Luan Starova: My Father’s Books

Starova, Luan (2012), My Father’s Books, U of Wisconsin P
[Translated by Christina E. Kramer]
ISBN 978-029928794-8

So I had been looking at the Macedonian language for a little while, which is fascinating with its closeness to my own Russian. Somewhere in the process, I took a look at literature from the country translated into English and there’s remarkably little of it. One writer who has been graced with a translation is Luan Starova. And boy o boy is this a lovely book. It’s a childhood memoir, but also an ode to books, to language, and to the feeling of being at home in books, rather than in a specific place – I say, childhood memoir, but Starova uses his childhood memories as a way to try and understand his father rather than offer us stories from his childhood. The child in this memoir is mostly someone who looks, who admires, who is sometimes hungry or sad, but very rarely actively doing anything. No, this book circles around books, more importantly, around Starova’s father and his attempt to find a place for himself in this world. The father uses books to build an identity, and to interrogate one. And throughout his whole reading life, the ebbs and flows of Balkan history shake his father’s life, but never really imperil his true calling: reading, collecting, annotating books.

Luan Starova writes his book in small vignettes, small episodes, that start with the basic elements of the house the family lived in, and where the library in it was, and how the family and the books co-existed. Later sections look at his father’s friends, of which he had few, in fact, “towards the end of his life, my father had many books but few friends,” as well as at various important objects in his life. The order is not random – as we near the end of the book, the circles Starova draws become larger and larger, returning again and again to his father’s migrancy, to his family history, to the decisions he made before he became a reclusive book-obsessed Macedonian, and in the final sections, we look at a process beyond reading – a process of creation, as Starova’s father uses old manuscripts he found to untangle not just his family history, but the cultural heritage of the Balkans altogether. His father died before finishing his work, and some of the book concerns the spidery traces of his father’s notes in his books, his father’s attempt to “shore up these fragments,” to borrow a much-borrowed line of poetry. Starova’s father was obsessed with order – and reading the book, including the almost unbearably moving final chapter, one feels a similar purpose in his son.

It’s enormously odd, for a memoir by a son about a father who is obsessed with family history and books, to be so disinterested in actual books. But the movement of his father’s life, after all, is from life, into a life in books, and then, as he neared death, back into life itself. As Starova writes: “he had found an exit from the labyrinth of manuscripts that led out into life.” And in a sense, Starova’s own book follows that path, I suppose. Starova, born on the shores of Lake Ohrid, but on the Albanian side, is a multi-lingual writer who dedicated his writing life to writing the work that his father had begun as he died, at least that’s how it looks when I peruse his biography. Still, it leaves me with an odd feeling: some of the book feels almost anthropological, a book about this strange tribe of people who love books as much as life itself – like the professor of French, who wanted to die while reading a book, and was buried holding a copy of André Gide. Or entomological, with the concentric structure of the book like a microscope, looking at these people as if at a strange group of bugs.

I don’t mean it’s cruel – it’s loving and warm and lovely throughout. But it is not a book by someone similarly obsessed, very clearly, Starova is not a book person to the same degree as his father. I mean, he’s a different category of people, very clearly. We are warned of this, although maybe warned isn’t the right word. In the small section “The Cabinet,” very early in the book, Starova tells of his acts of accidental vandalism in the cabinet, leaving that space of valuable books and documents in disarray, with valuable books and documents damaged beyond repair. I mean, reading it, my heart broke for these books. But the section isn’t written to evoke my kind of heartbreak – it is about the way his youthful misdeeds impacted the family, in particular his mother. It is his mother who finds the chaos, it is his mother who tries to get things back in shape – in fact, his mother knows her way around that inner sanctum of that house-cum-library better than his father does. She doesn’t share her husband’s predilections, but it seems as if her distance from what’s in the books helps her deal with them better than Starova’s father who is too distracted by the books to stay on top of things.

Indeed, it is the mother who is the most interesting figure of the whole book, and the fact that she survived his father and helped the children understand their father’s self-chosen mission in life maybe explains why the book is like it is. It is unbothered by what’s in the books and is thus well positioned to contextualize the reading and collecting and thinking that went on in Starova’s childhood home. His mother supported and protected his father, until the very end, without having his need for books. In fact, the very first story of the book is called “Love” and that’s what we understand to be a dominant theme of the book, running underneath everything. The marriage depicted is old-fashioned, and nobody could view an arrangement like this as ideal today, but Starova posits love as the glue that holds that household together, a small house full of people and even fuller of books and objects. Because of course his father’s obsessions didn’t stop at books, they also included all kinds of unwieldy objects like a globe or a spyglass. Love, Starova tells us, kept the household running through all the troubles. And I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree.

I agree that his father was mostly useless outside of his profession as a judge and his hobby as a reader and scholar. But the way the couple came to be married sounds a bit off, and the whole arrangement – sure, love could explain it. But you know what also could explain it? A woman trying to make a very difficult situation work, love or not. And that fits the way his mother is depicted in the book generally. In fact, she is the book’s most compelling character. It is her, whose skill with languages saves them twice from being killed by Italian soldiers during WWII, as the Axis marched through the Balkan. The very description of her knowledge of the way the books are sorted throughout the house is a marvel of practical dedication. If nobody knows where the books are, nothing will get done, and so it falls to her, who doesn’t even particularly love books. It’s curious that her son, who is clearly much more her son than his father’s, doesn’t have enough empathy for his mother to interrogate the way his childhood household was run. There’s always a bit of a haut goût to these male narratives of bookishness where the preoccupation with books allows them to filter out the practical aspects of life, forcing women who are with these obsessive men, to do all the emotional labor, to work through it, to make it work.

