Navigate to Arts & Letters section

A Limp Literary Statement

The glowing praise for Katharina Volckmer’s new novella mistakes shock value and self-pitying narcissism for profound cultural analysis

by
Sasha White
November 04, 2021
Tablet magazine (with apologies to Andrzej Pągowski)
Tablet magazine (with apologies to Andrzej Pągowski)
Tablet magazine (with apologies to Andrzej Pągowski)
Tablet magazine (with apologies to Andrzej Pągowski)

“I don’t mean to offend you Dr. Seligman, especially now that you have your head between my legs. But don’t you think that there is something kinky about genocide?”

The Appointment (subtitled “The Story of a Jewish Cock”) by Katharina Volckmer is a novella-length confession of a millennial German woman who hates her body, hates her sex, and invites the reader on a tour through her mind, a cesspool of degradation in search of thrill. The entire novella is a stream of consciousness addressed from the narrator to a surgeon who will make this woman into what she has always wanted to be: a Jewish man. You see, our narrator has come to Dr. Seligman’s office for her sex reassignment consultation.

The narrator’s focus is her identity: She has always lived with a sense of unease, repulsed by what she calls “the whole tragedy of the female body.” Her struggle with her gender identity is the heart of the book, but it is her Holocaust kink that leads her through the wicked wasteland of identity.

Yes, you read that correctly. Her Holocaust kink. Before you kink-shame, consider that some young Germans have taken far worse measures in dealing with their excitement over the national legacy. Here, the novel’s spin on German guilt is all about adopting the identity of the victims. Volckmer’s narrator fetishizes Jewish people, having never met a Jew growing up and only learning about them through school lessons. By having a circumcised neophallus surgically attached to her groin, she hopes to transcend her Germanness, her racial guilt, and no longer have to deal with the problem of the German legacy. By transitioning to a Jewish man, she partakes in the ultimate form of voyeurism, joining the ranks of the oppressed and claiming their oppression as her own. In her mind, by adopting their identity she will finally get to understand the problem of the Jewish people. The eroticism of being dominated by another race is her obsession, and she wants to experience it from the perspective of the one being dominated. Albeit unintentionally, this grim book is a telling allegory for the appropriative nature of transgender identity.

Sadly, the esteemed liberals of various literary magazines do little else than fawn over The Appointment as “transgressive” “sexy, hilarious, and subversive” “wickedly funny”, and compare it to Portnoy’s Complaint while remaining blind to their own hypocrisy on the very issues of identity it raises. The literary world takes certain topics very seriously these days, in large part because liberal culture cannot take a joke (see Dave Chappelle). Books and comedy that poke at gender and race in the wrong way must be censored, silenced, and sanitized. Yet here we have a book doing exactly what the woke liberals say they hate: fetishizing and dehumanizing women and minorities. When these themes are taken to their most extreme in the form of Hitler kink, the nice warm pill of gender identity makes it all go down like honey for the literary elites.

Volckmer intends the book to be a dark comedy, and at times her jokes land. In chapter 3, the narrator points out that, “savvy as they were,” the Nazis missed out on a marketing opportunity in the form of Hitler dolls and toys. “Imagine all the fun little German children could have had with something like a Lego concentration camp called Freudenstadt. Build your own ovens, organize your own deportations …” But mostly the book is unimaginative, the narrator laconic, and the humor consists of mere shock value. Volckmer’s narrator is a self-absorbed tourist in the world of suffering. She is like an exhibitionist who masturbates in the park, enjoying the disgust she provokes while labeling it as prudish, humorless discomfort. She meanders through worlds of suffering about which she has no idea.

R.L. Goldberg writes in the Paris Review that Volckemer’s work “refuses comfort”, and quotes Kafka in order to describe The Appointment: “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” A great quote, but does it apply to The Appointment? Can the cultural sensibility of today discern between the truly transgressive and mere shock value? Goldberg, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton whose dissertation is on trans narrative, states that “Volckmer’s novel comes out limping in the finest sense, ice pick aloft, frozen sea shattering.”

Did these reviewers ever stop to ask, why is it that a Chappelle joke about transgender identity earns him a firestorm, but an entire screed on how you want a “Jewish cock” circumcised and all, affixed to your body is heralded as radical and a parallel to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint?

