I knew nothing about Gyula Krúdy or about this book before picking it up — what does this Hungarian have to do with the more famous Persian sailor? – but with NYRB Classics one doesn’t have to worry too much about such things. One can just pick up a book and begin. And when I opened up The Adventures of Sindbad (Szindbád Három Könyve, 1944; tr. from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, 1998) I was in for many pleasant surprises.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
Krúdy was a prolific writer who lived from 1878 to 1933, and he wrote many stories focused on the young (or old — or dead — or mistletoed) Sindbad, from 1911 to 1917. Here we have them collected in one volume. In his introduction, translator George Szirtes tells readers what’s to come, though I don’t think we can entirely understand until we read the stories. They are so unique, in Hungary there is a term: “Krúdyesque.” I think a good example, then, is to refer to the other “-esque” author from roughly the same period: Can you imagine trying to explain — beyond simple plot – a Kafka story to someone who hadn’t experienced the Kafkaesque first-hand? Me either. So here we have the Krúdyesque, which Szirtes aptly describes: “an experience comprised of the nostalgic, the fantastic and the ironic.”
We first meet Sindbad in “Youth,” a rather conventional story that in no way foreshadows the strangeness that is to come, though it does touch upon central themes, particularly love and lust. The story begins by taking us to “a damp and moonlit night” when an old man is “watching the autumn mist form figures of chimney-sweeps on the rooftops.” His mind is taken to an old monastery where, as a child, he used to see a painting of an intimidating and authoritative Prince Lubomirski. The red-bearded, shaggy-haired Prince has been dead for two centuries, but still “[t]he young ladies of Podolin who came to the monks for absolution would wreathe his picture with flowers fresh from the meadow, and women, who a couple of centuries before would have given birth to red-bearded, shaggy-haired children, prayed before the prince’s image precisely as they did before pictures of the saints.”
This opening – the introduction of an old man looking back to a painting of someone then two-centuries’ dead, as well as the adoration of the image – foreshadows the idea that the boundaries of time do not always hold up. Sure, two centuries ago the Prince would remove his gloves in the presence of ladies and cannot do so now, but that isn’t stopping their current adoration.
We soon learn that the old man in “Youth” is Sindbad, who was a student at the monastery. Because “in those days” it was common for romantic souls to choose their own name, Sindbad indeed named himself after the sailor in The Thousand and One Nights. In many ways, this collection of short stories is just as varied in time and form as The Thousand and One Nights, and just as populated with a type of mystical eroticism. And, perhaps in homage to the tales, Krúdy wastes no time giving us a conclusion that keeps us wondering “How did all this happen?”: “It was in this office one Sunday, while wearing his red surplice, that [Sindbad] succeeded in seducing Anna Kacksó, who had come to Mass along with a few friends of hers.”
But this is a false start (one of many). As the story moves from “How did all this happen?,” we meet Anna’s two sisters and the story focuses on Róza, the youngest, the real love interest. Róza teases Sindbad as they study together. Sindbad deals with this by playing with a fellow classmate he often picks on, Pope Gregory (his chosen name), who has a hunchback. Róza is mean and withholds affection. Sindbad deals with this by going swimming with Pope Gregory. Krúdy has the ability here to make the reader’s mind become quiet.
Naturally, the boys bathed in the deep still water, holding on to the iron staples in the timber, dangling their legs in the bottomless pool. The little hunchback felt absolutely safe in the company of the brave and admirable Sindbad. Suddenly he gave a triumphant cry, ‘Hey, I can feel the river bed here!’ He extended his thin legs. His inky fingers let go of the metal bar and the water silently closed over him. For a brief second Sindbad could still see the curious hump on his back under the surface of the river, then the water, the shore and the tall limes nearby grew unaccountably quiet as if the monastery had touched them with a magic wand and they had died on the spot, as in The Thousand and One Nights.
Sindbad is terrified. He searches for Pope Gregory, imagining that the Prince is already coming out of his gilt frame, knowing he will be blamed for the drowning. The story ends (it’s a short story, and the first of many, so I don’t feel terrible giving all of this away) with Sindbad in bed, and Róza leans over and whispers into his ear: “You are a brave boy. And I will love you for ever now.”
It’s a dark story. The death of a foolishly trusting young boy is used to move the action between a young man and a young woman. I immediately turned to the next one.
