You Should Have Left
Daniel Kehlmann’s new novella, You Should Have Left, is a masterful experiment about the limits of literary realism. At first a banal narrative of the everyday struggles of marriage, fatherhood, and screenwriting, the novella leaps into an apparent paranormal narrative that seeks to bend the boundaries of reality.
Through this investigation, the German author poses crucial literary enquiries: What is realism? What is accepted as real? Does experience need to be consensual to qualify as real? Must we be able to explain something to label it as plausible? Yet above all, the question that surges to the fore: can unreliable narration forever claim to be a manifestation of reality, even as madness, exaggeration, or superstition all fit the bill?
A simmering question also lies as subtext: can things we don’t yet understand fit within the flexible boundaries of literary realism?
It is therefore no surprise—as much as it is a cunning device—that the opening scene is of a writer crafting a realist work of fiction: an unnamed narrator is attempting to write the sequel of his hit chick-flick. In order to concentrate and complete his screenplay, he has rented a remote house in the Alps through Airbnb. He is there with his wife and four year-old daughter. His relationship with his wife is less than ideal—constant arguments are eroding their marriage, and he is using this as a source of tension for his writing: the screenplay shows, by way of interweaved fragments in the narrative, a relationship, too, that is eroding. He inserts facts from his daily life directly into his writing, making the clear point that our narrator represents a realist obsession: seeking verisimilitude and pursuing the tradition that fiction, even though an artifice, strives be the closest thing to life. He goes as far as labeling metaphors as unrealistic:
The sun has just pushed its way out from behind the cloud, so that the sky is now melting in painful, blazing, magnificent brilliance. Or is that too many metaphors? The sun doesn’t push its way anywhere, the wind pushes the cloud away, and of course the sky by no means melts...
But is the choice of unreliable first person singular the best method for questioning how far realism can be bent, and how much realism as a genre can evolve from the mere depiction of “things as they are?”
A few odd things begin happening in the rented house as he strains to write, and all are experienced through his dodgy point of view. He makes notes of such things in his notebook, “something strange just happened...” then reacts with dreadful doubt, “must have been mistaken... don’t think about it.”
The odd occurrences are parallel to Kehlmann’s odd narrative uses: at some points, the paragraphs and sentences end briskly, mid-narration, without punctuation, in what can only be explained as a time lapse, perhaps an interruption, striking as clear foreboding: “Get away, while”
Through the use of the first person singular, Kehlmann has established his character as utterly unreliable for a crucial reason: the inclusion of what seems paranormal is screened behind the realist veil of the ever-enduring subjectivity of unreliable first person narration.
As stress heightens—no writing gets done, his wife nags, his daughter remains a constant distraction, and the house plays eerie tricks on him—our narrator begins questioning his mental sanity. When the hallway seems longer than the previous days, “how many glasses of wine have I had?” When the reflection in the window at night seems odd, “make a note of it, then surely you’ll know it was true…” Again he turns to writing to force himself back into the comfort of the reality he thinks he knows.
Thus arrives the obliged onslaught of out-of-the-ordinary events—events far beyond a realist portrayal of the everyday world. An ominous meeting occurs in the village’s only grocery store: the shopkeeper asks whether the narrator is staying at the house on the hill, “has anything happened yet?” After gathering the groceries, the shopkeeper hands him a plastic triangular ruler, “try the right angles up there.” The narrator leaves in a fury, only to be greeted outside the door by a woman who utters the previously noted words, “get away quickly, get away while you can.” Our narrator drives up the hill once more, through the road that leads only to his rented house.
Upon arrival, we learn that his wife is also experiencing odd sensations: what could be read as a bow towards realism, a shared experience. They make a pact to leave the house before sundown. The likeness of the setting to The Shining—a writer losing his mind, wife, and young child in a remote house in the hill looking out on the glaciers and the house acting up on its own is even acknowledged by the wife: “it feels like the great movie of the not so great book, the one with all the steadicams.” This becomes the latest foreboding clue. As the wife packs, our narrator has another go at his screenplay, a last ditch effort to force him back to normality. His wife’s phone is beside him and won’t stop vibrating. He discovers text messages from another man. She has been cheating on him, and he confronts her. They argue, she admits everything, and in a fit, she leaves the house in the only car. The narrator is left with his daughter in the eerie house. As his wife drives away, the final scene of banal realism fades. And we will hear nothing more of his failed screenplay.
At dusk the same day, the sun hides away, the window frames the changing color and slowly turns dark, reflecting the interior of the house. The reflection showcases everything except him. He moves and waves before the window, but the room sits still in his reflected absence.
A painting in the hallway disappears, leaving no trace of a nail on the wall.
All the while he checks on his sleeping daughter through the baby monitor, sometimes even walking to her room to verify her physical existence.
Shuffling feet on the second floor.
Entering a craze, he remembers the encounter in the shop. He finds the ruler, draws a right angle, and then completes the rectangle, yet the proportions seem odd. The angles are well beyond ninety degrees when measured. Again, he wonders if he has lost his mind. The desperation makes him check on his daughter again. Upon returning to the living room, he sees the silhouette of a man looking over the crib in the baby monitor. He runs back to the room, but nobody is there. Again, the man is in the baby monitor, only this time he recognizes it as himself looking over the crib. Has our narrator fallen into a multiverse? Has linear time shattered? Or could this be a case of technological delay?
As he attempts to leave the house with his daughter, he enters the same room he is trying to exit. He doesn’t find it as funny as his daughter does. They go through a few trials until the house allows them outside. His daughter notices a man inside the house as they walk away—he denies it, but surely enough a shadow overlooks from the upper floor. Time to escape: they walk down the hill through pitch darkness, then finally to a lit house within the forest. They enter, only to discover they are back on the hilltop in the well-known living room. Child laughter and hopelessness. Back into a warping parallel existence? The words get away... quickly... while you can ring in his head as he is forced into conviviality with his former and future self, perhaps even with strangers caught in the eternal loop of unknown dimensions.
The narrative enters the stage where the depicted action is caught within the conflicting black-hole of realism. Is a theory like a multiverse welcome in literary realism, or must it be branded fantasy or surrealism? To make sure, Kehlmann has shrouded this question within the possibility of the narrator’s madness, for madness we do accept as a realist trait.
The ending of the book becomes quite telling in terms of literary intention. The wife returns, apologetic, asking him to fix things despite her cheating. Instead, and resigned, he hands her his daughter and utters the now omnipresent words, “get away while you can.” Our narrator sees them drive off, accepting his new fate caught in the new multidimensional axis. Kehlmann is clearly urging the realist reader to leap beyond what has been clinically proven and embrace the possible, even if unforeseeable. Plausibility and verisimilitude surely lie way beyond our present knowledge.
Our protagonist re-enters the multidimensional dwelling: he is not reflected in the window. Will he reappear? When and where? The last sentence of the book ends midway: “And yet I’m only at the very”
Where is he within the plausible multiverse?
In this mind-bending exercise, Kehlmann demands realism to be humble, to embrace what it does not yet know, what is still not fact, not yet a tired routine. Our narrator captures this intent towards the end of the book, full of acceptance, “I suspect there are more places like this, but they are probably unreachable, on the sea bottom or in the mountain caves in which no one has ever set foot. Or there is only really one here, and the next is light years away in the infinite universe. The thought makes your head reel, not a fictitious but a real infinity... without an end in either direction... Words. They don’t capture how it really is.”
Why couldn’t these places exist within our obsessive portrayal of the real?