February 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
Title: The Scatter Here Is Too Great
Author: Bilal Tanweer
Publisher: Harper Collins, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0062 3044 1 4
A spider web crack is a series of hairline fractures spreading out from a central point of impact. Bilal Tanweer makes this image the motif for his short story collection The Scatter Here Is Too Great. The central point of impact is a bomb blast at the Karachi Train Station in Pakistan. All the stories, eight total, radiate out from and connect back to that one point in time.
Tanweer takes a “community” approach to the event. His characters are as interconnected as his stories; appearing, re-appearing and interacting with one another throughout the book; jumping from one story to the next; telling us about their lives before and after the explosion; gradually revealing their thoughts and feelings in first person narratives (with the exception of one story which is told in the third person present tense). All the narrators are male, predominantly young and speak in voices which veer from self-conscious vulnerability to the cocky arrogance peculiar to young men.
More succinctly: these people, who we expect to be no more than a group of strangers whose collective bad karma has resulted in them being at the wrong place at the wrong time, know each other. For example: there is an elderly man, a Communist poet, who passes through several different stories. In one he recites his poetry on the bus and is derided by other passengers. Later we will see him again, on another bus, though the eyes of the troubled boy he sits beside and talks to. In yet another story we recognize him as the narrator’s grandfather, and then as another narrator’s the father, and then he has a brief cameo as the friend of the main character’s father seen from a distance. Sadeq, the boy on the bus befriended by the poet, narrates more than one chapter and over time describes to us what is a remarkably depressing life for one whose only advanced into his early 20’s. Through his story we are linked to another young man who was his childhood friend. And in this way, one thread at a time, we learn about the victims of the bombing. So that when the time comes to tend to the survivors and collect the dead, we have an understanding exactly who each of them is and was in that moment of impact.
Unhelpfully for the purposes of this review, my favorite story is the one that takes place in the weeks after the explosion. The narrator is worried about his brother Akbar, a first responder who develops PTSD as a result of the carnage he confronts in the aftermath of the blast. Akbar is convinced he saw Gog & Magog walking among the bodies of the dead. “If you don’t already know about Gog and Magog, their arrival was supposed to mark the coming of the end of the world… They will bring strife and disharmony and, ultimately the apocalypse to the world.” Akbar’s brother eventually tracks down Gog & Magog and, while they aren’t exactly what they appeared to be, we learn that “what appears strange and complex becomes even stranger and more complicated once you begin to investigate it. That’s the true nature of the world.”
That is Bilal Tanweer’s super power as an author. He has a talent for creating beautiful & strange imagery out of life’s banalities. He’s willing to spend time on the insignificant things we all notice and just as quickly forget. Like a plastic bag blowing in the wind.
My eyes were following the blue plastic bag that floated in between the onrushing cars. It curved sideways, rose and cruised and hung in the air, and finally ran into the path of a pedestrian who slapped it with the back of his hand and pushed it over the edge of the bridge. It limped over it and spiraled like a tiny tornado.
Because, when you think about those men & women entering the Twin Towers on 9/11, or boarding trains in London on 7/11, or riding a bus in Syria on a Sunday morning – they were all having normal, ordinary, even boring, days. Until suddenly they weren’t. Tanweer skillfully conveys the individual’s sense of normalcy leading up to a catastrophic event, which is so unfathomable to the reader who already possesses the knowledge of what is about to happen, and then allows the environment to degenerate into the chaos and confusion that must inevitably follow.
The Scatter Here is Too Great was on the shortlist for the DSC Prize. It was not selected as the final winner by the Shadow or actual juries – mostly because despite its ambition (or perhaps because of it) the book has integral flaws. The most obvious is how the voices of all the young men blend together as the book progresses. Less obvious, but ultimately more distracting, is how it works too hard at being a “concept” novel. The opening image of the spiderweb crack is an intriguing one, particularly as the story centers on a bomb blast, and so you want it to fall into place naturally. But Tanweer felt the need to insert (what I guess you could call) an element of metafiction: a writer who pops up to provide a sidebar commentary on what is happening and why. Tanweer doesn’t seem to fully trust his reader. He’s created this writer to explain the structural and creative process… and to a point it succeeds. I was surprised at how well all the stories fit together and played their part in the author’s greater narrative plan. But I didn’t see it until it was explained. And, like that blue plastic bag, I forgot about it just as quickly. One of the highest praises we as a society give to an artist is to say that he or she “makes it look easy”. While The Scatter Here Is Too Great delivers moments of promise, in the end Tanweer succeeds in making it look unaccountably hard.