As I mentioned above, “Youth” is a bit more conventional than the rest, and because of this is kind of an outlier. In some stories, he is dreaming. In one he is a sprig of mistletoe. But painful love remains because Sindbad is always “a tireless voyager, a friend to women, a knight errant for those in sleepy provincial towns; he was the last worldly thought of virgins about to enter convents and the hope of the ageing.” In fact, not even death (Sindbad is dead in many of the stories but just as mobile and influential as Sindbad imagined the Prince to be) can stop him. That last line I quote, in fact, comes from a passage where Sindbad is wandering out of the graveyard periodically for affairs before returning, listening to the rain on the gravestones for maybe a year, and then lying in the crypt to talk to his dead relatives around him.
That image — returning to a graveyard after an affair, sitting pensively in the rain, then communicating with the dead, all the while waiting for the next affair to start — encapsulates a lot of the feelings in the book. There’s a lot of wandering through space and time, and melancholic (but somehow pleasant) love prevails, so well, in fact, that even the grave is nothing terrible — a moment to yearn, thus making the heart grow even more. Of course, all of that is still tinged with shadow and is quite disturbing if you think about it. It is beautifully done here, in the same way, say, a dusty wedding dress from the 1850s — that someone died in — is beautiful.
One aspect of the book that I cannot comment on other than to pass along what I read is the fact that these stories were written at the end of the Hapsburg Empire. Hungary would no longer be the Hungary of these tales, and both the introduction and the book’s blurb speak about “the uncanny evocation of the Hapsburg Empire.” As I said, I cannot comment on this because I know so little about this time period at that part of the world. What I experienced while reading the book, however, was just that nostalgia, fantasy, and irony — the Krúdyesque, and I could see connections with the ending of an epoch — autumn or early winter is a great time to read this fantastic book.
Last year I reviewed Albert Cossery’s 1975 novel A Splendid Conspiracy (my review here). It was one of the Cossery books that sparked a bit of a Cossery rival (at least, among the blogs I follow, if not among the general public). It was published by New Directions at about the same time NYRB Classics published Cossery’s The Jokers (which I have but have not read). This season, both publishing houses are at it again, with NYRB Classics publishing Proud Beggars and New Directions publishing Cossery’s final novel, The Colors of Infamy (Les couleurs de l’infamie, 2000; tr. from the French by Alyson Waters, 2011).
When I read A Splendid Conspiracy, I was thrilled by his fantastic talent as a writer, but I had a bad taste in my mouth due to Cossery’s ”elevation of idleness to an art form” (that’s from The London Times), particularly as that idleness, in order to thrive, seemed to depend chiefly on taking advantage of others, often women. It was funny, and certainly a lot of it was tongue in cheek, but I didn’t feel good joining in on the mirth. Despite my initial feelings toward A Splendid Conspiracy, The Colors of Infamy has convinced me to keep reading Cossery. This little book was fabulous.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Written 25 years later, when Cossery was almost 90 years old, The Colors of Infamy had many of the same ideas floating around that I found in A Splendid Conspiracy – anti-materialism, anti-capitalism, subversion of authority, a deliberate refusal to become another cog in a wheel — but I found the presentation of these ideas much more palatable. For one thing, the central characters, as similar in some ways as they are to Teymour in A Splendid Conspiracy, have some kind of awareness that stretches beyond their self-satisfaction. As before, they feed off of the corrupt system and find their joy in observing the ridiculousness of it all, finding male camaraderie. However, the men in The Colors of Infamy are not held above reproach, which I felt was the case in the earlier novel. Consequently, I was able to enjoy the incredible wit and irony without flinching.
Like most of Cossery’s novels, this one is set in Cairo. As we begin, in fact, our central character, Ossama, is observing, with fascination (and a bit of gusto), the crowd around Tahrir Square, moving around in a strange state.
Resolutely circumventing every obstacle, every pitfall in their path, the people, discouraged by nothing and with no particular goal in mind, continued their journeys through the twists and turns of a city plagued by decrepitude, amid screeching horns, dust, potholes and waste, without showing the least sign of hostility or protest; the awareness of simply being alive seemed to obliterate any other thought. Every now and then the voices of the muezzins at the mosque entrances could be heard emanating from loudspeakers, like a murmuring from the beyond.
