Reviewed by Justin Goodman
The Diary of Norman K
by Dimitrios Ikonomou
Paperback: 372 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1530059706
Dimitrios Ikonomou has created one of the most unbearable figures in recent memory. This is praise and criticism. It takes strength of character to pursue, and create, human wretchedness in all its shapes for 360 pages. Like many unreliable narrators before him, Norman K ranges from obnoxious to villainous in his pretension, and The Diary of Norman K shows how uniquely we puts on airs, down to a style of speech best described by his “friend” Russell as “an Elizabethan aristocrat who had just woken up from a two-hundred-year coma.” The response to this is two fold: The Diary is doubled over by its slippery layers of meta-; if its intended to be difficult to continue reading, seemingly aware of the difficulty of reading through, why choose to continue doing so for 200 pages? And, if it’s intended to be drudgery for all 360 pages, why bother having a narrative at all?
This isn’t a readerly plea in the style of Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult” (defanged by GD Dess in LARB) because, when The Diary descends into quicksand, it’s rewarding to pull oneself out. Early on we learn Norman’s mother died in childbirth and his father, possibly because of the guilt he laid on Norman for this, distanced himself from Norman. Estranged and childish, Norman grabs on to whatever will preserve him emotionally. Hence the Victorian diction that produces such energy-less, polysyllabic phrases as “incessantly ambulatory.” Hence his imagination that—other than mummifying and propping up Pablo Picasso, Zeus, and Othello as recurring characters—leads to a spiral of escapism. “My memories of my mother are artificial but impeccable,” he puts it, as he produces a misleadingly impeccable memory of a visit to a summer cabin with his mother. Its quick dive into disrepute (his mother brings him along as she breaks into a rich neighbor’s superior cabin) is equaled in humor only by its willingness to become immersed in the immersion. At one point in his story, the boy Norman imagined by young adult Norman imagines himself as an ice climber, “snow blurring my vision as I fought exhaustion and the elements.” It’s an inversion of Franzen’s demand. The Diary of Norman K takes advantage of the reader’s gullibility in ways familiar to fans of novels like Portnoy’s Complaint and Lolita.
But if I’m honest, the reason I have yet to fully read through the latter and regularly laugh about the former is that their narrator’s personalities are both readily definable by what they say and unredeemable because of it (pity/anger/etc, regardless of what white dudes say, isn’t condemnable). Even the Kafka protagonists from whom Norman K likely takes his last initial are unredeemed, closer to existential acceptance than repentance. The Trial literally ends with K’s crime never being revealed. Yet The Diary of Norman K is not a story of guilt. Norman may be a Byron-obsessed, anxiety-riddled, emotionally isolated boy, forced to leave his college life because of inherited debts and dependent on the kindness of an elderly landlady, but these are signs of innocence, made poignant by his interest in hiding himself to the point that “I would fantasize about the day I would inherit my own mask and sometimes wonder if I was already behind it.” It’s why he imagines so much and why the system he later comes to adopt is similar but structurally different to masks. “Life is a game…in pursuit of a symbol of joy as opposed to joy itself.” And this instability of language is increased as he meditates on the diary itself: “In searching for a narrative and for reasons where none exist I have lost track of the beautiful chaos around me.” Between the inconsistent appeals of its narrator and this need to internalize “the beautiful chaos” though, it merely philosophizes what those novels before succeeded at displaying.
For what empowers Roth, Nabokov (and even Kafka’s) writing, despite ironically focusing on egomaniacs needing of therapy and court, is a perspective wanting to relate itself only to reveal itself. It’s not a matter of style, although I hate Norman’s voice—that’s praise. Further, Ikonomou’s writing can even be coercive and succinct as when Norman aphoristically declares, “the man who points a finger only points three towards himself.” When this idea is the premise of an entire novel, however—given The Diary’s limited cast and undivided attention, it’s hard to argue otherwise—we lose all the virtues that made Portnoy’s Complaint a comedy-of-manners and Lolita a horror. Norman is three times immersed in the immersion than anyone he tells his life to. The Diary of Norman K is, much like its young adult narrator, uncomfortable in its skin. Before trying on a number of voices it settles on one, prematurely, and too exuberantly. On the author’s site, even, he explains (in the third person) that “Ikonomou is concerned with perception as opposed to reality: the mind’s need to organize, to find patterns in what are ostensibly random sensory inputs.” The Diary seems to have forgotten that we come to these patterns not by obsessive interiority, but with pre-formed notions that are over-time attacked by the realities opposed to ours. From where would Norman get the idea to specifically see Pablo Picasso, Zeus, and Othello around the city then?
“In October 2015, I completed my first solo exhibition, Both Truth and Not,” begins the portion of Ikonomou’s site dedicated to his exhibitions. You can see his vision in the three works the exhibit involved: The Drip Series, The Totem Series, and The Light Portrait Series. They’re spirited by Conceptual Art’s interest in “idea over aesthetic,” and Environmental Art’s desire to rekindle our attachment to the world, with this same sculptural quality underlying The Diary of Norman K; Norman K’s story reads how carving a name into a headstone must feel. He is dead before his name is put down, with just the stony powder of his life left behind to meditate on. Alexander Portnoy and Humbert Humbert, by comparison, are alarmingly alive and interactive. So it’s fitting that Ikonomou uses the first four letters of his name as his logo: Ikon is Greek for likeliness. With The Diary of Norman K there is simply human likeliness, not humanness, and this is devastating to the complex ideas behind it. “The city is silent” as Norman himself notes, “save for the echoes of the human hand.”
About the reviewer: Justin Goodman graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. Having moved from Long Island, he now lives in the City with reviews in Cleaver Magazine and InYourSpeakers, and work in Italics Mine, 360 Degrees, and Counterexample Poetics.