All this is in the book, but it bubbles under the surface. Starova admires his mother, but I don’t think the book does her justice, or his father’s blinkered blindness. The best example for the latter is an episode involving a similarly bookloving friend. This one is obsessed to the point where he accidentally uses money set aside for an ophthalmologist and buys himself a van full of books. So this friend and Starova’s father lend each other books, but they don’t always read the books and upon returning them they test each other over this. As it happens, one day, the friend borrows a book in which Starova’s father forgot food stamps. The children are angry, desperate and hungry, and as the friend returns the book, the stamps are discovered. Starova’s father does not discuss his hunger, his wife’s hunger or that of his children – instead he gloats because this discovery is proof his friend did not read the book all the way through. I mean, he is a hell of a difficult man, and making a household work around a man like that must be hard; loving a man like that must be even harder, however, and if Starova is right about his mother’s feelings towards his father, that’s even more impressive than her feats of survival.

All of this is told in a very simple language. Macedonian is, as far as I understand it, a Slavic language. I know, we all grew up on stories of Alexander and Macedonia, but that Greek Macedonia is not the same as today’s Macedonia. If you speak Russian, and you hear Macedonian spoken, you can sorta-kinda understand it. My Russian is bad, but I watched a Romanian movie this year and listened to the music of Toše Proeski at some point this spring, and even I can get the gist of it. All this is to say that Russian is a difficult to translate language – you can always either see the seams or accept that the translator papered over it. Christina Kramer translated this book with, I think, an emphasis on accuracy – that explains the extreme unevenness of style. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it sings, sometimes it reads angular and awkward. Have you read Green Integer’s Ko Un translations? Yeah, that awkward. And speaking of awkward, sometimes, and this is not a translation issue, Starova likes to end his vignettes on overly clichéd phrases or on a sentence brimming with somewhat unearned pathos. It gives the book a feeling of being overdetermined, of an author who tries to get things to come out with the same emotional power that they felt when writing it, but that’s not how writing works. However, the structure of the book, which repeats phrases and observations again and again, leading readers to the powerful ending, is extremely well done. The book works best when its language is simple and declarative. Some of the most shattering sentences here are unremarkable in terms of style, but Starova imbues them with meaning.

You should read this book. There are other topics I haven’t even touched on, like his father’s attitude towards language and script. And despite some of my gripes, the portrayal of someone who loves books is heartwarming, and as a fellow book nut, I connected strongly to the book. But the most important aspect of the book that I haven’t touched on is the idea of migration. I’ve talked before about James Clifford and traveling cultures – in a sense, Starova’s book works like an example of that. His father lived in Turkey for 4 years, talked to Atatürk and was happy – but he returned home, to the “hell” of the Balkans, to connect with his family, and ultimately, to write an anatomy of the post-coloniality of the Balkans as they recovered from the Ottoman empire. He brought his books with him, wherever he went, but once he settled in Macedonia, he didn’t actually go anywhere, but he traveled through his books, but even in his travels through ink and paper eventually he returned home, as he found documents that helped him understand his country, his family and his heritage.

 

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Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Tevis, Walter (1962, 2015), The Man Who Fell To Earth, Gollancz
ISBN 978-1-473-21311-1

Greene, Graham (1936, 2009), A Gun For Sale, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-099-28614-1

I read Walter Tevis’ SF novel on a hot summer afternoon in preparation for a paper that I will not, as it turns out, present at a conference (travel expenses to Salzburg didn’t work out, regretfully). The topic was the idea of the Good. Walter Tevis puts a curious spin on this, in a book that is as much a moving and plausible examination of loneliness as it is anything else. My original paper examined the many science fictional narratives of Alien visitation that were in some ways trying to communicate a sense of the Good to the human race, whatever the ends ultimately were. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is the most famous, I think, example of this. There’s a sense in which one can read Newton, the alien who arrives on earth with plans for advanced technologies and a secret mission to save his home planet, as another one of those aliens. Newton ultimately fails, and I’m not spoiling the story here, because the whole book is imbued with a sense of resignation, and the sad and shabby way in which Newton fails is notable more for its Kafkaesque ordinariness more than anything else. There’s a darkness at the heart of the novel, but unexpectedly, it’s only marginally connected to the science fiction story at the heart of it. Fundamentally, if you strip this novel down to its most essential elements it is a searing novel about the horrifying loneliness many of us feel, the desperation of being alone and the way alcohol offers a welcome but destructive recourse to it. Tevis manages to tell a heart wrenching story by not indulging in the sad parts of it – he employs shifts in perception and time to provide a distance, making the final confrontation all the more emotionally charged. I end these first paragraphs on the blog with a recommendation to read or not read the book. In this case, I assume you know you should read this book, right? It is a classic of science fiction, but even if you don’t like the genre it is a powerfully sad tale about the difficult to stay the course in the face of public resistance, and personal mistrust. The way Tevis depicts the attraction and use of alcohol to the lonely mind is exceptionally sharp and painful to read. Go, go and read the damn thing already.

His planet having run out of fuel – and soon sure to witness the death of his race, Newton was carefully selected by his peers to do this job: use the knowledge about his planet’s advanced technology to quietly build a business empire on Earth and within a few years, assemble enough money to build a large rocket and send fuel back. In 1963, Tevis’s vision of the dying planet “predicts” our own trouble with fuel, but then, these kinds of predictions were in the air – just think of JG Ballard’s first three novels. Newton isn’t personally brilliant – he was chosen for the task, the plans were given to him. He was chosen for his resilience – an important factor, since even he, an exceptionally resilient member of his race, is pale and thin, basically walking on bones of glass. The first time he rides and elevator, the mild gravity pressure lands him in a hospital. More importantly, for people around him, Newton is weird. He talks weirdly, he looks weird with his long limbs and pale skin, and he doesn’t do well at the usual social games. He doesn’t comply with the expectation of heterosexual masculinity, he’s just himself, a weird person. And his reaction to seeing this reception is to retreat, and restrict contact to humans to the absolutely necessary. He keeps a servant around, an isolated, somewhat weird woman, who I will talk more about below. Eventually, he takes an engineer into his inner circle. That engineer, too, is a bit on the strange side. Clearly, he attracts people who are a bit “off,” just because he himself is perceived in that way.

