What happens when a profound alienation from the world takes a turn for the surreal? While it’s not explicitly a tale of the fantastic, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled avoids realism as it tells the story of a musician whose circumstances are in a state of constant flux; add a mysterious device or two and you’d have a prime Philip K. Dick-style narrative on your hands. Michael McDowell’s Toplin eschews the outright supernaturalism of some of his other works but abounds with plenty of horror nonetheless.
The last few years have seen an abundance of work by the late Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll being translated into English: first Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel, and now Lord. (Adam Morris translated the preceding two novels; Edgar Garbelotto handled translation duties for Lord.) All three novels tell tales of profound alienation from the outside world. The narrator of Quiet Creature on the Corner is imprisoned in a space where time seems to move differently for various people, while Atlantic Hotel centers around a man who arrives at the hotel in question and finds that his identity is in a state of constant flux. Lord is somewhat more buttoned-down, at least at first: Its narrator is an aging Brazilian writer visiting London who finds himself extremely disoriented upon his arrival in a new city.
That description doesn’t do justice to how absolutely unsettling Lord is, both in the ways that it depicts alienated psyches and in the ways that it disorients the reader. In a 2017 roundtable discussion of Noll’s work at Literary Hub, writer John Trefry observed that Noll “presents compartments of events whose edges are blurred in such a way that they seem to flow together—as if one is precipitated by its predecessor—but are actually discrete from one another. ”
And so in Lord, you have the narrator musing, after he’s taken some steps to make his appearance seem more youthful, that “I had to find a new source for my new formation, even now in my fifties, and that fountain would come from him, that light brown-haired man with makeup on, who lived in London for the time being without exactly remembering why.”
The “him” and the “I” there both refer to the narrator. If this was a book by a naturalistic writer, it might be a sign of the narrator’s psychological disassociation, or perhaps dementia. But João Gilberto Noll is not a naturalistic writer, and this novel is not one of stark realism. Certain details of it are meticulously recorded: the way the narrator traverses the London Borough of Hackney, for instance. But others—most notably, the narrator’s name—are narratively elided.
“I would be faceless; I would avoid any reflection of my features,” the narrator observes later in the novel. “Blind to my own image, I would reinvent myself through those who had no investment in my face.” There’s a powerful sense of the uncanny here; between this and the desire for youth, it’s difficult to deny that there’s something vampiric about the narrator, even as he also possesses a desperation and a confusion that don’t usually fit in with such stories.
Considered beside the other two books of Noll’s released by Two Lines Press, some common elements emerge: a narrator of shifting identity in a shifting landscape, whether temporal, geographic, or—as is the case here—pertaining to memory. Lord is also a more overtly physical and sensual novel than the other works of Noll’s that have been translated into English. Over the course of the book, the narrator has sex with a number of men that he encounters on his travels; this element of the novel, too, has a dreamlike quality that adds to the novel’s surreal tone.
Lord summons tension due to its sheer indescribability—as the reader is forced to question whether this ambiguity is in the service of some larger plot revelation, or if the ambiguity itself is the point. To reveal where Lord reaches its own resolution would be to spoil things; that said, the point on which Noll brings this book to a close made me gasp, and soundly answers some of the larger questions posed by the narrative. To say that this novel operates under dream logic would be to sell it short: It has a distinctly surreal logic, but “dreamlike” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when thinking of it. Still, the blend of precision and abandon with which Noll spins this tale is never less than disconcerting. The result is a novel that creates new rules and surveys new fictional terrain as it goes.
Lord is available from Two Lines Press.