April 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Some interests spring fully formed from within, sending us off on a mission to gather information. I find that my obsessions more often evolve. I find myself returning to the same subject at completely random intervals, unintentionally or even unknowingly, until a gradual immersion occurs over time. In this way I began reading Sartre in high school because I was (and remain) obsessed with pandemic literature – of which The Plague is a brilliant example. My introduction to Borges came later via a sous chef in North Carolina who, after coming out to ask how I’d like my ostrich prepared, joined a friend and I for drinks. The discussion turned to books and the next morning I found his card on my windshield. “Ficciones” Borges written on the back. A year or two later Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistant Knight & The Cloven Viscount was passed around my circle of friends – though, thinking back, it seems impossible that I hadn’t already read If On A Winter’s Knight A Traveler. As for Oulipo, I can’t remember where I first heard that name. Perhaps Electrico W? Or the Three Percent Podcast? But Surrealism as a literary movement, separate from a visual one, came to my attention through a very specific (and completely unlikely) source – the Japanese author Kawamata Chiaki.
Only in the last month did I start connecting all those books to the French College of ‘Pataphysics; a shadowy (and willfully nebulous) institution which came into being at the same time as Surrealism, and would go on to spawn Oulipo.
The Conductor and Other Tales is the one and only book of fiction written by Jean Ferry – a French filmmaker, script doctor and surrealist author whose most lasting literary achievement was his critical analysis of the French literary icon and personality Raymond Roussel.* It is a collection of short stories – some only a few paragraphs in length – dealing with the fears and anxieties that are a basic ingredient in the human psyche. They are the stuff we deal with in nightmares (normal nightmares, not the horror shows of Wes Craven’s and George Romero’s slumber). Ferry was enmeshed with the Surrealists – exhaustion, sleep and/or dreams are mentioned by almost all his narrators. And the stories, themselves, resemble dreams – or rather, the kinds of puzzles and wordplay which surrealists love and have long represented as dreams. Think of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (aka -“This is not a pipe”). Surrealism, as does everything eventually, becomes a “type” – and these stories by Jean Ferry are of a type. But, in my opinion, they represent the best of that type.
The Conductor, the story for which the collection is named and onto which André Breton lavished praise, deals with a common nightmare scenario. The narrator is a conductor on a train that never stops. Everyone – the passengers, engine crew, attendants – are trapped. There is an unlimited supply of coal and tracks, and enough food so that no one goes hungry. But no one can disembark. Ever. The conductor remembers a time when the train did stops in stations, but that seems to have been a long time ago. He can’t recall why or when things changed. He goes on to talk about how he and the passengers have come to accept the situation, the mental adjustments they have made in order to do so. Always the conductor addresses the reader directly – making you feel as if you are sitting beside him in the engine car. As if you, too, are trapped on the train with him. The Conductor bears all the hallmarks of classic Twilight Zone episodes. So much so that I actually researched online whether Ferry had ever written one himself (he had not).
My Aquarium is a strange little story. The aquarium it refers to is filled with little creatures which are the physical embodiment of the narrators’s suicidal thoughts. He keeps them imprisoned in a box and feeds them like pets, hoping they will never escape. Like most of the stories in The Conductor and Other Tales, it is short. At under one page, it’s an unintentional precursor to flash fiction.