And increasingly, he starts drinking alcohol to balance himself emotionally. The pressure of his mission, the complicated relationship to the human race (and the humans around him), all of this becomes just the teeniest bit smoother with alcoholic lubricant. And In Tevis’s novel it is alcoholism, but this mechanism is absolutely true for all kinds of coping mechanisms of people who feel they have to deal with a kind of intense loneliness. Looking at someone in front of you and seeing your insufficient self reflected back, and still having to deal with that person and people like him – it explains many addictive behaviors and choices, from drugs and alcohol, to the barely-better-than-placebo world of psychopharmacology (I comment on it here). At the end, in Newton’s most human moment of the whole novel, a bartender remarks to another customer: “I’m afraid that fellow needs help.” And he doesn’t mean: help to reach his home planet. He means help dealing with what is clearly a severe case of addiction, desperation and loneliness. Newton, throughout the book, operates on the margins of sanity and while the alcohol doesn’t help, Tevis demonstrates with enormous skill the attraction of it as a coping mechanism. And despite all this, Newton manages to maintain a solid performance, until, in the novel’s dramatic finale, his professional self, the part of him that worked on the mission, also fails. That’s when everything truly ends, when his half-imagined pride in his work, his confidence of sorts in its success collapses.

And he’s not the only one with such problems and such coping mechanisms in the book, but before I expand on that, I want to pivot for a second: I decided to make this a double review of sorts. Recently, on a train ride home with dampened spirits, I was reading Graham Greene’s novel A Gun For Sale. I have not read as much Greene as I should have, but this is, as far as I can tell, considered a minor novel. Greene split his work into serious fiction and what he called “entertainments.” A Gun For Sale is such an entertainment and indeed – what you have is a very entertaining noir crime novel, with murder, shootouts, twists, betrayals, and dark conspiracy. It tells the story of a contract killer, the gun for sale from the title. He kills an ambassador and is then framed for a robbery and soon, the police is closing in on him – not for the crime he committed, but the one he did not commit. On the surface, the novel does not seem to be very similar to Walter Tevis’ novel of alien visitation, but as I was reading it, I kept thinking of Newton and his isolation. Raven, Greene’s protagonist has a cleft upper lip and he’s always painfully aware of his reflection in the eyes of the people he talks to. When a woman offers him genuine trust and affection, he, raised to be lonely, has a hard time understanding it – and by the time he accepts it, the facts on the ground already changed and he has lost that trust without realizing it. Yes, Greene’s novel is about crime and murder, and Greene depicts various seedy characters extremely skillfully, including a Thénardier-like couple, but at the same time, it is an extended study in loneliness. Raven, fleeing the police, is trying to clear his name – or rather: he’s trying to find out who cheated him, who disturbed his professional routines and environment, in order to exact some revenge on him, to regain some balance. This is not about being declared innocent, as it is about fighting to maintain some professional pride. Because really, that is all he has. Even an occasional love interest in his past admits openly to be repulsed by his harelip, and the structures and connections he expected to be able to trust prove to be slippery and deceitful. His reaction is not anger or noir cynicism. It’s a desperate confirmation of his profound loneliness: “ He was touched by something he had never felt before: a sense of injustice stammered on his tongue. These people were of his own kind […]. He had always been alone, but never so alone as this.”

Now, of course, Newton is a kind of benefactor to humanity, and is on a mission to help his own race, while Greene’s Raven is a cold and particularly brutal killer, and so on some level their situations are not comparable (though Raven’s efforts to exact revenge on the man who tricked him do lead to a beneficial outcome for his country, but unintentionally). But the way they are isolated from their fellow man, the way a profound experience of loneliness is mediated by both men on the professional level, until, for both men, that level, too collapses, leading to catastrophe. I’m sure that’s not the most common or popular reading of Greene’s novel, I suspect many readers are more interested in the connections it makes between class and war and gender. And it’s true, it’s a frightfully complex and interesting novel on those levels as well, but I am fascinated by the thread of loneliness that runs through it all. In a way, Raven’s abject loneliness helps motivate others to deal with their own fears of abandonment, from a recently-engaged couple, to a young muscular bully, who, forced by Raven at gunpoint to strip down to his underwear, is seized with immediate social anxiety. In a sense, class pressures, predatory capitalism and war are presented as weapons that only work because we are lonely and isolated and cling to our fears and coping mechanisms. There are not as many carefully detailed characters in The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is more of a character study of Newton, but even there, loneliness abounds. Newton “learns” his alcohol habit from his servant, a woman who is also riven with fears of dying alone, and who drinks to compensate. It is meeting Newton that leads to her and another character to eventually marry, to avoid the strange and unpleasant isolation Newton spends his life in. Newton’s desperation is encouragement enough.

The right street for our time

As with Greene’s novel, I focused on one aspect of Tevis’s novel to the great detriment of many others. It does offer a take on the idea of the Good and how it is connected to human actions (I suspect Tevis shared Iris Murdoch’s distrust of what she calls “the rational man”). It also makes very interesting observations on race, on reality, on hope, language and many more topics. There’s a reason Tevis’s novel is considered a classic of science fiction, and it’s not because it’s a very realistic and harrowing portrayal of loneliness and alcoholism. But I think these are important aspects of the book, and it, in itself, is a very important book, but it is not a happy one. Maybe I should close with the words Greene uses to describe Raven’s death:

Death came to him in the form of unbearable pain. It was as if he had to deliver this pain as a woman delivers a child, and he sobbed and moaned in the effort. At last it came out of him and he followed his only child into a vast desolation.

How is that for an outlook on life. And indeed, some of us will be heading into a vast desolation with pain as the only companion. In this, Walter Tevis and Graham Greene agree. Cheerful.

