Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” was originally published in the June 4 & 11, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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If you didn’t know, The New Yorker has made a few headlines because they’ve been tweeting this story, sentence by sentence, each evening at 8:00 p.m. EST. I believe it is currently around the halfway point.
I have been tuning in each night, and the results have been pretty dismal for me. It just hasn’t worked. Egan has crafted a story that can seem like a series of short tweets coming in real-time, but the sentences in “Black Box” still lack the immediacy of Twitter. Consequently, for me it came across as very choppy and, perhaps since it was Twitter, almost like a series of independent aphorisms rather than a developing story. Here, for example, are the first six tweets, which probably took me five minutes to read the first time. If you’d like to simulate the Twitter experience, read the first one, go away for a minute, the come back to read the next, and proceed accordingly:
People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.
The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important.
If you’re having trouble perceiving and projecting, focus on projecting.
Necessary ingredients for a successful projection: giggles; bare legs; shyness.
The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible.
When you succeed, a certain sharpness will go out of his eyes.
Now that it’s all laid out in front of me, I can see it: this is actually a pretty good beginning to this strange and satisfying story. But on Twitter, where every night the illusion of a continuous Twitter story is killed at 9:00 (not to mention the fact that other tweets are popping up to interrupt the flow constantly, even after day three I still didn’t particularly know or care what was going on, and I really doubted my ability to dedicate ten hours to following this story in its intended form. So I, for one, was glad to have the chance to read the story in the magazine, without distraction.
In the print form, the story is still formatted as a series of sentences, but they flow better, especially once the narrative begins to emerge. The setting is the future. A thirty-three-year-old, American woman has volunteered for the American government. Her job is to use her body to take advantage of common perspectives of women, all the while collecting valuable data about the men who possess her. She is to be their “beauty,” a future term that means exactly what we today think it might.
This nameless “hero” has been sent to the south of France to surveille her “Designated Mate,” a powerful enemy to America.
So what about this strange form? And can Egan, who in her most recent novel wrote a long chapter in PowerPoint, pull it off? I think she pulled off her PowerPoint chapter, and I think she pulls of this form (though not on Twitter). We are soon aware that the single sentences are almost like a series of real-time instructions this field agent is receiving. For example, as the story begins, she is receiving tips as she begins to infiltrate this criminal’s life, to become “a part of his atmosphere: a source of comfort and ease.” They are swimming in the sea, and the instructions help her maintain her role as a simple, non-threatening “beauty”:
Eagerness and pliability can be expressed even in the way you climb from the sea onto chalky yellow rocks.
“You’re a fast swimmer,” uttered by a man who is still submerged, may not be intended as praise.
Giggling is sometimes better than answering.
Soon, the agent is receiving real-time help utilizing the Dissociation Technique, which “is like a parachute — you must pull the cord at the correct time.” At this point, the choppy burst of single sentences works incredibly well:
You will be tempted to pull the cord when he surrounds you with arms whose bulky strength reminds you, fleetingly, of your husband’s.
You will be tempted to pull it when you feel him start to move against you from below.
You will be tempted to pull it when his smell envelops you: metallic, like a warm hand clutching pennies.
The directive “Relax” suggests that your discomfort is palpable.
“No one can see us” suggests that your discomfort has been understood as fear of physical exposure.
“Relax, relax,” uttered in rhythmic, throaty tones, suggests that your discomfort is not unwelcome.
These real-time instructions are not meant just for this particular agent. They take into consideration what is happening in order to log data that may be helpful for other agents. Once this agent has returned, her log will be downloaded for others.
