2 Novels by Carolina Schutti

Schutti, Carolina (2010), wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, Otto Müller
ISBN 978-3-7013-1178-1
Schutti, Carolina (2012), einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, Otto Müller
ISBN 978-3-7013-1193-4

Carolina Schutti Novels As has become tradition on this blog, as the Bachmannpreis rears its head, I’m reviewing some books by writers invited to perform there, though I never really get around to reviewing all that many. I already reviewed a novel by invitee Meral Kureyshi (click here), a while ago, actually, and here now is a review of two novels by Carolina Schutti. Schutti is a writer with a truly impressive track record. Not only does she have a PhD in German literature (she wrote a dissertation on Elias Canetti), but she’s also won a plethora of awards for her books – novels, novellas and other texts. And yet – to say I felt let down by the two novels under review is to understate how grueling the experience of reading these short books really was. I’ll say this for her: Carolina Schutti has a tonal consistency that is admirable, if maddening. In her very first book she zeroes in on a style that seems derivative, but really isn’t epigonal in any typical sense. She doesn’t echo specific writers as much as a general tone. As a concert pianist she has said in an interview that she always writes for listeners as well – and indeed, from the first line you can hear the voice in these books. And you know, eerily, what this voice is? It’s the typical note struck by the average reader at the Bachmannpreis – this measured pronunciation that situates texts right between light and somber, investing pauses and turns with meaning that they don’t have on the page. Both books use language to tell the story of people who struggle with it – who struggle with telling a story of themselves, and as a result, it is deplorable that Schutti declines to give them that voice. Instead she sets them up with a boilerplate reservoir of phrases that are all too common in books like this. And there are so many books like this. There’s an unpleasant lure to characters who are at the margins of language and society – not the truly aphasic, but the reticent ones, the ones who live between languages, or the ones with mental illnesses that make for dramatic performances.

And so her debut novel, wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, (those who are carried have no need of shoes) focuses on an 18 year old girl who struggles with communication. She manages to work from a limited set of phrases in her work as a server, but once she meets a man and her life opens up, that language is no longer sufficient. There is a sudden turn, as a walk through the woods leads to a confession on the part of the protagonist, and eventually, a complete collapse. It is language, at every turn, that leads her astray, language, that condemns her, and language, at the end, that helps her pull herself together – or apart, depending on your reading. This tendency, to present a text that is primarily about language and not as much about actual lived experience, is a Bachmann cliché, and in some ways, last year’sline-up and results were a confirmation of this tendency, with Ronya Othmann’s autofictional text sidelined, and Sarah Wipauer’s rich, but not myopically self-centered text entirely ignored. It is difficult not to read these texts about mentally marginalized people by those in academia with some suspicion, as an exercise in tone and form. But even formally, this is upsettingly thin. It seems to strive for a switch from a certain simplicity in the early chapters to a much richer set of poeticisms in the last chapter, but nothing in the early chapters is actually simple, per se. These seem like the most mathematically average sentence length, with the typical number of adjectives for books written in German in the 21st century. And while there are more poeticisms towards the end, they veer sharply into Lifetime Movie sententiousness. As a comparison, for simplicity and formal mastery, take fellow 2020 Bachmann invitee Helga Schubert. In her story “Schöne Reise” we find truly reduced sentences, which bloom in extremely specific spots. The narrative, of a state-sanctioned Black Sea holiday, is tense, a story like a tightly wound spring, begging to be read and re-read. There is not a single sentence in Helga Schubert’s story that you don’t feel is crafted for this story specifically, and there’s no immediate comparison, except with her peers among the best writers of her generation. Not a whiff of epigonality.

This has, necessarily, to do with what I consider the most difficult mode of writing: simplicity. Everyday details and sparse language is the most difficult combination to pull off very well. Schutti’s attempts, at least in the two novels I read, from another problem that seems to me particularly German – the overuse of useless detail, particularly around food. The amount of times we are treated to individual bites of food in between thoughts or dialogue, intended to show the banality of passing time, in contemporary German literature is an absolute mystery to me. In the debut novel there’s a whole paragraph involving the serving of soup. Is this the German variety of show, not tell? Who did this to you? It is so pervasive, and such a sign of thoughtless paragraph writing – writing, that is, that’s concerned with what a paragraph is about more than about the individual sentences constructing the paragraph. Not to overuse Helga Schubert as a reference, but after all, she IS invited to this same competition, and her collection Schöne Reise, which contains the abovementioned story, is full of people cooking or eating, and there isn’t a single “biss in sein Brötchen” type of paragraph structure. I’m fine knowing you’re eating your food, carbs and all – do not list individual bites for me. It does not enhance anything.

Another issue with these books about people struggling with language is that the writers of those books tend to be especially highly educated – and so they offer observations that are incredibly complex but are couched in simple situations. Like Schutti, when her protagonist looks yearningly at the windows of rich people and observes that the people inside, unafraid to be robbed, “send out some of their light, it falls hard upon the asphalt, right in front of her. She cannot pick up this light, though she can climb inside, or step over it.” etc. This is highly poetic, if not particularly good, and entirely out of place with the much plainer and banal observations in the immediately preceding sentences. Somehow, and I think we can blame this on writers like Peter Handke, the margins of language have become a playground for these poeticisms toying with the perception of reality. In books like Schutti’s debut, however, it just feels exploitative. Talking about people who are really, genuinely marginalized, and coating their lives with self-serving language games seems dubious. When it’s this badly executed, its worse. There’s also often a racial component to it, and that Schutti’s second novel, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, “I must have walked across soft Grass once,” is about immigration and the learning and unlearning of language, and uses many of the same tools and tricks of the first book, confirms this theory. Now, the book is autobiographically inspired. Its protagonist is a woman who has lost the ability to speak the language of the place she came from as a child, Belorussian. Schutti herself is the child of immigrants and has lost the ability to speak their language, Polish. Immediately, these references, and connecting the struggles with language to learning or failing to learn a language gives the typical spiel more heft. The execution though is no better than in the debut novel. The immediate comparisons that come to mind, including Aglaja Veteranji’s brilliant novels, or Melinda Nadj Abonji’s underrated debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, all serve to emphasize how flat, in the end, Schutti’s constructions end up being.

To be clear – these books are both exceptionally competent – but not as novels. They are specific cultural performances, with a specific audience in mind. Schutti, from page one, line one of her first novel, immediately seizes on a tone and style and never abandons it. It’s inconsistent, yes, but consistently so. Open any page at random, and you can hear it spoken slowly into a microphone in Klagenfurt. And honestly, they probably make for great analyses by scholars and judges, just not for particularly good literature. The expectation behind this style is what’s truly remarkable – it’s an inherent expectation of importance, an arrogance of whiteness that is at times breathtaking. An unbelievably fitting writer for Klagenfurt, then. It’s a surprise it has taken so long.

Berit Glanz: Pixeltänzer

Glanz, Berit (2019), Pixeltänzer, Schöffling
ISBN 978-3-89561-192-6

I have reviewed a brilliant recent German novel for World Literature Today. It’s an inventive novel that pushes the envelope creatively but it holds back on the political implications of her story. It is by far one of last year’s best novels by a German author. It should be translated as soon as possible. You can read the whole (too short) review here.

Anne Katharine Green: The Leavenworth Case

Green, Anne Katharine (2010 [1878]), The Leavenworth Case, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-310612-8

Anne Katherine Green is widely seen as a precursor to modern mystery novels – or one of the first modern mystery novels, depending on how you want to judge eras. Michael Sims’s introduction makes clear how much writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and especially Agatha Christie owe to Green’s work and to her 1878 debut novel The Leavenworth Case in particular. This book’s portly detective, who breaks his case by inviting all suspects into a room and explaining the facts of the case to them is clearly what Christie based her chubby Belgian detective Poirot on. In my experience, many of these “precursor” novels are interesting, often better literature than their more generic offspring, but also sometimes more dull, less concentrated and shaped. If there’s no genre conventions to use and work with, sometimes there’s a bit of Victorian shapelessness to some books, excuse my frank language. But the case of Anne Katherine Green is interesting.

With crime novels, what I as a reader particularly enjoy is reading the environment outside of the plot – issues like class, race, culture, and their reflection in the objects surrounding the plot and characters. Because mystery novels are often epistemologically locked rooms, we as readers enter them as a detective enters a locked room where a murder has happened. We examine the interior, the paneling etc. And while the world of the mystery may seem to roam across broader landscapes, in reality, for the reader, they are all locked rooms, and we enter them suspiciously. This has interesting effects. The author’s implicit biases become part of the narrative and furniture. In influential books like Dorothy Sayers’s debut Whose Body?, the author’s antisemitism becomes part of the structure, part of how we read and understand that novel. I’m not saying anything new, McHale’s disquisition on postmodernism has already sufficiently explained how detective fiction and modernism are connected.

But I found it necessary to explain because of how extraordinarily well made Green’s debut is, and how it appears to address these critiques and ideas. The book is narrated by a Watson type character, a smart person who comes close enough to the mystery’s solution at various points that the resolution can be genuinely surprising. He travels, interviews suspects, collects, saves and presents evidence – and the tone of the novel is extraordinarily melodramatic, designed for the reader to follow this proto-Watson through New York and into the heart of a complex family intrigue. But he never gets a real grip on the solution – that is reserved for the detective. His name is Mr. Gryce and he is introduced like this:

And here let me say that Mr. Gryce, the detective, was not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubtless expecting to see. On the contrary, Mr. Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you. If it rested anywhere, it was always on some insignificant object in the vicinity, some vase, ink-stand, book, or button. These things he would seem to take into his confidence, make the repositories of his conclusions; but as for you—you might as well be the steeple on Trinity Church, for all connection you ever appeared to have with him or his thoughts. At present, then, Mr. Gryce was, as I have already suggested, on intimate terms with the door-knob.

The first sentence, as Sims notes, is a reference to Wilkie Collins’s detective Sergeant Cuff from the 1868 novel The Moonstone, who is described as having eyes which “had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself.” The psychologist detective is its own tradition, but the detective who reads and interprets his environment is a different – and much more interesting – one, in my opinion. Green’s Mr. Gryce is almost a parody of these characters, but appearing long before them – his obsession of not looking into your eyes but carefully observing objects, things, appearances, is stressed more than once in the novel.

This makes him the perfect foil for the protagonist and his melodrama which is almost exclusively focused on psychology, on talking to people, trying to understand them, trying to intuit them. Detective fiction has more than once served as an analog for literary criticism, but this novel, curiously, long before the advent of academic literary New Criticism, offers a powerful and convincing rejection of speculative psychology. What matters are facts – and context, and plausibility. From Peter Szondi, we learn that an interpretation needs to be consistent, and so Mr. Gryce solves his case because he notes that of all the evidence he found, “the chain was complete, the links were fastened, but one link was of a different size and material from the rest and in this argued a break in the chain.” So he ends up offering a Poirot-esque confrontation that leads to a confession.

Mr. Gryce is not an unfathomable genius like Sherlock Holmes – and maybe in this the voice of a female writer becomes clearer. There’s no fetish of masculine genius here – Gryce is led by the facts and the quality of his analysis against his intuitions, and is in the end surprised by the confession. Usually the Watson character is the reader analog – he is our representation in the story. We’re smart but not that smart, observant, but not that observant. But The Leavenworth Case recalibrates this – the Watson character is there to show us the world, but our real analog is Mr. Gryce. We feel with Green’s Watson-like character, and we follow him on his adventure, but as readers thinking through the story, we are more like Mr. Gryce. We create a chain of evidence, and we don’t get all the way there – but neither does Mr. Gryce. The unpleasant celebration of the inexplicable, beautiful genius of Sherlock Holmes, sometimes offered with evidence that was not visible to us as readers, is undercut here. He is encouraging: when the narrator finds a piece of evidence, Gryce tells him: “don’t show it to me. Study it yourself and tell me what you think of it.”

Anne Katherine Greene wrote this novel over several years, pushing herself to finish it, publishing it finally to great success. She married a younger man and actor who later became a famous designer, but she was the primary breadwinner. It would seem counterintuitive then that Green was not a feminist, and in fact spoke out against suffrage in 1917, but here, as with writers like Mary McCarthy, the work itself is more complex. “[G]etting a wife,” we learn, is “the same as (…) acquiring any other species of property.” But in the novel, it is the female characters who plot, who shift things around, who cloud the waters, and men who have to try to hang on to this wild ride. In fact that quote is from a conversation where a man is trying to hang on to the facts of a contract in a situation where life has long made other plans. There is a malleability to this world, a kindness and a depth to its objects that justifies looking at them closer – and though many aspects of The Leavenworth Case became formative for the genre of modern mystery novels, one feels a bit miffed that Sherlock Holmes, who first turned up ten whole years later, has had so much influence on mystery fiction. Everybody in Greene’s novel loves, admires, fears and thinks – Sherlock just sneers. I can’t help but feel we need more of the former and less of the latter.

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Blake Crouch: Dark Matter

Crouch, Blake (2016), Dark Matter, Pan
ISBN 978-1-4472-9757-4

I’ve said it before, on this blog and elsewhere – the power of science fiction is to make familiar things less so, to expand the way we read, both texts as well as the world that surrounds us. That doesn’t mean that all texts have to be Dhalgren, but they don’t also have to be Crichton light. It is particularly odd when basic structures of our world as we know it, are lazily reinforced in fiction that would not need to be tied to them. Some books are under-girded by sexist stereotyping but are otherwise well meaning and expansive in other ways. None of that is true for Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter the most disappointing book I can remember reading in a long time. Not the worst, mind you, there are a lot of bad books out there and I do read epic fantasy. But the most disappointing. A book I was told was, to quote a blurb, “mind-bending,” when, in the end, there wasn’t as much bending as settling. My god what a boring book Dark Matter turned out to be. A book about the multiverse, about identity, reality, about who we are, or at least that is what it could have been. Instead, Dark Matter is about one man’s quest to get back the woman he feels he owns. It’s utterly baffling that anyone who has ever read a good science fiction novel would look at this godawful mess and think, yes, this is good, I have no notes for the author. To be clear – this is not about the prose. With genre, I am willing to make compromises. Not everybody is Brian Evenson. So yes, the prose is absurdly bad. It’s not overwritten purple prose. It’s merely plain, and banal, and utterly unaware and directionless, with its writer having invested as much effort into crafting interesting sentences as he has into the structure of the novel as a whole.

The main effort, clearly, went into researching the science behind it all. The whole book has a massive masculinity problem, as has the odd modern obsession with science over philosophy (Neil Degrasse Tyson is a particularly noxious example) and general forms of thought. Science fiction has always attracted scientists and sometimes they have not been the greatest stylists. But writers like Asimov and Clarke are considered classic writers because they use their background to dig deeper into the soft flesh of the world, to grope for possibilities, for pushing our understanding. There is none of that here, or in the current fascination with science, or rather, engineering, as an answer to all our problems. Fittingly, the book has a blurb by Andy Weir, whose Martian had also disappointed me, a book unwilling or unable to imagine anything beyond an engineering problem. But Dark Matter even undercuts the Martian on the marketplace of ideas. And it’s such a bummer, because as always, the science is truly fascinating and begs for someone to find the right literary approach. What’s worst is that the book isn’t even any fun. I have a big heart and soft spot for genre books that may not enlarge the language or possibilities but are greatly enjoyable. That’s not the case here. There is no difference between the incessant, dour, seemingly unending monologue of Crouch’s protagonist and all the many thousands poor, put-upon white men all over mainstream fiction who walk through their cities, their banal, unfair worlds, eager to stick it to the lesser people around them, and to stick it into a woman, any woman, ideally a woman that somehow belongs to them. These are worlds that give the lie to Galileo – the earth doesn’t revolve around the sun, it revolves around the taint of mediocre white men who think they are geniuses in disguise.

Only in this case, Crouch constructs a fictional universe that does revolve around his unbelievably unbearable protagonist. He gives up the game real early – his protagonist used to be a brilliant scientist, and teaches at a second rate college now, because he gave up his career to raise a child with a woman who’s an artist. Yes, this is the same gender split as in Charlie Jane Anders’s reactionary novel. But what’s worse is that he makes the woman such a wooden regurgitator of the praise he feels is owed to the protagonist.

I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, “Your father could have won the Nobel.”
I laugh. “That’s possibly an exaggeration.”
“Charlie, don’t be fooled. He’s a genius.”
“You’re sweet,” I say. “And a little drunk.”
“It’s true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your family.”
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward hyperbole.

Who is he talking to here? This last condescending remark – who is he arguing against? Do men have to explain their silly wives, even when they are fictional? Don’t mind her, after a few drinks, you know how she gets. And also – “hyperbole”? This misplaced modesty is both unpleasant and typical. We know, from the rest of the book, that it’s true, that the protagonist has indeed made a spectacular discovery. He made it largely on his own, which is not how big scientific discoveries are made, but coming up with a team of scientists would have complicated Crouch’s shitty narrative, so it’s one man, one theory, and, crucially for the plot, once that man vanishes, nobody can reconstruct what happened, not even with all notebooks and data intact. I mean, he’s a real genius, and somewhere in Crouch’s infested mind, this is how geniuses work in science.

So what happens in the book is this (spoilers, spoilers, etc): a version of our protagonist, who didn’t abandon his career for a baby, creates a machine that allows people to access the infinite other selves that exist in the multiverse. You have to take a drug, and hop into a kind of time machine, which is half TARDIS, half HG Wells. Now, that scientist visits our protagonist, takes him and basically does an exchange of hostages, takes over his happy family life. Our protagonist, meanwhile wakes to a world where he is a successful scientist who has made a pact with a ruthless billionaire. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the protagonist decides to get back to his original “world” and reverse the exchange. He takes with him a female scientist who, of course, is a psychologist, because GOD forbid there are female physicists in Crouch’s dick-shaped worldview.

Now, due to complications and an equal amount of stupidity on the part of the so-called genius that’s our protagonist and the so-called “mind-bending” nitwit who wrote him, a proliferation of versions of the protagonist, a multitude of selves, descends on this original world, and in the end, after some chases, some gun- and knife-fights, the protagonist escapes with his wife and child, into the multiverse. If this sounds like a stupid plot, it is. But the most bizarre thing is that the idea isn’t necessarily bad? Crouch is aware that his scientific research gives him no firm ground to stand on, ontologically. Differences between the multiverses are minute, the same applies to the different versions of the protagonist. At no point does this lead Crouch to introduce the idea of undecidability, of ambiguity, into the book. Everything in the book is always exactly clear, exactly nailed down. We know that the world he lands in last is the original world, because he can tell, of course. And what’s more important, because we always follow his voice, we are never shaken in our faith that the person we’re listening to is the original one, the real one, the one who “deserves” to get the wife.

If anything’s mind-bending, it’s the author’s utter gall to write a novel based on a science of ambiguity, and undecidability, and make it absolutely, boringly immobile. Nothing changes, nothing is odd or unexpected. We are always where we need to be. It’s always clear what’s real and what’s not, who’s real and who’s not. And added to that, we are let into the mind of our protagonist, who needs his wife back – not any old version of her, but the one he met and fucked. I mention that part, because that part is particularly important to him. He’s obsessed whether the self that replaced him temporarily fucked his wife better than he did. It’s constantly on his mind, and once he re-acquires his wife, it is one of only a handful questions he asks, and she, of course, answers in detail. And symbolically, she only becomes fully his (and comes fully on board with this multiverse story he tells her) after they have sex and he re-asserts his territorial importance.

This is a story about two things: about identity and how fractured it is in a multiverse, and about love. But this is a diseased, greedy, kind of love where the woman is a mere bit player. And the question of identity? We are never, not for one moment, shaken in our sense of who we follow, who is where, and it feels like taunting when Crouch has his stodgy, surprisingly stupid protagonist say: “My understanding of identity has been shattered – I am one facet of an infinitely faceted being who has made very possible choice and lived every life imaginable. I can’t help thinking that we’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.” But of course, he has to say it, absolutely HAS to, because the novel doesn’t fucking say it anywhere in the way it’s made. And as if to affirm all this, the very next sentence is “but none of the other Jasons matter. I don’t want their lives. I want mine.” I thought these facets are inseparable? They are not? Who’d a thunk it.

Dark Matter has already been optioned for the screen and it will make a passable movie, maybe even a good one. The writing already reads like explanations for the screen. As far as thrillers go I have read worse. But this is mainly disappointing, because of what it could have become, instead of what it is, a spoonful of spunk after 300 pages of masturbatory, uninspired middle-of-the-road thriller fare. Sad.

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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.)

Curzio Malaparte: The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte, Curzio (2018), The Kremlin Ball, NYRB Classics
trans. Jenny McPhee
ISBN 9781681372099

I reviewed Malaparte’s posthumous and strange novel for Review 31.

For better or worse, The Kremlin Ball gives us a point-blank perspective on Malaparte’s literary and personal inclinations: his egomania, his disdain for simple people, his attraction to totalitarianism, and his conflicted feelings towards masculinity. That alone makes it well worth reading.

You can read the whole thing here.

Paulette Jonguitud: Mildew

Jonguitud, Paulette (2015), Mildew, CB Editions
ISBN 978-1-909585-03-4

Is it still a translation if a book was translated by its author? There’s something to that transition that many writers find a bit daunting. Yoko Tawada, for example, an author writing in both German and Japanese, does not translate her Japanese work into German. Thus, the Japanese novel which was translated into English as The Emissary, arrived in German later than in English, and in a translation by her longtime translator Peter Pörtner, despite the author being not just fluid in German, but regularly producing excellent novels and essays in this language. Another example regarding translations to Germany is Mikhail Shishkin, who is a professional translator between Russian and German, and yet, he does not translate his own Russian novels into German. In other cases, most famously Joseph Brodsky, it has been argued that Brodsky’s English equivalents of his Russian poems are inferior to the work produced by professional translators. As I said, it’s a bit of a curious issue. Why not regard the “translated” text as a new creation by the author? In any case, these are some of the questions raised by Mildew, Paulette Jonguitud’s (in many ways) masterful novel(la). Jonguitud is a Mexican author, and this book was published as Moho in 2010, and translated by the author in 2015. I found as I read and reread the book that one’s perception changes depending on whether we read it as a translation or as a new creation or re-creation by the author. I don’t think the book improves if we read it as translation – occasionally we come across strange changes in register, slightly uneven syntax, and other linguistic choices that I suspect read absolutely natural in the Mexican original. There’s a part of my brain that reads these passages as ‘mistakes,’ as infelicities, as problems that editors or a more careful translation could or should have fixed. I find that these passages don’t stick out as much if we read the book as an original English translation.

Here’s why: the protagonist is a mentally unstable woman, and the book an interior monologue as she comes to terms with some horrible things that happened to her and in her life, as she’s preparing for her daughter’s wedding. If we read the stylistic oddities as related to her state of mind, they seem less odd than if we read them as related to the language of origin. And in this way, they add to the tapestry of the book – the sometimes odd syntactic choices can make a fussy impression: the language of someone who is trying to piece together what has happened in the past years, months and – crucially- hours. Constanza, the protagonist, is preparing herself and her daughter’s dress for the imminent wedding, but as she prepares, she notices a stain on her leg. The more time passes, the longer and larger and greener the stain grows, the titular ‘mildew’ slowly envelops her body. Jonguitud uses well-trod literary ground, but she remakes it new. The book weaves memory and worries, past, present and the possible future into a seamless narrative. The book is conceptually heavy, but never loses the fat meat of literary narrative and psychology. Unlike other books that have seemed too skeletal to me, like fellow Mexican writer Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd, which was all concept and structure, Jonguitud’s book has emotional and narrative depth beyond the conceptual playfulness. Constanza appears before us: believable, distressed and lost. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her, and neither do we – we look at her past for clues, much as she invokes her own past as what has led her to this point and the green growth on her body. I’ll spoil it now: while there is a revelation towards the end, we never really get an explanation for the mildew. The book beautifully ties everything together in the dark last chapter, but that’s not an explanation.

And there’s a good reason for that. I will say I am leery of writers who use disfigurement and disability as a cheap metaphor – too often in books where, once the ‘problem’ is cleared, the disfiguration also clears up. It was in our heads all along! Sontag has warned of the use of metaphor to discuss illness: “illness is not a metaphor, and […] the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” But here’s the thing: it’s not really a metaphor, and not really an illness. And it doesn’t clear up. I honestly expected it to be in the narrator’s head – a manifestation of her fears, her self-hate, her guilt. I know this – the feeling some part of your body has developed a life of its own, the Sancho Panza to my anxiety’s Don Quixote, rushing the windmills of my mental health. It was instantly believable – but when Constanza’s daughter comes in and sees the mildew, and thus the mildew becomes a real object in the real world of the novel, we move out of these simple equivalencies. That we don’t get a reality based solution to what the mildew is means that we’re in a very different territory here. The obvious siblings of Jonguitud’s story include writers like Kafka, and his stories of the world’s terrifying, unexpectedly cruel and monstrous reality. The world suddenly turns on many of Kafka’s narrators and suddenly things we considered workable tactics in dealing with our environment slip out of control, change, become strange or threatening or both. Constanza isn’t suddenly disabled, or possessed – no, a real, physical mold has started to grow on her, something that inhibits her movements, even, not a discoloration, it’s suddenly there, it’s part of her reality and she has to deal with it. It mirrors the way things have changed in her own life, how certain people and their actions have become part of her reality and she had to deal with them.

There is an obvious Deleuzian angle here – but it’s indirect, in the way that much of the important theory of our time is Deleuzian in one way or another. When Foucault said that we would view the 20th century as Deleuze’s century, he was right – but off by a century. And I don’t really want to dig into the theoretical angle here, but I do want to note how extraordinarily rich in meaning Jonguitud’s mold is. Depending on how you approach the book, it can be seen to be about a vast variety of things. There is the obvious issue of the body – of the way women are socialized to view their bodies from birth to the end of their lives – and how other women often reinforce the pressures and expectations of physical womanhood. What is feminine, what is attractive, what is worth having? In this reading, the mildew is what Sontag called a “punitive […] fantasy” – but Constanza didn’t do anything wrong – except to be born a woman into a patriarchal society that places certain values on certain physical manifestations of feminity and womanhood. And yet – she’s clearly complicit in these narratives to a certain extent – and complicit in something much worse, as it turns out. The most obvious reading of the book would be an ecofeminist one, about how power separates and controls things, how certain forms of speech control and damage. There’s so much here, but it’s hard to really discuss without giving away some crucial details of the book. In some ways, one can read the book as an attempt at connecting the “becoming-minor” with “becoming-woman” as Deleuze and Guattari suggested in their Kafka book (I appear to circle back to Kafka here).

Suffice to say that Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is darkly brilliant – condensed but rich, one of the best books of its kind that I can remember reading. Stylistically it’s not without flaws – but it’s not all bad, either. Jonguitud’s English is simple – I am not a fan: simplicity is the most difficult style – there’s nowhere to hide. I sometimes have the suspicion that the reception of writers like Kafka in translation is also one of simplicity of language – in German, there’s nothing simple about Kafka’s language which consists of carefully layered tenses and conditionals, of precariously balanced registers and complex descriptions that can take many readings to unfurl. We don’t get that here. The language in Mildew is plain – but even so, the book is brilliant and everyone should read it.

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Elizabeth Hand: Generation Loss

Hand, Elizabeth, Generation Loss, CR Crime
ISBN 978-1-4721-0279-0

Hand, Elizabeth, Available Dark, CR Crime
ISBN 978-1-4721-0278-2

Over the past year I have read quite a few crime novels in between doing work and other things, and I’ve increasingly felt that there are two specific things a good crime novel will do well: it will have mastered the generic structure of uncovering a crime (subverting the structure is its own kind of mastery), and it will be about something unrelated to the murder business. I find I am easily tired of the Elizabeth George type of contemporary crime novel – where characters and setting basically fill in the gaps in the mystery structure. I understand the appeal – and a well executed generic mechanism can be a thing of beauty, and is often underrated by “literary” critics. Novels that do both aspects well, however, are rare. One such writer I enjoyed greatly is CJ Sampson whose novels set in Henry VIII’s time work enormously well as crime novels, but who also use the historical context as more than attractive setting. Similarly, some of the most lauded crime novels of the past years take on the topic of racism in the American South, like Lori Roy’s Bent. Moreover, it appears to me, writing a novel that connects both spheres – or just writing an exceptionally tightly structured crime novel – can be like catching lightning in a bottle – often, previous and subsequent attempts fall far short of the mark.

All this is to say that Elizabeth Hand’s novel Generation Loss is an almost perfect example of what I enjoy in a crime novel, and the one sequel I have read of it, Available Dark reads like an underdeveloped print of what made the original book succeed – and indeed I am apprehensive of reading the third and most recent installment. Generation Loss is not Elizabeth Hand’s debut – far from it. Hand has been writing speculative fiction since the early 1980s, but for her 2007 novel Generation Loss she switched into realism, producing a noir crime novel that seems quite unique in setting and outlook, but underneath the hood of this remarkable book is a finely tuned generic crime mechanism. The introduction of characters, of the central mystery/crime, the small revelations that drive the plot and finally the big confrontation and resolution are both generic and extraordinarily well paced. But just as a lot of midsize cars built by the same company have the same motor but appear to be different brands, what makes Generation Loss so unique is Hand’s choice of setting and characters. Much of the plot may be mechanical, but Hand’s mastery is so deft that the plot’s movements seem to derive from an internal logic of settings and characters rather than from the execution of a genre-based mechanism.

The protagonist of Generation Loss is Cass Neary, who works in a bookstore and is generally quite miserable. She is a photographer – or rather, she used to be a photographer, who produced one well regarded book and then fell into obscurity. When the novel opens, she barely makes a living as a clerk in a bookshop. Like Elizabeth Hand, Cass Nearly is a craftsman – when she talks about photography, and when she takes her own picture, we quickly find that her relationship to her art is not one of vague ramblings about the nature of art and photography. Cass is interested in the mechanics of what makes a good photo – how to manipulate film, focus etc. I cannot tell whether her comments will seem insipid to a real photographer, and of course, many of the comments take the form of information dumps in convenient dialogue for readers like me, but it never seems overwhelming or bothersome. It is always tied to Cass’s personal approach to art – Cass’s first and only book featured dead and destitute people of the 1970s/1980s punk scene, and her ideas about photography, as well as the artists she admires, are all centered around this concern with (and sometimes paradoxical seeming distance from) reality. The book starts when Cass is offered a job to interview a legendary photographer who lives on an isolated island off the coast of Maine. She arrives, only to find that the photographer knew nothing of an interview, there are children disappearing in the area, and one morning, the photographer is found dead.

Cass’s interest in photographing the dead becomes a central element of the book’s resolution, but more importantly, Hand quite cleverly connects the genre of realist noir to the protagonist’s preoccupation with realism in photography. Many of the character’s musings on her art can be applied to the book’s own genre, with the conventions of realism being questioned quite intently. The conventions regarding what passes for real, and what does not translate not just to the mechanics of plot, but also to the minutiae of style. Hand’s style is self-consciously modern and hard-boiled. She uses pathos that’s quite typical of the genre, in order to shift into certain emotional states that she does not want or need to explore in details not typical of the genre and not expected of this kind of naturalist fiction. Not having read her other novels, I’m obviously speculating, but since this is her first noir contemporary novel, and it is written in a pitch perfect noir contemporary style, she must have created it for this book – and it never reads as parody. Additionally, though Hand is far from the first one to do it, she inserts a female protagonist into a male genre – thus drawing additional attention to questions of gender. This also gets repeated on the level of photography – or the art world in general. On the island(s) off the coast of Maine, she encounters not just the legendary photographer she was sent to interview – and who is a woman. She also meets male artists, and as if to drive the point home, there is a child that connects these two characters. Art, biology, and the anxiety of influence appear and reappear in various guises throughout.

That’s what sets this book apart – it’s not the female centered take on noir, it is not the excellent execution of crime genre writing. It is, instead, the fact that somehow, despite actually running on the rails of genre, it appears to be motivated and pushed and formed by art, and by the protagonist’s obsession with it. Cass Neary is a close cousin of Thomas Bernhard’s Der Untergeher, an artist brilliant and talented enough to be able to recognize genius and to understand the gulf between her talents and that of the true standout artists of her genre. Cass is obsessed with art, and it is only fitting that the final confrontation is between her and another art obsessive. Everything fits and clicks.

That makes it a bit of a disappointment that her next novel, Available Dark, does not rise to the same heights. We appear to meet another art obsessive, we appear to be drawn into another maze of the arduous space between art and life, as Cass Neary is flown to Helsinki to help assess the value of a set of photographs. Instead, in this book, photography and the art and technique of it is incidental. Available Dark sidles up even closer to noir conventions, with Neary sometimes merely following the winds that blow her across the icy Scandinavian plains of a baroque plot. As the resolution presents itself I was more irritated than anything. A lot of stupid people doing stupid things and killing other people for even more generic, stupid reasons. I know that a lot of crime novels are centered around the stupid things that stupid people do (and the half-clever ways they try to cover it up), but that’s not what I find interesting. There’s a disturbing thing that happens at the end of Generation Loss that I am unwilling to spoil, but it is entirely in line with that book’s general theme, but it expands it, and opens up Cass Neary’s world into another direction – it’s tough to see it fall by the wayside within the first couple of pages of Available Dark, serving merely as motivation for Cass to take that Helsinki job. However, whatever misgivings I may have about Available Dark, they don’t tarnish Generation Loss, which is fantastic. Read it if you like that sort of thing. It’s good.

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Mur Lafferty: Six Wakes

Lafferty, Mur (2017), Six Wakes, Orbit
ISBN 978-0-316-38968-6

I’m behind on reading all kinds of lists and books – and this year’s Hugo shortlist is no exception. For whatever reason, the first book I picked off that list is a novel I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of: Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes. It was an excellent choice: Six Wakes is a very good science fiction novel. For some reason, reviewers of science fiction – and genre generally – are obsessed with the question of ‘transcending genre’ – can a book be more than ‘just’ a genre novel? It is a bad question and the books that ‘transcend genre’ can be quite dull, to be honest. And it is applied more often to science fiction and fantasy novels than to crime novels, for example. And while it’s true that certain novels, mired in genre conventions, may not be appealing to a general public, it is not due to immutable literary laws. SO yes, it is true: there may be readers who may not take to Six Wakes, because it is written within the conventions of science fiction – but at the same time, it also has all the trappings of a conventional mystery. Most of the book’s events could also take place in a locked house, or a house locked down due to weather phenomena – and inside the house, a drama between six individuals with their secrets develops. It would be a quite traditional set-up, if not for the fact that the house is a space ship, and the house itself is a character here. But everything truly science fictional has happened in the past, and Lafferty cleverly restricts the possibilities of the book’s present in such a way that you could replay most of its plot with Agatha Christie’s vocabulary and furnishings. This allows us to appreciate what the truly unique elements are that science fiction brings to this particular table: questioning the limits of what it means to be human, in a way that is just not possible for a plain ‘realist’ mystery. Lafferty won’t win any points for language or concision here – the book is a bit longer than it needed to be – but it is an exceedingly intelligent book, which, like all good mysteries, is very well constructed. This is a genuinely good work of science fiction, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason why you shouldn’t read it. Should it win the Hugo? Probably not – but it is a strong field this year. It is still one of the better science fiction novels I’ve read over the past years.

It’s a bit of an irritant: Mur Lafferty, the internet tells me, has written a lot of books and I have read none of them before Six Wakes. At the same time, this appears to be her first foray into ‘proper science fiction,’ after several books that sound more like urban fantasy. And while I enjoy zombies as much as anyone, a book that interrogates our sense of identity and self – and the future of the way we construct those two things – is more up my alley. On the surface, the book is about a generation starship which is run by a small crew of six people. One day they all wake up with no memories of what happened – except the knowledge that one among them is a murderer. The rest of the book is spent figuring out who dun it and what it means for their mission. The actual details of that surface plot are a bit more complicated, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But the most interesting aspect of the whole book was the unexpected decision by Lafferty to make much of the book about religion and faith. One character in the book has an obvious, strong connection to the topic, but ultimately, the question of religion and faith touches all the characters, and Lafferty yokes her discussions of what it means to be human to the question of what it means to have faith. There is no snideness or irony to any discussion of faith here – it is, excuse the pun, enshrined by the author as a fundamental human act, one that helps us and our selves, our morals and values cohere in a way that nothing else does. And it is the aspect of humanity that is the first to be endangered when the basic parameters of being human fall by the wayside and we can become, technically, immortal. Over the past five, six years, there’s been an on/off debate about secularism, and the role of faith in our world – this debate left its fingerprints all over the humanities. At every conference, someone brings up at least Charles Taylor. The religiousness of everything has been offered, denied, interrogated. It is quite refreshing to see a use of faith that does not take sides in this debate, that takes faith seriously as a technique of the self. This is not about God. This is about people.

And people are, in some ways, on their way out in the world of Lafferty’s book. At least people as we define and understand them today. Cloning has become viable – more than viable, it has become an almost everyday occurrence, a tool. In fact, abuse of cloning has become enough of a problem that laws dealing with it have been enacted. Lafferty’s invention here is the idea, which I have not seen before, of the use of cloning. Books involving cloning very rarely follow the interesting uses such a technology might have: in this case, a form of immortality. Humanity has learned how to make mindmaps – and if you want, you can have your mindmap implanted in a clone that carries your DNA, thus living on for as long as someone is there who can wake a new clone and imprint it with your most recent mindmap. There is, in the world of Lafferty’s book, a debate between humans (people who have not exceeded the “normal” human lifespan) and clones. Since there is always only one version of each person (multiple clones are banned by law), clones are as individual and unique as normal humans. This development also gave rise to a new form of hacking. If you hack someone’s mindmap, kill them, and wake a clone with their modified mindmap, you have created a version of the same exact person that may be more to your liking. A rebel who is no longer interested in being a rebel, for example. She does not make the connection more explicit, but this is the first novel I have read that almost directly engages with the ideas put forth by Achille Mbembe in his seminal essay “Necropolitics” – and puts a new spin on it. The new technology of cloning was at first a wild field of possibility – the law, specifically, to rein in the numbers of clones (only one at a time) seems like an exercise of sovereign power in line with Mbembe’s ideas.

The cloning technology also allows for longer distances to be bridged in space travel, with the crew dying and waking up again anew in the cloning bay. And indeed, this is what happens as the book opens – with one crucial technical problem: before death and revival, the mindmaps had not been updated – indeed they had been wiped of everything that happened since they were loaded into the ship’s data. What’s more, the previous bodies of the crew were not properly disposed of. They are found floating around the ship with signs of violent death. Someone stabbed, strangled and poisoned the crew. It stands to reason that it was one of the six. It could have been any one of them. Not only do they not know – the murderer him or herself also does not know since all six mindmaps have been wiped clean. The rest of the book is dedicated to resolving that mystery.

Six Wakes very specifically works on two levels: each person’s memory of the time before the ship’s take-off is a dive into Lafferty’s ideas and the political and social consequences of technology as she envisions it. That part is straight – and very good – science fiction. Everything that happens on the ship after waking, could strictly speaking, with one significant difference (the AI on the ship plays a major role), be rewritten as a Gothic mystery. The ship functions as a big gothic mansion. The six people in it barely know each other. They all have secrets that they hide from one another and the revelations of those secrets will lead straight to the discovery of the murderer. While this story has SF elements, it doesn’t need them, and it is quite clever of Lafferty to write a novel so clearly in two different conventions. It allows her questions about humanity and identity to resonate on different levels as well, allows her novel to push and pull at the reader in two different, but entirely conventionally recognizable ways, which makes the fundamental ideas of the novel stand out. The impression, structurally, is one of craft and care – which, regrettably, doesn’t filter down all the way to the sentence level. The book is too long for the story it tells, and many paragraphs feel padded and superfluous. Long mystery novels structured like Lafferty’s tend to employ incident, conflict and revelation more densely. She does not do that – and at the same time, many of the recollections that form the backbone of the crucial SF parts of the novel are not structured at all with notions of conflict, they are meant to add up to a final revelation, to add up to a picture of the society and this difficult technology it has brought forth. And there is one final weakness: almost all mystery novels I have read suffer from a very weak conclusion and revelation. Six Wakes doesn’t escape that particular fate either.

And yet – this is a very enjoyable book, despite its weaknesses. It is very smart, its ideas unique and cleverly used. The use of genre is done with judiciousness and care. It is not meant to be analyzed sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, but as a whole the book holds up very well to careful critical (even academic) analysis. This book is very good.

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Warren Ellis/ Phil Hester: Shipwreck

Ellis, Warren; Phil Hester et al. (2018), Shipwreck, Aftershock
ISBN 9781935002802

If you read comics, you will have come across Phil Hester’s work here or there – he’s inescapable. And not like the ubiquitous mediocre artists. Hester’s work is always excellent. Shipwreck is no exception. Every panel, every page works. There’s a touch of J.H. Williams III about the panel layouts here, and a couple of younger artists have produced similar work, particularly in the way Hester relies on his inker here for depth and stature. And then there is the writing. Shipwreck is one of many projects by Warren Ellis, who has something of a renaissance these days – he has never gone away of course, but the recent creator owned comic books published by Image Comics (Injection, and, more relevant for this book, Trees), as well as his work on characters like Karnak or Moon Knight has been exemplary. Shipwreck is unusual among all these titles by being self contained. It’s a 6 issue comic, collected in one trade, published by Aftershock. The tendrils that Shipwreck extends towards other comic books are too numerous to list, but the book never feels derivative. It clearly feels like part of a longer comics conversation, yet its structure and character is quite unique, and Hester’s bold pen contributes to this certainly.

Shipwreck, like many great contemporary comic books, is high concept: a man lands on a strange world. As it turns out, he built a machine that can jump to a parallel earth, an attempt made in order to save the ballooning population of “regular” earth. This parallel earth is a strange hellscape – Ellis’s depiction draws from various ideas of postapocalyptic landscapes. The tropes are all there as expected: strange bars, unexpected encounters, no large communities – this is about isolated individuals strewn across a large vista of rocks and ruins. At the same time, we learn that somehow this world of destruction and mystery has a high level of technical expertise, plus a level of organization that allowed them to insert a spy in “regular” earth’s mission, there to sabotage it. This parallel earth is an earth of violence tropes, of fear. Towards the end of the book, a character from parallel earth says to the protagonist: “nobody understood you back there because you were afraid of everything and they weren’t. you’ve come home.” This insertion of fear here points to what Ellis is doing with the tropes and narratives here – he’s condensing them into one sharp image: the leap. It is a Kierkegaardian leap, this leap from one earth to the other, and Ellis has exposed it as such, with all the implications it has for other texts in this vein.

