Reviewed: Rainald Goetz, Rave, trans. Adrian Nathan West, Fitzcarraldo Editions
The music is felt more than heard from outside the club. You’re with Rainald, our protagonist. He is also Goetz, the writer, or maybe it is more accurate to say Rainald will become Goetz the writer as Rave goes on. It doesn’t matter too much; he’ll tell you about it later. As the novel opens, you follow Rainald into the club; he greets the bouncer, the cloak room attendant, the bartenders—seemingly he knows everyone. You squeeze through the dancefloor and up a narrow staircase to get into the garden outside. There you are surrounded by friends smoking cigarettes, being handed beers and pills. As Rainald says, ‘You walk into a place like this, and the effect hits you there and then: Euphoria. As if you had NEVER felt this before. As if there were no such thing as the history of happiness.’ It’s overwhelming. You go dancing, after a while you go outside and have a cheeky spew by the fence, maybe sit down and have a cigarette and another beer to steady yourself before you return to the dancefloor. The night spirals out into a kaleidoscopic vision of colour and sound. The music makes you feel more alive than ever and time ceases to matter. Rainald turns to you: ‘Fact: This is why you go out. Because sometimes you just have to hear music LIKE this.’
In Rave, Rainald Goetz is not very interested in telling a story. There is plot, but only in the most general sense of there being a beginning, middle and end. But what is conventionally understood as an ‘arc’ is far in the background behind the experience Rave is trying to convey. As a novel, it is better understood as a phenomenology of the 1990s German club scene. Goetz takes us with him, retelling his experiences as fragments, the way one remembers a huge night out: hazy through the fog of alcohol and drugs the following morning. Three long sections (‘Collapse’, ‘Sun Boobs Hammer’ and ‘Destroyed’) loosely organise the book, corresponding with the rise of the scene and culture, its prodigious lifespan and slow decline.
This is the strength of Goetz’s prose. By throwing us directly into the action alongside Rainald and his friends, Rave grasps at and makes visible an experience that is in many ways universal. There is a particular form of liberation that comes from the sense of belonging facilitated by the sort of spontaneous energy focused around a cultural space—a scene. This is the comfort of knowing everyone and being known by everyone, of having a shared way of encountering the world. All of the energy engendered by a scene sweeps one up into themselves. When it’s good, this feeling can become a drug, an alluring siren’s call for lost and angsty youths. This is akin to when hair metal drew anyone with a penchant for tight leopard-print pants and neon guitars to Los Angeles in the 1980s, or when punk rock exploded in London in the 1970s. For Goetz, this place is the German club scene in the 1990s, and it is magical because of the force with which it pulls him and other like-minded people in. Through their communion, it transforms all aspects of their lives, and smooths over the mundane details of living.
You’re only done dancing when the music stops. In some places this means you’re not done for days at a time. When the lights go on, you finally head outside, transformed. You light up a cigarette in the cold morning air and exhale a long wisp of smoke into the sky. You’re fried. It will take a few days to recover. But as Rainald says, ‘On Wednesday there were thoughts and plans about the weekend to come, Wednesday thoughts of a Wednesday brain still banged up a bit from the weekend before.’ The cycle must and will continue until it exhausts itself.
The towering figure in Rave is the DJ. Their task is not merely to spin records, no. The DJ creates an artwork on the fly, using the bodies on the dance floor, the records in her gig bag, the turntables and the mixer. The craft is procedural: the DJ starts with a record and then picks another to match the mood, the movement in the room, her sensibility. She quickly adjusts the tempo on a new record and drops it in seamlessly. She looks back at the crowd to gauge their reaction. There is no mistake the DJ can make that can’t be fixed, but it must be done quickly.
A mistake can ruin the energy she worked so carefully to conjure. At certain junctures, the only solution is to play a hit. She bends down to select another record from her bag and the hit is lying there in plain sight—but to play a hit at the wrong moment is to admit defeat, it is to ‘conceal a covert cry for help, and would … [ruin her] and the entire situation in a way that would most likely be extremely difficult to correct’. Instead she picks something different and takes the music in an unexpected direction. The crowd cheers, and the energy in the room reaches new heights.
For Goetz, the DJ’s role as artist isn’t merely to create a participatory work; it is also to transform the dancefloor into a temple at which the only God is pure pleasure. One would be remiss to resist it. The DJ tends to her flock and acts as the guide through this experience, and in Goetz’s imagination her artistry is not dissimilar to that of Michelangelo carving life out of cold stone. Anyone can play a record, but to play the right record at the right time is an art. In the hands of a master, the music is elevated beyond its original creators’ vision.
A man looking like he doesn’t quite belong approaches two women who definitely do. He keeps looking over his shoulder. ‘Klaus said you guys could help me?’ The women look at each other questioningly—Klaus was right, they can. They take his money and tell him to wait as they go outside. After a few minutes, they return with a tiny zip-locked bag they slip into his pocket. ‘Get out of here,’ they see him off with a smile. A second later someone else comes up to them asking for help.