One aspect of this that I found confusing at first, or at least problematic, was the personal nature of some of the “instructions.” For example, “Mirror your Designated Mate’s attitudes, interests, desires, and tastes” is a straight-forward instruction; “Cold fish is unappealing, even when served in a good lemon sauce” is not. Just when I was getting used to the idea that I was looking at a real-time log of instructions, a sentence about, say, cold fish would arise and take me out of that. Thankfully, Egan has reconciled this, finding an ingenious solution that allows us to follow the instructions and, to a limited extent, the agent’s own feelings and fears. This log is not coming from some external source; it is implanted in the agent and, as it responds to the external world to give aid it also includes “stray or personal” thoughts, which may be deleted later.
And it is in this area that I found most to enjoy: here is a female who is playing the role of the submissive sex object who actually has already submitted to the government. All over her body recording and downloading devices have been implanted, as if she were a robot whose sole purpose was to bring back information in her physical body, whether she is still alive or not.
“Black Box” was an exciting read, because of its formal inventiveness, its increasing tension, and the ideas of a woman being, in a few difference senses, a black box. I hope people who were turned off as it was tweeted (and I know there were many) give it a shot in its printed form — here it shines.
Tonight the winner of the 2012 Orange Prize was announced:
- The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller
While I wanted either Ozick or Enright to win, I’m interested in this piece. I have always loved the classics and classical history, so I think I will check it out. Congratulations Madeline Miller!
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Jonathan Lethem’s “My Internet” was originally published in the June 4 & 11, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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So, it’s the science-fiction issue of The New Yorker, and we get four pieces of fiction. For whatever reason, rather than introduce readers of The New Yorker to science-fiction writers, the editors have opted to give us more of the same. The four authors who offer us fiction: Sam Lipsyte, Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, and, here, Jonathan Lethem. Both Díaz and Lethem were published in the magazine as recently as April.
To be honest, I’m not excited to read any of these pieces (I’ve been trying to get through Egan’s as it’s been tweeted, but more on that later), so I decided to read the shortest first. ”My Internet” is only four columns spread over two pages. I could use some help with this one, because I felt it hardly worth the short time it took to read it once yet read it a second time, getting not a single thing extra for my troubles. It begins like this:
I have an Internet within the Internet. It is my very, very own Internet, a place like the one that is known to you except that it is not known to you — it is mine alone. No one else may go there.
I haven’t read a lot of Jonathan Lethem, and while I didn’t like his recent “The Porn Critic,” which was published in the April 9, 2012 issue of The New Yorker (my thoughts here), I have been at least on the positive side of indifference, but this opening sounded quite cute and self-aware, something I don’t have a lot of patience with apparently. At this point, I was already working up the will to continue reading. I’m getting more and more grumpy with these, I know.
The nameless narrator goes on to describe the three levels of the Internet. There’s the general one; it’s the one you’re using to read this post, and it’s for anyone. Back when the Internet began and there were only 200 users, a leader foresaw many problems with the general Internet — “difficulties such as those with anonymity and masquerade and the lemminglike migratory waves of popular hatred that have come to define the Internet” — and he proposed an equal split: 100 users to the general one, which has continued to grow, and 100 users for his exclusive Internet, which continues to have 100 users, even when someone leaves or is kicked out. Our narrator is still feeling the negative effects, though:
Yet lately I’ve felt the urge for a deeper foray, the need for a more profound exclusion, and it is this which has led me to the creation of an Internet entirely of my own.
I found the short piece fairly boring and the clever ending weak payoff. I’m looking for help with this one, in other words. And now, on to the other, longer pieces.
One of the first books I reviewed for this blog was Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story, also published by NYRB Classics (my review here). It’s one of those books I remember so well that I can recall the lighting in the room and just how pleasant that July afternoon was nearly four years ago. Zweig’s writing is filled with a unique combination of urgency and enthusiasm, and it was with great pleasure that I recalled the early days of this blog and reconnected with Zweig through Confusion (Verwirrung der Gefühle, 1927; tr. from the German by Anthea Bell, 2009).
