Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Victor Lodato’s “P.E.” was originally published in the April 2, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I don’t believe I’d ever heard of Victor Lodato before, but he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, a poet, an author of thirteen plays (by my count), and his first novel was published by FSG in 2009, so he comes to the pages of The New Yorker quite accomplished. I hope to see more, as “P.E.” went down very smoothly indeed.
Lodato’s skills as a playwright are definitely on display as he captures the voice of his narrator perfectly and uses that voice not simply to show some pizzaz but also, importantly, to lend texture and shadow to an already interesting story. Our narrator is a large man in his late twenties, a man who became very large, suddenly, in his late twenties (“There are miracles in this world — I absolutely believe this. But I also believe that they’re not always progressive. Some miracles, sadly, are destructive.”).
When we first meet him, he is waiting at the Tucson airport for his father. The first few paragraphs really pulled me in:
The night my father came in from New Jersey, or wherever the hell he was living, his plane was two hours and twenty-seven minutes late. I hadn’t called to check on the flight, and so I ended up waiting at an airport coffee kiosk, absorbing greasy pumpkin loaf and chasing it down with a triple-shot white-chocolate latte. When I went up to the counter to order a second slice of bread, the girl didn’t bat an eye. But three pieces was clearly too much for her. At that point, she hesitated, like she wasn’t sure if she should give it to me. I mean, what did she think I was doing — making a bomb out of the stuff? To look at me is to know that, obviously, I was eating it. I’m a large man, as my G.P. likes to say. But people at airports are all about suspicion.
“Don’t call security,” I said. But smiling, you know, with good cheer.
“Why would I call security?” she said. Now she looked even more nervous.
“I don’t know. All the bread.” And then I sort of laughed.
We sense from the narrator’s first sentence that he may not be particularly fond of his father, but when his father arrives it’s obvious there has been a major rift. It can be chalked up to the weight gain, but his father doesn’t even recognize him and they don’t touch until a bit later when the narrator touches him “lightly” on the arm. His father is ragged, an ex-junky (probably ex-), and the narrator doesn’t even know if he lives in New Jersey or just had a flight from Newark. They stand around the luggage carousel, and a nice bag comes by. The narrator wishes the bag were his fathers, “[j]ust like in an alternate reality I’m thin and wear a wedding ring.” However, the narrator actually believes in these alternate realities — he’s a member of “Parallel Energetics.”
Using P.E. techniques, you learn how to initiate a dialogue with your other selves and then ultimately you can draw aspects of their energy matrix into your own life. Of course, you’d only bring in the energy matrix of an alternate self that is better (“more evolved”) than your current reality. Because some of your other selves are actually worse off than you, and that can be pretty depressing, especially if you meet like three of them in a row.
It’s easy to see why an alternate self with a worse life would be pretty depressing for our narrator — his life has never been and isn’t now going all that well. P.E. is the only thing that’s kept him from buying a gun and committing suicide. Our narrator genuinely believes in P.E., and it’s led to some interesting side-steps from reality:
I know now, for example, that the childhood I remember is not the only version that exists, and so this allows me to be more accepting and forgiving or whatever. Salvatore, my mentor, always says, “Choose your past, choose your path.” [. . .] He means be careful how you remember stuff, because it influences the shape of your future. So I’m trying to be open-minded about what I remember.
There are many great works that examine memory and its faults, but I find it interesting here to find Lodato examining a character accepting that his memory is only one version — there are better versions out there, so why not take those? As the narrative progresses, we develop a distinct sense of our narrator’s tenuous hold on reality — he even has a hard time controlling the story:
I need to stop here.
This isn’t right. This is, wow, this is practically backwards.
This is not about food, and the fact that it keeps going there makes me want to vomit. Literally. This story isn’t really even about my father. The thing is, though, you put him in something like this and he just takes over. He’s like a narrative virus.
