On James Chapman's STET

Stet by James Chapman
Fugue State Press, 336 pages

Loosely based on the life and work of Sergei Paradjanov, Stet is a filmmaker in the Soviet Union who, in the 1960s, is sent to a labor camp where he dies having produced not much more than a single feature-length film.

In this finely crafted fake biography-cum-novel, author James Chapman makes the interesting choice of writing from within his subject – which is not to say this book is a stream-of-conscious monologue. The subject is too vast, bigger than Stet himself, encompassing a large slab of time, an era – the subject, in fact, is History itself. Even more specifically, Chapman grapples with the large (not just geographically) subject of Russia in the century we recently left behind us, forging a deceptively authentic memory of an ever ungraspable Russia of the mind. Chapman’s poetic language works to mysticize this vast terrain of subject matter, becoming entangled in virtually every deeper implication it stumbles across. Yet the novel never feels crowded – Chapman’s pacing is too masterful. He manages to convey in prose the sense of a good film, shifting from subject to subject the way a movie camera mounted on a dolly might slowly move across different paintings in a large museum.

This novel, which is unlike any novel you’ll read this year or this lifetime, is many things, one of them being a probing philosophical examination of the nature of critique – particularly critique that is fueled by ideology. Its temporal setting is that period that marked the end of the “freedom to talk to yourself,” as Chapman so beautifully puts it, the new era when all art would have to address the nameless masses and therefore negate the bourgeois model of individualism.

So what happens to Stet? When he is no longer able to follow these external instructions, to listen to the voices outside his head, he can no longer make films in his homeland. He winds up having to work as an orderly in a mental institution. He fails at this just as he “failed” at his former profession. He stays home at his flat in St. Petersburg, where he and his wife create a Museum of Everyday Life, of the type of banalities that are the very stuff that art is made of. He is ultimately betrayed by all those around him and torn away from his wife. Even after his death, the probing narrative continues, exploring what Russia would become without Stet in it. The book effectively comes to a close with the eulogy of Chodok, the actor who turned Stet in and effectively caused his slow, painful, state-sanctioned demise.

_Travis Jeppesen

This review originally appeared in the October issue of Think Again magazine.


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