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
As I begin this review, I find myself perplexed about how much to write about the plot. The narrator of the book suffers from confusion as he attempts to establish a relationship with his brilliant teacher, but I feel the development of the plot gives the game away for the contemporary reader — we are not nearly so confused, so familiar are we with the book’s methods of revealing the central mystery. In fact, I’m betting that a brief introduction to the characters is all most of us need in order to understand what’s going on here, but in no way does this lessen the book’s impact. Zweig’s precise yet animated style recreates the confusion (as well as so many other emotions) so wonderfully that the book’s central mystery turns out to be just one of many things to explore.
Nevertheless, I promise to be as discreet as possible here, though best for you to just go get the book and read it.
When the book begins, the narrator, Roland, is an admired professor of English literature. He’s turning sixty, and everyone has chipped in to produce an expensively bound book containing all of his work. So there it is all combined and sitting on the table: early, brilliant pieces developing into mature, brilliant pieces. Those who’ve known him longest profess Roland has always been passionate about the humanities, and his gifts were always apparent.
This is far from the truth. In fact, Roland was a terrible high-school student and nearly a terrible college student. He despised the humanities and chased after more temporal delights. A brilliant moment (one of many) is when Roland has wasted away his first term of college in the intoxicating city of Berlin (which, like Walser (here), he calls a “giantess”); while Roland is in the middle of some activity with a girl, his father drops by his cramped living space. The two of them share silent embarrassment as the father pretends to ignore what has been going on and the son shuffles the girl out of the apartment, the wind of her passage making the drawn curtain billow a bit. But his father hasn’t come to berate his son; it’s simply time to move on, and he actually manages to inspire his son to have another go at college, but this time in a provincial town.
When Roland arrives, he goes to visit one of his professor’s class while it is in progress. The professor is lecturing on Shakespeare, and it is indeed an inspirational speech, filled with the elderly man’s convincing passion. It turns out the older man’s boarding house has an extra room, and he invites Roland to take his meager belongings there. For Roland, this is where it all begins. When, later in life, he looks at that expensive book collecting all of his work, he thinks, “The book covers everything else, but not the man who gave me the gift of language and with whose tongue I speak: and suddenly I feel to blame for this craven silence.” So Roland, determined once and for all to tell this tale, becomes poetics: “As in Homeric days, then, I will give that beloved shade my own blood to drink, so that he may speak to me again, and although he grew old and died long ago, be with me now that I too am growing old.”
So intensely does Roland feel his professor’s passion that he dives headlong into his studies, giving up every other pleasure he’s ever known. He’s voracious, trying to ingest everything at once, reading one book after another, “intoxicated by each of them, never sated by any.” All of this is a pleasantly told coming-of-age story, and then Roland decides to take one day off from his studies to go swimming. His passion for physical sport slightly reawakened, he chases after a young woman with a boyish figure. It turns out, this is his professor’s wife, a figure who is always just on his periphery at the boarding house, not that he’s taken much time to focus on anything other than his studies.
But this changes the household dynamic significantly. Suddenly, his professor has a life beyond Shakespeare, and Roland “imagines, against his will, their private life, more mystery.” And Roland finds himself getting ever closer to the center of it all.
Confusion is a great book about the development of passion, both physical and for the life of the mind. I felt that in the end Zweig over-explained things a bit too much (again, this could be because it’s easy to guess what is going on from early in the brief book), but it’s a sad story, well told and very much worth reading.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Lorrie Moore’s “Referential” was originally published in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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This weeks story is an explicit gloss on a great short story by Vladimir Nabokov, “Symbols and Signs,” which was first published in the May 15, 1948 issue of The New Yorker (you can read the Nabokov story in its entirety on The New Yorker website here). Each story is very short and focused. A “couple” is going to the hospital to visit a schizophrenic and paranoid “son” who has, as it is called in Nabokov’s story, “referential mania,” a system of delusions under which the teen-age boy believes that a system of codes and symbols exists in everything around him, and he is subject of it all.