There’s one moment, though, when we see precisely why our narrator accepts that he has alternate selves and why he tries to flee his memories (which, on this occasion, despite the playful revision of memory, is clear and tender):
He loved women, all makes, all models. Let’s just say, my mother became depressed. I didn’t know that word then. Then I would have just said she was quiet. Actually, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. I would have just done what I always did: tug at her hand, like at the string of a talking doll that had ceased to function.
It’s a sad story and, as the story continues to develop the threads above, quite virtuosic in its conclusion.
The winner of this year’s PEN/Faulkner was announced this morning.
- The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
The winner gets $15,000. I have this book on hand and have been meaning to read it since it was also a finalist for the National Book Award back in November. It’s short enough I just need to get to it.
Here are the other finalists, each of whom receive $5,000 (making it a good week for Don DeLillo and Steven Millhauser who also took home some money for The Story Prize).
- Russell Banks for Lost Memory of Skin
- Don DeLillo for The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
- Anita Desai for The Artist of Disappearance
- Steven Millhauser for We Others: New and Selected Stories (my review here)
For the official press release, click here.
This past week the winner of The Story Prize was announced, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.
- We Others, by Steven Millhauser (my review here)
I loved this collection, and I’m glad Millhauser walked away with the $20,000 winnings. The other two finalists (who each get $5,000) were Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman and The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo. I haven’t paid much attention to this relatively new award before, but I will be from now on. I’ve added a page to follow it here.
I’d only heard the name Nescio whispered here and there over the past few years (and I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of him at all before that). A Dutch master, well-known in his own country, 2012 marks the first time any of Nescio’s work is available in English, even though three of his major works were written before 1920. Then again, as Joseph O’Neill points out in his introduction to this edition, “It seems extraordinary that Nescio should have any reputation.” That’s because this short book (155 pages) contains all of his major work, published and unpublished. Amsterdam Stories (tr. from the Dutch by Damion Searls, 2012) is all we’re going to get, and knowing that this slim collection is the foundation for Nescio’s huge reputation set my expectations pretty high.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
Nescio means “I dont’ know” in Latin, and it’s as if this is the response to all of the questions raised in his work (“And so everything takes its little course, and woe to those who ask: Why?”). Nescio is the pseudonym of Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönlof, a very successful director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. From the stories, I’d never guess Grönlof and Nescio were the same person; I would rather suspect that Nescio was one of Grönlof’s employees and that Grönlof was the model for one of the despised bosses in Nescio’s stories, one of those “important gentlemen” who knocks the youth right out of you.
And for much of his life, Grönlof may indeed have been that boss. He wrote so little one can hardly say he lived the life of a writer. His four major works — major both because they form the basis of his reputation and because they are the longest pieces he published – are short stories: “The Freeloader” (thirty-one pages in this edition), ”Young Titans” (twenty-eight pages), “Little Poet” (forty-two pages), and “Insula Dei” (twenty-five pages). The remaining five pieces in this collection are tiny, ranging from a paragraph to a couple of pages; some are just excerpts of works in progress that never moved beyond the first burst of inspiration (but the burst is impressive). Though not voluminous, what Nescio did put on paper are some beautiful passages about that brief period in life when one arrives at the threshold of adulthood, filled with vague dreams and hopes for the future, that time when one realizes time is suddenly running out. This is a favorite theme of mine, nicely expressed recently by Steven Millhauser in “Getting Closer” (though there the unfortunate epiphany strikes a boy of only eleven) (my thoughts on “Getting Closer” here).
As fondly as Nescio looks back on this time period when one can still put up a decent, if illusory, fight against the future, Nescio doesn’t romanticize it as we might expect. It was beautiful, sure, but a life spent dreaming by the sea or chatting the evening away with friends in coffee shops, waiting to change the world, is untenable. For one thing, there’s the need for money. And vague dreams cease to fulfill (“Who can spend his life watching these things that constantly repeat themselves, who can keep longing for nothing?”). Of course, the tragedy of it all is that when we do start working to realize our dreams, time continues to move forward and we run out of time; furthermore, perhaps the very effort we expend to realize a dream becomes the toxic to the dream itself.