While Volckmer may use similar themes and imagery, her artistry is nothing like Roth’s. Volckmer’s prose crawls where Roth’s gallops. Contrast the flighty, rapid-pace humor of Portnoy’s Complaint (“I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off—the sticky evidence is everywhere!”) with Volckmer’s clunky style (“[German] throats never get wet enough to suck anyone with devotion because we were all raised on too much dry bread”). While Roth’s writing is eternally sharp, hers is lethargic, the cadence plodding and slow. She is shocking for the sake of being shocking.

This mix of vulgarity with artistic and imaginative emptiness makes The Appointment palatable to the current intellectual liberal class. Elle Hunt’s article in the Guardian about The Appointment captures the asininity of the modern literary industry. Hunt writes that “[h]er narrator’s shame worked as a guiding principle by which to push the limits of taste and direct her early rancor towards worthy targets.” Of course, Hunt doesn’t specify what targets are receiving the rancor, nor does she need to. To continue finding success at a mainstream outlet like the Guardian, Hunt is right to limply praise a book like The Appointment: a novella that is the perfect representation of all the garishness of our age, where Mother Nature is paved over by Frankenstein-esque transhumanism and boorish sexual entitlement.

While reading, I couldn’t help but think about Dave Chappelle’s hot-button joke from “The Closer” that the trans movement is a white male movement—as soon as other marginalized groups start to get some footing, white men can turn around and say, “I’m a girl now, N-----,” and everyone has to bow at their feet. If there is merit and humor to be found in the story of a German woman adopting the identity of a Jewish man to alleviate her guilt and satisfy her sexual desires, then no one should be able to stop Dave Chappelle from telling jokes.

As Hannah Arendt taught us, it was senseless to consider every German guilty of the Holocaust, and moreover, the guilt was collectivized in the first place to obscure the concrete guilt of individuals. Fast forward by one generation, and we can see the results of the idea that an entire people have guilt upon their shoulders for the crimes of their parents. It does no service to either Jews or Germans to fetishize Jews as victims and to shame Germans as evil.

The German woman in The Appointment takes such fetishization to an extreme: She describes how growing up in Germany they would learn about Jews as almost mythical creatures and learn to sing Hebrew songs. She describes how she always wanted to meet a Jewish man, wanted to have sex with one, and then of course how she wanted to have sex as one. Is all this brash vulgarity born of a lifetime of being shamed? The counter to shame is often pride, so people turn to ways they can find pride in their identity, whether by embracing extreme movements or playing up the most marginalized facets of their lives.

What is most noteworthy about the novella is not Volckmer’s writing, however tasteless it may be, but the fact that the promotion of racial and national identity is still winning out in the Western intellectual consciousness. The critics who celebrate The Appointment as radical and transgressive do so because the book promotes their identity-and-victimhood-centric worldview, not because they find it truly challenging. The book presents little challenge to the atomization and narcissism of identity politics, where each person’s self-absorption stands in for real social observation.

The glowing reception illustrates a truth about the avant-garde art of our time. When talent and originality dwindle, and when the pornographic brutality yet lily-livered sensitivity of our age mix, art relies on shock and tragedy to get attention rather than on skillful language or compelling ideas. As Stephen Metcalf noted on the 50th anniversary of Lolita, “Your run-of-the-mill obscene masterwork—Tropic of Cancer, say—demands that you, enlightened reader, work your way past the sex and excrement to recognize how beautiful it is. But with Lolita, you must work past its beauty to recognize how shocking it is.”

The Appointment’s ugliness is not balanced by a build of masterful wordplay or gorgeous imagery. Perhaps we have no more need for these things in the era of our waning empire. What are we left with when there is no more interest in the beautiful or thought-provoking side of pain, but only in the shock and emptiness of reveling in the filth? Even Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, in his enjoyment of his base existence, taught us about finding our way out of the darkness for the sake of the human soul. Literature does not only exist to show us the light, but it’s certainly a lot better when it relies on more than just shock value to lead our way.

Sasha White is a co-founder and podcast host at Plebity.

Thank you for reading Tablet.

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them. Help us do what we do.