Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rex

José Manuel Prieto’s Rex (trans. Esther Allen) is my most recent read from the Best Translated Book Award 2010 longlist, and it is the best yet. (You can see my thoughts on Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop here; I read Mercè Rodoreda's Death in Spring before I began this blog, but I do highly recommend it, and not just for what might be the best book cover of all time.) To paraphrase Chad Post over at Three Percent, it may be an injustice to try to review this novel without reading it at least twice, but I’m going to try.

Rex opens with an act of devotion on the part of the narrator, a somewhat crazed admirer of Proust: “I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book.” The Book, In Search of Lost Time, is never mentioned directly, nor is Proust, who is referred to only as the Writer. And the best way of describing the tone of the whole novel is to say that it emerges out of religious fervor and ecstatic mysticism. The Writer increasingly comprises other authors, as if a deity were behind them, something like Emerson’s Over-soul except that only geniuses have it, not everyone. The narrator’s obsession with this figure can only be expressed indirectly; in fact he is so dazzled by his literary obsession and his opulent surroundings (see below) that he can rarely narrate anything in a straightforward manner.

The general situation of the book goes something like this: the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple to tutor their son, Petya, at their extravagant home on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. The place drips diamonds, and the narrator suspects the family of being on the run from the Russian mob. Indeed they are: the father, Vasily, a scientist, has developed a method for creating fake diamonds that look authentic using normal testing, and he has sold loads of them to a couple of gangsters. As the novel proceeds, the narrator gets sucked into participation in the household scheming over how best to evade retribution.

The complications of the novel include thick allusions, though many specific references are not necessary for comprehension and Prieto provides an Author’s Note specifying many of his sources. (I was happy to have read the second volume of Proust recently, as there are several references to it.) More challenging is the sentence-level style, which, as I wrote above, gains a stilted quality from the narrator’s mystified devotion to writing and to wealth. Here is a sample paragraph from early in the book, involving the narrator’s first glimpse of a (fake, unbeknownst to him) diamond necklace worn by Petya’s mother, Nelly:

Without my being able to take a step or rather drop to the ground, return to earth, my feet a handsbreadth above the carpet, then falling slowly back down onto it, still plunged in my astonishment. All right: I’d noticed, I knew they were fabulously rich, but…that necklace! Diamonds, without a shadow of a doubt. Because if once in your life you’ve paid attention, if ever you’ve seen a diamond, you won’t mistake one for anything else, Petya. Just as it’s enough for me to read a single page by the Writer, a single paragraph: how it glows, how it scintillates! And I’m not the type to say—as I know some people would, affording themselves the pleasure of stupidly proclaiming: So what? Diamonds? What do I want diamonds for? Why would I pay for a diamond if it’s all the same—you know?—as a piece of cut crystal. I, a reader of the Book, was better prepared.

The most characteristic sentence-level mark here lies in the fragments, or collection of fragments, in the first sentence. In many parts the narrator can only write in a string of fragments that read as the equivalent of watching slow-motion proceed through a series of barely-related frames of film. This form marks either his own mystification, his attempt to mystify his implied reader (who is Petya, at least most of the time), or both.  It calls into question his sanity and suggests his own duplicities: a narrator unreliable in multiple, overlapping ways that continuously complicate one-another. His sense that the Book has universal applicability and moral authority, speaking to all situations across time, is only the least of his strangenesses, and some of the humor as the book goes on comes from watching him strain to make his fiction a workable one.  In the passage above, the actual falseness of the diamonds already bounces back to undermine the narrator’s authority on all things authentic, and thus, ultimately, his ideas about authentic art.

The resulting sense that he and the people around him are often their own dupes seems to me very much at the heart of what Rex contemplates. In his Author’s Note, Prieto writes something that seems, at first, surprising: that the novel is first and foremost a “post-totalitarian” novel, which is to say it is about life after the end of a totalitarian regime (here communist Russia). What I think he refers to is the crazed scramble for security in the moments after collapse, everyone conning everyone else in a bid to gain some stability in whatever new order arises, and everyone ready to believe in myths of a better life to come, a sudden transformation into utopia. Reading this novel, you should be prepared to disbelieve many of the things various characters profess to believe and even to wonder how anyone could believe them, but these delusions are, I think, the point. Anyone who puts Rex down early due to what appears to be unrealistic characterization will miss a truly outstanding reading experience. Chad Post’s review mentions Nabokov; expanding on this, I would say the result of Prieto’s imagined world is a book that reads as if Proust and Nabokov collaborated on the novelization of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It is a book with tragedy and humor, but with both buried under a style that ducks and weaves, creating surreal effects out of the narrator’s at once duplicitous and naïve, utopian and fearful, perspective on the world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Nicest Way of Saying No

I have been busy with other things, but I am making my way through José Manuel Prieto's Rex and hope to post on it soon. (Short version: amazing!)