The first stories in this collection — “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans” — are my two favorites. They were finished in 1910 and 1914, respectively, when Nescio himself was passing into his early thirties. He had begun working at the Holland-Bombay Trading Company in 1904, was married in 1906, and already had three of his four daughters by 1910 (the fourth came along in 1912). This is the atmosphere in which he ruminated on the never-to-return carefree days of early adulthood (or late childhood). These two stories are narrated by Koekebakker (“cookie baker”), which was apparently Nescio’s first choice as a pseudonym, but it looks like the first magazine he published in objected (cookie baker is synonymous with ineptitude).
In “The Freeloader” Koekebakker tells about the most peculiar person he’s ever met (well, “[e]xcept for the man who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe.”), a freeloader named Japi. Koekebakker has a small group of young friends who, like him, are just starting out. They have little money and are already taking life seriously. But into their midst comes Japi, whom one of the friends met by the sea, having seen Japi sitting by the sea so much, it didn’t seem he ever left: “Then Japi had to laugh and he said, ‘I do sit by the water a lot, but “always” is a bit much. At night I lie in bed, I need an hour to get dressed and eat breakfast, I eat lunch for half an hour and at six I have to eat again. But I do sit by the water a lot.’”
Japi refuses the world of responsibility. His goal is to be nothing (“going places and thinking are only for stupid people”). Of course, the only way Japi can survive is by taking whatever he needs from others. He has tried work himself, but he’s not very good at it. Indeed, once when thinking about applying for work Japi even says that he thinks his soul is too big (Koekebakker thinks to himself “Can you believe it? That sponger!”). Yet, though selfish and naïve, what Jopi says is probably true — for all of us, but we shrink into routine office jobs anyway.
The story takes us through the years, and we see these boys turn into relatively successful men, no longer struggling to make money, but no longer certain they’ve ever done anything worth doing. Japi himself becomes, for a time, a very hard worker. There’s simply no other way around this life. But, though Koekebakker recognizes this tragedy, it hits Japi most severely, and later in life he reflects on the passage of time and — why?
And then, with a few variations, he repeated his old reverie about the water, how it flowed eternally to the west, out toward the sun every night. In Nijmegen there was a doctor who had taken the same walk at the same time every morning for fifty-three years — over the Valkhof hill and down the north side and up the Waalkade to the railroad bridge. That’s more than 19,300 times. And always the water flowed to the west. And it didn’t mean anything. It must have flowed like that for a hundred times fifty-three years. Longer. Now there’s a bridge over it. Every year is 365 day; ten years is 3,650 sunrises. Every day is 24 hours, and every hour more goes through the heads of all those constantly worrying people than you could set down in a thousand books. Thousands of worriers who saw that bridge are dead now. And still, it’s only been there a short time.
“Young Titans” goes over similar ground, but it still felt fresh to me (I read it right when I finished “The Freeloader”). Here’s how it begins; Koekebakker (or a version of him) is still our narrator:
We were kids — but good kids. If I may say so myself. We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic. Except for Bavink, who went crazy. Was there anything we didn’t want to set to rights? We would show them how it should be. “We”: that meant the five of us. Everyone else was “them,” the ones who didn’t see it, didn’t get it. “What?” Bavink said. “God?” You want to talk about God? Their pot roast is their God.” Other than a few “decent fellows” we despised everyone — and secretly, I still think we were right. But I can’t say that out loud to anyone. I’m not a hero anymore.
Here are five friends we met in “The Freeloader,” but they are either slightly varied or this is before Japi came along (he never shows in “Young Titans”) because when “Young Titans” begins the five young men are still in the early phase of the transition to responsibility, still fairly certain the pathway they’d take through life would somehow stay as free as they then felt. Not that they understood that freedom.
No, we didn’t actually do anything. We did our work at the office, not all that well, for bosses we despised — except Bavink and Hoyer, who had no bosses, and who didn’t understand why we went in to see ours every day.
But we were waiting. For what? We never knew.