Ossama is 23 years old, and, “More than anything, Ossama enjoyed contemplating the chaos.” He grew up incredibly poor. Unfortunately, he had a relatively healthy body with no wounds or malformations, so he could never compete properly with other beggars. One day, as he’s waiting to throw himself under a cart large enough to ensure a quick death, he meets Nimr, the master thief. Nimr is impressed with Ossama and takes him under his wing, training him in the art of theft. At 23, he is excelling at his craft. Here is how Cossery introduces him:
Ossama was a thief; not a legitimate thief, such as a minister, banker, wheeler-dealer, speculator, or real estate developer; he was a modest thief with a variable income, but one whose activities — no doubt because their return was limited — have, always and everywhere, been considered an affront to the moral rules by which the affluent live.
But Ossama has found out a way perform his craft with minimal risk. He has “instinctively grasped the flaw of a society based on appearance.” When we meet him, he is dressed very well because “by dressing with the same elegance as the licensed robbers of the people, he could elude the mistrustful gaze of a police force that found every impoverished-looking individual automatically suspect.” One evening he is at a nice party and he hones in on one particular large guest. Expertly, he gets the man’s crocodile wallet and a letter. As it turns out, the letter is evidence of bribery and corruption in the ministry, and now Ossama just needs to figure out what to do with it.
It’s an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, Ossama (to be a proper Cossery protagonist) isn’t particularly interested in the money he could earn. Furthermore, he understands, with the help of some trusted friends — Nimr and Karamallah, a man who lives in his family mausoleum – that this sort of corruption is expected and forgiven. It’s not like he can actually start a revolution, if such a thing were desirable. No, the real predicament is how he can use the letter to get the best entertainment, which is interrogating and witnessing the absurdities of the system first-hand.
It’s a funny story, full of that wit that has given Cossery the title “the Voltaire of the Nile.” However, in the middle of the comedy there’s a bit of seriousness. Before Ossama has even nicked the fat man’s wallet he is found by Safira, a 17-year-old prostitute who has fallen in love with him. She finds him honorable and considers him a thief like Robin Hood. While he’s had sex with her, and was surprised by how little she charged him, he is not attracted to her and finds her a threat to his trade. Still, as badly as he treats her, a bit of compassion prevents him from being truly cruel, much to his chagrin:
In truth, his compassion for the girl prevented him from viewing her through his usual prism of ridicule and condemned him to seeing a reality whose tragic aspect he normally actively denied.
This was the sort of awareness that I felt A Splendid Conspiracy lacked. I’m still not convinced that Cossery’s ideal world could ever exist, or that it would be all that it’s cracked up to be if we managed it, just as he’s not convinced business can exist without “corrupt networks,” but at least in this novel there was, for me, a bit more heart behind the ideas. Furthermore, it seemed to leave some of the ideas open-ended, giving room for thought. As Ossama, Nimr, and Karamallah, figure out how to best handle the letter, the discussions they have make this a novel of ideas and not a polemic.
Finally, as a piece of entertainment — as someone who advocates not taking life too seriously, Cossery wants us to enjoy his book — it is wonderful. With the relative absence of derision toward the females (which really prompted me to take A Splendid Conspiracy too seriously for its good), I was able to sit back and drift pleasantly along with the prose. In fact, though I said above this is a novel of ideas, the ideas are light and presented mostly for our amusement — which perhaps makes them all the more poignant.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). César Aira’s “The Musical Brain” (tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) was originally published in the December 5, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
This is fantastic! I never believed that Aira, one of my favorite authors, would have a short story published in The New Yorker — and certainly The New Yorker is that much better for it. Hopefully it will bring him many more readers from the United States.
I’m very interested in what people think of this story. For me, it very much resembled some of his longer works: it begins in one place, setting up our expectations, and then proceeds to take strange detour after strange detour, finally concluding in a single bizarre episode that is completely unexpected, despite any clues we might have. Indeed, I felt ”The Musical Brain” matches and sometimes exceeds the crazed meanderings in some of Aira’s books. Because of this, it’s a fairly good introduction to Aira’s stranger works, like the hilarious The Literary Conference (my review here) and (the to me slightly less enjoyable) The Seamstress in the Wind (my review here). For those who are perhaps attracted to Aira’s prose but don’t find the strangeness appealing, I still heartily recommend reading Ghosts (my review here) or An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (my review here); while strange, these two are not quite as strange and are a bit more serious. As a sneak peak, the next title New Directions is publishing is Varamo, which I’ll review closer to its publication date early next year; to me Varamo was a bit of a balance between the bizarre and the serious.
