The Last Estate

Notes from a Private Reading: SOLENOID – The Last Estate

Notes from a Private Reading: SOLENOID

Thats why people used books to say important things, because a book assumed an absence, on one side or the other: while it is being written, the reader is missing. While it is being read, the writer is missing.” [pg. 255]


A solenoid is simply a coil of wire. It has the potentiality to create an electromagnetism, but it requires an electrical current to complete its function. Just as a book on a table is an inanimate physical object, sheaths of paper bound and nothing more. It has the potentiality to create a connection, to spark an understanding, to share a secret, to communicate, but it requires a reader to complete its function. In the Fall of 2022, I read Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated by Sean Cotter, published in English by Deep Vellum, and completed its function.


Solenoid is a contemporary Romanian novel, 663 pages in length. It is a surrealist, maximalist interior tale fixated on the body, death, mites, mathematics, literature, organisms and orgasms, consciousness, non-being, the infinite, pain, our skin, memories. Solenoid has captured the attention of the literary world, already the subject of a Dustin Illingworth New York Times piece, an incredible (can-not-be-missed) two hour video analysis from Seth of WASTE Mailing list, and initially put on most of our English-speaking radars by the inimitable, indispensable Patron Saint of World Literature, Andrei of The Untranslated, back in 2017, before it had been translated into English, wherein he dubbed it “the greatest surrealist novel ever written.” For scholarship and artistic, leading literary analysis & critique, I can do no more than offer links to their tremendous, important works which will form the foundation of a philology good to eat for a thousand years.


Mircea Cărtărescu is not without his literary detractors. His prose can be boring, suffused with details to the point of suffocation and distraction at times. He takes the long way often, figuratively and literally, through the streets of an unreal, too real Bucharest, and winds so many disparate threads and obsessions through the magnetic field of his literature to supply dizzying effects that may excite or sicken a reader, depending on their stomach for a ride.


I read nothing else while I read Solenoid. Nothing serious. Nothing substantial. I gave it the most precious gift we have. I gave it all of my attention. It is too massive, too sprawling, too serious, and too wonderful for me to completely unravel.


It took me an incredibly long time to read this book: an entire fall. Longer than my first read of Infinite Jest, 2666, The Recognitions, The Invented Part AND The Dreamed Part (though not The Tunnel, which suffers still from stiff back pages), Shadow Country, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. During whole stretches swallowing up several days I may find myself glazing over the letters like hieroglyphic symbols (or the famed Voyanich manuscript, which comes to these pages as two texts, connected and essential, and is ultimately a kind of fulcrum in the novel), unable to settle myself into its pages. I read it restless. I read it tired. I read it sad. I read it during two panic attacks and accompanying dissociative episodes. I read it in the dark, with a flashlight, the night a hurricane knocked out our power. I read it on Grandfather Mountain, in the gift shop, while my wife and kids walked over the swinging bridge I was too afraid to join them on. During the first panic attack, the one in the car alone (like the original one, the very first one, by the field – it was fallow – I have written about this elsewhere – I told the entire story in Characters, in parts, out of order, mostly through innuendo and other falsehoods and truthfully, several times, or at least once, as an aside), I read it at the Circle K in Stanford, where I ran into some trouble, waiting for my wife to pick me up. A young man in a tow truck stopped and asked what I was doing. He said did I need some help. He said there could be trouble around here. He said it’s not as nice as it looks around here. I took my copy of Solenoid and thanked him, stood up, and waited in my car for my wife to arrive and rescue me from my mind. I read Solenoid in an emergency room. I have been to too many emergency rooms. At some point I should have counted. I read Solenoid during a rough season of my life and this is my story.


