The first rave I went to was in a disused car park in the Isle of Dogs in 2008. I took the bus. We sat at the back of the top deck passing round a bottle of Cherry Lambrini while someone’s older boyfriend wrapped brownish crystals of MDMA into twists of cigarette paper. I felt my insides tighten each time the bus drove past another deserted stop as it neared the end of its route. I didn’t want to get there just yet. We got off somewhere unremarkable and followed a map drawn in blue biro. I swallowed the little paper wrap with Lambrini, slipped through a chain-link fence and handed a fiver to a man who scrawled something on my hand in marker pen. At some point the following day, I caught the bus back home with my ears ringing.
I don’t remember much about what happened between the two bus rides. When I ask my friends, they don’t remember their early raves either – just the venue, perhaps (a warehouse somewhere near the eastern end of the District line; a splinter of woodland beside a busy road in Hackney Wick; a squat with a full-size skate bowl off Brick Lane); and what drugs they took (ecstasy and mephedrone), but not, in any concrete sense, what happened or what music was playing or who was playing it. No one had an answer when I asked: ‘What was your first rave really like?’
This is the question that Rainald Goetz and his cast of narrators set out to answer in Rave, his novel from 1998, now published in English for the first time. The narrative is multi-vocal, fragmented and occasionally impenetrable. ‘We wanted to make a film about our lives, partying, music, what things were really like. But what were things like, really?’ Goetz had previous form in trying to get at what things are ‘really like’. In 1983, he announced himself to the German literary world by picking up a razor blade during a televised reading and slashing his forehead, while repeating the words: ‘With my straight razor I unmask the lie.’ (You can watch it on YouTube if you’re not too squeamish.) The same year, he published his first novel, Insane (also translated by Adrian Nathan West), about an idealistic psychiatrist named Wilhelm Raspe who spends his days in a Bavarian psychiatric ward and his nights pogoing desperately in beer-soaked punk bars (‘he wanted to party to death’). The young Dr Raspe becomes increasingly disillusioned with the lies and hypocrisy of his profession, and at the end of the novel decides to become a writer: ‘Why is literature so beautiful? Because she may be gravid with truth like none other … You can pack everything into her enigmatic womb, every false start, every deviation, every error, even the truth.’
In 1988, Goetz – who has two doctoral degrees (one in history and one in medicine) and who worked as a psychiatrist before becoming a writer – discovered DJ Hell and acid house. He was 34. ‘I haven’t stopped going out since,’ he wrote on his blog Rubbish for Everyone, published in book form in 1999. Rave is set largely in nightclubs in Munich and Berlin at the height of techno (1996-97), during the fast creeping commercialisation of the electronic music and club scene (there’s an excursion to Ibiza). The narrators and characters, such as they are, include superstar techno DJs, promoters and nightlife fixtures who have been behind the velvet rope during what they insist was the most debauched decade of all. Goetz and his friends feature too: maybe they’ll make a film, or perhaps a ‘techno comic’ might reveal things as they really are (as they really, really are). There is a problem however: ‘There was no story. That was the joke.’ A roll-call of German techno clubs in the 1990s doesn’t add up to much: Pulverturm, Ultraschall, Babalu Club, Omen, the Tresor (Berghain, Germany’s most famous club, didn’t open till 2004). ‘Where are you going to come up with the plot for such a film,’ one narrator asks, ‘when in real life there actually is none?’
Goetz isn’t much interested in telling tales of hedonistic excess. He’s not above name-dropping, showing off about the DJs he was friends with and the cool clubs he went to, but Rave is most of all an attempt to pin down the experience of a rave – and a consideration of the difficulty of translating that experience into text. The book’s three sections unfold more like a dialectical argument than a fictional narrative. If there is a story here, it’s about the limits of language.
Appropriately, Goetz begins with an ellipsis (the rapid d-d-d of a drum machine firing at 150 beats per minute):
… and came up to me in slow motion. I looked, longed, walked and thought [ … ] there I was standing in the middle of the music. – Thrust.
The drugs kick in on the first page (‘everything friendly, warm, roused’): the next seventy pages consist of a noisy mix of euphoria and confusion. We are swept up in a stream of unnamed first and third-person narrators who appear, disappear and reappear on endless circuits from bathroom to dancefloor to bar and back again. No one knows where anyone is and everyone is asking what’s the time. The music is felt as much as heard (‘I had sixteenth notes popping super light in my fingertips’). A ‘massive monstrous voice’ keeps demanding that we ‘ENTER THE ARENA’: we are forced to comply, submitting to an onslaught of disjointed scenes, fragmentary interior thoughts and sentences that tail off in ellipses or are broken by dashes. The effect approaches that ‘state of splinteredness’ and looks something like this:
Then I thought –
And right away I wanted –
But then it struck me – Yeah, that was cool.
It isn’t difficult to confuse and disorient a reader (although Goetz sets about it with a particular thoroughness). The real challenge is acoustic. As one narrator puts it: ‘How would a text about our lives have to sound?’