To my mind, the comic books that I thought most immediately about were Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein’s Drifter and Jeff Smith’s Rasl. Drifter ran through multiple trades until it ended beautifully last year. It is about a man who lands with his ship, seemingly dropped out of time – traveled through more than just space. There are contradictions and mysteries that Brandon wraps around an engaging story. While Brandon’s story, in turn, shares a lot with many other recent comic books about space-as-wild-west (Copper is one excellent example), his inversions of time and identity made his book stand out. The dominant narrative – who shoots who, who does what, all of these are diversions in the greater mystery of time and place. Drifter is full of leaps, and even engages the idea of religion, but manages to still wriggle out of it, boiling it down to a personal journey of melancholic self-discovery. This comic, towards the last trades, has some of the loneliest and emotionally gripping panels I can remember reading from a comic in this genre. Nic Klein’s art is essential to this. I’ve been meaning to do a review of Drifter for a while, but I never quite got around to it. The book’s final revelations aren’t real revelations in the sense that we are genuinely surprised – instead, we can kind of guess at everything after the first trade, but Brandon manages, with great skill, to use the majority of his run to carefully tease out all the implications and turns in his concept. The result is a wonderful comic that everybody should consider reading.

In many ways, Shipwreck uses very similar moments of revelation, the landing of the ship, the alien-but-familiar landscape, down to the way Hester renders moments of surprise, and mental strain. Another book that is similar, though in less immediately obvious ways, is Jeff Smith’s Rasl, which he published in four volumes a few years back. Smith is most well known for Bones, but I’d argue that Rasl is a greater accomplishment. RASL is a book about science, indirectly referencing various debates about the Manhattan Project and the viability and exploitability of various forms of scienti´fic progress. But more relevantly, it is about a man who straps a device to his body that allows him a form of interdimensional travel. The protagonist in Shipwreck also has a device that allows him a specialized form of travel – it allows him to jump short distances – i.e, disappear and reappear somewhere not too far away. Like RASL’s device, this one takes a toll on its user. There are a couple of scenes that read like direct references to Smith, but it’s hard to tell with such a broadly allusive book like Shipwreck. Smith does tether his story to religion, but more in the sense of a general meaty mysticism rather than something more specific. Smith’s book is effusive and inspired rather than precise and direct. Ellis’s book is the latter, more than supported by Hester’s inorganic, angular lines.

As a whole this reads like a master’s comment on a whole genre – it feels less like fiction, and more like metafiction. A comic book disquisition on craft. There is a lot of “story” in the book but at the same time, the book doesn’t appear to be interested in story. That Ellis can do story is evidenced by his own Trees. Shipwreck reads more like a proof of concept, a master showing up his disciples. Or: Masters, plural. Hester, too, has been around longer than many fêted contemporary artists, and has provided great art all this time. I first encountered Hester’s work on Kevin Smith’s iconic Green Arrow run – whatever you think of Smith’s work in comics, Quiver is a masterpiece, and Hester’s art is a big part of that. His work here is recognizable – but it, too, seems to dip into current trends, but on a much higher level. As I said – a proof of concept comic, by a legendary writer and a legendary artist.

A note towards the end: this was published by Aftershock comics. I have never heard of this publisher before – but the book is well produced, and it’s not just Ellis who writes for them these days. There’s a book by Garth Ennis, and one by the powerhouse pairing of Palmiotti/Conner, as well as a comic by Cullen Bunn, who seems to be everywhere these days.

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Mawil: Kinderland

Mawil (2014), Kinderland, Reprodukt
ISBN 978-3943-143904

The Western discourse on Socialist literature has always been ideological in the sense that we as readers expected something from the literature coming out of the Soviet bloc, and imbued that with literary value. This has at times led to the promotion of mediocre but very critical writers. Wolf Biermann is one of them, and the charade that the continued literary life of Monika Maron is should be filed in the same category. Sometimes, the way these expectations are dealt with is entertaining: I can highly recommend reading Heiner Müller interviews from his middle period of work – he is constantly, as a writer known to be at odds with the leaders of the GDR cultural establishment, prodded to please say something critical, and instead he goes on and on about the problems with capitalism, savagely critical of leftwing “symbolic” criticism and endorsing violent change. Another example is Rummelplatz, a novel that was not allowed to be published in the GDR, and the rejection of which had sent its writer, Werner Bräunig, into an early grave. The rejected manuscript is literally a museum piece now: in the German History Museum in Bonn, it is presented among other articles of “proof” of socialist repression. As I point out in my review on the blog, Rummelplatz is an odd candidate for such a hallowed spot in the museum of Why Socialism Is Evil: Bräunig’s novel explicitly and at length points to the many acts of exploitation that happened in West Germany and how East Germany had risen from a couple of potato fields to an industrial nation, against the threat of Western sabotage. It’s critical of some mechanisms of the GDR without endorsing the alternative. Like many writers of his time, like Müller or Wolf, Bräunig favored a change in the system, rather than a change of system. These books, half in and half out of discourses on socialism, are in my opinion the most interesting of the bunch. But it is a careful balancing act that isn’t so easy to pull off. Mawil’s thick brick of a graphic novel, Kinderland (named, I think, after this 1986 song), doesn’t quite manage this. That said, it’s certainly a more worthwhile addition to the body of literature about the GDR than many widely praised fictional statements on Why Socialism Is Evil.

Kinderland slips in and out of discourses. It is a story of life in the last years of a country heading towards dissolution. There are different books in it: a paint-by-numbers book about socialism as fighting dissent and being in favor of conformity, a book about growing up in the GDR, a book about isolation and growing up abandoned, a book, strangely, about alcoholism, and finally, an exciting tale of a boy who discovers his table tennis talents and mounts a school-wide table tennis tournament. Not all of these books fit extremely well together, and when I read it for the first time, I felt let down and disappointed. But upon rereading the book a few times, I have found it to be quite interesting. The combination of disparate elements works in its favor – life at the tail end of the GDR was confusing and complicated, as I, who started elementary school in the GDR and ended it in a united Germany, can personally attest. The book’s greatest strength is its careful attention to details. The slang, words, objects, the rhythm of life under the socialist regime are written with the vividness of memory, and I think it is the exactness of the book that leads to some of its complications and problems. I cannot vouch for most of it – but there’s a curious echo in my reader’s memory here. As a boy I read many of the books in my father’s library. And since my father lost his reading appetite when he became an adult, those books were largely young adult books, some of them exciting tales about being a teenager in the GDR. In my head, when I read Kinderland, the details I knew about through family stories, the details I personally observed, and the details I remembered from YA books written for GDR youth come together to create a feeling of verisimilitude. And one wonders how much of the plot and structure of Mawil’s book can be tied to his own reading, and his own indirect knowledge.

Mawil’s art is the real deal – he manages to slow down and speed up his story at will, provide a genuinely exciting table tennis game even for people who have never played or followed a single complete game of table tennis. As an artist he is not necessarily what I would call an original artist – most of his techniques can be attributed to examples from Belgian comics to Chris Ware and in particular Seth, though it’s the latter association that makes me think the art’s roots are a bit deeper, like Seth’s own are. But if you have read Seth, and Ware, and maybe Rube Goldberg, you’re not surprised by anything the book does – but it is entertaining. Mawil has full control of moods, speed, and humor in a way that I always greatly enjoy in comic books. He also uses the art to tease the reader with possibilities. The story, ultimately, is a low key story, which ends in a low key way, with two boys trying to seal a friendship. But it is presented to us immediately under two different auspices: the cover, with a sea of pioneer-blouse wearing kids and one dissenter in their midst, suggests that the story is about political dissent. The first page on the other hand presents a number of toys and childhood objects that anyone who grew up in the GDR can readily identify – there’s no other function of these panels than to signal to the reader a sense of nostalgia – or ostalgia, as it is often called. Neither impression is true for the direction the novel will take. All the working class misery, all the many, many characters who are clearly alcoholics (alcoholism was specifically a scourge of the GDR), that precludes a safe nostalgic reading. Similarly, a character in the book, a conformist girl called “Angela Werkel” is clearly an allusion to Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. It’s not true – in the sense that Mawil, as a boy, did not meet Merkel who was much older at the time of the events described. But the inclusion of someone who did well under socialism, and did very well after socialism, who is shown to be intensely conformist, but also kind-hearted, is a suggestion that what really counted was not the content of one’s party allegiance but the content of one’s heart, bland as that may sound.

The main character, called Mirco Watzke (Mawil’s real name is Markus Witzel), is also one of the least interesting ones. His childish excitement, anger, frustration and happiness is well rendered, but is drowned in all the typical generic discourses on childhood which Mawil makes no attempt to break or criticize. The really fascinating character is a boy named Thorsten. He is the boy on the cover who does not wear the uniform (Mirko Watzke is the boy to his right). He’s not ideologically opposed to the GDR, he’s just a misfit. His father has left the family to pursue worldly riches in West Germany, which has turned his mother into an alcoholic. He basically lives alone, and his abrasive character means he has difficulties making friends. It is hard not to see the disillusioned, broken teenagers in Clemens Meyer’s novels about the period after reunification (very well translated by Katy Derbyshire) in Thorsten’s future. In fact, one could argue that the whole book takes on Thorsten’s shape. The contradictions in his character and the contradictions in this wild ride of a novel seem to fit. The biggest weakness of the book is Mawil’s apparent decision not to jettision his autobiographically inspired protagonist. The genre of coming of age book, where the protagonist plays straight man, and mostly narrator and observer to a wild friend or acquaintance, would have been a better fit for the material in this book. But then one has to wonder about the politics of writing this book. In a world where a novel of not-quite-dissident writing gets a spot in a museum, where the memory of the not-so-distant past is intensely politicised, Mawil’s stops and starts.

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Jorge Ibargüengoitia: The Dead Girls

Ibargüengoitia, Jorge (2018 [1977/1983]), The Dead Girls, Picador
ISBN 978-1509870172
Translated by Asa Zatz

For a novel called “The Dead Girls,” Mexican author Jorge Ibargüengoitia isn’t particularly interested in said dead girls. In the introduction to the new edition of the book, Colm Tóibín compares the novel to Roberto Bolaños 2666, in particularly section 4, “About the Crimes.” He fails to note that, in contrast to Ibargüengoitia, Bolaño does talk about “the crimes” at length, and he presents stories from the lives of many of the murdered women in Ciudad Juarez, which is Bolaño’s focus. He notes the investigation, and presents a possible murderer. Section 4 of 2666 is a real punch to the gut. There’s no sense of the situation being ameliorated or prettied up for the reader, and despite Bolaño’s complex use of postmodern techniques throughout his work and in this novel, as well, there’s no sense of postmodern playfulness clouding the seriousness of the crimes. That is not the case in Ibargüengoitia’s 1977 nonfiction novel which takes a case ripped straight from Mexican headlines in the 1960s, and which had produced a sensational, gut wrenching Mexican movie just the year before Dead Girls was published, and retells the story with the vast instruments available to the well trained postmodern novelist. There’s something distasteful about Ibargüengoitia’s literary project here, and it is not the smell of a dead body which is described at length towards the end of the book. This book has to be read with two lenses – as a literary project by Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and as a literary text that has no outside and does not partake in public discourses. As the latter, The Dead Girls offers a lot of delights. Ibargüengoitia uses mirrors, inversions, symbols, and parodies various discourses of detective and police and general nonfiction writing. He uses witness accounts, he uses doubt, humor and an almost surreal Gothic construction with a lightness of touch that is truly impressive. If not for the dubiousness of Asa Zatz’s translation, the book, viewed under that second lens, can only be praised.

But there’s the language, of course. When Picador decided to reprint a couple of classics and commissioned new introductions for them, they did not, for the few books that had been translated, commission new translations or edit the old ones. Asa Zatz’s is the original translation, and it is one of those cases where you can see, without looking at the original text, that something is off. In various places you can see inversions that appear to mimic the Spanish original, rather than present an organic English orginal in its stead. There are a few other problems that are more like mistakes (some pronouns and deictic expressions appear to be off), and the overall impression is one that makes the reader lose faith in the translator. How does the original novel deal with dialect? With low class speech? Am I getting from The Dead Girls what a Mexican reader would get from Las Muertas? Raymond D. Souza says that “there is considerable variety” in the book between “literary discourse,” “popular language” and “legalistic and journalistic jargon.” There’s no such variety here, really, in the English version. A contrasting example would be Lisa M. Dillman’s work on the novels of Yuri Herrera, which, particularly in Kingdom Cons and Signs Preceding the End of the World, does some very interesting stuff with language and register and which I’ve long admired. The claim – without looking at the original – that a translation is “good” is always dubious. But in some cases, you can tell when a translation isn’t, let’s say, great, and that’s, at least to my mind, the case with Ibargüengoitia’s novel. That said, those of us who have read literature in translation for years and have still not cleaned up our act to learn more languages up to easy reading level, we are used to these small roadbumps in reading and read right over them. And as one’s reading of The Dead Girls takes up speed and you look at all the angles and curiosities in the fictional mansion that Ibargüengoitia has constructed, you – or at least me- start noticing these issues less and less. It doesn’t mean they are not there, but the book’s machinery covers them up quite well.

What’s more: the novel’s chosen style is dry journalese, similar in some sense to Garcia Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but in a less serious register. There’s also a framing temporal inversion in The Dead Girls, though the main plot is offered in drab chronological order, and since Ibargüengoitia was friends with Garcia Márquez, it’s not implausible that Ibargüengoitia’s 1977 novel had some influence on Garcia Márquez’s 1981 novella. That said there’s a key difference between Ibargüengoitia’s book and the common texts that would come to mind as comparisons, whether it’s Garcia Márquez or Bolaño. Chronicle of a Death Foretold takes liberties with the historical facts but his liberties, apart from the final reconciliation, do not ameliorate the situation or the facts, the novella merely artistically heightens the situation. That, Ibargüengoitia also does. But that is not where he stops. The Dead Girls is very loosely based on the Las Poquianchis case. Las Poquianchis were two to four sisters (there were four sisters in the family, all four were jailed, but the central case revolves around two of them) who ran a couple of brothels in Mexico and murdered 91 people, most of them women. The case, when they were eventually “caught” and charged, gained an enormous notoriety in Mexico. For example, a tabloid, colorfully called Alarma! more than tripled its circulation while the trial of las Poquianchis was ongoing. In 1976, a year before Ibargüengoitia’s novel appeared, a movie just called Las Poquianchis came out – and it detailed the case in a lurid and sensational manner. The sisters did not just run brothels, they also didn’t “just” murder prostitutes, they also, according to many reports, toured the countryside and trafficked young women – tricking and forcing them into prostitution. Of course, these reports are hard to parse for truth, particularly since this perceived thread of the roving immoral madams perfectly fits the typical narratives of moral panic. For Mexico City, Martha Santillán Esqueda has provided an excellent account of the way public moral panic was stirred up around this topic, particularly since the abolishment of prostitution in Mexico earlier – and the resultant web of illegal brothels and corrupt officials maintaining the web. Esqueda also points out that, when polled, many prostitutes suggest they were there of their own free will – and these questions are impossible to answer without taking into account the economic pressures on these inevitably very low class women.

And Ibargüengoitia reaches for these ambiguities with both hands. His book is constructed of pastiches of various kinds of journalistic media – from witness accounts to re-tellings, to official documents. At the end of the novel he presents a famous photo of Las Poquianchis and some of their prostitutes, but he mirrors the picture and erases all their faces (it’s easily googleable though). The novel begins with the caveat “some of the events described herein are real- all the characters are imaginary.” It gives Ibargüengoitia leeway in constucting a much smaller, much more contained, much more symbolically resonant text. Instead of a criminal enterprise and four brothels and 91 murders in the span of only about 10 years, his book’s situation focuses on just one “wandering” brothel, and five murders. While many of the original murders happened during the active running of the brothels (some murders were as prosaic as rich male customers being murdered for the money), all of the murders in The Dead Girls happen after the brothels are shut down and the prostitutes and the two sisters cohabitate in a sealed off house that was built as a brothel but never used. Ibargüengoitia uses various elements of the Gothic novel for his purposes. By making a sealed off, dark house the scene of so much of the book’s drama, he inverts the broad expansiveness of such a region based crime as human trafficking and prostitution into one narrow cramped space. He uses gender as a signifier – the domesticity of the arrangement is used in the crimes, and in some of the murders. Not to mention that the first body buried isn’t a murder per se, but dies violently at the end of a long and complicated healing process, an irony that is central to the way Ibargüengoitia built his book. A fine irony pervades much of the book anyway. While the 1976 movie screamed about corruption, Ibargüengoitia uses allusion and suggestion to decry the machinations of the state. The framing crime, the one that brings the sisters down in the novel, is an act of female jealousy and hot temperedness, while as far as I can tell the original sisters were brought down when a mistreated prostitute escaped and told her story to policement that were not paid off by the sisters.

91 murders, of those roughly 71 dead women – often underage girls. Ibargüengoitia takes the number and the names off this crime and writes a book about writing about crime. Some of the murders in the book happened by accident – maybe. A lot of it is due to a complicated situation. To a spurned, angry gay official who was embarrassed publicly and is taking it out on the sisters. Not one of the murders was committed in a callous way. Prostitutes are sold off, but we don’t learn their names because they were homely, and so what if this is human trafficking. Ibargüengoitia does not take a moral stand, and as a novelist, it’s stupid to demand one of him, but these nonfiction novels that stand in the liminal space between truth and invention – there are different rules that apply to them. There is much to be admired about the construction of the book: the city/farm dichotomy that was part of the public moral outcry, is tampered with in clever ways, space (up/down, inside/out) is manipulated in clever ways. How witnesses work, how narratives are structured, Ibargüengoitia’s novel is full of allusions to these topics and discourses. For a topic centered, in Mexican discourse at the time, around “white slavery,” Ibargüengoitia is at pains to point to the relative darkness of skin of several actors in the book. But the “dead girls” of the title – they get short shrift. And not just the 70+ dead girls that died at the hands of the real Las Poquianchis. But also, honestly, the five dead girls of the novel. Ibargüengoitia interrogates, towards the end, the labels of victim and perpetrator, and while, in isolation, that’s fine, in the liminal space of this kind of book, it’s incredibly dubious. His framing only works because he reduced the situation so much. It does not work with 70+ dead women and an uncounted number of trafficked, raped, mistreated women.

I think there’s a strange kind of tendency of writers, particular progressive writers, of, faced with the awfulness of moral panic, to sanitize the effects of prostitution. The whole recent debate around Dante “Tex” Gill’s potential onscreen portrayal in the movie Rub & Tug by Scarlett Johansson never really touched the fact that Gill was famous for taking over a number of “massage parlors” which were really brothels. During Gill’s ascendancy to a prominent place in Chicago’s underworld, “at least four women with ties to the rub parlors were murdered or died under mysterious circumstances” – but the debate around Johansson was entirely one about whether Gill should be portrayed by the actress and not about the role of forced prostitution and rape in public progressive discourse. There’s actually quite a solid amount of admiration for Gill in many of the think pieces written about the affair around the movie. I think there’s a certain blinkered blindness, a lack of empathy to women which I think is woven throughout books like The Dead Girls, even if they are as well made as this one. When I noted how powerful and excellent Lydia Millet’s fictional portrayal of this lack of empathy for women was in my review of My Happy Life, I could easily have referenced Ibargüengoitia’s novel. But it is quite good. It is hard not to recommend, if you can deal with the other aspect of it.

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Alfred: Come Prima

Alfred (2014), Come Prima, Delcourt/Mirages
ISBN 978-2-7560-3152-1

Despite the Italian title, Alfred’s award winning graphic novel is French. Alfred, whose name is Lionel Papagalli, is a 40something artist and writer from Grenoble. This book is a marvel of emotional storytelling. The basic beats of the book are well known and common enough that we all know a novel or movie or comic book about this topic. Two sons return home to their father to figure out the intergenerational sociocultural dynamics between emigré children and their parents. The what isn’t the most important part of Come Prima – it is the how. This large book is consistently spellbinding and moving. Alfred does more than just tell a story about a father and a son, he also, in various registers, tells a story about fascism, about what it means to be working class in a changing world, how we construct our futures relative to our pasts. To what extent are our identities tied up in our memories? Like all good comics, the major achievement of Come Prima is not to ask novel questions, it is to find unique artistic ways to ask and maybe answer them. As the cover suggests, the book is largely a road movie kind of story: two brothers take a decrepit little car to go to Italy, to bury the ashes of their father. On the way we discover various nooks and crannies of the family history, and both brothers gain depth as we hear more of their stories. Alfred has at his disposal an enormously malleable artistic grammar where a shift in colors and realism allows him to show shifts in emotion and tenseness. The main graphic effort in the book, however, are sections painted entirely in blue and red colors, with no black outlines, passages that indicate formative memories – both kinds of drawing, the realistic leaning main visual narrative and the memory paintings, come together in two enormously powerful panels towards the very end of the book. To be clear – Alfred doesn’t offer a particularly insightful tale here – this is all effect and emotion. But it is fantastically done, and truly compelling.

Alfred makes some interesting choices regarding his setting. The book is set in 1958, as we learn from a radio broadcast heard somewhere on the road, and while much of the beginning of the book draws on noir, we soon find that the war, which, after all, had just ended 13 years earlier, is casting a shadow on many of its characters. It is a curious achievement by Alfred to decide not to focus on that aspect specifically, despite it being a central part of why the characters are who and where they are. What this creates is a story that we can all recognize, a story that is, as I said originally, very common: the damaged older brother, the ruptured family relationships, the strange characters encountered on the road – but giving it that historical context deepens the story, and also, implicitly, interrogates those other stories for such a context. The “noir” label generally is interesting that way – the term “film noir” was invented by a French critic in 1946 – and generally, French noir is considered as having peaked in the postwar era, as contrasted with American noir, whose heyday was in the 1940s. It’s true – there’s a whole batch of French noir in the prewar era, including the enormous Le Jour se lève, which I have rewatched just last week, as well Pierre Chenal’s 1939 screen adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was the first adaptation of that seminal noir novel (the first American adaptation followed much later in 1946); there’s no denying the importance and centrality of post-war noir as a force in French and world culture, from the novels of Gallimard’s série noire, inaugurated in 1946, to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jules Dassin. The war, also often implicit in these movies, is also a force in all of them, even clearer, in some ways, in the extremely political Italian noir of the 60s and 70s. Contrary to the usual noir lighting and cinematography, Alfred shifts the genre into the light – Come Prima is positively flooded with sunlight. Outside of that, I think the comic is engaged in a dialogue with the genre of film noir and its validity for our narratives of today. I went on and on about film noir because it’s not necessarily explicit in the comic – apart from the very noir beginning of the book.

But leaning heavily on the tradition of film noir allows Alfred to lightly touch on complex questions of masculinity in some vignettes here and there without having to play the scenes out to the end. The book begins by introducing the older brother, Fabio, a failed and failing boxer, who shies away from a steady job. The implications of boxing for discourses of masculinity are clear (Mailer, Oates), but most of the other scenes in the book deal with the issue as well. Fabio is visited by his younger brother Giovanni, who is asking him to come home to bury his father’s ashes, which Giovanni brought with him. We never meet the father in the book, but the whole tale is about dealing with father figures and one’s own relationship to maleness and fathers. Giovanni, as it turns out, is a father, as well, one who has abandoned his child. Fabio fights on the streets and in the ring to deal with insecurities and vulnerabilities. Even the few female characters are tied to fatherhood and masculinity, from Fabio’s girlfriend in the present, who tries to convince him to take a job with her father’s company, to Fabio and Giovanni’s adopted younger sister whom Fabio has never met. We are rushed through scenes and characters, with Alfred spending languid moments looking at landscapes or focusing on small moments rather than elaborately written scenes – but his reliance on genre means that he can do that without the whole thing feeling rushed. He plays with genre in other ways too – the memory passages are presented to us with increasing narrative detail – every time they return we come closer to some revelation – but when we finally know everything, the “revelation” is a minor detail, and instead of rushing towards some dark family secret, the passage of memory panels turns out to be a quest for a fullness of memory. There’s no secret at the end of this tunnel – at the end, this story is about being honest to yourself about why you have led the life you have, what your various failures mean within the context of your own life and that of your kin. And that, I think, also leads back to the forgetfulness of masculinity, and the erasure of history by the victorious and the virile.

This is particularly salient here because the period of rupture is the advent of fascism. What Alfred here does is extremely clever: he does not use fascism’s destruction of families as the point where this family breaks apart. That’s such a common narrative, but his point of departure is just before everything crashes down. Fabio and Giovanni’s father was a left wing unionist during fascism. He was beaten, broken, he saw friends being killed. In fact, adopting that girl is a direct result of these devastations. And yes, his son was on “the other side” – but not when these things happened. Fabio joined the black shirts as a young man in order to hurt his father and in order to belong to something different, something bigger. By making this narrative part of the novel’s general discussion of masculinity, he implicates the latter in the former – general narratives of masculinity in fascism. In the end, Fabio leaves for Africa and later France before fascism completely takes over, allowing Alfred to include this dark chapter of history but having his story be about more than that. The absent father and his values of cooperation, kindness, solidarity provide the moral background in a story that implicitly interrogates the value of Grand Personal Narratives that always focus on violence, women and alcohol. In the end, the past and the present fuse beautifully into a contemplation of life by Fabio who has always been on the run. “Come Prima” means “as before” – and while we know from Heraclit that we cannot live exactly as before, sometimes we need to return to our origins before we can begin again.

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Mathias Enard: Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants

41iZsXvfN4L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ Heads up: this is not a review – I reviewed the novel on this blog in 2010. My review is here. I just want to draw attention to it as a brand new translation of the book, by Charlotte Mandel, a very good translator who also translated The Kindly Ones, is about to come out. So if you click on the link you’ll find my 2010 review of the book. As you can probably tell, I had a bit of a mixed opinion of the book. And it is still my least favorite Ènard. I do like it more today than I liked it then. And Énard is generally speaking a very good writer I think we all agree, more or less. And while this is not a new review, I have blogged a couple of new reviews over the past week. You can see all of them here. How did you like this book?

Lydia Millet: My Happy Life

Millet, Lydia (2002), My Happy Life, Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-6846-7

So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, as I said yesterday. And this includes several books by whole writers. Those acquisitions were made on reputation alone (and usually favorable pricing situations). One such writer is Rachel Cusk. Another one is Lydia Millet. I own several of her books but haven’t read a single one. So I started with the one that seemed most obviously appealing to me from afar: the 2002 novel My Happy Life. This book is fascinating and absolutely brilliant – and it works with a naïve protagonist – or someone who prefers to tell their story as if they were one – and includes the resulting lacunae of details that are part of our stories and memories – the exactness of fact. Writing like this requires a stylistic discipline and a different exactness of detail that makes this kind of fiction extraordinarily hard to pull off. The easiest out is to use a child or a mentally ill person (or both), because that lets you off the hook in a lot of ways. The resultant bright eyed look at what is often a dark story can be effective, but has a whiff of gimmick about it. When it comes to mentally largely competent adults, the results are often a bit flat and boring or tired – and, most importantly, muddled. I think there’s a misunderstanding about these kinds of narratives. Just because someone doesn’t understand the world as we do, they are not looking at it through a mist. Children are extremely sharp observers.

What Millet pulls off in My Happy Life is a story about a woman who presents to us a world view that is more gentle than the common way we view the world, but she does this in layers and layers of observation, allowing us to see not only that her life is clearly anything but happy – in fact a continuous nightmare – but also how it has become what it is. At its core, it is about the female experience, or a female experience – how power and men grasp at the totality of womanhood – in its essential, basic elements: presentation, representation, self-reliance and biological reproduction. At every step of the way, society grasps at Lydia Millet’s protagonist and fucks her over, denying her agency, free will, and the most basic amount of empathy. In fact, that is what’s ultimately the toughest part about the book – all the men who are unable or unwilling or both to provide some empathy for this put-upon, strong, resilient woman. Why not say your life was “happy” if saying otherwise does not have any advantages among people socialized as men, or socialized to support or defend men. The exactness of detail and style throughout this book is nothing short of brilliant. Millet pulls from multiple registers, uses them all expertly, has always complete mastery of plot, dialogue, and the empire of signs that constitute our reality. In a blurb on the back, someone calls it a “dreamy whirl” – but there’s nothing dream-like about it. Millet’s protagonist may not call a spade a spade, but she describes the spade extremely well, and the distance from what she describes with utmost realism to the name she uses for it has its own literary function.

I mean, before I melt further into this puddle of praise, here’s what the book is about: it is the bildungsroman of a woman who grew up in an orphanage and ended up locked in an empty, abandoned former mental hospital. Her present situation is the framing narrative, that’s where we begin and end. We also stop there in between. From her cell in the mental hospital, she tells us about her life. Her happy life that begins in an abusive orphanage. There are things you don’t think at the beginning that become really clear towards the end of the book – everything in this novel is anchored to wider literary discourses, talks to a broader tradition of literature, a very Irigaray kind of project, overall. So this orphanage is also, of course, all the other orphanages and all their other orphans. And reading it this way recasts various characters in her novel in a different light. The bully – because each bildungsroman set in an orphanage has this morality play about masculinity in it and early fights to persist – here is simply allowed to do what he must, and the woman lets him do that for his own good. Nobody stops him, nobody asks about the beatings and their physical traces on the young girl – things just happen. What the protagonist is taught is how to apologize. She learns to say “excuse me.” She learns to cloak things in a different light. She learns that if she speaks up, if she steps out of line, she will be blamed. At school she is raped – and as a punishment, she’s kicked out of school. She attempts suicide a bunch of times, attempts for which she is punished. She is assaulted and abused by various boys and men early in her life – and that’s how she learns to look at things from a brighter side – it makes things more bearable. These are just a handful of pages that I am summarizing in such detail because what Millet does is a recasting of the common theme of orphanage abuse into the situation of a female protagonist who cannot expect empathy from her readers – much as she cannot expect empathy from people around her. Millet shows how these narratives curdle into terror when you change parts of them.

I mean the Irigaray-like “mirror” is one thing, but My Happy Life reads throughout like a conversation with various feminist theories. But it’s also a critique of pure intellectualism – the protagonist’s pain and trauma are things she learns from – and constructs a view of reality that seems disturbing. Early on she calls abusers “warriors” who “will not be stopped by skin” because “they want to catch the soul. They think that souls are heart and bone, residing in a certain place, and can be known by traveling.” She closes with a declaration of love for the abuser du jour and as a reader you have a couple of options here in how to parse this. One thing is off the table – the naivete of the uneducated, the simple of mind and brain. Throughout her life, Millet’s protagonist is seen reading books. It’s never specifically stressed, but unflaggingly mentioned, in all parts of her life, the protagonist is reading books. She’s clearly not stupid – nor uneducated in a practical sense. What Millet presents to us, instead, is the uselessness of pure knowledge. The protagonist’s knowledge is also embodied – how you deal with the world and how the world deals with you. Much later, the novel’s doublespeak is given a different analogy: on a Polynesia-sounding island (“huts on stilts”?) she learns various words in the local language and reflects on the distance between words, meaning and representation. And as we move from orphanage and school to various phases of her adulthood, Millet engages in similar doublespeak of her own, giving us examples of different power structures that we easily recognize, from capitalism to imperialism, and equating them to the abuse of patriarchy, which the early sections of the book taught us about. This, we learn, is all related – the abuse of power taken by men is replicated in the abuse of power in capitalism, which is replicated in imperialism. This is like that, and the protagonist moves through all of it until she ends up, for no good reason, in a mental hospital. She does acquire occasional problems, but when she describes what could be a delusion, and someone takes her literary, she corrects her interlocutor: this is just a figure of speech. So much for naivete.

And she undergoes all of this explicitly as a woman. Her attempts to find a job land her jobs as a maid and a cleaner. She is repeatedly raped, for a good portion of the book she is continuously raped by an industrialist who keeps her locked up and takes some kind of whip to her body that ends up covering her whole body in scars. This section reminded me of another book I meant to review. Stephen Graham Jones’s book The Least of My Scars is a masterpiece of thriller writing, about a serial killer who is completely without remorse. He is kept as a kind of pet in a house by some rich guy who hand delivers his victims to him and, one assumes, takes his pleasure from that. Like Millet, Jones’s style is masterfully precise, but the obscurities are different, what Jones does is invert externalities into this small apartment, rewriting serial killer narratives, inscribing them into the walls and architecture of one house. Jones uses various serial killer tropes and shifts them around. I should have reviewed that book first, however, since reading Millet makes me see what Jones doesn’t really touch: gender. Women in his book are objects – objects to be murdered (The Least of My Scars is extremely graphically violent), but also objects to be owned. There is an interesting differentiation he makes, but it pales when compared to My Happy Life – the various rooms and enclosures of Millet’s book mirror the rooms and enclosures from literary history, and as much as Jones condenses typical narratives, and violently savages the assumptions of interior monologue and serial killer psychology with his protagonist who has no inner life, his novel stretches into the psychology of those around him – but not into the women. Millet’s protagonist is colonialized top to bottom, from her psychology to her womb. In something of a particularly dark part of the novel, she gives birth to a son, who is then taken away from her. So maybe there’s another similarity between Jones’s book and Millet’s – Jones’s serial killer protagonist uses all parts of his victims in his acts – and Millet’s protagonist is used completely, by a patriarchal society that has no respect or patience for those among it who are assigned female at birth – and immediately, like Millet’s protagonist, shunted into the machine of patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. That Millet connects all this to a mental hospital suggests that we should interrogate the nature of trauma, oppression and mental health.

*

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Helen Garner: This House of Grief

Garner, Helen (2014), This House of Grief: Story of a Murder Trial, Text Publishing
ISBN 9-781925-240689

I had previously only read one other book by Helen Garner – and it was a novel. This House of Grief is a nonfiction account of a murder trial. And it’s so damn good that I now own three more books by Garner. I will admit, I have a soft spot for true crime and have spent too much time looking up details and backgrounds for all the various true crime accounts I have consumed – Podcasts, books, Netflix TV shows….but never once during or after reading Garner’s story was I tempted to draw in outside sources to fill in the picture. And that’s because this book lives somewhere outside of these concerns with crime and prurient interest. Somehow, Garner succeeded in crafting a mournful book about a murderer that exists on a different plane. This is a story about a man who murdered his children, yes, but it’s also the story of an elderly novelist and journalist who attends his trial, who tries to wrap her mind around this crime, around the man accused of it, and the doomed dance of his defender in court. Garner pays attention to voice and gestures, to faces and bodies, creating before our eyes a powerful portrait of an instance of humanity having failed – for whatever reason.

The father who killed his children never admits to his deeds, and so Garner – and we as readers – are never offered an explanation, there’s nothing relieving us from the darkness at the heart of this criminal act. There’s no Mindhunters-like psychological framing and explanation, no confession of passions run amuck. The prosecutor, Garner herself and some other people who have been drawn into the maelstrom of this trial, they all offer some small explanations. Frustration, jealousy, sadness, anger. These are all possibilities, but what unites them all is the shocking way in which they are insufficient to explain what happened here. None of these seem to be enough to explain why a man would drown his children that he appeared to love very much. And Garner isn’t alone watching this trial. She brings along a teenager who has the requisite time, and now and then she also talks to lawyer friends of hers. This constant dialogue with others creates a kind of chorus of people none of which have any doubt of the father’s guilt. He is clearly, obviously guilty, he smells of guilt to Garner – and thus to us. And all of it is told in a language that is almost without flaw. Elegant, clear, Garner summons an army of short sentences and phrases, only occasionally letting the spill all over the page in small poetic images and the author’s acute distress. This trial – and the book- must have been hard to live with. And we are fortunate that Garner persevered.

In this time of #metoo and the crumbling façade of violent and mediocre masculinity, this is a curious time to be writing this book. True, it came out in 2014, before the Zeitgeist shifted so significantly in 2017 – but still. I have not read Garner’s other nonfiction books, but from some overviews I saw that The First Stone, Garner’s 1995 study of a sexual harassment case, garnered the kind of critical attention that makes me suspect its implied thesis hews rather close to the one that Katie Roiphe centered in her own book on a similar topic, the now infamous The Morning After. Whenever Roiphe puts pen to paper these days to comment on sexual harassment, there’s a chorus from twitter, blogs and many such sources, reminding all of us that this is the author of The Morning After and thus we should be disregarding her writings and opinions. And it’s true that much of that book is unpleasant to read and distorted a very real problem. If Garner’s The First Stone went into a similar direction, it seems fortunate that writing the book didn’t tarnish her reputation. And in many ways, This House of Grief represents a kind of about-face, a shift in emphasis.

Garner’s book never leaves us in doubt: this man is guilty. And his guilt is connected to things Garner never really manages to suss out. The opaque horror at the core of the book is, however, insistently connected to various failures of masculinity, to male anxiety, to masculine violence and dread. This is where all of the explanations, however incomplete, inefficient, or unlikely they may be, lead. If this was a novel, you’d consider it overdetermined, too constructed, too constricted by the author’s will to make it all cohere. But here we are. From the unlikely name of the accused, Robert Farquharson, to the helpless dance of his defender and the wise voice of Garner’s teenage companion, it all coheres, in a compelling but distressing way. One of Garner’s epigraphs to the book quotes a lawyer “walking past,” who says that “[Robert Farquharson] can’t possibly have done it. But there’s no other explanation.” We get small snippets of crime scene investigations, of small doubts offered, but they are drowned in the better sense that the prosecution’s case makes. That man murdered his children – in part because he was a man and couldn’t deal with what was expected of him.

Gender is woven throughout the book. Later in the book we learn of the endless devotion shown to Farquharson by his sisters, and even, to a point, by his ex wife. We learn of the pitfalls of this kind of devotion, but mainly, we are explained, often implicitly, of the way Robert Farquharson fails to deal with his failures. Financially on the cliffs, left by his wife for the constructor who was employed by them, with severely reduced contact to his children, Farquharson doesn’t do anything sensible, he doesn’t pick himself up, he doesn’t move on, he doesn’t try other projects, he wallows in his failures. The trial specifically notes, absent any admission or confession by Farquharson himself, that driving a shabby old car would naturally feel emasculating and humiliating, an assumption that most people involved in the case seem to share. Garner includes a curious discussion of masculine attractiveness in it:

“But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight in Cindy Farquarson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect. Spellbound on the back veranda between my two grandsons, I remembered Camille Paglia’s coat-trailing remark that if women were running the world, we’d still be living in grass huts.”

If Roiphe is a bit infamous among progressives, Paglia has, since publishing her (inexplicably) still-read tome on literature that’s short on analysis and long on caustic diatribes, become a veritable troll, intensely supportive of fringe anti-feminist opinions. Garner’s inclusion of Paglia here is curious. It makes no contextual sense that she’d cite Paglia as an authority here. Instead, what we are offered is a complicated tableau of masculinity, feminity and attraction that is presented as contradictory.

Farquharson maintains to the end, and one assumes, to this day, that what happened was an accident, that he blacked out due to a freak medical condition. We, however, stare at his horrible deeds, and try to understand them from the explanations offered, all of which somehow come back to notions of injured manhood. There’s a specific, unpleasant kind of violence that tends to accompany people socialized as male, at least in our societies, our kind of socialization. Helen Garner, as an observer in the courtroom, and her teenage friend, serves as a kind of Greek chorus to all this. Woeful cries, exclamations, repetitions. In a sense we don’t need to be told what Farquharson’s fault, his ἁμαρτία is. It is implied in the darkness under the words, under every gesture. The very inexplicability of it, which rubs up against the overall very simple case, the amplitude of evidence feeds this sense. Elisabeth Roudinesco, in an early chapter of La Part Obscure de Nous-Mêmes, points to the shifting explanations of what the “perverted” people are – how do we contextualize their missteps. And, she says, as divine explanations (with demons preying on those weak of faith, found themselves on the retreat, the answers came slower, and with more contradictions. Later chapters invoking Peter Singer point to how complicated, really, these explanations have become. In This House of Grief, on the one hand, we are given an extremely simple situation, a biblical scenario, if you will, but the father’s silence, and the terror that always comes with these stark, hard to understand these crimes, these inhumane human decisions hark back to Roudinesco’s discussion of the dark parts within us. Greed, anger, these are easy to grasp, but what happened in Farquharson’s head, in his car, seems more easily explained with demons, the devil, schizophrenia, one of these. But there are no demons, there’s no devil and Farquharson was sound of mind. So what now?

As it happens, Garner has a horrible little theory of her own, which the trial judge and defense lawyer both remove from the courtroom: “the long black thread of Farquharson’s ‘depression’.” It is not to be discussed, it is not to be presented to a jury. Much of the book is spent watching Garner watch the defense fail, in a kind of replication of Farquharson’s previous failures:

“the final fortnight of evidence was like watching, in ghastly slow motion, a man slither down the face of a cliff. Sometimes his shirt would snag on a protruding branch, or his fall would be arrested by a tiny ledge, a fragile outcrop; but the fabric would stretch and snap, the narrow shelf would crumble, and down he would go again, feet first, eyes wide open, arms outstretched into the void.”

But while watching this cascade of failures, by Farquharson, by his lawyer, by his defense, his humanity, Garner reaches into the bag of possibilities, and draws out the idea of attempted suicide. Taking his children with him, Farquharson attempted to remove his presence from the world, remove his failure, his inadequacy, and commit murder as a horrible way to wipe the slate completely clean. This idea Garner mentions fairly early, but she doesn’t let go of it. The only explanation she can think of to escape the horror of unexplainable murder is a more graspable, more understandable murder-suicide. There are books on this. This we can understand, this we have studied. Ultimately, it’s unimportant whether Garner is right. This House of Grief is only partially about Farquharson’s trial. It is about a writer trying to deal with something inexplicable and to contain it in clean, safe language. It is an enormous book.

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.)

My Year in Reviewing: 2017

So after blogging 26 reviews in 2016 and 2015 each, I happened to post 33 reviews this year, despite some quiet months without any reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with very brief commentary.

Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon: A Swiss novel about a not entirely common immigrant experience. Solid writing, sometimes very good. Compelling discussion about how wars in their home country can affect immigrants, and how that might change our view of them.

Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky: Regrettably reactionary/conservative book that is wildly imaginative and entertaining otherwise.

Nina Allan: The Race

Nina Allan: The Rift: Nina Allan is one of the brightest stars in contemporary science fiction, although it’s maybe questionable to what extent her books are science fiction. The contrast with Anders’s novel highlights the missed opportunities in the latter.

Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life: Oh God no. I regret reading this. The only book I read in 2017 that rivals this level of awfulness is Robert Waller’s bizarrely bad Bridges of Madison County, which I didn’t review on the blog.

Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes: I admire Campbell’s art so much. She is one of my three favorite artists in comics. I bought a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trade paperback last month just because of her art. And somehow, improbably, Campbell’s writing is almost as good. This book is also beautifully produced.

Jacques Chessex: A Jew Must Die: Chessex is a great novelist and this is just a masterpiece of prose, control, tone.

Martina Clavadetscher: Knochenlieder: Imaginative, passionate, interesting Swiss novel about the near future, about communities, biology, inheritance, ecology. It’s not perfect, and it’s weaker in the second than the first half, but it’s darn good as is.

Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford: Of all the books I read in this novella-sized TOR imprint, this one feels most like a genre exercise. I mean, it didn’t have to be a masterpiece like Kai Ashante Wilson’s book or Brian Evenson’s, but this is a bit thin, if very well executed. It could have been better: for example, Kij Johnson’s book in the same imprint, which I read but didn’t review this year, is a novella-length riff on Lovecraft that feels more relevant, necessary, interesting. Plus, there’s a bit of an ideological haut goût in Cornell’s book that didn’t sit well with me.

Wioletta Greg: Swallowing Mercury: Oh man. This is flat, and not great, and the translation feels dubious. Moreover, since writing the review, I read more books by and about Polish writer-immigrants in the UK which made me be simultaneously more interested in the topic and less interested in this particular book.

Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart. A young Swiss writer. Excellent, excellent novel. Dense, postmodern, but emotionally captivating.

Nathan Englander: Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Man, I love Englander. I don’t know that I can be in any way neutral about his work. Really enjoyed this novel. Really fascinated by the way it embedded borderline nonfiction elements like a biography of Ariel Sharon. A messy book about a messy conflict. Much better executed than his first novel.

Manuele Fior: 5,000 km per second. Fantastic, moving graphic novel. Written in Italian, translated into English. Everybody raved about it in 2016. Everybody was right.

Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand. No. One of four novels I read this year by a Bachmannpreis participant, and -hands down- the worst. His story that he read there was a bit worse still. The politics of who gets invited there puzzle me.

Nora Gomringer: Moden. Speaking of the Bachmannpreis: Nora Gomringer won it, she is fantastic, and she will be on next year’s jury. Here’s to hoping she’ll have better luck picking than 75% of her colleagues this year. Oh, also, someone go and translate her books already.

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman. 2017 is also the year where I became a fan of Shirley Jackson. This is fantastic. Unbelievable. She is fantastic. Saving up to get the LoA edition of her short stories next year. There’s also a recent biography of her that I need to read. Man.

Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept. Another one of the TOR novellas. This one is among the very best I have read. I have admired Jones for years. So should you.

Theodor Kallifatidis: Masters and Peasants: Greek immigrant, living in Sweden. Today, people read mostly his crime novels because of the whole Nordic Noir thing. This is a very very interesting sorta-kinda autobiographical novel. Funny, devastating, strange.

Meral Kureyshi: Elefanten im Garten. Recommended to me by Adrian Nathan West, whose excellent novel I have read this year but not reviewed. This book is another Swiss immigrant tale. Not as strong as others I have read, and it often echoes other writers in the tradition, but still good, and certainly better than many books that have been winning awards for German-language literature these days.

Manu Larcenet: Ordinary Victories. This is unbelievably good. I was recommended this, and boy is this good. I have since read two more books by Larcenet, both of them excellent. One is the funny Bill Baroud, about a portly secret agent, and the other one the dark Blast, about, man. Things. Go and read Ordinary Victories. You will not regret it. I promise.

Barbi Marković: Superheldinnen. Another Bachmannbook. This one much stronger than her story. I adore this writer. Someone should translate this book into English.

Ben Mazer: February Poems. I greatly admire Ben Mazer’s poetry, and this is his best book. This year, Mad Hat Press published his Selected Poems which everybody should read.

Wyl Menmuir: The Many. Eh.

Denise Mina: Still Midnight. Denise Mina’s novels are a masterclass in how to write mystery fiction with meaning and a backbone.

Jerry Pinto: Em and the Big Hoom. Mediocre book about a shitty son. It has been reviewed extremely positively, so who knows. Maybe it’s me. (it’s not).

Sasha Marianna Salzmann: Ausser Sich. One of the best books I read all year, and almost certainly one of the three best German-language novels of the year. The other two are Michael Roes’s Zeithain, and Peter Handke’s elegiac Die Obstdiebin, neither of which I reviewed here.

Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream. One of two fantastic Argentinian books I read this year. The other one is Mariana Enriquez’s story collection Things we lost in the fire, which I didn’t review but still might. Both books were translated by Megan McDowell, and while the translations seem a bit off here and there, the books themselves are extremely strong.

Luan Starova: My Father’s Books. A Macedonian memoir-novel. Lovely. Read it.

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton. A book with many plaudits. Didn’t particularly like it. Strong execution. Hollow core.

Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth. Fantastic science fiction classic about alienation, loneliness, hope and loss. Essential.

Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson. French graphic novel about a female private detective-in-training. Writing and art are lovely. Cannot wait to read more.

Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole. Really good Mexican novel about the drug trade from a child’s eye. This tired trope is invested with some interesting new energy in this book. Good not great. If you look for something to fill that Yuri Herrera shaped hole in your life, this ain’t it.

Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie. Interesting story. Terrible, boring, blasé execution. Someone, please, someone write a novel about the same person, but with some proper literary skill.

So that’s that. I’m incredibly grateful for every reader and commenter on this blog. Thank you.

#GermanLitMonth

This year I participated in Lizzy Siddal‘s #GermanLitMonth

Somehow I mostly ended up reviewing untranslated books. Here they are:

There’s everything in there: positive reviews, negative reviews, science fiction, poetry and autobiographically inspired novels.

Nora Gomringer: Moden

Gomringer, Nora (2017), Moden, Voland & Quist
ISBN 978-3-86391-169-0

The most prestigious German-language literary award is the Büchner Preis. It is not given for a single work, it’s given for a whole oeuvre. Sometimes it’s given to younger writers, sometimes older writers, very often it’s well judged. I don’t get miffed about its choices often. Sometimes it even surprises me, as when the award was given to Felicitas Hoppe, a fiendishly clever novelist with a small but excellent body of work. Sometimes it goes to writers who should have won it a decade ago. Jürgen Becker and Marcel Beyer are examples of overdue writers finally getting their due in these past years. The award, unlike the Nobel Prize in Literature, actually awards poets quite often. Becker is an example of an important poet winning the award. If you want to read his work, you’re fortunate that the late Okla Elliott has translated a selection of his shorter poems, published by Black Lawrence Press. But, and obviously, that’s just me, it’s the awards for small forms, poets, writers of novellas that sometimes misfire. Wolfdietrich Schnurre, Büchner laureate in the 80s, was an important writer of postwar literature, particularly well known for his short stories, but exceedingly minor today. I am also not convinced of the plaudits frequently awarded to Durs Grünberg, whose debut collection of poetry I adore, but that’s about the only collection of his that is genuinely great.

And last year, the award was given, I don’t know why, to Jan Wagner. Jan Wagner is commonly credited with resurrecting popular poetry in Germany. His 2014 collection Regentonnenvariationen (~Rain Barrel Variations) rose to the top of the bestseller list, he won all kinds of awards, it was quite intense for a while. But his work is exceedingly banal. It’s what you’d expect from a well educated, smooth young man. The poetry is well crafted, tonally frequently epigonal, to the point where individual lines shift in debt from Grass, to Eich, to Fried. More than once I thought I recognized the actual wording and pulled Grass, Eich or Fried from my shelves, but of course that was never it. It’s just the echoes you can expect in the work of a gifted reader and craftsman. I don’t know who to compare it to. Maybe: what if Mary Oliver was less interesting.

Ok, ok. This is not about Wagner. But if you wanted to give a brilliant younger poet an award last year (to be quite honest, I don’t see how a writer like, say, Robert Schindel or Natascha Wodin wouldn’t be at the top of any Büchnerpreislist, but that’s not the point), I wouldn’t have picked Wagner. I would have picked Nora Gomringer. Nora Gomringer is a poet with a big name, as her father Eugen Gomringer is one of the most important German poets of the 20th century. That’s a heavy cross to bear, but Nora Gomringer wears that burden well. She has produced consistently good work, on stage, on the page, and she has supported and pushed other artists. She’s won a ton of awards, among which most recently, in 2015, the Bachmannpreis. For prose, of course, because why the fuck not. Nora Gomringer can do a lot of things, but what’s most remarkable is her gift for poetry.

I don’t do poetry reviews on this blog a lot. In fact, I think this review of Ben Mazer’s book is the only one I did. But on this, the final day of #GermanLitMonth I was re-reading her most recent book, the most excellent Moden, and thought, why not. I will say this: poetry reviews are difficult for me because I always put them in relation to my own writing; not a comparison, but I have a fairly good sense right now of what kind of idiom comes easy to me and what doesn’t, etc. So when I read Nora Gomringer’s recent books, one thing that stuns me in particular is the way she is able to control colloquialism and sharp, arch tone and turns of phrases. In German poetry, when you try to combine these two elements, what you usually do, see Wagner, is sound a lot like Grass. Because Grass (read my brief post about him here) perfected a specific way to turn words around, estrange them from common usage, spin, color them, in particular verbs. Moving them through sentences, conjugating them against the grain – when Grass was good, he was brilliant. But ever since, writers who tried to lift words into art have often reached for Grass’s register. It’s incredibly seductive. It works fantastically well.

Nora Gomringer doesn’t do that. And even after reading her book multiple times, I still have difficulties seeing exactly how she does what she does. Moden, her 2017 collection of poetry, follows Monster Poems (2013) and Morbus (2015) as the final volume in a loose trilogy. All three poems are about specific phenomena, united by theme, not by form.

Monster Poems is about monsters. Yes, pop cultural monsters, but also the monsters in us, the ways we can become monstrous. It’s about the threat of violence without and within. And all that is nice – but most of the poems contain a core of clarity, a discourse about female identity. “We Eves, all of us, I fear / we are replaceable” she writes in one poem, in another poem she marries Plath to Norman Bates, and in yet another poem, the big bad wolf comes to Little Red Riding Hood, opens his pants and tells her: “Reach Inside,” until eventually, she learns how to shoot, and kill, and where to bury the bodies. Nora Gomringer’s poems take no prisoners, but what I found most fascinating the first time I read Monster Poems was that language. It was loose and colloquial, but constantly tightened by a sense of form and art, with words often turned into an arch tone, but for once, it didn’t send me to the shelf to find the source. The source was right there.

The second book in the trilogy, Morbus, was about illness, death, and, generally, the fallibility of our bodies. In it, Gomringer’s language is just right, just hard and clean enough to manage a tightrope walk that moves you but never drops you into sentimentality. In a poem, which I think is about depression, she answers a question. “How would you describe this state?” and in three tercets, she offers three descriptions per stanza, one per line. She starts with “a black dog,” the common way to describe it, but moves on, and eventually we get “these questions of leather,” and finally, “the body in space.” The poem, built on repetition, varies its theme, introduces musical elements, plays with the various elements of its structure, including a final, completely dissolved tercet. At the same time, it offers a moving, stark evocation of emotional distress. It’s curious. It was published roughly around the same time as Jan Wagner’s book, and like his book, she is playful, clever, erudite and allusive, but unlike Wagner’s dull banalities, Morbus is vivid with something to say.

This balance, between looseness and tightness – it’s hard to get right, and Moden is, in many ways, the crowning achievement of this method. In the poem “Maybelline 306” she invents the word “Fure,” a portmanteau of “Furie” and “Hure” (fury and whore), but before you get into the beautiful anger of this poem, you notice that its musical theme is set by an unexpected inversion in the second line which is, I think the essential moment that holds the whole poem together, this moment of tense formal focus. I mean this is obviously fitting since the whole book is about, loosely, the topic of fashion. Gomringer interrogates the way we interact with fashion, but most of all, the way the female body is made to fit the demands of fashion. Among these is the infamous practice of breaking and bending young girls’s feet to make them more elegant. The poem on the topic, “Lotus,” explains that the rules for this practice are written by people who are in love. And after explaining the method, she turns around at the end of the poem, and offers, in a very Brechtian tone, a connection to our time. Speaking of Brecht: maybe it’s just me, but I detect his tone not infrequently in this book, which is fascinating. This book’s lines and words and turns are sharper, more cutting, less patient than the previous books. It elevates the whole collection. To me, the book’s central poem is called Elfriede Gerstl. Gerstl was an Austrian writer and a holocaust survivor – but the poem doesn’t dwell on that. It assumes we know, it assumes we know this woman and her strength and her past. The centerpiece of the poem is a meeting between the speaker and Gerstl. I think it’s the central poem because Gerstl’s own work has connections to the way Moden works. In particular Gerstl’s stunning autobiographical text Kleiderflug, a book that contains a long poem, shorter and longer pieces of prose. In Gerstl, Gomringer finds a feminist who writes about fashion however indirectly, who, like Gomringer, is part of a larger literary scene (among Gerstl’s friends was Konrad Bayer), and who has a steely feminine strength that also imbues Gomringer’s books.

Moden is, I think, Gomringer’s best work so far, but she’s written a lot of good books, books that count, books that have to be counted. She belongs among the great poets writing in German right now, the likes of Paulus Böhmer, Sabine Scho and Friederike Mayröcker.

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Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon

Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2010), Tauben Fliegen Auf, Jung und Jung
ISBN 978-3-902497-78-9
[Translated into English by Tess Lewis
Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2014), Fly Away, Pigeon, Seagull Books
ISBN 9780857422125]

German language literature is full of tales of migration – often these are among the better books published in the language. Melinda Nadj Abonji is a Swiss writer and performer, and her second novel, Fly Away, Pigeon, is such a tale of migration and identity. It was also a runaway success – winning two German language book awards, garnering praise from critics and readers alike. And it’s been translated into English. There’s no doubt: Fly Away, Pigeon is a lovely book. It is very smart, well written, and moving. And yet – at slightly above 300 pages it is twice the size of Abonji’s 2004 debut novel and her third novel, published just this year. That her sophomore novel is sandwiched between two such significantly shorter publications suggests that writing novels longer than 300 pages doesn’t come naturally to the author. Indeed, the novel sometimes feels a bit padded, a bit overlong, stuffed here and there with slightly too much detail, slightly too much sentimentalism. It’s true, the novel tells a story about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, about communism, about immigration, about integration, and about the way all these stories contribute to identity formation. You’d think this does require some space – but Abonji doesn’t always use the space well. Her debut novel, while a bit flashy and melodramatic, showed the author’s skill for using allusion and fragments to tell a deeper story than the words on the page appear to tell. Somehow, despite the fragmented, back-and-forth seesaw structure of Fly Away, Pigeon, one never feels that a story was left untold, or was told only partially. It feels as if we were told everything, exhaustively. And yet, obviously, we have not, but something about Abonji’s calm style in the novel makes us feel as if we are told a full complete story. I feel framing this as something bad, because I wanted the book to be more. At the same time, the kind of story it tells is fairly unique and Abonji has a clear sense of how languages and nationalism and identity interact. The book is very clever and a very pleasant read, despite some harrowing stories within its pages. I guess this is a kind of literary comfort food. A well executed story with a relevant subject, by a writer in control of her prose and her thinking. Honestly, it’s hard not to recommend this book.

In some ways, Fly Away, Pigeon provides a contrast to some of the German language books I reviewed here recently. It discusses the way an immigrant family attempts to become Swiss citizens, a theme that also comes up in Meral Kureyshi’s Elefanten im Garten. But in that book, the process is humiliating and alienating, whereas Abonji’s characters are accepted by their village. You may not know this, but in Switzerland, the individual communities get a vote as to whether foreigners living among them get Swiss citizenship. And these villages are quick to reject foreigners if they, for example, wear, O sin of sins, sweatpants around town. Or if they don’t like to go for hikes in the mountains. Or if they are vegan. As we know from Swiss writers like Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and from the success of the SVP party, bigotry bubbles just under the surface in Switzerland. But Abonji’s novel is like a calming balm, in contrast to Kureyshi’s irritant. Abonji’s family is accepted, and the handful of bigots in the village are presented as exceptions. The reason Abonji’s family does so well can maybe be traced to another difference. In contrast to Barbi Marković’s Superheldinnen, the family at the heart of Abonji’s novel are stable and secure economically. They worked their way up to owning a café in their Swiss town, overcoming early skepticism and gaining economic and social success. It’s hard to believe that Abonji’s novel is particularly representative of the immigrant experience – but then again, as a novel it doesn’t have to. And this choice of economic comfort – it’s clearly a choice. Because in her debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, Abonji discusses a much more difficult, marginalized existence. Migration only enters the novel in passing, but it is connected to that novel’s themes of exploitation, loneliness and violence. There are no rose tinted glasses in that book, which packs a punch, but is also freighted with the melodrama and eagerness of a debut novel. It follows, then, that the choice to depict a family rising to comfortable middle class status has a specific literary value rather than merely reflecting the author’s views on immigration.

As it turns out, Abonji uses the calm waters of the immigration narrative to hide some darker stories below the surface, lifting them out of the water one by one as the novel progresses. This allows her to focus on certain issues without having to to make them stand out against a loud background. In many ways, Abonji’s calm look on language and nationalism makes her work an apt comparison to the many German takes on immigration by writers with no immigration background. In those books, there’s often a disinterested, distanced, almost pathologizing view of that Other, the migrant and their culture. It’s not that it’s critical and negative – it’s often benevolent, in the most condescending fashion. That condescension explains why critics can feel insulted when a foreigner, who won one of their coveted awards, isn’t properly grateful to their Germanic munificence. Abonji’s novel shares some of the distanced intellectualism, but she never condescends to her characters. We are always aware that their issues are important, urgent and are in no need of anthropological curiosity. Abonji approaches the whole topic intellectually – in another essay, published by Volltext, she discusses her multilingualism, and starts toying with language, layering puns and allusions. She does the same in her novel: almost bemused, characters remark on the way words in one language echo words in other languages, she uses multilingualism for puns, for allusions and the like. But within the glitter of language games, there’s always the core of identity and belonging.

The family at the heart of Fly Away, Pigeon are Hungarians from the Vojvodina, which is an autonomous region in Serbia today, and was then part of Yugoslavia. The father of the family in the novek was horribly mistreated by Tito’s pseudo-communist dictatorship (the grandfather was tortured and interned in a work camp), and doesn’t leave out any opportunity to malign the man and his reign. He’s also our main window into how the novel views nationalism. He views himself as Hungarian, and often praises the food and cultural achievements by Hungarians, but whenever he visits the Balkan, he brags with the cleanliness and efficiency of Switzerland. He equates Yugoslavia with Serbians, who he hates with a fiery passion. His view of his nationality is one where he as an individual is front and center – his identity isn’t constructed by nationalist discourses: it’s the opposite, he constructs national narratives to fit his identity, to distinguish himself from others, to elevate himself and denigrate others. Even if I may make it sound bad, the book doesn’t judge him for it, but on the contrary uses him to make a larger point about how identities and national narratives interact. The question is always the amount of agency an individual has in the overall scheme. The father of the family in Abonji’s novel has the most agency, the most freedom to act as he sees fit. Meral Kureyshi’s characters, by contrast, have much less agency, have to undergo more pressure and parry more attacks. Even within Abonji’s novel there are differences. The protagonist, the daughter of the family, is much less able to move between national identities. In fact, at one point a love affair appears to trap her between loyalties and nationalisms. That the book ends with her moving out (no spoilers there) supports my feeling that some of the book’s themes are about individual identity and freedom. These tensions are brought to a boil during the Yugoslav Wars, which happen at the same time that the family receives plaudits for integrating so beautifully into the life of the Swiss town they live in.

Another theme of the novel is memory. Melinda Nadj Abonji herself moved to Switzerland at the age of 5. Her memories of Yugoslavia are by necessity flawed, but the novel provides a model for how first and second generation immigrant memory can work. A tapestry of languages (the novel is written in standard German, but it contains words and phrases in Hungarian, French, English and Swiss German) foregrounds the oral nature of the novel’s narrative. Most of the novel’s stories are not told in flashbacks, but are told to someone. There are three generations of storytellers in the book, and between them, they create this curious amalgam of memory, with the book itself, published years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, an extra layer. The optimistic view of culture, of the possibilities of immigration and the endurance of memories are not undercut by doubts, cynicism or criticism. Explicitly, Abonji presents many of the stories of the past as constructed, sometimes offering conflicting versions of the same story, but the higher (or deeper, depending on your choice of metaphor) truth survives even this construction. In this time of anxieties, with its rising tides of bigotry, the calming voice of Fly Away, Pigeon is welcome. We will go on, we can go on, and we will talk to each other about where we have been so we can see where we need to go. Do I have some skepticism? Sure, but this is well executed literary comfort food, with a pulsing core. Before you pick up someone like Ingo Schulze, go and read Melinda Nadj Abonji.

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Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie

Zehrer, Klaus Cäsar (2017), Das Genie, Diogenes
ISBN 9783257069983

Sometimes, when I look askance at a book I dislike, I ponder the question of what makes a bad book. I don’t mean going down the Bourdieu/Herrnstein-Smith path – I mean it in a simpler way. My gut feeling as I read Klaus Cäser Zehrer’s 600 page debut novel was: this is an awful book. And yet, it’s also entertaining, but not because of Zehrer’s literary skills. It’s primarily entertaining because Zehrer takes a real person with an exciting life, and tells that biographical story with very few adornments. For those, like me, who had not known of this person’s life, reading the book was quite a rush and led to me looking up other biographies and studies. Zehrer’s main accomplishment is that he takes the life of William James Sidis and stays out of the way as it unspools on the pages of his novel. If you want to read literature – you won’t find it here. If you are a fiction reader who enjoys seeing a mind thinking as you follow the trail of words – you will be disappointed. If you want a streamlined biography without footnotes and told with the verve and speed of an adventure novel, this is probably for you. William James Sidis’s brief life became more and more complicated the older he got, but Zehrer is entirely untroubled by the possible complications. He picks a style and sticks to it, and nothing stops him. The style is 19th century bildungsroman, but without the baggage of symbols and interior life. It’s a tale of the rise and fall of a genius, told without any interest in women, minorities or, really, any other issues that would stop the rollicking speed of this book. Here’s the kicker: I cannot possibly recommend this book. But I might give it as a present to some people in my life who aren’t great fans of difficult literature. Das Genie is William James Sidis as re-imagined by Ayn Rand: a tale of heroism and failure that fails to do justice to its protagonist. There’s no critical distance or thinking involved in the book at any point, which is the most frustrating part. Zehrer’s style is competent and unremarkable, but at least it’s usually tight and sharp enough for his purpose. So is this a bad book? Or just mediocre? I don’t know.

Das Genie has three distinct sections. The first section is about Boris Sidis, an immigrant from the Ukraine who lands in the US to make it big. It’s written for an audience who already know that Sidis will become an important figure in 20th century psychoanalysis, and it’s the most Ayn Randian part of the book. We find that Sidis is a capital H Hero of intellectual prowess. He picks up English with ease, he starts working in a factory and after a handful of days is ready to lecture the factory owner about how to run that factory. He’s an Ivy League Hank Reardon: proud, uncompromising, and going from success to success. He goes to Boston where he teaches English to other immigrants, he impresses William James and Charles Eliot Norton into giving him a spot in Harvard, and he finds himself a wife. In a scene that could be straight from Atlas Shrugged, Zehrer explains to his future in-laws how useless emotions like love are and that it is not relevant whether he loves his future wifé, but whether she will be useful to him. And indeed, she becomes his biggest supporter, earning a PhD herself, and fighting for his vision and legacy for the rest of her life, inheriting even his struggles with empathy, as her interactions with her son show. Eventually he sires a boy, who he names after his benefactor William James and immediately tries to turn that boy into John Stuart Mill 2.0. He endows that boy with a lot of knowledge, but also with his Objectivist disdain for other people and authority. Why follow rules when those rules are stupid? The tale of the boy is the second chunk of the book, and the story of adult William James Sidis, called Billy, is the third. Even before getting into the meat of the book around the “Genius” of the title, Billy Sidis, the book becomes hard to take.

There’s no doubt – the book reads like a breeze, exactly like an adventure novel. But unlike modern takes on the 19th c entury adventure novel (I might post a review of Christian Kracht’s work here one of these days), there’s no sense of the author understanding the problems inherent in framing narratives this way. Zehrer doesn’t just present Sidis’s misogynist disregard for women, he mirrors it in his book. Sidis doesn’t have time or space for women – and Zehrer doesn’t either. That first section reads like a male fanboy. The two other sections are easily summarized: Billy gets into Harvard at 11, graduates with a Bachelor’s degree and leaves Harvard, disinterested in a formal education. Goodwill gets him teaching gigs here and there, but public attention, bullying and the oppression of gender roles and expectations lead to Billy trying to hide from the limelight, ending up as an anonymous accountant, hiding from journalists and his own family. He ends up writing three different books under pseudonyms, all three about his own strange obsession, like languages and train tickets, gets involved in communist activism, founds not one but two revolutionary societies and dies in his early forties of a stroke. I mean that last sentence alone should make your mouth water. What material! And you close the book almost heartbroken about this waste.

It’s true, the eventual failure of Sidis’s education philosophy in his son’s demise complicates the picture without Zehrer’s intervention, all by itself, but that’s not enough. And it’s true, the heroic tale of Boris Sidis very cleverly puts the failures of William Sidis in stark relief – but is it really clever? As the story of William James Sidis starts taking up speed and a sense of tragic inescapability, one always feels that Zehrer shares Boris Sidis’s lack of empathy. Zehrer’s biography of Billy Sidis is told from the outside, accepting all facts about his life as a given, and then chronicling his downfall with a cool distance. I’m not saying the book should have focused on Billy’s inner life. But Zehrer also never really pans out to include society or other people. His disinterest in people not named Sidis is carried over from the first section. Sidis’s life crosses that of Norbert Wiener, but the book isn’t interested at all in these two different versions of child prodigies. Does have Sidis’s disregard for authorities and his unease with less-than-brilliant people an equivalent in the famous mathematician’s life? There are women, activists and writers crossing Sidis’s path. A famous New Yorker essay on Sidis was written by none other than James Thurber. Zehrer mentions all of these things, with an almost blasé disinterest in expanding or even just thinking about these issues.

Late in life, William James Sidis wrote a long history of the United States from the point of view of Native Americans. The text is available online – Zehrer mentions it but barely deals with the interesting aspects of it. William T Vollmann built a whole career on working on American history from that angle – what are the intellectual aspects of Sidis’s book? How does Billy Sidis’s disregard for rules and mediocrity connect to his ideas about nations, narrative and history? How does he fit in the broader context? Was Billy Sidis truly as brilliant as his family claimed? I’ve listened to a talk about Norton’s tests for prospective Harvard students and there’s a lot of material there about what cultural expectations mean in that time. Zehrer has no doubt, never stumbles, never stops to think, consider or complicate. He is also completely disinterest in literary form. The book is written strictly chronologically, in the plainest structure imagininable. Closing the book, one wishes the life of William James Sidis had been told by a writer like E.L. Doctorow, for example. Or a writer interested in other voices. Zehrer’s book is almost offensively male and white, intellectually incurious, a journeyman work.

This is not what I expected when I saw that an older writer, who spent his life in journalism, published a debut novel this late in his life, and a thick, 600 page slab of a book to boot. I mean this brings me back to the initial question. Is this bad? I feel that much of what I would call bad (rather than mediocre) is colored negatively by my disappointment. This story could have been a better book. It should have been a better book. We rooted for you!

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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.)

Nina Allan: The Rift

Allan, Nina (2017), The Rift, Titan Books
ISBN 978-1785650376

20171111_122327443566726.jpg I love Nina Allan. You can read my review of her debut novel The Race here. Go ahead. And this week, I am pleased to tell you that Strange Horizons has published my review of Nina Allan’s excellent sophomore novel The Rift. You can read the whole review here. Below an excerpt from my review. You should read the whole thing though. And the novel. Nina Allan. She’s the real deal.

This is additional language that enhances speech, enhances empathy, and allows for other, different, and kinder connections between people. Nina Allan’s vision of what science fiction can do is unique, and if the improvement she offered from The Race to The Rift holds, she may be one of the more important science fiction writers of our time.

Barbi Marković: Superheldinnen

Marković, Barbi (2016), Superheldinnen, Residenz
ISBN 978-3-7ß17-1662-3

I’ve discussed this issue before: how do you define a German novel? Some of the most interesting books published in the German-speaking countries recently have complicated this question beyond the usual distinction between literature by Germans and German-language literature, which is also written, say, by Austrians and Swiss writers. Barbi Marković offers a completely new challenge. Her debut novel Superheldinnen has been published in German by an Austrian publisher, and it is not a translation of a previously published Serbian book. The author speaks and reads and writes German (she has taken part in this year’s Bachmannpreis), and has written vast portions of the book in German – before giving up and translating the bulk of it back into her native Serbian. Her friend and translator Mascha Dabić then translated (with her help) that text back into German, whereupon it was then published by Residenz Verlag. Superheldinnen only exists in German – and in a way, this makes the book German literature, much as I think the excellent output by British writer Sharon Dodua Otoo, who was born in Ghana and now works and lives in Germany, should also be considered part of German literature. Too- narrow definitions of what German literature is misrepresent how the field of German literature works – and risks focusing only on the most dull and boring books to boot.

Germans like to talk about migrants, the recent, almost unbearable novel by Jenny Erpenbeck (Go Went Gone) is a good example of that focus, but they are not as happy to hear from those migrants themselves – the strange spectacle of the 2017 Bachmannpreis is evidence of that. Barbi Marković was born, has lived and worked in Serbia – but her literary output is clearly yoked to her years of studying in Vienna. Her first book is a riff on Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. her second a riff on Thomas Bernhard’s story Gehen, and this, her third? It’s a sharp interrogation of the immigrant experience in Vienna during the late Oughts, it’s also an extended riff on various German and literary texts, it is an explosively written take on fairy tales, existentialism and the dread and anxiety of poor people. Marković employs all kinds of methods and genres to push her story forward, from montage to poetry, and given the enormous vitality of its speaking voices it’s hard not to see her acquired skills as a playwright at work here. This book is very good, very funny, and very desolate and dark. It’s also heads and shoulders above all the books on last year’s German Book Award shortlist, if you want a sense of the priorities of German critics. Superheldinnen is vital, relevant, brilliantly written literature. It’s also German literature. The question should not be – is this German literature? It should be – why isn’t there more German literature like this?

The book focuses on three women. They live in the Vienna suburbs, congregating, like Shakespeare’s witches, to ponder fate – their own, but also that of people around them. They have special “powers” – they can lift a hapless person from misfortune and obscurity onto a better path, but they can also make a person vanish from the world – well and truly vanish, so that nobody will ever remember them again. Like Macbeth’s witches, their mutterings and comments and speeches have the quality of a chorus, of a coven of angry voices, but there’s no hero in the foreground. There’s just the three women – who are all of them immigrants, and utterly poor, “working poor,” as the terminology has it today. They have jobs but sometimes, bad luck, racism and other systemic obstacles will be quite enough to root people quite firmly in poverty. And they want out. They don’t wish for riches – they crave to be middle class. That is, being able to afford going out occasionally, being able to put food on the table without anxieties and maybe even afford children. In their words, we read disdain and envy for those who have a secure life, but also plain desperation. All three women live a life without safety, without support, and their language reflects this tension. The book looming in the background of Superheldinnen is Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin’s classic novel of poverty and despair.

In fact, Marković, who studied German literature, names the book specifically in a section of her novel that takes place in Berlin. This feat of transposing Döblin’s novel, which is incredibly male, filled with violence, male sexual anxieties and the expectations that society places on men, onto the lives of these women, is a remarkable bit of literary wizardry. The author demands of her readers that they be able to see beyond the specifics of these two sets of people to the issues and problems they share, as part of the working class underbelly of Europe. In many ways, this is obviously a book about migration, assimilation and issues like that, and I may get to them later, but Marković does break with expectations in writing a stirring, bleak portrayal of the despair of vast sections of the working class, whether they are immigrants or not. This clear sense of social issues isn’t particularly common in immigration narratives, which often focus more on cultural issues. It’s not that immigration narratives portray only affluent people – but the answer to why they sometimes struggle is often racism. What about capitalism, one imagines Marković’s rejoinder. Things are a mess for vast portions of the populace, and the reasons for that are complex and dispiriting.

That is not to say that Marković isn’t interested in cultural issues at all. The plot, in the present tense, focuses on the most recent meeting of the three women where they decide who to curse and who to lift from misfortune. Interwoven into their debates are memories of the past, of attempts to make it in Berlin, of memories of Belgrade and Sarajevo. As it turns out, the book offers its readers a layered discourse about speech and memory. The invention of the power to erase someone from public memory alone is a powerful metaphor for the way memory is constructed. Shoshana Felman, in one of the most striking essays I have read this year, suggests that women cannot have an autobiography, inasmuch as an autobiography entails confession. Women can only testify – and this is a process that implies (and demands) readers, other women, others who read that autobiography and thus make it real. “We might be able to […] access our story only indirectly – by conjugating literature, theory, and autobiography together.” That is a very clear description, I think, of what Marković does here. She creates a montage of voices and references – in part the book is an actual montage, of her text and bits and pieces of ads, billboards and other noises, centering around that central metaphor of the possibility to be entirely erased from memory. So how do we deal with it, we speak, we speak and we listen, we read and we share.

I’m sorry for the brevity of this review and its shortcomings, but I haven’t been well.  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.)

Nina Allan: The Race

Allen, Nina (2016), the Race, Titan Books
ISBN 978-1785650468

There’s so much good science fiction coming out these days, it’s quite mind boggling. Not, I think, since the heyday of Delany, Blish, and Ballard have we had such ample riches of good science fiction, with the good, older writers like M. John Harrison and China Miéville still actively contributing masterful work, and newer writers like Ann Leckie and Karl Schroeder offering astonishing contributions to the field. And even among all that competition, the Race, Nina Allen’s debut, stands out. It’s not even entirely clear that it IS indeed science fiction, depending on where you’d draw your line, but it contains science fiction, and as a whole offers a new direction in the genre, reflecting on the possibilities of the languages of science fiction, and presenting a story that is connected to present day concerns like violence, misogyny, race, fear and class. Nina Allen isn’t a great stylist, and in her debut, her cuts and shift are still a bit abrupt (she manages these much better in her sophomore novel) but the overall effect is enormous and stunning. I’m not sure who can read this book and not like it. It’s entertaining, smart, if sometimes a bit on the nose. It draws from all kinds of literature, in all kinds of genres, and it explicitly names Lessing, Murdoch and James Herbert as some of its parameters. It’s science fiction, and for that matter, hard science fiction, as it’s called. But it’s also literary fiction about science fiction. It’s careful and kind and generous, and truly unique. I recommend you go and buy it now, before you read on. I think this book is best read if you don’t know what’s coming, if you experience the book and its turns “cold.” And it’s not about not giving away a putative “twist” ending – the whole structure of the book should come as a pleasant and intriguing surprise to the reader. So, I mean, go, go, go.

I assume if you are reading this paragraph you have either read the book or are not planning on reading it. Or maybe you are in neither camp but still read on? So I’ll say more about the way the book is built, without giving away everything. The book has basically four major sections and one small one.

The first section, “Jenna,” named after protagonist and narrator, is the longest one. It’s a “hard SF” story about a literal “race,” a dog race that is. In an unspecified future in a place called Sapphire, people have developed “smart” dogs which can connect to human handlers through a process involving complicated technology which is sorta-kinda explained. The narrator is a woman whose brother runs a stable of such dogs. Her brother is in a lot of debt and one day, his daughter gets kidnapped. This child had developed a kind of psychic connection with dogs that doesn’t need technology. While we at that point don’t know who kidnapped the child, some aspects of the development had me thinking of Childhood’s End (I was wrong, kinda), but certainly, Allen’s science fiction story combines many other SF stories of human evolution, but Allen also weaves into it a different kind of narrative that I’m still not entirely sure how to pinpoint, but I think there’s a connection to some female centric YA literature in the way we are told about the protagonist’s involvement in making special gloves for racing the dogs. And finally, Allen makes a point of mentioning James Herbert’s Rats trilogy in that section.

James Herbert’s 1974 debut The Rats is a masterpiece of horror, structured in a simple way, absolutely terrifying, but offering a story that is both a kind of biological horror, and a metaphor for the state of the United Kingdom in the 50s and 60s, with suburbs disintegrating, and the darkness of poverty and marginalized existence breeding a new, almost unsurmountable terror, that will hunt you down, eat you and your children. The main terror coming from the rats is not their size and ferocity, though that contributes, it’s their intelligence. A few times in the book, Herbert has a human character look at one of the smart rats and feel how their intelligence changes the level of power. One is tempted to see in this fear the common fear of the establishment at minorities moving closer to power. Brexit voting in the UK and Trump’s ascendance in the US are examples of this fear. Herbert manages to both offer a metaphor, and the thing itself, marginalized communities and poverty, that is, in the same, rather slim, tale. Allen doesn’t reference the first, but rather the third book, Domain. The third book keeps the subtext, but moves the whole conflict into a postapocalyptic future, an obvious reference to the The Race itself.

The second section, “Christy,” is set in our time, and from the first sentence reveals that this section is narrated by the person who wrote the science fiction story of the first section. And immediately, Allan sets about not just complicating the previous section, but commenting on the writing generally: “You’ll imagine that I created Sapphire as an escape – from the ordinariness of my own life, from the difficulties I found in making friends, from the isolation I felt after our mother left. I’ve learned not to waste time denying this, some of it is probably true after all, at least partly – but my main reason for writing about Sapphire was because the place felt so real to me, and I wanted to imagine it in greater detail.” We get imagined places both as something that has its own logic, as well as something that has some undeniable connection to the “real” world, whether as metonymy, metaphor or allegory. Christy’s story also involves a brother, but it’s a much darker story of rape, queer love and suspected murder. It ends on a brilliantly written, harrowing, cinematically powerful scene. Christy also offers books as comparisons, particularly Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Memoirs of a Survivor and her Golden Notebook, as well as Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn. Briefing for a Descent into Hell somehow anticipates Nina Allen’s second novel more than it helps understand The Race, but the Golden Notebook (though the protagonist prefers Briefing due to its title) is actually very fitting in the way its chapters are structured. Lessing’s masterpiece, apart from being one of the many, many reasons she was one of the last deserving winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a complex meditation on the connection of life, experience and fiction, with journal entries, novel-in-novels, memoir and conventional literary fictional narrative.

I found this focus on Lessing an interesting choice (Say, Atwood’s Blind Assassin would also have been fitting in some ways), that points to the specific concerns Nina Allan’s novel has with female experience, British colonialism and race. Indeed, the third, the book’s shortest section, called “Alex,” concerns a black male character who has made an appearance previously and whose role it is to sort out some mysteries, to provide a different angle on Christy-as-writer and on the topics of masculinity and race. “Christy,” the second section, is intensely class conscious – it provides a very clear sense of how poverty limits the possibilities of children, teenagers and adults, and how education can helps navigate these limits, but cannot completely overcome them. We also see how gender interacts with these limits. What’s more, the second section contextualizes the science fiction we started with, by rooting and grounding its elements and concerns, which has two effects. It makes our original reading of the first section deeper, it also asks us to read the realist second section with eyes trained by reading the previous science fiction. And there’s a third effect – being so plainly and unsubtle prodded to connect section one and two, we’re also quietly asked to expand our reading of the many science fiction intertexts. Not James Herbert, whose own book is already doing the same things, but the unnamed intertexts, from YA novels to Clarke. The third section doesn’t add a ton to this mechanism, except to reflect on some previous assumptions regarding race. It feels like the third section’s main function is narrative, as it provides some kind of closure for the literary fiction of the second and third section, without answering all the questions.

The two final sections, then, are two more science fiction stories, one, like the first section, offered in tone and font like the first, expanding on the tropes, ideas and story of the original science fiction story. It’s set in the same world and shares the same characters. The same, to an extent is true for the last section. But while the literary fiction in “Christy” implied that the first section was written by Christy, it is only the final section that is explicitly labelled as “written by Christy Peller,” which returns us to Christy’s assertion of the world having its own logic. Nina Allan never clarifies anything, but there’s a good case to be made that the science fiction of the book is not a “novel within a novel” kind of writing, but that as presented, it is a third space, not reality, not the “author’s” imagination, but something else, a new space, as only, it is implied by this book, science fiction can create. This is a topic that the sophomore novel The Rift would expand and improve upon, but it’s already clear in the debut. The Race is a complex book, with engaging characters, good ideas, and many, many worlds contained within.

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Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford

Cornell, Paul (2015), Witches of Lychford, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8523-9

Reading Adorno’s Kulturindustrie, people like to focus on his curmudgeonly complaints about popular culture. My favorite aspect of it has always been the idea that whatever noxious ideology we see displayed in the products of the culture industry are merely magnified versions of ideological tensions that have been part of earlier art all along. The unsubtle, obvious treatment of them in the culture industry merely makes them more visible. Something similar, on a smaller scale, is happening with Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford, I think. I have always meant to read a book by Cornell, but never got quite round to it. He’s been writing novels, comic books and scripts for TV, including some very good episodes of Dr. Who. So for some reason, this novella, published by Tor, is my first taste of Cornell on the page, and it’s a curious experience. Cornell writes his story with an extraordinary ease, assembles it from various parts, hints effortlessly at a broader backstory, develops interesting characters in just a handful of expert strokes. It’s quite extraordinary to watch, and that certainly makes the book worth reading. If you like stories about witches taking on elves and evil in a modern small town,it’s hard to imagine a story executed better than this one. What’s more, the book echoes a certain British kind of writing, of the Gaiman and Pratchett variety, at least for me, which has a comforting effect. Yet underneath all that, the book follows a curious discourse about money and power with a somewhat unpleasant cultural history. In this case: structural antisemitism, and it made me worry about many of the books in this tone or genre I had previously enjoyed. It’s Cornell’s excellent craftsmanship that has made certain discourses this visible in this novel or novella, because instead of couching the ideas in story and material, Cornell zeroes in on the more difficult parts of these ideas, because he has to, to create his music from the skeleton of notes that the short form leaves him with. I feel very uncomfortable with this book yet at the same time cannot but admire its execution. Cornell hits all his notes exactly. Honestly, it is books like this that I sometimes want to throw at some of the current literary purveyors of genre, the people coming from literary fiction who stoop to genre fiction, not realizing that genre fiction depends on craft and skill just as literary fiction does, and Paul Cornell demonstrates the mechanics of writing genre literature in this decidedly minor, but absolutely delighful, though poisonous, little book.