The Society Tiger – perhaps Ferry’s most famous short story and one of the earliest to be translated – is the name of the vaudeville act featured in the story. A woman appears in the theater between acts, escorted to her seat by a companion: a tiger dressed in evening clothes and standing erect like a man. The two take their seats in a box visible to the entire audience and the tiger proceeds to perform the affectations of a gentleman. The narrator hates The Society Tiger – for he alone realizes that the beast is always on the edge of breaking his mental restraints and attacking the audience. It is a deeply disturbing story (particularly the ending) that seems to sympathize with the tiger.
You probably noticed a pattern emerging. Many of these stories are structured like jokes: the obvious set-up, a slight misdirection and then the punchline. Some are very funny. Some disturbing. Here, for example, is the entire text of The Chinese Astrologer:
The Chinese Astrologer wears out his years calculating the date of his death. Until dawn each night he amasses signs, figures. He ages, becomes a stranger to his fellows; but his calculations advance. He reaches his goal. Astrology will reveal the date of his death. Then, one morning, the brush falls from his fingers. From loneliness, from fatigue, perhaps from regret, he dies. He had but one sum left to perform.
Allow me to liken the Chinese astrologer to the intellectual who died of exhaustion at a young age for, on top of a draining, harassing, and poorly paid day job, he put his every spare moment toward preparing a monumental and definitive critical edition of Lefargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.
Edward Gauvin’s translation is wonderful – written in a way which is chatty, informal and friendly. He’s kept the prose contemporary in tone, though some of the ideas and stereotypes Ferry puts forward are dated. The narrators are all storytellers and Gauvin has achieve the effect of making us feel as if we are listening to, instead of reading, the stories. He seems to be very familiar with Ferry and his fellows – not only contributing a translator’s note to the edition, but publishing numerous online articles here and here. Oh, and remember this?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the physical book, itself, is charming. Wakefield Press (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and not affiliated, to my knowledge, with the Australian publisher of the same name) is a small, independent publishing house that understands the value of a well-made product. Their books are relatively small (4-1/2″ x 7″) paperback editions with tastefully subdued covers and details such as french flaps, patterned endpapers, black & white illustrations (in the case of The Conductor and Other Tales drawn by Claude Ballaré) and beautiful formatting. Objects to be coveted by any self-respecting bibliophiles. And Wakefield seems to specialize in books by members/friends of the College of ‘Pataphysics. I recently bought both Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting a Place In Paris and A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan. I’ve been meaning to read something by Perec for ages – he was a character in Chiaki’s novel. Mac Orlan I’ve never heard of, but I’m almost finished with his book. Needless to say, it is wonderful.
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 939663 01 6
*It speaks volumes that most of my readers are at this point in the post thinking – who is Raymond Roussel? You will not find that answer here. I recommend trying here.
March 3, 2014 § 2 Comments
This Is the Garden opens with an excerpt from a poem by Claudio Damiani –
This is the garden; when you look it’s far
too bright and burns your eyes
and so you turn away, although you know
that everything is real, everything you see
is real, and through time life unwinds
and is complete . . .
Those words sum up this collection of short stories by Giulio Mozzi. Some are very good, some less so. All involve the reader in situations that are uncomfortable (almost painful): a letter from a thief to the woman whose purse he’s stolen; an author at a book signing addressing the audience; an apprentice who dreams of being promoted. Stories that create the kind of emotional response that takes the reader to a place they don’t necessarily want to be are the kinds of stories I’m usually drawn to. But this collection had me feeling look-warm. Not excited. Not disappointed. I kept waiting to be moved and wasn’t.
Yet, there is still a lot left to admire.
The Apprentice puts us in the head of a young apprentice who wants nothing more than to be promoted from running errands to working on the factory floor. He’s incredibly earnest and intelligent, character traits that separate him from the men he aspires to join. From the very first paragraph we know what the boy doesn’t, for the simple reason that we possess the life experience he doesn’t. And Mozzi’s ability to impart that time of life when naivety is transitioning into a faltering understanding of how the world operates is special. He nails it. Too often young narrators are really only adults looking back on their younger selves. But Mozzi’s apprentice is grounded firmly in the moment.