There are times when Moore’s story nearly quotes Nabokov’s story verbatim. For example, in each story the son has attempted suicide more than once. Nabokov’s says:
The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.
The last time her son had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, morbidly ingenious. He might have succeeded, but a fellow-patient, a girl from group, had stopped him at the last minute. There had been blood to be mopped. For a time, her son had wanted only a distracting pain, but eventually he had wanted to tear a hole in himself and flee through it.
I think what we have here are two gifted writers approaching the same subject from different perspectives. Nabokov’s is a bit more detached and, perhaps, cynical, as the fellow-patient isn’t trying to save the son but rather unintentionally disrupts the suicide out of envy. Moore’s, to me, is a bit more personal. I don’t know why the girl from group stopped his suicide, but, in the absence of explanation, it seems there was concern rather than envy, that the disruption was deliberate. Also, the idea of him wanting to tear a hole in himself rather than the world . . . Moore is using Nabokov as the foundation, but she’s taking it her own direction, and in this instance I think she’s improved upon it.
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In “Referential” the “couple” is not actually a couple. The mother is a widow, and for years now Pete has been a part of her life, playing a fatherly role to her son. A while back they aborted plans for Pete to move in with them as he couldn’t find the room he needed in order to fit into their lives. Pete has gone with her to visit her son, as he often does, but he is more withdrawn. We learned early that “‘To me, you always look so beautiful,’ Pete no longer said.” In each story, the focus is on the couple, on the injustice, on the depression each feels but cannot find a way to share, as much as they may desire comfort.
I loved this story and “Symbols and Signs” and admire Moore for taking the risk of basing her story so clearly on one by a master. “Referential” works well either on its own or as a complement to “Symbols and Signs,” and I highly recommend it. After what I felt were some disappointing weeks, The New Yorker fiction is certainly on a strong run right now. May it continue.
I have all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels lined up on my shelf, knowing I’d have to read each after finding so much to love in The Bookshop (review here) and Offshore (review here). But I’d heard that her first novel, The Golden Child(1977) – published when she was 61, by the way – was a fun curiosity and not much more. Because I felt it might be the least of her fascinating work, I wanted to get it out of the way next, keeping her later work as something to look forward to. Consequently, with this self-imposed regulation, I’ve let far too much time pass, for I was not particularly interested in this book. I’m happy to say I’ve gotten this one out of the way, and I’m happy I can now move on.
So I didn’t particularly care for The Golden Child. But there are some good reasons this book might not be as interesting or impressive as her later work. For one, though already past the age of 60, this was Fitzgerald’s first novel. She’d been writing short stories for a while and had completed two biographies while in her 50s, but, from that perspective this is actually quite an impressive book. We can already see the skill and control she will use to create the masterful books for which she’s remembered. For another thing, Fitzgerald reportedly wrote The Golden Child to entertain her ailing husband. If it seems to rely more on coincidence, dispensing obstacles without resolution, who cares? I don’t have to like the book to appreciate what’s going on here.
And the story is fun. It is a cold morning at a famous London museum, and the public is shivering in line. The Golden Child exhibit, a royal child’s golden coffin and a variety of accompanying funerary art from the fictional African land of Garamantia, has arrived and is just about to open for traffic. Strangely, the elderly archaeologist who found the treasure, Sir William, now heads the museum but refuses to go down to see the exhibit. Making matters worse, someone has distributed to the freezing public a bunch of flyers about some type of curse.
Needless to say, mystery and intrigue — and death — ensue. We meet a small cast of central characters, central of which is the museum’s junior officer Waring Smith, who, Fitzgerald assures us, “was not an exceptional young man.” Smith knows something is amiss but cannot put his finger on it. One evening, after the museum has been closed, he goes down to the exhibit and sees the golden twine has been removed; soon he is waking up, gasping with a sore neck, on the floor because someone or something has just tried to choke the life out of him — and the golden twine has returned to its place.