Drugs are everywhere in Rave. Everyone is high, getting high, or trying to score so that they can get high. For Rainald, doing drugs is as much the point of going to clubs as is the music. To him, his plans every night are simple: ‘Meet girls. Take drugs. Listen to music.’ The drugs are essential to experiencing the scene to its fullest. Naturally, they come with their dangers. Goetz doesn’t pretend that one can’t overdo the good things—though he labels those who do as ‘despicable burnouts’. Nonetheless, ‘Not to do drugs, and not to do so as a matter of principle, is absolutely, without room for doubt, the bustedest thing of all.’
The middle ground between sobriety and being high is difficult to find in Rave. Rainald clearly sees himself as being on the good side of drugs, and he looks down with pity and some disappointment at the theatrical displays of people trying to evangelise about the dangers of drugs. The police, for example, wait every morning outside the club to catch ravers out with something illicit but mostly leave empty-handed. There’s also the two-faced club owner who makes sure the drug dealers can exit through the back while he chats up the police: ‘… yes, of course officer, I only run the club I don’t condone any such activity.’
Goetz has a problem with unreflective, moralising depictions of drug culture in clubs. Rainald says at one point, ‘We may affirm in general that the scope of the drugs and of the music world has not at all been portrayed exhaustively, satisfactorily, or even in broadly realistic terms in film.’ Rave is his attempt at correcting the record. Or it is at least a plea to allow people to do whatever they like to their bodies, to their minds, and to do drugs with whomever they want, because when these things are good, they are good.
The scene is the cultural flashpoint for both the avant-garde and the wannabe, although they are usually at first glance indistinguishable. Writers, journalists, students, musicians, poseurs, TV presenters, drug dealers, academics, intellectuals, burn-outs et al. are all drawn to the club. In the line for the toilet you experience a wide range of society. Behind you, a man is trying to impress a woman by name-dropping every author he’s read—Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Adorno, Bernhard. In front, someone’s almost screaming about the finer points of DJ technique and music selection.
For Goetz, conversations at the club only go one of two ways. Either you suddenly find yourself having spent four and a half hours chain smoking and falling deeper into the finer points of politics, literature, music and drugs, or, as Rainald says, the danger is that ‘[a]s soon as you post up next to someone who for some reason thinks he’s intelligent, you’re disappointed to hear him blurt out his super-mega-interesting divergent opinion’. I thought it was funny that the example immediately following this passage was about Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s philosophical treatise A Thousand Plateaus: ‘actually, just ONE plateau would be enough’.
But people aren’t interested merely in conversation. The club is about dancing and about bodies being physical around and with each other. For Rainald, ‘everything in life is revealed on the dance floor’, and being in the club is a transformative experience. Some people are more susceptible to this than others—there are always those who go from nothing to being not quite 19 and having seen it all, and then going back to school from which they dropped out after being disillusioned by the excesses on offer. But Rainald doesn’t see himself as that. He persists and floats in the currents of the culture that nourishes him for longer than most others can handle, until he too has to move on. Rave is a historical document.
Eventually the lights come back on. The DJ can sustain the party a little longer to stave off this abrupt shock by looping part of the final record, to drag it out before the bouncers start ushering the last few ravers out, before the power to the speakers is cut. The energy dissipates out of the room, lingering for a short while before silence occupies its space. The 1990s couldn’t go on forever. People grow up, get together and form units called families, then they might separate and find another unit, or remain as they are. Life outside the rave takes its toll as it marches on, placing demands on us—we pay rent, buy food, occasionally sleep, and ‘become’ someone. For Rainald, this becoming involves ‘[p]osts and positions. The Academy. Applying for posts and taking positions. Pay grades for adjunct, assistant, full. Illegitimate fields.’ All of which he thinks is bullshit.
The problem with any successful culture emerging spontaneously under capitalism is that once it gains a certain level of momentum it becomes a commodity like everything else. The DJ, once an artist, becomes an aspirational marker to be chased at DJ academies. Old friends who want to remain true to the music and to the scene that they feel have given them everything are now more concerned about keeping the doors open at their clubs. As Rainald puts it, ‘What had been pure madness was suddenly a profession. The levity was gone. Talking about others, other cliques, other shows, other clubs and movers and shakers all turned venomous.’ What once felt like an unstoppable cultural energy diminishes with time as people age, and their bodies cry out for respite from spending every weekend dancing and doing drugs. And though the scene might live on, for Rainald and those like him, the magic eventually disappears.
Rave is a testament to a key cultural moment for those interested in club music and its history, a testimony to that era’s self-understanding. Originally published in German in 1998, and now in Adrian Nathan West’s translation, this feverish novel is a product of the people and environment it describes. Goetz is not nostalgic for what has passed—he doesn’t present the culture as unimpeachable and perfect. But to him it is clearly unforgettable. Reading Rave today, 23 years after it was first published, it is interesting to note that in our pandemic world raves are re-emerging as young people are once again throwing caution to the winds in the name of fun, congregating in abandoned factories and in the wilderness to worship at the altar of drugs and techno. Doubtless there is another Rainald somewhere in this scene, getting high and dancing his way towards the clarity of mind necessary to distil writing like this. But the moment seems to be beginning for them, so one is left to wonder what kinds of literature will emerge from this recontextualised time. •
Maks Sipowicz is a Polish-Australian writer living and working in Naarm.