F. is firmly grounded in its protagonist’s present, following the final hours of a magistrate in witness protection. His keeper has arranged a meeting with the beloved magistrate’s wife (also under witness protection, but inexplicably kept in a separate location from her husband). The crime and threats and reasons for the couple’s voluntarily separation only lightly touched on. Instead F. focuses on the magistrate’s daily reality, detailing his day almost second-by-second, up until the very last second of the magistrate’s life.
Another favorite is Glass. The story is only a few pages long – the shortest in the collection. In that short space you get the sense of a troubled man finding his way back from something – again, never specified – which has unbalanced his life. He meticulously describes his yard to the reader: repairs done to the porch; the wall shared with a neighbor.
I especially like the dividing wall between our yard and the neighbor’s to the right. It’s just a dividing wall, and that’s probably why it was thrown up without much thought, back when they build the house, after the war. It must have been a brownish-orange once, like the house, but the paint seeped into the mortar, leaving only some dirty-gray stains and a touch of blue. The sun never hits the wall: it’s damp, blotchy, shaded and streaked with dark-green and silver moss. In some places, you can see swellings, blisters – popped blisters. In other places, the mortar’s flaking off or crumbling. The layer beneath is yellowish, dusty. Years ago, the wall was covered in Virginia creeper…
… and so on. The glass of the title is a metaphor and the overall effect of that, and this compulsive cataloguing by the narrator, is haunting.
A borderline OCD attention to detail, creation of lists and step-by-step reenactments of events appear in all of Mozzi’s stories. If This Is a Garden were a painting it would fall within the purview of the hyper-realists.
These eight stories are evenly divided between first and third person narrators. But those told from the third person perspective are more intimate and those were the stories that drew me in. When I stop to think about it, it makes more sense that a third person, omnipotent, narrator would feel more honest and objective. All first person narrators are unreliable by definition. They channel the world through a single, biased perspective; describing it as they believe it to be. A third person narrator presents it as it exists in the author’s/creator’s mind. And maybe that is another reason I preferred the latter examples. Because the third person more accurately represents Mozzi’s prose, his writer-ly voice when he’s not attempting to inhabit a character. And it provides the translator, Elizabeth Harris, with greater artistic freedom. The happy result is passages such as this: ‘The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years – time for the village boys to become village men – before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant.’
Publisher: Open Letter, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 75 7
December 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the digital age is creating an ADD society (there was a great article about this last month in The Guardian) time is at a premium in today’s world and there’s no arguing the attractions of shorter fiction. Earlier this year I ran a series of posts featuring bloggers discussing why they love – or hate – short stories. Novellas are also growing in popularity. Readux Books, the new publisher based in Berlin, has hit the sweet spot somewhere between the two with the release of their first collection of books this past October.
A lot of care has obviously gone into the making and launching these books. Each is approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words – a length Readux feels is in keeping with “reading habits in the digital era, without room for slack, but that is long enough to allow complex themes to be developed.” The gorgeous, brightly colored paperback covers referencing the German Expressionists. The writing is experimental – of the four books, three are translations – yet accessible. Readux has obviously made clever choices and taken some calculated chances in the planning stages. And while each of the four books is sold individually, they share common themes, ideas and a consistent packaging that had me coveting them for my bookshelves. This careful curating reminds me of some of my favorite independent publishers: New Directions, Open Letter and Other Press.
The two non-fiction titles are memoirs about life in Berlin, written from two different periods in the city’s history. Yet, the Berlin described appears remarkably unchanged despite an 85 year gap in the timeline. The changes in writing styles are much more drastic. Franz Hessel’s In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929 lacks the post-modern trappings of City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin (written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in 2013). The former is a period piece that is similar to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Not surprising, as both he and Hessel lived in Berlin at the same time. It’s not unthinkable that they would even have traveled in the same circles.
Hessel was a Jewish editor, author and translator. He was a member of the German artist community. His complicated marriage to the journalist Helen Grund inspired Henri Pierre Roche’s novel Jules et Jim (which, in turn, inspired the 1962 François Truffaut film of the same name). Eventually, he would flee Germany for France and he and his son would be sent to an internment camp. He died in 1941, the same year he was released from the camp.