Witches of Lychford is creepy, but it’s also funny. It takes all of five pages to firmly place some of the book’s voice in a tradition of light, humorous English fantasy, the genre that was dominated for what felt like a century by Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett, with the exception of some very early and some pretty late work, mastered a consistently humane and humorous voice: he created a parallel medieval world, into which he slowly introduced the foibles of modernity, from cinema and rock music, early on, to the postal system, telegraphs, banks and trains later on. His characters are sensible British people, usually men, with sensible, common-sense minds that were disturbed by intrigues, racism and other silliness. In Terry Pratchett’s world, being humane and kind always prevailed in the end, it would always show you the way, even if you were unlucky and died. Pratchett was critical of institutions but generous towards the people in his books. What’s even more interesting is that any careful reader was aware how thin the line was which Pratchett walked. Connecting fantasy races like dwarfs or elves to human racial tensions is difficult, and “common sense” can very quickly be used to excuse lazy thinking. If we’re asking you to include more complicated identities and preferences in the way you chart your world, being a common sense thinker is no excuse to exclude LGBT or people of color from the way your world works. And Pratchett never did that. Pratchett’s characters draw a line, but well-meaning people are always within the bounds. It’s bad actors who are left out: bigoted people for example. There are many examples of this British pastoral, grappling with modernity, but nobody executed it with as much kindness and care as Pratchett, which is his greatest achievement, I think. Second on the list was Pratchett’s skill with language, with moving phrases and objects just outside the reach of easy cognitive access, making our brains do double duty and re-assess things and words taken for granted. The book that Cornell is most likely to have had in mind while writing Witches of Lychford, however, is not a Pratchett novel per se. It is a collaboration between Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, whose work has always been a bit disappointing, but has now also become boring.

That said, Gaiman’s appetite for storytelling in his early work was impressive and while not possessed of Pratchett’s gifts at defamiliarizing objects and language, his work repeated many elements of Pratchett’s, though in a more self-possessed, slightly unkind way. His modern city lacks the possibilities of redemption that Pratchett’s has; his view of modernity and its clash with the British pastoral is much more informed by the (infamous?) ending of Lord of the Rings, with the return to the industrialized Shire. Whereas Pratchett’s work follows many of the beats of the pastoral novel, despite much of it being set in the gigantic metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, Neil Gaiman implies the pastoral by its lack, by the decay, the destruction that modernity hath wrought. That’s not a very interesting topic for a late 20th century writer, and, if you insisted on doing it, one could at least ask for it to be done in an interesting way (Alan Moore, Gaiman’s contemporary, was interested in many of the same themes, but his work is compelling throughout; the difference between Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s very popular run on The Sandman is instructive here). Cornell’s novel(la) is decidedly written in a post-Gaiman and post-Pratchett environment (there are other writers relevant here, but I’m restricting myself to these two). The echoes to Good Omens, the Pratchett/Gaiman collaboration are loud, but throughout the whole book we find a mixture of various approaches to the light British fantasy dealing with modernity and community. Pratchett could rely on the reader’s awareness of the vast reservoir of characters making up his community, and played with new elements accordingly. Cornell has to do the introduction, background coloration and plot all at the same time, and he pulls it off with aplomb. His main characters are three women, implying the Shakespearean coven of weird sisters, but as it happens, and despite the title, only one of them is a proper witch. A second one is a newly arrived reverend, and the third one runs a magic shop in town, has had a year-long affair with a fairy prince, but is practically an atheist. The title, and the behavior of the women in the novel gives us a sense of female community, unlocking some of the non-obvious meaning of the word “witches.” The small town they all live in is a community too, and in a handful of deft strokes we learn how the three women are part of that community too, with even the new reverend having roots in the town.

You know who doesn’t have roots? The new superstore about to open up. The story of the superstore coming to town has had many many versions, some interesting, as in the underrated NBC sitcom Superstore, some more dull, as in Meg Ryan’s final box office hit Em@il for you. Often, we find a slightly troubling nativist discourse surrounding the arrival of the superstore, but it is rarely as obvious as in Cornell’s novel, where the superstore’s arrival literally means the arrival of Evil itself and the apocalypse. If the store is built, a Sunnydale-like hellmouth will open, and all hell will break loose. A demon is seen throughout the book, testing the boundaries in what feels like a nod to Terry Brooks and the second Shannara novel. God knows. That said, evil here is not the unknown corporate entity, it’s shown in the form of a kind of Satan light who tries to talk the town into building the store. He’s deadly but pretends he’s normal. He bribes the mayor, but tries to influence the town in other ways as well. The depiction of his evil is clearly tainted with the associations of antisemitic tradition. A cosmopolitan outsider threatening the nice people in a small British town? Someone whose evil is in his money (there’s a stack of money he offers as charity and it needs to be burned to ward off a danger late in the novel)? He even paints red marks on the doors of selected townspeople. Phara-oh no. This aspect has always been active at the limits of this British genre, from JRR Tolkien’s complicated relationship to Jewishness, to Corbyn’s devotion to the potatoes and leeks growing on his allotment. The countryside on the one hand, and the complicated, difficult modernity on the other, that is part of Britain’s long history (and dark present) of antisemitic sentiment that crosses party lines. Paul Cornell took a trope, the one of capitalism encroaching on proper British small town/village life, which had always been structurally problematic, and lays bare, unintentionally, I think, some of its foundations. The painted red marks on the doors are the icing on the cake, but really, in his narrative efficiency, he makes most of the elements of the book cohere wonderfully, all of them fitting this scheme. It’s a curious effect, in an overall very uncurious book. Witches of Lychford is comfort food, with a drop of poison.

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Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

Jackson, Shirley (2013 [1951]), Hangsaman, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-141-39198-4

I know little about Shirley Jackson, and Hangsaman is only the second novel I have read of this famous writer of the American Gothic. I have little context for this book, but ultimately, it seems the kind of book spoiled by context, by biographical or bibliographical explanation. Let’s say it now: Hangsaman is a brilliant, utterly unique, a terrifying book, that, published at the same time as Salinger published his Catcher in the Rye, offers a sharper, smarter, more scintillating take on growing up as a teenager in 1950s America. Jackson includes, though she names it differently, the “phony” adults, but there’s more: sexual terror, awakening. The book is full of symbols, it uses movies, books and songs to give the reader some orientation, but it doesn’t depend on any of them. It’s one of the most densely written books I have had the pleasure of reading this year, but it wears its complexities lightly. I complain on occasion about books that are leaning too heavily on a clever structure without offering the basic substance of story and writing to their readers – this, this is the opposite. It’s clever and funny, terrifying and intriguing. It’s a fantastic book, and I’m not entirely sure why Jackson isn’t more widely admired.

An award named after her is given out every year to horror and suspense writers, but Hangsaman should be read and taught among the best American novels of the 20th century, and not just the best American crime novels. I have no idea how widely read this book, not one of her most famous novels, was, but some of its inquiries into femininity and power, and some of the ways its symbols and ideas are staggered appear to have influenced other modern classics, like Atwood’s Surfacing. But while Atwood is a clean and skillful writer of prose, Jackson’s command of the sentence is almost Kleistian in its detailed rhythms, its musical shifts that follow the protagonist’s shifts of mind. It’s a rich, complex novel that I’m sure has more treasures buried under the surface – I’ve finished reading it 5 minutes ago, and one exits this book in a kind of rush, an excitement. This is how all books should be, one wants to write. Suddenly, the fact that I have only read two of her novels seems like a gift – so much more to read! If her other books are as good as Hangsaman and We have always lived in the Castle (the other one I read), a very dreary late summer/autumn is about to acquire some bright spots.

Please forgive the possibly over-emphatic tone. I am improvising this review to collect my thoughts and I am coming right from the book, like a man out of a pouring rain, dripping with water and misery. In the same way, I am coming to you, dripping with mystery and excitement and literary joy, so, you know, cum grano salis and all that.

Honestly, however, I don’t think I will greatly adjust my opinion later. The book shifts gears rather rapidly between its three parts, but this movement of the book overall is reflected in the micro-movements of the protagonist’s thoughts, fantasies and the author’s sentences. While there is possibly a rape in the book’s first third (it’s marked, like Kleist marks sexual congress in the Marquise of O., by an elision), and occult elements in the book’s last third, this is in no way a horror novel, or even a psychological thriller as we understand the genre today. It’s a small-scale Bildungsroman, equal parts Hesse, Musil and Atwood. We meet the protagonist, a girl named Natalie Waite, in the first part, we learn about her family. Her father is a failed mediocre writer, whose miserable existence is foisted on the child, who is forced to write texts that her father then corrects. The dynamic between father and daughter is uneasy throughout – Jackson writes this first third of the book with a masterful sense of the claustrophobia that the big ego of a small bourgeois mind can create in a family, especially in a time when men were the ones in control, and women, like Natalie’s mother, had to give in, give up, give over to the men in their lives. The real cruelty of this situation is that Jackson has Natalie muse about what it means to become an adult: “There was a point […] where obedience ended and control began; after this point was reached and passed, Natalie became a solitary functioning individual, capable of ascertaining her own believable possibilities.” That last phrase, “believable possibilities” is really the clincher here. Natalie’s mother, as well as other female characters, are not obedient, they are fully conscious adults, but society was built in a way that cut down on their “believable possibilities.” Reading this book about growing up female in post-war America makes the insouciant pale dullness of Holden Caulfield’s rebelliousness even more galling, I think. There is a sharp realism in Jackson’s book, but it’s different from a lot of socially conscious novels I remember from the period. Natalie’s father is no Man in a Gray Flannel Suit – and Jackson really doesn’t particularly care about sussing out the motivations of the men in her book. What she cares about are how their behavior corrals, restricts and harms the women of the book. The second section is basically an academic satire, often funny, sometimes depressing, always told with a remarkable economy and flow. In it, we find another married couple, practically the younger version of Natalie’s parents. We also find other girls in Natalie’s dorm who have different ways of dealing with masculinity. The extent to which Jackson shows, without being preachy, that all these ways are different kinds of negotiations with power, is remarkable.

I thought of Kleist when reading Jackson, because one of the extraordinary qualities of Kleist’s prose is the way he manages to be both emphatic, pushing and following the ebb and flow of the plot and action, and at the same time build his sentences with careful, unerring elegance. There are almost no sentences that offer unnecessary simplicities – everything is rigged tight, yet the writing often seems over-bordering with linguistic energy. Of course Shirley Jackson isn’t Kleist, but the way the book’s prose seems to be tailored exactly to the protagonist’s thoughts and the plot’s movement, without sacrificing linguistic energy and elegance, did remind me of him. Usually when you admire a skillful prose architect, they build their novel from the linguistic and syntactic possibilities of their work – their sentences are always recognizable. Shirley’s writing bends to its content – but it doesn’t break into stylistic ugliness or incongruity. She does offer the occasional commonplace observation or statement, but in a way, as a reader, I’m actually quite thankful, because it allows me room to breathe. The whole middle section is more widely spaced, airier than the first or last section. There are more people in it, real, not imagined people, more time passes, and language often moves us from event to event, rather than from one place in Natalie’s head to the other. In that sense, the occasional bromides are not superfluous at all, but add to the book’s musical structure. Another connection to Kleist is the way the movement of his sentences always reflected his sense of the weight and power of the people he described and moved through his stories. His syntax would bend around powerful people, offering us a syntactic mirror of the social pressures of his time. Again, Jackson isn’t Kleist, but Jackson’s sentences expand and contract to reflect the weight of speech and of the social status of the people represented by that speech. The third way is Kleist’s ease with representing, in drama or prose, difficult mental states and unequal access to reality. In fact, Kleist is one of my favorite writers in matters of liminal mental states, passions, mental anguish and madness. In this, Hangsaman is almost his equal. Shirley Jackson moves from interiority to exteriority with unbelievable skill – literally unbelievable, I had to reread some pages just to fully enjoy the enormous writing.

Natalie is, ultimately, I think, a Deleuzian schizophrenic – though I don’t mean this clinically at all. But if I remember Deleuze and his partner in crime correctly, they offer the schizophrenic as someone who has unusual access to the real, because the border between things and words have become permeable, and because the usual connection of desire with lack (we desire what we don’t have) doesn’t exist with schizophrenics, instead desire becomes productive. And indeed, Natalie is “shocked by her own capacity for creation.” She is easily able to hold two conversations at the same time, one created by her own mind, and one happening in the physical, real world. In fact, the third part of the novel offers multiple mappings of reality, as Natalie and her “friend” Tony play multilevel games the board of which overlaps with the real world, but not completely. This section sums up everything that the previous parts have slowly accrued, we are pushed into thinking the world with Natalie, after the first two parts have trained us to be good readers of her voice and her creations. There is nothing supernatural here, and yet we struggle with distinguishing reality from fantasy, as we are thrust into the unstable symbolic world of a brilliant adolescent. The book’s conclusion is strange, exhilarating and breathtaking.

I cannot possibly imagine someone not liking this book, which is the best book I reviewed this year so far by a country mile, and I didn’t expect it to be this good. It’s looser, pushier, louder than the other Jackson I read, We have always lived in the Castle, but that one is also an examination of liminal states, of conflicts between interior and exterior, of femininity and patriarchal power and violence. The latter, Jackson’s final novel, is also a really complete, almost flawless and I expected Hangsaman, her second novel, to be more of an apprenticeship, a trying out of language and reality. Instead, I encountered a masterpiece. I said earlier that Jackson should be more famous, but equally, it’s a mystery to me why Hangsaman isn’t a more famous novel. I did write this review top to bottom within an hour of finishing the novel, so there are bound to be exaggerations and blindnesses, but I don’t think my overall appreciation of the novel is wrong. This is really, really good. Everyone should read this.

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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.)

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.

[I have elaborated on the ecological issue in this addendum here]

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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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Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson

Trondheim, Lewis and Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrison: Fais un Sourire, Maggy, Dupuis
ISBN 9-782800-160788

“Sometimes, winning just means not losing.” This, said by the protagonist of Lewis Trondheim’s book with Stéphane Oiry, just about sums up the darkly humorous tone of this quite excellent first volume. I cannot remember reading something quite like this. I picked it off the shelf in anticipation of my flight to London today (I’m packing and leaving in half an hour and need to stay awake, so here we are), and was surprised at the way Trondheim and Oiry create a sense of space and density at the same time. Maggy Garrisson manages to both sympathetically portray an unusual character with remarkable depth, and tell a noir crime story that follows genre conventions and thumbs its nose at them at the same time. There’s also a sense, partly due to my limited reading in the genre, that in this book, the francobelgian influence on American comics has ‘come home,’ in the sense that some of the rooms and atmosphere in the book are more common in the great American artists that are all influenced by the Belgian ligne claire tradition. I was particularly reminded of Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine, not in the way Oiry draws his characters (though that also plays a role), but in the way Trondheim and Oiry use the space in rooms, streets and landscapes, and combine it with the real estate on the page, to create a sense of emptiness, loss, longing and loneliness. The writing itself is equally remarkable: Trondheim’s characters never say too much or too little. There’s never a sense of the writer posturing to create a sense of drama or sadness: all the dialogue is just right, sometimes driving the story forward, sometimes just filling in a gap in how we understand the characters and the socioeconomic background. This is very good, and I am looking forward to acquiring and reading the second volume, but I’d like to stress how much of a complete experience this slim album really is. I’m currently also very excited about Greg Rucka’s Lazarus, but every 120 page trade feels like half an episode, half a story, just dragging me along in a half-glimpsed plot (I really love Lazarus, but that’s not the point). Trondheim’s pacing is much different – a book by a writer who is correctly admired by many readers of comic books.

The most remarkable scene is just one page somewhere in the middle. Maggy is in the supermarket as she notices a man stealing a package of cookies. Outside, she catches up with him and asks him: why did you steal these cookies? Why not the much more expensive kind, the artisanal cookies? He answers: the camera would have picked him up stealing those cookies. That’s it. The book moves on and doesn’t return to the cookie stealing, shop-lifting or this particular thief. There is no sense of overdramatizing it, but Trondheim needs it to illustrate three different points: the commonness of crime, and how much it is woven into the way poorer people make ends meet (stealing food always has important literary connections, to Hugo and others) is one element. Another is the pragmatics of crime – there is no romanticization of criminals or crime. You take what you can get, when you can get it. Crime is not a story of elaborate ego-pleasing capers. It’s a question of survival for many people, and not an evil deed, but part of pragmatic evaluations. Both of those points are relevant to the larger story of the book, and the small observation of the cookie theft ends up offering a metaphor of sorts for the other crimes committed in the book and the other criminals portrayed in it. There are criminals who we meet as criminals, and criminals who turn out to be criminals as the plot unfolds, and criminals who are not particularly criminal after all. We don’t hear about all of their motivations, but this one page with its story of cookie theft compromise serves as an illumination of everything else that happens in the book. And Trondheim and Oiry do all this without offering us an explicit summary or moral, and they manage to sidestep the saccharine melancholy of many American comics this reminded me of. I mean, it’s interesting to me how similar many scene set-ups are, especially when compared to the most similar francobelgian comics I can remember reading. And yet, the difference to Ware, Burns, Tomine and company is so striking, that it’s hard not to see the distance as intentional somehow.

Some of this difference, surely, is owned to the female protagonist. Trondheim’s Maggy approaches many portrayals we know from other media, but Trondheim sharply differentiates her from them. First of all, this is a story about Maggy. I’m a bit worried about the ending and what it could mean for a second volume, hut taking just the first book, Maggy’s main motivation is – well, it’s Maggy. Maggy is unemployed but scrappy, trying to make her way. The story is started when she gets a job in a private detective’s office, though that job quickly turns sour. You could imagine a Maggy existing in a Chandler novel, and you wouldn’t have to rewrite the books, at all – noir protagonists are usually oblivious to the role and presence of women who are not either attractive or rich, and Maggy’s attractiveness is not of the glossy noir kind, and she’s certainly not rich. She picks up something that doesn’t belong to her, and foils whatever plan her alcoholic gumshoe boss had, and you can imagine him seeing it as a nuisance or bad luck and moving on at his job that apparently involves real crime, as well as the riveting case of a cat that ate a canary (literally). One of the emotionally most affecting turns is not Maggy’s connection to a man, but a connection she built to a female police officer, and one of their bonding moments involves the examination of (subpar) men at a bar, and the groping of men with the help of a trick. As a scene later shows, Maggy is attractive enough to distract men during the commission of a crime, but her attractiveness isn’t the point. She’s charming and intelligent, but that isn’t the point either. She has a manic pixie dreamgirl-like effect on a man, but that doesn’t define or limit her character, and it doesn’t dominate the book either. Maggy is just Maggy and for her, sometimes, “winning just means not losing.”

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Wioletta Greg: Swallowing Mercury

Greg, Wioletta, Swallowing Mercury, Portobello
ISBN 978-1-84627-607-1
[Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak]

Look, it’s not that I regretted reading this book; it was, after all, fairly short. On the other hand, I’m not particularly elated about the fact either. The novel by Wioletta Grzegorzewska (who writes under the name Wioletta Greg) is fine. It’s okay. Swallowing Mercury is a solid entry into the canon of books on growing up. Much like many books in the genre, it’s written in short vignettes, which largely center around the way the world of things shaped this young Polish girl’s early life. It’s actually quite remarkable how overall pleasant this book is despite the decidedly unpleasant things that have apparently happened to Greg’s protagonist, young Wiola, including sexual assault and the death of her father. Part of that impression is due to the calm voice of the protagonist who talks about her life with a kind of detached air of curiosity and equanimity. Much of the book follows story-lines we probably expect from this kind of fiction. The overlap of objects and bodies, the examination of religion in her life, some elements of village humor (a trickster figure, here, the grandfather) and grotesquery and some unpleasant evocation of the discovery of sexuality. The incipient dullness of it all is forestalled by the author’s deft use of these elements and her intelligent connection of various elements, making the novel resonate with its themes again and again. The book is well written – or maybe well edited, that’s hard to tell, because all of the skill in the novel is structural. The writing is lamentably flat. Since I don’t know any Polish, I cannot tell whether the dullness of the writing is the author’s fault or the translators, but the novel exemplifies the worst qualities of so-called sparse and simple writing. Writing simply is, as I probably said before, much more difficult than writing a solid text in ornate prose. Swallowing Mercury’s prose isn’t always bad, but it is always inconsistent, and never particularly interesting. This is the kind of prose narrative where one gets the distinct impression that the author (or the translator) wasn’t extraordinarily interested in how the book works on a sentence by sentence level (in contrast to “genre” writers like Brian Evenson, by the way). This is not necessarily bad, but when that approach is wedded to a “simple” style, the result is not particularly enchanting. And in a book that uses so many well-worn elements, with political asides sometimes awkwardly shoehorned in, the writing is particularly important. As it is, Swallowing Mercury is a light, pleasant read. You won’t regret it, but with so many other books to read, I mean, why would you read this one?

Wioletta Greg is a poet, which makes me think the blame for the writing should be placed at the feet of the translator maybe. But maybe I’m just a bit put out by the “Translator’s Note.” Usually that note explains words and terms, explains why certain choices were made over others, sometimes maybe some background is offered, but in this case, the “note” is basically like a regular afterword, offering a cohesive reading of the book in light of its political and historical background. It doesn’t just explain facts that are unclear to the reader who isn’t well versed in the history of Poland in the 1980s, it also explains and elaborates on suggestions that are clear to the reader. The only real “translator’s note,” i.e. the only remark that discusses her work on the novel, is a short paragraph towards the end: in it we discover that the book’s title, which is also the title of one of its chapters/anecdotes, wasn’t the title of the book when it was published in Polish. It was, in English, “unripe fruit,” which, in hindsight, makes a ton of sense, as the novel consistently alludes to its title directly and indirectly. After I spent an hour reading a book and connecting its various elements to the title and that specific story in my head (after all, it is a book that asks for, even requires this kind of reading, spinning a web like the holy spiders that recur in the novel), I was a bit put out that the structure I imagined was created by the translator or the publisher or both; who knows. So maybe that’s why I suspect a sloppy translation here rather than a carelessly prosaic writer.

The book has two main themes threaded throughout: one are the fruits of the (original) title. Ripe and unripe fruits are present in many moments of Wiola’s life. The sticky juice from raspberries is smeared over her face as she first meets her father after his release from prison, she is arms deep in sour cherries when she meets, dirty and disheveled, an ex-boyfriend at a fair, unripe fruit are eaten, strawberries and finally, her father, who leaves her again at the end of the novel, tells her he always considered himself an unripe fruit on the inside. There are echoes of fruits in the way the body treats bodily fluids and other wet things, most remarkably, her period and the mercury of the (English) title. The insistent, and sometimes quite gently and skillfully done, mirroring of different elements connects these various things in sometimes powerful and interesting ways. The book begins with various Catholic rites, but never allows religion to be a transformative element. Neither eucharist nor confirmation are accorded that place – instead, we have Wiola “swallowing mercury,” an element associated with transformation, and we have the pagan webs of various juices and fluids that are involved in shaping this girl. It is accidents that push her to become who she is. This novel is very emphatically not a Bildungsroman. Wiola is nudged, pushed, and she demurs, acquiesces, follows the paths suggested by others. Not until the very final page do we see her make a firm, autonomous decision, and even then, it is presented as Wiola choosing one current to drag her rather than another. In this, Wiola is certainly her father’s child – he still considers himself an unripe fruit, internally. If you start reading a novel about childhood called “unripe fruit,” as polish readers of the novel did, the expectation is to see the fruit ripen, expectations formed by many other books in the genre. But, the novel suggests, maybe some people always remain unripe fruit inside, aging only outside, from the years and events that the world has forced on them.

The second theme of the novel is the father. His presence and absence form, more or less, the beginning and end of the book, and his travails offer the book’s most potent metaphor: taxidermy. Wiola’s father is a passionate taxidermist, who cannot keep up with the dead animals in his house. As we learned in the 1980s from Donna Haraway’s magnificent essay on taxidermy (“Teddy Bear Patriarchy”), modern taxidermy was put in the service of realism, of creating the magic of epiphany from within the world of modern man’s tools and concepts. If I don’t misremember, Haraway insists that this is a continuation of the enlightenment-borne attempts to contain and categorize nature, but to offer, to the audience, a magic situation that appears to remove all traces of man’s hand from the created product. It is creating a story and then hiding all the elements of creation. Wioletta Greg’s use of taxidermy as the father’s predominant metaphor (much as his daughter’s are fruits, ripe and unripe) is her most impressive trick. It allows her to connect the various single stories in the book, about childhood, about womanhood, as well as the single story of socialism, using the opaque figure of taxidermy as the connecting element. It is also an explanation for the novel’s refusal of the enlightenment genre of the Bildungsroman, built right into the narrative. In many ways, Swallowing Mercury is a novel about secrets, but really, it is a novel about that which we cannot know or contain. The animal elements of our world prove to be uncontainable for the father, who is poisoned by an angry critter; similarly, adulthood, as viewed through the eyes of a young girl, is something that is opaque. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t plan for it. You just go. Wiola, Greg’s protagonist, is pushed, and occasionally resists, but she goes on, inevitably. One wishes Wioletta Greg (or her translator) had found a better language for this the overall interestingly structured book. Grzegorzewska lives in England. Maybe she’ll write her next novel in English and allow us to take a full measurement of her achievement as a writer without the tempering pen of a translator.

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Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

Strout, Elizabeth (2016), My Name is Lucy Barton, Random House
ISBN 978-0-8129-7952-7

I’ve actually read this novel twice. Twice! And I am still not sure what to think about it. It appears to be written and conceived so clearly in many ways, with various structures and strictures in place to deal with some forms of sentimentality, a style that conveys emotionality and openness without lapsing into soft and soppy imitations of poetic diction, qualities I am particularly receptive to after trying to get through Janet Mock’s interesting but horrendously written memoir in the past week. And yet – particularly as the plot or rather the protagonist’s life story unravels (or develops), the book’s previous flirts with cute sentimentality (“And yet I think: nobody comes from nothing.”) become more of a foregrounded stylistic element or annoyance, depending on your taste. Yet even that is reflected in the book itself, which is on many levels a metafictional exercise about how to write the life of a woman in 21st century America. Thus, narrative structures in the text come to be equivalent to family structures in the plot, for example and it becomes hard to see any sentimental streaks in the novel as having an existence beyond signifying the stylistic element “sentimentalities” for the literary discourse of the novel. It is all very interesting, and in many ways very accomplished and honestly intermittently moving, even, but to me, it sometimes also felt like a very dull undergrad MFA course on how to write and not to write a novel about female experience in our time. I cannot tell from the author’s bio whether she’s ever taught a course like that, but this novel feels like a very didactic (but very nimble) result of a course of that nature. The way the novel looks at life, love, nature, family and art with the same didactic lens that it then also turns upon itself feels greatly like some 18th and 19th classics in the very development of the genre. So. Is this a good novel? Maybe? Will I read a new book by Strout? Probably not? Here’s where I stand: it does what it does pretty darn well. I may not care a ton about what it does. But a lot of people love it. You may too. I liked it. I think.

The split that passes right down the middle of the book – of intellectual thinking and sentimental wallowing is something that has been part of literary history for a while. There’s this recent-ish study on the legacy of Charlotte Smith by Claire Knowles that is very insistent on the difficulties of female writers and poet to deal with the charge of sentimentality and the attempts to get out from under it. The result can sometimes be a meatless over-structuring, as in Valeria Luiselli’s novel(la) Faces in the Crowd (see my review here). Writers like Anne Tyler, who dive deeply into the rich emotionalism of female life stories are on the other side of the divide, I suppose. And in the middle are books like this. Toward the end, the protagonist’s daughter says: “Mom, when you write a novel you get to rewrite it but when you live with someone for twenty years that is the novel and you can never write that novel with anyone again!” The last fourth of the novel is full of those kinds of remarks, peppered with “my dear daughter” and “my most tenderhearted daughter” – and despite all the emotional or sentimental value of these remarks, they are also serious comments on structure and on female life writing. After all, the novel’s very title invokes unreliable narrators like Moby Dick’s (who starts the novel with the invitation: “Call me Ishmael”) and a whole genre of biographical fiction. The split I feel dominates the book – it’s also right there in the book’s language. Much of it is clean and sharp, shepherding the book’s many small stories and memories into short chapters that never extend long enough for sentimental whimsy, but sometimes, usually compartmentalized into individual paragraphs, the book blossoms into small, warm, emotional dictums, analogies or just pure declarations of emotional loyalty. None of this really breaks with the overall structure and narrative, until the last fourth of the novel, which, in turn, is specifically framed as a text with a freer relationship to structure. And yet, despite this intellectual framing of everything, most of the stories in the novel are filled with life, plausibility, warmth, the kind of storytelling skill that Luiselli’s book lacked.

All of this is extraordinarily well controlled, in part, one feels, as a way to combat the generic expectations of this kind of book, the (feigned) autobiography of a female writer. In her study, Knowles cites a movie review by Philip Hensher, mediocre novelist in his own right, who reviewed the movie Sylvia. Hensher disapproves of the treatment of the two poets as equals with, perhaps, Plath coming out on top. “Hughes’ [story],” he writes, is “too complex and rich to be reduced to a weepy narrative.” Plath’s own life, however, isn’t granted the same complexity by Hensher. This critical suspicion is, one feels, one of the impulses driving My Name is Lucy Barton‘s construction, and at the same time, Strout isn’t giving in to the gendered critique – she offers an écriture that is both feminine and intellectually sharp enough to escape the charge of being a mere “weepy narrative.” In this, I feel, the main intertext here is The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. In Tolstoy’s classic novella, a terminal illness leads the protagonist to reevaluate his life. His relationship to his family, to his own life, to progress, all of these things get an airing, and none of these things fare well as Ivan Ilyich shambles towards death. Yet as he comes to accept his family, comes to see his life and theirs with compassion, the fearful presence of death disappears. The central conceit of Strout’s book is also a mysterious illness that ties Lucy Barton to her bed and forces her to reconnect with her mother. Most of the novel is set in the hospital room, with the relationship to her mother as the main storytelling impetus. Much like the elements of the room, the illness and the restricted choice of visitors shapes Lucy Barton’s life, these same elements shape the novel. The shortness of chapters, the sharpness and sometimes simplicity of the writing, the resistance to sentimentality, they can also be read as symptoms of the cautious, insecure relationship of the protagonist to her mother. In other words, the cagey, resistant kind of writing may reflect a resistance towards a certain relationship with motherhood and feminity, and as the character connects with her mother, so the book connects with a different literary tradition, leaving critical suspicions behind as we, in comparatively few pages, catch up with the rest of Barton’s life.

This, of course, also has a literary tradition. I believe it was Teresa de Lauretis who coined the term “the maternal imaginary” for the wave of books of fiction, poetry and literary criticism that explored the relationships of female writers with their mothers, often explicitly meant to provide a counternarrative to Harold Bloom’s Portnoyian obsession with writers and fathers. In one of her last books, Barbara Johnson suggested that poetry is an attempt to hear the voice of the mother, and it is surely no accident that My Name is Lucy Barton is a story about a woman writing her life, who, in the story, meets a writer who teaches her some fundamentals about writing, and who, for the largest portion of the book, finds herself locked into a small room with her mother, forced to talk to her, listen to her, re-assess her memories of herself, her life and her marriage. And in a book that isn’t exactly short on metafictional narrative devices, the central one is one of the most famous ones: a serious lingering illness. Susan Sontag wrote a whole essay about the way illnesses are misused as metaphors for all kinds of things, including narratives of “strength and weakness.” Particularly relevant to Strout’s novel are a few remarks by Sontag regarding illness and cities: according to Sontag, “[b]efore the city was understood as, literally, a cancer-causing environment, the city was seen as itself a cancer.” This connection of city life with a false, unsustainable, unconnected, unnatural life is maintained in Strout’s novel, as well. That’s also where the main connection to the “maternal imagery” of the novel is from: Barton is originally from a poor rural area, and many of the stories her mother initially tells are stories about people “back home” – reconnecting Barton not just to her mother, but also to her community roots, and, later, to a more natural, unrestricted kind of writing. There are more themes like this, the way the curious way the novel treats gay people and HIV, the way it works with insider/outsider figures, but after a while one returns to the initial impression: there’s a lot of stuff in here, and the book certainly has enough material for a whole book of undergrad essays, but the sum of it all, the controlled, hyper-determined way all the levels of the book appear to be examples and mirrors for other elements of the book on lower/higher levels, it feels too much like a textbook for an MFA course.

And going through reviews, this impression of mine may be my own problem. Certainly, many people only read the book on an emotional, emotive level. But that would, I think, underrate the author’s considerable achievement here. I don’t know that I like this book a lot – but I can certainly admire its execution. If this sounds like equivocating – it is. I wish I had stronger emotions about this book, positive or negative, really. But, apart from admiration for its craft, I don’t. I can appreciate it as a book in a long tradition that books like Claire Knowles’ have illuminated, and I can appreciate the nuance in Strout’s prose, but there’s a limit to my appreciation. I’m sorry if this has made my first review after a longer break a bit of an odd read but there you go. I think you should read this novel, if you care at all about the themes I laid out. That’s it.

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My Year in Reviewing: 2016

dsc_3252So after posting 26 reviews last year, I happened to post the exact same number this year, despite some quiet months without reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with short commentary. I wrote about three very notable books that I didn’t get around to reviewing (but will probably review next year) here. If you feel like supporting this blog, why not click here. If you want to buy my book, why not click here? Incidentally, I have review copies of my book in pdf and (possibly) epub, if you feel like reviewing German poetry. Email me! Now, here’s the list of reviews.

Margaret Atwood et al.: Angel Catbird. Margaret Atwood is a genius novelist. Not a genius writer of comic books. Two more volumes coming early next year.

Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown. The less talented Dillon brother. The art is good. The overall impression is meh. His brother died this year. A genuine loss.

David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl. Terrible book. One of the top 3 worst books I read last year, overall. Dubious America-centric revisions to history that, given recent elections, seems somehow symptomatic

Brian Evenson: The Warren. Science fiction, I suppose? One of my three favorite books of the year.

Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me. Writing about depression while fetishizing the psychopharma industry.

Tomer Gardi: Broken German. One of the best German novels of the year, written by an Israeli citizen in his German language debut. Hilarious, sharp, brilliant.

Claire Gibson, Sloane Leong and Marian Churchland: From Under Mountains, Vol. 1 One of my favorite comics of the year. Art and writing perfectly complement each other.

Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night. Quiet little book. Not as good as I hoped, not as bad as I feared. Won’t be reading more of his stuff, I don’t think.

Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat. Excellently crafted little story/novel/novella about a cat, Japanese modernity and a marriage.

Line Hoven: Love Looks Away. I’ve read a couple of German comics this year and this is easily my favorite. Will post a review of the thoroughly mediocre Kinderland by Mawil next year. Hoven’s book is smart, poetic and the art is spectacular.

Paulette Jiles: News of the World. Award-winning piece of Americana drivel. Good for a present for your badly read relative. Solidly done, enough to dazzle some. One of the worst books I’ve reviewed (if not read) this year.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian. Genuine, absolute masterpiece. There’s an odd connection between Kang and Evenson in how they approach physicality.

Kolbeinn Karlsson: The Troll King. Swedish comic. Interesting, well made, a bit racist. Overall a recommendation.

Phil LaMarche: American Youth. Eh. So it’s MFA Americana fare with good ideas, but dull execution.

Fouad Laroui: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers. Laroui is a profoundly interesting writer. In this I introduce you a bit to his work. Not a very popular review with editors (sigh) but in a reduced form, it’s done well on this blog this year.

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda: Monstress. Very good comic book. Among my favorites this year. Doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Tom King’s Vision or Lemire’s Descender, but very good nonetheless.

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd. Overrated book. Overdetermined, too disinterested in the idea of making a story cohere.

Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity. Otoo won one of the most prestigious German awards this year and she’s one of the most interesting German writers (she’s not German).

Iain Reid: I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Overrated piece of crap. Genre fiction by the book. No surprise. Nothing interesting.

Fran Ross: Oreo. A forgotten American masterpiece. Read it. Now.

Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan. Excellent, slyly complex piece of horror fiction. Deservedly considered a classic.

Cecilia Ștefănescu: Sun Alley. Bad novel, translated badly. No point in mincing words. Shame on the publisher who did a disservice to the cause of translated literature in English. Shame.

Akimitsu Takagi: The Informer. Crime novel from Japan. Exceptionally well excecuted, but appeals strictly only to people interested in genre, I’d say.

lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for. A novel written in shorter segments about growing up foreign in the US. This is very good.

Yuko Tsushima: Child of Fortune. A masterpiece of Japanese fiction. Truly astounding.

Yvonne Vera: Butterfly Burning. African novelist of genius, sadly deceased. Novel is very good.

Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. This has languished on the occasional fantasy discussion list, while it, and its sequel/prequel A Taste of Honey are really among the best books published this year. Tor inexplicably marketed this to fantasy fans; this should be read by all fiction fans, period. I’ve never wished more that a book had landed with a different publisher. FSG Originals, for example. They’ve been doing amazing work. I’ve read Kristin Dombek on Narcissism this year, weird fiction by Amelia Gray, and science fiction by Jeff Vandermeer, all published by FSG Originals. Well designed, well pitched. Wilson should be on many of the lists summarizing this year’s best fiction, yet he’s not. It’s hard not to feel Tor is a bit at fault for that.

Three Unreviewed Books

This has been a fairly good year for books (albeit not for literature as a whole, which is no longer allowed at the cool table, apparently), but not necessarily for me. Many books published this year – among them novels by John Wray, Nicola Barker, AL Kennedy, Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead, all of them among my very favorite writers, I have not read (most of them I don’t even own), let alone reviewed here (or elsewhere). There are three novels of note, however, which I do not wish to leave unmentioned this year. I’ve read all three, yet have not managed to write a review due to time constraints etc.

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1. Paul Beatty: The Sellout

I mentioned Paul Beatty in my review of Fran Ross’ underrated classic Oreo. Beatty’s debut novel did some remarkable things with language and myth, serving up a rich stew of poetry and politics. The Sellout is similarly rich fare, but more carefully calibrated. It is one of the best books of the year, whatever else you out on your list and it puts poor self satisfied novels like Paulette Jiles’ shitty one to shame which has no place on a best of list that also includes Beatty. Beatty touches on power, language, law, politics, and he does it all in an exuberant, poetic style that never lets up, that has no weak spots, nothing. Beatty is one of the best American novelists and this novel should cement his stature, if there is any fairness in canon formation (there isn’t). Read it, please. It may be too much, it may seem overwhelming, but I plead with you, persevere.

2. Rachel Cantor: Good On Paper

I have not read Rachel Cantor’s debut novel, but her sophomore effort Good On Paper is ridiculously smart, clever and, most of all: fun. The story of a translator who has given up on her craft, but is now, out of the blue, offered to translate the forthcoming work by one of the great poets of the time, feels a lot like comfort food for me, but without the bloating and unease. Reading it is a light and pleasant experience that touches on our knowledge of Dante, translation, poetry, with a hint of Celan and other poets like that. Honest to god, I have rarely seen a novel appeal this directly to what I find enjoyable. The writing is crisp and clean. I marvel at the impression of ease and fluidity that Cantor affects in this book that wears its complexities lightly. If you are among the three people reading this blog, I promise you will enjoy this novel, cross my heart. It’s impossible not to. Read this book.

3. Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen

Eileen is probably one of this year’s most overrated novels. Not because it’s not good – much of it is very good, and sections of it are remarkably well executed (read the first chapter for a masterclass on how to pull off an introduction to a character), but it was sold as a literary masterpiece, which it is not. It is not tight enough, not concise enough, not clear enough for that. And for a novel that eschews the literary pleasures of Beatty’s and Cantor’s novels, opting instead for a plain, sharply spoken style, it does not excel at that particular kind of writing, which is, admittedly, more difficult to pull off. On this blog I have repeatedly complained about the vicissitudes of writing simply. Moshfegh’s novel is elegantly structured, but ultimately does not rise to the challenges it sets itself to. And yet you should read it. Moshfegh does some interesting things with some very old narratives and structures. Whatever the problems with this novel, Moshfegh is a writer to watch who, in some moments, can truly make you gasp with admiration.

(ISBN)

Paulette Jiles: News of the World

Jiles, Paulette (2016), News of the World, William Morrow
ISBN 978-0-06-240920-1

img_20161213_091117“Some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.” – If you think this is a great sentence, many of my criticisms of Paulette Jiles’ novel in my review will not apply to you as a reader. You’re bound to maybe like it. News of the World is a widely-praised work of fiction after all, turning up on end-of-the-year lists, shortlisted for the National Book Award and more. The sentence I quoted, stylistically, isn’t atypical of the novel’s style. Certainly, much of the writing in the novel is deliberate, albeit without the care and elegance you’ll find, for example, in Brian Evenson’s most recent book The Warren. Deliberate – in a way that reminds me of the writing in E. Annie Proulx’ novels, of which William T. Vollmann has offered a thorough, accurate and uncharitable assessment this year. It is certainly the kind of writing that lures some reviewers and readers into calling it poetic. It is not, finally, all bad. News of the World is tighter, more well written and sharper than much of the seemingly poetic guff that gets turned out by many of the MFA institutions around the US. There is a sense of Jiles understanding her material, working with cliché and tropes to do something that’s certainly unique enough to deserve recognition. This is not a bad novel, but it is also not a very good one. This is partly due to the material – it is enormously hard to do something interesting with the Western that hasn’t been done before, and been done better. This novel in particular raises themes variously treated by novels like True Grit, The Sisters Brothers, or Lonesome Dove, and by movies like The Searchers. Jiles’ novel is different – that much is true, but it is not necessarily an important or worthwhile difference. In many ways, Jiles, writing in a genre that has been constantly modernized and updated in the past decades, offers a quietly reactionary take on many of the themes of the Western. I find it really hard to come up with reasons why you should pick up this book – unless you want an inoffensive book present. It is indeed largely inoffensive (though reactionary and mildly racist), mostly reasonably written and hits enough of the right emotional beats (think Lifetime movie) to offer a pleasant overall reading experience. If you are looking for a present for a colleague, this is a reasonable option. If you are looking for a book for yourself – don’t bother. I promise you you’ve read much better and there are much better books out there dealing with these same topics.

News of the World is set during Reconstruction and its protagonist, retired Captain Kidd (yes, very humorous) is traveling through Texas, reading the newspaper to audiences for a small fee. He makes a small amount of money but he’s not motivated by money – he likes informing his audience by giving them a good mixture of news from the US (“Texas Readmitted to the US!”) and stranger news from abroad, say England or the Orient, almost fairy-tale like news items. His readings are performances, and he selects and paces his news items accordingly. There is an interesting tradition on the nexus between the Wild West and performance, from the ubiquitous saloons and dancing, to the multilevel meditations on performance and reality of contemporary TV shows like Westworld. I’d also count movies like Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!, I suppose. One of the connections these texts establish is the one between creating narrative and creating a national narrative, but they always also introduce a moment of unruliness, the carnivalesque, interrogating with one hand the same national narrative that they appear to establish with the other. It’s worth looking at these movies and books in terms of these negotiations and each text resolves these tensions differently. News of the World is a bit of an oddity in this respect – there is performance in the text on so many levels, but the novel is also absolutely unwilling to allow for any kind of shifting knowledge loyalties. Kidd as the curator of news is absolutely sure that what he does is, performance aside, a fair and balanced account of the world outside. The most telling aspect of this is one night when he arrives in a city where two gun-toting hotheads live who are absolutely sure that the newspapers just have to be full of accounts of their heroics. They expect the famous reader of newspapers to include lavish, ideally illustrated, recitations of their (frankly murderous) exploits. Kidd declines and doesn’t read at all. The choice between embellishing his usual readings or to give a straight reading that endangers his life leads him to decline giving a performance altogether. Surely it is no accident that in these times of slanted news and partisan embellishments of facts, Paulette Jiles chose to write a book revolving around a man of impeccable news-related ethics. In some ways, Jiles’ Captain Kidd is the Civil War era equivalent of a curated Facebook news feed. In News of the World, performance doesn’t undercut the serious national narrative – the national narrative and the straight-laced seriousness of truth and history kneecaps the possible literary effects of performativity, contributing to the dutiful dourness pervading the whole novel.

