-term casual employment, before moving on to another place.

Astrid’s story sees her going to the police eventually to report her missing husband and breaking the news to the children. She even drives along a route she thinks Thomas could conceivably have taken; the novel seems to hint that she arrives in some of the places he has passed through or briefly stayed at but just after his departure. The investigation ends on a baffling note and marks a kind of pivot in the text towards a shifting and elusive mixture of fantasy, reality, and interiority in Astrid’s world.

As the novel nears its end, Stamm does two skilful things with time: the first is to indicate effortlessly its passing in large segments, so that we move from the earlier calibration of time as hours and days through weeks and months to years and decades; the second, to loop back in time to give us the story of how Astrid and Thomas came to be together.

Stamm’s interest does not lie in the texture of lives that are usually depicted by novelists in lyrical- or psychological-realism, especially in the logical progression of events that generally provides the dynamo for plots. For example, almost all the problems related to childcare, money, and work that would arise from an earning parent’s inexplicable disappearance seem to have been airbrushed away and when they do make an appearance – to answer the reader’s incredulity at their absence, I feel – they are dealt with in the most perfunctory manner.

There is very little context, social or economic, except what we can infer from light details. Stamm is not even interested in psychological interiority. He is more concerned about something that I can only call existential, something that will be indicated merely through the most oblique of hints, such as during a moment of descent through the hills in Thomas’s wandering, when he “had the feeling that something had fallen away from him, a repression, a pain”. What has Thomas walked away from? What does his freedom entail? What are its costs? The novel invites these questions but will not supply answers, destabilising everything one takes for granted in the most stable and ordinary of lives; the effect can be dizzying.

The translation, by Michael Hofmann, a mighty critic and poet as well as one of the foremost translators from the German language, does an impeccable job in rendering the blanched austerity of Stamm’s style and its deliberate affectlessness. Hofmann himself writes a prose that is so densely packed, so impatient with the desire to fill his sentences with ideas, that it feels restless, fissile, alive (see his introduction to Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, or any essay in his collection Where Have You Been?). I often wonder if he becomes another person to let Stamm’s German speak through his English. 

Neel Mukherjee’s latest novel “A State of Freedom” (Vintage) is out now

To the Back of Beyond
Peter Stamm. Translated by Michael Hofmann
Granta, 160pp, £12.99

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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“Lick it up, SJWs”: Will the Heathers TV reboot become a cult classic… for the far right?

Will a twist find the left embracing the show, or is it the anti-SJW screed the right wing have been waiting for? 

No one really wanted a remake of the 1988 cult classic Heathers. When the TV reboot was announced in 2016, fans of the dark comedy (which saw Winona Ryder on a murderous rampage against her school’s popular, pretty clique) were concerned. Would it be any good? How on earth could it live up to the original? Yet after the pilot episode was released online last night, Heathers fans gained a new concern. Will the TV show also become a cult classic, but for the far right?

Heathers (2017) turns the premise of Heathers (1988) on its (Diet Coke) head. The popular trio of Heathers is now no longer made up of thin, privileged, white blonde girls, but a black lesbian Heather, a genderqueer Heather, and a “body-positive” Heather (“Fat kids can be popular?” is a line in the trailer).

This change was met with scorn from much of the left, who noted that turning marginalised people into the popular, powerful and privileged was not only 1) not true to the lived experiences of many minorities, but also 2) intensely problematic when the premise of the film is that the powerful deserve to be brutally murdered.

This idea, however, has become unsurprisingly popular with those who identify as “anti-social justice warriors”, Trump supporters, and conservatives.

“I already know SJWS are going to collectively lose their shit,” reads one tweet, with nearly 500 retweets and over 1,400 likes. Cassandra Fairbanks, a reporter for Sputnik News and an outspoken Trump supporter, replied that she “kind of loves” the show. Ian Miles Cheong – a writer for the Daily Caller and also Milo Yiannopoulos’s Dangerous.com – tweeted repeatedly while watching the pilot.

“I absolutely love the new Heathers,” he wrote. “The new Heathers completely wrecks SJWs and makes fun of their sensibilities and virtue signaling [sic]. It’s great.”

Jason Micallef, the series showrunner, has explained that actually, the Heathers in the original Heathers aren’t villains, so the new Heathers aren’t either. “In the original film, the Heathers were the ones I always loved, and it’s the same with the series. The Heathers are the aspirational characters,” he told Entertainment Weekly.

Unfortunately, barely anyone else read the original Heathers in this way, and the right wing doesn’t see the new show this way either. “They’re the bad guys,” tweeted Cheong of the series’ “SJW” Heathers, rendering Micallef’s intent immediately irrelevant.

The show’s creators should’ve been prepared for this, because it’s 2018. Pop culture is now inherently political, and new releases find their fans on either the left or the right. Beauty and the Beast (2017) was boycotted by conservatives because of its “gay moment”, while Wonder Woman (2017) became the highest-grossing superhero origin movie because of its feminist credentials. Shoes aren’t immune. In 2016, Neo-Nazis declared New Balance “the official shoes of white people” after a company representative tweeted seeming support of Donald Trump.

If the rest of Heathers episodes (released in March) continue to vilify identity politics, then it wouldn’t be surprising if every frog avi on the internet gleefully told the left to “lick it up”.

Yet, Heathers might still anger its new right-wing fans. On Twitter, the creators deny that the show is “a power fantasy about a straight white couple murdering minorities”, cryptically stating that “you’ll get it when you watch it.” Presumably, then, there’s a twist. Micallef has even tweeted that the teachers in the show get guns and it “doesn’t end well” in episode 8, which may lose the show some conservative American fans (Trump is currently suggesting that teachers should be armed to protect students from mass shooters).

So while Heathers may still become an alt-right classic, it also may remarkably end up with no fans on either the left or the right. All in all: fuck me gently with a chainsaw.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.