Mann's Last stand
(book review of Brian Alessandro's The Unmentionable Mann)
by laura schleifer
The opening scene of Brian Alessandro's remarkably complex, discomfiting, multi-layered and strikingly ambitious debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, sets the tone of the tome. (A wordplay reminiscent of Alessandro himself, who peppers the papers of his literary libro with alliteration, palindromes, homophones and homophobes.) The month is January; the temperature, abnormally high. The gatherers have arrived decked out in twill coats, heavy furs, top hats and bowler caps. The air is heavy and sickly-sweet, the decay of decadence mixed with death, as they await the shock treatment to be administered to the sweetly 'sick' boy. There is talk of the unreasonable, unseasonable weather, surly indignation expressed over how the media is claiming that they, the Mann-Schillers, are to blame for it. And then, it is time. Top hats are removed; copies of D.H. Lawrence novels placed aside. The attendees form a funereal procession as they enter the house. Their mood is grim, yet resolute; depravity must be destroyed, lest it destroy them first.
In a sense, The Unmentionable Mann could be read as a tale about the ruling class's denial of, and attempt to control, climate change. For the climate is indeed changing, and the Mann-Schiller clan, a sort of hybrid between the British-Belgian-Germanic Saxe-Coburgs (kin of the reviled genocidal King Leopold II, now known more commonly as the Windsors), early American industrialists such as the Carnegies and Rockefellers, and the notorious contemporary Koch brothers, are attempting to use their considerable wealth and power to stop the onslaught of a socio-cultural sea change. Yet, just as the powerful sun permeates their purely preserved Aryan skin no matter how much anachronistic Victorian-era frippery they cloak themselves in, so too does the powerless son expose them to everyone and everything in the modern world they strive to shut out: the lower income classes, racial and sexual diversity..and even, in the book's shocking conclusion, disease.
One of the most unnerving aspects of The Unmentionable Mann is that the book is largely written from the perspective of the Schiller and Mann clan themselves, which means that throughout the novel we are privy to the chillingly matter-of-fact racist, classist, imperialistic inner thoughts of the oligarchy. Unlike most literary works of today that tackle issues of class, race, sexual orientation, etc., from the perspective of the victims, this time around, most of the story is told from the oppressors' viewpoint. The one notable exception is the genuinely thoughtful and sincere voice of Anand, the Indian boy who colonizes the heart of Zachary Mann, the youngest heir of the Mann-Schiller dynasty and, in a subtle nod to Thomas Mann's wily young protagonist in the unraveling-family drama Buddenbrucks, the 'unmentionable Mann' of the book's title.
As for Zachary, whose voice also carries much of the ensemble-style narration, his own identity exists within the ill-fitting purgatory that lies between oppressor and oppressed. While his family oppresses him for being gay, even going so far as to (unsuccessfully) attempt to 'cure' him of his homosexuality through a gruesome and traumatizing 'reconditioning treatment' devised by his deranged psychoanalyst father, Victor Mann, at the same time Zachary also exists at the apex of privilege: racial, gender, and most dramatically, class. This juxtaposition of supreme privilege mixed with extreme stigmatization creates a strange, and yet all-too-believable, synergistic effect in which the shame over his sexuality merges with and reinforces the shame over his unearned privilege, and by extension, the shame of his own racism, classism, and internalized homophobia. This inevitably leads to Zachary's unmentionable compulsion to seek out men of color, the colonized men most harmed by the actions of his family of one-percenters and their ilk, and racially and sexually antagonize them until they brutally sodomize him in the most punishing ways possible. It also pushes him to harm the one he loves most, Anand, as a way of hurting and thus punishing himself in the process.
Those who are familiar with Alessandro's previous work may notice a common theme here, as the author is also the writer/director of an independent narrative feature film, Afghan Hound (available on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon), that explores similar terrain from within the context of a sado-masochistic (albeit non-sexual) relationship between a veteran of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and an Afghan youth whose parents he may or may not have killed. Like The Unmentionable Mann, that story, too, examined how systems of power and privilege control, exploit and victimize both the ones who are 'othered' by these systems, and the ones who are trapped within them, being used to achieve their imperial and (im)material aims.
In the case of young Zachary Mann, the way in which his ruling class family plans to exploit him is for his body—specifically, for its ability to breed. For the Mann-Schiller clan, as it turns out, has a long and ignoble tradition of intermarriage and incest used to keep the bloodline clean. It is Zachary's duty and destiny from birth to marry his cousin Petra Schiller, as did his kissing-cousin parents, Katherine Schiller and Victor Mann, and their parents, Ernst Mann and Hilly Schiller on the father's side, and Walter Schiller and Edda Mann on the mother's side. It is for this reason that Zachary's 'defect' is such an affront to them, and it is for this reason that the members of the Mann-Schiller Klan—err, clan—have gathered at the start of the story to witness the young lord begin the treatments that they hope will 'restore' him to 'normalcy', and wipe away the memory of his sordid tryst with the 'lowly' brown boy, whose parents work as janitors at Zachary's exclusive Manhattan private school, and whose lineage leads directly back to a people colonized by the very Saxe-Coburgs that the Mann-Schillers eerily resemble.
