A Haunting Political Argument: On João Gilberto Noll’s Lord by ​Ross McElwain

“Any take [Noll] has on arguments dimly recognizable from contemporary thought will be an unusual one.”

Lord Cover

When we meet the narrator of João Gilberto Noll’s Lord (Two Lines Press), he has just disembarked at Heathrow airport and is wondering whether or not he will be met by the academic who has arranged his visit to England. Should the academic turn up (he does) the narrator, a Brazilian writer who resembles Noll himself, expects to be asked to complete “some kind of mission” (he isn’t).

While his hope lasts, the narrator thinks about wanting to “hold on to some autonomy,” which, oddly, he believes he’ll achieve not by working for himself but by receiving orders from the academic. A series of resonances, which become increasingly difficult to ignore, ensures that we start to see the academic as being not unlike the mythical “legislator” whom Rousseau describes in The Social Contract. The legislator, Rousseau writes, is a figure who feels himself “capable, as it were, of changing human nature; of transforming every individual, who in himself is a complete and independent whole, into part of a greater whole”—of exercising, in other words, the same power as that of a sovereign. We don’t learn whether this is how the academic thinks of himself, but even in failing to give form to the narrator’s days, he changes the Brazilian’s nature all the same. The writer finds himself dissolving without thereby becoming part of a greater whole. Far from being sutured into the body politic, as a citizen might be in one of the states which owes its laws to the legislator, the narrator seems increasingly to feel that he is, to paraphrase Beckett, just a lost body searching for its lost one.

Left to his own devices, the narrator undergoes a series of transformations which range from the cosmetic (applying makeup so as to look younger) to the corporeal (waking up from a nap no longer in possession of the body of an old man but, instead, of that “of a modest gymnast”). His “hard cock” also comes “back to life,” and his thoughts turn increasingly to sex, as a substitute, maybe, for the purpose he imagines that the academic and others might have allotted him. “What he wanted from me, I suspected, was to attempt to drain my essence from me to him,” he remarks of his encounter—not a sexual one, but an exchange of stares arranged by the academic—with an aging aristocrat.

If the above remarks make the narrative seem vague and meandering, that’s because it is. Those who already know Adam Morris’s translations of Atlantic Hotel and Quiet Creature on the Corner will be familiar with the way that Noll moves a story forward: with unexpected sideways leaps, murkily signposted transitions, and above all the juxtaposition of episodes whose import, one guesses, might have remained enigmatic even for the author himself. A reader of such material has to work—and to work even a little too hard, on occasion—to avoid losing the thread altogether.

Equally, those who were happy to meet the demands made by Atlantic Hotel and Quiet Creature will be familiar with the rewards for persevering. Noll’s willingness to follow his nose meant that in Quiet Creature he was able to pull off a truly thrilling feat: writing a gripping and visceral tale in service of a design that, intentionally or otherwise, is extremely abstract, meditating as it does on repetition giving way to the singular, and is all the more effective for it. In this regard Quiet Creature is much more satisfying than, for example, Stig Sæterbakken’s Through the Night, and less liable to date than the work of Noll’s literary heroes—Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus—has proven to be.

Noll doesn’t bother himself with elaborating “themes,” which means that Atlantic Hotel is not “about” anything in particular and on the surface can seem committed only to portraying a nameless character’s dreamlike and weightless drifting between one possible life and the next (and the next…). Even so, the novel does end up subtly probing the notion that the body functions as a point of inscription between two orders of time: the temporality of habit and that of history, of the Atlantic Ocean as a cultural hyperobject which offers up a certain range of circuits around which a life can journey. One of Noll’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to secrete such pockets of thematic richness in his work without apparently having made a conscious effort to put them there; this also tends to mean that any take he has on arguments dimly recognizable from contemporary thought (or not-so-contemporary thought, in the case of Rousseau’s legislator) will be an unusual one.

As such, when in Lord he invokes the legislator and the form of sovereign power bound up in that figure, Noll seems to do so without overtly having set out to. Nor does he seem to have merely shoehorned in references to other regimes of power, particularly the ones termed by Foucault and Deleuze as being those of “discipline” (the society of the panopticon, of the jailer) and of “control” (the society of the dissolution of the individual)—but they are there to be found if one wants to find and think about them. Moreover, given that in Lord each of these regimes of power seems to emit from a center as absent as is the elusive academic, one can discern a coherent and haunting political argument running through the narrative.

Ultimately, it’s not quite clear what question or questions the text is primarily wrestling with. It concludes with a sequence that feels like the solution to a problem, though to which problem among the many raised and then dropped in the course of the book, sometimes extremely fleetingly, it’s hard to tell. Not that this matters: as I’ve said, Noll constructs his fictions by means of a series of left turns, and one shouldn’t be surprised to find that logic carried through to the very end, sometimes to a surprisingly satisfying effect, as in Quiet Creature, and sometimes, as here, playing the more disquieting role of opening up questions barely larval in the preceding narrative.

Ross McElwain is a writer based in London, UK.

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