As fun as the setup is, The Golden Child unrolls much like many other mysteries of its type and forces the reader to give way and roll a bit with the jumpy, shaky plot. The real fun is in the characterizations, a foreshadow of what’s to come in Fitzgerald imminent explosion of small novels. For example, we know early on that Sir William, who refuses to look at his own exhibit and may believe in a curse, is a feisty, disenchanted old man. Here he is talking to one of the museum’s more idealistic directors:
‘The object of the museum is to acquire and preserve representative specimens, in the interests of the public,’ he said.
‘You say that,’ returned Sir William, with another winning smile, ‘and I say balls.’
Connected to the strong characterization is the strong portrayal of the struggles for power amidst the disenchanted or misled heads of the museum. There is also Waring Smith’s very human struggle to do his job well to make enough to pay his mortgage while struggling to give his wife Haggie the attention she needs and, lately, is demanding in no uncertain terms.
So, in the end, it’s a short and fun book, but generally insubstantial. I’ve freed myself, and I’m looking forward to moving on.
When discussing Robert Walser, a somber mood seems most appropriate. After all, in 1933, Walser was forcibly confined to a sanatorium, where he spent the next twenty-three years until, on Christmas Day, 1956, he went for a walk and died alone in the snow. Yet when one reads this collection, Berlin Stories (tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky, 2012), one cannot help but notice the vibrancy, the wonder at life; ”A lager please!” is the simple line with which he begins one story here. It seems impossible to get from such exuberance to that lonely Christmas Day.
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
In the summer of 1905, when he was 27, Robert Walser had just published his first book and decided to move to Berlin to live with his brother, a successful stage-set designer. Berlin Stories is a collection of . . . well, not really “stories” — sketches, ruminations, bursts of thought – about Berlin. The book itself is divided into four sections: ”The City Streets,” “The Theater,” and “Berlin Life” contain pieces written mostly between 1907 and 1911 (the years during which he also wrote and published The Tanners (my review here), The Assistant, and Jakob von Gunten); the final section, “Looking Back,” contains pieces written up to 1917, after he had left Berlin. The pieces are each very short, most only two or three pages, with sentences that run on and on, filled with energy.
It’s primarily in the early pieces that we see such punch and thirst for life. The first piece in the book, written in 1907, is entitled, “Good morning, Giantess!” and here Walser wanders out early, before traffic begins, into the streets of Berlin. Soon the early risers start coming out into the street, and Walser laps in the variety:
You encounter eyes as you walk along like this: girls’ eyes and the eyes of men, mirthless and gay; legs are trotting behind and before you, and you too are legging along as best you can, gazing with your own eyes, glancing the same glances as everyone else. And each breast bears some somnolent secret, each head is haunted by some melancholy or inspiring thought. Splendid, splendid.
“Beautiful park, I think, beautiful park” ends another piece that Walser, filled with wonder, wrote in 1907. The crowds of people continually enthralled him. He would describe the mass as a collective whole and then break it apart, looking into the heart of the individuals, often providing the darker parts of the sketches. “Friedrichstrasse,” one of my favorite pieces, describes a busy street during the day, but look how things change when Walser examines the street as night falls, recognizing something deep in each of his fellows:
and yet: what a ravishing, beguiling haste can be seen in all this ostensible packed-in-ness and sober-mindedness. The sun shines here upon countless heads in a single hour, the rain dampens and drenches a ground that is anointed, as it were, with comedies and tragedies, and in the evening, ah, when it begins to grow dark and the lamps are lit, a curtain slowly rises to reveal a play that is always sumptuously full of the same habits, acts of lechery, and occurrences. The siren Pleasure then begins to sing her divinely enticing, heavenly notes, and souls burst asunder amid all these vibrating wants and dissatisfactions, and a disgorging of money then commences that baffles the modest, clever understanding and can scarcely be envisioned, even with effort, by the poetic imagination. A bodily dream rising and falling with voluptuous breath then descends upon the street, and everything races, races, races with uncertain step in pursuit of this all-encompassing dream.