The narrator of Solenoid, whose thoughts we never leave, is a writer. A failed one, he admits. As a young man, at a workshop or creative writing class, he read aloud his masterpiece epic poem, “The Fall,” and the response convinced him to give up his dreams of being a writer and settle into a quiet life as a teacher of Romanian literature at a high school in Bucharest, “the saddest city on the face of the earth, but at the same time, the only true one.” [pg. 425]


I recognized something of my own nothing hometown in Cartarescu’s vision of his Bucharest. The feeling that nothing springs forth from these places. The feeling that these are lost dots on a map, populated by lost people, shuffling along in their lives, from birth to death, anonymous, lonely, unknown and unknowable. Winston-Salem, North Carolina felt, to me, like a ridiculous place to be from. I read of Bucharest and heard the Moravian church bells of Old Salem and the RJR Tobacco smokestacks. I had an immediate urge to travel to Bucharest, this random city. Before I see Paris, I told my wife, before even a speck of Spain, before Prague, before Oslo, before Reykjavik, send my body and soul to Bucharest to see the streets of Solenoid, to complete its function, finally making it a real place.


I began reading Solenoid in the fall of twenty-twenty, during my own book tour for my first novel. The conceit of this narrator writing these pages in his secret diary with the intention of burning them, all 663, and me having to walk past displays of stacks of his novel to read from my own to three incredibly kind booksellers, two browsers who stumbled in from the rain shaking out their umbrellas in the very back, and one friend I used to do drugs with that lived there in St. Louis and was letting me crash the night was always very depressing and very humbling.


Like the narrator I too am obsessed with literature. I am obsessed with the intimacy and power of literature. I am obsessed with the transference of bits of consciousness from writer to reader. In William Gass’s ghastly literary masterpiece The Tunnel, the demented diarist William Frederick Kohler asks “What is a book but a container of consciousness, a draft of cantos?” A lonely teacher of high school Romanian literature and failed poet bears little resemblance to Gass’s high priest of literary villainy until you dig deeper and the private details of a consciousness transference, the energy of acute awareness traveling through time and space, become beautifully illuminated.


“Is writing to yourself a healthier insanity than talking to yourself” (Gass, William. The Tunnel, pg. 8) Kohler asks. Both narrators write to themselves and for themselves. Kohler is writing an introduction to his historical study Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, while the teacher of Romanian literature at School 86 in Bucharest is a failed poet writing in a diary only to himself to catalog his “anomalies.”



I like my desperate gesture of writing here, and the more desperate it is, the more senseless, the more anonymous, the more stuck in the mud of centuries and millennia, of galaxies and metagalaxies it is, the more I like it.” [pg. 380]



When you set out to write about everything, you usually do. That is the beauty and the curse of many big books. Receiving this transference as a reader all comes down to timing in your life and how the prose hits you. He tried to write about everything. Everything wasn’t great. He is being translated so the music of the prose is being played for us. I do not know any Romanian. Not a single word. I don’t know anything about the pacing or the customs of their language system. I am glad there are some people that know these things. I do not. But I do know that it is hard for me to say anything negative about Cărtărescu’s prose, translated for me by Sean Cotter, when he blesses us with sentences touching the divine: Everything in my bedroom is true: the sheet is a sheet, the plaster is plaster, I am an unimportant mammal who has lived for a moment on Earth.” [pg. 66]


For Cărtărescu, literature is not merely an aesthetic distraction or entertainment, but something far more capable and powerful:


A book should demand an answer. If it doesnt—if your gaze ends on its ingenious, inventive, tender, wise, joyful, and wonderful surface instead of pointing you in the direction this book shows—then you have read a literary work and you have missed, once again, the meaning of any human effort: to escape from this world. Novels hold you here, they keep you warm and cozy, they put glittering ribbons on the circus horse. But when, for Gods sake, will you read a real book?” [pg. 210]


The narrator’s insecurities stemming from what he perceives as his own failure as a writer spew directly from the firehose of pressure he places on literature as cosmic and spiritual guide, as maker and interpreter of Meaning, as salvation. His very love for the potentiality of literature to communicate pure energy and connect the reader and the writer in divine communion paralyzes him when it comes to contributing his own private literature to the eternal public scroll. I know something about this.


