Friday, December 30, 2011

Bad Nature, or with Elvis in Mexico

When Borders was shuttering its doors several months back, I picked up a few books on the 80% off day, and one of them was Javier Marías’s Bad Nature, or with Elvis in Mexico (trans. Esther Allen). It isn’t the kind of book they usually carried by their end (a translation and one by a small press to boot), so I can only assume it is something a patron had special ordered and then didn’t pick up. This turned out to be lucky for me, as I’d been wanting to read something by Marías without necessarily committing to one of the longer works that he is more known for. Bad Nature was a great introduction to Marías, I’m happy to say, and it leaves me wanting to read more.

The book is tiny, and much like Mario Bellatín’s Beauty Salon it seems like it should be the capstone of a story collection—but it is hard to complain given how delightfully excessive and funny Marías is as he explores the story of a translator hired to work with Elvis on a film set in Mexico. Something, we learn early on, has gone terribly wrong, and the narrator became a target:

No one knows what it is to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chase was active and constant, carried out with great deliberation, determination, dedication, and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wait for the moment to settle the score. It isn’t that someone has it in for you and stand at the ready to pounce should you cross his path or give him the chance; it isn’t that someone has sworn revenge and waits, waits, does no more than wait and therefore remains passive, or schemes in preparation for his blows, which as long as they’re machinations cannot be blows, we think the blows will fall but they may not, the enemy may drop dead of a heart attack before he sets to work in earnest, before he truly applies himself to harming us, destroying us.

This first paragraph goes on for a few more wild sentences, and then the discussion of all the things being hunted down is not like continues for several more pages: Marías revels in all the different ways he can think up to say the same thing. Despite the narrator’s description of a terrible incident, the novel is comedic, a long anecdotal joke full of humorous descriptions of the people surrounding Elvis and their bizarre behavior. Moreover, Marías makes use of this humor to deflate machismo (and its American equivalent): here, characters’ homophobia and aggression lead only to trouble.

How nice to end a year of reading on such a high note, especially after the bad taste of The Bad Girl.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Bad Girl

Having not read anything by Mario Vargas Llosa, I hopped at the chance to buy a super cheap copy of The Bad Girl (trans. Edith Grossman) a couple of years ago, but it had been languishing on my shelves until now. I wish I had let it be. I can only assume Llosa was given the Nobel for other work, because this novel is truly one of the worst things I’ve read in ages. It reminds me a little of Márquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and perhaps I should take note that both have the same translator. Does Edith Grossman only translate Latin American novels about a aging male narrator’s screwed up relationship with women?

The novel, in brief, comprises episodes in the life of Ricardo Somocurcio, an expatriate Peruvian translator living in France. Specifically, the chapters record a series of encounters (brief and long) with a woman he considers the love of his life but who nonetheless rejects him in favor of a series of relationships with wealthy men, every time with a new identity. At the same time, the narrator describes the political and social scene in each of these moments.

Part of the problem here is the tale of the tragic women, complete with a narrative comeuppance for her bad behavior. The other major issue is the social and political description. Both the romance and the atmosphere are simply dull-—maybe no word characterizes the novel so much as “dutiful,” in the worst sense. Llosa seems to feel obligated to show us that he is a very good boy and knows about revolutionary activity in the 60s, the sexual revolutions, AIDS, the changed economy of the 90s, but none of it carries any weight. It is just a series of facts and cultural observations, reported without passion or consequence. Likewise, the portrayal of Latin romance is like some ludicrous stereotype Llosa rehearses for the audience. Ricardo and the bad girl joke about his “cheap” clichéd romance. I suppose we are to think that despite its banality his passion is nonetheless true to life, but I found it hard to take seriously.

Even A Naked Singularity a had a few redeeming virtues: unless I’m pretty unlucky, I think Llosa’s novel will end up being my worst read of the year. At least it was relatively short?

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (trans. Jay Rubin) turned out to be a great post-semester read. Somber and reflective even while leading me on with mystery, it helped clear my mind of everything that had been cluttering it. The novel follows Toru Okada, whose cat and then wife disappear, as he gropes forward with nothing but the opaque clues offered by psychics and other people imbued with mystical attributes.

These clues frequently lead him to stories half-fabricated about Japan’s past in China and Russia during World War II, and the book walks an interesting line in evoking this past as partly responsible for the series of events involved without clearly revealing how this is so. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the various English and U.S. novels of contemporary families whose pasts, tied into major historical events, catch up with them—-novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo, and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But Murakami’s novel predates all of these and those like them, and it takes the narrative of history catching up with the present in a different direction in large part due to its embrace of fantasy and mysticism (or magic realism). Those other novels are written much more in a tradition of realism: full of descriptive details that reveal class and milieu, but also dealing with the histories more concretely in order to connect them to the present of the novel. History’s finally unraveled connection to the present in these novels pushes them towards realism’s comedic side: the past events may be full of trauma and danger, and their consequences for the present are not always happy, but they are finally fully recognized to humorous effect (White Teeth ends with the novelistic equivalent of the screen freeze you might see at the end of a sitcom when a final joke has just been uttered and has begun to invoke the ire of its target).

Murakami’s magic realism, on the other hand, invokes the past as a source of contemporary traumas but never fully explains the connection to current events, and the lingering mystery keeps unease in the air even when the novel’s plotlines resolve themselves. At one point, Toru Okada’s teenage neighbor May Kasahara writes him a letter that criticizes causal explanations of the world. It isn’t one of my favorite passages precisely because May Kasahara comes across as an annoying kids-say-the-darnedest-things character mostly meant to speak the author’s mind in a cutesy voice (not to mention she is somewhat creepily sexualized). However, it does speak to a key difference between this novel and those later novels that have become somewhat common, and as much as I like those other novels I think Murakami’s approach is more successful because it makes more demands of the reader by leaving you grasping for the connections between past and present—inventing some of them for yourself. Magic realism isn’t necessarily the only way to go about this, but it is fundamental to the way Murakami approaches the task.

As usual, when everyone else is reading the new release I’m reading an older book by the same writer. I’ve got a copy of 1Q84 on my shelf: I’m not sure if I’ll get to it very soon, but I’m looking forward to it after The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle despite the mixed reaction it has gotten.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Beauty Salon

I read Mario Bellatín’s incredibly short Beauty Salon (trans. Kurt Hollander) a few months ago now—the semester really got away from me, and I haven’t had much of a chance to read the things that I want or write about them until now. Bellatín has been on my list since Beauty Salon was published in English, and I’m not sure I liked it as much as I thought I would. However, I half-think this is because the story is sold as a novella rather than a short story in a larger collection. It comes in at 63 pages and a relatively small number of words per page--there are short stories that are longer than this. Perhaps this seems trivial, but I do think there is something about a short story that is different from a novella or novel, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out that Bellatín is publishing this in the form that he is due to publishers’ beliefs about the value of short stories.

