Who said that, that everything a writer writes is personal? The question is perhaps rather: which writer didn’t say that? In any case, it was also Maarten van der Graaff (1987), who wrote about his last collection of poetry Netherlands in pieces (2020) said “that literature is always a record of your life”. This, incidentally, does not give the impression that he was writing purely about himself: “For me, literature is not the story of individuals, poetry is not an outpouring of feeling from a loner, but the question of what you can experience, see, feel, think in language. which belongs to everyone, and how that individual relates to the political.”
Read also the interview with Maarten van der Graaff: ‘I thought the idea of turning the Randstad into one metropolis was threatening and grotesque’
under asphalt, his second novel, does not even remotely resemble an autobiographical book, but the notion of personal reporting is highly relevant to it. Van der Graaff uses that principle as a wonderful, beautiful trick, which has already been set in motion before the novel has started. At the beginning a reader will at least know that this book is about a Netherlands where all highways have disappeared as if by magic. Such a thing is not possible, is nonsensical – but you don’t think that, or you don’t start this book at all. He who has started suspends his disbelief.
That is ingeniously crucial, but you only find out later, unexpectedly. Before that time, Van der Graaff parachuted you into a story that is as fragmented as it is whirling, full of plot developments, which do not immediately appear as a logical whole. So that’s where your focus goes: connecting things together. And if that doesn’t work, you practice the docility that also seems to belong to the novel. One of the narrators remarks that ‘what I saw […] ruthlessly specific and yet so general [was]† Who knows, maybe that feeling was the constant: not knowing how to look at what you see, how to distinguish between things that keep happening.’ In other words, what are these scenes, relentlessly specific and at the same time so general, about? Which story did we end up in?
It begins with an action-movie-style sequence in which a young woman, the “angel” Raziel, stalks her target in a parking garage and calm down† Then we switch to Alina, who tries to forget her personal crisis at a company party at a convention center. Then to the friends of Simon, a young man who went missing just before his drawings of an asphalt-free Netherlands would turn out to be a visionary. And there’s another missing boy: the adolescent Julian, from a group of friends who play a fantasy role-playing game together. All of these storylines tangle around the “changes,” that great highway disappearance on a summer night in 1999.
It makes you dizzy, but intrigues enough to keep you on your toes, because Van der Graaff manages to give relief to all his characters, with quirky details, surprising images – signs of human vibrancy. ‘It’s copy that of roger’, one of the fantasy teenagers sneezes (when the other bluffs ‘Copy that roger’). We get to know one of Simon’s friends because he fantasizes about what lies hidden ‘behind those metal buttons, in those shiny jeans’ of another boy. Raziel is craving falafel. And also intriguing and even more dizzying: sometimes details literally return in two storylines: in two very different places it is about ‘the time between departure and arrival’.
This produces a striking paradox: it is lively and something feels artificial, deliberately artificial, as if Van der Graaff cares. But what? It’s hard to say whether it’s the genre clichés in the secret agent angel story (as if we’re staying within the lines of an action movie template, and yet not – and is this referring to The Discovery of Heaven or not?), or the emphasis on the fact that we are in the Netherlands in 1999, dozing off cozily under Wim Kok, or simply the basic fact, those mysteriously disappearing asphalt roads.
There is another storyline, in the Netherlands of 2068, where a daughter takes care of her mother, who is in a catatonic state, because her ‘fields’ have ‘collapsed’. It is the main storyline of under asphalt, and it seems the most manageable: it reveals itself as a little mother-daughter story, set in a Dutch Randstad turned tech dystopia, where scrolling across screens has been replaced by a more three-dimensional ‘browsing’ through ‘fields’ (think: memory palace). The people have submitted themselves to a tech dictatorship, surrendering to government control in their minds, so ‘I felt Stability flip through the environment and cross my fields: a familiar soggy warmth, the sweat of a dream’. Smoothness is the enemy, whoever wants to stay free of it isolates himself, almost becomes an enemy of the state. A dystopia by the book, it seems.
Country of Turns
Read also the review of ‘The Netherlands in pieces'”(●●●●)
But Van der Graaff is too shrewd a writer to join a chorus of dystopia writers, he is too much of a poet for that, who sees truth in polyphony and fragmentation, not in an unambiguous message or puzzle with a solution. Speaking of fragmentation: in the great poem ‘Residues’ from Netherlands in pieces part of this future Netherlands already existed, there was also leafing through fields and hiding in caves – the architect of that safe harbor was Renate, as the mother in under asphalt is called. In his collection of poems Van der Graaff was also concerned with what the Netherlands is, how the Netherlands was formed – that is Renate van der Burgt’s fascination here. Her daughter encounters a mountain of index cards on which Renate explained the coherence of the country on the basis of highways. “This is a land of exits. A dense network, a wad of movements.’
Also read the review of Maarten van der Graaff’s first novel, which was also full of ideas
That part of the novel unfolds a great wealth of ideas, and does more than that great bundle Netherlands in pieces recall. Van der Graaff not only builds on the dystopia and the organizing principle of that collection of poems (‘in pieces’, so fragmented, so a reading experience of ‘not knowing how to look at what you see’ – also a quote; so yes, searching is the intention). He also deepens the meaning, its implication: Van der Graaff raises questions that are less separate than they seem. What disappears when order disappears? And what are you doing about it? And, something else: how has the Netherlands slipped into a state with ‘the oxygen-less pretense of calm you have to save’, which is in fact totalitarian?
under asphalt is complex and elusive, and therefore not a book that you immediately fall in love with, but it is an insanely rich novel that makes you long for a reread as you read it: back to work, looking forward to the new connections that a next immersion will bring. Because what changes when it suddenly says – spoiler: ‘Of course nothing like this really happened in the summer of 1999’?
It’s nonsensical, it’s all not real (maybe?), it might just be the record of one life – that explains a lot. And yet that revelation does not make you judge the storylines of Alina, Raziel, all those others in a fundamentally different way: the characters already affect you, they have come to life. As it turns out under asphalt as a novel of ideas and as a psychological novel about what is virtual and what is real, about the subconscious, about an undercurrent that can bother you, unrest that arises from dissatisfaction, and about the quest you undertake to do something about it – and very much more. It is oppressively specific, about the Netherlands in 1999 (on the abyss of complacency), and at the same time fascinatingly general: about the task you have as a human being. I’m not done with it yet.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 3, 2022