Berlin Stories isn’t the easiest book to review. As I mentioned, most of these aren’t traditional stories and, other than being about “Berlin,” there is no other continuity. But the composition of the collection itself is quite brilliant and offers a narrative of Walser’s time. We see Walser on that first page bursting out into the empty streets of the early morning, and the pieces that follow show Walser getting to know the busy city. Then we read Walser’s thoughts on the theater, where he spent considerable time since his brother was such a success. Then, if the sketches in “The City Streets” were bustling, “Berlin Life” steps back and lets a bit more silence enter. But not as much as comes in the final section, “Looking Back.” I said above, ”It seems impossible to get from such exuberance to that lonely Christmas Day.” These final pieces retain the vibrancy and lust for life that the earlier ones had, but the tone is a bit more subdued and a sense of loss pervades.
This little collection concludes its narrative with a piece from 1917 entitled “A Homecoming in the Snow,” so we almost get to that Christmas Day, after all, though the tone here mingles with sweetness:
On my way home, which struck me as splendid, it was snowing in thick, warm, large flakes. It seemed to me as if I heard homeland-like sounds ringing out from afar. My steps were brisk despite the deep snow through which I was assiduously wading. With every step I took, my shaken trust grew firmer again, which filled me with joy the way a child rejoices. All former things bloomed fragrantly and youthfully in my direction, like roses. It almost appeared to me as if the earth were singing a sweet Christmas melody that was at the same time a melody of spring. [. . .] I considered the snow itself a splendidly warm coat.
Perhaps I’ve been looking at that Christmas Day in 1956 all wrong all this time.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Maile Meloy’s “The Proxy Marriage” was originally published in the May 21, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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It isn’t a secret to anyone who has followed this blog in the past that I’m a huge fan of Maile Meloy’s short fiction. I loved her excellent debut collection, Half in Love, and cannot praise enough her even better follow-up, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (my review of Half in Love here; of Both Ways here). I was thrilled, then, to see that she was back with this week’s New Yorker story. I was doubly thrilled to see that it begins in Montana, where my favorites of her stories take place.
“The Proxy Marriage” focuses on the love that William, an awkward and shy boy, has for Bridey Taylor, a confident singer who wants to become an actress. The story begins when each is in high school, looking forward to a life beyond the small town they are growing up in. Though William loves Bridey desperately, he is under no illusion that his future will include her in any greater role than she already plays. He hasn’t the courage to ask her out. In fact, after another boy has asked Bridey out, told her that he has already accomplished two of the three goals he has for high school, and that he thinks she can help him with the third, which is to have a serious girlfriend, Bridey laughs to William, “He was so earnest.” Then, “William made a mental note never to be earnest with Bridey.”
Bridey’s father is an attorney. As it turns out, Montana is one of the few states to allow proxy marriages and the only state to allow double proxy marriages, where neither person has to be present. Due to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is quite a demand for these types of marriages, and Bridey’s father asks William and Bridey to act as the proxies. Of course, the prospect of even a proxy marriage to Bridey makes William unable to speak straight. He accepts and shows up to the ceremony dressed in a suit. Bridey hasn’t taken it nearly as seriously.
“You look nice,” she said. There was annoyance in her voice.
“Thank you,” he said, mortified.
Bridey looked like an ordinary girl in a sullen mood, not like the love of anyone’s life, and he felt a flicker of hope — not that she would ever come to love him, but that someday he might not be in thrall to her, he might be free. She was chewing gum.
We feel for William for whom this love is a torture, especially as we see him recognize that peace might come if he could only stop loving her. Even when they both go to school in different states, and even when they are both finished with school and seeking stability. In expert fashion, Meloy quickens the narrative pace, while showing us that through the passage of the years William’s feelings do not change.