“The Musical Brain” — where to begin? As in some of his other books, the narrator here is Aira himself as he looks back on a strange sequnce of events from his youth in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in the 1950s (no, this similarity in no way makes this story predictable). Early on, we understand that Aira has a faulty memory. He looks back and remembers a time when his parents broke routine by taking him and his little sister to a dining event. They never ate out, for reasons Aira explains, but on this one particular night – and he’ll come up with a few possible reasons for breaking routine – he finds his memory taking him to an evening out, everyone dressed up. In a corner of the room he remembers seeing the librarian, and his high school headmistress, Sarita Subercaseaux rumaging through a bunch of boxes of books. Ah, he thinks, probably his family went out to this particular special dinner to help establish the public library. However, as reasonable as this sounds, apparently this cannot be exactly true:
During my last visit to Pringles, hoping to confirm my memories I asked my mother if Sarita Subercaseaux was still alive. She burst out laughing.
“She died years and years ago!” Mom said. “She died before you were born. She was already old when I was a girl.”
“That’s impossible!” I exclaimed. “I remember her very clearly. In the library, at school . . .”
“Yes, she worked at the library and the high school, but before I was married. You must be getting mixed up, remembering things I told you.”
That’s strange, yes, but not the kind of strangeness I referred to above. Because, at this point, we leave the issue that would seem to take center stage in a piece about the mystery of childhood and memories (I quite like these kinds of books; see William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (my reviews here, here, and here, respectively)). Instead of following on this line directly, the family gets up from the dinner, and Aira takes us to a room by the theater where the mysterious Musical Brain is on display (I’ll let you find out what this is when you read it, though you’re probably imagining it correctly). And, before we get settled, the family is driving somewhere else; Aira took his seat in the back of the vehicle, his favorite place to sit, and while explaining why he so much liked the back seat also briefly describes his literary technique:
There was also a more arcane reason that I liked to travel in the back: since I couldn’t hear what they were saying in front, it meant I didn’t know where we were going, and so the itinerary would take on an unpredictable air of adventure.
Of course, this is exactly what we readers are feeling by this point: Where on earth is he taking us. Hopefully, we are enjoying the ride and are not too concerned with the ultimate destination. There is another reason for these detours, though, both for the family and for Aira the writer:
[I]nstead of going a few hundred yards in a straight line we’d often end up driving five miles, following a tortuous, labyrinthine route. For my mother, who had never left Pringles, it was a way of expanding the town from within.
“The Musical Brain” expands the town from within beautifullly. It’s not that this is a small town portrait (because surely this stuff did not happen in Coronel Pringles or anywhere else), it’s that in a such a short space Aira reproduces the expansiveness of life as it is lived, complete with false starts, lingering questions, inconsistencies, and expanded by the intrusion of something completely unexpected (like a love triangle among dwarves threatening the town — maybe fear of a dwarf with a gun is why they were at that unexplained public dinner), something that makes no sense (well, you’ll get this in the story).
There’s a great Book Bench interview with translator Chris Andrews, who translated this story and several other books by Aira (click here). Here is a good take-away line:
But as anyone who has read [Aira] knows, the “correctness” is only syntactic: his sentences are well formed, as the linguists say, but his stories and his books are, well . . . deformed, swerving wildly, jumping from one kind of fiction to another, as in “The Musical Brain”.
I do recommend reading and rereading this story. Also, if you’re interested, a few years ago I interviewed Chris Andrews for this blog (click here), and it’s still one of my favorite posts.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Alice Munro “Leaving Maverley” was originally published in the November 28, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
Even in retirement, Alice Munro remains prolific. This is her third short story to appear in The New Yorker this year. If we throw in October 2010, it is her fourth in a short time. Before that, her most recent story in the magazine was December of 2008, a year when she publisehd four in the magazine.
One thing I enjoy about Munro’s stories is how detailed she can be while covering a vast amount of time in a short space. “Leaving Maverley” was no exception. The story begins with a fairly detailed column about an old movie theater named the Capital, “as such theatres often were.” We learn about Morgan Holly, the owner, and how upset he was when his single employee told he she had to quite because she was going to have a baby. Here is the detail I’m talking about:
He might have expected this — she had been married for half a year, and in those days you were supposed to get out of the public eye before you began to show — but he so disliked change and the idea of people having private lives that he was taken by surprise.