Beauty Salon is narrated by a former salon proprietor who has turned his business into a refuge for those dying from a mysterious disease, one that necessarily echoes AIDS in its progression but also due to the story’s setting in a queer community. And yet it cannot be reduced to AIDS either: the narrator intimates a street gang is responsible for infecting at least some people with the disease. As the narrator tends the dying, he also tends his once-thriving collection of aquariums. The story takes as an epigraph “Anything inhumane becomes humane over time,” and as it unfolds it focuses more and more on how the narrator, unable to do anything to really help these people, ends up making a habit of certain cruelties in order to make the situation bearable for himself--even as he awaits the onset of disease in his own body. Relatively early on he becomes attached to one of the patients until, he claims, he “lost interest” watched the young man die as indifferently as the rest. But the lost interest seems more self-protection than anything else.

All of these concerns pack anger and regret under a style that masquerades as spare and disaffected: a critique of a culture that has allowed this decimation of an underclass, but a critique that also points back to how managing the fallout makes the narrator, as a member of that underclass, complicit with the damage. Yet, dynamic as all of this is, the story feels at last more like a short story or peek into a larger narrative than a novella in its own right, and thus packaged for different expectations than it meets. Perhaps this is because simple waiting is so central to the narrative--to have any more of a sense of beginning and ending would betray something fundamental--that the story either would have to be very short, like this, or very long, one of those behemoth novels where the point is that nothing happens to change the situation.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Rings of Saturn

After a summer of fiction that I found mostly only ok, it’s been such a pleasure to immerse myself in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (trans. Michael Hulse). Is this representative Sebald? If so, what book should I go to next? My pleasure in the book is a special surprise—for whatever reason I was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.

The novel is the record of a trip through Southeast England by Sebald the narrator (to what extent similar to the author I do not know). Right here at “travel narrative” is probably one of the reasons I was dreading the book, but it is far more a journey through the mind and through history than anything else. Most of the book comprises reflections spurred by the countryside and one another about history and its figures, with special attention to the history and decay of the British Empire. The style is pensive and Sebald takes his time to let his sentences unfold in a cascading series of thoughts and images. Here he is thinking about fire:

A few years ago, on a Greek island that was wooded as recently as 1900, I observed the speed with which a blaze runs through dry vegetation. A short distance from the harbor town where I was staying, I stood by the roadside with a group of agitated men, the blackness behind us and before us, far below at the bottom of a gorge, the fire, whipped up by the wind, racing, leaping, and already climbing he steep slopes. And I shall never forget the junipers, dark against the glow, going up in flames one after the other as if they were tinder the moment the first tongues of fire licked at them, with a dull thudding sound like an explosion, and then promptly collapsing in a silent shower of sparks.

Here, the discussion of fire bears on the passage that immediately precedes it, where Sebald reflects on humanity’s capacity to burn itself out. He moves between topics metonymically like this thoughout—the page after this one not coincidentally shows a picture of a garden maze shaped like a brain. There are pages and pages of this prose full of sharp imagery and history facts come alive, and the passages make me so enamored of their subjects that I am tempted to run out and read biographies of all of the historical people he discusses—he even makes me want to give Swinburne’s poetry another chance, which is quite a feat.

Probably I would have enjoyed the book even more had I been able to devote the time to reading more of it sooner—I stretched out the reading over a longer period than preferable. My schedule this semester is getting out of control fairly fast it seems. But in those times I could carve out to read a chapter, The Rings of Saturn brought a calm reflection and beauty.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Matt Kish’s Moby Dick Art (On My Wall!)

Way back in May I bought several of the simply fantastic art pieces that Matt Kish created for his blog project-turned-book, Moby Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page. If you haven’t heard of and seen this project yet, I encourage you to go straight to his website and give yourself a treat to those images and his other projects. Then go buy the book that is coming out in October.

I am so excited to have gotten some really wonderful pieces of art. However, the summer got fairly busy and expensive, so I wound up not getting them framed until August. Then it was a matter of figuring out where to put everything--wall space in my house is at a premium right now--but after a lot of fretting and shifting other things around, I’m happy to say they are all up. Without further ado, here are the pictures (click for larger versions).

1&2: Queequeg and Queequeg, keeping himself company

On the left is the image for page 20: “Lord save me, thinks I, that must be the harpooneer, the infernal head-peddler.” On the right is the image for page 23: "Speak-e! tell-ee me who-ee be, or dam- me, I kill-e!’ again growled the cannibal...”

Here they are closer up:

For more detail, you can also see Matt's scans of the images for page 20 and page 23.

3: Next comes Stubb, from page 292: “But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he?” He’s enjoying his meal above another great work of the imagination.

This passage has always been a favorite of mine, and Matt captured it brilliantly with vibrant color. Here it is closer up (slightly askew due to my unsteady hand).

For more detail, see Matt's scan of page 292.

4&5: The Angel of Doom, and Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze!

Above is the image for page 8: “…and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit.” Below that is the image for page 403: “Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally...”

Here they are again, closer up (at an angle due to light problems):

For more detail, see Matt's scans of page 8 and page 403.

Page 403 was a special surprise for me. When I originally contacted Matt about wanting to buy a few of his drawings, this page had already been claimed. The passage is probably my favorite from the novel, and Matt’s imagining of it is so beautifully true to the frantic goodwill and eroticism that I couldn’t help but kick myself for putting in my request too late.

Lucky me! It turns out the person who had beat me to the punch was my partner, who had ordered it as a gift for me. I couldn’t have been more excited.

Pages 8 and 403 make an odd pairing, I suppose—the feeling of the passages couldn’t be farther apart—but it seemed like the best solution to the wall space issue.

Again, I encourage you to go browse around Matt's website. The blog for the Moby Dick project is here, and a blog that he currently updates with other projects can be found here. If you enjoy his work as much as I do, you can also see the Etsy site where he sells his work here. He is gradually putting up more Moby Dick drawings with varying prices, as well as other projects.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Jeanette Winterson’s Weight (2005), a retelling of the myth of Atlas (and, to a lesser extent, Heracles), is more like a long personal essay than a novel, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, one thing that might have improved it is a little more detail about Winterson’s life (or the narrator’s—though Winterson makes clear in her intro she doesn’t mind you thinking of them as the same person): the points where she jumps in to write about the weight she has burdened herself with in her life are slightly too abstract to get traction.

In this version of the story, Atlas allegorizes the inability to let go of past wrongs; more than the gods, he sentences himself. Likewise, Winterson carries around her rotten childhood, letting her resentment shape her relation to the world. Where she succeeds best is in her portrayal of the opposing personalities of Atlas and Heracles, the former brooding and masochistic and the latter just shy of being a chatty meat-head (just shy only because of a nagging conscience he’d rather be rid of). Overall, though, the book just felt a little too light in substance. Because I didn’t feel the pull of the personal narrative, the fable just felt like a well-told fable rather than the more personalized myth that Winterson seems out to create. It was a great idea, I think, but perhaps just too quickly executed.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Naked Singularity

A little over a month ago I started reading Sergio De La Pava’s long, self-published underground hit A Naked Singularity, and as the long lull since then might indicate I didn’t find it quite the unstoppable read everyone else has. I’m sad to say this given the enthusiasm the novel has generated, which finally I couldn’t resist, especially given some of the comparisons. The novel sounded like just my kind of thing.