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Ben Mazer: February Poems

Mazer, Ben (2017), February Poems, Ilora Press
ISBN 978-0-9962063-2-7

April may be the cruelest month, but the heartbreak of Ben Mazer’s February Poems seems overwhelming. February doesn’t usually get such a bad rep. Margaret Atwood anticipates spring in her poem about that shortest of months: ‘Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.’ Mazer himself, in his earlier collection The Glass Piano, declares that ‘[t]he earth emerges fresh and clean in spring / Disorder is the beauty of the thing.’ February Poems, on the other hand, is consumed by a wish for order, for an end to ‘these spiritual journeys’ after months of heartbreak, catalogued in these urgent poems. Many of the themes of his earlier work reappear here, tightened, focused on the poems’ narrative. The Russian poet Pasternak demanded in his poem ‘February’: ‘get ink and cry!’ and while Mazer’s poetry is not particularly lachrymose, shadows of Pasternak’s own heartbroken early poetry haunt the pages of this remarkable book, though I do not know whether Mazer has read the great Russian’s work. It is not, however, merely the ghosts of past poets that haunt Ben Mazer’s poetry: it’s, in some sense, the memory of love, and memory itself.

Read the rest of my review at Poetics Research.

Denise Mina: Still Midnight

Mina, Denise (2009), Still Midnight, Orion
ISBN 978-0-7528-8404-2

This is the second novel by Mina I’ve read (I’ve reviewed Field of Blood here) and it is just as good, probably slightly better than the other one. Denise Mina has a rare skill for writing a crime novel that even while following most of the rules and expectations of the genre, always feels enormously grounded in a sense of place and community. Mina’s first novel was set in a poor and restrictive Catholic environment, and this novel is set at the fringes of another religious community in Glasgow: Muslims. Mina never succumbs to the temptation of making this a novel that separates “us” from “them” – detectives entering some foreign culture. Much as in the other book, Mina’s protagonist is related (though here strictly speaking not part) of the community, having a sense of how crime functions not from a place of power, but from personal experience. There is a healthy dose of Simenon in this book, for the way Mina treats the process of understanding, and violence. And, I suppose, the influence of Nordic noir makes itself felt in many of the book’s mechanisms, as well. The novel is less historically anchored and buffeted than the other one, giving it more of a local, isolated bleakness rather than a sense of the injustices of history. You can see the conclusion coming a mile away, but then, this is not the kind of mystery where you race towards the end, trying to follow an author’s trail of clues. This is more of a slow affair, as we are getting acquainted with a person, her idiocrasies and her place in her community. These are all reasons why this is a lovely crime novel, but what makes this book really stand out is Mina’s writing. Field of Blood was well written, but Mina’s only gotten better with time. There are curious metaphors nestled all over the book and while the author mostly stays on the well-trod paths of genre writing (a lot of people say things “quietly,” there’s a lot of grinning and smiling as means to keep dialogue glued together, too), she succeeds at making her book surprising – not in terms of plot, per se, but actually on the page. And there’s not many mysteries that you can say this about. The appeal of Still Midnight is more narrow than the appeal of Field of Blood; if you don’t like police procedurals, you won’t like this. But if you do have an appreciation for the genre, however slight, this is a strong recommendation.

One of the most interesting things Denise Mina does in her work, and that’s something that carried over from Field of Blood, is her take on masculine assumptions. Police procedurals always have an unpleasantly male touch, and women tend to be the victims (or murderers) in them. It’s for men to divine the killer and make order in the world. The basic structure of the detective novel – to find out how this world works, what the connections are and the like – is a good fit for the delusions of rationality that are so common in conceptions of masculinity, particularly coming from men. You often don’t have a choice – you can only choose between different kinds of men. And this is not gendered regarding writers. Women get in on the action too. Elizabeth George’s American English countryside does contain a female detective, but she’s subservient to a male detective, who is often more careful, rational and elegant than his female colleague. Fred Vargas writes lovely male detectives, often sensitive, interesting ones, but her Adamsberg basically has a woman he’s romantically interested in under constant surveillance in Dans Les Bois Éternels, and that’s not atypical. There are of course several exceptions, but the two most popular ones, the female investigators in the novels of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell (who I personally find completely unreadable, I cannot read more than 10 pages in a row of without despair), are not actually detectives, but anthropologists and medical examiners. I’m sure this is not an accident. The violence inherent in being a policemen, the way you partake in oppression is more of a comfortable fit with male protagonists, who are, after all, socialized to do that anyway. Denise Mina’s decisions in her book, regarding this situation, are curious and interesting. Her detective, DS Alex Morrow, is also, in this case, an assistant to a male detective, but he’s incompetent, haughty, anxious and paranoid about looking bad. Mina shows, explicitly, that being a man, it is easier for him to sell mediocre results as brilliance, and to steal from the work of others, decline to credit them, and make his way up the ladder. The man in this case (his name is Bannerman, make of that what you will) is unlucky, because DS Morrow is assigned to help him, and, sometimes without trying, she keeps showing him up. How? By being more of a typical detective than he is. In a way, Mina employs the genre markers both of the police procedural and of the noir detective novel and combines them. In the former, the police are practically on Starship Enterprise, visiting strange cultures and making sense of them. In the latter, the detective is part of the seedy parts of town, and is threatened and affected by them.

She uses both, but makes the limitations of the former as compared to the latter, clear. The most compelling part of the novel, however, has nothing to do with policework and even Mina’s protagonist is only marginally part of this: Still Midnight is a book about community. One of the text that I found most impressive in this year’s Bachmannpreis-Competition (see here) was a short story that took the cliché of the person from another culture that has to be understood, and flipped it on its ear, showing how class pressures are things we all share, and that if we look at people as being fundamentally like us, we have a better chance of understanding and communicating with them. The same is true in Mina’s novel: a crime has happened in a Muslim household. That crime is best understood if you look at the way crime works in Glasgow rather than work with terms relating to Muslims and Islam. Everybody in the novel is, first and foremost, a Glaswegian. Glasgow is a working class town, where economic pressure grinds everybody into the same fine powder. Whereas the closest Glaswegian relative for Field of Blood was Meg Henderson’s brilliant memoir Finding Peggy, in the case of Still Midnight, it is none other than No Mean City, the classic account of crime and poverty in Glasgow, which is no mean feat. The most frustrating element of the whole novel is how effortless it reads. There are infelicities and frustrating oddnesses, and maybe the night shouldn’t be described as “black as ink” more than once, but the book reads light, skilled and playful in the best way. In taking up a motif from her debut novel Garnethill, Mina has a protagonist whose brother is part of the Glaswegian crime scene, who knows members of various communities, including a club of young Muslim men, from school, and who is fiercely intelligent. Everything connects in her novel, everything coheres, and it’s gratifying to know there’s so much more where this comes from. Denise Mina is a special writer. Read this book (if you like police procedurals).

