You Should Have Left
By Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin, Pantheon, 114 pages, $18
The new book by German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left, is a minor trick for him, but a neat one. This mind-bending novella about a writer losing his marbles contains images that startle and linger.
Kehlmann was barely into his 30s when his lively novel Measuring the World (2005), set in the 19th century, about naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Gauss, made him a star in Germany. It was his sixth book of fiction, but it became his first novel translated into English (and many other languages), and it became an international bestseller.
Kehlmann is now in his early 40s, and his reputation has not reached escape velocity in the United States, though his last book, F, about the varied fates of three brothers, was another rewarding, finely written effort. You Should Have Left, in both size and content, feels like a bit of batting practice before the next game that counts.
The unnamed narrator is a screenwriter who has retreated to a beautiful, minimalist house in the German mountains that he rented on Airbnb. He’s there with his 4-year-old daughter, Esther, and his wife, Susanna.
At a little more than 100 small-format pages, the book, which is structured as the narrator’s personal and creative diary, leaves little room for setup, so we get it in quick succession: He and his wife fight, a lot. He’s writing “Besties 2”, a sequel to his most commercially successful work, about the friendship of two young women. His wife is happy for the screenplay to pay the bills but scoffs at her husband’s pretensions - “and by the way,” he writes, relaying her critiques, “my affectation of writing by hand as if I were a poet was insufferable.”
The first signs that something more than marital discord is afoot come in the form of brief record scratches in his notebook. Between two paragraphs describing ideas for his movie, we read, “Something strange just happened.”
In the great tradition of horror protagonists, he ignores several bright-red flags that flap in his face. When a mysterious stranger outside the town’s only general store tells him to “get away quickly,” he feels a chill but figures he may have misunderstood her because of her dialect. When his reflection suddenly disappears from a nighttime window in the remote house, he strains to rationalise it. “If I were a physicist, I’d probably know what it is,” he thinks, “and all this wouldn’t surprise me.” Or perhaps a physicist — maybe especially a physicist? — would pack the car and hit the gas.
Halfway through the book, which unfolds during one week, the couple decide to leave, but they stick around long enough to have more of the bejesus scared out of them and us. The most arresting of the book’s chilling moments might do for baby monitors what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean.
With a premise not exactly built for laughs, Kehlmann still manages a few darkly comic flourishes, especially when it comes to family life. The book can seem like a pamphlet warning against domesticity. Reading to Esther at bedtime one night, the narrator reaches for a picture book, which he summarises as “the millipede Hugo’s exciting journey God knows where.” Everyday fatherly tasks, like playing with Legos or blocks with Esther, annoy him more than charm him, though in the end his love for her is a key part of what fuels the climactic tension.
If the setup is shopworn — redolent of the category’s king, “The Shining,” and any number of lesser fright pieces — by the end Kehlmann takes it to provocative and open-ended places.
The slipperiness of what occurs might cause some readers to turn back and revisit the final scenes for clues. Has the narrator discovered a multiverse? Has he done something terrible? Has he simply lost his mind? Is he hallucinating because of jealous rage or a creative block or both?
Near the finish, he is almost resigned to his ambiguous but hellish fate, straightforwardly noting some very crooked events. He hears strange footsteps on the second floor. He sees a man briefly appear in a room, standing on the ceiling. No biggie. Life as directed by David Lynch has become his new normal.
You Should Have Left lands in a place that is part horror, part science fiction. Time travel, which may or may not be involved, is presented as its own kind of blurred nightmare. If you’re unfamiliar with Kehlmann’s writing, don’t start with this slim, occasionally potent exercise. But if you’re a fan waiting for his next full workout, you’ll find this a pleasantly unsettling way to pass the time.