Specifically, Cărtărescu seeks in literature an answer to the dark question we have been cursed with since the first bite of the apple and our sudden, painful knowledge: the question (fear & curiosity & ignorance & flirtation) of non-being. Like horror beyond horror, the greatest horror, the mother of all our fears: the fear of an eternity in which you no longer exist.” [pg. 108]


I have struggled with this, as I know many have, my entire life. Recently, I came to something of a an understanding with myself and it goes like this: In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche, in his essay collection The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding, declared “God is dead,” and modernity was birthed from the canal of The Enlightenment. With all this science, and with all this knowledge, how would our moral structures and societal bonds react under the pressure of this existential realization? We could no longer rely on God to organize or explain. Science and Reason were now our masters.


To this day, 140 years later, many lost souls are still stuck sucking for any air in these dark waters. They miss the findings of another brilliant thinker, who, using the same tools of Science and Reason that had murdered our God, proved His existence and unlocked the mystery by proclaiming the necessity of the mystery to the creation and continued sustenance of our physical world.


In 1931, Kurt Gödel published his Incompleteness Theorems, discovering the limitations of science and mathematics to explain our world, and, specifically, to explain themselves. He found there was always going to be a paradox present, a mystery, and that the tools we use to explain the functioning of the world were unable to explain themselves. We could no longer count on mathematics, reason, science, and logic to complete our understanding of the world.


The paradox was found in set theory, in what may sound like logical wordplay games. A set could not contain all sets because it cannot contain (or be consistent with) itself. Gödel found that not only was a paradox present, but a paradox must be present. It serves some critical function in the structure of our universe.


I believe it is in this paradox, within this mystery, where God exists.


Whether my belief is correct or not is, of course, irrelevant. It is a belief, like any other. It helps me during the dark nights of the soul; it soothes me when I look into my children’s eyes and see pain or confusion; it steels me when I face the harder, coarser roads in life. I believe God is the paradox which completes our function. I know that Gödel found a lacking in science to resolve our questions of non-being. I believe, like Cărtărescu, that these questions belong not to the Sciences, but to literature and the Arts. Humanities, we called them.



“…I knew better than anyone that delirium is not the detritus of reality but a part of reality itself, sometimes the most precious part.” [pg. 63]



In Solenoid, in my own private reading, I found a strange fortuity. I followed its thread. I tried to read carefully, for the signs. Irina, the physics teacher at the Bucharest high school and the narrator’s lover, asks him: “What would you do if you could save one thing only from a burning building, and you had to choose between a famous painting and a newborn child?”


The question comes up again and again in Solenoid and permeates the text. It is a question I knew very well, and had just recently permeated my own life + work.


In the pages of Characters, the debut novel I was book touring and podcasting on, traipsing around the country trying to find my readers, I unraveled (through the dirty lens of auto-fiction also traversed by Cărtărescu in Solenoid) the disintegration of a lifelong friendship. The beginning of the end came when my friend, upset that I had written auto-fiction about people and places he knew, asked me a version of the same question, one he had found in a Paris Review interview with Karl Knausgaard.


Interviewed by the Paris Review, Knausgaard told a story about a famous poet who was asked by a journalist whether, escaping from a burning building, he would take “the Rembrandt or the cat.” He chose the cat. “I would do that too,” said Knausgaard, but it is far from clear whether that is true.


Cărtărescu‘s auto-fictional narrator also claims to leave the painting on the wall.

I answered my friend’s question indirectly in Characters, long after we’d stopped speaking directly, in the chapter “Requiem for a Cat.” As I drove from mid-sized American city to mid-sized American city to read aloud from my novel, all while carting Solenoid across the expanse of strip malls and mega church highways, and trying to take in its beauty and its secret messages, I felt this question of choosing art or life riding shotgun with me, or chasing me down unmarked country roads, lost and gaining steam on me, as I pressed the gas pedal for literature, over and over and over again.