Those details — the pregnancy and how “those days” dealt with such matters, the private life, change — are important. But, interestingly, though the story is set up in a way that we might expect it, Morgan Holly and this employee are not particularly important to this story.
The newly pregnant employee has a recommendation for a replacement named Leah, a quiet girl Morgan quite liked because he didn’t want someone gabbing with the customers. Further, due to her strict father’s command, she was not allowed to watch (or hear) the movies, so Morgan was even happier because that meant less distractions. The one problem with this employment is that Leah’s father would not allow her to walk home alone so late on a Saturday night. The solution: the local police officer, Ray Elliot, “who often broke his rounds to watch a little of the movie,” would walk her home those weekend nights.
After a section break, Munro proceeds to give us Ray Elliot’s back story. A veteran, “[h]e came home with a vague idea that he had to do something meaningful with the life that had so inexplicably been left to him, but he didn’t know what.” At school, he met Isabel, his teacher, who was married and thirty years old. She’s beautiful and Ray’s fellow classmates often jest in private that “some guyes got all the luck.” Here is how economically Munro develops Ray and Isabel’s relationship:
Ray disliked hearing that kind of talk, and the reason was that he had fallen in love with her. And she with him, which seemed infinitely more surprising. Itw as preposterous to everybody except themselves. There was a divorce — a scandal to her well-connected family and a shock to her husband, who had wanted to marry her since they were children. Ray had an easier time of it than she did, because he had little family to speak of, and those he did have announced that they supposed they wouldn’t be good enough for him now that he was marrying so high up, and they would just stay out of his way in the future. If they expected any denial or reassurance in response to this, they did not get it.
The story circles back to Leah in the most peculiar way. It turns out that Isabel has a disease and is unable to have children. She and Ray never talked about whether they were disappointed by this, but Ray wonders if disappointment weren’t in some way connected to the fact that Isabel wanted to hear all about Leah, the girl Ray walked home on Saturday nights.
I don’t really want to go on here because the story is filled with twists and turns as Ray, Isabel, and Leah live out their lives, for better or for worse. There is a lot of disappointment, more betrayal, more pregnancies, more loss, and in the end we are left with an incredibly deep portrait of a few complex relationships, and I don’t believe anything turns out as we might predict, though it seems very true to life.
All this in just a few pages, where the pace is swift, matching the inexplicably sudden passing of life. Yet, despite the brevity, there is enough detail, often in just a phrase, that we can imagine volumes about even the side relationships, like the one between Isabel and her first husband — really all we know is that he was a veteran himself and he had wanted to marry Isabel since they were children, yet how much that says.
After the success of Joan Didion’s 2005 book The Year of Magical Thinking, it is unlikely people don’t know the tragic event that became the cause of writing that book: the death of Didion’s husband on the evening of December 30, 2003, after the couple had visited their adopted daughter, Quintana, who, days before the death, was hospitalized for pneumonia and developed septic shock. She was unconscious when her father died. Didion wrote the book in the fall of the following year, and Quintana was still hospitalized. Sadly, Quintana died in August of 2005. In Blue Nights (2011) Didion revisits grief, this time for a child.
Review copy courtesy of Knopf.
The opening of the book took me immediately to one of my favorite pieces of fiction to appear in The New Yorker this year: Steven Millhauser’s “Getting Closer” (my thoughts here). In that story, a young boy’s family is taking an outing to a river on a beautiful summer day, something the boy looks forward to every year. As he’s going to the river, he stops. He doesn’t want to get in because the moment is too precious. He knows that if he gets in it’s the beginning of the end. This sad thought becomes terrifying when the young boy realizes this applies to his whole life — it’s already speeding on its way out.
While Blue Nights is structured around the untimely death of Quintana at 39, it is universal because what Didion is really talking about is mortality. She says, “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children” — an acute line that struck me hard because we don’t want to acknowledge this – but this is a two-way street. Maybe she didn’t realize it (certainly didn’t acknowledge it) at the time, but everything — all the promise of more, of health, of life, of love — was leading to an end. As Didion has become older and more frail, she knows her own end is coming too.
The title is explained at the book’s opening. The blue nights are those lovely summer nights in New York that seem not to end. Darkness comes so slowly that there is a pause between day and night when everything is blue.
During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.
It’s not necessarily the most original thought, this seasonal metaphor for mortality, but what makes this book worth reading is Didion’s directness and precision. Here, for example, she just tells us what she’s getting at:
This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwinding of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.
