We Are Each Other's Sins

The Incisive Bleakness of Katharina Volckmer's The Appointment

We Are Each Other's Sins

Katharina Volckmer: Photo by Liz Seabrook

We are all in some sense voyeurs, fascinated by the inner lives and secrets of other people. There is a certain illicit joy in listening to someone else’s conversation; in picking up the thread of the story and weaving it together. The rise of social media and hyper-connectivity in the last fifteen years has only served to heighten our curiosity and desire for a narrative. The less we know, the more we want to find out.

Katharina Volckmer’s debut novel The Appointment feels so intensely current because it understands that base impulse in the reader. It is striking both in both structure and content — an unbroken monologue in a consultation office for a penile construction surgery – and by turns knowingly shocking and slyly tender. The prose is breathless and erratic, littered with rhetorical questions and rapid changes in thematic direction. Through its relentless vulnerability, The Appointment elevates the role of the reader from passive voyeur to therapist; you are being begged to listen.

While Volckmer tears through a dizzying number of ideas, jumping from religion to sex robots, gender to motherhood, The Appointment begins and ends on an examination of the modern German social conscience. Volckmer lingers on the historical guilt and anxiety woven into the post-Holocaust period, and the consequences of constant remembrance and repetentance. “We performed a new version of ourselves,” the unnamed narrator notes to the Jewish doctor examining them. They go on to reflect on being required to sing in Hebrew in school, despite there being no Jews in the class, criticising the mentality as “hysterically non-racist…negating difference wherever possible.” Coiled underneath the lurid descriptions of sexual fantasies about Hitler, or the mocking dismissal of German traditions and names, is a sense of brewing frustration with this cultural fragility.

The frustration extends, too, to the human body and its constraints. “There is nothing about us which would inspire music, or poetry,” laments the narrator. In The Appointment, the body stands in the way of the soul; it is a “physical reality... you cannot transcend.” This is where the setting works particularly well, as a space of liminality and potential. As the protagonist moves to enact irreversible change, the surgery becomes a metaphor for true, honest catharsis. The narrator unburdens themselves of the body that has acted as a prison, but also of the emotional baggage of past trauma. The office transforms into a witness stand, a place of brutal authenticity.

Although executed well, The Appointment’s structure also proves one of its shortcomings. There is an impenetrability to the never-ending monologue that can at times weaken the book’s thematic interrogation. The lack of space for pause and synthesis amid the mass of information being conveyed necessitates a kind of distance between reader and text. That distance can work in The Appointment’s favor, particularly when it wrangles with complex sociocultural questions — but it can also sound gratingly homiletic. What drives reader curiosity is most often empathy, and in several passages, this connection comes second to shock value. Volckmer has noted, too, that she was worried as a non-Jew about the reception of some of the more charged elements, like the assertion that the only escape from Holocaust-related guilt is to “love a proper, devout Jew.” The book’s frequently dehumanising treatment of Judaism and Jewish identity walks a very thin line between subversion and insensitivity.

At its core, though, The Appointment is unerringly incisive at capturing the pervasive emptiness that characterises the 21st century millennial experience. The narrator is convinced of universal solitude – the power of loneliness to make people “forget how to articulate their own desires.” Despite the instant messaging and the endless exposure to other people’s lives, Volckmer understands that this is a shallow and false connection, marked by constant performance. The effort and pretence required in cultivating a persona for a world of strangers is ultimately exhausting, and leaves us much further away from each other than before.

“We are each other’s sins,” the narrator notes mournfully near the end of the book. This is a world in which love is painful, and the future bleak; where people would rather fuck robots than lovers. But there are moments of paradoxical hope amongst the despair, where the rapid tonal shifts work effectively to create real poignancy. “Let us hold hands,” the novel ends, “Let us be warriors.” This is the central belief of The Appointment – that “the only true comfort in life is to be free from our own lies.” The best cure to the mental isolation we suffer through has always been vulnerability; to open ourselves up, confront our inherent human ugliness, and try our best to forgive it.

Ella Fox-Martens

is a Canadian-born, Australian/South African-raised essayist and poet. She has been published in Observer, Meanjin, The Rumpus, Westerly, Cordite Poetry Review and others. She lives in London.

All contributions from Ella Fox-Martens

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