Chaos and Commotion
Writing about one’s inability to write is a favourite among writers suffering from writer’s block – a therapeutic method of release, a way of transforming doom into deliverance. Joost Zwagerman chose it as the subject of his novel Chaos en rumoer.
The writer Otto Vallei is in an artistic rut; his books aren’t selling well and his inspiration has dried up. Then his fellow writer Ed Waterland publishes a book that not only deals with a ‘blocked’ writer but also the solution that Vallei himself has found: a job as the presenter of a radio programme on the arts. Otto thinks he recognizes himself as the main character, accusing Waterland of plagiarism and blaming his publisher for revealing his ideas and details of his personal life.
By taking Vallei’s reality and letting Waterland fictionalize it yet again in the story, Zwagerman tackles the problem of the perpetual opposition between realism and fiction. This story-within-a-story-within-a-story has been so subtly put together that it’s difficult to tell what is fiction and what is ‘reality’. Because one sees the story unfolding through the eyes of Otto Vallei, it seems at first that he is perfectly within his rights to feel that his story has been stolen, but it eventually becomes clear that the story is actually a projection of his own pipe dreams, which have been fulfilled by someone
Chaos en rumoer is a novel with playful Nabokovian elements, a humorous novel of immanent, self-descriptive import. Zwagerman, however, deals with the subject differently from the usual dreary victims of writer’s block, and not surprisingly, his treatment is light-hearted and virtuosic. He also seizes this opportunity to paint a vicious picture of the literary world. But by purposefully casting doubt on the voyeuristic nature of precisely this sort of book, he cannot actually be caught red-handed with this obvious motif. Chaos en rumoer is inherently a novel about writing, but literary navel contemplation is here transformed into a merry farce. Writer’s block? Zwagerman himself doesn’t seem to suffer from it in the least.