In the meantime, I give you this hilarious excerpt from a live recording of Laurie Anderson in Madison, Wisconsin (10/29/04—my transcription):

I had an idea to do an opera based on the novel Gravity’s Rainbow. So I wrote to the author, Thomas Pynchon, and I made this proposal. And I could just see Slothrop and all the characters caught up in these chords and notes and music. And I described how it all might work. And I didn’t think that I would ever hear from him because he was such a famous recluse. But actually, he did finally write back, and he said that he would be so glad and honored to have an opera made by me and based on Gravity’s Rainbow and how much he loved the idea and that he had only one condition. And that was: that the entire opera would be scored for a single instrument, and that instrument would be—the banjo.

I mean can you imagine like a whole opera, like two or three acts of solid, wall-to-wall, solo banjo and the overture, all the arias, the choruses, you know, the one instrument. And—and some people have the nicest way of saying: No. No. No. Not over my dead body.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Revolt of the Cockroach People

I have little to say about Oscar Zeta Acosta’s novel The Revolt of the Cockroach People.  My understanding is that it is thinly-disguised autobiography, a reading encouraged by the back of the Vintage edition and Marco Acosta’s afterward.  For those who do not know, Acosta was a Chicano lawyer defending protesters and dissidents during the (at times more, at times less) militant Chicano movement in Los Angeles.  He is most famous now as the character Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Johnny Depp plays him in the film version.  Indeed, Revolt reads much like a New Journalist’s account of the 1960s Chicano struggle. 

As that kind of journalism, the novel does decent work giving the mood of the moment.  Nonetheless, I found it mostly unreadable and a failure in terms of the propaganda Acosta wants it to be.  Acosta’s brand of Chicano nationalism leads him to fight a number of worthy battles, and I am more than willing to forgive a certain amount of over-the-top rhetoric that goes along with his work.  Nonetheless, misogyny and homophobia overrun the narrative, echoing much of the work in the Black Arts Movement of the same decade (I’m thinking of Amiri Baraka especially, although Acosta perhaps goes even further in offense).  Everyone opposing his cause is a fag—justifiable class resentment is conflated with unjustifiable homophobia at every moment.  Every woman exists to be fucked (and, he lets us know, isn’t really a woman until she is fucked) and, of course, finds him irresistible.  The only political posture Acosta and his allies know is machismo.  The best thing about the point where Chicano politics meets literature these days is that such a stance has been left behind for the defter, because more open to difference and alliance, critiques of writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bonsai

Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai (trans. Carolina de Robertis) is a pleasure to read (and so quickly too), although given the enthusiastic reviews I had seen previously I was bound to be at least a little let down.  I will say this up front: the novel has, despite its generally ironic take on romance, an honest-to-goodness mothering prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold.  It may be that Zambra pokes fun at Julio’s initiation via prostitute (although it didn’t seem especially so), but there is no question that the prostitute gives herself over to Julio’s “education.”  It is a rather hackneyed moment, doubly dull in a novel that is otherwise so full of humor and insight.

Briefly, Bonsai tells the story of a short romance between two literature students, Emilia and Julio, a romance based largely on their deliberate refusal to see the differences between themselves and a lie about a mutual love of Proust, whom neither of them has read.  It is also about the after-life of that romance, with the novella moving around in time, revealing key plot events early or moving back in time to discuss the lovers’ sexual prehistory.  Reviews have mentioned other sources for thinking of the genealogy of Zambra’s metafiction, but a name I have not seen is Kurt Vonnegut.  The rehearsal of future plot events, the prose in short fragments, the overall sense of absurdity: all of these remind me of him, although Zambra’s sentences run a shade longer and offer, perhaps, slightly more direct sympathy for the characters despite questions about how seriously they can be taken.  Here is one fragment from early on:

            The relationship between Emilia and Julio was riddled with truths, with intimate revelations that rapidly established a complicity that they wanted to understand as definitive.  This, then, is a light story that turns heavy.  This is the story of two students who are enthusiasts of truth, of scattering sentences that seem true, of smoking eternal cigarettes, and of closing themselves into the intense complacency of those who think they are better, purer than others, than that immense and contemptible group known as the others.
            They quickly learned to read the same things, to think similarly, and to conceal their differences.  Very soon they formed a conceited intimacy.  At least during that time, Julio and Emilia managed to merge into a single kind of mass.  They were, in short, happy.  There is no doubt about that.

The novella is full of these little asides rephrasing and undermining a thought that might at first seem unreservedly idealistic: instead of “truth” they want to “scatter[] sentences that seem true.”  The last sentence, “There is no doubt about that,” is a zinger—one of the places I thought of Vonnegut: it reads like “So it goes” or another of his brief refrains that says, at once, that what has been narrated is predictable, absurd, and bound to end badly.  Nonetheless, at the same time the absurdity of literary lies and romance continues (if Julio’s relationship with Emilia began with a lie about reading, a later relationship begins with a lie that he is editing the book of a famous author), Zambra studs the humor with compassion.  I’m looking forward to reading his second novel, The Private Lives of Trees, just published this summer.