It’s not that the novel is without humor, there’s quite a bit of it, but it is the gentle, chuckling kind, primarily connected to the second protagonist of the novel, the ten year old Johanna Leonberger, a girl abducted by the Native American tribe of the Kiowa and recovered by the US army. Jiles did a bit of research into the matter and apparently, abductees quickly developed a loyalty to their tribe and unlearned the use of English, extending to basic matters of pronounciation. The tribe Jiles picked for Johanna is the Kiowa who are unable to pronounce an . So throughout the novel we see Johanna either elide the consonant or replace it with an . That has some slightly unfortunate consequences for the novel because Jiles insists on rendering all of Johanna’s dialog, even when its protagonists understand it perfectly. Thus, one of the more adorable aspects is Johanna saying “KEP-DUN” when referring to Captain Kidd. The plot of the novel involves Kidd being paid to take Johanna from north Texas all the way to the south to return her to her relatives. On the way, Jiles insists on parading her trek of oddballs past a lineup of Western cliché, including a very drawn out gunfight. There is the sultry widow, the gunslinger and his Native American henchmen, and different well known varieties of Civil War vets. I discussed the Caprtain’s occupation before the plot, because that occupation is the only thing in the novel that does not feel like a mosaic of themes and characters, mildly remixed, but essentially untouched. If you have seen some classic Hollywood Western movies, you have seem multiple versions of these same characters. Jiles does provide some odd quirks, but they are mostly to do with pacing. A suprisingly large portion of the novel is dedicated to one long gunfight while half the journey is summarized in about ten brisk pages. This imbalance is also mirrored in the novel’s descriptions: Jiles provides very long, detailed, almost jarring descriptions of defunct guns; while I suppose it is possible to read these as reflections of the Captain’s limited mind, we know he has other obsessions, and we know he does not provide nearly the same amount of detail on these. In these descriptions, as well as other places, we find the vicissitudes of a historical novel and the research needed for accuracy. Jiles lacks the light touch with reseach that would make for an overall harmonious narrative. I mean, I’m sure it impresses some readers, as so-called historical accuracy often does, but in the text I found it odd – and not in a good way.

searchersposter-billgoldResearch also mars the issue of Native Americans. It is not just Johanna’s unfortunately rendered speech, which bears the marks of decades of racially charged use of language. The contrast of Johanna’s speech with the overall modern and clear speech of people around her is problematic. The whole thing is reinforced by research: Jiles’ conviction that the stories about abductions are right, and her thorough reading of them leads her to focus her novel mostly on non-Natives. Johanna, a girl of German ethnicity who speaks better German than English, is the novel’s representation of Indian-ness, in speech and behavior. She yells out the Kiowa war cry, she has to be physically restrained from scalping an enemy and she’s flabbergasted that she wouldn’t be allowed to bathe in the nude in the middle of a small town. She is curageous because the Kiowa are courageous and so on. The tired character tropes I mentioned previously have here found an ideological equivalent. We have all heard these kinds of stories. As a German, I know some of these stories from white Germans who have never been to the US, most famously Karl May (whose late work was adored by Arno Schmitt), a thief, liar and literary prodigy who wrote fantastical stories about courageous Indians and the white people who encounter them in wonder. Yet while the character archetypes Jiles uses are common throughout the history of the Western genre, Jiles’ attitude towards Natives is not very common among more recent novels. And by recent I mean most significant cultural output since the 1970s. Johanna is the Good Indian, and is contrasted not by one, but by multiple groups of Bad Indians. Dangerous Kiowa, plus the henchmen in the aformentioned firefight who are not just mean and dangerous, but also cowards, running away after hearing Johanna’s intonation of the Kiowa war cry. It is truly the oddest thing. The movie that is the closest comparison, The Searchers, from 1956(!), is a masterpiece with a difficult moral narrative. Its protagonist, played by John Wayne in arguably his best role, is an unabashed racist, someone who thinks miscegenation is evil and Indians having no place in polite white society. The racial politics of the movie undercut this character, and offer various gradations of other characters, including Martin, who is partially Native American and the abducted girl in question. The Searchers is genuinely interested in interrogating the nation-building narratives around race, which, as I said earlier, are so important to some aspects of the genre. And much as Jiles’ newsreader offers a contrast with that aspect, the novel as a whole also rejects the trajectory of the genre. In Jiles’ novel, white people are white people and Native Americans are Indians. That’s not to say that there aren’t bad people in the novel of all colors (including Johanna’s relatives), but that’s never what nationalist narratives rely on. What’s important is the role of the other and as the novel comes to an end, the Other is safely banished, Johanna is married to a farmer and somehow, in their marriage and family, we can see a glowing image of Texas rising off the page.

Paulette Jiles is a Canadian poet, living on a farm in Texas, as far as I can tell and that means very little for the book. Her being a poet is not a boon to the language (unless you adore that first sentence), but then, Dorothea Lasky is a prizewinning poet and Bob Dylan is this year’s winner of the Nobel prize, so, you know… And as for the Canadianness – somehow, comparing Jiles to some other excellent Canadian novelists who have written about the West, from Ondaatje to Kroetsch, one gets the feeling that living in Texas is more impactful for Jiles’ writing than anything else. There is nothing really redeeming about News of the World, outside of a general pleasantness of writing and tone, and, honestly, how an esteemed publication like LitHub decided to put it on a list of best novels of the year (and was slightly miffed the NYT didn’t do the same) eludes me completely. Maybe it’s me. But it’s not.

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Yuko Tsushima: Child of Fortune

Tsushima, Yuko (1983 [1978]), Child of Fortune, Kodansha
[Translated from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt]
ISBN 4-7700-1524-0

yukoSometimes accidents have interesting results: the only reason I heard from Yuko Tsushima in the first place is Jake Waalk’s essay on this blog. You can (and should) read it here. And so, almost by accident, I picked up her novel Child of Fortune, but really, if you’ll permit me the terrible joke, it was my ‘fortune’ that I did so. This novel is not like any other novel you’ve read. I know I say that a lot and maybe I’m just very discerning about the books I pick, but it is true in this case. Not, however, very obviously so, I have to add. Yuko Tsushima’s novel about a middle aged woman’s coming to terms with her daughter, her pregnancy and the men in her life contains many beats we expect of novels of this kind, particularly those published in the late 1970s, as Tsushima’s was. I don’t know the cultural context well, but Geraldine Harcourt’s introduction clarifies some points about it. Yet even so, the book’s effect and strengths are not dependent on being weighed against tradition and context. The book holds up fairly well on its own. It’s a truly terrific novel about physicality and the needs of a woman who is trying to navigate closeness, about motherhood and adulthood at the same time. More importantly, Tsushima writes extremely well, both in the way the novel is structured and narrated, as well as on a line by line basis. The latter effect may not be remarkable if you pick any line from a random page, but as you continue to read on, pretty much every time, you’ll notice small shifts in emphasis. Three, four sentences on, there’s invariable something that will set you back on your heels lightly. I could truly quote progression after progression from the book. This is of course not solely or entirely something that can be chalked up to Tsushima. Clearly, Geraldine Harcourt’s translation (without being credited anywhere on the cover, of course) is extraordinarily successful here. I cannot possibly judge how close she came to being faithful about the Japanese original text, but Tsushima’s novel is a celebrated, prize-winning novel in Japan, and it is truly excellent in English, so at least that has been preserved. What’s more, the text may sound a bit odd here and there, but it always feels like something belonging to the text itself. The novel never reads translated, it is a rich and full text as it is, without needing the sometimes condescending praise afforded to translations. It does not appear to be in print, which is a damn shame. You should read it and it should definitely be in print. Damn it, this should be taught in writing classes. I am not exaggerating. I’ve just finished Ottessa Moshfegh’s celebrated debut novel and I’ll be damned if she couldn’t stand to read some Tsushima with attention and a notepad. As should we all. Child of Fortune isn’t flashy. Nobody dies, nobody is tied up in the attic, no great discoveries are made. It is a small narrative of a woman’s life for a few weeks and months. Yet the execution, and conception, of this unremarkable-seeming story are stellar.

Child of Fortune is, on the surface, fairly simple. It starts with Koko, a single mother, who teaches the piano and is not happy with who she is, and not on the best of terms with her daughter, who primarily stays with her aunt. The pressures of loneliness, of economic problems as well as the vicissitudes of keeping a daughter in middle school happy and in (fashionable) clothes are all taking a toll on Koko. Things come up in her life, and then go away again and at the end, she is, apparently, in the same situation: single, on difficult terms with her daughter, and in financial trouble. Through it all, Koko mostly maintains a placid emotional state, with a few exceptions here and there and so one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happens in this book. Instead, what we find is a quiet revolution, a woman standing up for herself, even if she does it only internally, a woman stepping away from social pressures for a quick, ludic moment. Tsushima did not inscribe a future for Koko into the text, but the final moment, involving an invocation of play and childhood serves to inject a moment of deviance, of deviation into the text and the structures it struggles with. Koko rejects the “featureless but comfortable place known as ‘common sense’,” but the novel is not a triumphant resolution (or indeed a dark one). It feels more as if Tsushima has constructed a discourse on an ethics of self care in the novel and how the physical autonomy of women (or of that specific woman) plays into that. I could say it’s a discourse about self care in general, and certainly, parts of it read true to me, as a profoundly failed man in his 30s, but Tsushima’s novel is centered around pregnancy. The pregnancy is the disruptive event, the thing that triggers the ending, that threatens to change all her relationships: with family, her ex-husband and with her current lover. Remarkably, it doesn’t appear as if Tsushima works from any obvious literary patterns, this is not a play on a tradition, or anything. The novel reads like a genuine literary encounter with the phenomenon of pregnancy in a woman in her mid-to-late 30s, working through it. I do not mean to suggest meandering. Tsushima isn’t making up her mind as she develops her character. No, the thinking underlies the whole structure of the book. Every part of the narrative is tightly strapped onto the engine of the author’s thinking about pregnancy, common sense and physicality. Her protagonist, Koko, apparently, at first, a cog in the engine of common sense society, turns out to be more of a moving part, shifting slowly against a stiff background. The interior voice, both worried and aloof, both confused and surprised, plays a major role in this, as does the frequently surprising language. Tsushima manages to bridge the divide between a cerebral, intellectual novel – and a moving, immersive one, with admirable ease.

Now, all this said, I can hear the objections. After all, the 20th century has seen a vast array of novels about womanhood in a modern age come forth, many of them among the best books published in the past century. Jelinek, Elsner, Drabble, Jong, Lessing, I mean it’s an endless list of excellence. So what’s different here? The difference is that with Tsushima one has the feeling that a writer is finding new expressions for a situation, without relying on darkness, the grotesque or working within the contradictions of language. It is a subtle work that we are presented here, with contradictions, gently worked. One is Koko’s interest in sex. She “dwelled so fixedly on the existence of men,” and that “greedy desire of hers had indeed been there since childhood, differing little from an adult’s.” She loves her daughter and yet she “could never guarantee that she wouldn’t abandon her in some remote place if that were the only way she could have Doi.” Koko labels it selfishness, but selfishness, in the same chapter, also leads her to resolve to clear up a relationship. Koko’s appetite appears clear, “the molten lava of her sexuality,” but Tsushima shows us the complexities of that. She may have an affair with a weak, “plump,” boyish man, reminiscent of, for example, the husband in Gisela Elsner’s fiery feminist novel Die Zähmung, but eschews the simple rhetorical angles of this. Instead, she insists on her physicality being “misunderstood.” Men too often draw her into sex, and Koko wants to escape the limits of those relationships. Indeed, when she, somewhat by accident, seduces the eventual cause of her pregnancy, she finds it “hard to suppress a deep disappointment with [his] arousal – as deep as her joy at coming into contact with a human body.” Koko is both interested and disinterested in sex. The main problem with it, for her, is the way sex implies a certain sequence of events. She likes closeness, intimacy – mere fucking is not what she is looking for. She wants to break with the way things go, usually. It’s interesting – almost as if the novel itself interrogated this sequentiality of human relationships, without overtly breaking with it to the point of modernist collages or postmodernist fragments. The fragments are still there, but they are embedded in the expectations of how to write these characters. I found a brief 1984 review of the novel in WLT, where the reviewer expresses some irritation at the inconsistent characterization and the author’s insistence on not embedding the characterization in a normal narrative. This irritation is clearly something created by the author – much as Koko turns out to be a bit of an irritation to the people around her, the novel provides its own -subtle- thorn in the unprepared reader’s side. The untroubled, unhurried tone of the novel, which avoids (sometimes narrowly) cascades of obsession or anger contributes to this, even as it describes the protagonist being “shaken” by one revelation about herself or another.

Georges Bataille’s theory of religion starts on an interesting premise. It’s a comparison of humans with animals – or animality. Animals, Bataille writes, are in the world like water in water. Completely contingent, and nothing to shake them from it. Humans have tools. The profane, simple tool introduces exteriority into a world of contingency. In some ways, it strikes me as if Tsushima has examined the ties that bind female experience to the workings of the world and suggested a way, a tool of introducing exteriority, of prying someone loose. Why, she asks, do some people go on living despite an utter lack of a “compelling reason” to do so. Koko, looking at herself, cannot find “a single redeeming feature” and yet she’s shaken to discover “that the will to live is still there.” Maybe that is the theme of the book: finding, if not a compelling, then an acceptable reason to continue to live. The point is not political – it’s personal. Yet it is also about female experience in a world with sometimes cruel expectations of women, so it’s also political. Child of Fortune isn’t a long book, but it is very good. It contains its own contradictions, it is well narrated and paced. It contains, finally, some hope that there is a way to go forward.

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Marjorie Liu et al.: Monstress

Liu, Marjorie and Sana Takeda (2016), Monstress, Vol. 1, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1632157096

Gibson, Claire, Sloane Leong and Marian Churchland (2016), From Under Mountains, Vol. 1, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1632159441

_20161215_142408Marjorie Liu is slowly but surely growing into one of the mainstream comic industry’s most interesting figures, at least for me. She is not one of the steady writers, who write creator owned or licensed titles every year, but she’s also not one of those novelists who dip a toe into comic books here and there like Brad Meltzer or China Mieville. Liu has only a few titles to her name, but they are all important and worth reading, working with Marvel characters like X-23 (who is the new Wolverine in the current line of Marvel comics) and the X-Men (where she engineered the first gay wedding). This year, she wrote Monstress, a creator owned comic full of gorgeousness and brutality for Image comics that I would consider one of the four most beautiful and original comics to come out of mainstream comics this year, two of which I will review here. The second one under review is From Under Mountains, co-written by Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland. From Under Mountains is a comic by a writer and artist who I never heard of and I don’t remember what made me preorder the trade, but I am very glad I did, because its story of war and peace, of spirits and men, is worth reading and rereading. Both it and Monstress have created their own mythology, both of them based in fantasy worlds other than the typical European medieval environments we usually find. And both comics are true collaborations between writers and artists that found a unique visual language for a story that is complex but also as simple as any myth is. Sana Takeda’s sumptuous, rich art, which barely requires Liu’s dialog, is just as essential for Monstress as Sloane Leong’s angular lines and flat colors are for From Under Mountains. Neither comic is without flaws, but I recommend both very strongly.

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The first page from “Monstress.” Protagonist gets sold off in a slave auction, naked and without an arm.

Monstress, despite the adorable young girl on the cover, is brutal. Its story is a rough retelling of the aftermath of colonialism, as it happens in our world, but heightened with myth and metaphor. Liu’s story is set at the frontline of an uneasy truce between humans and a world of magical beings, the Arcanic. The book’s events are informed by the brutal war that preceded the truce, with a horrifying calamity forcing humans to accept a temporary peace. Humans are superior in every way to the retreating world of magical beings, but the unspecified calamity has convinced humans that the magical army possesses a terrible weapon that they will deploy with unspeakable ruthlessness. The basic opposition of modernity and myth has played out in many stories and movies, but I’ve never seen it expressed in such a physical, grounded way. Liu’s characters are former or current soldiers. They bear the scars, inside and out, of war, and the traumas thereof. The politics of the world Liu portrays are full of shifting loyalties and betrayals – the horrors of war makes people change sides, hide secrets and offer cruel compromises. The most convincing element, however, is the physicality of it all. Like a handful of good writers, Liu’s concept of magic involves the bodies of its practitioners. Magic is an ability that is bred into people, it is in their blood, and using it is a physical skill. So far, so common. Yet Liu, writing a world of realpolitik and brutal war, follows through with her ideas, and invents a specialized cadre among humans, the Cumaea, the so-called nun-witches, who extract material from the magical beings through various methods, none of them pleasant. People lose limbs, by and by, to satisfy the appetite of the voracious human military apparatus, which is increasingly dependent on its magical cadre.

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A temple of the Ancients from “Monstress”

It’s easy to see these elements, as I said, as metaphors for acts undertaken by colonial powers in our world. The greed for knowledge and the piecemeal devouring of the native people are framed in ways that make them enormously fitting, and makes much of the book’s story ride piggyback on our cultural memories of war and colonialism. There is an emotional narrative, but the book only occasionally touches on it, with the biggest revelation coming as a cliffhanger at the book’s end. The main impact is, so to say, political. It makes us feel the cruelty and brutality of slavery, genocide and colonialism. Yet Liu interestingly balances these metaphorical effects, where she blends a thing in our world with a similar (but different) thing in the world of the book, with clashing effects, such as her interrogation of the role of women in our histories. Liu’s book is centered completely on its female characters, which has interesting implications, as has her use of the trope of the witch. Sana Takeda’s art is more than just helpful in all of this. She creates an overwhelmingly decadent visual language for the book, replete in browns and blues and gold. The décor seems sometimes Asian, I think, without really using orientalist stereotypes. It draws from multiple sources including fin de siècle decadence. It is impossible to express the enormity of Takeda’s achievement, who creates full landscapes and buildings, deep in color and rich in detail. Nothing is neglected, everything has the patina of history. Going through the book’s amazing art, you get the feeling that Liu had to write a story as harsh and impactful as she did, just to keep up with the extraordinary power of Takeda’s art nouveau panels. Takeda’s art mirrors the complicated strategies of metaphoricity that Liu pursues in her writing by offering art that is both recognizable and alien, giving us details that remind us of things we know, and elements seemingly plucked straight from a drawing room in 1900 in Paris or Shanghai.

dsc_3157Monstress is, thus, both beautifully disorienting and gloriously immersive. Just so we’re clear: it’s not a perfect book. Liu’s dialog is nowhere near as good as Takeda’s art and the contrast is sometimes not entirely pleasant, and Takeda’s art forces the book into a very slow pace, with its preference for big, immersive panels rather than quick story-oriented smaller sequences. Liu’s decision to drop us into medias res without long expositions adds to the book’s atmosphere, but also gives the reader an impression of having to catch up sometimes. But these are small quibbles in an overall greatly entertaining book. Small quibbles are also the only things I can mention on the negative side when it comes to From Under Mountains. I have not heard of any of its creators up until I read the comic, so the book’s quality took me by surprise. Much as Monstress, it does not offer any slow world building at the start, throwing us right in the middle of a court intrigue, a wizard’s scheme and the aftermath of a war, expecting us to catch up and add up all the elements to a coherent background. The writing is much sharper than Liu’s, but the story, despite its intrigues and complications, is simpler and not as complex as Liu’s, because Claire Gibson and Marian Churchland are not as interested in creating a similarly complex web of myth and reality, history and fantasy as Liu did. This may be due to the fact that From Under Mountains is a spin-off of sorts from a creative project masterminded by Brandon Graham, one of comic’s most original writers, whose run on Prophet is a breathtakingly brilliant science fiction comic. I have not read any comics from that project called 8House, since none have been collected into trades yet, but if Graham’s past work is any indication, they won’t be simple. Thus, it stands to reason From Under Mountains was conceived as a simpler tale told in a more turbulent universe. I don’t know. In any case, the simpler structure of the book is not a bad thing. And it just means less complicated than the byzantine world of Monstress. Gibson and Churchland have written a world that is not without its own complications and difficulties.

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full page from “From Under Mountains”

At its center are three characters, whose stories intersect: Lady Elena, daughter of the Lord of Karsgate, Tomas Fisher, a war hero with a dark secret past and a present full of debauchery and shame. The final protagonist, bleeding through the stories, connecting them, is a young thief who one night witnesses Lady Elena’s brother, the heir to Karsgate, get murdered by a spirit. From this murder, the three stories fan out. An impending war has to be prevented, the murderous spirit needs to be caught and personal demons need to be encountered and dealt with. Like Monstress, Gibson, Leong and Churchwell work with a large backdrop of history and intrigue and have no exposition to deal with any of it. In fact, the broader politics of the realm, with its apparently incapacitated king, its marriage policies and its way of dealing with supernatural threats, is barely touched upon in the pages of the first volume, simplifying much. Indeed, the clarity of the art and the less overwhelming politics of the book may give From Under Mountains an appearance of simplicity, but Gibson and Churchland approach narrative almost associatively. The three protagonists and some side characters slip in and out of their story so that when one of these stories, the arc of the Lord of Karsgate, is somewhat resolved, there’s a great feeling of narrative tension being released, with a myriad of other threads still in the air. The complicated arrangement of the protagonists’s stories makes for compelling reading in a trade but I cannot honestly imagine how this worked for readers of individual issues. The series appears to be on a hiatus for now, and if that had anything to do with sales, I can guess why. Much as with Monstress (and Prophet), this book appears to reap the benefits of a less tight editorial reign. From Under Mountains reads and looks like a completely realized artistic vision. The story is excellently orchestrated, and the dialog is much better – moreover, the book frequently contains silent panels, sometimes for several pages at a time, never losing narrative tension.

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Silent full page vision from “From Under Mountains”

Much as with Monstress‘s Sana Takeda, this book is unthinkable without Sloane Leong’s art. It mirrors the flow of the narrative, it sometimes provides the book’s only language and overall dominates the whole book. Leong uses panels very freely, using the whole page for her effects. All pages are set in specific pastel hues, and the space between panels, when there’s such space, is colored in that hue so as to increase the immersive effect. Leong’s control of pace is masterful. Her broad, flat art is very static, but she uses panels within panels and blending with other panels to create time and focuses on attention as needed. Whereas Takeda in Monstress prefers big splashy pages deep and rich in detail, Leong’s backgrounds are sparse, but the artist constantly zooms in on small details, giving panels to hand gestures, flowers, flying insects, creating a story that draws you in without overwhelming you. As you can tell, I clearly lack the vocabulary or training for these descriptions, but suffice to say that visually, From Under Mountains is at least as virtuoso a performance as Monstress. And this doesn’t even include the attention lavished on dresses (there is a primer in the back about the different dresses for the different classes of people in the book, from peasants to nobles) and presentation. The way the book presents gender and race, visually, is intriguing, and the creative team appears to have decided to move some of its ideas in that department onto the visual level rather than have a disquisition on those ideas in the story which is exciting but conventional. If you’ve read mainstream fantasy comics these days, the story may have reminded you, for example, of Anthony Johnston’s very good Umbral, but whereas Johnston’s collaborator Christopher Mitten is fairly conventional (if very good), the end result of From Under Mountains is much more unique. This makes it so puzzling (and intriguing to see, on the comic’s final page, that the next trade/issues with end Leong’s run on the book and Gibson will continue with a new artist.

Anyway. If you trust me, you should go read these two books. You’re almost certainly not going to regret it.

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Tomer Gardi: Broken German

Gardi, Tomer (2016), Broken German, Droschl
ISBN 978-3-85420-979-9

Gardi1This novel is German – its author is not. This helps, I think, explain why its author is one of the most vital German literary voices to emerge in 2016. Like Sharon Dodua Otoo, Gardi read a portion of his book at this year’s Bachmannpreis, and even more than Otoo, his reading caused the jury to debate questions of nationality and language. How German is it? What does it mean to write in German – what are the limits of nationalism when it comes to languages? Overall, Gardi’s text was one of the four or five best ones read at the competition, and so I was genuinely excited to read his novel, called Broken German – and I was not let down. Broken German is written in, indeed, broken German, and Tomer Gardi’s mastery of his invented idio/sociolect is profound and impressive. The writer that comes to mind most readily as a comparison is the Scottish master James Kelman. Like Kelman, Gardi is interested in the way language reflects on the personal, social and ethnic background of its speaker/writer. And like Kelman, Gardi eschews overly artificial literary games for the sake of literary one-upmanship. Despite all the metafictional comments scattered throughout this little novel, and the games with literary allusions, Gardi never loses sight of the inherent importance of using language in a social context. I suppose I must sound like a broken record at this point, but German literature has grown so dull in the last decade, repeating old patterns of self satisfied literary masturbation over and over that without the influx of immigrant literature, it would already have died a dull and boring death. Tomer Gardi and Sharon Otoo, neither of whom are German, are in the process of injecting this threadbare literature with a much-needed shot of urgency, awareness and stupendous literary skill. There is a joy in writing in this book, a sense of the worth of words, which almost made me applaud as I was reading its final sentences. Broken German is a deeply flawed, imperfect novel, and one of the best German novels of the past decade.

Tomer Gardi is an Israeli writer, usually writing in Hebrew. This is not, as far as I can tell, the beginning of a career of writing in German, and one supposes that part of this novel’s extraordinary power is derived from the author’s imperfect command of the language. To be clear: nobody really knows, as far as I can tell, how good Gardi’s German really is. When questioned, Gardi tends to tease his interlocutors, toying with them, giving us a performance that underlines how silly the question is, to begin with. Everything is inscribed into the book itself, which is never 100% serious about almost anything. There is a passage towards the end where Gardi gives his book to a friend who remarks that as Gardi’s German improves, the book suffers. I mentioned Kelman as a reference, but, really, I’ve never in my life read anything ressembling Broken German. Gardi’s novel is not written in a well-defined sociolect. There is no immigrant or deviant grammar underwriting it. No “Kanak Sprak,” to cite Feridun Zaimoglu’s famous book which invented a term for a turkish-German sociolect. The book is not written in Turkish (or Hebrew) German. It’s written in “broken German” – Gardi invents a language of mistakes. We are aware of two levels in his work: the spoken level, the broken language of immigrants, a mixture of deviations due to language of origin, and deviations aligning with certain sociolects common among German immigrants. What makes the novel such a success, however, is the second level: the writing. Intentional or not, the novel is wildly inconsistent when it comes to spelling German words. There is no consistent way mistakes are made, and any given word can be misspelled in a variety of ways throughout the book. What’s more, Gardi will sometimes misspell simple, short words, yet get more complicated grammatical and orthographic constructions perfectly right. The effect of this sort of randomness is an emphasis on the process of writing, highlighting the author’s social and political contexts even further.

poopGerman literature, with the advance of writers graduating from the MFA mills in Leipzig and Hildesheim, has increasingly moved away from acknowledging these contexts. Increasingly, German writers will produce literature as oblivious to contexts as some of the more laughable post-war writers did. Well-off, middle class writers creating a nationalist literature of Germans touring the world, uninterested in anything but navel-gazing. One of the most egregious examples is Fabian Hischmann’s debut novel. It was largely reviewed negatively in Germany, but it reached some shortlists and its author won multiple fellowships. It is impossible to overstate how bad Hischmann’s novel is. I’m singling it out here because, when it was published, it became a focal point for some frustration with MFA-style writing, exemplifying an écriture unconnected to experience for some critics. The book’s main flaws, however, are not unique to Hischmann or even to MFA writing. In it we find the sloppy prose that is a characteristic of a lot of contemporary writing, some of it award winning, and in it we also find the aforementioned insouciant treatment of countries other than German. Of course, this is not unique to Germany. There is plenty of French literature or American literature that treats foreign places with an unpleasantly ethnocentric condescension, but German literature has had a difficult to define quality about it that somehow made it worse. The best summary of this is a short essay by Rudolf Borchardt, an early 20th century conservative German writer, who published an anthology called “Der Deutsche in der Landschaft” and wrote an introduction wherein he claims that Germans have a particular knack for analyzing other countries, when, really, German literature, with a few notable exceptions, is full of strange phantasmagorias of the abroad. In Hischmann’s book, we are treated to an unpleasant trip to Greece, and an even stranger trip to the US, at the center of which is some odd fantasy of shooting up some drug dealers in New York with a gun purchased on the black market. The book is a mess, but the idea of Germans traveling to other countries to sort out the less rational, less intelligent, less literate citizens of those countries is incredibly consistent and common. Hischmann’s bad luck is that he’s a shit writer, but Bodo Kirchhoff, winner of this year’s German Book Prize, is a much better author and his awardwinning novel(la) is basically the same chauvinist fantasy.

This is the context in which Tomer Gardi’s book appears this year, exploding all these conventions and ideologies. There is no certainty here, and no concession to German expectations of order and hierarchy. It’s not clear what’s intentional and what isn’t, and this is written into the substance of the book itself. Tomer Gardi’s German turns on itself. He uses, like Jelinek, idioms and clichés in order to subvert the ideologies inscribed into German. He references Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in a novel that has a lot in common with that masterpiece, which both undercuts the seriousness of his plot, and reinforces the sense of density, urgency and determination. Early on, Gardi states that language is the focal point of his novel (but by stating this, instead makes the discourse about language and novels the focal point, of course), and laments it. And indeed, 1200 words into this review I haven’t even mentioned the book’s plot, because the language’s power appears to overwhelm the plot. What a plot it is, though! It includes mistaken identities, buried knives, lies, dead bodies shoved into closets and the question of whether a Jewish visitor to the Jewish Museum automatically becomes an exhibit in said museum. It includes history, truth and memory, it includes butchers with their arms up to the ellbows in the blood of murdered Jews. It includes a disquisition on authorship that may or may not be related to works like Philip Roth’s knotty Counterlife or the more sombre Operation: Shylock. And as I write all this I worry about over-analyzing this book – it is, apart from being dense and brilliant, also just a ton of fun. I marked 2/3rds of its pages. It is endlessly quotable and readable and rereadable. So it is all that. But it is also important.

gardi 2In this age of Trump and Le Pen and the German AfD, immigration has become an object of suspicion, and language (or rather: the correct use of language) has become one of the battlegrounds of the immigration debate. The disorderly language of the book, the “broken German,” is an attempt, I think, to decline to perform otherness without also assimilating. When Gardi read his excerpt at the Bachmannpreis, the jury asked him: do you really speak German this badly? Is this language artificial or is this just how you speak? At issue was Gardi’s ability to write otherness, perform it, make it palatable, rather than just being other. Being other is no art, it is a deficiency in an age of chauvinism, racism and nationalism. Gardi declines an answer. He gums up the works. Being a Jew in today’s Germany is complicated. Gardi places his protagonist in the heart of the German memorializing complex, complicating the simple narratives. He declines to take part in the literary and political games. Broken German – that title sounds like a deficiency. Yet maybe in a time of resurgent racism in a country that committed two genocides in the 20th century, German needs some breaking. Tomer Gardi’s book is necessary. It is also very good.

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Nobel Prize 2016: My picks.

Since I pick wrong every year, I tend to re-post versions of my old picks. There’s a difference this year. I have insisted every year on a nonfiction award (my picks were usually Umberto Eco and Hilary Putnam, both of whom died since last year’s award), and last year, finally, the quite excellent Svetlana Alexievich won a nonfiction award after a decades-long drought. I have read little of her work, my favorite is a book on suicide, Зачарованные смертью, literally “enchanted with death.” A writer who observes a society enchanted with death, with pain, a society frayed from the pressures of decaying or rotten ideologies. A well deserved award, even if the subsequent deaths of my usual picks did make me regret the missed opportunity, so to say, of giving the award to one of those two.

The feeling of a missed opportunity for an award for the same demographic has been a problem, I feel, for this last group of winners. I probably said this before, but if they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than Munro. Apart from Munro, the award, long criticized for having too many Europeans, has turned, almost defiantly, more European than at any period since the 1970s. For all the talk about not awarding American literature for its insularity – Patrick Modiano is an incredibly insular writer. He draws mostly in French tradition, works within French literary culture, uses French forms and structures. I wrote a longish piece on Modiano in the wake of his win, you can read it here. He’s very good, but he’s just not Nobel material. None of his work really stands out from the larger body of French postwar literature that examines collective and personal memory. A French Nobel prize – how, after the already dubious (but at least interesting) election of Le Clèzio, could it not have gone to Yves Bonnefoy? Or  Michel Tournier, whose worst work arguably outstrips Modiano’s best? Or Michel Butor? Or if French language, why not Assia Djebar? Djebar, Bonnefoy, Tournier and Butor have all died since Modiano won, all of them with more international resonance and importance, more part of international literary culture and conversations. Not to mention that all four of them are significantly more excellent as writers.

And while we discuss whether another white or European writer should win it (Banville, Roth, Fosse, Oates are among the names I heard over the past weeks), we hear nothing about writers like Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, who writes excellent novels about the female experience in a country between colonialism and modernity. She’s smart, good, popular and significant and yet people dare to name Philip Roth as a deserving writer. Or how about Guyanese novelist, poet and essayist Wilson Harris. Harris is 95 years old, and has not won a Nobel prize yet despite having written an important and inarguably excellent (and extensive) body of work that’s insightful, experimental, political and addictively readable. Why wasn’t he picked yet or why isn’t he at least being prominently discussed? There is an odd sense, and Alexievich’s well deserved award compounds it, that the academy is looking only at European discussions of literature, weighing everything according to the small literary atmosphere on this continent. This strange, blind bias mars my joy about Alexievich’s award. These selections have been so safe, so European-friendly that I’m hesitant to be happy about rumors that László Krasznahorkai, a truly, deeply, excellent writer may win the award. He would be more than deserving, but at this point, the award needs to look at other continents, at other cultures, at other kinds of writers. And by that I don’t mean Haruki Murakami. In lieu of ranting about him, I direct you to this piece written by my good friend Jake Waalk on this blog.

So let’s go on to my picks. There are three groups of picks: Poetry, International Fiction and European Fiction, in this order.

ONE: Poetry  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most deserving, plus a European option. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but with an Academy that prefers European mediocrity over Asian excellence, that’s not going to happen. My list of poets tends to be headlined every year by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Another good option, given the circumstances outlined in my introduction, would be the excellent Yusef Komunyakaa. However, if an American poet makes the cut, I would vote, much as last year, for Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey is an African-American poet who has just won the Bollingen Prize, the single most prestigious award for poetry in the US. His work is powerful, experimental, moving and important. He draws from Modernist traditions and from postmodern impulses – but really, at this point, he has become a tradition in himself. Jazz, biography, politics and the limits of poetry are among his topics. There are other influential experimental US poets who are still alive, but few can match Mackey for his mastery of language and his inventiveness in poetry and prose. Mackey would be an excellent and deserving pick. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis/Adunis (Adūnīs) whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. In a time of religious fights and infights, of interpretations and misinterpretations, his work engages the language of the Qu’ran inventively, critically, beautifully, offering a poetic theology of modern man. A final intriguing option would be Kim Hyesoon. I have read her work in Don Mee Choi’s spectacular English translation, but I don’t read Korean, and can’t really discuss her. I find her poetry of the body, femininity and the frayed modernity intriguing and interesting, but there’s no way I can adequately discuss her. Violence, accuracy, beauty, it’s all there in her work. I have a half-written essay on Hyesoon and Tracy Smith that I am tempted to submit somewhere (interest?). Finally, If they decline to award someone outside of Europe, I can see an award for Tua Forsström being interesting, although I suppose her work isn’t big enough. You can read some of her poems in David McDuff’s translation here. McDuff, by the way, has a blog that you should consider reading if you’re interested in translation and/or Nordic literature.

TWO: International Fiction Meanwhile, the novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gĩkũyũ and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, political and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions. Wilson Harris, who I mentioned in my introduction, is a better writer in my opinion, but would be more of a stretch for the academy.

THREE: European Fiction So the third pick I am least sure. If a white/European novelist were to win it, after all, who would I be least upset about? Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably, immensely great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. Knausgaard, maybe, who has had an extended moment in literary circles? But another dark European writer of memory and language? It would make the scope of the Nobel prize even more narrow than it already is. The enigmatic Elena Ferrante is an option, despite the slimness of her work, but her anonymous nature may keep the academy from awarding her. Scuttlebutt has it that Pynchon’s faceless authorship is what kept one of last century’s best novelists from winning the award. Mircea Cărtărescu is maybe still a bit too young, and his oeuvre is too uneven. His massive new novel may turn the tide, but it hasn’t been translated yet into Swedish, English or French. There are three German language options in my opinion, but the two headliners of Peter Handke and Reinhard Jirgl are both politically dubious. So let me pick two books, no excuses. One is the third of the German options, Marcel Beyer. In a time when right wing politicians and parties are sweeping Europe, Beyer’s clear and sharp sense of history, writing from the country that has brought catastrophe to Europe twice in one century, is very welcome and important. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. His work is widely translated. And then there’s László Krasznahorkai who is pretty much universally recognized for his excellence. He draws on an (Austro-)Hungarian tradition of paranoia and darkness, but spins it into an intellectually brilliant and musically devastating form that nobody else can achieve right now.  His work is so unique, so incredibly excellent, such a pinnacle of literary achievement that it transcends any representational caveats.

Other picks & speculation in The Birdcage.

Paul Auster & Me

 

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A view behind the scenes of my blog

 

As a new novel by Paul Auster is about to hit the shelves, I noticed that I have reviewed a few of his books here. Enough apparently, to make my blog findable for people searching for a very specific/unflattering phrase (see picture). If you’re interested in my opinion, here are the links

Sunset Park: “These are the games of a tired old author, coasting on past successes, making use of the same characters and the same tools for the millionth time, with radically diminishing returns. Auster’s writing remains as unremarkable as ever, and his characters as flat as ever. […] It’s as if he’s given up on himself, given up on creating work that is at least up to his own standards.”

In the Country of Last Things: “Paul Auster’s novels are like black holes, and they should be read fleetingly, glancing, without looking overmuch at their details and implications.”

Invisible: “The staggeringly low quality of Auster’s prose, especially in his more recent work, has always been a surprise to me, especially considering the far more sophisticated nature of the constructions and ideas that populate his fiction.[..] This novel is like a clever movie, throwing all kinds of ideas and plots at you and you should enjoy the two hours, but be prepared for an immensely cold, impersonal work, utterly devoid of any commitment except to the author’s ego.”

The Brooklyn Follies: “This novel is a huge failure. As a movie it would have succeeded, and as a novel written by a different writer, it would also have succeeded. Auster has his strengths, and I still remember the novel’s characters vividly, but writing prose just is not one of them.”

Cecilia Ștefănescu: Sun Alley

Ștefănescu, Cecilia (2013), Sun Alley, Istros Books
[Translated from Romanian by Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer]
ISBN 9781908236067

_20160901_053838At this point in the year, this is the worst book I have read all year or at least the worst book I have finished. I mean, good God. It certainly is the worst translated book. That‘s not to say that Cecilia Ștefănescu‘s Sun Alley is wholly without interest. The author handles some structures well, and the very ending of the novel, which is almost camp in its outré dramatic pose, is nevertheless quite enjoyable. The style is dense with adjectives, but if handled by a better translator, it might have worked better. Mircea Cartarescu, after all, who positively glows in English translation, has a profound appreciation for adjectives as syntactical building blocks, as well. Not having read the original text, I cannot tell whether the heavy footed attempt at lyricism has died at the hands of the author or at the translators’ hands, although I suppose that some of the genuinely awful parts are a collaboration. A collaboration in the same way that, say, “Krazy” is a collaboration between Pitbull and Lil Jon. The results are underwhelming, is my point. There are quite a few redeeming aspects to this novel of a strange love affair between 12 year olds that comes to a head when they are adults in their thirties. Ștefănescu writes in a tradition that includes the frequently strange and fantastic fiction of Mircea Eliade, and her sense of the grotesque, of the way bodies demand room in our lives, the smell and the presence of the physical, is quite extraordinary, and her writing of a young adolescent consciousness, another link to Eliade, is the strongest part of the novel. The sections dealing with adulthood are banal at best and god-awful at worst. What’s more, you never feel that the author is wholly in control of her material. The novel is interestingly structured, but it is a structure that needed an editor to make it work on the page, to make it all cohere. I have not read a book since Gila Lustiger’s novel early last year that was so bad overall despite having so many promising parts – I mean it’s better to talk about a good book with weaknesses than a terrible, awful, no good book with good parts in it, say, a few pearls found in a large container of smelly, somewhat suspect oysters rife with salmonella. I don’t like saying bad things about European literature in English translation – there’s so little of it, it needs all the encouragement it can get. Did you know that nothing by the major Polish novelist Joanna Bator is translated into English? This however, is just a terrible product and cannot possibly advance the cause of literature in translation. Don’t read it, don’t buy it, just, I don’t know? Pretend it doesn’t exist?

