If you were paying attention when I wrote about Aira’s Ghosts a little while ago, you noticed that New Directions offered to send me the two other Aira books they have published. There was no hesitation and very little effort to tone down my excitement when I gratefully accepted. Ghostsgave a taste of something I haven’t seen in many other places. Aira’s unique writing process results in such a strange and unique book, one never knows what one is going to get. Indeed, this is how it feels while reading. Because Aira writes in steps, the book evolves in our hands, turning suddenly. It is astounding that with this style, Aira still produces a solid, cohesive text, one with a unity most authors would cut off their arm for.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (Un episodio en la vida del pintor Viajero, 2000; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2006) is completely different than Ghosts, yet the freshness, the thrust forward into the unknown remains. I read about it on John Self’s blog, and he teased everyone with this: “What the book is saying is the book.” I think John is exactly right, but after reading it, I see that Aira actually goes a step further.
Here we read a fictional account of an episode in the life of Johann Mortiz Rugendas, a German landscape artist. He is encouraged by the ideas of Alexander von Humboldt:
Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was an all-embracing scholar, perhaps the last of his kind: his aim was to apprehend the world in its totality; and the way to do this, he believed, in conformity with a long tradition, was through vision.
Under this philosophy, Rugendas takes a trip to the Americas to record the life of Latin America. Aira gives Rugendas a particular desire to record Argentina:
Although the Mexican phase is the best represented, and tropical jungles and mountain scenes constitute his most characteristic subject matter, the secret aim of this long voyage, which consumed his youth, was Argentina: the mysterious emptiness to be found on the endless plains at a point equidistant from the horizons. Only there, he thought, would he be able to discover the other side of his art … This dangerous illusion pursued him throughout his life. Twice he crossed the threshold: in 1837, he came over the Andes from Chile, and in 1847, he approached from the east, via the Rio de la Plata. The second expedition was the more productive, but did not take him beyond the environs of Buenos Aires; on his first journey, however, he ventured towards the dreamed-of center and in fact reached it momentarily, although, as we shall see, the price he had to pay was exorbitant.
Rugendas gets to Argentina through Chile and proceeds to journey across the country, hoping to get to Buenos Aires, recording through sketches the life he sees, hoping for a bit of action and always afraid he’s going to miss some vital moment.
His other cherished dream was to witness an Indian raid. In that area, they were veritable human typhoons, but, by their nature, refractory to calendars and oracles. It was impossible to predict them: there might be one in an hour’s time or none until next year (and it was only January). Rugendas would have paid to paint one. Every morning of that month, he woke up secretly hoping the great day had come. As in the case of the earthquake, it would have been in poor taste to mention this desire.
Hopefully in the pulled quotes above, one can see Aira’s ability with language. Even when I was unsure where this was going, I was thoroughly enjoying the voyage. It is vast yet immediate, full of frenetic energy yet poised and controlled. Collecting the translated books by Aira is a worthy endeavor. Hopefully the incredibly talented Chris Andrews will continue to produce them for us.
Excellent news from the literary awards arena. Alice Munro has been awarded the Man Booker International Prize!
I’m sure that will make KFC very proud!
David Park is a writer from Northern Ireland whom I might never have heard of were it not for his fellow Northern Irishman, John Self. Last year John trumpeted the release of Park’s The Truth Commissioner as “a book worthy of the highest praise.” Then this year, John visited Swallowing the Sun (2004) from Park’s backlist. John suggested that Park belonged in the company of “novelists from Northern Ireland [who] could reasonably said to be of international stature.” Unfortunately for those of us in America, Park is not yet a well known name, and is not readily available here. Ahh, but fortunately for me, John hosted a contest on his blog and I was one of those fortunate enough to win a copy of Swallowing the Sun. I can now add to the praise of others: Park’s novel is excellent, and he should be more widely read.
Free copy courtesy of John Self and Bloomsbury.
I knew little more about Swallowing the Sun than that it takes place in Belfast, that it deals, perhaps only tangentially, with the Troubles, but that it is primarily a book about family relations. Park excellently makes the book an intimate look at a family struggle while keeping the political undertones subtle and delicately intertwined, surfacing only slightly and believably.
The book begins at the graduation of Martin’s daughter Rachel, who is the great hope for a severance with the past. She’s bound for Oxford or Cambridge. We know from the brief prologue that Martin grew up in a rough neighborhood with an abusive father and somewhat aloof mother. His little brother is still part of that neighborhood. Martin, however, has managed to remove himself. However, now with a family of his own, Martin feels like an imposter. At the graduation, he looks around at the other parents who have the “confidence not to be sitting in their best clothes” and wonders when the façade will drop. He’s absolutely proud of his daughter but is insecure enough to actually consider leaving the ceremony.
