I read João Gilberto Noll’s two novels Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel in swift succession on a rainy afternoon, a reading punctuated with the heavy sound of the light rail moving alongside. I finished one and immediately started the other, reading until it was time to move on.
For weeks after, I rued that marathon reading session as I tried to disentangle the plots in my mind. Atlantic Hotel featured a narrator nearing middle-age trundling from room to room in search of himself. Quiet Creature featured a young narrator being bundled from place to place as he waits to come into his own. Or was it the other way around?
The narrators of these two tiny Noll novels (109 pages and 138 pages, respectively) are Everymen, each inhabiting their own panel in a diptych. Not that either of these short novels presents anything resembling a normal life. The unnamed narrator of Atlantic Hotel moves from place to place with a vague itinerary, encountering death everywhere he turns. Likewise, the unnamed narrator of Quiet Creature is a rapist/poet looking for an occupation when he is taken in by a benevolent stranger/strange benefactor.
Quiet Creature on the Corner is bookended by two scenes in which water is the medium for metaphor. The novel begins with the narrator rinsing the remnants of his previous occupation down the drain and ends with him rising from a body of water, stripping off his wet clothes, taking hold of new garments and, ostensibly, a new life.
In between circling the drain and his eventual baptism, the narrator floats between the squat he shares with his mother; the streets of Porto Alegre, Brazil; a porno theater; a jail cell; a clinic; an estate in the country; a hospital room; the car of his sponsor/patron/father figure, Kurt; a McDonalds; a cinema bathroom; his dreams. In each of these places, he is attuned to the small details: a shredded couch, a speckled wall, a busted sneaker. He is a poet after all. Throughout the novel he writes poetry, but it is hard to think of him as a poet. He certainly does not seem to think of himself as one.
Early in the novel, on the brink of jotting down images for a poem—images characterized as “undulating things pursuing” him—the poet hears singing and decides the undulating things will wait. He finds the source of the singing—Mariana—a girl “always talking about Druidesses and other strange beings,” and soon after finds himself raping her (almost as if through no fault of his own).
When he is thrown in jail, the poet tells the sheriff his history up to that point. The sheriff zeroes in on the poet’s absent father, his impoverished mother, his dropping of school. The sheriff believes “that was the reason for everything, that was where it all had started.”
Perhaps because of this, perhaps because of the other prisoners’ sense that the poet is a “retard,” the poet is released into the care of a man who brings him to a clinic. Up until this point in the novel, the narrative itself is faintly fantastical, the narrator a bit too collected in the face of atrocity, but for the most part, Noll’s readers are in realist territory. Once the poet enters the clinic, the novel becomes something else.
Quiet Creature is frequently compared with the works of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and Kafka for the way it presents a reality where dreams bleed into waking life without warning.¹ These hypnagogic transitions could easily be written off as a stylistic choice that captures what it is like to wake from a dream, but other parts of the novel feature abrupt shifts in time that insistently disorient the reader.
One such transition begins “Now I was sitting on the toilet”: a “now” that pulls the reader forward an unspecified amount of time; “the toilet” changing the location of the action without any helpful signposting. Certainly Noll’s writing can charm its readers in its compactness, in his ability to maneuver untrammeled through space and time. He dispenses with warnings and the other creaky machinery of realism to cut right to what matters.
But even the most well-prepared reader will not immediately realize that these abrupt shifts may be more than stylistic. At one point, the poet notes that Kurt has turned into an old man and finds himself “thinking about how unprepared I was to track the passage of time.” No particular surprise is to be found in that thought: many of us have indeed suddenly been brought up short by an old photograph that drives home just how many years have gone by, or by meeting a friend after a long absence.
But Noll’s jump cuts prove to be, at times, quite deceptive. In the poet’s case, the readers come to realize, or at least believe (after a quick scan backward over the text), that not all that much time has passed. They wonder, alongside the poet: “Why this lapse in recognizing such a duration?”
If Quiet Creature on the Corner is about a young man finding his place in society, then Atlantic Hotel is about a man (perhaps the same man?) approaching middle-age having lost his place. When he checks into a hotel room where a body was just found, he fantasizes about murdering someone to
earn a cell and free board from the state. Maybe resume drawing, which I gave up in adolescence. Draw all day long if the other prisoners let me. At night I'd fall asleep so that the next morning I could awaken and continue the interrupted line from the day before.
That interrupted line is telling. He’d like a sense of continuity—of control over his days. Continuing his reverie:
Maybe that way I'd get back to finding joy in just killing time. Eva, a blonde I'd been mixed up with for the last few months, was always telling me, "What you need is a normal occupation."