After this little introduction, we step back to Quintana’s wedding day in 2003 (just months before she was hospitalized). It is a day that promises a beginning, not an end, but Didion doesn’t let the ending out of sight, showing how such “beginnings” are taken for granted.
As the book moves on, it seems Didion is working around something, which is a bit opposite what I said above when I praised her for being direct. She begins to broach on the subject of her daughter’s death and then turns away to look at something else, perhaps even someone else’s death. Still, she is direct because she acknowledges this tendency to veer away, causing the book to feel looser than it actually is. Even as the book seemingly progresses loosely, Didion ratchets it back into its tight structure with the repetition of multiple phrases and tropes.
As was the case with The Year of Magical Thinking, I really enjoyed reading this. It is poignant, in part because of the specificity and seeming distance of the writer which to me feels more like a numbness (it’s clear the feeling is there). I’m not always a huge fan of such books, though, because they are incredibly intimate, but again Didion has written something close to the heart and without bathos.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Sam Lipsyte’s “The Climber Room” was originally published in the November 21, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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I’m just not becoming a fan of Sam Lipsyte’s work. I have not read one of his novels, but the more I read his short stories the less I feel like this is a gap worth filling. I did enjoy – though not fully — the first piece of his I read, “The Dungeon Master,” published last year in The New Yorker (my thoughts here). But since then, it has gone down hill. I didn’t like ”The Worm in Philly,” a short piece he published in the Fall 2010 issue of The Paris Review, and I really didn’t like “Deniers,” which was published in The New Yorker earlier this year (my thoughts here). And now I find “The Climber Room” my least favorite of all, though I recognize that it could be the accumulated force of the last disappointments.
For me, Lipsyte has a vivid “voice” or style that sounds slightly irreverent and hip. The stories move forward nicely, but I can never fully believe that what he’s saying comes from anything more than his desire to keep that slightly irreverent and hip tone — in other words, to me he injects a lot into his stories simply to shock the reader. I say simply to shock because shock with purpose can be powerful, but I’ve never been fully convinced of real purpose.
“The Climber Room” is about Tovah Gold, a woman just creeping upon middle-age. She is just beginning a new job in a preschool. Soon after the story begins, Tovah meets one of the older fathers (“a skinny, gray-haired man in a polo shirt, old enough to be the grandfather of the girl who called him “Papa!”). When the man introduces himself, Tovah thinks he says his name is “Randy Goat.” Yes, she misheard him, and that little joke alone was okay, I guess, but combine the misheard name with the rest of the story and it is a blatant stunt that, for me, kept the story over-the-top.
Tovah is disappointed with her life. She was once a promising poet, but she hasn’t been able to do anything there for quite a while, not since the days when she could freely eat loads of greasy food. That night, after meeting the Goat Man (as she calls Randy Goat, whose real name is Gautier), she collapses into a mess of foods again.
Now she was thirty-six and in one eating spree had become a vile sack of fat and rot. In this vision of herself she was not even obese but more like a bloated corpse gaffed from a lake. There on the couch, her belly flopped over her jeans, the new chin she’d acquired in about five hours was damp and rashy, and rank scents curled from her pores and, especially, from her crotch whenever she tugged at her waistband to ease the ache. It was all so awful, so evil, so unlike the Tovah of recent years, of modified appetites and reduced expectations, that her corpse-body surged with something revoltingly, smearishly pleasing. She felt slimy, garbage-juice sexy. Her hand jerked inside her underwear for relief. She pictured the actual gaffer leaning over the side of the fishing boat: tan and rugged, with kind, lustful eyes under a brocaded cap. Sparkle eyes. Tovah’s legal pad, upon which she’d written only the title of her poem, “Needing the Wood,” slide to the carpet. Her fountain pen, caught against an embroidered yellow pillow, impaled it.
This episode where we get an inside take on Tovah’s sexual fantasy with a gaffer pulling her bloated corpse out of the lake gives a good idea of what I’m talking about. Yes, in a way, this episode tells a lot about Tovah’s mindset and foreshadows some of the means she’s willing to take to fulfill her desire which is increasingly becoming an obsession: she really would like to have a child: “A baby, however, especially a baby bred to be lean and coal-haired and jade-eyed and slant-smiled, like Sean, could learn to express Tovah’s feelings, too, without the torture of words.” Yes, as the story moves along, achieving this desire involves The Goat Man.