Martin has done a lot to break away from the life that was laid out before him, though he considers his life now to be a façade. He now works as a security guard in a museum and goes around trying to memorize the information so he can keep within his daughter’s orbit when she leaves. After a shameful encounter, Martin feels even more guilt about his past and his seeming roleplaying. This sample passage excellently shows how much Martin wants to be fully integrated into the life he has but that he cannot escape his repressed anger about his own past. Those two feelings come together in a nicely judgmental tone.
There’s something else that has started to get to him—working the Sunday afternoon shift. It’s not the noise of the crowds or the shuffling vacuousness of their faces, it’s not the street kids playing chasey, that affects him the most. It’s the steady procession of separated fathers with their designated access hours to put in that upsets him in a way he has never known before. Pumped up on fast-food lunches and fizzy drinks, the kids scamper ahead, while their fathers struggle to keep up, their showy attempts at fatherhood being ignored. They feel the obligation to point out things to their sons and daughters, to compensate for their absence of instruction during the rest of the week. The children are always overexcited, pleased to be with them but still determined to show the edge of their unspoken resentment at what they see as a betrayal, their rejection by someone to whom they had given their trust. So he watches them exploit the fathers’ sense of guilt and extract as much as they can from their pockets in the café or shop but without the forgiveness for which they’re desperate.
Just as we readers are settling into a pleasant rhythm in the book, roaming into the excellently rendered psychologies of the main characters, Park dries our throats with a silencing shock, and the family’s peace and success spiral out of control. Martin’s anger continues to build.
. . . he watches the children dropping coins into the water and even that makes him angry. Why should they have luck? Why should they have what he’s never had because a coin splashes into water? He watches the single fathers with their children borrowed like a weekend video, and remembers all the times he thought this was the worst thing that could happen and now he hates them because they don’t know how good the little they have really is.
The book is deeply moving and at times thrilling. While maintaining a quick pace, Park is able to create a believable nuclear family of four by focusing a limited third-person perspective on each character, allowing the reader to see the motives that underly the actions leading to an encounter with the past.
I agree with John. Park deserves to be ranked with authors of international stature. And apparently, he’s getting better.
Another of the best places to go for excellent world literature is the Dalkey Archive Press, a nonprofit publisher ran from the University of Illinois. An interviewer once asked the founder, John O’Brien, for a description of the types of books the Dalkey Archive publishes—experimental, avant-garde, innovative? O’Brien said: Subversive. “My point was that the books, in some way or another, upset the apple cart, that they work against what is expected, that they in some way challenge received notions, whether those are literary, social or political.” The Dalkey Archive is also home of the triquarterly publication Context, which you can read on their website. It’s a valuable website for many reasons, but critical introductions to unknown authors (for example, Gérard Gavarry) make it invaluable.
Gavarry is entirely new to me, which makes sense since Hoppla! 1 2 3 (Hop lá! un duex trois, 2001; tr. from the French by Jane Kuntz, 2009) is the first English translation of one of his eight books. It will be available early June. It is the first book this year that when I finished I wanted to go immediately back to page one to read again, even without a short break. It is that interesting and complex. I’m really hoping some of you get a hold of the book so we can talk here about it. It is one to read, reread, and then discuss.
Review copy courtesy of The Dalkey Archive Press.
The title of the book comes from Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera: ”And as the first head rolls I’ll say: hoppla!” One can infer from this that things in this book lead up to an act of violence, and that is correct (though it is brief and usually occurs offstage). The 1 2 3, comes because, in a sort of triptych, we get to read the story—the lead-up and the violence—three times with three different sets of images, and to see the roots of violence as they begin to grow in three different perspectives.
The first section, called “The Coconut Palm,” begins with a beautifully rendered traffic jam. Yes, “beautifully rendered” and “traffic jam.” The radio is playing and tells the listening drivers about alternate routes:
This resulted in an anarchic swarm of automobiles filling up the entire local grid. Migratory flows intermixed, intertwined, increased, and multiplied, becoming long processions, wandering in slow motion, searching in the dusk for some alternate route. A cold rain began to fall, soaking the gray of the sky, the red of the brake lights, the white, yellow, and orange of headlights and suburban glare.
“The Coconut Palm” presents the roots of violence from a social or communal perspective. We watch the story unfold almost as if we were one of the many people wandering around the periphery; or rather, as if we are all of the people wandering around the periphery. There is an exceptional scene on a train heading from Paris to the suburbs. The passengers in the last coach are comfortably seated for their journey home until four rowdy youths enter.
At present, the other passengers are taking up less room in the compartment. They are also less individualized, bound together now by the fearful hostility they feel toward these unruly youths they’re being forced to ride with, having no idea what lunatic idea might now come into their heads, what new stunt they might improvise, whether their next move will be swift, precise, and brutal, or slow, expansive, and awkward . . .
