Let It Go: Niña Weijers’s Debut Novel and Understanding the Universe
DECEMBER 22, 2017
ON JULY 9, 1975, the conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader set sail from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in a 13-foot sailboat named Ocean Wave, intent on crossing the Atlantic alone. The trip was to be the second part of a greater work, a triptych he called In Search of the Miraculous. Nine months later the Ocean Wave, crusted in barnacles and floating aft-up like a dabbling duck, was discovered by Spanish fishermen 150 nautical miles from the Irish coast. Ader’s body was never recovered. Just four years earlier in 1971, Ader created a video piece called Broken Fall (Organic) in which he can be seen hanging from a branch suspended above a river in the Dutch countryside. He hangs for a fitful two minutes, which are wrought with tension, until, finally (inevitably), he falls into the water.
Ader and his work — his interest in water, falling, and disappearance — shadow Niña Weijers’s brilliant debut novel The Consequences (2014). The book, recently translated by Hester Velmans, opens with its own water-related disappearance: on February 11, 2012, Minnie Panis, the central character of the story, steps out onto the thawing ice of an Amsterdam canal; it quickly gives way and she plunges beneath the surface. This, Weijers tells us, is the third time Minnie has “vanished from her own life.” The relationship between Minnie’s disappearance and Ader’s work won’t be obvious to readers at first, but the connection comes to light later through an insightful and beautifully written critical interlude. The short essay on Ader, which bisects the novel and delays a return to the central character’s story, serves to further enrich the symbolism and philosophical underpinnings of The Consequences.
The question why lurks beneath the surface (the ice in the case of The Consequences) of both Bas Jan Ader’s and Minnie’s disappearances, and Weijers boldly engages this question right from the beginning. At the end of the prologue, she invites the reader to wonder why Minnie, who is a newly minted art star with a blossoming career, would, on a cold winter morning, walk to the middle of a frozen canal. The act either seems completely irrational or, of course, suicidal. Both Ader’s and Minnie’s disappearances are undeniably enigmatic, raising certain inescapable questions: Why did Ader set sail alone on such a dangerous voyage? Why did Minnie step out onto the ice? Why do things happen the way they happen? Why do people do the things they do? These why questions lie unshakably at the heart of both life and literature. Why can also be a strong motivating force, even while it remains an often frustratingly unanswerable question.
Minnie herself is confronted by mystery at the beginning of the novel: “She stared at the dark ice and suddenly it occurred to her that the lake was extremely deep, deeper than the deepest ocean trough, a conduit to all the mysteries that had dwelt in the center of the earth since the beginning of time.” This realization, vast and almost geologic in scope, also informs the personal mystery at the center of the novel, which does not fully reveal itself until Minnie receives a letter from a Dr. Johnstone. Johnstone, as we learn from his letter, is the director of the cryptic CBTH, a treatment center with the enigmatic slogan, “The only thing the fish has to do is to lose itself in the water.” (If it isn’t obvious already, water is an important symbol in the book.) From the letter, we learn that Minnie received some kind of treatment from CBTH when she was young, but Johnstone withholds all information about what conditions this center treats as well as the nature of the treatment Minnie received. Instead the letter alludes to elements of Mayan mythology, drawing parallels between Minnie’s first round of treatment between 1991 and 1992 and the beginning of the last k’atun (a roughly 20-year cycle in the Mayan calendar) of the current b’ak’tun (a cycle of 20 k’atuns), set to end December 21, 2012, the year the main action of the novel takes place. Both the letter and the novel as a whole, hint at a vague cosmic correlation between these ancient cycles and Minnie’s own life without ever stating anything definitively. From this moment in the story, the central question — why did Minnie step out onto thawing ice? — is temporarily supplanted by a new line of intrigue: who is Dr. Johnstone and what happened to Minnie as a child?
Though The Consequences is in no way a genre mystery novel (there is no crime, no one is killed, there is no villain), Weijers often borrows standard cues of suspenseful plotting as the story progresses: clues are gathered and the plot consists of many unexpected twists and turns. And while the novel circles around questions of cosmic correlation, synchronicity, and how they relate to the events of Minnie’s past, the mystery unfolds as an odd journey of self-discovery in which the lead character comes to know herself through a fascination with erasure. The first of Minnie’s artworks we hear about, for example, is called Does Minnie Panis Exist, which is described by one fictional critic as a “self-portrait in the negative.” Weijers gives Minnie’s second project Nothing Personal the following artist statement:
On November 3, 2007, Minnie Panis’ lover left her. He departed for an island sinking into the sea somewhere near the North Pole and she put her sofa up for sale. Five months later all she had left was a bed, a few items of clothing and a toothbrush. As far as she knows her ex is still on that island, perhaps with water up to his ankles, or perhaps not.