“Young Titans” again move us through the years. Some of the friends become very successful “important gentlemen,” running offices now. Koekebakker may be the only one aware enough to see the transition occur and who looks back on that time with what might be suspicion as much as longing. The seaside where they watched the waves is still there, the waves still coming to shore. The hope and contentment they felt was theirs seems to be just an illusion that many had before and many will yet have:
It was a strange time. And when I think about it, I realize that that time must still be happening now, it will last as long as there are young men of nineteen or twenty running around. It’s only for us that the time is long since past.
And if the peace and contentment of youth passes away time and time again, and the world doesn’t do anything about it — indeed, doesn’t seem to notice (“We were gloomy about all the things that had passed, and about our lives, which would end while these things continued to exist.”) — then what is it all for?
Amsterdam Stories is organized chronologically, and “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans” are the earliest works. There are a few short segments before we get to his next major work (and his longest), “Little Poet,” written in 1917. While I missed Koekebakker and his friends, it was also nice to see Nescio move to a different cast of characters to work out his themes, this time including love and lust. It felt darker and a bit more sinister than his earlier work, but it also had some moments of brilliant levity, such as the time when Nescio addresses the reader directly. See, the Little Poet’s wife recopies his work, as does Nescio’s, but the Little Poet’s mind has become unfaithful:
It’s strange, in other stories she reads she doesn’t think things along these lines are that bad. I think it’s because I’m the one who wrote this story. Of course, she knows there’s a difference between the author and Mr. Nescio himself, but to her that’s splitting hairs. It’s a difficult situation. My domestic bliss is somewhat troubled — but still I’ll keep going.
There are a few more short pieces between “Little Poet” and Nescio’s final major work “Insula Dei,” which he wrote in 1942. But for the most part, the 1920s and 1930s were fallow years. Nescio became director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company in 1926 and retired in 1937 (“I’m free, after forty years I’m free, and I can cut my hair whenever I feel like it and let it grow too if I want”). Certainly if at nineteen or twenty Nescio had the dream to live the life of the mind, he recognized what it was like to sacrifice that for a life of making money for a family, though he lamented this fact later in life:
My life is too short, I can’t go any faster, my work is a cathedral and I need a long time, centuries. And how much longer do I have?
It’s as if Nescio himself ran out of time, as if he thought he’d be able to write plenty through life but work came and then death brought a stop to it all. Fortunately for us, his work is available, and though the water is still flowing to the west, we can remember the work Nescio did.
This novella is precisely why I love the Best Translated Book Award. I hadn’t paid much attention to this little book put out by Texas Tech University Press as part of their “The Americas” series, so, were it not for its placement on the longlist, I doubt I would have read it, which would have been a real shame because Kafka’s Leopards (Leopardos de Kafka, 2000; tr. from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee, 2011) is wonderful, at once charming and sad.
The book opens in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, in 1965 with a police report on the arrest of an alleged radical, the young man Jaime Kantarovitch. There is little of note on his person, but one small piece of paper catches the interest of the police. The paper has a few dozen words in German and, “[b]elow the text, the signature of a certain ‘Franz Kafka.’”
These policemen in the 1960s are not the only people in this story to suspect that this short German text is some kind of code used by radicals. After the short police report, we step back in time to 1916, to a small village close to Odessa, Ukraine, where Jaime’s uncle, Benjamin Kantarovitch is a young man, wheening himself of the Torah in order to take up the revolutionary cause. Benjamin is also known as Mousy, and though he desperately wants to be a revolutionary, Mousy is just a nickname, not a codename. It seems there is little Mousy can do in this small village to realize his dream of helping the revolution, but one day his friend Yossi returns from a meeting with Leon Trotsky himself, and Yossi has come back with a secret mission. Mousy is perhaps a little jealous, but such is his love for Trotsky and the revolution that his prevailing sentiment is one of gratitude that he can be even this close to the action. Before he can embark, though, Yossi falls ill and, fearing death, passes the mission on to Mousy.
Thus begins a series of misadventures. The first step in the mission is to go to Prague to find a man and retrieve a coded text. Along with some tickets, money, papers, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto, Yossi gives Mousy an important envelope that contains the name of contact and the key to deciphering the coded text.