Bridey laughed, and then it turned into something like a sob. “Maybe my mother was right,” she said. “I’m just not pretty enough.”
“Bridey,” he said. “You’ve been there eight months.”
But they had the same conversation after two years, then three. [. . . .] Sometimes he went weeks without thinking of Bridey, and sometimes she haunted him. Then came a year when there were no calls, no e-mails, no word.
The years continue to pass, and William cannot remove himself from his feelings for Bridey; it doesn’t help that any time both are visiting home and are free they participate in proxy marriages. William spends much of him time resenting his feelings, even suspecting that Auden’s line — “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me” — is just an example that proves “[t]he role of the human brain was to rationalize suffering.”
This isn’t my favorite of Meloy’s stories, but I still loved being back in her world where the writing is succinct and direct. There’s no evasion here, as we learn the story of William’s love through the years. Highly recommended.
I’m a fan of conspiracy theories in literature. I love the antiquities and the act of imagining what secrets have been lost to history — or hidden from history. My problem is that I’m a bit ignorant of the best books on the subject, whether fiction or nonfiction, that have fun but are well written, appropriately dark, and interesting aside from being about some secret (suggestions are welcome). We are given the wrong impression that if one wants to deal in historical secrets hidden in plain view, one has to read Dan Brown and his like (I have gone there, I admit), but those types of cookie-cutter books don’t get the job done. I’m happy to say that I found what I was looking for in The Cyclist Conspiracy (Fama o biciklistima, 1988; tr. from the Serbian by Randall A. Major). I mean, who among us can resist a book that begins, “Endless are the secrets of provincial libraries.”
Review copy courtesy of Open Letter.
The Cyclist Conspiracy is a fun, mad-dash read through letters, lost manuscripts, research papers, stories, poems, dialogues, diagrams, and anything else you can imagine compiling for a book about some secret and ancient cult of cyclists.
The first thing in the book is an Editor’s Preface, signed by S.B. Here S.B. briefly tells about an autumn evening he spent looking through the piles of books and papers in the cellar of the Municipal Library in Bajina Bašta, where he had retreated to take “refuge from sadness the cause of which I still cannot mention.” There he came across The Manuscript of Captain Queensdale, published in Zürich in 1903. This book, which has taken who knows what path to get to the cellar of the Bajina Bašta’s Municipal Library, is the third of only six copies printed. Indeed, publishing six copies and then sending each copy someplace in the world where it would find the right reader seemed was to be the book’s standard mode of dissemination because that right reader would then publish six copies and send them around, etc. S.B. has breached this protocol — any one of us can buy and read this book now – but he did this for a purpose:
In handing this collection over to the reader, I realize that several years ago, searching for colored pebbles, I came across a pearl, but also that the pearl had been awaiting a proper owner and found an improper one instead, who would turn it into a glass bauble by reduplicating it in an insufferably large number of copies. The only justification is that, in our time, which falls within the autumn of the year of years (about which Captain Queensdale speaks), even the sparkle of a glass bauble shines through the darkness gathering on the horizon.
The book then steps back into history to the reign of the apocryphal king (because he himself wrote history so that he would appear to be apocryphal (or he really is apocryphal)) Charles the Hideous, a man who can see the future and the past. One day, a group of Two-Wheelers exiled from Paris come to Charles’ court. They bring a clay tablet containing The Book of Javan the Son of Nahor (“to those yet unborn”). They tell him of a great project: the Tower of Babel will be rebuilt. This is just the beginning. Charles invokes Freud, and later it turns out Freud himself is a member of the conspiracy and a character whose writings will appear in this book.