And it starts off well: the first chapter, I do admit, is a great, frantic introduction to Casi’s world as a New York City public defender that reveals disenchantment with everyone involved. The remainder of the first part of the novel, while not always quite as stellar, also offers a lot to keep you reading. The story follows Casi as he gets involved with a pro bono death row appeal, works through his everyday caseload, and talks more and more with another lawyer from outside the office, Dane, who tries to embroil him in a scheme to make off with millions of dollars. The vast majority of Part I is told through recounted dialogue: conversations with Dane, conversations between lawyers, debates in court, free form discussions with neighbors—these are only a few of what is something of an encyclopedia of conversational styles. With this much conversation, De La Pava is playing on a ground that is often better covered not in fiction but in film and television, but the sheer enthusiasm of the various speakers in the novel allows it to compete well.

At the end of the first part of the novel, I was thinking that the novel was slightly overhyped but still pretty good and certainly better than most fiction that gets published. My guess at that point would have been that publishers passed on it because of the extensive dialogue, despite this being its best feature.

Then I hit Part II, and my interest slowly started ceding to boredom. I said after reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas earlier this summer that I thought I was getting tired of my inadvertent series of encounters with novels that quote or allude to Nietzsche extensively, so perhaps the way things went from here can be chalked up to the fact that I once again found myself reading a character droning on about becoming superior to all and everyone. By the end of Part I, although I had enjoyed even these conversations, I was getting a strong hint of Dostoevsky, and in fact the rest of the novel becomes pretty much a revision of Crime and Punishment with some flavorings from postmodern fiction. Hey, that even sounds interesting to me now as a possible reading experience, but in practice I just found the novel increasingly dull as the second section went on, so that by the time I got to the third I just wanted it to be over.

This boredom made what might otherwise be minor complaints seem like glaring problems. For example, through Parts II and III there are a series of disruptions where the narrator gradually tells the story of boxer Wilfred Benítez. While they are monologues, these sections, due to the narrator’s hyper-investment in minutiae, work like much of the dialogue in Part I. I’m fine with (and even a fan of) narrative interruptions and interludes, but in this case the interruptions of the narrative felt forced to me: the transitions tend to be something to the effect that the narrator just starts thinking of Benítez, or, from his future perspective, draws a comparison between a moment in his past and the Benítez story (and lucky us it unfolds in timely linear fashion). My problem, in other words, is that De La Pava does too much to make these segments feel relevant to the narrative, and as result they come across as a little more artificial and precious than presumably intended.

By the third section I was pretty much KO’d by irritation that the novel was still in progress. The Pynchon-esque surrealism of much of this part should have been my favorite bit, but after everything else it felt unconvincing as a portrait of psychological decay. Instead, I found myself thinking it reflected more a state of punchiness on the part of the author, every event a product of staying up too late writing and thinking, “wow, here’s something really great and crazy!” without waking up the next morning and revising to make the crazy work. The nadir of all this occurs in what is a sort of mock trial at Casi’s place of work, a scene that is every bit as unconvincingly manic as the opening chapter is convincing.

So that’s what I’ve been up to (when I could bring myself to it) the past month, sad to say. An unfortunate waste of the last half of summer reading. I did finally just break down and pause to read a short novella last week before I trudged through the last hundred pages, so I hope to have a post on that and a couple of others relatively soon, before things get busy again for the fall.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Fish Child

Lucía Puenzo’s novel The Fish Child (trans. David William Foster) is something of a minor miracle in that it is a novel narrated by a dog (a fact wisely avoided in any descriptions I had seen) that avoids becoming precious—instead the voice is humorous and even a bit raunchy and brash. Despite addressing situations tangential to her other work (sexuality and gender are both key concerns), the tone here is a long way from either the seething anger of her Granta story or the quieter tension of XXY. The story follows the love affair between a young well-to-do young Argentine woman, Lala, and her family’s Paraguayan maid, Guayi, and tracks the aftermath of their attempt to flee the family to live together in Paraguay. The plan, of course, works out less well than hoped—Lala gets out of the country but Guayi ends up in prison for a crime she hasn’t committed. As the story goes on, it develops a strange hybrid of melodrama and action-adventure film.

None of this works anywhere near as well as the other two Puenzo works mentioned above. What she achieves with the voice of the dog is laudable for avoiding some obvious pitfalls, but the choice still has its problems. One thing she gets from it is an outside perspective on events where only one (or even no) person is present but a dog can be, and this is sometimes played against moments the dog cannot see or hear the action: some of the events leading up to Lala leaving the house, and later events at a police station. Nonetheless, Puenzo doesn’t make much of these blank spots; the first of them serves to add some plot suspense, but the latter serves no clear function. Worse, the dog seems to have an all-too-magical ability to see and describe characters’ (mostly Lala’s) thoughts—something that could be used to question the narration’s reliability but isn’t in this case, all the insights ringing true to the story’s tone and direction.

I am curious to see the film version Puenzo has directed of this novel. In some ways the plot feels better suited to film as a medium, and if the dog’s-eye-view is dropped in the process, that might be for the best.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Cloud Atlas

It’s always nice to have that happy chance of reading a book that speaks to questions and concerns of another book I’ve just read. In this case, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) forefronts themes of destruction within human nature that echo McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—though between the two of them I’ve read more than enough quotes from Nietzsche to do me good for a while. Mitchell’s perspective offers a little more sunlight than McCarthy’s: whereas even the kid’s ever-so-small amount of resistance to violence was impossible, in Mitchell’s multiple storylines violence and benevolence are both possible outcomes that could occur in any encounter.

Cloud Atlas takes the form of a set of six stories nested within another, each historically distinct and chronologically arranged: you begin reading the oldest narrative, a mid-19th century travel journal recounting a trans-Pacific voyage, move on to a set of letters from 1930s, a 1970s mystery novel, a contemporary comedy, an official trial holographic record from the future, and, beyond that, an oral tale told several generations after civilization has destroyed itself and humanity has returned to tribalism. Each story, then, takes a genre appropriate to the historical moment it portrays. Also, the embedding of the stories works both ways: as a reader you work from the oldest story to the one furthest in the future, and then back out again as you read the second half of each narrative, but structurally it is the furthest future narrative that contains the rest. The narrator in the tribal future still has the hologram as an artifact and shows it to others; the protagonist of the hologram has seen a film version of the comedy; the elderly publisher in the comedy is thinking of publishing the mystery; and so on. What the narratives continually return to is the question of exploiting others versus adopting a more generous ethics, and whether violence is the dominant historical force.