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Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream

Schweblin, Samanta (2017), Fever Dream, Oneworld
[Translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell]
ISBN 978-1-78607-090-6

There is only one other book I know that is like this: it’s Lessing’s The Fifth Child. And it’s not just the nightmare depiction of parenthood – it’s also the writing itself, at least as rendered by Megan McDowell. Samanta Schweblin’s debut drops us right in the middle of a story, never really waiting for us to catch up and then increases pace and tension as it goes on. Schweblin’s style is literary enough, but it is the functional precision of it that is most interesting. She has a knack for describing things in unique ways that increase the creeping tension throughout the book, but if you stop and look at the page, there’s nothing there, really. Lessing’s work always struck me as immensely paraphrasable, i.e. ideas and structure were more important than the actual writing, and Lessing herself never exceptionally interested in language. Schweblin’s book is already paraphrased, if we accept that translation is a paraphrase of sorts, but looking at it from the remove of translation it also seems the kind of book that’s eminently translatable – mind you, I’m not saying the writing is bad. Megan McDowell found a fluid English that meets the task that is expected of it: making us understand a complex, mysterious situation with a minimum of words (incidentally. NOWHERE in my copy of the book does it offer the original publication date (2014) or the original title (Distancia de Rescate). If you look at the book it’s like it sprung to life like Athena: fully formed. Shame on you, Oneworld). The form she chose – an storyteller who is interrupted and focused by an impatient interlocutor – conceivably helped the author to focus her story without resorting to drab minimalism. The main storyteller can be imaginative and exact, as in a description of a field of soy “leaning towards us,” but more often than not slips into redundant overnarration, particularly early in the book. It is the exceptionally well executed structure that corrals all this into the kind of terrifying narrative that Fever Dream ends up being. It’s not perfect – the author evades a lot of pitfalls by keeping the book short and tight, but that also means that many issues fall by the wayside. The book’s use of folklore, ecocriticism and similar ideas is done almost in passing and this is where the comparison to Lessing comes full circle to me: because even in Lessing’s less accomplished books, hounded by her sometimes rickety style, there’s something at stake beyond plot and literary games. I think Schweblin doesn’t quite push through to the other side, and for a book with so many complicated ideas and possibilities, being merely entertaining and terrifying seems like a minor accomplishment. That said: it is entertaining and it is terrifying and I recommend you don’t give this to parents with young children (much as you shouldn’t give The Fifth Child to a pregnant woman). I do recommend you read this.

By “paraphrasable” I didn’t mean bad. That needs to be repeated. There are books and writers who are getting a good amount of praise today (I’m looking at you, Blake Butler and Green Girl) where you feel that the writing is incidental, it is the final ingredient after ideas and ideology have already been poured into the novel. The writer just adds the words at the end to make it work but he doesn’t care about them particularly. That is not the case here. Schweblin’s descriptions are excellent, the structure is excellent and the words are well chosen and precise. Schweblin’s book is like one of those literary horror novels that occupy a distant region of your mind, making you think differently about reality. That’s what all good horror does, I think? It pushes you to reconsider whether some mapped areas of your reality are really as mapped and controlled as you think. House of Leaves was another book like that. Somewhere halfway through reading Fever Dream, I looked at my own hands with a kind of alienated creeped out feeling. Surely that’s an achievement. In a way, what you get here is the training of a good short story writer, too: everything coheres, and is written with a view towards the end of the story as your hair starts to stand on end. You can guess what happens from the first pages, and you’ll have guessed coreectly, but Schweblin isn’t writing a mystery, she is presenting a strange, maybe supernatural story, and invites you from the start to read it with a sense of dread. The first line is “They’re like worms,” and while said worms don’t end up being very important to the book, the early insistence of them contributes to our reading. What’s more, as we read the book we know that everything bad that will happen, has already happened and we’re part of a conversation explaining to one of the people involved in it being forced to remember what exactly happened. We follow along, involved in the story, trying to see what’s important, and then suddenly when things get irreversibly bad it’s like a chute opens and we fall to the end of the story. Whatever issues you may have with other parts of the execution, this structure works exceptionally well and you don’t usually find this in literary fiction. Literary fiction does genre extremely badly – despite the literally formulaic qualities of the latter, literary thrillers, science fiction, or horror tend to not be as involving as their genre siblings. Schweblin can take it up with the best of them, and yet write in a careful, measured, often subtle way.