The situation worsens when two young women engage in a scuffle with the boys. Nevertheless, the fellow passengers on the train remain uncomfortably immobile. Gavarry describes this scene in a strange and wonderful way that so effectively defamiliarizes the reader with the situation:
All around, some of the passengers wagged their heads, a sickly smile on their faces—which was their way of maintaining that all this commotion wasn’t really amounting to anything nasty. Others, as though barely restraining themselves from intervening, gave a slight wiggle of heroic indignation; while still others acted as though they hadn’t seen a thing, despite the mounting evidence that something disastrous was about to happen right under their noses. Because, despite multiple attempts by the as-yet-unmolested girl to intercede—”Come on, quit screwing around!,” “Cut the crap!,” or “Is this what you guys are like?”—the male excitement was growing. Worse, it was changing form. The four late adolescents, who together had foisted their physicality onto the scene in the train-car from the start, and whose subsequent movements, however varied they may have been from one boy to the next, had nonetheless composed a well-regulated choreography—these same four were not getting increasingly agitated, and each in his own way.
While Gavarry’s premise for the book is excellent, it is bolstered by an exquisite style that can be both abstract in an almost scientific sense, as in this example—
Between the epigastrium and the pelvic region, in among the meanderings of our entrails, there germinates Refusal. We don’t feel its corpuscular presence at first: only a thermal shift, and icy cold welling up from a place deep within us—deep, but nonetheless as far from the self as possible—and which, spreading unobstructed into our bodies, assumes the form of a thousand filaments merging with the complex network of our nerves. This intermingling disrupts the entire organism, all the way to the epidermal level, where, reacting to a phenomenon normally restricted to the viscera, the skin pales here, flashes there, and everywhere starts to crawl. Finally, when it outgrows the belly—as do pain or rage in similar circumstances—Refusal is externalized.
—or disturbingly, poetically, intimate, delving into lonely fears while remaining beautiful, as in this example—
As four hours Universal Time approaches, which in February is three o’clock Ris time, no harbinger of a new dawn emerges, but instead there is a deepening of night in the outlying suburbs. Not a sound to be heard. Nothing stirring. The nocturnal fog soaks the suburban lamplight, so that everywhere the same stagnant icy gray medium reigns, where earth and sky mingle, engulfing structures, sleepers, and vegetation alike.
There is a lot to think about in this piece. I didn’t even go into the fantastic groups of images Gavarry utilizes in each of the three pieces, giving each piece its coherence and completeness while further defamiliarizing the reader, eliminating bearings the reader used to orient him or herself in the other sections. Each section carries the same people to the same event. Each is still unique and compelling and important. Indeed, through this book not only does Gavarry reveal some excellent insights into the roots of violence but, in doing so, he shows the power and vitality of literature.
For me, one of the most exciting publishing houses is New Directions. Consistently they release important world literature that is innovative in its form and substance and in how those two comingle. While I don’t suggest they aren’t business-minded, their output suggests their main goal is not necessarily to top the New York Times bestseller list but rather is to provide us with literature of true quality. They are succeeding.
This Thursday, May 21, if you’re in the New York City area, they are hosting a Cuban themed party, celebrating their publication of Guillermo Rosales’s incredible—incredible—The Halfway House (Casa de los náufragos, 1987; tr. from the Spanish by Anna Kushner, 2009). A semi-autobiographical allegory, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and one of the best books I’ve read period. It is stunning in its execution and its content—indisputably the work of a literary master. Unfortunately, this gem is one of only two books we have from Rosales (he left only this one and El Juego de la Viola, which is also forthcoming from New Directions). He destroyed the rest of his work before, in 1993 at age forty-seven, committing suicide.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
The highly literate Rosales spent time in several halfway houses. He considered himself a double exile: once from his country and again from his fellow Cubans in America:
The house said “boarding home” on the outside, but I knew that it would be my tomb. It was one of those marginal refuges where the desperate and hopeless go–crazy ones for the most part, with a smattering of old people abandoned by their families to die of loneliness so they won’t screw up life for the winners.
Rosales’s narrator, the dispassionate William Figueres, is also highly literate, having “read all of Proust when I was fifteen years old, Joyce, Miller, Sartre, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albee, Ionesco, Beckett . . . .” He spent twenty years in the Cuban Revolution, and has now left to go to America. His Cuban relatives in America looked forward to his arrival.
They thought a future winner was coming, a future businessman, a future playboy, a future family man who would have a future house full of kids, and who would go to the beach on weekends and drive fine cars and wear brand-name clothing like Jean Marc and Pierre Cardin. The person who turned up at the airport the day of my arrival was instead a crazy, nearly toothless, skinny, frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward that very day because he eyed everyone in the family with suspicion and, instead of hugging and kissing them, insulted them.