Structurally and conceptually this seems like just the kind of thing that would appeal to me, and I had been looking forward to reading Cloud Atlas for some time now. So I hate to say it, but: a pretty hefty chunk of the book is just boring. The first half, in particular, is increasingly dull: the Louisa Rey mystery and the comedy are excruciating, with the mystery coming off as written by someone who is bored with the conventions of the genre but can’t bring himself to liven it up or even satirize it. The oral tale in the tribal future unfolds well, but the attempt at creating a dialect is overdone with apostrophes for excluded syllables—a few of those tend to go a long way, so when almost every word has an excluded syllable it gets a bit precious.

Not all is lost: the second halves of the narratives are better than the first, and the 1930s “Letters from Zedelghem” are often beautiful: Mitchell manages to evoke a deep relationship between Frobisher and Sixsmith despite providing only Frobisher’s side of the correspondence. Still, for as long a book as this, I’m not sure the payoff sufficiently rewards the effort.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy is one of those writers I’ve always heard other people praising but never really had a strong urge to read, as much as anything because I’ve never felt that compelled by the Old West as a setting for fiction. Still, as often as people talk about how much they like his work I was bound to get around to it at some point.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone that Blood Meridian is intensely violent, constantly upping the ante on how grotesque it can get (and it starts roughly). For the most part this was effective and gripping: I don’t generally like narratives with a strong picaresque element, but in this case the repetition didn’t seem gratuitous (even though it is, of course, all about gratuitous violence). It walks a very fine line of nearly becoming a self-parody, overdone with depravity in the way that William Faulkner’s Sanctuary is overdone, and a few times it may cross that line not because of the particulars of a given scene but just because of how relentlessly repetitive the violence is.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel’s structure is McCarthy’s use of chapter headings: in the mode of a 19th-century novel he begins each chapter with a series of fragments that outline the events that will occur. This parody of form isn’t so intriguing on its own; but, when you start reading the actual chapters and comparing them to the outline, you can see interesting issues emerge. The language of the outline is often very different from that in the text, for example, as if produced by two different narrators: in many cases you wouldn’t know what landscape the characters were in if the outline didn’t identify it, and particular characters (especially the Judge) give speeches that are summed up in technical language in the outline. Additionally, very brief and seemingly insignificant events or described landscapes appear in the outline as equal in importance to major ones. As a result of these features, the outlines don’t really tell you much but lend the appearance of bureaucratic order to the chaos of the novel’s endless violence.

Although there is a terrible beauty to many of the images of the novel, the novel does not offer much in terms of redemption for the reader. The front of my copy advertises it as a “classic American novel of regeneration through violence.” I have no idea what that is supposed to mean: there is nothing in the way of regeneration or epiphany here, not even a belated feeling that there was something good that was missed. The world is rotten all the way down—a grim outlook, but one compellingly framed.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Quiet Life

Reading Kenzaburō Ōe’s novel A Quiet Life (1990, trans. Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall), I felt very conscious of the fact that I was reading a translation from a language and culture I know next-to-nothing about—not because the events are impossible to understand (far from it), but because stylistic elements left me wondering if I should complain about the editing, translation, or writing, or if what I was noticing wasn’t just true to patterns of speech in Japan. The first two of the six chapters in particular felt very choppy and stilted to me—I’m not sure whether the later ones improved or if I just got used to the style and absorbed enough in the situation and ideas of the story. I don’t recall the same reading experience from Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness last year, and in at least a couple of places there are what can only be translation/editorial errors: one sentence, as the narrator compares her present experience at a concert with previous experiences, reads, “But now I don’t hear such laughter ring out in the Joining of Hearts Concerts now.” I guess the translators were trying to decide where to put the “now” but wound up leaving it as an exercise for the reader… As a result, I’m left wondering the rest of the time how much the tone is being affected by translation issues in sentence-level style. To my (internal) ear, the narrator comes across as a little more simple-headed than I would guess just from her reflections, even given the fact that the narrative highlights her naïveté.

When I could forget the questions about style, though, I found the story engrossing. In the novel, the narrator (Ma-chan), a 20-year old young woman living with her family, takes care of her older, mentally disabled brother (Eeyore) and her younger brother (O-chan) who is studying for university entrance exams while their parents are in the United States because her father is in what the family calls a “pinch,” or bout of depression. In general the episodes of the novel revolve around situations where people, particularly Ma-chan, have concerns about Eeyore’s well-being, get worked up about them, but then find that everything is ok. There is, throughout, a humorous prodding of the idea that Eeyore’s life is somehow tragic or that he is incapable.

The family is modeled after Ōe’s, and the father, “K,” is an author. One of the things that makes the novel work well is the way the narration through the voice of the daughter gives us distance from “K,” and thus often gives us a sense that Ōe is critiquing himself as much as anyone. Indeed, this novel’s rejection of the idea that Eeyore’s life is a tragedy is a refreshing counter to the perspective on mental disability evinced in the two (decades older) stories in Teach Us that I noted with frustration in my post on that book. On top of this, through the reflections of the narrator and the people around her on her father’s “pinch” and his writing, the novel offers perspective on the relationship between writers, texts, and audiences, a relationship itself loosely tied to questions of faith (or lack of it) and death. There is a conceptual complexity and vigor to the novel that, unfortunately, I’m not entirely convinced is matched by the reading experience in the translation I read.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Bell

Not quite ten years ago now I read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea (1978) and loved it. Since then, I’ve read her first novel, Under the Net (1954), and now The Bell (1958), and I’m finding it hard to get the same enchantment. In the case of Under the Net in particular, Murdoch seems to have just been writing a different (more comedic) kind of novel—I enjoyed it to an extent, but what I had loved about The Sea, the Sea was its depth as a not-wholly-reliable character study.

The Bell fits somewhere between the two: there is a third person distance that allows the narrator to slip between the minds of a few primary characters and offer a little mild comedy in the portrayal of the lay religious community at Imber, but there is a deeper philosophical interest that broadens out the minds of the three primary characters. The novel gives us entry to Imber by way of Dora, a woman unhappy in her marriage but nonetheless returning to her husband while he is immersed in Imber doing historical research with books at the Abbey that Imber organizes itself around. Another outsider, Toby Gashe, has chosen to visit Imber for the summer before he begins college at Oxford. And, to round out the primary trio, Michael Meade runs the lay community and owns the estate on which it exists. Murdoch uses the trio to meditate on sex and religion as interlinked but distinct issues. Dora feels pressure to play the role of the errant wife redeemed, while Michael struggles to reconcile his long-standing desire to become a priest with his equally long-standing desire to sleep with men. Toby is a sort of innocent who enjoys the world and his time at Imber until he gets wrapped up romantically with first Michael, then Dora.