But here Hessel is writing about the heady days before the tragedy of WWII. His descriptions of Berlin and its citizens are frenzied and entertaining. In Berlin is an all too brief excerpt of what I believe must have been a longer piece in which we readers get to follow Hessel and his companions as they drift between cabarets, parties and clubs. We meet the German equivalent of Flappers and get a taste of the sexually progressive atmosphere that permeated the city at that time. The sharp, witty prose style is characteristic of Lois Long’s column for the New Yorker during the same period.
… Gert and Maria deliberate on what else we could undertake to do. “Why don’t you young people go upstairs and dance?” I ask. “I don’t want to,” says Maria, “but maybe Gert would find some companionship in the Blaue Salon.” “Actually I was supposed to stop in to Ambassadeurs today at midnight.”” In my inexperience, I am informed that this is the newest extension of the Barberina. Gert and Maria then discuss the quality of the various jazz bands and tango groups in the big hotels, in the Palais am Zoo, in the Valencia, etc. I somewhat timidly introduce my experiences from the little Silhoette. “why don’t we just go across the way here to Eldorado? That’s where the real bedlam’s at. You’re all for chaos, smoking and sport jackets, transvestites, little girls, and great ladies, aren’t you? Of course you’re more for what’s proper, Gert, you want elegant dancing and limits, you want to go to Königin.” But in the end we decide on something completely different.
In contrast, City of Rumor by Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends less time writing about Berlin, the city, and more on his conflicted emotions regarding it. He is a modern-day expatriate. Lewis-Kraus is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and the London Review of Books. His writing is as beautiful as Hessel’s, but also more fraught. The modern Berlin he describes is still a frenetic party scene, but seems less innocent and more world-weary. The essay, itself, reads much more self-indulgent; the main conflict being internalized. Berlin assumes the secondary role, stripped of its unique character and becoming interchangeable with cities like Brooklyn, London or L.A. “Hipster” is a word that comes to mind. “Angst” is another. Of course, the subtitle is “The Compulsion to Write About Berlin“, – so you could say that Lewis-Kraus has delivered on what was advertised.
The chapter about Berlin, like the lives of man of the people I knew in Berlin, had no such constraint – no relevant chronology, no narrative necessity. When I sat down to write about Berlin for the first time, all I could do was make a list of anecdotes, the ones that had lingered with me for some reason, in no particular order. I wrote them out as a series of disordered episodes – the time we followed the votive candles to the rave in the toolshed in the middle of the park, the time our friend held a real art opening outside a fake art opening – and saw little use or accuracy in connecting them. After all, they had only ever felt associatively connected in the first place. They had, or course, happened in one particular order, though as far as I could tell they might very well have happened in any other order, or no order at all.
Side-by-side these essays seem not about Berlin but instead about two generations of young urbanites. That contrast between authors is what I found most interesting. Individually they’re entertaining reads – but considered together they have the potential to spark a larger conversation about historical, cultural and literary changes.
The two fiction titles are Fantasy by Malte Persson, translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel and The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire.
Publisher: Readux Books, Berlin
In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929
ISBN: 978 3 944801 01 8
City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin
ISBN: 978 3 944801 03 2
July 5, 2013 § 5 Comments
All My Friends is a book of short stories by French author Marie NDiaye. The second book released by Two Lines Press – a new publisher associated with The Center for the Art of Translation in California, – it is translated by Jordan Stump. I’d heard many good things about NDiaye, and Stump seems to have an affinity for translating unusual narratives, so I was looking forward to reading this book.
Which makes it hard to admit that on first reading I found the collection somewhat disappointing. The five stories are not linked, but they share a common theme – the main character’s inability (or is it unwillingness?) to connect with reality. All five are written in the first person and each narrator drags the reader further into the rabbit hole of psychosis. Because our perception of what is going on is so severely limited and dependent on a series of unreliable narrators, many of these stories are disorienting. NDiaye makes little effort to distinguish between what is reality and what is delusion. What breadcrumbs she leaves are sparse – small, easily overlooked clues as to what is actually going on.