Though we know Figueres is not completely stable, we also know he is not completely insane. He’s been gutted by the Cuban Revolution and the ensuing oppression, ending up in the United States and this halfway house not so much because he’s crazy but because he’s completely lost in existence. Indeed, the most recent Spanish edition of this book was titled La Casa de los Náufragos (“The House of the Shipwrecked”). When Figueres enters the halfway house, unlike most of the other residents he sees what it is: filthy, abusive, cast-off, pure federally-funded depravity. The other residents apparently don’t notice, and this sets Figueres apart. He just doesn’t seem to care that much. His apathy extends to his dispassionate description of the other residents and the way the owner and manager abuse them all.
Which brings up a point that must be made. This is an exceedingly cruel book. If it weren’t for the issues it’s rotating around, the incredible statements it makes about the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent totalitarian machine, The Halfway House‘s cruelty would be unbearable. It’s not that it’s exceedingly violent, but the disinterested narration (so perfect here) brings the reality much closer to the surface. Figueres has been the victim of much hatred and violence. We pity him and perhaps even respect his apparent meekness. Where the book turns on its head is where Figueres becomes complicit in the cruelty. There’s no great transition. Figueres is meek and cruel, understanding and apathetic. Rosales perfectly imbues these attributes into an ambiguous yet credible narrator, making in Figueres an excellent portrayal of a great tragedy as well as a version of Rosales himself. In his excellent introduction to the book José Manuel Prieto says, “Rosales, like no other Cuban author before him, knew how to leave behind the narrow road of victimhood for the larger, more arduous one of full responsibility. He looked deep into the tragedy and found himself to be a part of it.”
The book becomes more disturbing and hopeful when a new resident moves in who, like Figueres, is not insane but lost. Frances is also an exile from the Revolution and her own family, and Figueres is drawn to her at once, being both tender and cruel. In one portion of the book, she and Figueres walk around Little Havana:
She looks at me with tired eyes.
“I think I’m dead inside,” she says.
The book is not just worth reading because of its content, though. The style is simple, as shown in the passages above, yet all the more poignant because of that. Also, the structural integrity was astonishing to me. I just didn’t expect it. Full of leitmotifs that never become overdone, the style has a subtle rhythm that can make your heart pound even in its quiet moments. And the penetrating look at the Revolution and its effects are more fully realized when Rosales has Figueres describe seven dreams throughout the story. In these dreams, Fidel Castro himself becomes a character (he already was, though). In one, Castro is brought into a room in a coffin. The coffin opens up and Fidel rises and gets out, asking for a cup of coffee. “Well, we’re already dead. Now you’ll see that doesn’t solve anything, either.”
I hesitated before beginning Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009) because, while not overly long, at nearly 400 pages neither is it overly short. Also, so far this year I haven’t been in the mood for a “widescreen” novel (thanks John Self and KevinfromCanada for making that a term of art). That said, I did want to read the book in a timely manner and especially before several other books I’ve been pining for arrived in the mail. So one sleepless night, I got out of bed and picked it up just to test the water. What I encountered was an excellently rendered, personal account of an engaged couple’s last day together in Nagasaki, just before it was destroyed when the New Bomb dropped. This completely cleared my mind of all other concerns (which was nice when it came time to go to sleep again) and set me up to enjoy this quick-moving, ambitious new novel.
Free copy courtesy of Picador.
Recently shortlisted for the Orange Prize, this novel focuses on the surviving fiancée, Hiroko Tanaka, and some of the people she becomes linked to through the rest of her life. Ambitiously, Shamsie weaves these lives around some of the major events that ushered out the first half of the twentieth century leaving their shadow on the second half of the century and still now in the first part of the twenty-first.
The prologue begins with a man being thrust into a cell, stripped, and then dressed in the now-symbolic orange jumpsuit. He asks the interesting key line that speaks to the novel’s political and personal threads: “How did it come to this . . . .” The novel then goes back in time to Nagasaki, the day the bomb dropped. Hiroko Tanaka is a twenty-one-year-old Japanese woman, engaged to marry Konrad Weiss. I thoroughly enjoyed this short section, entitled “The Yet Unknowing World,” with the bomb sirens going off and the young couple concerned about the inconvenience.
In the shelter at Urakami, Hiroko is packed in so tightlybetween her neighbours she cannot even raise a hand to wipe the sweat damping her hairline. It hasn’t been so crowded in here since the early days of the air-raid sirens.
This section is full of life—though brief, Shamsie allows the characters’ relationships to develop—even while it brings us to death. Hiroko survives the atomic blast, but the image of some cranes from a kimono she was wearing at the explosion were forever burned onto her back. The scars become a personal symbol of the painful event and the “taint” Hiroko carried away from it, but it is also a larger metaphor for the shadow of nuclear destruction that has hung over the world since.
