Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Planets

There is no lack of great literature (and art, film, etc.) that reflects on the dictatorship in Argentina (among those of other countries) from a later time, even to the extent that it has become one of the tributaries of Latin American literature that steadily streams through the narrow channels of translators. Probably there are some people out there already getting a little tired of it and are ready to move on. But Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets (trans. Heather Cleary, 2012) more than rewards anyone who takes it up. It is simply a great novel of the lasting personal effects of a political disaster.

The narrator spends the novel remembering his youth with his friend, M, before M disappeared without warning during the dictatorship--a victim by accident rather than a real political target, as far as anyone can tell. Most of these memories involve the two walking the city’s streets together talking and telling stories. The reflections are prompted by a completely arbitrary event, an explosion that the narrator spontaneously intuits must have killed his friend. This belief is, in its way, every bit as irrational as some of those I found uncompelling in When We Were Orphans, but here the leap in imagination is much easier to make. It is easy to understand the narrator’s belief as simply a desire for closure to a mystery, a product of mental anguish seeking its end (but not, perhaps, entirely succeeding).

Chejfec’s biggest success is in the distinction of the different narrative modes of the novel, which slips between the narrator’s first-person reminiscence, third-person stories told by M and M’s father while they walk the city (some of the best passages in the book), and third-person passages describing M and the narrator, which come across to me as if the narrator were discussing himself from a position of complete alienation.

The first-person narration in the first half of the novel poses the biggest difficulties for reading, partially because it reflects the narrator’s confusion and partially because it reflects a dense, poststructuralist thinking of the world. How much were the narrator and his friend different people, and how much the same person? How is anyone really different from one another, while at the same time having endless distinctions? In their own wanderings and their stories about other people traveling, space offers endless variations but the landscape remains the same, an endless disappointment in the traveler’s desire for difference. The narrator obsesses over similarity and difference, and you could say that one thing the novel does is confuse us over the difference between similarity and difference. A comic version of this appears in a story M’s father tells about a Jewish wedding, where an endless series of men in the story have names that run together, where their roles are distinct and yet they seem like a blur on the page as they build up. Their names are the signs both of their likeness and difference at the same time.

What pervades the novel, though, is a deeply personal grief, born out of specific circumstances and yet deeply recognizable beyond that circumstance—similarity and difference again out of the same signs. It is a grief that turns at times towards terror, paranoia, boredom, and humor, but always on the way back to itself.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Vilnius Poker

I rarely start reading a novel without finishing it. Even if something isn’t all that great I will usually keep going. However, after the first 20 pages of Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis (trans. Elizabeth Novickas, 2009), I put it down and haven’t looked back for the past two days.

It is a shame because I appreciate the work Open Letter is doing with literature in translation (and this is one of their early books that came out with gorgeously illustrated hardbound covers), but I came to a realization while slogging my way through what I finished that I really don’t have any tolerance left for this kind of narrator. Angry and paranoid, incredibly misogynist. It could be that the narrator has some traumatic past that explains his attitude while not forgiving it, or perhaps he is ironically undercut as the story goes on. I just don’t care. No more.

The good news is that I am already nearly done with another Open Letter title, and it is every bit as beautiful as this is vile. But that will be for next time!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) will probably be my last read of his novels unless something comes along that looks irresistible. I enjoyed Remains of the Day when I read it, and Never Let Me Go is a great dystopia, but Orphans makes the third book of his in a row where I have been left underwhelmed and frequently bored.

The novel follows the narrator, Christopher Banks, as he remembers his past growing up in Shanghai before World War I and simultaneously rises to prominence as a detective in England between the wars. He decides to go back to Shanghai to investigate the circumstances of his parents’ disappearance years earlier, an event that sent him back to England to grow up. He is motivated by his own sense, and apparently that of others, that if he returns to Shanghai he will break open the case and, with it, solve the underlying evils leading up to World War II.

Despite the differences in location and social status, the novel retreads thematic terrain from Remains: Ishiguro again points out a general naïveté in the way the narrator and those around him think about world politics. They see the impending war as the rise of an evil that can be easily sorted out by cold investigative rationalism and good diplomacy by the right people, but they really have no idea what they are in for.

The problem with the novel isn’t that Ishiguro revisits these themes (many writers successfully go back to the same issues again and again and keep finding something fresh)—it is that he does it with such a heavy hand. Part of this is a problem of narrator reliability. Ishiguro pushes Banks’s cluelessness a little too far to be believable, and likewise the unreliability of the narrator is performed in too obvious ways. The narrator is meant to be simultaneously over-confident and completely bewildered, admitting his mistakes in memory too easily and performatively to fit his personality. Each section is dated, and the narrator seems to be talking or perhaps writing diary-like entries, but any potential audience, even himself in a diary, would prompt a completely different narrative style. In some first-person narratives this would work—a narrator can sometimes speak in an unrealistic manner but not come across as false—but it doesn’t work here, perhaps because the chapter labels emphasize time and place so much and thus set an expectation for contextual narration rather than something more inventive.