DSC_2509The first issue to examine a bit closer has to be, at this point, the question of translation, because everything I know about the book has been transmitted to me through the voices of Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer. The unevenness of the text would suggest an unevenly talented pair of translators, but that is guesswork. If you don’t do a line by line comparison, it is sometimes hard to ferret out the part of the translator in a book’s failings or successes. Sometimes, you read a book and come across very odd sentences that you suspect make more sense in the original. This happened very frequently to me as I was reading Sun Alley. But let’s start with the first problem, that of sloppy editing. I do not, of course, know the process that translations undergo at Istros Books, but not infrequently, the translation created obvious problems that even a cursory editing job would have caught. Such as when one character utters “only two words,” those words being “I love you.” Now, these are actually (count them) three words, but in Romanian, the phrase is te iubesc. Two words. This is the kind of mistake that turns up in quick interlinear translations, or maybe the translator was hurried. There are a few of these and they are obviously mistakes added to the text by the translator, with the author completely innocent. In other cases, the translators chose to draw out some descriptions in the original, as when a button-up blouse with ivory buttons turns into a “bouse fastened with tiny, ivory buttons.” The main problem, however, is found in neither of these cases. The main problem is where the author’s style, which is already too ornate for Ștefănescu’s skill set, is transformed into an English that does the author no favors. The language is a bit stranger, a bit more awkward in English, which ends up producing sentences like the following: “He placed his small, young hand upon her white, smooth-skinned, fine-fingered hand, with red-painted fingernails grown slightly to reveal a pinkish semicircle.” Which, obviously, you may think is a stellar piece of writing. Worse writers have won major awards. But even if you think this is great, bear with me. I think one of the major problems of this translation is that it is enormously unaware of the, for lack of a better word, Romanian qualities of the writing. The translator keeps to structure and flow of the original to a fault without having an appreciable feel for the differences of the target language. It always feels enormously translated, with word choices sometimes reading as if the author picked the first option in the dictionary. At best it is a bit odd, at worst it turns the book into a turgid mess – and which of the two it is changes from chapter to chapter, sometimes from page to page.

cecilia_stefanescu_copThe Romanian quality of the work goes beyond word choice or awkward syntax. Another aspect that the translators are not incredibly aware of are the specific literary and textual contexts the author has placed her novel in – or rather, the translators are not aware that these references need special care and attention. At one point there’s a reference to, I believe, the Spân, a kind of trickster figure that turns up in many fairy tales. It’s used by a writer well aware of what that figure signifies to a literate Romanian, and the translators translate it in the same way, which means it’s completely opaque to the intended audience of a translation like this. I mean there are multiple solutions, among them footnotes or a more organic explanation within the text. But the text as a whole gives off an impression of total disinterest in that target audience. It’s not just the sometimes offensively bad editing (for example: place names like Constanța appear sometimes with, and sometimes without diacritics in the text), it’s also the translators who are just not particularly interested in making this text speak to an international audience. If you have read some Romanian literature (I have an overview of some strands of contemporary Romanian lit here) and are aware of various cultural and textual aspects, you can piece together how some of the text’s throughlines are supposed to work. The abovementioned Spân, for example, is part of a recurring theme of storytelling, imagination and deeply unreliable testimony and narration in the book. Adults read stories to their children, boys tell legends to girls they want to impress and kids tell other kids lies about their lives. These are themes common in world literature, but, especially in connection with adolescence, they are overwhelmingly common in Romanian literature. For example, a plurality of Cartarescu’s books are a variation on this theme, as are Mircea Eliade’s non-orientalist novels and stories, and Filip Florian’s work, as well. Yet, unlike any of these (even Eliade stressed the political aspects of storytelling in his Arabian Nights-cum-Kafka novel Pe strada Mântuleasa), Ștefănescu chose to place her novel in a space/time continuum that barely touches on history and politics, making the allusive nature of the text so much more important. While the other cases are of the translators failing to rise to the challenges of offering us an unclouded view of the text, this is a case where the two translators would have had the opportunity to either lift the text to the audience’s horizon or lift the audience to the text’s horizon. Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer, unchallenged or unprompted by the editors at Istros Books, decided to do neither.

DSC_2510Yet please, do not let me seduce you into thinking this is a masterpiece marred by imperfect translators and terrible editing. The book itself, even discounting the translation, is nothing to write home about. There are two distinct parts that overlap, bleed into each other and inform one another: one is set in the childhood of the two protagonists, the other during their adulthood. The two protagonists are Sorin Alexandru Lemnaru, known as Sal, and Emilia, known as Emi. The adolescent parts are not without interest. Cecilia Ștefănescu is good at recreating the confused, claustrophobic state of mind of an adolescent boy, who is a bit overwhelmed by boyish power games among his friends, by a misguided sense of his own intelligence and by the power of his own imagination. Ștefănescu cleverly uses her overly detailed descriptions to show us how an adolescent attention is both fleeting and hyperfocused, by moving from detailed description to detailed description without a clear sense of direction and purpose. However. if you want to read something like that, in a similar setting, but executed by a truly gifted hand, why not read Mircea Cartarescu’s Nostalgia, instead, which is an unbelievable, layered work of genius. Yet Ștefănescu has a strangeness of her own. The blurb on the back of the book calls it a “love story” but it is an odd story. We barely hear Emi’s side of it, not when they are 12, and not in their thirties. At some point she says “I love you, but in another way…” and throughout the book you get a very murky sense of her motivations to stick with Sal. As adults, we learn quickly, Sal and Emi are not a couple, they are each married to other people, but they have an affair with each other, which puts enormous emotional stress on both of them. It is odd how the novel makes you feel that Sal somehow coerced Emi into this arrangement, much as he appears to coerce her into much of the stuff they do as children. He is what we’d today describe as “toxic” – the first sexual encounter between him and Emi basically consists of him forcing himself on Emi, making her pleasure him with her hand. He’s socially and economically privileged, compared to her, and incredibly self absorbed. He needs constant validation and attention, suffering breakdowns when he doesn’t get them and he may or may not be a bit mentally ill. All of this is interesting, and the oppressive atmosphere, combined with the strange elusiveness of who Emi really is, really help build a sense of place that is both in Bucharest and in a world of its own. The sections dealing with edult Emilia and Sorin, however, are terrible. Clichéd, boring, uninteresting. The impressively ridiculous ending of the novel needs some kind of exploration of the adult couple, but surely Ștefănescu wouldn’t have needed to jettison everything that makes the book at all interesting.

The end result of all this is the rare book that is much, much less than the sum of its part. The good aspects, such as the very stringent and powerful use of physicality and the grotesque, and the curious treatment of adolescence and sexual power are drowned in a sea of strange syntax, editing and translating mistakes and severely misjudged plot developments. Overall, I think, this is in large part a tale of the importance of good editors. Ștefănescu would have needed an editor to tell her to cut these 300 pages to about 150 and get rid of some of the awful interior monologues and the majority of the adult sections, and the translators needed an editor to catch some of the easy mistakes and make them care a bit about the target audience. It is hard to blame Istros Books because they appear to do a valuable service by bringing a lot of east European literature into English, including Eliade’s early/important novel Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent. Yet no amount of goodwill towards the publisher can redeem this awful mess.

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Fouad Laroui: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers

Laroui, Fouad (2016), The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, Deep Vellum
Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
ISBN 978-1-941920-26-8

DV_Curious_Case_site-600x600Maybe the particular quality of Fouad Laroui’s humorous fiction is best described with a phrase from his 2010 novel Une année chez les Francais, a supple, warm boarding school novel. A family of rich French expats living in Casablanca suggests to the novel’s Arab protagonist that he may find quotidian details about Morocco banal that they still grapple with. Silently, the boy disagrees. “Rien, absolument rien, ne lui a jamais semblé banal.” Despite the fact that Laroui’s fiction is not necessarily grounded in a prose of observation, I got a similar feeling from the books of his I’ve read: a writer who is aware of all the oddities of how the world around him works and holds these oddities up to the light, with a biting but gentle intelligence, a warm sense of humor, and a smart linguistic inventiveness. Given the readability of his work, it is a bit puzzling that none of his work has been translated into English so far. This oversight has been amended this year with the translation of The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, a recent collection of short stories. The translator is Emma Ramadan and the publisher is Deep Vellum, who made quite a splash last year with the publication of Tram 83, possibly hoping to repeat that surprise success by offering anglophone readers the gift of a hitherto untranslated but substantial and important writer. I’m not a great reader of short stories, and so I would have suggested maybe a translation of one of his novels (the mildly kafkaesque and beautifully inventive La vieille dame du riad would have been a great candidate) instead, but I understand the choice. Laroui is not by temperament a novelist (despite having written a ton of them), and his short stories are very short, boiled down to one specific idea (the titular story is about 10 pages in my edition) and absolutely hilarious; moreover, this collection won the Prix Goncourt when it was published in French in 2013, so it makes sense. The next project of Ramadan is Laroui’s other recent prizewinning novel, Les Tribulations du dernier Sijilmassi which won the Prix Jean-Giono in 2014, an excellent novel that you should be very impatient to see in translation. Meanwhile, getting The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers as a first offering from Laroui’s large (he writes with a productivity that rivals TC Boyle’s stories/novels rhythm) oeuvre, of which I have read but a fraction, is no consolation prize. This is a fascinating book and an interesting display of many of Laroui’s strengths. If you want a writer who writes about Morocco, exile, dictatorship, with a knowing, but light and gentle hand, read this. Even if you, like me, are a bit averse to short stories, I promise, this is time well spent. Laroui does interesting things with the form. Read this, but more importantly, whenever one of his novels becomes available in translation, read that!

Laroui’s stories, more even, as far as I have read them, than his novels, are concerned with discussing history, nation and identity. A vast plurality of the stories in The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers are written as conversations, and the equally excellent collection Tu n’as rien compris à Hassan II even has the conversational scene inscribed into the title through address. Laroui’s stories do not follow someone’s experience from an omniscient or limited narrator – they are less stories than tales, and the audience of the takes is present in the stories itself. The stories set in Morocco are almost all set in Morocco’s history, and I’ll return to that aspect in a second. What this means, with all the talking about telling stories, is that these collections are full of disquisitions about how to talk about history. How do you talk about the past? What does it mean to have a reliable memory? History, in the Laroui books I have read, is something created by Moroccans together, by talking about the past, and in many ways, Laroui’s books themselves can, and I think should, be read as contributing to that same conversation. In La vieille dame du riad, a French couple, drawn with sharp, but kind satire, is confronted with an odd but difficult situation in Morocco. A young man promises to explain. Instead of just doing so straightforwardly, he writes a whole novel, which forms the core of the book. It is a novel about history. Thus, Laroui’s themes keep returning in his work. The different ways of framing conversation and memory (a form of, I suppose, Halbwachs’ collective memory) are one of the great strengths of The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, apart from the immediate pleasures of Laroui’s observations and humor. The other stories, which are not concerned with memory, are about being an exile. They are a bit hit-and-miss. The excellent story “Dislocation,” in a circling movement of repetition, slowly strips a man who lives abroad from all his illusions, resulting in a bleak statement of alienation and loneliness, apart from the (sometimes controversial) final tableau. A different story, about a long-distance relationship on the rocks, is not as successful. But the few down moments in his work are few and far between. Reading his work, one gets the impression that, at this point, Laroui has mastered the tone, humor and style of his stories, and they are remarkably consistent in quality.

Fouad Laroui was born in Morocco in 1958, went to a French-speaking elite high school in Casablanca (the first year of which is recounted in the extraordinary autobiographical novel Une année chez les Francais), then studied in Cambridge and Yorkshire (which experience he drew on for the hilarious La Femme la plus riche de Yorkshire). Eventually he moved to Amsterdam to teach. He publishes with some regularity novels and short stories in alternating rhythms, and is particularly successful in Morocco, where, according to some, his books are regularly sold out. He recounts some funny habits of Moroccans (always aware of the distance between caricature and realism; his short Romeo and Juliet-like novel De quel amour blessé ends with a postscript, wherein a character exclaims, critically, “C’est du guignol. Les personnages sont des stéreotypes.”) and some strange quirks of life in Morocco and as an exile, but almost always, these observations are laced with a profound sense of history. I’m not going to spoil any of the stories (which, in structure and twists, are eminently spoilable), but, speaking in broader terms, a story about some Moroccans making do with a school requirement is laced with the knowledge of how dangerous it is to upset some people, and where, during Hassan II’s time, power truly lay. Another story has its characters cautious because a new acquaintance may be trying to report on them. In both cases, these elements are not necessary to the story, strictly, speaking. Both stories could have been told without them, but Laroui’s work is more than funny. It is critical in a way that communicates that criticism to his intended audience without offending them, or being too heavy-handed about it. None of Laroui’s work has been banned, for example, despite sometimes the criticism, the abyss behind the light words, being quite brutal. For example: Une année chez les Francais is a novel about Laroui’s own first year in French high school in Casablanca. It contains many explicit digs at the society of that time, intelligently dismantles illusions of class and nationality and more. But when we look at how it corresponds to Laroui’s own life, the decision to make it just one year, which has textual and intertextual relevance, also means that the novel cuts off just before Laroui’s father, the following year, vanishes, most likely into one of Hassan II’s jails. This autobiographical fact turns the incessant quips about “what does your father do?” that keep cropping up in the novel into dark hints at an ugly historical (and deeply personal) fact. You can read the novel without that background, and it is still a great book, but the interaction with Laroui’s intended audience serves as a rich background without bringing down the tone of the book or making the book vulnerable to political criticism.

I was about to write: “there’s no case in The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers where the surface reading, and the reading of the intended audience are so far apart,” but the truth is, they may well be. Apart from the few things I spotted, the book is likely crawling with small hints and contexts. Some of these are barely of relevance to me, and I wonder if Emma Ramadan annotated her translation to include them. The title story (which you can read here, by the way), a humorous tale, is told by a man named Dassoukine, who, trying to purchase grain from a European consortium, suddenly finds himself without trousers. I am fairly certain that the story pays homage to the famous Moroccan funnyman/humorist Mustapha Dassoukine, but being unaware of his body of work, this knowledge doesn’t really add to the story. Or another reference, later in the book. A group of friends meet in a café called Le Café de l’Univers, which may well refer to a chanson by Claude Semal (Au Café de l’Univers), the final stanza of which ties the story to the collection as a whole and the title story. I read this online. I would never have guessed it nor does it add substantially to my appreciation of the stories, and yet, I don’t find my reading of them lacking in the least. It is Laroui’s skill to write fiction that is open enough to be read and enjoyed by a wide audience, but specific enough to be read and understood by a local audience. For another example, see translator Lydia Beyoud’s comments on the cigarette brand Casasports in a Laroui story she translated (you can read the story here). Yet these examples are but the tip of the iceberg. A much larger set of allusions and hints is in the language itself. Everything I said so far was about content rather than language specifically, and yet, the language of his work is the real treasure. Apart from puns and jokes scattered all over his work, Fouad Laroui is very aware that he is a writer writing in French (his poetry, meanwhile, is written and published in Dutch).

In his very intriguing book Le Drame Linguistique Marocain, which I read over the weekend, Laroui dissects the unique linguistic situation of Morocco. The main focus is not French, it is the tension between Arab as a literary language and Darija, the dialect spoken by people “on the ground.” There is no real literature in Darija, but Moroccans do not universally read classical Arab, which limits the scope of Moroccan (and, by extension, most of Arab) literature. French is, understandably, another layer. Laroui points out that while Arab is the official language, sometimes officials will speak French rather than Arab. Moroccan literature in French is, according to him, ‘a monster which doesn’t want to die.’ If you think this is a curious way to talk about one’s own work then you misunderstand the truly odd and complex way that Moroccans think about their literature. It is fairly strange to think of a nation’s literature as being completely untethered to a language (among the examples Laroui gives are, imagine if “La Cantatrice Chauve” was considered classic Romanian literature), and yet, Laroui cites multiple Moroccan intellectuals who forward just that claim. So, is The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers a Moroccan book? In addition to its themes and the nationality of its author, what really makes it Moroccan is the book’s odd use of (and sometimes allusion to) dialect. It is a book in French, but reading it, I had to think of a remark Laroui makes when he details how different Arab writers have coped with dialect. He mentions Nagib Mahfuz as a particularly masterful user of literary Arab – in his work, according to Laroui, while we find no Darija, per se, we find an artfully turned literary Arab language that, to knowledgeable readers, lets the dialect shine through. I suspect, in some dialog, Laroui is doing the same. In some places we can see it. There are French terms which he ‘misspells’ to reflect Arab pronunciation, and some of his novels contain borderline unreadable chunks of dialog that are Darija/Arab inflected French (Some early portions of La vieille dame du riad stand out particularly, hilariously) In other places, we don’t see it. Earlier, I talked about the stories sort of metafictionally discuss the importance of creating a collective memory through dialog, stories that, performatively, are part of that dialog. Language, clearly, is an important part of the same process, and the Moroccan diglossia, as Laroui describes it, provides an odd dynamic for that process.

In Le Drame Linguistique Marocain, we have an author who is incredibly insistent that the dialect Darija is the true mother tongue of Moroccans and needs to be given a greater role in education, literature and culture. The case is persuasive and the book is detailed and exact, and yet, Fouad Laroui writes in French (and Dutch). What to make of this? Maybe this adds to his insistence, and it is, I think, part of the explanation of why his satire and humor is embracing rather than just bracing. I feel like there’s a melancholy and urgency to his whole project that cannot be summed up by one or two stories alone. I started this review with a reference to Une année chez les Francais, a story about a young boy who has been raised in French, among people who speak almost exclusively Darija. Mehdi, that novel’s protagonist barely speaks Arab, and his situation between dialect, Arab and French is a tense and difficult one. In Laroui’s followup novel, similarly autobiographical, Les Tribulations du dernier Sijilmassi, an engineer returns to Morocco to find himself, and finds his vocation: becoming a writer. This sense of vocation and urgency is felt in most of the work by Fouad Laroui I have read, and accompanies (rather than replaces) the humor of the fiction. And look, maybe I imagined it because he doesn’t talk about it in interviews, maybe these are just funny stories with none of the urgency that I read into them, but why don’t you read his work and find out for yourself? L’Ètrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine is maybe not my preferred starting point for Laroui’s work, but it’s a good one, and it is available in translation. Go. Read.

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Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2015), Synchronicity, Edition Assemblage
With Illustrations by Sita Ngoumou
ISBN 978-3-942885-95-9

Otoo, Sharon Dodua (2012), The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, Edition Assemblage
ISBN 978-3-942885-22-5

otooIs this German literature? Sharon Otoo is not a German writer. She is, according to her page and the book cover, “a Black British mother, activist, author and editor;” and both books under review are written in English. There is a German version of both, published more or less simultaneously by the same publisher, who is headquartered in Münster, in North-Rhine Westphalia in West Germany, but they have both been translated by a person other than the author (Mirjam Nuenning). Otoo lives and works in Germany and is involved in German debates on racism and refugees. She moved to Germany in 2006 and immediately became involved in activism involving blackness in Germany. I recommend reading this interview. This year, she won the Bachmannpreis for a brilliant story, written in German, which was clearly, to pretty much any competent observer, the best text in the competition, despite some excellent work by the other competitors. The two novellas under review are a cultural hybrid, written in English by a writer with English education and sensibilities, but set in Germany and informed by the sharp observations and brilliant details of a critically observant person living in this country. German literature written by Germans of German descent is pretty dull these days, with a few notable exceptions. Too much of it has been nurtured in the two big MFA mills, too much of it is blind, privileged pap with nothing at stake. Otoo’s books are brilliantly aware of traditions and contexts, of how assumptions and narratives intersect. Synchronicity is a near-allegorical tale of migration, community and adulthood and extends the promise of Otoo’s debut. The Things I am Thinking While Smiling Politely, a book about heartbreak, racism and migration. Both books are written with a sharp stylistic economy that never lapses into flatness, a skill that is as rare as it is commendable. If German literature is to have an interesting future, then it is not young writers writing clever postmodern 1000 page books with nothing at stake or MFA mill products with their self-congratulatory emptiness. It is writers with a migratory background who inject fresh energy and purpose into a literature that has grown rather tired. Otoo does not identify as a German writer but it is German literature that most stands to profit from her growing body of work.

otoo doppelSynchronicity is a multi-layered, but straight-forward story of community and family. Everything else, all the magical realism, all the bells and whistles, are woven around this core. Blackness and migration is a tale of fighting to belong. In the much more knotty and fragmented Things I am Thinking…, the protagonist explains that, being “the only black girl in a London suburb” she “quickly leaned that trouble could be avoided if [she] acted white.” This thinking is continued and expanded upon in Synchronicity – while the first novella used the personal as a mirror and medium to reflect (and reflect upon) political aspects, combining heartbreak with thoughts of alienation, this second novella is more deliberate and careful in discussing migration by offering us a set of metaphors on the one hand, and tableau of characters who all relate to the protagonist along an axis of power and nationality. The more streamlined nature of the second book derives to a great part from the genesis of the book as a Christmas tale written in 24 daily installments and sent to friends and family. The idea of turning it into a book came later, which explains why the two novellas are so different in construction. Things I am Thinking… is written in fragments, with a narrator who keeps going back and forth in time, to reveal some things and hint at others. The chapters all start mid-sentence and each chapter is preceded by a “shrapnel,” an emotionally charged quote. The book only makes sense as a complete construction, there’s no way to write that kind of book by coming up with daily installments. And yet the linear nature of Synchronicity is also not a sign of Otoo’s development, because her Bachmannpreis-winning story is exceptionally well constructed, with cultural, historical and theoretical allusions coming together to create a story that is deceptively simple, a story that needed to be mapped out in advance. I suspect when we look at Otoo’s work in a few years, after she has written the novel that she’s writing now (and won the Chamisso-award that she’s practically a shoo-in for at this point) and edited some more books, that Synchronicity will stand out as a unique part of her oeuvre. An unusual work by a writer of uncommon talent.

glossaryIt is important to note what an incredible progress the author has made since her first novella, despite that book’s high quality. Things I am Thinking… is a dense realist book that is fairly low on allusion and high on clarity of observation. The prose is lean but effective throughout, sometimes leaning a bit towards the journalistic. The real achievement of the book, however, is not the writing or the observations, per se, it is the author’s skill of connecting various elements of her narrator’s life in meaningful but subtle ways. I am sure the author is aware of various aspects of political philosophy, from Foucault to Critical Race Studies, but she wears that knowledge lightly. This is the philosophical version of “show not tell.” The book’s story is about a Black woman who lives in Germany. She has broken up with her husband Till, who is also the father of her child. She has friends of various ethnicities and origins, among them refugees. She has increasingly become disillusioned with the reality of Germany, which is expressed particularly well in the narrator’s attitude towards her husband’s name

So it was a matter of great inspiration to me, meeting Till on my year abroad in Germany. Someone with a surname so unambiguously of the country he was born, raised and lived in that I thought: how sexy is that? And I knew I had to make it my own. This however didn’t stop other officially suited white ladies in cold offices from saying “Wie bitte?” and asking me to repeat myself – like they were disappointed because they had been expecting me to be called something resembling Umdibondingo or whatever. Several months after we were married, I discovered that “Peters” was also the surname of a German colonial aggressor and although I didn’t begin to hate it then, I stopped adorning myself with it.

Otoo pulls off a rare trick – her book is dense and cerebral, but it has a story to tell, as well as a narrative and political urgency. Everything in the book has a purpose and is connected to everything else, but it never feels like Otoo is simply having a postmodern game on. This is not the place to unravel all the book’s plotlines and trajectories, but suffice to say that she manages to see how the different ways power shapes and controls us intersect and collaborate. And her protagonist, who has learned to accommodate various demands of power, is now crashing against the walls of the well-built house of German racism and economics because her personal life implodes. The word “shrapnel” is well chosen for the quotes preceding the chapters because the impression I got reading the book was that heartbreak, a fundamental personal emotion, functions like a bomb that explodes in the middle of a lifetime of accomodation and struggle. The book itself, while not framed explicitly as a text written by the protagonist, feels like an attempt to assemble the shards of a life, where one betrayal has damaged personal, professional and social relationships.

otoo innen1The aspect of migration is not central to Things I am Thinking…. We learn that the protagonist is British, but migration is experienced more through the eyes of the refugees we encounter in the book like Kareem, of whom the author remarks that he “has this matter of fact, nothing-to-lose air about his person. Years of being an illegal immigrant in an unwelcoming country will do that to you, I guess.” Much of the alienation that we learn about is the kind that happens when you look foreign and live in a racist country:

Berlin is a place where anything goes, and you can wear whatever you like, but if you are a Black woman in the underground, be prepared to be looked up and down very very slowly. I cannot tell you how many times I have glanced down at myself in horror during such moments to check if my jeans were unzipped or if my dress was caught up in my underwear. White people look at me sometimes like I am their own private Völkerschau. Staring back doesn’t help. It counts as part of the entertainment. Entertainment.

We get hints sometimes as to how a hybrid identity can develop with migration, such as when the protagonist recounts the criticism her “auntie” leveled at her: “she was truly shocked when she first realized that I had not raised Beth to hand wash her own underwear every night.” The reason for “auntie”’s outrage is the question of identity: “just because she has a whitey father, doesn’t mean she’s not Ghanaian!” The protagonist is not so sanguine about these matters, more interested in negotiating a Black identity in Germany, dealing with the shifting fortunes of being married to someone named Peters, and with the difficulties of establishing trust and loyalties in this country when you’re viewed as foreign.

otoo innen 2Synchronicity, on the other hand, is primarily dedicated to these questions of heritage and migration. There are basically two stories, layered one above the other, in the book. One, the surface-level story, is the one of Charlie Mensah, known as “Cee,” who is a graphic designer who, one day, starts to “lose” her colors. This is meant quite literally. For a couple of days, she stops being able to see certain colors, with one color absconding per day. Blue, red, green, etc., until just gray remains. The beautiful illustrations by Sita Ngoumou provide a lovely background to this contrast. This is challenging to Cee, who is a freelance designer, with a big and well-paid project coming up, and who has suddenly lost the use of one of her most important faculties. Eventually, however, the colors return, one by one, albeit in a different form. This, so far, is the story as a realist narrative would describe it. There are smaller plotlines woven into it, such as Cee falling in love, and her conflicts with her client, but basically, this is it. The other story is the one concerning heritage and identity. This loss of colors is not some disability, not some virus or sickness, it is a process of maturation that happens to all the women in her family. The “different form” that colors are regained in is what the author calls “polysense,” a special form of synesthesia. And this is not all that is different about the women in Cee’s family. They are also all women who don’t reproduce sexually. They are parthogenic, which, as Cee explains, “means we have children alone – that our bodies are designed to become pregnant completely by themselves.” This is not some science fictional theory, although it echoes such science fictional worlds as the planet Whileaway in Joanna Russ’ feminist classic The Female Man. Otoo, beyond the term, never goes into details, because this strange genetic heritage serves primarily as a metaphor for migration and alienation. The people in Cee’s family live alone. They raise their daughters to be independent and then, once they are adult, they push them out of the house and then let them fend for themselves. The maturation process to polysense, and the insistence on independence makes it hard for these women to establish personal bonds; thus, Otoo found a metaphor to reify something that has been part of immigrant experience for a long time.

4EdA_Day-by-Day_CoverA better way, I suppose to frame it, is Axel Honneth’s innovative take on the subject of reification, where the process of recognizing the other is fundamental to the way our subjectivity is constructed and yet that recognition, which, as Butler writes, “is something achieved” that “emerge[s] first only after we wake from a more primary forgetfulness,” can be abandoned. The forgetting of recognition is, in Honneth’s reading, what. In classic terminology, we called reification. What does migration to to emotional recognition? How do we react when we migrate into places that see us as a constituting alterity, that use us to create their national and personal narratives. In Otoo’s slender and careful book, the answer, given for many generations of immigrants, is to retreat to a specific kind of subjectivity that rejects recognition. The parthogenetic reproduction is a perfect metaphor for that. But the tone of the book isn’t dark. Otoo, who works as an activist, imbues her novella with confidence in the future. Her migrants break free of this mold. Cee’s daughter refuses to accept the ways of her family and Cee herself sees changes in her and the world around her. She falls in love with a policeman who isn’t white, representing a fusion of her horizons with that of the country she migrated to. The most powerful description of the policeman is not the first time she sees him, it is a moment of recognition, which, for Honneth, is something that is part of maturation:

That policeman. I recognized him straight away this time because he had a particular kind of walk. Like he was happy to be walking at all. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe his body language it would be: gratitude. That really fascinated me. I stared at him for quite some time as I walked towards him – he was in deep conversation with his white colleague. I could tell the colleague was white because his walk was altogether more sturdy and authoritarian. He placed his feet firmly onto the ground, each step conferring a heritage of legitimacy and ownership unto him.

The book is a Christmas story, which explains its optimism and lightness, but it also offers a literary third way between assimilation and rejection. Critical optimism, if you will. It is a unique quality that appears to be emerging in Otoo’s work. Things I am Thinking… is a much darker work, but the story that Otoo read at the Bachmannpreis walks the same line as Synchronicity does. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite the same kind of story in this country and I don’t think I have ever read a writer quite like Otoo.

tddl16-532x200At the Bachmannpreis (I had a short post on it last year here) the jury discussions of Otoo’s text and the one of Tomer Gardi, another exciting text read at the competition, as well as the contrast to the bland terrible awfulness of the texts read by Jan Snela, Julia Wolf, Isabelle Lehn or Astrid Sozio (who, slotted directly behind Otoo, read a spectacularly racist text) maybe shows where literature written and published in this country needs to turn. The comfortable and unnecessary tales of migrancy from a MFA-educated German mind do not add to the conversation and they do not produce good literature. That is a dead end, and nothing demonstrated that dead end as well as the comparison of the field with Sharon Otoo’s excellent text, and Otoo’s work in general.

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Iain Reid: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Reid, Iain (2016), I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Text Publishing
ISBN 9-781911-231042

endingthingsSo this is a weird book. Not weird as in weird fiction, or weird as in unusual. Iain Reid’s novel is a fairly straightforward psychological (horror) thriller. If you have ever read a book or seen a movie or played a video game in the genre, you’ll not be surprised by the book’s twists and turns. Everything is very clearly telegraphed, to such an extent that I was, at some point, wondering whether the effect was intentional but I couldn’t figure out the goal of such a tactic, because apart from the pleasures of genre, there is nothing else to the book. Well, one thing, but I’ll return to that. The book is fairly short, short on pages, but also short on characterizations and linguistic inventiveness. If I wasn’t reading a genuinely terrible book as I am writing this review, I’d say that it has been a while since I have read a book so thin on language and character. The author clearly wrote this book with the genre tools in mind, hurrying through the early bits to get to the meatier final confrontations. He draws on a vast canon of horror literature, but without the joy and delight that those writers display in writing those kinds of books. When you read, say, a good Stephen King novel (or even a bad one), what you get is an author who is profoundly interested in his material, who is convinced of the necessity and inherent worthiness of telling these stories and who tells these stories from the ground up. King took up the 19th century concept of the uncanny and implanted it in the dull lives of small town Maine, telling stories of lives upended by the supernatural. These books work because we are aware of the stakes. Reid uses many of the same tropes, and his execution of them in the book’s last third is almost flawless, but there is nothing at stake. There is no story here, but also no language that would make up for that. And it’s not as if that was intentional either – because the first half of the novel is clearly trying to tell a story. The author is clearly aware that he needs to invest his readers in the story for the final twists to have any payoffs, but all that is just awful. I considered getting rid of the book multiple times while dragging myself through the book’s dull first half. The excellent execution of the last third and the capable injection of what felt like genuine despair barely makes up for that. I will say this. If you love the genre, you won’t hate this book, but I cannot possibly come up with a reason why you’d read this book rather than one of the many excellent other entries in the genre.

It is entirely possible to read much of what I said in a much more positive light. The signposting of plot elements could be viewed as drawing the reader in, as suggestiveness. Yet given that part of the book’s mechanics uses and relies on twists, I doubt that this is part of the book’s function – because no matter what, the result is a less powerful reveal. I suspect, rather, that the signposting is a symptom of the author’s attempt to get his sea legs in this book, his first attempt at imaginative fiction, after writing two memoirs (I think). It reads as if he had opened a guide on how to write a psychological thriller and started to work through its prompts bit by bit. This would also explain the skeletal nature of the book which contains the absolute bare minimum of story. It is hard to tell you what the book is about because almost any detail I can give you about plot developments will spoil you, because everything has a purpose. It’s like an inept inversion of Chekhov’s pistol: there are no pistols that will not get shot later. No room or patience for characterization is the result. The book’s set up is a car trip undertaken by a couple to visit the man’s parents. Strange calls and signs accompany the trip until the catastrophe upends everything. The book is written from the girlfriend’s point of view, but the author is never really interested in her actual point of view; I will say, having read Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything just before reading this book has not helped, since Abbott, in her recent string of novels, has absolutely mastered the art of telling a thriller from a believable and rich female point of view. Other authors with similar plots have managed this part of the story with much more aplomb. The car ride is full of the most dull and banal dialogue, and while, yes, much of this has a purpose, as the end of the book reveals, it still requires us to slog through 100 pages of dull writing. And it is mystifying. If this was a first book, I’d understand. If this was a book by a misanthrope who never gets out and is now somehow forced to imagine how two people talk to each other, I’d understand, as well. But the author has written two memoirs – two prizewinning, well reviewed memoirs to boot. He is clearly able to figure out how to write characters that are full of life and depth. What has happened to the poor man? Did he get fleeced by the MFA equivalent of Trump university before he set out to write his third book and first novel? I am absolutely confused.

But even if we grant him the characterizations and dialogue and view them as another Chekhovian pistol – nothing explains the paucity of the novel’s style. I haven’t read Iain Reid’s other books, but he gets his prose regularly published in the New Yorker – he knows how to write well. What happened here? At its best the novel is filled with unremarkable, dull prose. At its worst, Reid goes for the odd short sentence prose rhythm used by high school boys who try to write interior monologue. With no teacher on hand to rap his knuckles, Reid unsystematically moves from one register to the next, from dull to bad and back to dull again. There is no obvious attempt to console his readers for the dearth of characters by giving us language that is enjoyable to read. So many sentences without verbs. Or sentences consisting of only one word, and that one’s a verb. Writing. How can you write like this? Write like that. Like this. If anything, these antics get worse as the book comes to an end, but at that point, we are excited, along for the genre ride and don’t care as much. I think style in horror gets a bad rep, and too little consideration. Read Stephen King and you’ll find he has a very specific way of shaping language that makes him a much more visceral writer than, say, Koontz, who is more interested in effects. I think, especially among ‘literary’ people there are two ways of dealing with genre. Either we are offered books that do not deliver on the promises of genre (excitement, fun, fear), because the authors are too far up their own backside to tell a proper story and offer some literary pap instead that works on no level. The exception to this rule is of course Gertrude Stein, whose Blood on the Dining Room Floor does not work as a mystery, but it is, as everything by Ms. Stein, a brilliant masterpiece of writing so nobody cares. The other direction, and that is where Iain Reid went, is the one of thinking of genre as being bad, but rule-bound writing, and offering, then, bad writing because it’s what you do. There is a whole host of examples of both categories in contemporary German fiction where something has convinced virtually all major writers to write some kind of science fiction recently, to sometimes deeply saddening results. So this is what I suspect happened here. Reid is convinced or was convinced that writing a thriller means writing in pared-down language. Nobody told him that writing simple prose is not a free pass to dullness (we had this before, see here, here and here).

And yet. And yet I cannot bring myself to hate the novel. In part because I am right now reading the worst book I have read in a few years, and I sort of try to review on a curve. So it could be worse. But more than that, the main character’s deep despair, which the last pages of the book circle in on (no spoiler, don’t worry) is, at the end, very believable. We know from page 13 of the book that part of the book’s discourse will involve suicide and the despair that pushes people to that point. And as I earlier suggested that I may be biased against parts of the book, I need to add here, that, were I not biased in favor of it, as a person who himself sometimes thinks of ending things, I might be even harsher on the book, because this discourse, it absolutely worked for me, personally. Potentially hokey sentences like “What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape?” gave me a bit of personal anxiety, which is obviously not a bad thing in the context of a thriller. This may not work for everyone. If you read those two sentences and rolled your eyes – stay away from this book. For everybody else, I think the book, once finished, does offer an interestingly creepy look at how it feels to be alienated, alone and scared. Nothing in the book feels original, really, and all the details of it also point to the genre, to such an extent that I am sure it is intentional. As a writing exercise, and cut to story size, this would be quite a nice riff on the genre. As a published novel, not so much. This could have been (and should have been) much better than it is. A shame.

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Phil LaMarche: American Youth

LaMarche, Phil (2007), American Youth, Sceptre
ISBN 978-0-340-93803-4

lamarche 2I went into this book knowing nothing about it or the author. Someone recommended it to me and I decided on a whim to read it. Not knowing anything about it, I was surprised at the way the book’s title’s relationship to the text keeps mildly shifting. From a vague description for much of the book’s personnel to the name for “a small group [where local kids] get together and discuss politics, activism, that sort of thing.” The kids in question are all right wing nuts, if you can call adolescents that, but the book loses interest in politics with remarkable speed given how central they are to a significant portion of its characters. Rather than examine the way politics insinuate themselves into youth culture, American Youth is a novel about a a small town that was hit hard by the recession and a Bildungsroman of sorts where a young boy discovers guilt, politics, sex and redemption, in this order. Phil LaMarche tries his hand at a version of America that has already been well examined by the likes of Richard Ford, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Thomas McGuane or Daniel Woodrell. This is not a very good novel, but there’s a very good novel in it somewhere, which makes it a bit maddening to read. The first half of the novel is quite intriguing, until the second half, which reads like a dutiful tying up of lose ends and narrative strands, really ruins the whole thing. The impression is that Phil LaMarche decided to end the novel on a redemptive note, and shaped the later acts of the story accordingly, rather than ride out the story as is, and see what its implications and possible directions are. It’s rather like seeing an object grow before your eyes only to find that it’s a bag full of hot air. And it’s not even particularly well written. Not bad, mind you, but the simple prose aims for early Hemingway, particularly some of the early Nick Adams stories, without having early Hemingway’s gift for compression. It is no surprise that this book and its author is an MFA product (you may have read my misgivings here and here), because the book reads (though it apparently isn’t) like someone’s thesis, dutifully taking an idea and putting it through the gears of what a “good” realist novel dealing with small town America should do. Alternately, it could be a result of a short story writer grappling with the very different task of building a novel. I imagine if Bonnie Jo Campbell ever gets round to writing a novel, it might be very similar to this one. And yet, despite all this, I can’t say I regretted reading it. It is a quick read, with good characters, and a really good first half. Look, it’s fine.

lamarche 3The characters and the various ways they are interconnected is the real achievement here. A kid dies early in the novel, and the guilt is curiously deferred: the killer bears some responsibility, but it was an accident brought about by age and inexperience; the novel’s protagonist, an experienced user of guns who loaded the gun only to leave it in his friend’s hands also bears some, as do the victim, shot when the two kids were grappling over the gun and the protagonist’s mother whose distracting noises prompted the protagonist to leave the gun in his friends’ hands. This is no spoiler, we learn this fairly early, but it shows us the way the novel connects its characters. Shared guilt, shared hate, shared pain. All people in the novel are somehow connected to all other people by a sad game of six degrees of shame and fear. The construction of the novel is so well done that I would not be surprised to learn that the author used a complex diagram to draw up the characters and the story. Sometimes, the effect is almost Checkovian: any character who we are introduced to that is not an immediate source of misery for the protagonist will eventually turn out to provide a solid dose of it – this is very impressive but, especially towards the end of the book, becomes more annoying that enjoyable. LaMarche’s treatment of guilt and shame gets more heavy handed as the novel slogs on. One can almost hear the author’s urge to include and clarify certain elements beyond ambiguity. The guilt for the killed boy is palpable and informs even simple observations. It is also mostly unspoken, weighing heavily over everything. This is how it should be. Similarly, boyhood betrayals and loyalties are debated with unspoken feelings of guilt and anger, expressed with body language and sullen words. When, however, towards the end of the book, a budding love, and the protagonist’s first sexual encounter, turns sour amid accusations of rape, we get an unholy amount of paragraphs of the protagonist debating the guilt or lack thereof for the act of rape. The original encounter, which is clearly a form of rape, was described clearly enough. No reader would have needed the copious debates of how the accusation shocked the boy who thought “it was not like that” and then his insight that maybe he did cross some line, and his debates of the topic both with other boys as well as the girl whose pleas to stop he ignored in the first place. I’m not advocating treating a terrible act with less condemnation, but the step by step discussion of it in the book, again, has the whiff of college debates on rape culture and an author who was trying to ‘get it right,’ even at the expense of the literary quality of his novel.

richard fordCuriously, he doesn’t get it right, despite the tedious extended discussions of the act. His failure here is less one of misreading rape, and more one of the role he allows women to play in this story and particular in this part of the narrative. The victim of rape basically drops out of the story after the accusation makes the rounds, reappearing only to assuage the protagonist’s feelings of guilt. Calling what happened between them rape becomes less an accurate description of what happened (though it is) and more of a weapon wielded by other boys and a source of resentment, anger and violence. The girl’s motivations and feelings suddenly disappear from a novel that was originally very interested in them and very clever in how it introduced them. This is due to two defects in the novel. One is its massive disinterest in its female characters. After setting them up, they become mere catalysts for the male characters’ actions. This gulf between the depth of the characters as we are introduced to them, and the shallow actual use of them is due to the second defect and that’s the novel’s slavish devotion to structure. There is no room in the third act to examine the girls’ motivations and feelings because the beats of the story demand that something else happens now. There is no room for the mother of the killed boy to have a complex reaction to the violent events because the only room the tightly scripted story allows her to have is as a forgiving catalyst for redemption. That’s also why the politics fall by the wayside. We need them in the first act, to connect the protagonist to that right wing group of teetotaler boys called “American Youth,” but the arc of the story does not have an opening for any examination of politics or of the way that that small town really deals with politics, so it really never comes up again, except in small phrases here and there. And with all that tightness the book still doesn’t really have a dense texture. The second half, which is almost single-mindedly dedicated to finishing the story and hitting all the right beats, and tying up all the strands of story in the right way is pretty flabby because as the author loses interest in all the strange and exciting characters that populate the book, he falls back more and more on the protagonist’s thoughts and ruminations. The second half of the novel could be cut by 60% without losing anything truly significant. It shows where the author’s interest and priorities lie: in construction. He spent so much effort setting up the story that it feels as if the second half of the book is just a quick, unedited filling in of gaps. As I said before, this makes for a maddening reading experience. And not in a good way.

lamarche 1American Youth is set up as a book about small town life, about politics, even sexual politics, about how right wing politics are fueled by anger and frustration, about guilt and redemption, but ultimately, it is only the latter and the way a young boy matures into a young adult. The final chapter of the book, and especially the final paragraph, with its cheesily formulaic outlook into the future finally jettison all the darkness and bleakness that was a part of so much of the novel, and replaces it with a contemplation of what this young adult plans on telling his child. It feels as if the author is exceptionally blind to the possible implications of his story. There is a big unmarked, unexamined heart to the story where everyone is male, white and has whatever vaguely centrist politics Phil LaMarche himself has. Everything that doesn’t fit this basic assumption of normalcy is introduced as needed and jettisoned as needed. Thus, the politics of the book. The “American Youth” right wingers are the only people in the book whose politics are discussed, really, and then some politically correct newcomers. There is, as with so many other aspects of the book, a moment where we find a fissure in the text, an instability that might be used to cleave open many assumptions. It is the moment when the protagonist’s mother, trying to find out about a police officer’s stance regarding the killing, asks a friendly police man: “is he like us?” That was an extremely smart way of showing how the town’s loyalty works, and it tied into another strand of the story that examined boyhood loyalty. Yet as we enter the second half of the story it is as if the question had never been asked. The implication being, somehow, that we the reader are assumed to be like the author. In a book on the construction of whiteness as “a bounded cultural identity,” Matt Wray suggests that dismissive terms like “White Trash” serve as “boundary terms,” that help manage disparate lines of social loyalty. In a way, much of American Youth is concerned with offering us elements that are not “like us,” sharpening the books sense of who belongs to the ‘in’ group and who does not. Liking guns is good, being obsessed with gun rights is weird and so is not liking guns at all. Drinking a bit of alcohol is good, getting drunk off your ass is weird and so is not drinking at all. Doing the beast with two backs now and then is good, abstaining from sex is weird. And so on. None of these are awful, but when it comes to the book’s gender politics or its dubious racial politics, the picture is a bit less savoury.