As I read, I kept finding myself frustrated that I found several things simply unbelievable. Michael is the most convincing of the lot in the portrayal of the kind of conflict between religion and sex that plagues him; he is the kind of old school gay character that some contemporary readers might dislike because his story doesn’t end in a triumphant coming out, but whose confusion and uncertain ending reflect tensions that many gay people still live with. A central problem is Toby: a lot of the psychological tension of the plot revolves around his sudden entry into the world of sexual desire. His confusion and fumbling once that happens work well enough, but it is really very hard to imagine someone his age not already being very more aware of desire than he is early in the novel. He is just a little too naïve and carefree to be believable.

I found the particular ways in which Dora’s drama acted out equally unconvincing. Dora, it is established early on, is given to sudden acts of generosity, and it seems to be one of her few saving graces except that it is also what apparently leads her to make key “mistakes.” It is unclear to me how we are supposed to read this. On one side, the community (and far more her husband) frowns on her behavior in a way that comes across as stifling. However, the climactic action of the novel (I won’t reveal it here) turns around one of her moments of inspiration and desire to surprise others, and the overwhelming idea that everyone in the novel seems to accept—and Dora seems to come to realize—is that it is a huge mistake that will embarrass the community at Imber, which it in fact ends up doing. I felt like I was missing something here: Dora’s plan, while it seems unlikely to work, does not actually seem to me like something that would embarrass anyone. Indeed, if she pulled it off it could be quite impressive, and even failing it would end with a revelation that would likely excite everyone involved. Sure, people’s sense of impropriety can be irrational, but it usually has some tie to culture and class that I can’t identify here.

The novel does have its moments: many of the interior monologues of the characters are compelling, and there are scenes—like Toby’s encounter with a nun, Dora’s walk with Michael, and the group’s walk to check the bird traps—that are beautifully executed. Still, overall the motivations and characterizations driving the plot seemed every-so-slightly askew, and that often kept me from really jumping into the text.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Shelves To Read 2011

Last year at this time I noticed frequent side remarks on book blogs about the stacks of books that people have bought but haven’t yet read, and I thought it might be nice to actually have a photo of my “to read” shelves. I thought it might be nice to make this into a yearly event, so here is the updated version of my “to read” shelves.

It’s fun to compare to last year’s shelves and see where I’ve made progress—and where I haven’t. I’ve moved the “to read” books to a different, slightly slimmer bookshelf than before, so I’ve done a fairly good job of reading more than I buy in the past year. For now, at least, the books all fit the shelves! Of course, some of this may have to do with strategic weeding of the lower shelf, which has the lower priority items…

I hope to be reading a number of these books this summer, so this is about as close to a preview as this blog will ever have.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Granta 113: The Final Five

(I’ve been working my way through Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. The previous installments are here, here, and here. This post covers the final five stories.)

Having now finished Granta 113, I think there is one lesson to take away from all this, and it is a lesson for editors: don’t include so many excerpts from forthcoming novels. Three of the final five authors—Matías Néspolo, Andrés Felipe Solano, and Alejandro Zambra—are represented by excerpts, and the excerpts are all perfectly ok but don’t really make me want to run out and buy the work. I’ve never understood how this was supposed to work as a marketing ploy. When I read a story in a magazine or literary journal, I would much rather see a completed work. Zambra’s bio says he is working on a collection of short stories—why not include one of those? I will probably buy and read the novel the editors have excerpted here, but it will be because I’ve read his previous novels, not because of the excerpt. Give me something that shows the writer can deal with a beginning, middle, and end.

The real standout in this regard is Samanta Schweblin’s story, “Olingiris,” which tells of a bizarre business that allows women to come in and perform a ritualistic hair removal—by tweezing out the leg hairs of another woman one by one. The story has just the right mixture of the unexplained (Why do people line up to do this? How did this start? Who is running it, and what do they do with the hair?) and the explained, giving us the back stories of two women who work in the establishment. The story is amazing because its surreal events evoke all sorts of contemporary rituals—consumerism, the beauty parlor, prostitution, sex tourism—without being reducible to any of them. For me, this kind of story is the narrative equivalent of Emily Dickinson’s saying that poetry should spin your head like a top: it demands certain connections yet doesn’t easily add up to anything, producing a kind of sublimity and dizziness.

Patricio Pron’s story, “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs,” ends the volume. It is a well-told first-person story about a young writer who lives in an apartment underneath one of his major influences, dwelling incessantly on the life of the older writer and letting that shape his work. The general idea, as it develops, seems to be the way that writers fabricate ideas about their influences, making the line of literary development less clear and more a matter of happenstance and invention. [Insert your own longer Harold Bloom flashback here.] The story develops this idea fairly well, and it works as the final bookend to a volume about new writers; I was less interested in the reflections on writers who come to the city. I also feel I might be missing something just through a lack of thorough familiarity with Argentinean writers—for example, if there is a particular older writer Pron has in mind, I’ve missed the cues entirely.

Coming out the other side of this collection, there are really two writers I am eager to follow up on: Lucía Puenzo and Samanta Schweblin. To a lesser extent I also want to follow up on Carlos Labbé’s novel and on Pola Oloixarac if/as they are translated into English. Alejandro Zambra, as I said above, I’ll read more of, but not because of the excerpt here. Other writers I have some interest in and would quickly be persuaded to read by the right review: Javier Montes, Federico Falco, and even Carlos Yushimito, the last of whom I didn’t write about in my previous post. I’m not really sure that I would call the volume overall a big success, but I am happy that at least I came away from reading it with a few women writers in Spanish that have my interest, given the general problem with the lack of translations of women writers I’ve mentioned before. In that vein, hopefully next time someone makes a list of good new Spanish writing they will be able to do a little better than having only five women out of twenty-two writers.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Carlos Labbé, Federico Falco, Elvira Navarro

(I’m working my way through Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. The previous installments are here and here. This post covers three stories from the next nine.)

With only five more stories left in Granta 113, I haven’t encountered anything I disliked as much as the Barba story, but only three more have really grabbed me, so I will focus on them.

The first is Carlos Labbé’s “The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable,” which surprised me with my interest if for nothing else because the title is so bad I expected to groan myself all the way through. Labbé has one of the various excerpts from novels, and I have to say that it is the only one so far that makes me really curious to run out and buy the longer work (thank goodness the novel has a different title). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it is translated by Natasha Wimmer, as it sits well alongside her work on Bolaño. I find it hard to even describe a plot at this point, beyond its evocation of spy/detective story and a hint of surrealism. The narrator is describing a sighting of two wanted criminals, the sister of one of them, and a congressman publicly believed dead. The surrealism comes from the blend of strange behavior of the four, some seemingly unlikely behavior on the part of the narrator, and the narrator’s ability to tell things he couldn’t possibly have witnessed without quite a lot of voyeuristic effort.