The first story, “All My Friends”, is about a retired teacher stalking a former student. The student is now his housekeeper. His obsession with her dominates his life and defines his remaining relationships. She, in term, loathes him – and seems to take a kind of sadistic pleasure in tormenting him with her disdain. At least that’s what he believes. The situation, as these situations tend to, crumbles. The final scene is chilling… but a bit confusing if you think too hard about what triggered it.
“All My Friends”, along with two of the longer stories in the collection: “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day”, are particularly challenging. The narratives are fragmented. and at times difficult to follow. These short stories read as exercises, character sketches intended to be absorbed into a larger work (a novel perhaps) at a later date? They lack emotional weight as stand-alone stories. These narrators are so unreliable – their memories and perceptions so distorted – that it is impossible to believe anything they say.
I became increasingly suspicious… not to mention a bit paranoid. I did not trust these people, but they were all I had.
And that’s what makes this collection so brilliant. We are shown the world and events only from the narrator’s perspective. And that perspective is a bit skewed – to say the least.
Jimmy’s dog ran towards her, leapt up, dampened her cheek with a hearty lick. For the few seconds that the dog’s eyes were level with Brulard’s, she had the brutal feeling that she could see her own anxious soul reflected of submerged deep inside them. The dark mirror of the dog’s pupils seemed to be showing her not her own miniaturized face but something else, unexpected, inexplicable – as if, Brulard told herself at a loss, her appearance had suddenly changed beyond all recognition, or as if the dog’s incomprehensible black eye were reflecting Brulard’s true, secret being, of which she herself had no notion, which she couldn’t describe, even on finding it thus revealed in the gaze of that pitiful creature.
The remaining two stories are less complicated, but equally rewarding. They’re also easier to summarize than “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day” (which, though convoluted, are still wonderful) . In “The Boys” we meet René: an awkward, teenaged boy who spends all his free time at a neighboring family’s farm – the Moers. On one visit he witnesses the mother selling her attractive, younger son. Though this event will ultimately tear the family he idolizes apart, René becomes convinced that this is the path down which his own happiness lies. Things, needless to say, do not go as planned.
René, as a character, is fascinating. As you learn more about his life you realize that in his family he is the golden boy. René’s mother gives him the best food at dinner. His brothers and sisters admire him. But his family circumstances are very different from the Moers’. René’s family appears to survive at the edge of starvation. His mother is a prostitute for the migrant laborers in the area and all the children have different fathers. And so his vision of himself waivers between grandiosity and soul crushingly low self-esteem. Remove the strange circumstances this story places him in and René could be any young man-boy with a high opinion of himself that he has done little to justify.
In “Revelation” NDiaye switches from the son to the mother. A woman takes her mentally handicapped son on a bus ride with the intention of abandoning him once they reach their destination. This is a very short story, only six pages long, and focuses entirely on the mother’s emotions. At first she tells us of how she hates her son. How he annoys her and how she mistreats him at home. “He’s unbearable, she sometimes thought. And also: he seems not so much insane as stupid, appallingly stupid.” Yet, we are told –
She was angry with herself for that. This son was not cruel. His capacity for meanness had waned even as the mother’s aggressive rancor grew. She realized that her despair and her rage were fueled by nothing other than the progressive disappearance of those emotions in the son.
The mother, like all the characters in these stories, is self-absorbed. She is concerned with events only in how they affect her, and as she sits next to her son she does not think about what will happen to him. She has already begun the process of re-shaping the narrative in her head. This son becomes the only son who understood her. She is abandoning him because he is driving her mad, but once he is gone she will love him because of the loss her represents to her.* She will make the most of the situation and will miss him as much as she previously despised him.
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2013)
ISBN: 978 1 931883 23 8
*Children, as a rule, do not fare well at the hands of adults in Ms. NDiaye’s world.