Overall, the problem is not of the book focusing on loyalties and marking insiders and outsiders. Writers like Daniel Woodrell are excellent at doing that in similarly set stories. But Woodrell creates closed worlds where the demands of the story dictate the way it moves. He replicates the closed world of the stories in the closed form of the novel. Phil LaMarche’s novel has no loyalties to its characters or its story. It is about white male experience and could conceivably be set in a different place among different characters, if the story beats are mostly maintained. It acts like a story about places, a novel invested in local cultures, but we soon see the lamb hiding beneath the wolfskin. At some point, I think, the book even quotes Cormac McCarthy and while the man’s recent output is less than inspired, the man’s work contains books so infused with a sense of place that we almost drown in it. Suttree this ain’t. The disappointment I felt on reading American Youth makes it hard for me to predict where LaMarche’s path as a writer will take him. One hopes that he learns to shake off the MFA guidelines and learns to trust the story, trust his characters.

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Yvonne Vera: Butterfly Burning

Vera, Yvonne (2000), Butterfly Burning, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-374-29186-1

vera coverSo here is another example of me being awfully badly read. The late Yvonne Vera was a leading/important novelist from Zimbabwe, winner of multiple literary awards. And this is the first time I ever read any of her books. What’s worse is that I think I have only read 2 novels by writers from Zimbabwe, period. One is Vera’s novel, and the other one is the obvious choice that anyone who graduated from college has had to read at one point or another, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s fantastic debut Nervous Conditions. There’s a good likelihood that much of what follows is basically a comparison of the only two novels I’ve read from an African country with a rich literary tradition, which is awful and myopic, but there you go. In case you don’t make it that far, let me impress on you that if you read Dangarembga’s novel and expect anything close to the same from Butterfly Burning, you’ll be very surprised. Given that these are two women from the same country, the same generation, both writing about the plight of being a young woman in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, both fêted by Western literary critics and academics, it is quite stunning just how dissimilar the two books are. Vera’s novel is very unusual, a challenging read in many ways. At the time that I am typing this review I am not even sure whether it is very good. Stylistically, Vera opts for a language that is generally coded as poetic, but in the process she loses precision, accuracy and intellectual punch. If you read Dangarembga’s novel, you know it spreads out its problems and areas of interests for the reader to see and understand. Vera’s novel is just as personal, just as political, and targets similar issues sometimes, but the textual surface is like a wave of text hitting you. Vera shifts from explicit physical details to a poetic vagueness that sometimes appears to border on self-parody. And yet, as much as I was tempted to shore up its faults in a summary of the book, Vera’s commitment to her style, Vera’s intense presentation of her concerns and the sometimes almost impenetrable surface of the text all contribute to a literary power that can’t but impress. If you don’t like writers who describe sex as a couple “[falling] to a solitary passion” and “yielding to each other,” this is maybe not for you. If you want your African novels to be as clear as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s early work or Dangarembga’s, then this may not be for you either. But for everybody else, Yvonne Vera has written an oddly compelling, deeply flawed but powerful novel about the female experience in an African country under British occupation. The final scene of confrontation and self-renunciation is genuinely fantastic.

One thing that struck me is that the novel’s near-obsessive account of what it feels like to be a woman in 1940s Zimbabwe and the density of its imagery and the vagueness of the language sometimes blinded me to the subtleties in the book’s overall construction. Butterfly Burning is written in many places like a novel about feminity and patriarchy, with a long, almost surreal passage where a women performs an abortion on herself by literally reaching inside herself; at the same time, it is also a novel about history. Yvonne Vera very carefully placed this novel, the intensity of which could suggest an autobiographical impetus, in a period almost two decades before she was even born. There is no simple identification as in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, which follows a girl about the same age that the author would have been at that time, give or take a year. The way Vera’s novel is structured with respect to the broader historical narratives is deeply interesting: on the one hand, the story of the novel’s young female protagonist, a woman named Phephelaphi, is not particularly contextualized historically. We learn that certain kinds of education were not open to her, but unlike, again, in Nervous Conditions, we have no clear historical time-line, no extensive debates about the role of the colonizers and missionaries. Dangarembga is very specific even about the things that have changed in the lifetime of her characters. I suppose that’s what makes it such a popular choice in classrooms – reading Nervous Conditions gives you a fair idea of Zimbabwe’s history of the period depicted in the novel. An all you can eat buffet of educational opportunity, if you will. Yvonne Vera’s history is more hidden. There are no or very few British people in the novel, we learn next to nothing about the control that the colonizers exert over their colony and the restrictions that the colonized live under. The bad things that happen to Phephelaphi are not abstract deeds by some distant colonizing power – they are things that men do to women in many places all over the world. The sexually active women in the book, including Phephelaphi’s late mother and Deliwe, the proprietor of an illegal nightclub, do not distinguish between black and white men, and while a white policeman commits a murder in the book, it is not political or racist – it is a crime motivated by masculine jealousy which can turn to violence at any time in any country, something that hasn’t changed until today. So, given all these parts of the story that are primarily concerned with female experience, one could be excused if the novel appeared almost unpolitical, as far as the broader range of Zimbabwean history is concerned.

This is not the case. The book begins with a hanging, a result of the first uprising in Zimbabwe in 1896. The stark image of men hanging from a tree and a mother leading her son to see and remember what happened is what the book wants us to use as historical context. Now, Dangarembga’s novel doesn’t end at the 1977 war of independence, but the sequel (which I have not read) continues the time-line to end up right there. Vera, who was born a mere five years after Dangarembga declines to choose the war of independence as her marker. Instead she makes the failed rebellion almost a hundred years earlier her historical touchstone. The boy who watches his father hang from a tree becomes, 40 years later, the much older lover of Phephelaphi, a construction worker named Fumbatha. Thus, the vast bulk of the novel is set almost exactly between the two rebellions, and Vera can rely on her evocation of the first one to implicitly also evoke the second. What’s more, the interrogation of urban social structures in the book, not focused on class but on gender, also speaks to the author’s thinking regarding the underpinnings of the movement that ended up finally gaining independence (although that’s obviously speculation since I’ve read none of her other books). If politics is made by men, because women have no space in it, because women have to fight for their own spaces and their own bodies first, then what follows is that politics are always undergirded by violence. This is not even just about the Mugabe administration and its violent acts. A few months/weeks ago I read this book about the Zimbabwean economy by Hevina Dashwood and it is an utterly dispiriting read about how a country that was founded on vaguely socialist principles, coming as they did out of a popular revolution, descended into market-driven liberalism, marked by a decline in social welfare and a decline of popular participation and interest in government. There was no general change of mind in the population – it was a decision driven by the then finance minister in cooperation with the world bank and the IMF. The minister had to slowly convince first the bureaucratic apparatus and then the ruling party’s internal debating structures before informing the public of this new direction. Social disengagement is its own violence, and markedly, in Burning Butterfly, it is abandonment, lack of employment and social cohesion that lead to the book’s dark ending. Originally written in 1998, after free market reforms were completely implemented (according to Dashwood, the process ended in 1997), it is hard not to see at least some implication here regarding political action and inaction.

butterfly coverYet despite all this history, the core of the novel remains its dealings with feminity. There is a strong tension between motherhood and sexuality that the novel does not resolve or judge. Sexual openness is dangerous, but that’s due to patriarchy, not because the act itself is a problem. Motherhood itself, however, is also restrictive and oppressive. There is a strong connection of sexuality to freeing people from the bond of repressed memory, but encounters with motherhood can also lead to almost painful epiphanies. As Grace Musila has pointed out, “nationalist discourses constituted the African nation as the feminine victim of an aggressive colonial master” and “the prostitute’s body became a convenient index for the degraded postcolonial nation.” Vera reacts very strongly against this appropriation of the female body for the purposes of political rhetoric. Butterfly Burning reasserts the primacy of the female body over political discourses. Phephelaphi resists the seizure of her body twice, with an increased rate of violence and insistence. Vera has places this female story very carefully and very intentionally within the historical framework without making it a direct part. The connection is Fumbatha, Phephelaphi’s lover. Phephelaphi herself resists. In a way, the novel’s own language is a bit like an act of resistance. The intense smell of poetic writing, i.e. writing that is written as “poetic” and not writing that is itself powerfully poetic is all over the book. While Dangarembga’s novel is written in crystalline, sharp English, with short, precise sentences and thus fits discourses of order and narratives like that very well, that is not as easy for Vera’s novel which I think intentionally reaches for a kind of feminine écriture. The effect is that the novel reminded me immediately not of other African writers I know but of North American feminist postmodernism, specifically Carole Maso’s books. Another reference would maybe be Daphne Marlatt or even the female sections in W. Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides. While those parts of Anderson sometimes read like parody and I very specifically didn’t like Marlatt’s book, the urgency of Vera’s novel elevates the sometimes murky and sentimental phrasings to a different level. Given the book’s thorny relationship to the history experienced and pushed by men, this style appears to provide another layer of resistance. I will admit, I was a bit annoyed. Half of the pages I marked in my copy of the novel featured some borderline outrageous formulation. Yet towards the end of the book, especially during an extremely graphic scene of abortion by a character’s own hand, the style proves useful beyond the sometimes challenging readability. We never see the scene 100% clear and the style contributes to that – but Vera manages to do two things at once: to not shy away from the intricacies, sometimes brutal, of the female physical experience, without delivering a clinical description that would hand epistemological control right back to the patriarchy. It’s an interesting effect and absolutely worth having to wade through what feels like overly flowery language (and not the good, Thomas Wolfe kind of flowery).

This writerly strategy may be due to the fact that Vera, while a writer from Zimbabwe, is also a Canadian writer, who lived with her Canadian husband in Toronto when she died. And while I have some difficulties contextualizing Vera’s writing within what I have read of African literature, I would have no such difficulties with a comparison to Canadian literature, where that kind of writing is not uncommon, from the aforementioned Marlatt to the widely admired Margaret Atwood. At the same time, I do not mean to suggest that Butterfly Burning is a Canadian novel in the sense of a novel written for a Canadian audience. Unlike writers like Maryse Condé whose 2010 novel (cf. my review here) contained a baffling comparison involving Hurricane Katrina, betraying the extent to which Condé’s life and references are centered around Western Europe and the US, Vera’s novel was first published in Zimbabwe, only later in the US. Its primary audience is African, and its message is urgent. The politicization of the private, of the female body, does work out rather well, especially, when, intentionally or not (I can’t decide), the novel’s final scene evokes iconic images of protests like the monks who protested the Vietnam war.

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Kolbeinn Karlsson: The Troll King

Karlsson, Kolbeinn (2010), The Troll King, Top Shelf
ISBN 978-1-60309-061-2

troll king coverI have never read a graphic novel by a Swedish creator before, but if The Troll King is any indication, Swedes like their comic books like they like their rock music: weird and intense. I think the only book I read recently that approaches Karlsson’s interests and the direction of his work is Jeff Vandermeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy of novels. The Troll King is a novel-in-stories, I guess, but given how coherent the whole narrative turns out to be when we read the last story, it may just be a novel, full stop. The book starts off strange and then just keeps getting stranger until a surprisingly emotionally resonant ending. Reading the book I was so overwhelmed by its themes, its art, its contradictions and its metatextual elements that I didn’t even consider the direction the narrative was taking until the final of the book’s stories just took me by the hand and led me down a narrative path that proved to be as poignant, as it was strangely common, almost formulaic. Karlsson draws on a broad range of influences, from Nordic myths to anime/manga, he writes a story that is both tender and emotional as it is filled with a strange physicality. If you feel weird about two large bearded men/monsters having a loving and sexual relationship, depicted fairly directly, you won’t even make it past the first section, and you’ll miss fever dreams, the murder of birds, a lot of other (small) male genitalia, death, birth and rebirth and other topics. All of it realized in an art style that somehow straddles the divide between crude and precise drawings, colored with inspired abandon. It is a dark tale with a sweet ending, a violent story with quite a few funny visual jokes. If we look for the way the book relates to its audience, how it employs perspectives and speakers and voice, we (or rather: I) get the feeling that Karlsson is sometimes seduced by his own powerful artistic vision to the detriment of really mapping out all the book’s details. Would I recommend it? The blurb on the back of the book suggests that Karlsson and Miyazaki are kindred spirits and that’s not far off the mark. If you feel like reading a version of Miyazaki that is darker, more physical, more violent, more racist/reactionary, more explicit, but similarly inspired of and reverential towards nature, dreams and folklore, then read this book. I personally greatly enjoyed reading it, and I can assure you that the book only becomes better upon rereading. This is quite something.

troll king insideFor all its skill with visual elements, for the ingenious way the author uses color both in backgrounds as well as in lines, the most impressive part of the book is its narrative discipline. For much of the book I thought I was reading a couple of stories set in the same part of the world, united by the trippy visual imagination of the author and nothing else. The final section or story however ends up tying up all the book’s strands, even though it doesn’t do so neatly. Some asides, like an odd, seemingly LSD-fueled vision of the Wild West, don’t really find a place in the book’s final narrative concerns, but most do. It is, as we find out at the end, a story about family, humanity, about modernity and modern man’s resistance to it. For all the book’s violence, the underlying emotion is a gentle sadness, a longing for a more natural time. The two odd characters on the covers are not trolls or beasts, they are “mountain men,” as the back of the book proclaims. Their beards and body hair are just drawn with such attention to detail that it flips over into mild surrealism. Hence the hair helmets. The artistic goal is one where the way the mountain men are drawn and the way trees, grass and bushes are drawn resemble each other. The men are truly becoming part of nature, and in the process they lose some part of their humanity. This is where Miyazaki is likely most relevant, with his stories of nature resisting man-made modernity, of some pockets of humanity allying themselves with nature and with the magic that is fundamentally linked to that nature, magic that has its roots in the connection of people with the soil and animals. There is a reactionary element to that kind of story, which has been discussed a few times in scholarship, but Miyazaki leverages that reactionary element with his intelligent manipulation of gender and class discussions. Karlsson…doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in a moment. At this point I’d just like to stress the way Karlsson’s book, despite looking like a surreal tale of madness, really does fit many of the ecological tales. In her influential 1962 study of pesticides, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson writes that, “[g]iven time […] life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world, there is no time.” In some ways, The Troll King is a resistance to the loss of time in the modern world. Events in it happen in some kind of dream time. While there is a clear chronology that connects many parts of the book, others appear to speed up or slow down time to allow for things (skulls, mushrooms, trees and dead cowboys) to grow and die. Human agency doesn’t shape time, the processes of nature do.

Uh. Can you say Dragonball?

Uh. Can you say Dragonball?

This attitude towards human agency also feeds into the book’s relationship towards language and myth. The longer the book continues the fewer lettering we get. The story starts relying on expressive images rather than on explanatory captions. Yet even before that, what few words we are given are rarely explanations and more emotional commentary by one or more of the people depicted in the panel in question. Karlsson’s lettering looks like very personal handwriting, so when he switches to a different character’s voice, I was at first taken aback (this, I suspect, speaks to the density of the book which made me assume that all details were calibrated exactly). The first two chapters, consisting of the marriage of the mountain men, and of a dwarf’s fever dream, are basically the only parts of the book with consistent words and voices. In a way, these two sections ease us into the book’s themes and concerns and having words at the beginning helps us jump the hurdle of the strangeness of the rest of the book. But there is another way to see this change. As the book progresses, it dives deeper into its themes of myth and creation, culminating in the tale of two chubby hairy green men burying a skull and digging up the dead cowboy from a vision they had. In Walter Benjamin’s discussion of language and divine creation, he discusses, I think, the idea that things have, originally, no name. Their mute language is a residue of the divine word of creation. According to this reading of Benjamin, it is with the Fall that language loses this immanence, this magic quality and starts referring to abstractions, to outside sources, to broad constructs of knowledge and culture. The book, for a while, until the two last chapters, reverses this process, stripping its story of the reliance on words and constructs. The mountain men, for example, describe themselves as “Ewoks,” and their marriage dance is maybe related to pagan rites, maybe to Dragonball Z (I admit that was my gut association because I am philistine trash, but, you know, why not). This relationship to language and signification seems to be an essential part of the book, and if we assume its centrality, then we immediately connect it to the overwhelming masculinity of it all. The book abounds in small chubby penises, and all the processes of procreation are specifically framed as bypassing the female element. Despite the book’s buoyant joy in using visual references to all kinds of pagan and neopagan takes on rites and liminal spaces, it does not appear to refer at all to the bible of neo-pagan nuttery, Robert Graves’ immensely readable book of questionable scholarship, The White Goddess. Graves’ story of the maiden-mother-crone, the universal Goddess, is completely subverted by Karlsson, whose book features a brown God of the woods, who looks as if he had been created from mountain men beard hair.

troll king mushroomThis odd masculinity of myth can, I suspect, be read as a commentary on feminist theorists like the extraordinary Helene Cixous and concepts like the phallogocentrism. Given how central the binary is to Cixous, Derrida and other critics of phallogocentric thinking, it’s interesting that The Troll King has removed all womanhood from its text, in full embrace of phallocentrism, even as indeterminacy increases. Of course, the slanted take on procreation always implicitly engages discourses of feminity, and the way the book’s ending fits neatly into the canon of Western narratives also shows up the indeterminacies in the book’s middle as mere skirmishes with signification. But if we look at the way myth is masculinized here, we can ask more questions of the text. One is the connection of nations with its folklore. Surely, myth and similar narratives are among the most important stories that hold together the ‘imaginary communities’ of nations, as Benedict Anderson called them. And just last week I read a really good book on how masculinity shapes nationalist discourses and debates, Charlotte Hooper’s Manly States. The point here is that this book, which is set in a vaguely Western/Northern wood, with high rises merely shown in a few panels, should, I think, be read in the context of modern Swedish national anxieties. I cannot possibly do that, my knowledge of Swedish culture is meagre at best, but I have some pointers. One is the reflection of this topic in Hans Henny Jahnn’s immortal masterpiece Fluss Ohne Ufer, the largest portion of which is dedicated to two German men who move to the Swedish countryside to escape modernity. The other is something that turns up in two and a half panels, but is extremely specific – and both racist and possibly misogynist. These panels describe the mountain men going to town to buy groceries. In order to hide their strange exterior, they wear burkas. Black embroidered burkas. What’s more, the panels that show us the burkas are panels of their return to the wild: depicted are two humans in burkas, carrying a plethora of full plastic bags of the Swedish ICA supermarket chain. That image, of women in burkas carrying plastic bags of groceries is one that is exploited by various caricaturists. The humor here is based both on racist and misogynist assumptions.

burka

Burkas

These two panels are instantly distasteful and repugnant, particularly since they are clearly supposed to be humorous, but there is nothing else in the book that directly takes up this line of discourse – except for the book’s take on myth and masculinity as I suggested before. It is quite impressive to what extent the book ties up all its concerns like that. It makes me dislike Karlsson as a person, but the artistic power behind this book is undeniable and the focus and density of it all is exceptional.

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Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat

Hiraide, Takashi (2014), The Guest Cat, Picador
[Translated by Eric Selland]
ISBN 978-1-4472-7940-2

guest cat coverFor my birthday a year and a half ago, my sister brought me a cat, as, I suspect, a therapy animal/companion. I love cats, and my sister was right to suspect that my cat would keep the specter of suicide mostly away from my door. This year, she bought me a bunch of books, some of them cat themed. I’m saying this to explain that I have an obvious affinity to cats. My family has always had a cat and I genuinely missed having one around. I love cats. So when I come across a book that speaks to its author’s deep appreciation of feline companions, I’m already halfway convinced of the book’s quality. By cat-themed books I mean books about people who have cats. There are obviously also books about cats, written from a cat’s perspective, a genre that has some important forebears. I (badly) reviewed one of them here, ETA Hoffman”s Tomcat Murr. Many entries in this genre, somehow, have turned to the genre of the mystery novel, from Rita Mae Brown’s post-Rubyfruit Jungle work to the German novel Felidae (which I advise against buying because its author has turned into a deplorable creature and there’s no point in lining his pockets further. Get it from a library. It’s enjoyable, I think). But none of that here. This is about animals as companions. In these situations, animals often serve as agents of disorder, of emotional or empathetical destabilization of order or just as unreadable creatures beyond the reach of rational analysis. The raven in Charles Dickens’ severely underrated early novel Barnaby Rudge, companion to the simple minded eponymous hero of the novel, serves such a purpose, for example. In a way, its first appearance in Dickens’ novel is a culmination of several figures of incomprehension. That encounter with animals is something that we know from writers all over literary history, in the past century most powerfully expressed by poets like Elizabeth Bishop or James Dickey, but pets have a whole additional significance. More than Bishop’s gentle-but-threatening moose, pets are already connected to a domestic sphere. They are part of the machine of urban structure and architecture. They help us read and sometimes push against needs and asks.

guest cat toskaI say all this because that is exactly, I think, the role played by “Chibi,” the cat from Takashi Hiraide’s novel. Hiraide is a poet and the spare but efficient way the book is structured suggests the assured hand of a writer used to play tennis with a net, to paraphrase Frost. Chibi is a “guest cat” not in a semi-permanent sense, like a cat left behind with a cat sitter or a friend. Chibi is a frequent visitor rather than a guest, really. Her home is in the same neighborhood but she has taken a liking to the protagonists of the novel and spends quite a bit of time at their house. Her movements are not restricted, and her relationship to the protagonists is one largely of autonomy. The book charts the relationship of the protagonists to the cat from its beginnings to the end, telling a story of a middle aged man diverging from what appeared his set path in life to make small but important changes. The whole story is set to the backdrop of the country itself going through changes. Chibi, the curious cat, with her roaming ways, serves, if not as a catalyst, then as a figure of independence and divergence, helping the protagonists make sense of their changing lives. This “cat ownership […] on an ad hoc basis” is written without any tired insights into the mind of a cat. In fact, the cat’s itinerant ways and her unclear attachment to the protagonists allows Hiraide to situate the book between urban stories of pet ownership and the tales of encounters with wildlife, except: there are no epiphanies here. There is half a revelation in the final pages of the book, but it is one of contextualization, of understanding human agency and the restrictions they place on the freedom of animals among us. I have mentioned my limitations with regards to Asian literatures before here and here, but it never feels so acute as here where I’m left to speculate about the literary and cultural reception of Romanticism, particularly of the Wordsworthian kind, in Japan. Is the retreat from epiphany a choice by Hiraide, emphasizing the austerity and materialism of the novel, or is this typical of late-20th century literary writing in Japanese?

jito itoThe only non-fairy-tale book I have on my shelf to compare is a brief manga by Junji Ito. Now, if you are a reader of this blog, you may recognize the name from some intense praise I offered for his work a while ago. Junji Ito is one of the best and most accomplished writers of horror comics I have ever read. His work may sometimes seem too direct and unsubtle, but for me at least, it has its desired impact of scaring me or at least appearing sufficiently creepy. This comic book, published by Kodansha Comics in a translation by Stephen Paul, as Yon & Mu, is basically a memoir of acquiring cats. Junji Ito offers his usual approach of injecting every frame with some modicum of dread, fueled in this case by his lack of appreciation for cats. So when his wife forces two cats on him, he indulges in sharing the dread they invoke in him. This dread is clearly played for laughs. In a way, the whole book is a kind of deconstruction of Ito’s poetics, with every sweaty forehead and grimacing face showing us how much the effect of his more serious books depends on audience collaboration. At the same time, some of the ‘serious’ dread carries over, emphasizing an incipient metaphysical dimension to the story and cat ownership in general. The book may seem loose, but if we look close, it ticks a lot of boxes relevant to the genre. We get a kind of vision, but they do not carry the weight either of classical or of modern epiphanies, so, as a way to gauge a cultural environment for an understanding of Takashi Hiraide’s novel(la), it’s not greatly of help. Let me, however, recommend the book, and, while I’m recommending cat related comics, let me additionally recommend the adorable manga Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata, published by Vertical in a translation by Ed Chavez. It is written to reflect the pet’s perspective, so it doesn’t fit my thoughts on The Guest Cat, but it is just the most adorable comic you’ll read in a long time. Ah, and for a final recommendation to close out this paragraph, you should read Grant Morrison’s comic We3, a contemporary take on Richard Adams’ classic 1970s novel The Plague Dogs. Morrison mimicks many of the conventions of animal-perspective storytelling, but undercuts them by exploring questions of speech and technology, autonomy and language. It’s a story of three pets fleeing the laboratory that planned on turning them into cyborg killing machines. Donna Haraway’s work has surely contributed to Morrison’s thinking here.

window kitteh

Technology, interestingly, plays no role in The Guest Cat despite its setting in the 1980s. In fact, the book is set precisely at the end of the Showa period, which ended with the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. Human artifacts here are more of the wood and concrete kind. The book begins with the protagonists, a married couple, moving into a house. Hiraide spends an enormous amount of time explaining to his readers the exact layout of the neighborhood, how the house, which is itself a kind of guest house, relates not just to the lerger mansion on the same grounds but also to the neighboring houses and the street. The relationship between all these places, these narrowly defined small territories is almost geometrically exact – in fact, due to the odd angling of the house vis-à-vis the street, a trick of the light sends the image of approaching passengers through a knothole in a perfectly positioned tree onto a wall in the protagonists’ house. This sense of proportions and of the interaction of light an architecture is reminiscent both of the work of Gaston Bachelard and, particularly, Junichiro Tanizaki’s brief essay In Praise of Shadows, In it, the famous (and excellent) novelist describes the role of darkness and light in aesthetics, but he particularly discusses effects of shadow and reflection in architecture. One of his observations, of light reflecting an image onto a wall, off some gold leaves in a decoration, comes remarkably close to the appreciation of light in Hiraide’s novel(la). It’s interesting that The Guest Cat would be interested in light and its effects on rooms, and Tanizaki interested in darkness and shadows, particularly, because both books have a sense of the nostalgic about them. Tanizaki ends his essay with a lament on the advent of electrical light and the resultant omnipresence of light, whereas Hiraide constructs the strangest little simple abode that appears almost like an ancient object to which modern humans brought stoves and computers and the like.

we3 chis homeAfter about 1,500 words of talk, I am not sure I conveyed to you that, with all this, The Guest Cat is a very good book. It sidesteps easy sentimentalism without losing emotional resonance. It creates multiple layers of significance by superimposing people and events on certain roles and things. One example is the way the author blends the Emperor’s death with the much smaller death of his landlord. The writing is not always disciplined, sometimes the author indulges in speculations about the cat’s presence in their lives that drag on for a bit. Like many men, the author likes to hear himself talk and he cannot always control the detrimental effects this has. This isn’t helped by the patchy language that sometimes slips awkwardly between registers, something that I tend to lay at the feet of the translator. Yet all of this is nitpicking. The writing is usually elegant, and the author modulates the architecture of his novel very well. While the aforementioned memoir by Junji Ito is exclusively of interest to people who love/have cats, The Guest Cat does not rely on shared affinities. It is a very nice book. It never attempts to go beyond its small confines of offering a small episode in the life of a writer, despite its reach into the larger fabric of the historical moment. Like a poem, then, say, one of Mary Oliver’s small ones or, more accurately, the luminous work of Wisława Szymborska, who populated several of her poems with cats, declaring once that “D[ying]—you can’t do that to a cat.” Hiraide does not have Szymborska’s precision, but that would be a tall order anyway. Yet with her, he shares a sense of how cats interact with spaces, with things and routines, how cats resist – and attach themselves to their human companions. It is something that rings very true to me, which returns us to the bias I admitted to in the first sentences of this review.

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lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for

lê thi diem thúy (2003), The gangster we are all looking for, Anchor
ISBN 978-0-375-70002-6

gangster 1Much like the last book I reviewed here, I somehow ended up reading this book by accident, but I don’t regret it – lê thi diem thúy’s debut novel is a very good book. Among the shorter books I recently reviewed, it doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Herrera’s novel, but apart from smaller issues of style and pacing here and there, it’s hard to find flaws with it. As the book progresses, it picks up pace, power and emotional resonance. It takes no formal or stylistic risks, there is no complicated mythical or metafictional conceit, but for a traditional narrative of immigration, it is exceptionally well done, and what’s more, lê has developed a very recognizable, very vivid voice right out of the gate that is not reliant on tricks, but on a solid control of language. Her observations and the images she chooses to use are usually on point – sharp, meaningful, insightful. The book’s broader range is chronological but the narrator keeps moving backwards to illuminate other episodes from her childhood, finally to reach all the way back to her earliest childhood in Vietnam. Dreams are incorporated into the narrative not as exotic or fancy artifacts but as parts of reality, equally as important to understanding the protagonist’s life as the wide awake observations of life as a Vietnamese refugee in San Diego. It is pleasant to read a novel that is both so solidly crafted, so well written and so emotionally resonant as this one. It’s what one hopes would emerge from the MFA author mills instead of the cheesy formulaic pap that usually ends up on our shelves. If you teach writing and structure to someone, a novel like The gangster we are all looking for is surely the desired result. lê conveys the cultural barriers that open up for refugees without hokeyness, she tells us of loss and family ties in a language that is both taut and expansive. Sure, the novel could have been a bit tighter, but I suspect that my quibbles with it stem from the joy I had of reading it. The gangster we are all looking for is an exceptional book that I immediately reread – and it somehow gets better the second time around. So if you are up for a lovely, conventional but exceptionally well done little book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience, do read this book.

The book follows its protagonist, a six year old girl, who lands with her father and four other Vietnamese men (she calls them the four uncles) in California, after an arduous flight that led them to the US via Singapore (look up Boat People if you want to know more). Her mother stayed behind, but would join them later. For the majority of the book the mother is present and significant. The book is broadly structured chronologically, with the first page essentially describing the landing of the six year old girl, and the last chapter structured around her return visit to Vietnam 20 years later. Between these basic elements, the book moves back and forth, withholding certain elements only to fill them in later. The management of time feels fluid and expertly done, the effect is of a mosaic of memory without losing readability or fluidity. I’m not surprised to read that the novel is, among other texts, based on a performance piece of the author’s, because that explains the taut cohesiveness of the whole book despite all the small episodes and the changes back and forth in time. An audience can’t just go back a few pages to figure out something confusing, it needs to make sense as a flow of story, in the moment. And that’s certainly true here. This fluid mosaic technique is not associative. Instead, lê uses hard cuts, having structured her book through paragraphs and chapters, which makes the easy cohesiveness (unlike, say, Jirgl’s excellent but less easy to read mosaic novel Die Stille, with each chapter/paragraph dedicated to a photograph) even more impressive. Another example of the author’s smooth handling of her material is the way the book is both clearly narrated by the adult who remembers the early days of her life, and yet in many childhood vignettes, we are offered the child’s sense of wonder and -sometimes- her obstinacy and strangeness, unmodulated, uncommented. We never feel, I don’t think, a real contrast between the way the childhood scenes are narrated and the way the adult fills in other portions of the narration (including occasional sections where other people’s thoughts are imagined). It’s all just – and I’m sorry to repeat myself here – extraordinarily well handled, so that the book’s surface is always smooth (but never slick).

Another interesting aspect is the way the novel handles immigration or migration. We don’t really see the process of fleeing a country and entering another, apart from the occasional memory. The book begins exactly at the moment of landing: “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore.” The author very rarely explains things and customs to us, so most of the time, our knowledge does not vastly outstrip the child’s – or rather, our horizons are similar. So of the process of immigration, the signing of forms and the learning of language, finding jobs etc., none of this really turns up in the book. Instead, migration is presented as a negotiation of living spaces. The child, her father and the “uncles” first live in a wealthy benefactor’s house and later, she lives with her father and mother in several different houses and apartments. Houses, according to Gaston Bachelard, “would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being” and they give us “illusions of stability.” It is that latter phrase that I find particularly interesting, in the light of some things I’ve been reading recently, but let’s start with the first phrase, because it describes part of the author’s method. The book very diligently takes upon itself to describe to us the different houses, especially in the early stages. While the child’s personality is being formed, our attention is being directed to the spaces wherein the transformation takes place. And transformation is the exactly right word. The author even suggests it to us in one of the book’s strangest and most intriguing sections: having found a butterfly trapped in amber, covered in glass, the child protagonist becomes convinced she can hear the butterfly’s wings, she can hear it talk and becomes increasingly interested in freeing the butterfly, which culminates in a minor disaster, and a borderline unhinged dialogue. The butterfly is an obvious reference to transformation, but the child’s truculent obsession with hearing its wings through the amber and the glass leads us to something else: the book’s dissatisfaction with the structures and houses that it builds up.

gangster 2“Illusion of stability,” indeed. Water moves through the novel in all kinds of places, doors are literally un-hinged, and family traditions and structures are reduced to symbolic acts, and unstable symbolic acts at that. Usually, immigrant narratives are about finding a place, a space, inscribing an identity onto the crowded slate of a national identity. Settling. Take another book I reviewed last year, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. Most of the book’s post-migration narrative takes place in the same house, and while physical and mental illness destabilizes that new home, the ultimate result is one of growing roots and becoming almost too happy. Even immigration narratives that don’t end in success are basically negotiations of the same paradigm, just with a different outcome. In the case of this novel, however, lê cleverly combines two different movements. There’s the movement from house to house, trying to find, as they say with rescued pets, a “forever home.” That this search is unstable, with lovers from the old country, alcoholism, violence, poverty and desperation all helping to destabilize it, does not make this search any less goal-oriented. At the same time, the protagonist slowly but surely extricates herself from this process. This is no leaving the nest and growing one’s own home, the way Sharma’s protagonist did. This is just a dissatisfaction with this structure. It reminded me of Deleuze’s correction of Foucault in which he suggested that society is not just strictly structured through power, but instead through “lines of flight.” For Deleuze, it is desire that oozes out of structures, that opens up narratives of power, and lê’s protagonist’s path through the book charts that slow undoing of stability. As with the butterfly, sometimes lê rigs her book to make this process extra clear. For example, in an abandoned house, where the neighborhood children play, they put up a big carton box, just large enough for two kids to fit inside. They added a curtain to it and then they named it “The Other Room” and then just “The Box.” So I’m sure the box was meant for shenanigans to begin with, but we are not shown that. We are however shown the moments the protagonist spends in the box with a boy, moments we follow in extraordinary detail. The box itself is an attempt to provide additional stability to a stable but disintegrating environment, and what do we find inside? The discovery of desire.

But the Deleuze idea that I have been most preoccupied with these days is the idea of cartography. It’s primarily of interest to me with regard to Lowell’s and Bishop’s poetry, but the way lê structures the journey through houses can, I think, be excellently described using Deleuze’s concept of looking at journeys through maps as trajectories, journeys through different milieus with their own subjectivities and their own negotiation of territoriality. Those trajectories “merge […] with the subjectivity of the milieu itself.” If we follow Deleuze and look at the sturdy, seemingly immovable object of memory and the narrative of origin as “displacements” instead, it encourages us to see narratives of becoming, as the one that lê’s protagonist undergoes as a challenge to thresholds and simple identities. The book doesn’t end with an identity arrived at or confirmed, it ends in an absolute image of fluidity and open possibility. The narrator’s becoming-woman is inverted against the certainty of place and context. As a narrative strategy, it strikes me as unusual in immigration narratives. Take Sunjeev Sahota’s booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, which starts in a similar environment, of adult immigrant men living together, negotiating their new space. But Sahota’s very good novel is primarily interested in looking at one milieu and a process of becoming that is determined by a very narrow set of thresholds and enclosures. The gangster we are all looking for is about a protagonist attempting to escape into indeterminacy. It’s quite a feat that the author manages to do all this and yet stay consistently readable. Ultimately, it’s this conventional smoothness that keeps this from reaching quite the heights that it could reach, but, you know, it’s really good, after all.

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Akimitsu Takagi: The Informer

Takagi, Akimitsu (1999 [1965]), The Informer, Soho Press
]Trans. Sadako Mizuguchi]
ISBN 1-56947-243-2

takagiWhen I started this book I was not aware that The Informer is a very traditional crime novel. I somehow ended up reading it on a recommendation and not until about halfway through the novel did I notice what I was reading. That’s not just because I am slow of mind: the book’s devotion to the genre of the mystery novel doesn’t really surface until about halfway through. The first half of the novel could be part of all kinds of books; there is a distinct sense of gears being shifted after a crucial part of the plot is reached. Another thing I didn’t know until I typed in the bibliographic info on the top right of this review is the age of the book. 1965 was a long time ago, and usually, crime novels which are this old tend to be pretty obviously old. When I reviewed Ed McBain’s 1956 novel Cop Hater, its age was part of the reason this book was maybe less impressive for me than for its readers back in the 1950s. Slang, references and badly aged forensic methodology all dragged on the book. This is not the case here, and I suspect that it is the Japanese culture and my lack of in-depth knowledge of history and culture of post-war Japan that made me overlook the book’s true age. Another factor may be the fact that the book’s allegiance, despite its contemporary setting, is not to modern police procedurals but to the classic detective novel, in particular to the Father Brown stories of GK Chesterton. There is a real police investigation, a noir web of intrigue, sex, murder and desperation – but the basic beats of the novel don’t depend on any of that. Ultimately, this is what makes the book, despite its very slow beginning, such a satisfying read, if you like this sort of thing. Takagi is very transparently not interested in murder or the way we discover the identity of murderers, but in ideas of love and loyalty, of guilt and, Chesterton’s primary theme, of deception and faith.

I will admit: as a reader who lacks the necessary background, many of the topical references that the book’s first half leans so heavily on, are completely lost to me. There is a weight, a historical and moral weight, accorded to the way economical concerns invade the moral fiber of Japanese society. The first half of the book introduces the protagonist, who, after a momentous stock crash, has lost everything and is now working a small job for a small salary, barely making do. The description of the greed of brokers that precipitated this crash should be eerily familiar to anyone who has followed the debates and explanations of our own stock crash about a decade ago. And then, as now, failure and disaster does not cure people of greed, and it doesn’t take very long for our protagonist, whose voice is full of self pity, and extremely hard to bear, to get ensnared in another scheme, this time he’s trying to do some industrial espionage (with risky brokering on the side). This whole plot develops very slowly, with additional lanes opened for a few tense sexual encounters. Our protagonist, despite not being necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer and monumentally unsuccessful as a business man, has a surprising talent with making women fall in love with him, but as the plot thickens, it starts to look as if he’s juggling too many balls at the same time until a murder makes his life crumble all around him. This is basically the first half of the novel which we experience exclusively from the protagonist’s point of view and it could have been part of a novel of Japanese society, of the Franzen/Trollope variety, or it could have led into a very dark noir kind of novel. Instead, as a police inspector and two prosecutors enter the fray, the novel suddenly splinters into a multitude of voices and points of view, and, very quickly, we find ourselves in a very classic detective novel, interrupted only by the occasional chapters from the protagonist’s point of view which offer some continuity with the first half.

It may not be clear from my dubious skills of describing novels, but the second half of the book is much better, much more enjoyable than the first half. The undertaking of mirroring the developments in postwar Japanese society and the devastation these developments have wrought in the soul of one hapless, greedy Japanese man takes genuine literary skill – a skill the author does not, I think, possess, although the spotty translation, which sometimes reaches for strange locutions and idioms, certainly does not help matters. There are a few extraordinary observations, the most intriguing one involving the way selling massaging tools can help a stock broker get the inside track on a company’s financial health. The picture painted is of a whole set of defeated, tired managers, overwhelmed by the financial crisis, whose wish for comfort is a sign of having given up on success. In this one observation, Takagi manages both to sum up the joyless business landscape after a period of financial devastation – and also offer a remarkably uncritical condemnation of what his character calls “laziness.” Success in business and a longing for comfort do not fit. You have to choose one or the other, which is a pretty harsh assessment, all things considered. Mostly, however, the book’s topical criticism does not make for exciting reading. By contrast, the book’s taut handling of the murder intrigue, with its twists and turns, hiding and exposing just the right amount of information, is truly well done. As readers, we follow the author wherever he leads us, and even if we guess the final reveal fairly early, this does not make the book any less suspenseful. It took me a long time to get through the first half of the novel, with its tedious descriptions and its exploration of the uneventful inner life of a man who doesn’t have much of an inner life, while I just flew through the book’s second half. Moreover, for having such a dull male protagonist, the book’s second half offers us a broad range of female characters, who are either smarter, or more compassionate, more moral or more clever than many of the book’s male characters.

The book’s concern with femininity, and its contradictory treatment of its women is, finally, another reason to give it a whirl. Early in the novel, a character says “I don’t know if it’s good or wicked of me, acting like this. If we were in some other country, it probably wouldn’t look so bad, but here in Japan it must seem terrible, especially to older people. Poor me – I might yet be labeled a bad woman….” The wicked thing she does it be more active, lively, act out her thoughts, push people to do a thing she believes is right. Another character similarly knows that society judges her for sleeping with a man before marriage, living alone. And a third character is driven to suicide by a situation that wouldn’t be as oppressive if social pressure wasn’t as high. That death is a double edged sword, however. It is never quite clear whether the novel approves of the free thinking some of its female characters exhibit. Some characters are undercut in hindsight, some are killed, as of to punish them, some are just miserable. The most consistent moral throughline of the book still leads through its male characters, and all final insights and beneficial actions are undertaken by men, as well. And yet, the social situation of a generation that is not entirely pre/mid-war and not entirely post-war (“Your generation […] doesn’t belong anywhere.” a character explains) is mirrored in the author’s own inconclusive way of seeing female freedoms and male traditions. The novel appears to be critical of a certain brand of free thinking, but at the same time, it displays an awareness for the profoundly unfair way, for example, marriage, love and sex plays out for men and women. Women are practically sold into marriages whereas men have close to absolute freedom.

You’ll notice that I have, in discussing the social criticism, barely mentioned the Japanese setting. In part, this is because, as I noted earlier, I am profoundly ignorant of it. But I could have connected some of it to books I already reviewed like Ayako. However, the social conservatism of it doesn’t strike me as any different from the social conservatism of, say, American or German novels published in the early 1960s, and I am wary of overly exoticizing the novel when it doesn’t really need it. There are aspects to it that strike me as mostly or completely uniquely Japanese, such as the company structure, the deference for hierarchy and age, and some discussions of honor (for example, the protagonist wasn’t fired from his company, he resigned as a matter of honor because he caused too many losses to the company), but none of them are really central for the novel. I keep bringing up Chesterton, without managing to offer evidence without spoiling the book, but for me, this reference settled early in the second half and never really left my brain. Mostly, think, it’s the underlying deception that precipitates all the book’s murder and mayhem. The nature of the deception is, I think, a cruel kind of evil, but it isn’t some vague perversion or, conversely, some metaphysical evil. It’s the awfulness of human beings, the things human beings will do to each other for money or revenge. Chesterton’s Father Brown would look at these deceptions with a kind of sad resignation, clear-eyed, but sad. I think that is how we leave the novel, and its final revelations, as well. Not shocked or thrilled or titillated, but disappointed in the things people do to each other and a bit sad. “Every friendship, however genuine it might seem, must have a shady side to it,” a character says at the end. One wishes, ultimately, that Takagi was a better writer and Mizuguchi was a better translator, but the book’s core is solid and the book succeeds despite everything.