Apparently the coded text will unveil the name of ”the target” as well as another contact who will tell Mousy what to do to the target. We never even come close to getting that far, though. The trip to Prague is disorienting, and, just when he is starting to feel a bit more confident in his role as true revolutionary, Mousy loses the all-important envelope. Desperate, he determines not to fail and tries to figure out what the missing envelope might have held. Of course, it’s all guess-work; his only knowledge is that the man he was supposed to meet is a writer and a Jew like himself and Yossi. By talking to a rather gossipy shammes at the synagogue where the Golem is buried, Mousy eventually hear’s Kafka’s name. “Sort of an oddball . . .” says the shammes. “An oddball. That seemed promising to Mousy.”
A rebel. Yes, this was interesting. Behind the rebel, the revolutionary might be lurking. Must be lurking. Only the person who doesn’t conform, who doesn’t accept things as they are, who never feels entirely comfortable is capable of changing society. And the name . . . Kafka seemed to him like a good name for a revolutionary: the echoing of the “k” sound suggested determination, tenacity. Like the “t” in Trotsky, whose name, he recalled, also had a “k” in it. Only an impression, of course, but what else did he have to go on except impression?
At this time, Kafka was working at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. Mousy is confused by the ornate building: “Yes, one expected a revolutionary to have contact with workers — but not through an institution like this one.” Well, maybe Kafka is a mole and this job gave him the opportunity to find men who are no longer useful at the factory but may still be able to hurl grenades. Yes, Kafka must be the man. And, sure enough, when Mousy asks Kafka for “the text,” Mousy receives a small piece of paper with a few German words, as well as Kafka’s signature — a clumsy move, Mousy thinks.
And so Mousy receives from Kafka one of Kafka’s famous super short stories, part of the Zürau Aphorisms, “The Leopards in the Temple.”
Leopards break into the temple and drink up the offering in the chalices; this happens again and again; finally, one can predict their action in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony.
We get several very fun pages of Mousy trying to interpret this code. Does Prague even have a zoo? What does Trotsky have against leopards — who could the leopards stand for? Why is a revolutionary writing in such an obfuscated way? Mousy grumbles to himself, “Simple village Jews are human beings too, comrade, they also need books. Practice some self-criticism and think of them next time you’re writing something like your ‘Leopards in the Temple.’” The pages of trying to interpret the text move into a period when Mousy tries to execute what he believes is the coded plot, and eventually we end up in Rio Grande do Sul.
It’s a very fun book, but it also has a darker side. I don’t know exactly how to interpret “The Leopards in the Temple.” There’s the way we interpreted it in literature class, as a statement about art, about the interpretation of texts (there’s plenty of that here), about the outsider coming in. Are the leopards revolutionaries who come in an disrupt the status quo (only to eventually become part of it)? Or are the leopards symbols of the terrible things that disturb our lives but that we eventually accept and even make an integral part of our lives? In any context, the parable has some application to this book.
As the book enters its final phase, a lot of terrible things have happened to Mousy – it’s no longer funny, and we may yearn for the simpler days when Mousy was just setting out on his silly adventure. As an old man in the 1960s, doing his best to watch out for his young nephew Jaime, Mousy is resigned to life’s tragedies. Despite this, when I finished the book I had a smile on my face. It’s that kind of book.
Now, I need to find some more Moacyr Scliar.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Antonya Nelson’s “Chapter Two” was originally published in the March 26, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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Antonya Nelson’s “Soldier Joy” was one of the first New Yorker stories I posted about on this blog; it was published on January 19, 2009 (my brief thoughts here). I started my brief thoughts on “Soldier Joy” by saying, “I both liked and didn’t like this story.” Well, let’s just say I feel the same way about “Chapter Two.”
Hil is a member of A.A. who celebrates fictional milestones. Sure, she’ll celebrate a year being sober soon, but after the meetings, she usually goes out with another member for a beer (he doesn’t drink, but he checks his watch to see when he can take his next Xanax).
