Jonas Lüscher, the author of Barbarian Spring—“a most humorous and convincing satire of the ridiculous excesses of those responsible for the financial crisis” (The New York Times Book Review)—returns to the topic of neoliberal arrogance in his Swiss Book Prize winning, hilarious and wicked novel about a man facing the ruins of his life, and his world.
Richard Kraft, a German professor of rhetoric and aging Reaganite and Knight Rider fan, is unhappily married and badly in debt. He sees no way out of his rut until he is invited to participate in a competition to be held in California and sponsored by a Silicon Valley tycoon and “techno-optimist.” The contest is to answer a literal “million-dollar question”: each competitor must compose an eighteen-minute lecture on why our world is still, despite all evidence, the best of all possible worlds, and how we might improve it even further through technology.
Entering into a surreal American landscape, Kraft soon finds what’s left of his life falling to pieces as he struggles to justify as “best” a planet in the hands of such blithe neoliberal cupidity as he encounters on his odyssey to California. Still, with the prize money in his pocket, perhaps Kraft could finally buy his way to a new life . . . But what contortions—physical and philosophical—will he have to subject himself to in order to claim it?
Jonas Lüscher's second novel, Kraft, is a hilarious and wicked tale about a man facing the ruins of his life, and his world.
Release date: November 10, 2020
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Print pages: 224
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We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it.
Rumsfeld’s portrait hangs directly in Kraft’s line of sight. When he finds himself stuck yet again, staring blankly into the void over the top of his computer screen, the portrait hovers like a blurry red, blue, and gray stain in front of the oak-paneled wall. It always takes a few breaths before the former secretary of defense’s cold eyes behind rimless glasses reclaim their rights and, emitting a kind of guide
beam, take control of Kraft’s consciousness and force him to focus against his will until, in a single swift, fluid movement, the patches of color solidify into a concrete image and the nasolabial folds emerge, along with the thin, lipless mouth, the rather short nose—not exactly suited to the long-serving veteran hawk’s notoriously caustic expression—the accurately combed silver hair, the precisely knotted tie that tightly grips the chicken neck and, with the assistance of the heavily starched shirt collar, prevents the scornful, self-confident face from escaping the pinstriped cloth and rising on the eagle wings outspread from the folds of the sky-blue banner behind this renowned aphorist’s right ear before disappearing into loftier realms.
Just you wait, Kraft thought on his seventh day of sitting idly under this surveillance, torn once again from his vacuous thoughts by the imperious, demanding gaze, like it or not, I’m going to find a European tone. That’s my plan. A European tone that will combine Leibniz’s optimism and Kant’s rigor with Voltaire’s derisive scorn and Rabelais’s irrepressible laughter and will unite them all in Hölderlinian spheres with Zola’s sensitivity to human suffering and Mann’s irony … no, better leave Mann out of it, that half Californian.
* * *
At first Kraft had taken it for a joke, six months earlier, when he’d opened Ivan’s e-mail from Stanford with Theodicy in the subject line. But Ivan wasn’t one for joking, never had been, not even back when they first met in Berlin in ’81, and their regular correspondence over the decades since showed, in all its sober practicality, that neither the passing years nor the California sunshine had changed Ivan at all in that respect. The e-mail opened with Dear Dick, an English salutation Richard Kraft had gotten used to long before, just as he’d gotten used to the Ivan with which István Pánczél had at some point begun signing his communications—about the same time that brief e-mails began replacing letters typed on thin blue airmail paper. Ivan’s e-mail continued: We very much hope you will participate. We will cover all costs. Give my regards to Heike and the twins. Best, Ivan.
In an attachment, Kraft found the lavishly designed call to enter the essay competition held in honor of the 307th anniversary of the publication of Leibniz’s Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil. The essay was to be on a subject based on the prize question set by the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1753—“An examination of the system of Pope as it is contained in the dictum: ‘Whatever is, is right,’”—albeit in a rather more streamlined but also more optimistic formulation:
THEODICY AND TECHNODICY: OPTIMISM FOR A YOUNG MILLENNIUM:
Why whatever is, is right and why we still can improve it.
The modus operandi was clearly set out. All the submissions would be presented over the course of a single afternoon in Stanford University’s CEMEX Auditorium. The essays would be read aloud one after the other in swift succession with a strictly enforced eighteen-minute time limit; the use of presentation software was strongly encouraged; a select and illustrious audience would be in attendance; and the world—the organizers seemed confident of the world’s interest—would be tuned in via livestream. The author of the winning essay would receive one million dollars.
