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Clemens J. Setz: Die Frequenzen [Frequencies]

Setz was only twenty-seven when he published this novel, his second novel and over seven hundred pages long. The book got mixed reviews in the German-speaking world. It is meandering, in need of a good editor (is there really anything new to say about oral sex and masturbation?) and jumps about both in time and place. Despite that, it is certainly an interesting read if you can go the distance and read German.

The book primarily tells the story of two young men: Walter Zmal and Alexander Kerfuchs (the stress is on the first syllable, as he tells us). They knew each other at school and then lost touch but their lives intersect during the course of this book, though not necessarily involving face-to-face meetings. As well as Walter and Alexander, we meet members of their families, their various lovers and other friends and associates. Indeed, given the size of the book, we get quite considerable detail of the lives of some of the subsidiary characters. At times, we may get a bit lost and at others, we might wonder why one character is described in some detail, only to disappear forever from the story.

Walter is the son of a well-known, successful architect (who may be corrupt). The family (his parents, Walter and his sister, Mirja) live in an expensive house, which looks shabby on the outside but not on the inside. His parents (or, more particularly, his father) feel that their son should have a career in a more artistic field and, as a result, the father uses his influence, contacts and money to get Walter various positions. Walter goes off to Paris to study art but, instead of taking advantage of the expensive flat his father has provided for him, he spends much of his time with his saxophonist boyfriend, Colin. When that fails, he tries journalism and then becomes and assistant to a film director. Nothing seems to suit him. Indeed, the book starts with his returning home and perhaps suggesting he might become an actor. His father, always eager to help, even offers to get him a high-class prostitute.

His love life is equally unsuccessful. He feels that he is gay so has some gay relationships. For example, he has a relationship with Colin who is studying music. We follow Colin’s musical studies (primarily jazz), which do not always work out as well as he might have liked. However, it is clear that the relationship does not work out. Walter even thinks that he should try heterosexuality. (He was gay, he knew that, but he just wanted to try once to see whether it would work with women.). Jessica is somewhat older than him and has an alcohol problem. Indeed, he sometimes finds her asleep on the toilet in the middle of the night and he has to carry her back to bed. When he tries to break it off, she stalks him and screams at him in front of his friends, who think that she is his mother. Eventually, she throws him out of her flat.

His relationships with Magda and Nina were no more successful. He came to the realisation that he just did not understand women, that they fascinated him and irritated him. Frankly, however, he is not much more successful with his homosexual relationships.

Alex, however, is fairly clear on his sexuality. Alex’s family life had been difficult. His father had disappeared, essentially abandoning him and his mother. His father had been a teacher and had, indeed, taught Walter’s sister, Mirja. Their house had got a giant crack in it, a crack which seemingly went on forever, with Georg, Alex’s father, spending time in the basement trying to fix it. The crack is clearly symbolic, though of what? The breakdown in the family relationship perhaps? It is also possible that Walter’s father designed the house and is therefore responsible for the crack. Partially, because of his father’s disappearance, Alex drops out and when we first meet him, he is working in an old people’s home, helping them with their mobile phones and having sex with Martina, one of the nurses, shortly after two of the inmates have committed suicide.

Alex is somewhat unconventional. For example, using white tape, he has sketched out the shape of a body as in a crime scene on his bedroom floor. He sometimes lies in it, even though it is very uncomfortable. Though he has had several relationships, his main one in this book is with Lydia, a young woman who had body issues. As he describes her, she is a copy of a pretty woman made by nature as a joke. When she looked at herself in a mirror, she saw a monster. She tries heavy make-up and shaving her head. She avoided bulimia only because she had developed a fear of vomiting when younger. She tried therapy (not the only person in this book to go down that route). She even wrote several suicide notes, refining each version. She concluded Das Leben hat keinen Sinn außer der Tatsache, dass es einen Sinn hat [Life has no sense except for the fact that it has a sense]. Fortunately, by the time she got to know Alex, she had got over most of these problems. She is, indeed, the first woman whom he invites into his bedroom at home and their sexual activities are continually interrupted by his mother who is listening at the door and, as she has a cold, sneezes several times.

Other characters include Valerie, who leads therapy groups and is a liaison between Walter and Alex, as well as some of the other characters and who, at least as far as Alex is concerned, feels that oral sex is an ideal form of therapy. She also acts as the focal point for many of the characters, who cross her path. One of her patients is Gabi, who has what would appear to be tinnitus in that she hears what she calls frequencies, i.e distorted noises in her head, again, possibly a symbol for the entire book as the title confirms. There is Wilhelm Steiner, Alexander’s landlord who has a pyjama top that says (in English) Time flies like an arrow and wonders why (after investigating the meaning in a dictionary) it says that there is a species of fly called a time fly that is partial to arrows (an old joke, yes…) Joachim is Walter’s friend who wants to be a writer like Dennis Cooper, and whom Walter tells that identity and the subconscious are all nonsense. And we cannot forget Uljana, Valerie’s dog, who wanders all over Graz, and even has an I-narrative section, where she tells us who she is.

As mentioned this is something of a chaotic novel. That is part of its charm but also, at times, has the reader wondering what is going on. However, it clearly is indicative of the lives of the people in the book. Virtually every character is somewhat out of the ordinary, not quite in tune with the world in which s/he lives. As Alex comments, based on a quote he read, for most characters, I is an another. To produce such a monster of a novel at the age is twenty-seven is certainly a feat. Sadly, it is not available in English (or any other language) and I do not expect it will be.

Publishing history

First published in German 2009 by Residenz Verlag
No English translation