under asphaltMaarten van der Graaff’s second novel, has only just begun a few lines as the author focuses on The wild detectives (1998), one of the key works in Robert Bolaño’s broad oeuvre. Of course, this can not be a coincidence. And in fact: you do not have to read that much anymore to realize it under asphalt like The wild detectives is a novel that will scare readers away, appreciating coherence, continuity and coherence. Van der Graaff’s novel goes directly against your expectations, disrupts your frame of mind and presents you with a number of puzzles – both in form and content – that make you wonder if you are really meant to solve them.
under asphalt was built around two years: 1999 and 2068. In Van der Graaffs 1999, the world is not dominated by the fear that computers will run wild during the millennium, but in the Netherlands, highways suddenly disappear and the country becomes ‘junk, unmanageable’ rubbish everywhere, thanks to protrusions from the rubble that had been under the asphalt, broken slabs of concrete and sand ‘. On the ruins, transformed humans called angels will build The Celestial City, “a world clear as glass, where there will be no more night.” A first step is that people (targets, as Van der Graaff calls them) get managed something through a shot in the neck, which the writer refers to with the rather vague term ‘technology’.
Unpredictable new world
1999 is the year for a world in change, in 2068 we are in the middle of a changed world called Randstaden. Laptops and tablets belong to prehistoric times and even implants are no longer needed, no, digital technology has become a part of the body. The people themselves create ‘fields’ in which they ‘surf’. But things sometimes go wrong, as in the case of Renate van de Burgt, whose fields have ‘collapsed’.
Sudden field deterioration syndrome is the scientific term that Van der Graaff invents for this condition. Those who suffer from it are “at the mercy of an unpredictable new world, where one could sense traces of their search history, their field behavior, the media they had consumed, and what (…) were described as” memories and indefinable desires ” . ” Renate van de Burgt’s memories and indefinable desires lead back to a time when highways were still driving through the country, thus establishing the connection between the world in 2068 and 1999, the last year of highways.
After a novel in which his reformed background played a major role (Worms and angels) Van der Graaff now wrote a dystopian novel about the purest water, one might almost say. But under asphalt is much more complex than the summary above suggests and goes far beyond the boundaries of this genre. Just take the complicated structure. Stories of history are visible (in the parts around 1999 there are only a handful, in 2068 it is primarily Renate’s daughter Cora who follows in her mother’s footsteps), but they alternate in an unpredictable way, hardly intertwined while it seems to be intention, and each one is also filled with gaps. Holes that almost beg to be closed, but which almost never happen, even if you read the book again.
A witty passage here and there brings some air to this dense prose, for example when Van der Graaff explains why one of his female characters ‘is best suited to a strange toilet’. But the prevailing impression is that you are left with so many open seats that at some point you start to wonder if you under asphalt must try to understand. Perhaps this novel will come into its own if you try to experience it and read it as you read poetry. It would not be at all surprising to a writer who was a poet before he became a novelist. Like Bolano.
Maarten van der Graaff: Under asphalt. Plume Publishers; 297 pages; € 22.99.