Recently, at the meetings, rather than talk about herself too much, Hil tells the group stories about her eccentric neighbor, Bergeron Love, a fifty-something-year-old woman who is “some composite of Miss Havisham, Norma Desmond, and Scarlett O’Hara.” So, yes, an eccentric with a noble (at least subjectively) past, refusing to see yet mourning the fall of such a legacy. Just the other night, Berge showed up at Hil’s house drunk, naked, and a bit upset because what does one have to do to get arrested on this street?
“Chapter Two” then introduces a fairly hefty load of side characters: there’s Janine, Hil’s overweight roommate; Jeremy, Hil’s fifteen-year-old son who prefers to be alone in his room; Allistair, Berge’s sensitive son who has grown up and moved away; and Boyd, Berge’s passive boyfriend.
But what is ”Chapter Two” about? The title brings to mind a narrative. Hil herself is telling her A.A. group a story, which, we learn later, is basically “Chapter One.” Hil doesn’t want to tell her group Chapter Two of that story because then no one could laugh at Berge’s personality.
But there’re other narratives here that haven’t played out fully, nor will we get their Chapter Two here. First, Hil, who prefers to tell other people’s stories rather than her own — “It’s good to have somebody else’s bad habits around to put your own in perspective” — what will happen to her? Her husband has left her (we don’t know why). Jeremy is kind to her and possibly will remain loyal to her, but, like Allistair, he will probably be moving out someday soon.
Which brings me to what I liked most about the story: trying to figure out Chapter Two for Jeremy and Allistair. Neither is fully present in this story (Allistair never physically shows up), but it’s obvious much of what Hil and Berge go through will affect them in the long run. It’s their Chapter Two that’s interesting to contemplate.
So that’s what I liked about this story, but I didn’t actually enjoy reading it. Liking the story at all came only upon reflection, which is one of the good things about blogging. Perhaps there’s hope for me and Antonya Nelson yet.
The first time I heard about Edouard Levé was when a piece of his was published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Paris Review. It was called “When I look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue.” Here is how the strange — and strangely compelling — piece begins:
When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual how to die. I don’t really listen to what people tell me. I forget things I don’t like. I look down dead-end streets. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste the same as the end of a novel. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I am slow to realize when someone mistreats me, it is always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal. When I sit with bare legs on vinyl, my skin doesn’t slide, it squeaks. I archive. I joke about death. I do not love myself. I do not hate myself. My rap sheet is clean.
The piece continues from there, a random sampling of statements with no apparent relationship to one another other than to build up our sense of who this person is. It’s short, and you can read the whole thing on The Paris Review website (click here). I wasn’t sure what to expect when opening up Suicide (2008; tr. from the French by Jan Steyn, 2011), which was recently placed on the Best Translated Book Award longlist.
Review copy courtesy of Dalkey Archive.
In brief, what I got was more of the same style, a kind of random sampling of details to give a sense of someone’s life. Only in Suicide, the subject is not the narrator. Rather, the narrator is listing details about a friend (whom he addresses directly throughout) who committed suicide some twenty years before, when they were each in their mid-twenties. The narrator describes his style best: “My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.” And we can expect, amidst the narrative that contemplates suicide, a great deal of random marbles that, somehow, add up to — I’ll say it again — a strangely compelling piece.
Suicide begins by setting up the act:
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She says outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot.
Because there was no apparent tragedy that drove his friend to suicide — he was, we assume, happily married and still had a lot of life ahead of him — the narrator forces himself to consider the invisible motives. Depression seems to have played a large part: “You used to believe that with age you would become less unhappy, because you then would have reasons to be sad. When you were still young, your suffering was inconsolable because you believed it to be unfounded.”
While it is all interesting, I was particularly drawn into the narrator’s relationship with his friend, which has become much more meaningful after the suicide. In life, he and this man were friends, but they were not particularly close. There were each closer to others, but the narrator doesn’t feel that way now:
Your silence has become a form of eloquence. But they, who can still speak, remain silent. I no longer think of them, those with whom I was formerly so close. But you, who used to be so far-off, distant, mysterious, now seem quite close to me. When I am in doubt, I solicit your advice.