Compounding this effect further is that grandfather Ernst is no less than a former Nazi, a high-ranking S.S. official whose role in the party was specifically to hunt down and turn in the gay, lesbian and transgender population. Ernst's deep interest in eugenics and population control displays itself in other areas, as well; most notably, in his fixation with collecting different breeds of exotic birds in his aviary, and, conversely, in his organizing the extermination of an insect infestation that has invaded their capacious, neo-classical estate, replete with ironically homoerotic statues of nude, nubile male Greco-Roman youths. This fascination with eugenics and population control also manifests itself in Ernst's son, Victor, a psychiatrist whose controversial research experiments include not only attempting conversion therapy on his own son, but also artificially inseminating four young women of color, each a perfect specimen of a different racial phenotype, with his own pure, incestuously unsullied Aryan sperm, in order to create the perfect designer hybrid children—a fact that brings no small amount of envy and misery to his wife/cousin Katherine, who secretly harbors the desire to bear another child--this time a perfect one without the fatal flaw of homosexuality--even as another side to her privately revels in the fact that her offspring's inappropriate femininity thwarts the agenda of her overbearing, patriarchal husband/cousin and family.
Paralleling these attempts to design the human species through both induced breeding for desired traits and, on the flip side, ethnic, cultural, and sexual cleansing, are their metaphorical equivalent in the collection and extermination of other species. It is no accident that Ernst, the former Nazi, is both the exotic bird collector and also the Mann in charge of getting rid of the insect infestation. In a turn of events that calls to mind everything from Hitler's appeal to working class Germans, to the plantation masters' unholy alliance with white indentured servants against the enslaved Africans in the U.S. South, to Donald Trump's current siren call to arms to his predominantly white working class followers, the oligarch Ernst employs white, working class Paul to do the dirty work of getting rid of the vermin. Naturally, Paul, in accordance with his real world counterparts, becomes enamored of the powerful, wealthy Ernst, and of the Mann-Schiller family in general. He idolizes them, wants to be like them. As John Steinbeck (as paraphrased by Ronald Wright in A Brief History of Progress) dryly put it, Paul sees himself as a 'temporarily embarrassed millionaire'. And as is so often the case, when the white male working class antihero realizes that he is being used as a tool by that very same ruling class he once idolized, and that they view him as an insect in much the same way as the ones he's been hired to get rid of, he enacts revenge in a way that is both outwardly explosive and inwardly self-imploding. Paul is the lone killer with the gun who shoots up the office building or the school; the pilot who leaves a suicide manifesto inveighing against the powers that be as he flies his plane into a building; the lost statistic among the scores of white, middle-aged working class men whose death rates have been driven up by suicide, addiction, destitution and despair.
Meanwhile, Ernst's long-suffering, Fanon-reading, silently contemptuous Trinidadian butler, Augustine, watches from the wings and shakes his damn head.
Concurrently, Ernst's cousin, Walter Schiller, is in charge of another extermination effort: to extinguish Zachary's bond with Anand. In yet another thematic parallel that reflects a real-world power dynamic, this time between globalized Capitalist white supremacy and the brown and black populations whose land and bodies they exploit, much of Anand's story centers around how his gay, Indian existence is seen by wealthy white male ruling class members: by Walter Schiller, Zachary's other grandfather who literally hunts Anand down in order to extract him from his grandson’s life, as a threat to be removed, and by another wealthy older white man—a character whose exotifying intentions towards Anand are so transparent that he is referred to as simply 'The Habib Lover’--as an objectifiable item whose body is to be explored and exploited, without much regard for its owner. While the character of the 'Habib Lover' does run perilously close to being a caricature of the predatory older gay white male stereotype, the dynamic between him and Anand is the flip side to Zachary's anonymous, furtive encounters with colonized men—both Zachary and the Habib Lover are white colonizers filled with internalized guilt and self hatred resulting from the conflux of both their dominant (white, wealthy, male) and submissive (gay, effeminate) roles in society, seeking self-abasement through their sexual encounters, and, as per usual, exploiting people of color in the process of their search for absolution. Surely, this dynamic would play itself out (and to some extent, does) between Zachary and Anand as well, if not for the truly subversive factor of real love.
For even in the midst of everything that Zachary's pre-arranged fate pits against them—reconditioning shock treatment therapy, stalking, bribery, blackmail, threats, intimidation, and perhaps worst of all, the toxic residue of internalized racism, classism and homophobia—one gets the sense that not even death could kill the love between these two souls. Anand loves Zachary with an intensity that could literally stop his heart. In one of the book's most moving passages, his love is compared to an addiction in which he could die from withdrawal. Perhaps this is because Anand is possibly the only character capable of love; in a sea of selfishness and sociopathy, he is the one decent soul with a conscience, whose only heartbreaking goal is to earn the love of his parents in order to make up for disappointing them by being gay. And it is this purity of heart, this innocence of spirit, that touches Zachary most deeply. Zachary may be a wolf, but Anand is the one sheep he can't simply kill, feed off of, and forget about.
It is the supreme irony that, in a story about characters obsessed with racial and sexual purity, there is only one form of love that literally takes the form of the divine—the illicit love between Zachary and Anand. In the book's final, haunting sequence, the incident of years past that is referenced throughout the novel is finally shown in full, vivid detail. And at the moment when Zachary and Anand's souls bond with each other for eternity, they are surrounded by the presence of the Hindu Gods. The story ends with the overriding sense that for all the Mann-Schiller's efforts to control the climate of their present and future reality, Zachary and Anand's love, like nature, and like the forces shaping our own uncertain destiny in this brave new millennium, cannot be constrained. Temperatures will continue to climb, ice caps will melt, sea levels will rise, earthquakes will tremble, and eventually, the floodgates will open and wash away the stains of the past. Greco-Roman nude male statues will crumble. Birds and bees alike will copulate freely, without anyone attempting to control either species' breeding processes. And it is Kali the Hindu destroyer/creator Goddess—brown, Indian, feminine, divine--who will have the last laugh, as it is she who will cleanse the earth of Mann, whose hubris made him actually believe he could take her place, in order to make way for the new.