Much of the fun to be had here (but not all) is in finding new characters and following their relationship with the cyclists. For example, who is Captain Queensdale, whose manuscript S.B. found at the beginning? He was a ship captain who, in 1761, was the sole survivor of a shipwreck. He ended up on an island north of Iceland where he finds a community of cyclists. Who published that manuscript in Zürich in 1903? That was Rheiner Meier, another of the novel’s characters, and a bit of a skeptic. Here is his introduction to the six volumes he had published and sent around the world:
It is possible that the whole thing is a joke. Someone with an English sense of humor (the copyist is English) is doubtlessly willing to undertake extensive and expensive preparations in order to, after his own death, make fools of a small group of unknown people.
We are also pleased to find a missing Sherlock Holmes story, entitled “The Final Case of Sherlock Holmes: The Maniacal Cyclist.” A small piece to the puzzle that is The Cyclist Conspiracy (though the first where we see a cyclist going around smashing random clocks), this brief story was a large part of the fun.
And it keeps going through journals, treatises, illustrations, constellations, symbology, etc. We learn about a master plan to build the Grand Insane Asylum, which will have capacity for 20 million. Indeed, the conspiracy is so large that one can be part of it and never know it. The pieces of the puzzle keep coming and with them come switchbacks, half-truths, contradictions, blatant misinformation — in other words, history.
So, yes, this is a fun, though intricate (requiring some give and patience) read, but there’s more to it, a darkness suggested about the workings of men and the presence of history in the present. There are many reasons the bicycle is the chosen symbol to represent so much, but we know it could have been almost anything else. What feels right, fated, even fore-known, is arbitrary, and the Grand Insane Asylum, whose details are lovingly described by a certain inmate, seems a good fit for more than 20 million. Indeed, why didn’t S.B. just retreat to that library cellar? Because no matter what the sadness was that drove him there to begin with, there’s something invigorating about chasing down darkness on this scale.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Peter Stamm’s “Sweet Dreams” (tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann) was originally published in the May 14, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I’ve had my eye on Peter Stamm for a while now because one of the best translators working today, Michael Hofmann (son of Gert Hofmann, whose work I’ve loved — see here), has been steadily translating Stamm’s work over the years. It’s one of those things: If Hofmann finds it worth translating it must be worth reading. Still, I haven’t taken the dive. After reading this exceptional story, I must rectify that.
On the surface, this is a simple story. Two young people have left their homes and their parents to make a life with each other, starting out in a shabby apartment above a restaurant along the train tracks. Lara is twenty-one and Simon is twenty-four. They’ve been living together for four months. It’s a beautiful time. Though Lara finishes work well before Simon, she still waits for him so they can take the bus home together. That’s where this story begins, a bus ride home.
Stamm expresses this time of happiness incredibly well. This young couple is independent for the first time, and the strangest, most mundane things have a deep significance as they start their life together:
“Do we need milk?” “You know, the coffee’s almost gone.” “We’re out of garbage bags.” Sentences like that had an unexpected charm, and a full shopping cart was like an emblem of the fulfilled life that lay before them. When Simon wheeled it into the underground parking garage, with Lara at his side, she felt a deep pride and a curious satisfaction at being so grown up and independent.
But this portrait of a new life is rendered even better since Stamm allows doubt and insecurity to lurk just below the surface. It’s constant and yet not unbearable. In other words, unlike many stories of this type, Stamm is not leading the reader to assume this is the beginning of the end for this couple. They are happy and insecure, a bit anxious, just like most of us would be in this situation.
Even without any additional elements, I’d still think this was one of the best stories of the year. However, Stamm introduces something new. At the beginning of the story, on the bus ride, Lara notices a mysterious man in a black coat. He gets off the bus, and a few times in the rest of the story she swears she sees him. Finally, she flips on the television and there he is, giving an interview. It turns out he is a writer, and he is discussing how on the bus earlier that day he saw a young couple he would like to write about. Now, it’s not what we might expect: Stamm may or may not be that writer, but that’s not the point. The writer speaks about the time in his own life when he was first with a woman with whom he wanted to start a family, before something got in the way: ”But I’ve never felt so sure of anything as I did then, before I really knew the first thing about living.”