It isn’t that I found this all disgusting and therefore somehow unworthy of fiction. It’s that the story uses these images in place of nuance. I suppose that my basic problem with Lipsyte is the same I have with many a showy writer. We often hear praises sung to a writer who can write beautifully, though underneath the beautiful phrase is an empty thought. The same thing can happen when someone writes ugliness. The audience can see an ugly image and mistake it for profundity — why else would it be there? I won’t give it away, but Exhibit A of an empty thought covered with false ugly profundity is the final few paragraphs.
KevinfromCanada has often likened his developing feelings toward a book, whether good or bad, to a tree falling. At first, slight movements may sway the tree from “I like this” to “I hate this” and back again. But as the tree begins to fall, the more force required to right that tree again. Thus, if we are really starting to enjoy a book, it’s going to have to do something pretty horrendous to force the tree in the other direction. The same if we are hating a book. The same with an author. I haven’t read a lot of Lipsyte, but the tree is falling fast to the “I hate this” side. Because of that, I realize that my thoughts on this particular story may be a bit tainted because the tree was already falling even before I picked it up. This was clear to me immediately as I wasn’t far into ”The Climbing Room” before I was focusing on all of the annoying excesses, possibly to the exclusion of anything redemptive that would cast those excesses in better light. Saying all of this, I’m not apologizing for my feelings here, but I do recommend taking my opinion with a grain of salt, as always.
Tonight the winners of the 2011 National Book Awards were announced.
Fiction: Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
Nonfiction: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
Poetry: Head Off and Split, by Nikky Finney
Young Peoples’ Literature: Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
Despite the fact that I was initially uninterested, I actually did acquire all but one of the fiction finalists after looking into them further. The one I did not pick up: Salvage the Bones. I will, though, someday.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” was originally published in the November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
It’s always a good week when Steven Millhauser is in The New Yorker. I actually read this piece on Monday but then was out of the country on a business trip, so only now am I able to write a bit about it. I’m anxious for your thoughts.
First things: I love Millhauser’s writing. This, for me, was not his best story by a long ways, but it’s still well written with a great eye for detail and rhythm.
The story begins with the narrator regretting that he let a rather worn stranger sell him some “Miracle Polish”: “It cleaned mirrors with one easy flick of the wrist.” The stranger is a bit surprised when this middle-class man buys the polish, but he is happy about it. Nevertheless, his mannerisms suggest something amiss:
“You’ve made a wise choice,” he said solemnly, glancing at me and looking abruptly away.
The narrator, having no intention of using the polish, put it away for a while. Then, one morning while checking his suit before a mirror, he noticed a smudge. It’s probably been there for a long time, but now that he has some polish . . .
It surprises him that the spot disappears so easily. Also surprising is the fact that now the rest of the mirror looks blemished, so he decides to polish the whole thing. Stepping back to examine the mirror, he sees himself reflected nicely in the mirror:
But it was more than that. There was a freshness to my image, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before. I looked at myself with interest. This in itself was striking, for I wasn’t the kind of man who looked at himself in mirrors. I was the kind of man who spent as little time as possible in front of mirrors, the kind of man who had a brisk and practical relation to his reflection, with its tired eyes, its disappointed shoulders, its look of defeat. Now I was standing before a man who resembled my old reflection almost exactly but who had been changed in some manner, the way a lawn under a cloudy sky changes when the sun comes out. What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life.
Filling his house with mirrors, the man is invigorated. He’s thrilled when he shows the mirrors to his almost-girlfriend Monica (“For years we had edged toward each other without moving all the way.”), who, like the narrator has never been particularly attractive, and whose reflection doesn’t change per se, and yet it does:
I had hoped the reflection in the polished mirror would please her in some way, but I hadn’t expected what I saw — for there she was, without a touch of weariness, a fresh Monica, a vibrant Monica, a Monica with a glow of pleasure in her fact. She was dressed in clothes that no longer seemed a little drab, a little elderly, but were handsomely understated, seductively restrained.
It may sound like it, but this is not a rearranged Dorian Gray morality tale. Still, kind of like Dorian Gray, perhaps the best thing about the story is the writing itself, for ”Miracle Polish” is not quite as powerful as Millhauser usually is and it’s even, sadly, a tad predictable. Still, a welcome tale from one of our masters.
Tonight Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, won the 2011 Giller Prize!