Immediately after that excerpt is Federico Falco’s “In Utah There Are Mountains Too,” which is a funny story about a teenage girl, Cuqui, who develops a crush on a Mormon missionary. It is a little unlike anything else in this volume and works because it is really in all a tender story that somehow manages not to come off as cloying and sentimental.

The last thing I’ve read is Elvira Navarro’s “Gerardo’s Letters”—it is another excerpt translated by Natasha Wimmer, but this is one that I think I would like to stop right where it ends. The narrator tells the story of her disintegrating relationship over the course of a hostel stay, and you get a nice feel for how sick the two are of one another while also being very sad about it. I think the narrator would be hard to follow for the course of a novel, but her internal ranting and euphoria lend nice color to details such as the description of some kids at the hostel and the “creepy gnome” who runs it. One nice line that gathers in the hostel experience and the relationship troubles: “The PC takes a while to start, and it’s so cold that I plug in the hairdryer and rest it on the edge of the keyboard as once again I curse Gerardo and at the same time feel sad because everything is full of his opinions, which have become my own.”

Finally, By the Firelight has just covered several Granta 113 stories. A few I’ve discussed here (by Barba, Montes, and Puenzo), one I haven’t gotten to yet (Shweblin), and another that I read in the set covered by this post but didn’t discuss above. This last is Alberto Olmos’s “Eva and Diego,” and while I didn’t love it, the story has a couple of great moments, such as when Eva realizes she has no memory of the building that has previously occupied a now-empty space in the city (now that I’m on it, I’m reminded of James Merrill’s poem “An Urban Convalescence”). This story is another of the excerpts from novels the editors chose in place of full stories, and I could see this fragment turning into an interesting longer work.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lucía Puenzo’s XXY

After enjoying her Granta 113 story, I decided to track down Lucía Puenzo’s film XXY (2007), an adaptation of a short story by Sergio Bizzio. Puenzo makes good on many of the promises of her short story: in particular she is fantastic at weaving a story around highly charged issues of gender and sexuality, playing off of some film genre stereotypes but avoiding the pitfalls they might usually entail. The story focuses on an intersex teenager (Alex) and her parents and a visiting family with a son (Alvaro) of the same age.* The film is playing with material that has real potential to dive headlong into a Lifetime movie combination of voyeurism and pity, but Puenzo seizes the opportunity to play with some of the melodramatic tropes to which she alludes. The story opens through the perspective of the son of the visiting family, which has been invited by Alex’s mother, Suli, because Alvaro’s father, Ramiro, is a plastic surgeon and past friend with whom she’s been discussing the possibility of surgery to “decide” Alex’s gender (as female).

In a more conventional melodrama, this would be an opportunity to show the evils of Ramiro, while Alvaro redeems himself (and through him, the audience) by confronting Alex’s “true nature” and learning to love her—all the while leaving Alex as mostly a scientific specimen discovered on film by the camera’s increasingly prying eye. And to a certain extent this happens: Ramiro is a bully that Alvaro is going to have to continue living with, and there is some sympathy for Alvaro’s situation in the end. But really what is interesting is how the film narratively sidelines Ramiro as the villain: yeah, he’s a bad guy, but the threat he poses is easy to see and ultimately not very interesting here. Instead, the film offers us more and more of the perspective of Alex, Kraken (Alex’s father), and (to a lesser extent) Suli. In the process, the film develops some distance from Alvaro, turns the critique against him in addition to his father, and, as a result, makes the audience squirm. Instead of building on the suspense of what gender Alex “really is” or visualizing her intersex condition, Puenzo asks us why we think about the issue through that lens. The shift also opens up a perspective on the issues within Alex’s family that allows for a more interesting view of intersex lives than the abuse from the outside world and the fight to overcome it.

The film isn’t perfect: excepting the way she plays very well with point of view, Puenzo could work most on the visual in film. Not that the film isn’t beautiful, but there are some images that come across to me at least as a little heavy handed (the turtles, particularly early in the film, although later they work more seamlessly). I also felt Ramiro needed to demonstrate his “bullying” of Alvaro a little more clearly earlier in the film, but maybe its abrupt, seemingly random entrance into the film (in a scene over dinner) is part of the point. Still, these issues don’t come anywhere near to outweighing the strengths, and XXY has confirmed my interest in Puenzo’s writing enough that I’ve order a copy of her novel The Fish Child.

*I use the feminine pronoun in this post because the character has been raised to appear as a daughter, but one nice thing about the film is that it refuses the idea she is “truly” any one gender, something that I noticed was punctuated in the film by that fact that Alex’s father, Kraken, alternately refers to her as “mi hija” and “mi hijo” at certain points.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Granta 113: 7 More

(I’m working my way through Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. The previous installment—on the opening story, by Lucía Puenzo—is here. This post covers the next seven stories.)

After the blast of Puenzo’s opening story, I have to say the next several selections in Granta 113 felt fairly negligible. I drafted part of a paragraph going through the next four stories one by one and explaining what I didn’t like, but I think it suffices to say I found them a bit perfect and dull in the way short stories can fall into. The exception is Andrés Barba’s “The Coming Flood,” which takes on the perspective of a declining porn star hooked on plastic surgery. It is written with an on-and-off quasi-stream-of-consciousness, and the perspective it offers on the protagonist’s way of thinking seems to me to slip into an easy condescension. I felt like I was listening to someone highly religious talking on sanctimoniously about how sex corrodes your soul and pointing to someone dying on the street as proof of a comeuppance rather than really trying to understand that person’s situation. It seems absurd to think anyone would be publishing a story with this perspective in 2010, so maybe something about the tone was lost in translation or in my reading.

Things take a turn back to the genuinely engaging with Pola Oloixarac’s “Conditions for the Revolution.” I won’t say this story is completely successful: I read it twice and in the second half both times I felt like the momentum evaporated. Briefly, the story is set in a present moment of political unrest in Buenos Aires with intermittent memories of the political unrest of the previous generation, and it focuses on a young woman named Mara, her mother Cris (an activist from the era of Perón’s rise), and people close to them.

Despite my reservations about the ending, the story is a worthwhile read: what is most satisfying is the way it uses humor to tease apart the complicated interweaving of political struggles and sexual relationships in an era where the traumas of past political struggles still burn some, stir others with nostalgia, serve as a sexual pretext for others, and invoke imprecise comparisons to the present that no one can help making but that never seem quite right. In this context, Cris’s just-tolerated boyfriend Quique imagines himself ideally positioned for sexual conquest:

In exile, Quique had discovered that the traumatic arithmetic that melded a past and a moustache could function as proof of a set of privileged experiences, as shared as they were private, in the light of whose mysterious shadow the true socialist homeland would always exist, in the hearts of comrades and lovers, as stated in Walt Whitman’s dedication to his readers in Leaves of Grass.