It’s this “belief in your eternity” — a “lunacy” born because the friend’s “disappearance is so unacceptable” — that is so striking to me. The narrator is perhaps a lot like Levé who, in his piece in The Paris Review, says, “I believe there is an afterlife, but not an afterdeath.” This friend remains alive, somehow more alive, today, though two decades ago he took his own life.
The book’s structure — that grabbing a marble out of a bag — is effective but also, for me, was a bit hard to sink into. At times it felt like a collection of aphorisms rather than a series of statements about a life, now gone though somehow more present. That said, the book is growing on me more and more, particularly after rereading “When I Look at a Strawberry, . . .” Levé ends that piece on a tragic note:
I do not ask “do you love me.” Only once can I say “I’m dying” without telling a lie. The best day of my life may already be behind me.
As sad and tragic as that ending note was when Levé wrote it in 2002, it and especially the very book Suicide are drastically transformed when we learn that Levé himself took his life in 2007 at the age of 42. In fact, he killed himself just one week after delivering the transcript of Suicide to his editor. I left this detail out until now because I wanted to attempt to look at the book as its own world and not as a kind of suicide note — which is impossible to do, because I knew the back-story before I started the book. Furthermore, it’s hard not to suspect that this is just what Levé wanted.
So since I finished the book, I’ve been trying to understand why it was interesting to me. In other words, would I have accepted it and its random structure had I not been looking at it as a kind of personal reflection on Levé’s own impending suicide? I’m still not sure. That said, it is an interesting and emotional book in which the confines of life seem to crack at the seams, allowing someone to become something more in death, which could be what Levé was after when he put the final punctuation on this book with his own death: “Dead, you are as alive as you are vivid.” And (sadly? I’m not sure) that is the most interesting thing about this book.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Rivka Galchen’s “Appreciation” was originally published in the March 19, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I have read little by Rivka Galchen, but didn’t really enjoy the last piece she published in The New Yorker, “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire,” which was part of the “20 Under 40″ (now nearly two years ago!). This is a short one, but, you guessed it, I haven’t been able to read it yet. I’m still hung up on the fact I haven’t read Munro’s latest, so how can I move on until then? I do have the goal — I promise — to catch up completely and be more timely. In the meantime, I’m enjoying your comments!
I’m officially underway in my effort to read most (probably not all) of this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist (it’s a very long list, at 25 titles) (the complete list here). I now have 18 of the titles and have finished reading five with Juan José Saer’s startling Scars (Cicatrices, 1969; tr. from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, 2011).
Review copy courtesy of Open Letter.
I say “startling” not only because of the central event in the book — a husband and wife walk out of a bar and he turns and shoots her twice in the face with a shotgun — but also because of the book’s strange structure . . . well, and the fact that Saer goes into detail about billiard strategies and punto banco baccarat rules and succeeds in keeping the book interesting while using these tangents to build upon the book’s strange structure.
Scars is laid out in four parts, each narrated by a man, each laid out around the aforementioned murder. The first part covers a large span of months and its narrative continues into the time beyond the crime; the second, shorter, part covers a smaller period of time; the third, even shorter and smaller; until we get to the fourth, which is the shortest and is a narrative of just one day — the day of the murder – from the perspective of the murder. The fact that the book has such an overt geometrical structure that gives the reader a bit of whiplash reminded me plenty of Roberto Bolaño, though I’d certainly say that Scars is a bit more straightforward (you don’t actually have to draw a diagram to see the geometry, though it would be interesting nonetheless).
Our first narrator is Ángel, an 18 year old just making his way in the field of journalism. His first job is to cover the weather. He has no idea how to read the instruments, so most days the weather simply reads, “No change in sight” – and the weather is always terrible.