I have skirted around plot details for a reason, but I would like to mention the importance of pain in the story and how it works in the narrative structure of the book. I’ve recently read Elaine Scarry’s amazing The Body in Pain, and there is this chapter in the second half about the pain and imagination. Basically, Scarry explains that pain has no object. Pain just is, whereas imagination is all about the object, and has no corresponding state, really. Imagination is wholly dependent on context and the object that is imagined, the object itself determines the shape of the imagination, whereas pain is just an overwhelming state. Incidentally, Scarry is only talking about physical pain, yet her descriptions of it also fit my personal experience of depression and the experience of others I have read about. An overwhelming state of emotional pain, for which sometimes there is only one reprieve. Well, then again, maybe not. Back to Scarry and Schweblin. So one important factor here is that Schweblin toys with the limits of how we define humanity. The change someone can undergo as they suffer through intense pain is seen in the book as evidence of a swap of, what? Souls? Essences? There’s also the incredulousness of the mind when faced with exceptional pain, the tendency to sometimes catch up with it after a while that I think is reflected in the book. Mostly, I think what it is, is it tries to offer an illness that is so intense and fast in its effect, that it comes as close to an experience of pure pain as you can get. There are, I will say, queasy feelings reading this. One wonders whether Schweblin herself has ever felt truly exceptional physical pain. I have not, and there is a certain nonchalance at dealing with the physical aspects of the whole ordeal that make me wonder about Schweblin. With Lessing, to get back to the first paragraph, and whatever her failings as a writer, there’s always a sense of the writer dealing with physical and class issues in a responsible way. I’m not entirely sure about Schweblin. At the same time, the way her novel deals with the other half of Elaine Scarry’s equation, the imagination, is so deft that it’s hard to hold on to my misgivings. The book is in the form of an interrogation of sorts. A boy named David forces a woman named Amanda, who is probably dying, how she came to be where she is. She doesn’t quite remember, but in a sense Schweblin leads us into a great gothic mansion of Amanda’s mind, as we walk down, well not memory lane, more like memory hallway. Schweblin blurs the lines between memory and imagination, and as Amanda, who doesn’t currently feel pain, imagines the pain she felt, it warps the simple narrative of memory too.

There are many topics I haven’t talked about that Schweblin engages fully and other topics she alludes to. One topic is motherhood, the anxieties of modern motherhood. Amanda has something she calls “rescue distance” – a context dependent need to be close enough to her daughter to rescue her. This is a central term in the book, as evidenced by the fact that the novel was originally published in 2014 in Spanish under the title Distancia de Rescate. When the environment feels safe, that distance can be very great when there’s a threat, even inches may be too far. Much of how she explains it reminds us of helicopter parenting, maybe, but Schweblin carefully reaches into that sense of security and upends it: the catastrophe in the book happens with the daughter inches away and Amanda’s “rescue distance” alarm not raised at all. It’s a sense of evil lurking in the very ground – and Schweblin makes it an ecology issue, by connecting it to some unnamed barrels with some unnamed fluids. Some of the symptoms line up with radiation poisoning, and Argentina. Schweblin’s native country, has had a water contamination scandal in 2005, and Germany, Schweblin’s current country of residence, has a near-obsessive debate about nuclear waste all year round, so that could be the case. But with all the lovely possibilities we have of storing poison underground, God knows what it is. This uncertainty bothers me, to be honest. It’s not like Schweblin went down the path of Vandermeer who in his recent novels fully explores what Timothy Morton calls “dark ecology” (drop everything now and buy/read Morton’s book!). When I read the barrels (with the interlocutor suddenly saying “This is the important moment!”), I was let down. Maybe because books like Massimo Carlotto’s Sardinian investigative mystery Perdas de Fogu sharpened my sense of what’s possible and maybe necessary to say in fiction. Introducing the ecological element like this, as a trope, not as a reference to real barrels rotting away somewhere in the Argentinian countryside somehow seems worse than offering no such explanation but keeping it open. And here is where I mention Doris Lessing one final time. Despite her shortcomings as a writer, Lessing was a great writer, because of her sense of responsibility. Schweblin’s Fever Dream is a very very good novel, clever, but written with the depth and understanding of a real storyteller.  But it very clearly is not great, and I don’t know whether the writer will develop in that direction. This seems like a long short story, and I don’t know whether Schweblin’s ambitions will carry her beyond this (and I also don’t know how much of this book is McDowell’s invention), but I am genuinely excited to find out. This is one of the best books I read all year.

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Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes

Campbell, Sophie (2017), Shadoweyes, Iron Circus Comics
ISBN 978-0989020725

Sophie Campbell is one of my favorite people in comics. She’s been publishing comics for a long time now, sometimes as artist and writer, sometimes “just” as artist. It’s been a while since new work written by her has appeared in print: that’s all the more reason to celebrate Iron Circus Comics’s new reprint of her Shadoweyes comic book, originally published by Slave Labor Graphics in 2010. Trust me: you want to read this. Sophie Campbell’s art is gorgeous, the story and ideas are cohesive, moving and complex. If you are tired of the usual stories about vigilantism and superheroes, you might like this one. Campbell best and most well known work is the sharp sequence of graphic novels called Wet Moon, of which 6 volumes have appeared so far, and in some ways, Shadoweyes is its polar opposite: Wet Moon is conscientiously realist – offering a story about real lives in a way that isn’t usually presented in comics. Campbell’s characters are queer, of color – and colorful, struggling with money, sexuality, love and other issues, with a palpable physicality that similar books, like Terry Moore’s classic Strangers in Paradise, lack. In fact, if you follow Campbell’s work, the topic of physicality, of change, is tied into her examination and interrogation of feminity. Shadoweyes reads like an early attempt as synthesizing all of her themes in one powerful image: of the young vigilante who turns into a kind of alien monster, without losing any of her humanity. It’s about the inevitability of some physical change and about the way we deal with it. I’ll be honest though: the main reason you should read this is because Campbell is an amazing, gorgeous artist, and while her black and white work is great, her work in color is beyond description. This new edition of Shadoweyes is in full color, which the original wasn’t. Coloring assistance is provided by Erin Watson, who does a great job.