The novel then takes the reader through the characters’ interlaced story as the narrative moves from Nagasaki to India, 1947, in the last days of the Raj; then to Pakistan in the early 1980s as the mujahideen train to expel the Russians from Afghanistan (are you seeing a trend); and then to New York and Afghanistan just post–September 11, 2001. The artifice in taking a few central characters through each of these large historical moments is artifice, but it didn’t feel contrived because it is not so much impossible as it is implausible. Also, this is not like Forrest Gump; these characters remain on the periphery of the action. And even if it is implausible, watching these characters move from one hotspot to the next leads to many surprising and pleasing episodes—personal and political—that come together nicely.
However, with all of the political/historical ties, this novel has a much stronger narrative focus than I usually like in a novel with such ominous overtones. After the intimacy in Nagasaki, the next two segments in the novel, taking place in Delhi and Pakistan, didn’t hold me as much. It felt at times that Shamsie was trying to set down some roots in the location and then prepare to move on to the next one. It was all spelled out. I like to meet a book halfway, but for the middle of the book it felt like the plot was overplayed, depriving the reader of really making these important connections for him or herself. I hoped, based on the allegorical setup, for more nuance (or less—perhaps it was me!). While Shamsie often begins a chapter by disorienting the reader, usually within a few pages we know all that has happened and there is no more ambiguity. This is more a matter of my taste and expectations, and not necessarily a fault; I found the book’s gripping plot compelling and I’m sure many others will too.
Despite what I said about overplaying the plot, Shamsie’s writing is excellent and not overplayed at all. I haven’t included a lot of it here because I think context (like the story, the prose is all linked nicely) is important. Taking it out of context just didn’t work. Here’s a nice passage, however, from the section in Delhi; you don’t need to know the who what where why to appreciate the subversive coda which applies to the events and the intimate lives:
There was nowhere in the world more beautiful than Mussoorie, Elizabeth Burton thought, standing at the top of her garden slope, watching either mist or cloud cling to the white peaks of the Himalayas in the distance while the scent of pine forests drifted down from the top of the hill on which the Burton cottage nestled. What a pity beauty could be so meaningless.
Shamsie’s characters are excellently realized, and their perspectives on the events taking place around them are insightful, opening up a world of perspectives for a contemporary audience.
And while I complain about the focus on the narrative, the novel ends nicely, pulling together the personal and historical strings and offering an ending that reminded me a great deal of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, finishing Shamsie’s work of tying the past to the present.
This past week Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959; National Book Award), celebrated fifty years. Those of you who’ve been followed my blog last year know that he is one of my favorite authors, though I’ve really only read novels written since The Ghost Writer. I was very curious how his work would feel at its inception. Also, this being Roth’s only collection of short stories, how good would this master novelist be in that form?
The book is really one novella, Goodbye, Columbus, and five short stories: “The Conversion of the Jews,” ‘Defender of the Faith,” “Epstein,” “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” and “Eli, the Fanatic.” I particularly enjoyed reading them after reading about their stand-ins in Roth’s later Zuckerman books. Well, it’s easy to see why a young man, after writing this kind of work, would find himself welcomed by literary recluses. All of the stories are incredibly well written, the kind of writing one would expect from a much older writer, one who’d learned control through maturity. But, truth be told, probably the most conspicuous difference between Roth at twenty-five and Roth at seventy-five is the absence of death as a theme in the former. The skill and many Rothian signatures are already there. Saul Bellow expressed it best: “Unlike those of us who come howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, teeth, speaking coherently.”
My favorite of the five short stories was “Defender of the Faith” first published in The New Yorker in 1959. It must be one of the more iconoclastic pieces, one that was surely uncomfortable for the Jewish community. It takes place at the end of World War II, in the brief period after fighting in Europe had ceased but before fighting in the Pacific came to its shocking end. Sergeant Nathan Marx, after fighting for a year in Europe, is back on U.S. soil in Missouri, supervising training.
In one of his groups are three young Jewish boys, all of whom breathe a sigh of relief when they think their new Sergeant is also a Jew. Though he tries not to let on, through a few slips of the tongue, the trainees find out he is a Jew, and they hope that he will find a way to allow them to go to shul on Friday nights when they usually have to clean the barracks. Somewhat resentful, though understanding, he finds a way to grant them leave to go to the synagogue. Feeling a bit like a part of his past is missing, he decides to attend with them and swears he hears one of them say something like “Let the goyim clean the floors.” The favors build, as does the guilt he feels when he reprimands the supplicant who calls him anti-Semitic.
It’s a very interesting piece, especially considering the timing. Were Jews willing to allow someone to depict the gradual recognition of Jewish rites (and rights) as the more pejorative “sense of entitlement”? Of course, Roth doesn’t suggest that all Jews feel a sense of entitlement and feel that anyone who denies this is anti-Semitic. But at that time, to even bring it up. Risky and, now, Rothian.