Yes, indeed, Kraft thought, at that price, one can certainly be confident of catching the world’s attention.
* * *
Before reading further, his eyes lingered for a moment on the oddly boyish face of a man in his best years. Tobias Erkner, Entrepreneur, Investor, and Founder of the Amazing Future Fund, the caption said of the flat-nosed man with a flashbulb’s ring-shaped reflection in his irises, which conjured up a gleam of youthful enthusiasm in the otherwise expressionless eyes. Kraft couldn’t remember ever having read a text that defied reason as blatantly as the one in which the aforementioned Tobias Erkner presented his vision under his own portrait and explained why it was so terribly urgent for the best and the brightest around the world to take up this question, along with his motivation for underwriting the reward with a million dollars of his private fortune.
Not that Kraft was unacquainted with texts in which the oddest ideas in intellectual history were justified with the crudest of convictions. He had seen his share from a certain kind of intelligent first-year student who had read too many of the wrong books too early, which could, when combined with a particular hormonal disposition, lead to volatile situations. In general, he was able to iron out such wrinkles in a semester or two.
But this here was something different. With apparent effortlessness and an irresistible matter-of-factness, the founder of the Amazing Future Fund was able to establish what seemed like perfectly logical connections between obviously false statements, contradictory notions, and things that clearly had nothing to do with each other. What Kraft found most disturbing was the complete absence of emphatic rhetoric. Erkner’s language was crystal clear, straightforward, and free of any attempt to take the reader’s emotions hostage. It would have been easy to diagram the arguments logically, to transform Erkner’s text into a column of predicators and logical connectives, at the bottom of which his conclusion would ineluctably and necessarily stand, even if, as was clear to Kraft, every one of the premises was false. But that seemed to be of no interest to the author as long as the formal rules of language were followed. Kraft was appalled.
Unfortunately, he was not able to replicate Erkner’s rigor when he tried to explain to Heike why he had to leave her alone with the twins for four weeks in September. She had laughed and, abashed, he had stared down at her large bare feet and polished toenails.
* * *
Finding the right tone, whether a European one as he has envisioned or any other, is proving difficult for Kraft because a muffled roar and furious howling are echoing everywhere and at nearly all hours throughout the rooms of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. A droning and hissing escape from an antiquated stainless-steel casing that sits like a jet pack on the back of a hefty Mexican woman, so that Kraft occasionally indulges in the fancy that her corpulence alone keeps her from blasting off and is the reason why the appliance so audibly strains at the limits of its powers with a roar that swells and ebbs to the rhythm of the greedy nozzle the woman stoically pushes over the carpet. There always seems to be something to vacuum up in the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace.
If Kraft didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed by the task facing him, perhaps the former secretary of defense’s expression would seem less scornful and the drone of the vacuum cleaner less deafening and he would be able to ignore both, but as it is he has no option but to regularly flee the smug hawk and the woman’s snarling appliance and seek refuge on the fourteenth floor of this tower bursting with books on war, revolution, and peace in the hope that it was still too early for any large flocks of Asian tourists to interrupt his contemplation and spoil his enjoyment of the view.
On the observation platform, Kraft settles into one of the tall grille-fronted niches and stares out past the rough-hewn ornamentation so well suited to the brutish proportions of the tower, which appears from a distance to be built of a single block but, seen from up close, reveals a peculiar sandy surface texture that makes it look like it’s part of a stage set. Kraft’s gaze flits impatiently over the campus landscape of red-tiled roofs spread out at his feet and disdainfully appraises the whole of Silicon Valley: What does he care about this mystical valley, this seething mass of buildings with its strange cults and places of worship, cradle of this or that digital life-form? It’s not his religion. He rests his eyes on the hazy city skyline to the north and searches his heart for a sense of regret.
Kraft is alone in his contempt. As a rule, the tower sends other visitors into ecstasies. They leap excitedly back and forth between the photographs of the surroundings hung on the columns and adorned with small arrows and captions drawing attention to the local attractions and views visible behind the grilles. They point out this or that building complex, accompanying the entire hubbub with polyphonic cries of admiration and detailed explanations in languages Kraft does not understand except for a few expressions they seem to shout into the blue Californian sky with particular emphasis and enthusiasm as if these were names of gods and saints they were compelled to invoke. There, there, one seems to be calling, his index finger indicating a spot to the north not far from the campus, Facebook! Awed cries of recognition rise in chorus and everyone’s eyes follow the extended finger. Another points in the direction of the bay with an exclamation, of which Kraft only catches Google, that is met with ardent cries and intensive searching until a young man draws the group’s attention away with a shout of Hewlett Packard, and they all rush to the north side of the tower while someone else waves toward the south, curving his hand in a gesture to indicate the other side of the mountain. Cupertino, he says reverently. Ahhh, Cupertino, Apple, they intone in response and chant the sainted name several times as they take pictures with telephoto lenses of the hill behind which the conjured fruit lies hidden.
