A Book in Review

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The Empty Joke: ‘ A Perfect Vacuum ’

By Kenichiro Treglazov

‘A Perfect Vacuum’

by Stanisław Lem

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971

“A Perfect Vacuum” is a postmodern performance of the worst kind. Lem writes book reviews of books that don't exist, a kind of talking to himself on which the reader eavesdrops. It mixes Borges' maps of cities that became their maps with Vonnegut's attempts to pawn failed novel ideas as the fiction of Kilgore Trout.

Your eyes will roll like slot machines.

Consider the fictional book “Rien du tout, ou la conséquence,” a book written entirely in not-statements. Rather than own its narrative, it suggests its story and then denies that it has told any story at all. "He did not walk down the street. He did not turn the key." The reader imagines what the book denies occurs, so the book absolves itself of the responsibility by telling the reader only what did not happen instead of what did.

Consider, as well, Gigamesh, a Joycean train wreck that comes with its own compendium of references and symbols. The compendium explains such esoterica as the thematic significance of the absent letter "L" in the book's title, producing the word "Gigamesh" instead of "Gilgamesh." The compendium is several times larger – and clearer – than the actual book, challenging the idea of which is the book and which is the addendum.

Lem even uses the conceit of a review of “A Perfect Vacuum” for the book's introduction. Lem, in pseudonym, unfavorably reviews his own work. The book accuses itself of empty contradiction, simultaneously complimenting, damning, and being itself in the same pen swoop. The review-introduction then criticizes the function of book introductions generally, calling them pre-emptive apologies for the book's failings – while, at that very moment, apologizing for the book's failings.

Each faux review goes into excruciating detail about the books that the reader is not reading. “A Perfect Vacuum” tricks us into knowing books that cannot be known. We can take this as commentary on the format of the book review itself, the text we read in place of the text we will not. But why in God's name would you?

“A Perfect Vacuum” is a hot flop with paradox. It is distracted élan, vigorous resignation. It is the kind of niche amusement that means no harm on its face while it codes its jokes in polyglot, literary sophistication that intimidates. Droll, educated postmodernism offends without direct insult. It smacks of the pretensions of an idiot.

I cannot imagine what drove Lem to squander his creative gifts. Perhaps Old World European ennui afflicts the sufferer more than once believed. His book is a standout example of how thoroughly literary culture has dissipated. No one can care about belles lettres, our literary treasures, when postmodern bumbling is their legacy. Real culture stands no chance against the fragmentation of aesthetic value by digital communications.

The idea of a fictional book itself is absurd, a mirage pursued by a lunatic reaching for meaning in a world that does not exist. Lem would be better remembered by history if he stuck with his wonderful “Tales of Pirx the Pilot.” Everyone wants to read about a man in space.

- Kenichiro Treglazov

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