There are other problems: the biggest is an unnecessary failed romance plot that bloats the novel. The ending picks up the pace some, although the resolution is both bizarre and so obviously intended to instill a moral that it too is a bit difficult to endure.

So that is enough Ishiguro for me. On to other writers, hopefully doing more exciting things.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Weight of Temptation

The back cover of the University of Nebraska Press edition of Ana María Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (trans. Andrea G. Labinger, 2012), quotes reviews of the original Spanish that cite it as a critique of the cult of thinness, an Argentinian fat feminism. The summary of the book tries to equivocate on that, and it may be right to do so. For while Shua’s novel certainly expresses some agreement with certain principals of fat feminism—that some people have biological dispositions toward heaviness, that thinness is an abusive ideal—the agreement is somewhat to the side of what seems like the broader point. Because in the end Shua’s novel doesn’t seem that sympathetic with the fat either (except, perhaps, the children), seeming to make a much broader critique of an array of the ways the question of fatness and thinness is always a marker of class privilege, even when taking up the defense of the fat from the ideal of thinness.

The novel focuses on Marina Rubin, whose despair over her inability to stick to a diet and lose weight leads her to join The Reeds, a nightmarish camp that heaps abuse upon the campers as part of the weight-loss program. How abusive? Campers sign a form that allow the staff to take whatever measures necessary as long as a camper doesn’t decide to leave (which carries a stiff financial penalty keeping most from doing so), including having mouths wired shut, electroshock therapy, and, if the head doctor just happens to decide it would be a worthwhile lesson for everyone there, death. The adults are the lucky ones, though: they are there by choice, unlike the children at the camp next door sent there by parents.

Shua certainly has no love for the ideal of thinness that these people are trying to pursue, but the novel is less a dystopia than a satire. Dystopias, by nature, tend more toward an allegorical representation of present problems in order to evoke our horror, but Shua’s novel emphasizes that the events are an extension of present realities, and she evokes not so much horror as disdain. Before Marina enters the camp, she tries one last day of fasting. But quickly she allows herself to make minor concessions—first she decides water and other liquids are ok, then small bits of food, and by the end of the day she is gorging herself—and the experience of the camp is not a whole lot different: the camp is full of repeat visitors who put on the weight again as soon as they leave. The camp, like the fasting diet, involves a promise that drastic action will create immediate effects that will then be maintained by magically developing a moderate regular diet. Both end in a rebellion of gluttony.

Yet, while the book satirizes the ideal of thinness and the culture of weight loss as both unrealistic and unnecessary, it reminds us, persistently, that the whole question is mostly relevant to those well off enough to worry about fat vs. thin and the people from the lower classes they “sponsor” to help—but mostly to feel better about themselves. The sadistic doctor likes berating the campers with the fact that their presence there is itself a distraction from the reality that many around the globe are going hungry, and in the end the novel seems to give that idea more credence than anything else except, again, the way that children become another underclass victimized by their parents’ obsession. Thus Shua’s novel takes a familiar political critique and pushes it into a more unfamiliar territory, and this is what makes the novel so engaging. There are moments where it falters—out of the blue here and there a stale paragraph of dry factoids threatens the momentum—but its strengths make The Weight of Temptation well worth reading.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Vineland (1990) has been one of the lingering Thomas Pynchon titles I had not gotten around to reading (only one left now: Mason & Dixon), and while it has its strengths it is probably the weakest of his novels I have read except for Inherent Vice. The novel follows, at different points, Zoyd Wheeler, his ex-wife Frenesi, his daughter Prairie, and a few companions as they all try to evade an FBI agent out of control, Brock Vond. In particular, Brock is obsessed with Frenesi, who in the 1960s he had seduced into betraying fellow leftist activists. Prairie also is out to track down her mother, who hasn’t seen her ex-husband and daughter since the latter was a baby.

The novel is at its best when it dives into the past to investigate, through its characters, the fall of 1960s leftist activism and increasing oppression under Nixon and then Reagan. This is, essentially, Frenesi’s story: a long chapter a little over half-way through the book describes her slow fall for Brock Vond and betrayal of a campus protest organization and her own ideals. The problems with the novel come earlier, with Prairie’s search for her mother. Prairie is written in a way that makes you feel like Pynchon is writing a Tom Robbins novel, filled with naïve romanticism and gosh-golly pluck. And you could say the novel is working to undermine that by then portraying Frenesi’s story and deflating Prairie’s naiveté, but something still doesn’t sit right.

The end of the novel has me ambivalent. Complete deus ex machina, it is a little too hard (and frankly boring) to read the long final chapter wrapping up loose ends one by one into a happy ending (with one undercurrent of lurking danger with Prairie to undermine the comfort) without wondering if Pynchon intended this all along or just decided he was tired of the novel and wanted to wrap it up. If intentional, the artificiality of the ending would have packed much more punch if much shorter. Indeed, the whole novel would probably be improved by cutting out large chunks. Usually Pynchon is at his best in his longer novels, but here he would benefit from a good edit.