Quique has found that he can use politics as a pretext for sex—Whitman is more a useable slogan to him than a real passion. But Oloixarac doesn’t take that as an opportunity to dismiss political investments in general; Cris sees Quique as a bit of a fool that she lets hang around her. Politics do not seem to have gone wrong in this story because people just use it as a pretext for sex; instead, radical action just seems to be failing for reasons people can’t quite grapple with (there is a protest beginning in the story, but it seems purposeless and doomed despite the passion), and politics saturates the air so much that it inevitably serves to contextualize people’s thoughts on their relationships.

The next story, Javier Montes’s “The Hotel Life,” is an excerpt from a yet-to-be-finished novel: I think I’ll want to read it, although the story works well on its own and I’m a little afraid the novel might end up not matching the escalating weirdness of this part on its own. The narrator is a hotel reviewer who takes a job in a hotel in his home city, which he normally wouldn’t do. I think it might be something about the constant movement of his job mixed with its repetitiveness that shapes the tone of the story: it somehow has much more realistic detail than Paul Auster’s City of Glass while also maintaining a similar feeling of eerie abstraction for most of its length. The last few pages are simply appalling—and I mean that as a compliment, so I won’t spoil anything.

The last story of this bunch is “Gigantomachy,” by Pablo Gutiérrez, and it features the narration of a basketball player who views his size in part with pride, waxing nostalgic about his abilities on the court, and in part with frustration with it as a near disability and a destructive force. His fraught state comes from an unclearly revealed accident (or maybe it wasn’t an accident) that has made him into a media pariah. I haven’t entirely decided what I think of it. The stream-of-consciousness does a nice job of running the gamut of emotions, all of which seem to be substituting for the one emotion he doesn’t take on. Really I should like this more than I do, but I just sort of sigh whenever I start reading a story featuring sports. So ignore my reticence and read the story for yourself.

On a related note, since my last post By the Firelight has a discussion of Texas Tech’s Americas Series, which includes a novel by Lucía Puenzo titled The Fish Child. Amazon doesn’t have a description, but you can read one on the press’s site. It looks fascinating and I look forward to reading it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Granta 113: Lucía Puenzo

Time is not becoming abundant as the semester goes on, but I am finding some to spare to make my way through the stories in Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists, and I think I might make a few posts as I read. For this post, I want to focus on the story by Lucía Puenzo that opens the collection, “Cohiba.”

Although there is nowhere near a majority of women writers in the volume, the choice of Puenzo’s story to lead it seems addressed to people like me who have grown a little weary of the relative lack of women writers translated from Spanish and also of the interlaced machismo and misogyny in those writers that are translated. The story revolves around a sexually abusive encounter a woman has while in Cuba for a writers’ retreat led by Gabriel García Márquez, and it is full of embarrassment and rage at the individual act and the knowledge that it is a part of a culture of abuse. Given my last encounter with Márquez, I’m tempted to read it specifically as a rebuke: incrimination by metonymy. You get a hint of the anger about this perpetual abuse in Bolaño’s 2666, but it is buried by despair over the numbing repetition of the violence. In Puenzo’s story, even desperately small acts of retaliation backfire and compound the violence, keeping the wound fresh.

As for Márquez, you can see another reason why the Granta editors would want to place Puenzo’s story first: whether you see him as indicted or just ridiculous in the story, the portrayal allows them to advance their own thesis about generational differences for their volume. When he bothers to pay attention to the younger writers in the story, he offers banal catchphrases and advice-that-doesn’t-quite-advise. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think of Márquez again without imagining him in a jumpsuit, which emblematizes faded glory like nothing else I can think of in literature.

I had heard of Puenzo’s film XXY previously and thought it sounded interesting, but I never got around to watching it. This story makes me want to dig it up for a viewing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011

I don’t write much about film and other non-book media here much, but I don’t want to go without paying my own brief tribute to Sidney Lumet. I never really got into many of the big 1970s directors that everyone loves so much, but Lumet is someone from that era who I really enjoyed. For me, interest in his work started in the late 1990s when I took my first undergraduate film class: we read his book Making Movies (1996), a fantastic combination of film memoir and introduction to how film works, and watched a number of his movies. To this day, Network (1976) ranks among my favorite films, one that is as important and relevant as ever. I won’t say that every film was a gem, and he made slightly more cop/criminal movies than I care to see, but he had a fantastic career bookended by two great movies, 12 Angry Men (1957) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). I’m sad to see him go.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Oryx and Crake

After reading Oryx and Crake (2003), I’m not as impressed as I was after reading A Handmaid’s Tale last year, but I did enjoy the book. Atwood excels at world creation and pinpointing the dystopian outcomes of our current worst practices. Pigoons, rakunks, ChickieNobs: the words that name things in Jimmy’s world are ridiculous yet completely believable as advertising’s Orwellian legacy. Jimmy’s first encounter with ChickieNobs reminds me of the episode of the televised version of This American Life where they visit a modernized pig farm. Bioforms, environmental disaster…In Handmaid, the world ended in the ice of religious repression; here it ends in the fires of contagion.

Nonetheless, and while all of this extrapolation seems an accurate enough indictment, the book also lacks the sense of threat and dread of the earlier novel. Some of the problem may be the pacing: the last third of the novel reads like Atwood suddenly decided she needed to wrap things up after a leisurely review of Jimmy’s youth and his situation with the Crakers. But I suspect also it is a matter of style and perspective. The ironic knowingness that pervades Jimmy’s world and its portrayal doesn’t work as well as the enforced ignorance of Offred that lends suspense and suspicion to the earlier work. Atwood tries to get those things back through the structure that demands we read to find out what happened to transform the world from Jimmy’s to Snowman’s, but the warmth generated is more that of calisthenics than the main event. Still, that is invigorating in its own way, enough to make me want to continue on with The Year of the Flood when I get a chance.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


The semester schedule has really put a dent in my reading, not to mention my posting. I’m hoping I can at least get through a couple of things this week before it is back to the grindstone.

First up is Flight, a young adult novel by Sherman Alexie that has been sitting on my “to read” shelf for a couple of years. I don’t really read a lot of young adult fiction, and, on top of that, I’ve also found that I have liked Alexie’s films more than I have his fiction. When I read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven a couple of years ago, I enjoyed the few stories I had read before, but the book as a whole didn’t really impress me.

That said, I think Flight works very well. The novel opens with an epigraph from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, “Po-tee-weet”: a bird’s sound that chirps along no matter how good or bad the events and thus mocks our sense of some controlling, caring power that shapes events. And, as in Vonnegut, violence cannot be solved from above but through only through human determination. Alexie plays off of Vonnegut’s structure as well: the multi-racial teenager Zits travels to different points in time, but rather than visiting other moments in his own time-line, he inhabits the bodies of others throughout history.

In doing so, Alexie ties contemporary violence and racial anger to its history without oversimplifying the connection. More importantly, he has a knack for complicating character(s) so that readers can simultaneously understand and even sympathize with the events that drive people to violence while also maintaining our responsibility for our violence and the need to overcome it.