I questioned myself constantly. Had I made the right choice? It didn’t feel either right or wrong; it didn’t seem subject to the framework. It didn’t feel like a choice. I had written because I had to write. I had purged because I had something needing purging. What choice? I tricked myself into thinking this was a real question, and almost lost another friend. Thank God, I wasn’t too far gone to miss the signs. I turned around. I said “it can’t be either/or.” I said, “it just has to be.” I am trying to be. I am trying to be literature.



Like sex, like drugs, like all the manipulations of our minds that attempt to break out of the skull, literature is a machine for producing first beatitude, then disappointment.” [pg. 42]



It was beautiful to sit in the Hotel Trundle writing pretty sentences. What beauty was I producing now, reading stories from a Greensboro punk house night after night, to sell my book or just to say I went on a book tour (I sold very few books). I couldn’t find the beauty. I found plenty of disappointment. I wanted my publisher to take-out full-page ads announcing the arrival of my novel. I wanted royalty checks to feature more zeros. At the very least a comma. I wanted to be interviewed. I wanted my friend to forgive me. I wanted someone to see me read and see their Winston-Salem, their Bucharest. Night after night, Marriott Courtyard after Marriott Courtyard, across America in the Fall, I found disappointment. Nothing I wanted was going to happen. I was living out an idea of myself. I was stuck here. I was going to have to find some other reason to write, some other reason to go on. Or accept incompleteness. Accept incompleteness, and embrace. Perform an incompleteness. Tell an incompleteness. Assign Godly properties and spiritual salvation to an incompleteness, to not knowing, to simply being alive and well enough to wonder.


To stop trying to make literature do so goddamn much, mean so goddamn much, fill a hole the size of a friendship, the size of a life. What does it mean to write this piece at the end of the year where I finally, at the age of 40, entered my own name in the ledger of literature? What did I learn from publishing, from putting my work out there? Was Characters like ‘The Fall,’ and the reception is my own failed literary workshop, as I vow to recede into the wallpaper of this digital salon & hope & pray that my existence as a fiction writer be quickly, summarily forgotten? Am I any closer to finding God, Truth, Love, or Light? Or  am I ruining relationships to selfishly see my name printed clearly on the spine? What should I think about all of this? This is not a rhetorical question. I would appreciate your guidance and candor. I would like to be told what to think. My thoughts are terrifyingly familiar, uneasy, repetitive, and my thoughts, in fact, landed me here at this moment, in this sentence I cannot find the end to, in this literary stew I feel lost and ashamed to have inserted myself into once again, and, yet, also, too, not wanting to be anywhere else or anyone else, I think. I read, sometimes, to steal your thoughts. I write, sometimes, to purge my own.


Solenoid kept me company through the Fall, and will continue to, through other seasons, hopefully less difficult, hopefully some even bright, long after I shut its pages and shelve it in my study, at home at last, next to Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling and Raymond Carver story collections. I traveled with and through the solenoid to the mind, to the city, to the mites, to the center of something hot, alive, gurgling. My own private reading was an experience, fully immersive, shape shifting, a great unsettling.




The following quotes were instrumental in my reading & response to Solenoid:


This is what we all are, blind mites stumbling along our piece of dust in an unknown, irrational infinity, in the horrible dead end of this world.” [pg. 112]


“In contrast to all of the other cities I’ve been told exist—although it is absurd to believe in Beirut, where you’ll never go—Bucharest is the product of a gigantic mind; it appeared all at once, the result of a single person’s attempt to produce the only city that can say something about humanity.” [pg. 425]


“I was enveloped in a fear that I had never felt before, even in my most terrifying dreams; not of death, not of suffering, not of terrible diseases, not of the sun going dark, but fear at the thought that I will never understand, that my life was not long enough and my mind not good enough to understand. That I had been given many signs and I didn’t know how to read them. That like everyone else I will rot in vain, in my sins and stupidity and ignorance, while the dense, intricate, overwhelming riddle of the world will continue on, clear as though it were in your hand, as natural as breathing, as simple as love, and it flow into the void, pristine and unsolved.” [pg. 311]



Derek Maine

Derek Maine is a fiction reader/writer.