Although he finds it all immensely irritating, Kraft forbids himself to think in terms of the West or of decline, but instead turns obstinately toward the carillon that stands completely neglected in the middle of the space open to the weather on all sides, its console enclosed in a small glass cubicle, the bells hanging from the beams overhead. Unsolicited, one of the Hoover Institution’s red-jacketed elevator men had informed Kraft about every detail of the unusual instrument. The number of bells: forty-eight. The inscription on the largest bell: For Peace Alone Do I Ring. The extreme difficulty of playing the instrument: only one professor in the entire Music Department—the last of his kind, so to speak—can do it. Kraft knows this isn’t true. But what an enticing thought that is, he thinks, how enticing and utterly laughable it would be if he were the very last person in the entire world who knew how to play this exceptional instrument. He pictures himself sitting on the bench in the small glass cubicle banging his fists on the batons of the keyboard and pressing the pedals with his feet to make the large bells peal. He’d give them what for. You’d hear it throughout the entire valley. Maybe even as far as the city in the fog if he stomped hard enough on the lowest pedal. Would she hear it? Johanna, whom he’d so infuriated thirty years ago that she had disappeared to San Francisco forever. For Peace Alone Do I Ring.
* * *
Heike had let out a laugh, short and sharp. Then she’d shrewdly picked apart Erkner’s text, and done so with such apparent ease, in fact, that Kraft was no longer sure why it had made a deep impression on him, why he’d been so appalled. Furious, he tore from her hand the paper on which he had printed out the essay question, leaving a stinging paper cut on her index finger.
* * *
The night before he left, they had argued.
Exhausted, they waited at the crack of dawn for Kraft’s taxi to the airport. Heike stood in the doorway, tall, blond, barefoot again, and Kraft’s eyes were caught for an absurdly long time by her bunions, those inflamed, bony protuberances that struck him as the manifestation of their relationship’s pathology. He fussed with his suitcase’s telescopic handle. Go, win, and come back with the prize money so we can all have our freedom again, she said. Kraft searched in vain for a sarcastic undertone to her words. He felt a sudden impulse to give her a hug and set his bag aside, but Heike had already closed the door.
* * *
Kraft spent his hours in flight using every meteorological phenomenon and every geographic feature as grounds for cultivating his faint melancholy into a pathos-drenched catharsis. From the deserted streets in the dawning light to the rain-soaked runway, from the clouds over the North Sea and Ireland’s green fields, across the endless expanse of the Atlantic—which, admittedly, he’d slept through—to Greenland’s dazzling ice sheet, agleam below him in inapposite sunlight, he worked himself into a fit of self-pitying grief over the breakdown of his marriage, which suddenly struck him as inevitable, and following a vague sense of duty, he heroically reviewed the good moments they’d shared, beginning with their first encounter at a meeting of the university’s administrative reform board, which Heike was attending as the representative of a management consulting firm and during which she had managed, with a furious round of PowerPoint slides of pie-chart and bar diagrams, to antagonize the entire group of professors twice her age, with the exception of him, Richard Kraft, who threw himself into the breach for her and her diagrams out of a fundamental instinct of dissidence and in provocatively expressed affirmation of the principles of economic liberalism—a provocation that didn’t have the slightest effect on his colleagues, who ignored his sallies as routinely as he presented them, as if his provocations were a threadbare and rather stained rug that had been left in the wrong place in the wrong room and had a tendency in moments of inattention—in other words, regularly—to raise its fringed edges, a daily hindrance, but not one worth getting agitated about. But perhaps he was also following an initial surge of spontaneous infatuation, a gesture for which Heike showed her appreciation by praising, in front of his colleagues, his open-mindedness toward her methodology before pointing out that he had drawn completely erroneous conclusions from her tables and figures and that his calculations were off by two decimal points.