When alone with myself, in front of the mirror, I'd started saying, "Unoccupied, that's what they call you."
Throughout the novel, he takes on many guises: a soap opera star, a priest, a blind man, (in a dream) a woman. He likens himself to an Indian who senses he is about to die. He longs for a child’s intimacy with the floor. In each of these guises he seems to be either trying on possible occupations or reliving stages of his own life. He informs us by page eight that "[a] countdown was in progress: I needed to get going." His time of occupation is clearly coming to an end.
And get going he does—by foot, bus, car, horse-drawn wagon, and crutches. At a bus station, he pulls out a map and makes his selection. When he leaves the map behind, a woman calls out to him, telling him that he has forgotten his map. He tells her that it is not his. From that point forward he takes rides with strangers and does his best to keep his journey going. Along the way, he is constantly in the presence of death, and not in some metaphorical or allegorical way, either. People keep dying all around him—until, at last, even his own leg precedes him in death.
Both of Noll’s narrators have been reduced to what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life”—zoë (animal life) shorn of its bios (the form and quality of life). Abandoned by the Brazilian state during a time of political transition, the poet of Quiet Creature is thrown in jail, then released into the custody of Kurt because he has no value to the state—it will not bother working him through the justice system so that he may become a citizen again.² He embodies the dual meaning of homo sacer (sacred and accursed) in that he has his needs taken care of and given a space for art, while also being used as a mere body by Kurt. Though he does not seem to realize it, in effect, he is one of the landless people who cross Kurt’s property.
The narrator of Atlantic Hotel lives in the liminal spaces of society: hotel rooms, churches, and hospitals, various forms of transport, and amid criminals.
He uses other people and other people use him until the very end of the story when he meets Sebastiao, a nurse who seems to care about more than just preserving the narrator’s zoë but his bios as well.
Before reading Atlantic Hotel and Quiet Creature on the Corner, I had wondered whether a writer could assemble a novel from the events of a life, whether they would be able to impose order on the happenings and make meaning where there seemed to be none. After, I realized I had been convinced that João Gilberto Noll could make any life into a compelling novel—not by selective retelling or outright fabrication, but by being willing to recognize the inherent value of a life lived—no matter its form or function in society.
While some readers are likely to perceive Noll’s work as difficult,³ even willfully so, the payoff for reading these novels is a greater sense of what it is to be a human. Even though they register to the reader as excursions into weird places and states of mind, neither novel seems to be a critical project disguised as fiction, nor do they appear to be authorial experiments bent to the shape of an idiosyncratic form. Indeed, any interpretation of these novels threatens to be an exercise in unwarranted overdetermination.
Despite the estranging quality of their prose and the abnormality of the events they comprise, these novels feel true to life as it is lived by real people—full of confusion, thwarted plans, obsessive thoughts, weird dreams, taboo desires (repressed and enacted), and peripatetic movement.
When I wasn’t looking, João Gilberto Noll died. Of natural causes, apparently.
This shadow cast suddenly over the fictions I’d been contemplating left me staring into the middle distance. I imagined Noll into Atlantic Hotel where the narrator exclaims to no one, “I’m dead, bury me!” A few pages later, the narrator telegraphs his death with a piece of folk knowledge: “I lay on my side, turned to the wall, just like they say Indians do when they sense they’re about to die.”
Christopher Fletcher is a filmmaker and writer whose work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. Find him at www.chrisfletcherpresents.com.
¹ The comparisons to film are apt. Adam Morris, the translator of these two novels, believes that “Noll thinks more like an experimental filmmaker than a novelist. This makes his writing very pleasing to read: Noll pays attention to detail, but only to certain details.”
² While in jail, he has a reverie about his cellmates accepting him as one of their own: “When it gets light out I’ll turn the to the interior of the cell, and the newspaper with the story about me will be passing from hand to hand, and this will calm me, restore my sleep, because the five will see proof that I am one of them.” Things do not work out the way he hopes. Even his cellmates exclude him from the life of the prison.
³ According to one Kirkus reviewer of Atlantic Hotel, “while Noll and his translator Morris' prose frequently has a seductive, nourish quality, the novel is so fatally hamstrung by its inherent lack of substance or point that any stylistic grace only reinforces how fundamentally empty an exercise it is. None of the surreal events in the unnamed narrator's life ever have a significance beyond titillation and transgression….” One wonders what it would take for that reviewer to perceive significance beyond the surface of an action. Probably a greater sense of self-awareness on the part of the narrator. Or a voiceover, preferably from Morgan Freeman.