Campbell’s art, particular when colored, is transformative. She is an artist who takes care of the little details: hair, clothes, smaller accessories are rendered with a focus that is unusual, because Campbell, I think, truly understands how dependent often people’s identities are on what we might call these little things. In her own books, her excellent writing may overshadow sometimes the enormous lifting her art does. There are two titles that appeared in the last 5 years that should change your mind on that: one are the two trades of Glory that appeared from 2012 to 2013. The writing on the book, by Joe Keatinge, is very good, though a bit rushed by the end (had the book not been canceled I think the latter half of the story might have fared better), but it is Sophie Campbell’s art that truly lifts this title to a higher level. Keatinge took a character invented by Rob Liefeld and turned her complex and humane, giving her a tragic, moving character arc. None of this would have mattered if not for Campbell’s approach to the main character. You can always recognize a panel drawn by Campbell within seconds, and many characters in the book are very Campbellian: soft shapes, big eyes, unique hair style. But Glory, the main character is not human, her physicality, as established by Liefeld, is the one of an overpowered superhero: but Liefeld drew her as a pin-up (click here for Liefeld’s Glory), her physical power implicit in the actions, not her physique. Campbell’s Glory’s power is evident in her size, her thick, muscular body. Glory is tall, muscular, yet also feminine, and her life and emotions are extremely carefully designed by Campbell. Glory is a warrior and so her body is drawn with ripples of scars – what’s more, the big, muscular female in comics is often de-sexualized. Not so with Campbell who created Glory to be fully rounded, the various possibilities of life reflected in the various aspects of her physical appearance. There is a physical change that Glory goes through, as the story develops, and all the changes flow from the same, unwavering sense of aesthetics that is the artistic mind of Sophie Campbell.

Now, Glory is gorgeous, but extremely bloody and brutal. Sophie Campbell’s next major collaboration, Jem and the Holograms is neither of those things. Like Glory, Jem is a reboot of older material, in this case an animated series about a rock band that has the power to transform into anything they want thanks to a supercomputer named Synergy that can create life-like holograms. Not every part of this story makes equal sense, but why would you dig deeper when the story on offer is fun? That’s all equally true for the comic book, written by Kelly Thompson, who has used this book to jump to a very active writing career in comics, with art by Campbell (and colors by M. Victoria Robado). It’s odd to me that Thompson is the breakout star of the book when the major advantage of the book is Campbell’s art. The animated series has Jem’s band be in a constant conflict with a rival band called The Misfits (no, not those Misfits) and Campbell creates a clear design for both bands that is both believable and realist in its use of clothing, hair and other accoutrements, and at the same time absolutely, gorgeously fantastic. In Jem and the Holograms, we find Glory’s flowing hair again, the long limbs, but this time they are woven around music. The conflicts here are personal rather than apocalyptic, but we follow everything with rapt attention because of the world Campbell has created. Some of the writing is weak, some of the plot could have been better managed, much of it moves from bullet point to bullet point with an almost mechanical abruptness, but I dare you to be bothered when the delivery method is this glowing yet sharp and precise art. It’s not even the story itself that’s at issue, after all, Campbell had a hand in it, it’s the smaller details of writing that left me underwhelmed, but the art, truly, makes up for everything. So why isn’t Campbell the breakout star with her own book right now rather than Thompson?

The reason may lie in Campbell’s vision that is one that exceeds simple narratives of physicality and identity. In her books, people are damaged or change and then they live with that change. Sometimes people are not who we (or they) thought they were, but they push through that, adapt, move on. There is no simple episodic ‘back to the start’ for Campbell. The zombie tale The Abandoned ends on a complicated note of betrayal and unknowable future, ending at the story’s messiest point, and similarly, the limb lost in Water Baby remains lost, and the trust between some of the book’s characters is damaged. We change, we move on, that’s a pattern that keeps recurring in Campbell’s books and that isn’t that common in comic books. Plus, as a trans artist, Campbell’s voice isn’t as easily amplified as that of other unique comic book writers of today like Brandon Graham, about whose developing universe I’ll write something one of these days, or Matt Fraction, say. I will talk about Wet Moon in more detail some other time, but the fact remains that it is a complicated, untidy book – the comics industry, for all the genre’s potential for undermining simple narratives, is often remarkably conservative. Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise was a revolution, simply for writing a plain story about regular female characters, dressed and behaving like regular female characters. Wet Moon, with it’s more physical queerness is a more difficult proposition. These days most (all?) work that Campbell publishes (I can’t figure out which trades of TMNT contain her art, regrettably) is pencilwork for other writers and I suspect she has become most well know for her work on Jem and the Holograms and Glory. To these people, I recommend Shadoweyes without reservation, because it’s spectacularly gorgeous, combining, in some ways, two kinds of art that Glory and Jem split into two different directions. But Shadoweyes is more: it is also an unbelievably well told story about identity. In some ways, Shadoweyes serves as a key for some of Campbell’s other work, as it connects, through its intersex character Kyisha, the way preternatural transformations, common in superheroes and monsters, are a metaphor for the way people born into wrong or conflicting bodies deal with their identity. That’s not a popular topic, and not an easy one, but you can even find it in books Campbell didn’t write, just drew. That’s because her art is transformative. You should read her work. Start with Shadoweyes. It is good. Then read everything else. I promise you will not regret it.

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Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole

Villalobos, Juan Pablo (2010), Down The Rabbit Hole, And Other Stories
[Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey]
ISBN 978-1-908276-00-1

I was emailed an article two days ago about someone or other who was decapitated by the MS-13 gang in Mississippi and in my head I went, “…and he wasn’t even a king.” This is not a story about my opinions regarding monarchy. What it is instead is a testament to how deeply a vivid – if short- book can burrow into my subconscious sometimes. So after figuring out where my brain came up with that idea, I reread the culprit, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and the very first book published by the excellent people at And Other Stories. I’ll be frank: both on my reread and on my first read of the book, I didn’t like it at first. It took me a while to get into and to understand that the voice of the narrator and its mannerisms are not just preciousness. Indeed it is surprising to me how much my opinion of the book changed as I made my way through it despite how small, in terms of pages, it is. This is a very short book and while I don’t want to spoil it, I will say that, like Yuri Herrera’s magnificent oeuvre (see my review here), it’s another writer from Mexico (though living in Spain) who wrote a complex work of fiction that engages the so-called narcoliteratura, but really tells a story about something else. In this case: innocence and identity. Judging from this book, Villalobos is not nearly the writer Herrera is, but that’s stiff competition anyway. Down the Rabbit Hole is an engrossing read, with a lot of good ideas, a very firm sense of form, and a bit of debut novelist exuberance. There are a few books like this, but the context and some specific ideas here make this a very intriguing read. It’s very re-readable, and as my initial anecdote shows, the narrative voice is distinctive enough to stick around in your brain days after you finished the book. I tend to end these first paragraphs with a quick yay or nay about whether or not to read this book, but I’m not sure with this one. I, personally, enjoyed it a lot, and I suspect you will too, whoever you are, but there’s also a chance that some of its mannerisms may grate too much for you to enjoy it completely.

