Natalie Reinegger gets her first job after training as a special needs carer. She works in an assisted living home for adults with learning and physical disabilities. She's also the star of Clemens Setz's new 1022-page novel, Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre. It's already a much-celebrated phenomenon, with its own Twitter account by the name of Tausend Seiten Setz and a special team of readers commenting in real reading time at frau-und-gitarre. If I wasn't super busy I would be totally joining in, if they'd have me, because I have a helluva lotta time for Clemens Setz. If there's one writer that makes me regret giving up my going Dutch with German writers blog, it's Clemens Setz.
One of Natalie's personal clients is Alexander Dorm, a wheelchair-bound, bad-tempered young man who is in love with a man called Christopher Hollberg. Dorm previously stalked Hollberg, Natalie’s workmates explain, putting so much pressure on his marriage that Hollberg’s wife committed suicide and Dorm was put into psychiatric prison. Years have now passed and he now has only one visitor: Christopher Hollberg. It is Natalie’s job to sit in on the meetings under their “arrangement” to keep an eye on Dorm.
In Setz’s world – which is very similar to a small Austrian town but not quite the same – stalking is recognized as a cognitive disorder and the staff at the home treat him as fairly as the other residents. Alongside her beloved job, Natalie has a habit of “roaming” in dark corners at night to offer oral sex to strangers. She comes across a basement “open space”, a cooperative bar where people meet to talk, drink, hang out, play games and enjoy casual sex, and makes friends with people there, developing a crush on a boy called Mario, who she doesn't understand as well as the jaded reader does. She has an adopted cat that comes and goes as it pleases and a rather besotted ex-boyfriend, a writer. Another thing she doesn’t realize is that she may have a stalker of her own.
As the book goes on and on, Natalie does realize – very slowly – that Hollberg is exerting subtle mental torture on Dorm on his visits and trying to manipulate her as well. Gradually abandoning her friends, she begins to feel obliged to protect her client from his abuser and starts fearing Hollberg. She can’t distinguish whether the many stories he tells about Dorm’s stalking and its effects are true or just fictional “luminous detail”, as her ex-boyfriend puts it. Natalie decides to stand up to him, telling bizarre stories back and encouraging Dorm to be less submissive.
Things come to a head after about 900 pages in a sudden burst of drama followed by a great epilogue, so as I've said before you really have to be into Setz's whole world to keep going. But it is worth it. Unusually for German-language fiction at least, he gives us a lot of detail about working life in a home for people with disabilities. There are many, many scenes in which the staff interact with their clients, making breakfast, playing darts, doing arts and crafts, solving personal hygiene problems. One of Natalie’s clients, Mike, for instance, sustained brain damage in an accident and is very anxious about seeing his wife and children. When Natalie arrives at work late one day after Mario has been brutally attacked – perhaps by Hollberg? – Mike’s wife has gained access to his apartment. She is appalled by what she sees there: the walls are covered in shocking drawings. Although we’re never told exactly what they depict, it becomes clear to us that the wife is part of them in some way. She demands he leaves the home, where he is stable and happy. Desperate, Natalie calls Hollberg for advice on how to deal with the wife. He tells her how to manipulate the woman, which works, but leaves Natalie in his debt. It’s a good solution for Mike but not for Natalie and her other client, Dorm, who is gradually going wild with jealousy over the relationship he imagines between his carer and the object of all his affections.
Setz’s writing itself is fairly straightforward and very readable. What marks it out as his own is the wealth of thoughts and ideas he builds into his narrative. Natalie loves bizarre stories and facts and one reason the book is so long is because hundreds of them are included in the novel. From invisible mice as posture aids – watch this fabulous video narrated, I think, by Setz himself – to empty spots in computer game universes to the comfort of live TV broadcasts, Setz provides an almost constant stream of distraction throughout, similarly to Indigo (tr. Ross Benjamin) but actually more accessible, I found. He also manages to build tension, incredibly slowly but surely, over 1000 pages, until we readers become as obsessed as Natalie. I really enjoyed immersing myself in her world, and the slightly skewed world Setz has built around her. If you have enough time on your hands, I recommend you try it too.