For Minnie, erasure seems to function as a means of getting down to the core of things rather than obliterating them: finding the essential while ruthlessly eliminating everything else. This is also a poignant metaphor for the process of writing.
Minnie’s story is almost Sophoclean in its mixture of self-erasure and self-discovery. Both Minnie and Oedipus engage in forms of self-annihilation. Like Oedipus, Minnie is given a riddle: the mysterious note from Dr. Johnstone and the cryptic slogan of the CBTH, which haunts her like a scrap of music playing over and over in her head. Minnie, like Oedipus, can only come to “know herself” by unraveling the mystery of her origin. The alluringly mysterious role of synchronicity — is it fate? or just coincidence? — dominates both of their stories, bringing both characters unwittingly into contact with long-lost parents (though to a much more gruesome end in the case of Oedipus). And in both Oedipus’ and Minnie’s cases, the reader sees the solution to the riddles of the characters’ pasts before the characters do. We are given insight into Minnie’s past in The Consequences through a series of chapters that take place during and before her childhood. Weijers almost seems to tease the reader with details in these chapters. We learn about Minnie’s odd behavior as a baby and the details of her subsequent perplexing treatment at CBTH. We learn about several other unusual childhood experiences in Minnie’s past along with information about her parents’ history. Rather than providing the reader with any sense of answer or resolution, these details only deepen the mystery surrounding Minnie. These details also increase the sense of synchronicity at work in Minnie’s world, making the reader long for some source of ultimate causality.
While Oedipus’ story can be read as a tragic illustration of the impossibility of altering one’s fate, on another level — one perhaps more relevant for The Consequences — the Oedipal story suggests that even without fate, our identity is still ineluctably tied to our past: to “know oneself” is to know one’s origin. Weijers complicates this idea, teasing out its subtle ambiguities. The Consequences is a sensitive and erudite exploration of the tangled relationships between synchronicity, identity, life, and art. To know yourself is, undoubtedly, to understand where you come from. And yet identity is neither discrete nor static. It grows out of a past context that continues to shape us long after we might have forgotten it. Weijers is sensitive to that tension, creating a character whose identity exists both in context and in flux. Weijers frees her protagonist from that ancient sense of immovability, suggesting that our origins do not affix us to an unalterable life path — they do not fully determine our identity. Instead, the novel proposes a more contemporary idea of identity as something that exists between the determination of a forgotten past and near-constant change — a sense of self that slips through our fingers. Minnie consistently showcases this proposition in her art, preoccupied with Pessoa-like questions of identity, existence, and disappearance: “People were always kidding themselves about their own place in the world. In reality, thought Minnie, all you have is bits and pieces continually dying off and never coming back. You keep vanishing from your own life, over and over, without ever saying goodbye to yourself.”
Weijers is also sensitive to the relief that a fatalistic view of the world might offer in the face of difficult questions, like why. Fate can at least give us a sense that things happen as they need to happen. Even without fate, we have a tendency to give our lives tidy narratives. Weijers writes:
[Minnie] was always amazed to hear people giving their lives a more or less logical story. No matter how many turns or detours, no matter how many steep slopes or dead-end paths, there was always some sort of clearly marked course. Even the worst decisions and the greatest coincidences fit into the overall plan. How did people do that? How did they manage to get every cause to flow seamlessly into an effect, as if it wasn’t hard at all but the most normal thing in the world, a law of nature, like water in a river flowing in just one direction?
As The Consequences points out, we tend to read causality and meaning into the events in our lives, connecting them with a thread that looks a lot like fate, even if that term feels somehow ancient or out of date. We might not like to admit it, but we all desperately seek relief from the burden of the why questions of this world. Weijers does offer a tentative answer to one of those questions, which the reader can find tucked away in her poignant analysis of Ader’s Broken Fall (Organic): “When after two long minutes that body falls, it knows at last what Camus knew, as did the Taoists in ancient China, the sadhus of Vaanasi, the first rabbis, the Zen Buddhists, the medieval mystics from Cologne to Antwerp: the one who lets go, understands the universe.” The answer to certain why questions might just be to let them go, even when we most want to hold on.