The main “mannerism” is the narrator himself. Tochtli is a boy who lives in a major drug kingpin’s palace, who lives secluded, knowing only sixteen people and craves owning a Liberian Pigmy Hippopotamus. That “rare and secretive animal” serves as a mirror of sorts for the young boy who shares a disdain for pure book knowledge with his drug dealer father, but who is reduced to experience life from a distance. Villalobos’s structuring of the book is extraordinary: we learn about how distanced from life the boy is on multiple levels, including elements of syntax and paragraph construction. Some of this is connected to a sense of physicality. Villalobos introduces multiple small but potent doses of physicality into the book, from physical pain to fat bottomed girls who vanish into back rooms with his father doing things Tochtli has no words or concepts for. The physicality builds until it is released in a brutal scene towards the end of the novel – yet even there, Villalobos handles his protagonist carefully, moving him along in a certain distance from that ripe, dark, suppurated physicality. In the end, even that physicality is found to be contained, and moved back into the closed, self-referential world in the palace. But as much as I admire the control Villalobos has over all the elements of his book, the voice of the narrator is terribly grating. We meet him on page one as a practically self declared genius with great memory who reads dictionaries and uses big words. The big words at the beginning will turn out to have a greater predictive value for the plot of the novel rather than its style as Villalobos gives his protagonist not per se a childish voice, but the kind of simple, funny, deadpan voice that adult writers often think children have. And that’s a thing you really, really notice in the first parts of the book, how artificial that voice is, how it lacks depth, musicality, even real humanity. It opens a discourse on innocence precisely because its artificial creation of an “innocent” voice creates a sinister counter-flow to the novel, the opposite, if anything, of innocence. That’s what annoyed me the first time I read the book, and that’s what bothered me on my reread, as well. It’s good, then, that as one continues reading the book, this sense of annoyance at a contrived style disappears completely.

As it turns out and as I already suggested, the contrived nature is the very point, I think, of this kind of writing. Villalobos creates a forest of symbols, an “empire of signs,” to slightly misuse Barthes (though, if you read the book, you know why I associate the phrase here). I know nothing about him personally, but much of it reads like someone used the furniture and grammar of narcoliteratura to furnish the colder abstract rooms of poststructuralist theories about reality and language. I mean, that is how the book works, in my opinion. There are so many places you could start – for example the way this child tells its stories in a repetitive way. Now, the language (in translation) may not be musical, but the way phrases and descriptions appear and reappear does suggest a certain musicality. On the one hand, it does put us in mind of certain children and the circular (and sometimes, frankly, annoying) way they tell stories. On the other hand, we are offered a metatextual hint about how to read the texts repetitions pretty much exactly halfway through the book when some of its characters tell each other jokes. Mind you, we don’t hear the jokes, just Tochtli’s summary of the jokes which is a mini-thesis on difference and repetition (I don’t want to mention you-know-who in every review, but you know). It also serves as a key of how to read some of the book’s language, especially since it comes in a part of the story where everybody has changed their names, and the kid’s use of their names implies a connection of names and selfhood, and language. Language in the book is whispered, yelled, withheld. Understood, misunderstood, used as code, as self-revelation and as lie. There’s a thing in the opening pages of the The Night Circus where the child prodigy does not understand the magician adults around her because they spoke in a way that was intentionally (magically) not understandable to the child. So in this particular mediocre novel it’s particularly lazy, but Villalobos shows us how much movement and magic, really, a gifted writer can wring from language without fairy tales and witchcraft. The list of things he does is long and I could continue for a while, but let me just say that ultimately, Down the Rabbit Hole is about how constructed our narratives of villainy and politics are, of masculinity and femininity. It’s not a new claim, this, but then the novel isn’t a nonfiction essay: it merely happens to illustrate the situation exceptionally well.

And this is where, I think, comparisons to Herrera’s own take on the Mexican literature of drug kingpins and their life come up and distinguish Villalobos’s novel from what it is and what it could be in the hands of an even better (or just maybe more experienced) writer. Like Herrera, Villalobos covers his novel in a web of Mexican culture and religion, starting with the fact that everybody from the main “cast” has a Nahuatl name. Like Herrera, Villalobos toys with the musicality of pulp, and with the complicated relationship Mexican culture and literature has with European history. As with Herrera, the condensed, allusive and precise workings of the novel made me worry about overreading it (is the combination of interest in French revolution and reclusive protagonist a humorous allusion to Thoreau? Probably not.). But unlike Herrera, I get the feeling from Villalobos that he is primarily interested in his metafictional web (is this a Mexican thing?), and not as much in human aspects of his fiction. It may be that I am reading this in an age of Trump and Brexit, and so lack a certain patience for a certain kind of writing, but Villalobos comes awfully close to being just too precious and cold here and there. Herrera’s books are masterpieces not just for structure, writing and intellectual weight, but also for the way he manages to incorporate the lived experience of many Mexicans into his books. The pain, blood and struggle of ordinary people under the weight of the system and their various loyalties within that system come out with a kind of shattering purity in Herrera’s books. Villalobos, instead, opts to move to another metafictional pun at the end of his book. Herrera’s work strikes me as absolutely necessary and vital, just as it is masterful. He’s a truly great writer. Villalobos seems minor by comparison. He is very very good at what he does, sometimes stunningly so, but what he does seems so small, and I am not talking about page length here. I recommend you read Villalobos, but you absolutely have to read all three novels by Yuri Herrera that have been published by & Other Stories, which is quickly becoming a favorite publisher of mine.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)