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Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown

Dillon, Glyn (2012), The Nao of Brown, Selfmadehero
ISBN 978-1-906838-42-3

naobrowncoverSo this is some odd coincidence. Fresh on the heels of reviewing a book that is artfully crafted but does not, ultimately, feel like a success, I have just read another book which is both enormously well done and which, on the other hand, feels like an awful failure. Glyn Dillon’s British Comic Award-winning The Nao of Brown is a book about many things but it can’t quite decide on which to focus. It suffers terribly from this lack of focus, from it’s odd characterizations, its god-awful ending and some other things. On the other hand, it’s absolutely spellbinding and beautifully drawn. Dillon, in this book, is an artist who is able to change the tone of a scene with just a tiny adjustment to his characters’ eyebrows. His characters feel fully realized, intense, warm, living, especially the protagonist, a half-Japanese, half-English woman called Nao Brown. Her story is one of paternal abandonment, professional confusion and, most of all, a story of Primarily Obsessional OCD. The racial, social and emotional situation of Nao is complex, and it’s not clear that Dillon is extremely interested or skilled in exploring as fraught a character as Nao. At the same time, he hands her, if we forget the ending, quite a bit of space, letting her spread out over large panels that soak up her expressions. The men around her, in love with her and wary of her at the same time, are somehow both less well realized and sharper in focus. In a book where the main character constantly chides herself on being oblivious, Dillon presents us two supporting characters who are the most obtuse bags of nerd-testosterone you have ever seen, and yet, in a curious attempt to mellow out his book, Dillon lavishes them with understanding and care. All of these situations are difficult to parse and the fault lies in the woefully inadequate writing that, towards the very end of the book, just collapses upon itself and drags even the divine art with it, offering us four dismal pages of badly written text that should have been visually realized. Overall, the book is a real mess, but in being a mess, it also connects back to many other narratives of Asian experience in London, it connects us queerly to other graphic narratives of mental illness and presents an odd sort of cultural imperialism, all at once. You should really read The Nao of Brown, because the art is just so enormously beautiful (and Selfmadehero did such a fine job in creating the book as an object), but be prepared to occasionally squint with frustration at the writing and structure of it all.

If your brain saw the title of this review and started thinking “Dillon, comics, wait, wasn’tkindlyones there something…?” you are on the right path. Glyn Dillon is the younger brother of Steve Dillon, who, as co-creator of the classic comic book series Preacher, should be regarded as a heavyweight in the industry. This year, among other projects, Steve Dillon will be penciling Becky Cloonan’s highly anticipated take on The Punisher. Glyn’s comic book CV, in contrast to his brother’s, is much more sparse. The only book of his that I read prior to The Nao of Brown was an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman all the way back in 1994 (collected in The Kindly Ones). .Most of his work before and after Nao was focused on TV and film. We know from Raymond Williams’ classic study on TV how that medium forces us to adapt our messaging and communication and somehow Glyn Dillon’s book reads like an imprecise hybrid between two traditions of visual storytelling, with the additional tradition of manga, anime and French comics somehow grafted on to the Frankensteinian endeavor. The extraordinary art and the loving way Dillon tells Nao’s story indicates, as does the introduction by Jessica Hynes, that the book had been a labor of love, but I have never read a book that so badly needed an editor and regular discussions with said editor to get the book into some proper shape. The book tells its story on multiple levels, at different speeds. There are multiple ways of summarizing it: Nao Brown, hafu, half-Japanese, half-English, falls in love with a chubby alcoholic mechanic called Gregory Pope who quotes Hesse and has his own demons. Or: Nao Brown, a young aspiring comics professional deals with the difficulties of suffering from OCD and maintaining a functioning private life, until a catastrophe sorts out her priorities. Or: Nao Brown and her Nerd friend Steve Meeks (oh, speaking names, how have we missed you?) have a silent and frustrating love affair, which, in an ambiguous ending, may or may not be resolved following a calamitous incident. Or: Nao Brown, abandoned by her father and suffering from mental illness, parses a modern life in London while constantly negotiating her role vis-à-vis various father figures, and the concept of maternity, until a complex ending gives her answers to her questions. My descriptions may sound clichéd but that is genuinely the level of self-reflection that the narrative employs. It’s made worse by the fact that no non-spoilery description can do justice to the hackneyed way the book deals with what are really two endings. Much like A Clockwork Orange, this book would be better off with its last chapter chopped off.

naobrownpanelAnother thing regarding those descriptions: you may notice that her racial status plays no role in the way the plot plays out and that’s easily one of the most frustrating things, because that’s not at all how the novel starts. One assumes that the author just at some point during writing this 200 page book, somehow lost track of this part of the story and a few others. The novel begins with Nao on a plane back to London after having visited her father. She is in a difficult professional situation, with freelance illustration work sparse, so she gets a job in a “kidult” toy shop full of ‘japanese’ toys and trinkets. This part of the book moves along fast, and is peppered with clear-eyed observations about family, race, culture and imperialism, if not always in those words. Nao starts her story by telling us that she seems to strangers “the exotic other.” She also explains that her mother is “a proper Paddington girl” and that, living in England with her, “it’s funny to think of Dad as the ‘exotic other’.” She displays signs of “double consciousness,” being enormously aware of how she and her heritage appear to others. She is also confident of her identity, using it to cut down an early attempt by Steve Meeks to explain Japanese toys to her. At her first date with Gregory, when he launches into a racially stereotypical speech about Japanese women, she realizes his obtuse and offensive speech, declaring it “really weird…and a bit horrible…” It is very odd that this very statement is practically the last extensive treatment of race in the book. The Nao of Brown isn’t exactly dismissive of race as it is helpless in dealing with it. The mentioned elements show that the author is aware of the issue, as is the fact that Dillon uses the social and racial geography of London cleverly. “British Asian” usually refers to South Asian people, but London also has a sizable Chinese community with its own issues of racism. Japanese communities, by contrast, are usually more well off and smaller. The book is mostly set in the areas of London where most of the small pockets of the Japanese community are situated, but it offers some interesting tweaks on it. Japanese (and Asian culture, generally) is shown to be completely appropriated by the imperialist and capitalist apparatus. A “Buddhist center” is full of English people, with an English teacher, the toy shop is aimed at English people, and so forth. In 1991, Masao Miyoshi famously claimed that the Japanese economy was the first powerhouse economy without any cultural capital. The anime and manga boom of the early 2000s, as well as the elevation of mediocre novelists like Murakami to literary superstar status, has changed that, but recent developments suggest an American or generally Western-led process of appropriation of these Japanese cultural products, limiting the impact of Japanese culture to its distorted reflection by imperialist media structures. The first third of the novel, using real and invented Japanese products, hammers home this point, culminating in the scene with Gregory that I just mentioned, where he, Hesse-reading idiot, genuinely regards Hello Kitty as a fair representation of Japanese women.

binkybrownNao also fills us in on the fact that she is “a fucking mental case.” and in a series of well paced vignettes, we quickly learn, though more by inference than by explicit comments, that the illness is Primarily Obsessional OCD. She, like most sufferers of OCD is enormously self aware of herself, and suffers from shame regarding her condition. This quality of OCD is hauntingly similar to ideas of “double consciousness,” without wanting to pathologize racial tensions. The book never clinically describes or explains Nao’s illness, but it does an interesting trick to sidestep that: despite Nao’s apparent lack of a therapist, she manages her outbreaks with the help of dialectical behavior therapy methods, including a form of ERP that may not be something real sufferers of OCD would use. The point in the novel is not accuracy, however, but verisimilitude. Dillon wants us to understand how it works and so he has his protagonist use therapeutic methods that externalize a very internalized illness. The result is that it looks like ‘real’ OCD for lay readers of the book, used to media depictions of fussy OCD people like TV’s Monk. It’s an interesting tactic. In my limited experience of reading graphic novels, they have a fascinating relationship with Foucault’s theory of the History of Madness. Books like Nate Powell’s sublime take on schizophrenia, Swallow Me Whole, or David B.’s masterful Epileptic, or more recent, web-published comics on depression, offer both a disquisition on the modern clinic, as well as the pre-modern tableau of madness that Foucault found in Pieter Bruegel’s work. Many of those books are autobiographical, but not confessional (using here Susannah Radstone’s distinction here), with a few confessional books marking specific cultural moments, most famously, Justin Green’s classic Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary, a book, like Dillon’s, concerned with Primarily Obsessional OCD. The Nao of Brown is neither testimonial nor confessional – it’s not autobiographical at all, which may explain the shifting of priorities as the book progresses. There is no urgency behind its story, and no consistent discursive interests. Towards the last third of the book it is the stale romance that primarily occupies the book’s interest. This is not because it’s fiction, this is because Dillon’s a very mediocre writer. But a work of autobiography would not likely have dropped those elements, even if it was similarly bad in execution.

naobroannocoverBinky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary is actually directly mentioned by the book itself but this reference to Binky Brown sits oddly athwart the book’s issues and problems. Apart from sexual and religious guilt, the book also narrates an interesting racial situation, of the half-Jewish boy who goes to a Catholic school and feels guilty about both communities, like a dark, sexual and secular version of the epiphanies from Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. And Binky Brown is situated pretty precisely in a time and place. All these things suggest questions to ask of Glyn Dillon’s book. How does place work? How does he deal with racial tension? What’s the role of pathologized guilt? Most crucially: what does it say about masculinity? And not only does Dillon answer almost none of those questions despite a beginning that appeared to address all of them (talk about bait-and-switch), it is the last two that I found resolved in the most strange way. See, the book is aware that its male characters are idiots. A moment of mental stress by Nao is countered by Gregory in the most insensitive and ignorant possible way. In no way sensitive to her struggles he demands a rational explanation before he allows himself to help her. Her friend and employer, Steve Meeks, clearly smitten with her, employs the dubious tactics of passive aggressive Nerd courtship. None of this is inferred by me: the book states it plainly and clearly. There is no doubt the book knows that its men mistreat its female protagonist at every turn. Talking over her, talking down to her, not helping her with her illness; in fact, sometimes they themselves create situations for her illness to flare up. And yet, we find no trace of guilt, none of the vulnerable masculinity that was so central to the confessional moment in literature. In fact, the book, in its muddled and awful ending finds excuses and explanations for their behavior. Gregory is the only one who gets to explain himself in writing. The book oddly resembles few texts as much as the British male popculture novels by Nick Hornby and other ‘lads’ of his generation. We get quirky pop culture references, and namedrops of bands like The Fall. The longer the book continues, the less it is interested in Nao’s point of view. Nothing shows this change as starkly as the fact that the book begins with Nao’s words of self-explanation and ends with Gregory’s dire Hesse-influenced waffle, no longer an object of criticism by the book. It begins with the picture of a little girl, and it ends with one of a little boy. This change, much of it happening in the book’s last third, is not announced earlier, it feels like the author just, upon writing, found a character he liked more than the protagonist he started out with. For the reader, this is utterly frustrating and even infuriating. There is a great book somewhere in The Nao of Brown, but Dillon does not have the skills of writing and drawing 200 pages of it with a consistent level of concentration. As it is, the book is still good, because, despite all the frustration, it has an excellent first third, and the art is extraordinary throughout.

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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.)

Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night

Haruf, Kent (2015), Our Souls at Night, Knopf
ISBN 978-1-101-87589-6

418qIjdmtWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have not read any reviews of Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls At Night but I suspect that whatever books I can pull as reference and context for it might not be appropriate. I do know that the book has drawn quite a bit of praise and that fact alone is a bit puzzling to me. Well. I will accept: it is competently done. The quiet and orderly style has been perfected to the point of it becoming an object in and of itself in the novel. I can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into writing, balancing and structuring the novel, but as I read it, I was not able to shake the feeling that what I was seeing was a too-large short story, a book that might, in the hands of Carver, Gallant or Salter turned into a sharp tale of an unusual relationship, of age and love. Too suburban and content for Richard Ford, the material could have suited Cheever’s suburban pen, too. In fact, I spent some time today browsing his collected stories, because something in the back of my head nagged me to do it, but no success. It lacks the pull, the tension between dialogue and description that a well-executed short story can provide, but it doesn’t fill up the additional space well. The style and the repetitive, overindulgent nature of the way the story is told is a bit like one of those apartments that were en vogue in the early 2000s. Big spacious lofts with nothing to fill them. Really, come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like Our Souls At Night – a book that is clearly literary, clearly well-written and carefully built. And yet it is very emphatically not a good book. A big structure – not an empty room because the story is genuinely lovely, but a room too big and angular and impersonal for the small burst of life that’s inside. There is really no reason to read or recommend this book. No matter what your preferences are in fiction, or what element of this book could conceivably appeal to you, there are numerous superior options. Anyone attracted by summaries of this book is much better served with short stories by any of the authors I named in this paragraph, as are people looking for a story of aging love. Other writers who cover similar territory in much superior fashion include John Updike, Philip Roth, late-period Grace Paley. It’s really hard not to find a writer of genteel suburbia who hasn’t written a book or story that blows Our Souls At Night out of the water. And it’s the most frustrating thing because Kent Haruf is clearly a good, extremely competent writer with total stylistic control, and his take on loneliness and the darkness of life is often powerful. So let me return to the beginning of this paragraph and add this to my critique: this just may not be for me.

The major draw of the book is not the story, it’s the writing. This may be surprising given that Haruf is a writer known for his “simple” style and not a Hemingwayesque simplicity at that. And yet, this style is quite something. There are no shadings to tone, no ambiguous phrases, vibrating with the unsaid. Everything appears to have been said just as intended. The writing is plain, but not flat. It’s not musical, but it’s also not dull. It’s a deeply functional simplicity that creates a space for the story to unfold. I gather some of Haruf’s other books are novels of space, of Midwestern landscapes and I am mildly curious about the way a writer like this would tackle it, because in Our Souls At Night, we are not offered a fullness of description as far as the environments and backgrounds are concerned. The language is all the space and room we get. There is a scene somewhere in the middle, when a dog is acquired, and a boy is asked to show it around the house. “I’ve never been in the other rooms myself,” the boy says and we might expect some kind of description of the house to happen, but it never comes. It is enough that we know it is a house. The rest is language and in it, much of the prose is dialogue, but it lacks the musicality and sharpness of real dialogue (Gaddis’ JR is my touchstone for creating a book built out of that) or the madness of dialogue in books like Nicola Barker’s underappreciated The Yips. At the same time, it also does not have the weight and accuracy of Beckett or Bernhard. In a way, the dialogue adds a second layer of description, joining the quality of the novel’s style. All of this adds up to an extraordinary stiffness. Scenes don’t move. As in a theatre, it takes the falling curtain of a chapter ending for the action to change place or direction. Some heartbreaking decisions are made, but they are made in between chapters and the chapter following the decision then plays out a scene where we try and come to terms with the situation. The sentences, fittingly, are short and declarative. Only when there is a small amount of movement, when someone enters a scene, or when a scene, rarely, requires a trip somewhere, the syntax unfurls. It’s quite impressive how disciplined Haruf deploys his writing, from the short, declarative base sentence to the longer, moving sentence of action. The book’s predilection for short sentences also has an odd effect on its dialogue. As I said, it’s not a dialogue possessed of a snappy rhythm. In fact, much of it feels like testimony, of one person testifying and the other acting as interlocutor. This effect is strongest in the chapters where the characters discuss their past, but they recur throughout. The result is a strong affirmation of the overall impression of stasis.

The story is the one of a short and unusual relationship between two widowed older citizens, living in a small town. They come together to fight loneliness. It is not about sex, although in later stages, that element enters their relationship. It is about the darkness of night that is so difficult to overcome for one person alone. In fact, in a more stressful period of their relationship, Haruf describes their insistence on the now-established patterns of their nights together like this: “They still held each other in the night when he did come over but it was more out of habit and desolation and anticipated loneliness and disheartenment[.]” Their relationship is an attempt to slowly, sneakily, do something new, something that makes them the talk of the town and something that doesn’t sit well with their adult children. Indeed, the whole writing and structure of the novel resists the mere idea of doing something new. Stasis and continuity is written into the very bones of the book. You can find it in all kinds of details. For example, in the memories. Twice, the man tells the woman a story from his life. First, he tells her of an old affair he had, and then he tells her of his love for poetry. Both times, the woman quietly listens to what he has to say and then suggests that maybe both passions may be ongoing. Not the affair or the writing and reading of poetry, but the love that powered both. “I think you still love her,” she says. Their children, similarly, are ties connecting them to their old past, as they are representative of their past relationships. Small town gossip serves a similar function. Both are known around town, known for their past, known for who they are. Striking up this new rleationship/friendship violates these old ideas and is, thus, shocking, without having to actually provide sensational content. Everything, really, is set up to promote stasis, and the only thing that pushes both of them to try and make it work despite everything is the terror of a night spent awake, alone, with no-one to talk to, no-one to hold, no-one to grab when the nights are rough. Haruf reinforces this contrast, between the stasis and the night as a force that pushes the new, by introducing the woman’s grandson, who, by dint of belonging to her ‘old’ family, first seems to drive the two apart, but it is his literal terror of the night, his night terrors, that send him crying to this unusual couple who, together, find a way to relieve the boy’s nighttime affliction.

Ultimately, the big empty rooms of the story reflect the echoing feelings of loneliness, of emotional need (or neediness). Really, any stylistic aspect of the novel appears to serve a function within the symbolic or emotional structure of the narrative. It is quite the impressive achievement, but a dull sentence is still a dull sentence when it serves to illustrate dullness. There is so much redundancy in the novel which, like a middle aged man, has gotten a bit flabby around the middle. The beginning is sharp and raises all the themes of the novel with precision and urgency. The ending, meanwhile, is much more dense with emotion. The way the book ends is with a few effective and emotionally striking brushstrokes that any reader would recognize from a certain kind of American short story. Even after rereading the book, I still fail to understand why this story had to be of novel-length. Nothing in it justifies its size. And all the dullness of certain parts is only striking because of the amount of time we as readers spend cooped up with that style. If you want a reason to read this book, read it for the devastation of loneliness and the way a deep need for companionship arises from that. There are many fancy ways to phrase love or affection, but what Haruf offers, in way too many (or too few) pages, is the simple, unadorned horror of being alone at night. It hasn’t often been expressed quite so directly, and with so much stylistic craftsmanship leveraged specifically for that effect and that effect only. And yet, maybe it is just this discipline and care in the way the writing works that makes for such a dull read. It’s a sense of functionality, of stylistic practicality. Haruf wrote this book as he was dying, from the precipice of that final night. A last look back at companionship, at the things between people that endure and the pressures we face. At some point, the man in the story says “[s]o life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected, he said.” and it is not a tragic moment. Things we can’t change we accept. The only things weighing us down are guilt, love and loneliness. These three endure.

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Fran Ross: Oreo

Ross, Fran (2015 [1974]), Oreo, New Directions
ISBN 978-0-8112-2322-5

oreo coverLet me apologize in advance if this review is a bit odd, I have not had sleep in quite a while. On the other hand, this likely leads to a shorter review. That said, I hope I’ll still manage to convey to you that Oreo, Fran Ross’ first and only novel, is an absolute masterpiece. A book that should rank among the classics of 20th century American fiction and it’s regrettable that it does not. Originally published in 1974, it appears to have sunk like a stone in the waters of literary attention. In 2000 it was republished by Northeastern University Press (by the way: the series “Northeastern Library of Black Literature,” published by Northeastern University Press, cannot be praised highly enough for bringing excellent and unusual books back into print that have not fared well upon the sea of canonicity. I want to point particularly to their reprints of George Schuyler’s strange and important oeuvre), and then again in 2015 by New Directions, which is the edition that I finally encountered the book. Oreo is a book that feeds off several traditions, and cannot be easily labeled, which may have contributed to its lack of canonical durability. Written at the height of afrocentric literature (and a contemporary of Alex Haley’s Roots), the book rejects the expectations that come with a first novel by a black author. Her book borrows from a Jewish tradition as well as a black one, and it comments on misogyny as well as racism. It is kin to the behemoths of ludic postmodernism such as John Barth, of mythical modernism such as Joyce and Eliot and it is related to older books about the African American experience as well, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig comes to mind. But more than books preceding Oreo – it’s a newer generation of writers that best shows the power and fascination of Fran Ross’ only book. Black writers like Zadie Smith (Autograph Man) and Paul Beatty (White Boy Shuffle) (as well as slightly earlier examples like Trey Ellis (Platitudes)) offer us novels about the black experience that break with stereotypes and expectations. If Ross’s novel was published today, it would be seen as primus inter pares, as the first among many equals. Back in 1974, however, the novel’s innovative writing and its rejection of simple identity politics impeded its immediate cultural impact.

oreo renaultThe story of the book is quickly summarized: it is a story that’s both old fashioned family history and quest narrative. Following the myth of Theseus (the reference is made plain both by chapter titles and by the author’s afterword), it offers us Oreo, a girl of mixed heritage: her father, an aspiring actor from a Jewish family, left her mother, Helen, who was a similarly culturally talented woman from a black family. Both Helen as well as Oreo’s father left Oreo, so that the young woman grew up with her black grandmother, Louise, who had never found a dish that she didn’t like. Eventually, Helen informs her daughter, that her father had left her a series of clues that would lead her to discover the secret of her birth. She then embarks on that adventure (which, really, is just a trip to New York), encountering many odd characters. All of this fits, in one way or another, the template from Greek myth, up until the catastrophe, which, at this point, we expect. The early 70s is an interesting time to engage not just greek myths but this one particularly. Fran Ross is not the only writer to tackle the topic. Most well known, at that time, I suppose, is Mary Renault’s two volume take on the Theseus myth, the first of which, The King Must Die, is a steaming, passionate retelling of history. Despite Renault’s stated claim of trying to write a more realistic story, it’s full of magic and odd superstitions, including oracles and witches. The Theseus story and various stories surrounding it, has long been a tale of the advent of a new age, a story of rising masculinity (a crucial part of the story takes place in matriarchal Crete) and a fresh Athenian democracy. Theseus’ is a founding myth and if you want to unsettle expectations regarding narrative and history, it’s a fantastic place to start. A good example of how this era of history/myth is used in literature are André Gide and Christa Wolf. Gide, in the 1946 novel Thésée, emphasizes the masculinity, the epochal power of the story, more than Renault, even. Christa Wolf, writing in 1996, only peripherally touches the story of Theseus. Her focus is Medea (the novel is simply called Medea, published in English by Nan A Talese) and her encounter with Jason (Medea is also part of the Theseus story). Wolf takes on a story with a female villain and reverses it, showing, in her use of sources and narrative, to be a patriarchal treatment of a strong female mythical character. Fran Ross, more than two decades earlier, does something similar, but her literary approach couldn’t be more different.

beatty white boy

An underrated, excellent novel on black male identity in our time.

So now I spent a paragraph vaguely contextualizing the book and another one on its story and connection to myth and I haven’t even mentioned the book’s best quality: its incredibly multifaceted and complex writing. In many ways, I think it’s fair to say that Fran Ross’ novel is primarily about language – about the joy of using it, using it to shape stories and silly games. Oreo is a profoundly funny, endlessly quotable book. It contains charts and tables, a large amount of puns, and references that are equal parts clever and silly. Much of it offers us a plea to read the world the way we want to and not the way cultural signposts and expectations want us to read it. The novel comes as close to explaining this point as you can in a novel without becoming just too obnoxious for your own good. It starts with a fictive Wittgenstein quote as an epigraph (“Burp!” is the quote, used because, as the author remarks, “Anything this profound philosopher ever said bears repeating”). There is a list with clues that will lead the protagonist to a secret she is seeking and early on, she decides to read the clues based on her understanding of reality as she engages with it and not the other way around. In other words, contra genre expectations, Oreo, the protagonist of Oreo, does not interpret the note or map and then collect similarities or clues in the real world around her. Instead, she interprets and engages reality and then decided on which clue to connect to it. The linguistic playfulness moves from small observations to linguistic games that pervade the book. Sometimes she plays with the expected gender of words and names, sometimes with the ambiguity of geographical names, sometimes with the tension between story and cultural narratives interwoven with said story. The whole book is also enormously interested in speech and dialect. Early on, we are told that Oreo’s mother Louise speaks in a thick Philadelphia accent, really, so thick and unusual that people generally have trouble understanding her. The author mostly renders it understandable and, early on, even gives us a metafictional aside:

From time to time, her dialogue will be rendered in ordinary English, which Louise does not speak. To do full justice to her speech would require a ladder of footnotes and glosses, a tic of ostrophes (aphaeresis, hypherisis, apocope) and a Louise-ese/ English dictionary of phonetic spellings. A compromise has been struck. Since Louise can work miracles of compression through syncope, it is only fair that a few such condensations be shared with the reader. However, the substitution of an apostrophe for every dropped g, missing r, and absent t would be tantamount to tic douloureux of movable type. To avoid this, some sentences in Louise-ese have been disguised so that they are indistinguishable from English.

Additionally, there is a completely invented dialect, spoken by Oreo’s little brother, as well as the lilt of various Jewish inflections of American English (without falling into the traps of the goy-authored “jewish novel”, as exposed by Cynthia Ozick’s famous takedown of John Updike’s faux-Jewish Bech: A Book), not to count all the other iterations of nonstandard language. The effect is not only magnetic for the reader, who is immediately drawn into the music and rhythm of the book, it also offers an alternate position between the ribald postmodernism of John Barth, where nonstandard speech is usually on display as odd and humorous, but unconnected to the commitments of the work (such as they are with Barth), and the more straightlaced identiy politics of the afrocentric novel, where nonstandard speech expressed identity and difference. A commitment to a different experience and historiography as we have, so far, seen it in novels. Toni Morrison’s scintillating work is an example of that écriture.

medeaI find it important to stress just how innovative and exciting Fran Ross’s enterprise is in Oreo. In what could be read as a thoughtful encounter with Johan Huizinga’s theory of games an playfulness, Ross is engaged in cultural and political criticism without falling into sincerity and seriousness. She clearly assumes that this topic is best tackled with playful engagement and subversion. Replacements and indirect speech mark much of this book’s language and imagery. In fact, the author foregrounds her method: young Oreo has a teacher of English who is obsessed with etymology and will at times only speak indirectly to his student who keeps hunting for words in dictionaries, but

Oreo became adept at instantaneous translations of the professor’s rhizomorphs. “Mr. Benton is worn out by childbearing. Of course, his paper was an ill-starred bottle. I don’t wonder he threatened to sprinkle himself with sacrificial meal.” “You mean,” said Oreo, “that Benton is effete, his paper was a fiasco, and he wanted to immolate himself.”

A few things come to mind. One that, in keeping with the professor’s method, it’s hard not to see the whole episode as an aside referencing the cultural obsession with “roots” among her fellow black writers (which would, two years later, lead to Haley’s blockbuster success Roots). And two, it offers a template for reading the book as using two levels of language (or multiple levels of anything, really; after all, the Theseus intertext also fits in here). Finally, it stresses the role of the reader in assembling and figuring out all the texts sometimes very disparate elements. In this, there are simililary to the Eliotic “mythical method,” but Ross actively undermines the myth, just as she criticises the present. For a black female novelist, the past, mythical or not, does not offer solace or order. The past is mediated by the same cultural tools of oppression as the present, and Ross resists both. This is a book that declines to be part of any group, no matter how tempting or easy it is to attack oneself to a movement. It’s a novel by a writer with a critical eye that asks its reader to look at words and narratives, to look at them and examine their roots. This exceeds simple swaps, even though Ross replaces the virile Theseus with the female Oreo. The book contains violence, deception, an attempted (though hilariously thwarted) rape, but it coats all of it in extraordinarily humorous language.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

For Huizinga, myth-making is, if I remember correctly, a form of play, and play has the power to change, to move things. In the case of Oreo, the challenge is to question everything. Diderot once wrote that “[i]l existoit un homme naturel: on a introduit au dedans de cet homme un homme artificiel, et il s’est elevé dans la caverge une guerre civile qui dure toute la vie.” In a way, and if we stretch the image a bit, a similar war can be said to take place in mid-20th century postmodernism. There are people who are happy to deal with the artificial human inside, some of them using the “mythical method,” which, according to Eliot, is “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.“ They question authority and narrative, but they don’t have anything to put in its place in terms of commitments. On the other side are those writers, like Morrison, who offer a more earnest version of postmodern critical writing. They replace one historical certainty with another, and frequently succeed at establishing tremendous counternarratives. Oreo (and Oreo) declines both possibilities. It is a playful, funny novel that is at the same time deeply cognizant of narrative and oppression. It’s just that Fran Ross appears to believe that playful interrogation is the best way to deal with it. But as the careers of many writers have shown (say, Delmore Schwartz): resisting the siren call of literary movements by being just o so slightly ahead of your time can lead to a quick exit from the memory of literary history. The aforementioned George Schuyler is another frustrating example of this. Look, look, I don’t know whether I made sense 100%, but if you need a tl,dr, it is this: Oreo is an excellent masterpiece. It should have become a classic and we are all fortunate that New Directions decided to bring it back into wide circulation. Now is the time to make up for earlier neglect. Go forth and read Oreo. It is very good.

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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.)

Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan

Russell, Ray (2015 [1962]), The Case Against Satan, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-31727-9

satan 3In a study of French Romantic poetry, John Porter Houston declared in 1969 that “[Baudelaire’s] diabolical Catholicism is […] a mode of sensibility which neither shocks nor has morbid appeal.” It is odd, then, that the same time period saw a big resurgence of fiction and movies on demons and possession, starting with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and the move version (1968), and continuing with William Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and its 1973 movie adaptation. Other texts include the 1976 classic The Omen and many more. So what is it that Houston felt was so out of place in Baudelaire’s poetry? The answer has to be that Baudelaire’s sense of evil wasn’t as much religious as it was personal. A sense of guilt, anxiety and fear that made Baudelaire into the “essential modern man,” as Verlaine put it. His demons are far from the ghoulish devil that haunts Blatty’s 12 year old girl. As Edward Kaplan said, the “mal” in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal may not mean “evil” as much as it means afflicted, suffering, fallible and people are not evil but “depraved only in potential and thus responsible for their actions.” In The Case Against Satan, Ray Russell’s 1962 classic novel of demonic possession, we are closer to a Baudelairean sensibility than to the Catholic fetish of all the books and movies that followed in its wake, which were offering demons at best as an allegory for human failures and at worst, as in the work of Catholic conservative Blatty, as an ugly form of literal horror. Ray Russell’s book is, despite having a very weak ending, an exceptional effort, a true masterpiece and the best book I have read this year thus far. There are a couple of weaknesses, as far as some aspects of the writing are concerned, and the final chapter is a full disappointment, but along the way, Russell creates an elegant, smart, ambiguous book about the devil and about the evils that we harbor in ourselves as people and among ourselves as a society.

I admit: when I started coveting the book, I knew nothing about it apart from its title and the beautiful cover design by Penguin Classics. The ghoulish fetish of devils and demons that was launched by Levin and Blatty is one of my favorite genres. A ‘guilty pleasure’ as they say. I was completely surprised by the nuanced and careful book that it turned out to be. This is no fresh or agnostic take on the subject, mind you. The very first sentence, not without some levity and irony, remarks that religion has become “a pious bonbon, so nice, so sweet, so soporific” that it has forgotten about the elements of “dread, blood, awe […] and the element of terror.” There is a fairly serious (and riveting to read) theological argument in the middle of the book (where Baudelaire is invoked), and an almost soppy, mildly dubious final chapter that reduces some of the interesting complexities of the novel in favor of “a pious bonbon” of sorts, which feels more like a cheap narrative solution rather than a statement of faith. Apart from that first sentence, however, the novel isn’t much interested in decrying modern man and his objections to God. Rather, it insists on looking at the spaces where the two intersect, modern man, and the abyss of faith and despair. At its center is not empty demon puppetry, it is the tragedy of a human being and the search for truth. In fact, in many ways, Russell’s sharp way with dialogue and description would not be amiss in a crime novel, nor would you have to change much about the structure. The Case Against Satan does not read like a Catholic novel per se (although I know nothing about the author), merely the novel of a writer not hostile to religion, who uses the traditions, emotions and literary effects that come with this setting. The theological discussion in the middle, centering around the idea of evil and whether one should profess belief in evil as well as good is as much about theology as it is about the faith we have in people around us.

satan 2This is not different from a crime novel: having to gouge whether or not we would believe someone’s account of someone else’s guilt. Can a person really be this depraved or should we think the best of everyone? In the theological discussion, a Bishop lectures a priest on his worldly library, citing Baudelaire’s claim in a prose poem [Le Joueur Généreux] that the devil’s finest trick is to persuade us that he doesn’t exist. What’s interesting about that particular citation is that it turns up here and there in Baudelaire’s prose. As with many other ideas, he kept prodding at them throughout his notes and essays. One instance of it surfacing is in the various notes of Mon cœur mis à nu, some of which attack novelist George Sand for not believing in hell, for offering a “God of the Good People,” a God for those who live well and behave well, where there’s no room for the “triste monde engourdi” of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens. Now here’s where it gets (more?) interesting: Baudelaire describes Sand as being “possessed,” as having been convinced by the devil to offer this vision of a clean and lovely religion where nothing bad happens as long as you do well and behave well. Yet this is exactly what happens in The Case Against Satan. And the reason for bad thing happening to good people is not Satan’s sulphuric influence, it’s human depravity. In a way, all Satan does, both in Baudelaire as well as in the novel, is hide the truth from people of clear conscience and higher standing. If it doesn’t affect us, we don’t have to think about it that hard. All of this, minus Satan and God, would also have happened in a Gothic crime novel, where it would be the insistence of a conscientious detective to really take a long hard look at the facts and at the people involved that breaks a case wide open. And much as in a Gothic mystery, it’s bigotry, and religious, sexual and traditional expectations that bar clear sight. This makes the book to be not just a sibling to mystery novels, but to classic episcopal texts like André Gide’s dramatic La Symphonie Pastorale, which is also a text about blindness, devotion and power.

This case begins with a young priest, Father Gregory Sargent, who takes over a parish. He is visited by a friend, Bishop Crimmings, just as the troubling and mysterious events break loose. These events all center around Susan Garth, a local teenager, who declines to go to Church, and has mysterious seizures, or rather “fits.” Early on, we are made aware of how this vocabulary and this attitude, these basic explanations, how they tie into a social attitude towards women.

Gregory smiled inwardly. It was such a quaint, old-fashioned word, “fits.” In young women, they were often rooted in sexual hysteria.

But unlike the word “hysteria” may lead you to believe, what follows is not a condemnation of women or sex, but rather a celebration of the “wonderful, wild, untamed force” that is sexuality. In fact, Father Gregory sees this permissive attitude towards sexuality as profoundly Catholic – and it’s hard to argue with him, given the hundreds of accounts of ecstatic faith and visions. Indeed it is Gregory himself who makes that connection in a magazine article that he writes on the topic, which contains the assertion that “[a]t the supreme moment, at the highest peak, sexual artistic and religious ecstasy are surprisingly similar.” Gregory is a “heterodox,” young, troubled priest who has a bit of a problem with alcoholism and free thinking. His faith in God is unshakeable, but it is a faith, like that of George Sand, in “le Dieu des bonnes gens,” as the syphilitic French poet put it. The novel (or Satan) does not end up punishing him for his free thinking or his worldliness and his broad reading. All he does is regain a sense of evil. At no point does the book really go into the pageantry of Catholicism. The style is never ornate, the thoughts and descriptions are never ponderous or solemn. This is maybe the biggest surprise: how frequently crisp and sharp the prose is, despite some trappings of genre writing. Russell is incredibly good at using two lines of dialogue to elevate a situation beyond the necessities of plot. When the teenage girl’s father turns to her in anger and says “Now you listen to the Father here. He’ll tell you I’m right.” Russell has the daughter look the priest in the eyes and ask “Is he right, Father?” This simple turn immediately establishes the character of the girl, and introduces the topic: figuring out who’s right, what happened and who to trust.

satan 1Not on the shortlist of people to trust? Men. Her father beats the girl (“a little slap across the mouth, that’s all”) for infractions, he has the village bigot’s hate for “filth.” his village friend, an anti-Catholic pamphleteer is less interested in the girl’s fate as in his lurid tales of Catholic depravity, where he ties rumors of Catholic pedophilia to medieval torture and the idea of a Black Mass. In fact, this anti-Catholic activist has a surprisingly similar view of Catholicism as The Exorcist’s author Blatty, who is enough of a conservative catholic to have recently petitioned the Pope to force Georgetown University to comply with a set of Catholic rules instated by John Paul II. Ray Russell’s priest and Bishop are not rulebound or insistent on such rules or on a proper catholic appearance. In fact, it is the congregation that raises a bit of a stink in the book when, preoccupied by an exorcism, Father Gregory fails to uphold local customs even for one Sunday. The pressure to conform to rules and regulations is viewed as a burden, unconnected to real faith. In a moment of crisis, overcome by various forces and pressures, Father Gregory breaks down and exclaims “Is it such a sin to have a mind?” And it’s not, the Bishop (and the book) assure him and us. The true darkness in the book is not Satanic, it’s human, and Russell makes excellent use of ambiguities and his sparse but precise descriptions to uphold that ambiguity. While the final chapter is a bit reminiscent of Beyond Belief-style gestures towards the reader, it barely diminishes the skill and achievement of this book. This book is a joy to read and reread, a pleasure far from “guilty.” A tough, smart little book, and a compelling read.

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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.)

David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl

Ebershoff, David (2000), The Danish Girl, Penguin
ISBN 9-780143-108399

danish 1

I didn’t have time to take a picture of my copy but it has the same ugly movie-style cover. :/

Usually, the advantage of a novel dealing with a real life character vis-à-vis a nonfiction work, say a biography or a historical study, is the ability to gain vividness, color, excitement. To get a unique, in-depth take on someone’s psychology or the cultural context. Dealing with facts alone – and the unreliability of sources and witnesses – tends to make nonfiction a bit more spry and their narrative a bit more formulaic, given the reliance on historiographical method. That’s why books like William Vollmann’s exploration of Shostakovich’s life are so powerful, or Pynchon’s masterpiece, the sprawling Mason & Dixon. I cannot, however, imagine any nonfiction treatment of Lili Elbe, the pioneering transsexual figure, and her wife, the painter Gerda Wegener (“Greta” in the novel), be more formulaic and overall dull than David Ebershoff’s debut novel The Danish Girl, which has recently been turned into a movie. I have never regretted my habit of reading a book before watching a movie based on that book as much as during the time I spent reading this book. I’ll say this: it’s not all bad. Ebershoff is a clever, talented author, and he uses the devices of fiction to interesting effect sometimes. Sometimes, his treatment of Lili’s point of view leads to stunning results, frequently, it does not. Ebershoff’s apparent fascination with the way art intersects with gender presentation is interesting, and his clear decision to forgo garish scenes of confrontation and scandal, which must have happened at various points in the real Lili Elbe’s life, is commendable. His treatment of Lili (both before transition, when she was known as “Einar Wegener”, and after) is tender and careful, which becomes nowhere as clear as in the final scenes of the book where he renders her final moments with delicacy and beauty. Ebershoff departs from the historical facts in many places (and he admits as much in his author’s note), but his main alteration leads to the book’s most emotionally powerful creation: the enduring love not just between Lili and her wife, but also between the larger family of brothers, former lovers and friends. There is a pastel tenderness to the whole book, which is something that is hard to keep up over more than a short story. Regrettably, Ebershoff lacks the tools to imbue this emotional vagueness with a literary precision and a keen sense of history. Too often, the author settles for the easy emotional punchlines, preferring to tell a nice story rather than a good one. Horrible similes and awkward descriptions crowd the book’s syntax, which is repetitive and imprecise to begin with. Although I have yet to see Tobe Hooper’s movie version of the book, it’s easy to see how the material as presented in The Danish Girl would make for a lovely and emotionally engaging movie. The novel’s prose is its biggest weakness and that kind of book tends to do well on the silver screen.

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To be clear, Ebershoff does some very interesting things that wouldn’t be captured by a study of biography. One is his constant insistence on the difficulties of exact representation through art. Both Lili, when she presented as Einar, as well as her wife Greta are painters, although their styles (and their relationship to the outside world) couldn’t be more different. Einar is a painter of “quaint” pictures of a bog somewhere in the Danish province, whereas Greta paints portraits of people who sit for her. The bog is the one in Einar’s home village and he paints it from memory. The memory of his youth as a boy is so strong that the mere thought is enough to paint pictures of it. As Einar transitions to Lili, his memory, and his ability (or wish) to paint the bog fades away, a pretty way of Ebershoff connecting the increasing freedom Lili feels as she unmoors from tradition and expectations. Similarly, Greta’s portraits are also representative of her role in the novel. She is the first to paint good/moving pictures of Lili, and in the novel, for a long time, she is our only outside view of Einar’s transformation. As she loses a sense of who Lili is and her connection to him fades from the book, so do her pictures. Regrettably, as Ebershoff also removes the clarity of her outside view from the last third of the novel, he does not replace it with anything, not even with a clearer voice for Lili. If we look at the novel as a construction of representations and mirrors, this is the gravest instance of the author maybe trapping himself in his own clever construction. The vagueness and hurried nature of the final chapters fits into the construction of the novel, it does not make for good reading, however. Other instances of mirrors and changed representations are the way opera is used, through songs, physical buildings and actresses, as well as the fact that Ebershoff gave Greta a twin brother. Whether or not that twin brother is supported by historical records, in the novel he serves as an example of the insufficiency of doubles. At some point, towards the end of the novel, Greta remarks that she does not recognize herself in her brother, and her brothers physical disabilities correspond to his role in the novel as he becomes the most vocal advocate for dangerous surgical measures. There are other examples involving former lovers, but suffice to say that Ebershoff uses the characters in his drama carefully, as well as the tropes of art and representation. The results of this can be dubious, however.

The_Danish_Girl_novelOne odd result is the way that Ebershoff uses the gaze. Greta, as he writes her, is imbued with a sometimes close to predatory gaze, an adjective I use because in some scenes, her erotically charged gaze appears to frighten or intimidate Lili, especially at the time when she presented exclusively as Einar. As a portrait artist, of course, the novel assigns the gaze as an uncomplicated, successful act, to her, but it does some odd things in order to achieve this. One is the fact that Ebershoff turns Greta from a Danish woman, which she was historically, to an American woman with an outsider’s fascination for Denmark. And not just any American woman: a rich heiress from California. Instead of offering us a psychologically plausible portrait of a Danish artist who falls in love with a wisp of a man who ends up transitioning to a woman, Ebershoff appears to have constructed his Greta from l