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.