Goodbye, Columbus was published first in The Paris Reviewin 1959. On its surface, it’s a simple love story doomed from the start because of an unlikely pairing. Neil Klugman is a college grad who lives with his Aunt and Uncle in Newark while he works at the Newark Public Library. An invitee at a club swimming pool, he meets Brenda Patimkin, a resident of suburban Short Hills, still a posh spot to live. In a burst of courage, Neil introduces himself. Brenda is just unconventional enough to like his advances. Roth depicts Neil’s drive to Short Hills nicely:
Once I’d driven out of Newark, past Irvington and the packed-in tangle of railroad crossings, switchmen shacks, lumberyards, Dairy Queens, and used-car lots, the night grew cooler. It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs roase in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on where themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin.
The Patimkins welcome Neil to the home. Even Brenda’s younger sister Julie and her older brother Ron are kind to the stranger: “Before I’d even reached them, Ron stepped forward and since the Diaspora.” Still, it’s uncomfortable, and Roth’s scenes are filled with ways to depict the discomfort. Neil himself is the cause of much of the discomfort because he wants to read into everything, even critiquing the family portraits.
On the wall hung three colored photo-paintings; they were the kind which, regardless of the subjects, be they vital or infirm, old or youthful, are characterized by bud-cheeks, wet lips, pearly teeth, and shiny, metallized hair. The subjects in this case were Ron, Brenda, and Julie at about ages fourteen, thirteen, and two. Brenda had long auburn hair, her diamond-studded nose, and no glasses; all combined to make her look a regal thirteen-year-old who’d just gotten smoke in her eyes. Ron was rounder and his hairline was lower, but that of spherical objects and lined courts twinkled in his boyish eyes. Poor little Julie was lost in the photo-painter’s Platonic idea of childhood; her tiny humanity was smothered somewhere back of gobs of pink and white.
Again, the story is more nuanced than what perhaps sounds like a less dramatic West Side Story. It’s not all about class, though that plays a large role. Thankfully, I didn’t have to look too hard for another Roth signature: the comic rant. This one comes from Mr. Patimkin’s brother (who runs a light-bulb plant; Mr. Patimkin’s sink manufacturing plant is much more successful—yes, another Roth signature: the tell-tale / ironic managerial jobs of the rising Jewish population). At a wedding, the uncle gets tipsy and confessional to Neil:
“I’ll tell you something, one good thing happened to me in my whole life. Two maybe. Before I came back from overseas I got a letter from my wife—she wasn’t my wife then. My mother-in-law found an apartment for us in Queens. Sixty-two fifty a month it cost. That’s the last good thing that happened.”
“What was the first?”
“You said two things,” I said.
“I don’t remember. I say two because my wife tells me I’m sarcastic and a cynic. That way maybe she won’t think I’m such a wise guy.”
The rant continues sporadically through the next several pages, nicely punctuating the themes while providing rhythm and flow to the prose. It also pleased me to no end that Roth knew even then how to make his readers smile at discomfort while taking deep breaths at the soft revelations.
César Aira seems to be in the air lately. Over the past few years three of his books have been translated into English by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (tr. 2006), How I Became a Nun (tr. 2007), and Ghosts (Los Fantasmas, 1990; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2009). I had never heard of Aira until Ghosts came out in February and a host of literary sites and publications reviewed him. However, it wasn’t until John Self posted his review of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter that I remembered his name well enough to look for him.
Aira, an Argentinian, has been publishing two to four novella length books for years, so Chris Andrews and New Directions could be busy for some time. Knowing how prolific Aira was caused me to approach his work with skepticism. How can someone put out so many books and maintain high quality?
I can’t comment on any other works (yet) but at least in Ghosts I can see that his imagination and intelligence are for real. And I’m not sure, but I think his speed at writing is a strength, lending this novel a swift looseness and experimental quality I haven’t seen much before. In a way, it shows that Aira respects his reader. He’s having an intellectual conversation, and he trusts his readers to come along and see where it takes us. Indeed, his writing process is one of almost experimental freewriting. He has said he sits down at a cafe and writes a page. When he is done, he leaves. Apparently, the next day, rather than editing what he has written, he forges ahead, finding some way to move the story out of any corners he’s backed himself into. That said, this novel looks as polished as anything else out there, and the themes carry from the first page to the last in a march forward that makes it seem planned from the get-go.
This short book (139 pages) takes place in one day, December 31, on the construction site of a luxury condominium. In the morning the new tenants visit to see how construction is going; the condo was supposed to be finished that day. We are then fortunate enough to read a nice run down of the rest of the day, as the family who has lived on top of the condominium during its construction (the husband is in charge of security) prepares for the New Year’s Eve party. In its own way, the book resembles Mrs. Dalloway, moving steadily through the day, moving in and out of the head of one of the characters.
