On the surface, the absurd and the surreal seem self-indulgent. Works in this group are highly self-referential. They only make sense if you forget everything outside of the work. You have to forget reality to understand them. Jennifer Hofmann’s haunting novel, The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, is a good example of why we need surrealism. As Kafka, Magritte, and the rest knew, sometimes the only way to communicate the insanity of daily modern life is to create something just as insane.
Bernd Zeiger is a very ordinary man living in a very insane country. His entire adult life, Bernd has worked for Management—an organization that is clearly the Stasi. The Stasi, along with the East German government, created what I’ve heard called the most surveilled nation in world history. Zeiger’s first major assignment was to work with a psychiatrist to create a manual that would utterly demoralize and disorient targets of the state government. As the novel opens, Zeiger is at a press conference watching another agent give an announcement all according to the manual. The other agent dresses dully, speaks dully, and uses deeply dull bureaucratic language even as he talks about increasing demonstrations around the country. We have the benefit of knowing that East Germany is in its final days. Zeiger, however, and the rest of his comrades believe that the state will march on into the foreseeable future.
The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures quickly evolves from this relatively comprehensible beginning into layers of strange adventures. Zeiger roves East Berlin, searching for a lost girl who caught his fancy, only to fall prey to memories of the worst thing Zeiger ever did and to the machinations of other Management agents who are caught up in their own existential death spirals. Evens grow increasingly bizarre as Zeiger finds out that he’s being spied on by his colleagues, who want to find out what Zeiger knows about a man Zeiger helped incarcerate around the time he finished the infamous manual.
In other hands, this novel might have been a story about a man realizing that he’d hurt people in service to a country that didn’t deserve his loyalty. (If you’d like to see that story, I strongly recommend The Lives of Others.) Instead, it’s a story about a group of men who go down with the ship. They’ve been so warped by Management (using Zeiger’s manual) that they can’t imagine a world without the state. They can’t conceive of it ever ending. Fittingly enough, The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures concludes in a mental hospital.
This novel is a deeply unsettling read, full of paranoia and weirdness. Readers who like to shake off sanity for a little while and dive into surrealism to see what they can learn should enjoy this one. I’d also recommend it to readers who are curious about what life was like just on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.