Ángel still lives with his 36-year-old mother. It’s a tenuous and charged relationship to say the least. Ángel’s only connection to the murderer is thanks to a judge who lets him sit in on the murderer’s deposition. Surprising everybody, one moment the murder is in his seat for the deposition and, after the sound of breaking glass, the murderer’s chair is empty — he’s jumped to his death.
Ángel spends most of his days talking to the same people, trying to seduce some girl, fighting with his mother. We readers are pulled into the repetition until that glass breaks. The chapter ends, beautifully, with Ángel walking down a street, running into his double, someone who may be living out the same life Ángel is, but what kind of life is that? That last bit is not meant to be a moral question; we only sense Ángel through the doldrums of his fairly vapid life — the breaking glass feels like the only time we’re dealing with someone partially awake. It worked well, for me.
The second section is narrated by a washed-up prosecutor named Sergio. He once knew the murderer, but they’ve been out of touch for some time. But instead of focusing on that time, Sergio’s section focuses on Sergio’s deep addiction to baccarat, which he plays nightly (and which we play with him nightly). He asks for money from others. Quite upfront, he lets them know that the only reason he’s asking for the money is so he can gamble, that he’s pretty sure he will lose it all, and that it will be very difficult for him to pay them back. One person who gives to him freely (she’s been saving) is his fourteen-year-old maid. Though in this section Sergio spends a great deal of time explaining the rules and strategy behind baccarat, further distancing the narrator from his reader, it never became dull to me. After all, punto banco baccarat is a game of chance, so any explanation of strategy actually says much more about the speaker than about the game itself.
The third section is told from the point of view of Ernesto, the judge in the murder case. It’s he who allows Ángel to come to the deposition, due to a little crush as it turns out. Not quite as engaging to me as the minutia about baccarat, I still found the judge and his character compelling. Here’s a man who essentially despises everyone. As he drives around the city (and, again, we are treated to the minute details of the journey), he looks around and simply sees gorillas going about their lives (again, if you can call it life).
It’s only in the last section that we actually hone in on the crime itself. We finally meet and hear from the man who killed his wife. Luis Fiore is a man in his upper-thirties, and he, his wife, and their daughter have gone out hunting. We already know how this day is going to turn out, and we cringe each time a bottle of gin is lifted up, more so when the sexual energy is heightened.
She goes on reading. I sit down next to her, on the running board, and wrap my arm around her shoulder. She doesn’t even seem to notice that there’s an arm around her shoulders. I start to exert pressure, pulling her heavy body against mine.
– Come here, next to me, I say.
– Come on, Gringuita, I say.
– Stop, she says.
– I said stop it, she says.
– Are you going to stop or not? she says.
But then she relaxes and falls into my shoulder. There’s the meadow ahead of us, extending toward the lake. It’s empty. My arm slides from her shoulder to her smooth, white neck. Her open mouth presses against my hard jaw. I can feel the dampness of her soft lips against my jaw. Difficult to erase.
In a low voice she says, I’m going to keep you up late tonight.
Since we know where this is going, the point is not what happened. The book also fails completely to tell us why — and that’s, at least partly, the point. None of the first three narrators knows why the murder happened — they barely breathe above their own repetitious lives. Worse, though the tale of the murder (from multiple sources, including a batch of witnesses) is repeated several times throughout Scars, it doesn’t seem that Fiore, whose section is told in the present tense, knows how to make sense of all that’s going on around him. Yes, this reminded me of Bolaño, too.
Such a strange book, it gives a lot to think about as nothing is resolved. I appreciated that immensely, though that and the repetition will surely turn off some readers. That said, thank goodness that, after over forty years, this book has finally made its way into English.
Tonight the NBCC Award winners were announced.
- Fiction: Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories, by Edith Pearlman
- Nonfiction: Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War, by Maya Jasanoff
- Biography: George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis
- Poetry: Space, in Chains, by Laura Kasischke
- Autobiography: The Memory Palace: A Memoir, by Mira Bartók
- Criticism: Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, by Geoff Dyer
I have read about five of the stories in Binocular Vision and can only say that I hope this win gets Edith Pearlman read more — it’s excellent.