One model for Goetz’s brand of acoustically informed anti-literature (he also spends some time laying into ‘the mad stupid babble’ around electronic music and rave culture produced by journalists and academics) is clearly Thomas Bernhard, whose books also sometimes begin with an ellipsis. The prospect of Bernhard in Berghain doesn’t quite arrive, sadly: Goetz’s acoustic effects, such as filtering sentences to the ‘etc etc’ of a drum machine hi-hat or repeating semi-onomatopoeic words such as ‘bass bass bass’, suggest that transposing techno to text can only go so far. At one point he experiments with a kind of verbal hardcore breakbeat sample shunted into the narrative: ‘And the immense boom-boom said: one one one – and one and one and – one one one – and – cool cool cool cool cool.’ (Try saying it in German.)
The other, more convincing, soundtrack Rave supplies is the scraps of dialogue overheard between ravers – banal and all the funnier for it:
And I said to Hardy: ‘So the – ’ / ‘Hey!’ / ‘What?’ / ‘Good.’ / Max said: ‘Good, good, good’.
‘Can a person not bitch?’ / ‘Nah, nah.’ / ‘See.’ / ‘Look.’ / ‘Right.’ / ‘Definitely.’ / ‘Maybe that one first.’ / ‘True.’
‘Water, of course. Sparkling or still?’ / ‘Sparkling makes me burp.’ / ‘Oh, well!’ / ‘For real.’ / ‘Oh yeah.’ / ‘Right.’ / ‘Yeah!’ / ‘And so?’ / ‘Water, still water, please.’
These exchanges take place when the speakers are relatively sober: after the pills take hold, Goetz doesn’t even bother with speech marks: ‘Oh yeah. Wow – … – hmm … – you – whatchamacallit – yeah – me too – …’
If that sounds tedious (and it is), no one goes to raves for the conversation. ‘Too many human voices,’ one narrator says, ‘ruins even the hottest track.’ It’s only when the ravers shut up and start dancing that the book’s nightlife scenes begin to seem as if they might actually be fun. A dancer is caught in the glare of a strobe (‘she shook her wonderful dark hair’) while the smoke machine and lights conjure ‘clouds high over our heads’ that ‘roiled and rolled down over us in laser green’, ‘dense ferns’ poking ‘through the fog’. Two dancers ‘in thrall to nothing but the music and its movement, away from each other, towards each other, on our own, for her, for me, for me and her, and her for herself and her for me’. It’s raving that allows Goetz (who regrets spending ‘the hedonistic 1980s holed up in philosophy, melancholy and literature’) to escape the linguistic progression of everyday life and immerse himself in a ‘once upon a time’ in which there are ‘not yet words for all this here’:
It was the wordless time, when we were always looking around with our big eyes so strangely in every possible situation, shaking our heads, and could almost never say anything but: speechless – pf –
The second part of Rave begins with sunlight and chitchat: the ravers come reeling out of the clubs on a bright Sunday morning in June, floored by the light. An old woman drives past and says the word ‘mole’. One raver is sick and another asks anxiously: ‘When’s it gonna be dark again?’ The next time darkness falls we are in Ibiza and everyone is talking and telling stories – including Goetz. Something like a story with a consistent narrator emerges, a clearly fictional element at the centre of the novel (a story which, incidentally, two characters joke about writing in the first section) that revolves around an international drug deal gone wrong. This is the more familiar world of rave fiction that sprang up in the 1990s (one narrator even spots a ‘giant gang of English ravers … all drugs, shagging, fighting and sunburn, to quote Irvine Welsh’). The point, perhaps, is that all accounts of raves, including Goetz’s own, contain some inescapable fictional element at their centre, some way of filling in the glorious blank.
The final section of the book involves an international DJ called Schütte, who, for a number of pages at least, resembles the traditional character that Goetz has so far denied us. He moves between airports, bland hotel rooms and nightclub bathroom stalls, indifferently taking cocaine. In a rare solitary moment, sitting in the tub in a hotel bathroom, Schütte struggles to make sense of his nocturnal existence. His problem is Goetz’s problem. When Goetz stops to consider from the solitary perspective of a writer the nightlife in which he has immersed himself, he is overwhelmed by what it would take to ‘say everything you know’ and say it ‘clear and simple, just like it is’:
How can this EVERYTHING be said precisely, in which portions and particles, and in which setting. And how, if possible, can it emerge practically automatically, as if it were uttering itself. Without compulsion, unforced then, without violating the rules of tact and discretion that prevail within a text.
In a long sentence from the novel’s first section, a rave is described as a flowing, liquid mass. The writer tasked with ‘standing in the tumult’, holding a ‘fountain pen’, scurrying ‘blue across the quivering paper’, cuts an unlikely figure. The rave dissolves. It can’t be pinned down. ‘It changes constantly. With every sentence, with every new word.’
Goetz‘s project was bound to fail; he accepted that when he decided to write the book as fiction. But the ambition of his experimentation sometimes pays off. The fragmentary narrative can just about evoke, if you let it, something of the disorientating experience of being at a rave. It might not be what it’s ‘really like’, it might not even be particularly enjoyable, but it gets close to the echo of a vibration on the morning after, and the sweet and dusty taste of the fog machine at the back of your throat – the closest most of us have been to a real rave in a long time.