At the beginning of the book, we don’t know what character is going to be central because Aira introduces several candidates. As we move around in these minds, every once in a while Aira throws in a description of the ghosts who live on the site, seen only by some of the individuals. These descriptions are placed in the text as if the presence of the ghosts are ordinary:
So Raúl Viñas was keeping fourteen bottles of red wine cool, with a system he had invented, or rather discovered, himself. It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold. There were two things he hadn’t noticed, however. The first was that, during the cooling process, the wine came out of bottles and flowed like lymph all through the bodies of the ghosts. The second was that this distillation transmuted ordinary cheap wine, fermented in cement vats, into an exquisite, matured cabernet sauvignon, which not even captains of industry could afford to drink every day.
Soon the book’s narration settles on Patri, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the squatters. She is the character who confronts the ghosts the most, and she is the mind in which Aira explores most of the book’s themes. The ghost, in a way, can represent a sort of liminal space, occupying the boundary between life and death. However, here the liminal space is the boundary between what is real and unreal, or, as Aira puts it once, what is built and unbuilt.
But there is always a difference between dreams and reality, which becomes clearer as the superficial contrast diminishes. The difference in this case was reflected in the architecture, which is, in itself, a reciprocal mirroring of what has already been built and what will be built eventually. The all-important bridge between the two reflections was provided by a third term: the unbuilt.
In a great segment, during the siesta, Patri’s mind chases the space between architecture and literature, some related concepts between the Pygmies and Australian Aborigines. It’s a great intellectual game. But the game is not all this book has. Patri’s interest in the ghosts worries her mother.
The only thing that bothered her was the bad influence the ghosts might have on her children, particularly on her frivolous elder daughter. Since Patri was given to building castles in the air, certain chimerical spectacles could lead her to the the utterly misguided belief that reality is everywhere.
And Patri’s mother should be worried. Aira keeps us interested in the intellectual puzzles and Patri’s wellbeing all the way to the end, when the fireworks mark the new year.
The real reason I got through 2666 was because my youngest son was not sleeping at night. For months I would frequently stay up until way-too-late just hoping he’d finally nod off, dreaming about the day when he finally settled into a decent bedtime. It finally started happening. Foolishly, just as I was about to gain a good bedtime back, I started Richard Price’s Lush Life (2008). At least I’m used to not sleeping, right? No, that’s not true. But this was a book worth staying up for.
I’m not sure how coherent this review is going to be; I knew little about Lush Life before I started it, and I think that’s a great way to approach it. Lush Life builds and changes its form in unexpected ways, and I’d hate to give away too much. Then again, there is so much in the book that I could write in depth about aspects of it and it would still leave plenty for the reader to discover. I will do my best to refrain, though.
This is the first Richard Price novel I’ve read. While I’m anxious to read all other books by him, I think this one was a perfect start for me because I was sucked in the moment I discovered that the stage is the Lower East Side of Manhattan (my office is by the WTC site), a very unique part of the world. Here the murder of a young white man occurs. His co-worker Eric Cash, a thirty-five year-old white man with a dead dream, was walking with him when it happened, at 4:00 a.m. What ensues is one of the best police procedurals I’ve ever read or watched, despite the fact that such books and films and TV shows are in abundance (and almost always suffer from sensationalism and a complete lack of regard for how such things truly take place given the legal and practical strictures). Prices brings it all to life, the characters and the setting, in all of its gritty, unlikely combinations:
“You know why this isn’t too bad a place? The kids are so close to all walks of life around here, you know? Most projects are kind of like, that’s all they know, but you go two blocks in any direction from here, you got Wall Street, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, they’re like release valves, you know? They give you the confidence to mix it up in the world—”
“And jux everybody in sight,” Iacone murmured.
The Lower East Side is a character in the book. It is the complex beast that brings together privileged white kids and the minorities of the projects. Though the worlds co-exist, they rarely mesh together. One of my favorite passages in the book is a description of the shrine set up at the murder site because it shows a mixture of the diverse cultures but keeps them in their own unique flavor.
The offerings, as far as he could tell, represented three of the worlds that made up the universe down here: Latino; Young, Gifted, and White; and Geezer/Crackpot/Hippie—no word from the Chinese.
There were dozens of lit botanica candles, a scattering of coins on a velvet cloth, a reed cross laid flat on a large round stone, a CD player running Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” on an endless loop, a videocassette of Mel Gibson’s The Passion still sealed in its box, a paperback of Black Elk Speaks, some kind of unidentifiable white pelt, a few petrified-looking joints, bags of assorted herbs, coils of still-smoldering incense that gave off competing scents, and a jar of olive oil.
This shrine also serves as a device to show the passage of time and descent of the characters involved in the murder and its investigation. Despite an extreme emotional episode, time erases the trace of emotion.