Flight is the type of book I would like more teenagers to read for pleasure (to the extent that any teenagers read for pleasure any more). I’m using the term “pleasure” here loosely, as the issues and events of the novel are by no means “enjoyable” in the usual sense of the term, but I think it is generally true of aesthetic pleasure—and especially literary pleasure—that it cannot be simply reduced to happy thoughts or feelings. Here, Zits has been shunted from one foster home to another, and Alexie, as in much of his other work, is concerned with the way violence (racial and otherwise) perpetuates itself through history, often in intimate ways. Some people might see this as a bit “heavy” for teenagers, but Alexie makes a good case for why teenagers need exactly this kind of book: it is a time in life when most people feel disempowered and angry, and writing that takes those feelings seriously, without condescension, is something to value.

Friday, January 28, 2011

2011 Best Translated Book Award Longlist

Yesterday the longlist for the 2011 Best Translated Book Award went up over at Three Percent. I've been eagerly anticipating the release: last year's longlist, and more importantly the book-by-book discussion Three Percent hosted (and promises to again this year), highlighted a lot of books I hadn't heard of and promptly put on my to-read list when I did. I got around to reading a few of those this year--Death in Spring (pre-blog: but I loved it), Op Oloop, Rex--and I hope to get to a few more this year or sometime in the future.

I actually read one book that would have qualified for this year's list, Alejandro Zambra's The Private Lives of Trees, but it didn't make the cut. Otherwise, I was already looking forward to César Aira's The Literary Conference after my recent read of Ghosts. The rest of this year's list I know next to nothing about, so I will look forward to reading the descriptions over the coming months and finding lots of things to put on the "to read" shelf.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


By now César Aira’s Ghosts (1980, trans. 2008 by Chris Andrews) has gotten a lot of attention and people have moved on to other Aira titles (of which there are a lot of choices), so I’m a little late to the party. It is a fantastic little book, deceptively short in that it demands pausing and letting your mind work over the densely interwoven details: not that the prose is especially difficult, although some of the more philosophical passages take time to parse, but anyone reading alertly will keep stumbling over details that suggest others in the book. Aira’s increasingly well-known writing method, wherein he writes a page a day and refuses to return and edit a finished page, shows in the way that the narrator’s focus shifts relatively quickly from one topic to another, or from one character’s perspective to another’s. Patri, the young woman who becomes the focus of the later part of the novel, considers at one point, as her mother and aunt shift among conversation topics, that it was “something to be marveled at, a challenge to belief: how is it that conversation topics keep coming up, one after another, inexhaustibly, as if they weren’t tied to objects, which are finite, as if they were pure form?” This comment is clearly self-referential to the book’s structure, but it neglects the way that all these arbitrary transitions build up into a chain of metonymic connections: passages that at first seem unconnected are nonetheless evoked as the book continues, and despite what appears like slipshod construction on a page-to-page basis, the novel builds a solid structure.

The novel follows the activity of a day at a construction site on New Year’s Eve when the work should be done but isn’t. In the morning the various future apartment tenants show up with their personal decorators to take measurements and make plans while the workers continue their jobs. By lunch, the tenants are gone and the holiday begins for the workers, and the book narrows to focus on the family of Raúl Viñas, who doubles as security guard for the site and lives on the top floor, as they prepare for the arrival of relatives for a New Year’s Eve dinner and fireworks. Meanwhile, throughout the book, ghosts haunt the construction site—ghosts whom only the workers and their families can see.

I’ve seen a number of brief interpretations of the ghosts, several revolving around their representation of sexuality (particularly to Patri, who is apparently sexually active but on the verge of being officially an “adult” expected to find a husband ASAP)—but I think in some sense this is opposite of the truth. My take is that the ghosts signify counterfactuals: that is, futures that will not come to pass, things that could be but will not. This is why we have the focus on the almost-complete year and the incomplete construction site, and on Patri’s almost completed childhood. The owners of these future apartments can’t see the ghosts, I think, because the building is going to end up just the way they want it, suited just to their (middle-class) needs. Likewise, to the extent that they suggest sex at all for Patri (and really I think a big part of the attraction is that despite their nakedness their sexuality is mute), it is against a narrative of growing up, getting married, and repeating the lives of her mother and aunts. The ghosts, in this case, suggest everything the life of a young woman might be, if she weren’t tethered to the real expectations of marriage and motherhood that are likely to push other possibilities into the realm of fantasy. Patri’s preference for the ghosts, at the end, is to me a kind of protest against life if life must mean a set path that she would not imagine for herself. My sense is that some readers may take Patri’s actions, as her mother does, as a sign of a problem with Patri, but I take it as indicative of a problem with her world that she sees and cannot solve.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Celebration in the Northwest

In keeping with my desire to read more women writers translated from Spanish, I tracked down a used paperback copy of Ana María Matute’s Celebration in the Northwest (1963, trans. Phoebe Ann Porter 1997). I find it strange that the University of Nebraska Press currently only has this available in hardback (and crazy expensive at that), and also that there is so little Matute available in English. I would like to think her recent win of the Cervantes Prize will help motivate publishers, but I’m not sure whether that will be the case.

The most enjoyable thing about this book is Matute’s rather twisted but beautiful descriptions and comparisons. Here, for example, is part of protagonist Juan Medinao’s perception of his mother when he is a child: “The black beads of her rosary, like a caravan of ants on a business trip to her soul, looped over her wrist where her blood pulsed erratically.” Or, on first encountering a young priest: “As he watched him, Juan experienced a feeling similar to that which came over him before he ate a baby partridge.”

About the story itself I have somewhat mixed feelings: I enjoyed it most in the first half, where it was harder to get a grip on the allegorical element. Briefly, the story opens with the involuntary and disastrous return to Lower Artámila of Dingo, a traveling mimic, whose presence spurs the memories of Juan Medinao, the owner of most of the region. Yet, while Dingo features briefly in the past scenes, Juan’s memories center instead on his evolving relationship with his half-brother Pablo, a local laborer whose mother had an affair with Juan Senior. It is here where the novel’s allegory starts to become clearer, as Pablo comes to represent values of uprightness, self-sufficiency, and independence against Juan’s position as a landlord who really does nothing and gets his sense of self-worth from religion rather than action. I’m sympathetic to the critiques of class and religion, especially as they apply to the context of mid-century Spain, but an unfortunate side effect of the way Matute approaches them is that moral goodness is equated with “perfect” bodies and immorality with disability. Moreover and because of this, Juan’s feelings toward Pablo comprise an intense jealousy and desire—increasingly sensualized and homoerotic so that homoeroticism comes to be identified with a lack of self-confidence and honesty. In the last half of the novel, this gradually chipped away at my pleasure in the prose.

Still, the book makes me want to read more of Matute’s work and hope that I’ll be able to enjoy some of her other stories more. She clearly has a wicked streak in her understanding of children, and I am curious to see how that plays out in some of her stories geared to a younger audience.