I did really like that book, which was also shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
Here is a list of the shortlisted books, as well as links to the reviews the Shadow Giller cooked up for them.
- The Free World, by David Bezmozgis (Mookse, KFC, Kimbofo)
- The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady (Mookse, KFC, Kimbofo)
- The Sisters Brothers, by Patrcik deWitt (Mookse, KFC, Kimbofo)
- Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Mookse, KFC, Kimbofo)
- Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner (Mookse, KFC, Kimbofo)
- The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje (Mookse, KFC, Kimbofo)
Tonight the 2011 Giller Prize will be announced. You already know that we on the Shadow Jury already picked David Bezmozgis’s The Free World (my review here), but it wasn’t the easiest choice to make. I liked five books on the shortlist, four of them very much indeed, including this one, The Antagonist (2011), which is my sixth and final review of this year’s shortlist.
First off, I really enjoyed the basic form of this novel. It is a classic epistolary framework, only here the principal character is writing angry emails to an old acquaintance (perhaps too much of a stretch to call him an old friend, though at one time, yes, they were friends). I realize that this may seem gimmicky, but Coady, who is a completely new name to me, pulls it off and then some. Here the form really does suit the story.
Our epistolarian (I can’t call him the protagonist since he is, by way of the title, the antagonist) is Gordan Rankin, who grew up with everyone calling him “Rank.” It was such a familiar appellation that it wasn’t until much later in his life that he recognized the unpleasant association. Since there is no omniscient narrator, we know nothing about Rank before he begins his first email to Adam, a college friend (Rank is now around forty):
There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous [. . .]
It turns out that Rank and Adam have recently been in touch briefly because Adam has published a book. Rank, putting on a mask, said he was excited to read it and was, in fact, hoping Adam might help him with a bit of writing he was going to do. Adam said sure, and then must have been surprised at the way the above email began. The picture Rank is referring to is the author’s photo on the book, the book Rank had already read and was infuriated by.
Coady let’s Rank riff on about Adam’s weight gain. Sure, Rank is showing his anger, and we know he is angry about the contents of the book, but he is having a hard time articulating the source of that anger. I liked imagining the growing chill Adam must have felt as the first email got more and more menacing, especially here:
I had to stop for a while. I got a bit worked up after writing that and went off to drink and watch a little TV and now I am drunk. I just realized I can write you however I want — drunk or sober — and there’s nothing you can do about it. Isn’t this great.
Adam is, understandably, afraid of what Rank might do. We learn about that fear through little clues in Rank’s emails, including this opening from the second one: “Do what you want. Keep as much of a “paper trail” as you want, I haven’t made any threats.” Adam has no idea where Rank is these days, and as Rank tells his story — he’s setting the record straight that Adam perverted in his novel — we understand a bit why Adam might fear Rank.
Rank is and always has been a large man. In college he played hockey, even had a scholarships — his sole job was to go out and be brutal.
That had been his role for some time. Rank’s father, also Gordan Rankin, only he went by “Gord,” was a small man who, one unfortunate day in 1981, chose to open an Icy Dream franchise instead of a Java Joe’s. After all, the town of 7,500 would never buy into that coffee fad (Rank now, the summer of 2009, looks around and sees six Java Joe’s around his father’s Icy Dream — KFC remarks on how well Coady portrays this transformation in his review (here)). Rank, of course, worked at his father’s Icy Dream, but his main job was to keep it clean of miscreants. If a particularly unseemly crowd of juveniles entered, Rank was to ask them forcefully to leave. His father loved to watch his son throw around his weight; it helped him feel as if he had some power.
Naturally, this leads to several unfortunate incidents, and Rank is well on track to becoming a first-rate loser. Which is all people really expect from him anyway.
At college, Rank meets Adam and a few other rather average, unathletic boys, who were as different from his father as he could find. The stories, particularly the one Rank doesn’t divulge for a long time about the death of his mother, are the ones Rank feels Adam has exploited. Worse, he let everything go the predictable way and in the process made it all false. The emails, principally angry at first, eventually turn into a retelling, a revision of Adam’s false novel.
While we on the Shadow Giller didn’t select The Antagonist, there were times after I finished it that I almost put it in my first-place slot. I was captured by Rank’s voice, which is brutal and vulnerable, and often funny. In the end I opted for a book that I think had more complexities of character, though I wouldn’t be disappointed if Coady pulled an upset and won the prize tonight.