It had rained hard for a few hours earlier in the day, and on this, the fourth night since the murder, the shrine felt all wrong, sodden and charred, sardonic and vaguely threatening; as if to say, this is what time does, what becomes of us mere hours after the tears and flowers.
Price not only sets the stage masterfully but he also directs the characters perfectly. Through their dialogue and inflections the reader is allowed to delve into the multi-layered text. Much has been said about Price’s skill with dialogue, some saying that he’s the best writer of dialogue in American literature, so I just want to give a few examples, hoping they do him a bit of justice. Notice this line from one of the women detectives, a Latina who grew up in the projects and who is now such a great interrogator because of her ability to empathize, perhaps even feign empathy:
“You want a motive?” Yolanda said crisply. “Here’s a motive. Men, overreact, to pain. And when they do? They take everybody with them.”
Sometimes it annoys me when the author directs the dialogue too much, emphasizing words and breaths so much that I’m distracted by their extra-narrative clues. Here, however, if I weren’t looking I might have noticed that “pain” is italicized, but I don’t think I would have noticed the commas separating “men,” “overreact,” and “to pain.” Price pulls us into the narrative so well that I usually didn’t feel like I was reading at all. It was like I was close enough to feel the breaths. Furthermore, Price lets his characters’ words bring out the depth. We know about Yolanda from what she is willing to tell others. This, then, is a particularly telling quotation. Such quotations are not used by Price to foreshadow something the character will do later one; they are not used to pull the reader’s heartstrings, making the characters less real and more like props. These quotations add depth to the characters, and through them to the story and its pathway through the bewilderment at issue in this novel.
Another aspect about the dialogue that had me fascinated was how Price combined gritty street-talk with beautiful poetry. Somehow his dialogue feels at once real (again, the inflections, the pauses, the idioms, the cliches, even the almost silent ”uh-huh”s) and yet, if analyzed closely, is so much better than a real conversation. Meaning the dialogue is obviously not realistic. No, no! I’m not complaining! No one in real life rants with the poetry and rhythm of a character in Philip Roth’s novels, but those are some of the most revealing and wonderful parts of Roth’s oeuvre. Lush Life‘s is a similarly wonderful and perhaps more extensive accomplishment: getting street-talk to speak profoundly about the depths of the human being and the human being’s relationship with others and with a location. And all while telling a great story.
Another character brought fully to life in many episodes of brilliant dialogue is Billy Marcus, the victim’s father. Here’s an extended example where dialogue takes the reader on a journey into the psyche of this complex character. Billy is speaking to Detective Matty Clark, the detective out to solve the case:
“Just . . .” Billy reading his mind. “You’re him, OK? Now . . . The guy shot your friend, knows you’re the only eyewitness. Wouldn’t you be worried that that guy might be coming back to tie up loose ends? Wouldn’t you be in fear for your life? Wouldn’t you get the hell out of Dodge until the cops catch this guy? But this Cash, correct me if I’m wrong, he doesn’t do that.”
“Billy . . .”
“As far as I know, he still lives where he lives, works where he works, goes about his business like there’s nothing, nobody out there to fear. Why is that?”
“Don’t do this to yourself,” Matty said.
“Can you say to me one hundred percent that he didn’t do it?” Squinting up at him.
“Is that the real reason they didn’t give him immunity?”
“Look, it’s an open homicide. They didn’t give him immunity because they don’t give anyone immunity. They wouldn’t give you immunity. Do you understand that?”
“But still, can you say to me, ‘Billy, one hundred percent, the guy didn’t do it.’”
“Say that to me. Say, ‘Billy, one hundred percent.’”
“I never say that.”
“OK, then.” Bobbing his head. He seemed almost happy.
Over his shoulder, Nina’s face was smeared into the heel of her hand as she watched the people passing by on Pitt.
“But this time I will. One hundred percent, he didn’t do it.”
Flustered, Billy stepped in place like a counting horse.
“I mean, I’m not saying he’s the guy, like, pulled the trigger,” Billy talking to himself now as much as to Matty. “I’m just . . . I think maybe he’s got something to hide.”
“Did you hear what I said?” Matty leaned in to him.
“Had a bad day,” Billy murmured. “Yeah, true, no kidding, I’ll grant him that. He had a very bad day . . .”
“Billy, listen to me.”
“But you know who had the worst day of all? My son. My son had the worst possible day you can have.”
There are so many excellent, revealing episodes: the Quality of Life patrol, the appearance and disappearance of the Virgin Mary in some condensed water vapor on a deli’s refrigerator glass, the “celebration” the victim’s friends put on for him, the interrogation of Eric Cash, the poetic musings of the murderer, any scene involving Billy Marcus—well, any scene at all, honestly. It’s all good.
(Forgot to link to this in the main post: John Self’s interview with Richard Price.)