Then he conjured up his first invitation, which she had finally accepted after some initial hesitation and which involved his attempt to impress her by serving up a buffet of prominent acquaintances from Tübingen’s academic circles and a sauerbraten with handmade spätzle. This attempt, it turned out, was successful since Heike had offered to stay on after the guests had left at a late hour and help him with the washing up, an effort abandoned halfway through, interrupted as it was by the conception of their twin girls, whose birth and first few birthdays Kraft now reviewed, a glass of tomato juice in hand ten thousand meters over the ice sheet, and by the time he reached his daughters’ third birthday the feeling crept over him that in the last fourteen years he had never had the chance to complete that half-finished washing up, so powerfully had the needs of his young wife and daughters encroached on his life, already overflowing with teaching and administrative duties, the pressure to publish, and the thirst for recognition, leading Kraft to the conclusion that his second marriage was not suited to helping him forget the failure of his first.
* * *
Maybe a European tone isn’t such a good idea after all. He has to be pragmatic and in this case that means being optimistic. Just this once. Not that he finds it easy or has the feeling that he—or the rest of the world—has any reason to be optimistic. Quite the contrary. But he knows what’s expected of him. In any case, it’s a matter of convincing a jury. A jury and the donor, who, not unwisely, has reserved the final decision for himself. One million. All of his problems solved in one fell swoop. No, Kraft knows that’s not really true. But at least it would allow him to concentrate on his failure as a human being. Relieved of all earthly cares, he could devote himself to plumbing the depths of his own inadequacies. For this he could force himself to be optimistic, at least once. Whatever is, is right. It shouldn’t be hard to come up with a few persuasive arguments in support of this proposition. At one point or another in history. Without heavy-handedly and predictably invoking the world spirit and calling on history itself as witness—Kraft is sure that Piet van Baasen and probably Sakaguchi too will take precisely this line. No, he has to come up with something original. World spirit. That ultimately amounts to saying, Whatever is, will be right. But when? As a matter of fact, Sakaguchi has already ridden that horse too far: confidently declaring that the time had come, and then finding himself forced to publicly recant like a prophet of the apocalypse on the morning after. No, what’s required here is a more authentic, more contemporary optimism, that is, an active and effective optimism. No Whatever is, will be right, and definitely no Whatever is, is bad or Whatever is, will become even worse. For a million dollars, one has the right to expect a Whatever is, is right. And it’s up to him to find the arguments to prove it.
But Kraft is having a hard time. And as always when he’s having difficulties, he escapes into research.
* * *
But why is Kraft having such a hard time? You could say that it’s complicated. It has to do with a convergence of the most disparate circumstances, all of them difficult to assess, especially for Kraft. And certain circumstances, internal and external, may be exerting a not inconsiderable amount of pressure, which is not exactly conducive to incisive thought. Or we could take the trouble to analyze the situation a bit and extract a short list from the muddle that would, in decreasing order of urgency, spell out the reasons why Kraft is unable to write:
The difficulty of the task itselfKraft’s inability to get over his jet lagKraft’s family situationKraft’s financial situationThe existential necessity of impressing the jury as a consequence of points 3 and 4Kraft’s accommodationsThe constant vacuumingKraft himself would probably agree with this list, although he would certainly change the order of importance.
You know, he’d said on the evening of his arrival, to István, who now went by Ivan and whose American wife had already gone to bed, leaving the two men alone at the dining table with a Californian red wine and dense chocolate cake, you know, I need the money. More than any of the others. I need it to buy my freedom. I’ll leave Heike, it won’t break her heart, and I’ll give them a shitload of money, all three of them, Heike and the girls. I’ll buy my freedom, he said, and only the slightly forced ardor with which he described his plan would have alerted an attentive listener—which Ivan was not, nor had István ever been, Kraft had no need to worry—that this plan was not Kraft’s idea.
* * *
Fine, Heike had said when she suddenly appeared in his office and tore him from the work he had taken up at a very late hour after having sat with one of the twins over a Latin translation while the other, following his repeated orders, sullenly manhandled the piano as Heike sat ensconced on the settee with her legs drawn in and her bandaged index finger held reproachfully aloft, staring fixedly at the television screen, on which a dwarf was cavorting between bearskins with two bare-breasted women. Fine, she’d said, go to Stanford and win the ridiculous competition, at least then we’ll be able to put an end to this experiment.
Calling the last fourteen years an experiment struck him as unwarranted, so it took him a moment to realize that she was referring to their marriage and while he was deliberating whether he should express his hurt or rather, in light of this unexpected way out, ignore her remark, Heike was once again too quick for him and had already vanished from his office by the time he had decided on the first option, which he had calculated to be a stronger position for the negotiations that would inevitably follow. And so he’d had to follow her into the bathroom, where all his hopes crumbled since he found Heike ministering to her finger with a large bottle of antiseptic and demonstrating very clearly their injury deadlock.
Copyright © 2017 by Verlag C.H. Beck oHG, München
Copyright © 2020 by Tess Lewis
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