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The Emptiness of Action

Disappointment in To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm

"Thomas's clothes were sodden, but he didn't feel cold. The rubbed his hands on the damp grass and wiped the sleep from his eyes. Then he picked up his bundle and headed in a southerly direction." (40)

I've been a dedicated reader of Swiss writer Peter Stamm since stumbling across Tim Parks's convincing lionization of Stamm's work in the New York Review of Books in July of 2011 ("Making Fun of the Stories We Know"). For Parks, Stamm's ability to create compelling narratives out of ordinariness comes from his decision to mine his characters' over-awareness of the "storyness" of their lives for dramatic effect.

Because they demand meaning from life, like we demand meaning from fiction, they are both pathetic (in the literal, not proverbial, sense) and convincingly real. We do this, too, Parks reminds us. And so Stamm's characters’ futile attempts to live like characters in a novel moves us. And yet, or perhaps just because, there they are, literally: characters in a novel.

I’ve always found it to be an expertly rendered conundrum in Stamm’s hands.

In his latest, To the Back of Beyond, Stamm seems to continue this project, writing clearly and poetically about the small moments and slow movements of ordinary living. But in this short book (132 pages in my soft cover Other Press edition), his footing is less sure. The book alternates between the perspectives of Thomas and Astrid, a husband and wife, starting when they return from their summer holidays and Thomas ups and walks away from the family home.

Half the novel follows Thomas on this walk; half Astrid as she tries to deal with his departure. Thomas, in his part, walks and walks and...walks. Occasionally he stops for a drink; once, he stops to buy camping gear. Eventually, he gets cold and struggles to survive. Astrid, in her part, tries to cover for him, then to find him, then to accept his choice and understand.

Ultimately, despite the usual vividness of Stamm’s prose (he impressively catalogs the relentlessness of Thomas’s forward march: his navigation of small towns, and mountain passes, and avalanches, and snowed-in roads), the sections lack the interiority, self-awareness, and internal complexity that has, in the past, made gripping fiction out of Stamm’s quiet world.

As lush and vivid as his descriptions of the Swiss countryside can be, they’re boring. It takes 42 pages before Stamm has Thomas even consider his wife, let alone provide insight into why he left—let alone consider for the reader what he might be thinking about his reasons for having left. There is no “making fun of stories;” there is hardly any story at all. (Or to paraphrase Forster, “the King left home and walked and walked and walked…” may be story but it’s not plot).

Astrid, rather, spends her portions of the novel reacting to Thomas’s departure—grappling with the loss, struggling to understand his choice, to accommodate it emotionally, to integrate its reality in her worldview. In other words, thinking about her life. As dramatic reaction to inexplicable action, her sections are odd (Why does she cover for him? Why does she patiently await his return?), and—like Stamm at his best—riveting in their oddness.

But they also stand, in their complexity and richness, in unflattering contrast to Thomas’s timid Jack London.

Perhaps what Parks would tell us is that Thomas’s walk is self-conscious in its very absurdity (survivalism in the settled Swiss countryside?), and that Stamm is tackling the usually internal “mid-life crisis” by rendering it as physical and actual, as escape and survival.

Either way, it’s not in the text. And what’s made Stamm’s work so powerful in the past is that dramatic action hasn’t been necessary for a character to experience dramatic personal change.

Here, it seems, the opposite is on display. All drama, all action: no change.

Which, for this Stamm fan, is a disappointment.

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