Imaginative Literature

I am sooooo behind on all the books I’ve read this year that I haven’t written about. So, so very behind. Here is a desperate and somewhat futile-feeling attempt to catch up and check in with what I’ve been reading lately:

The Seamstress and the Wind (Cesar Aira)

Another rollicking tale by Cesar Aira. OK, how shall we go about summarizing the plot of this one. The novel opens with an author (or character…?) called Cesar Air, sitting in a Parisian coffee-shop, lamenting the difficulty of writing a novel that he intends to call The Seamstress and the Wind. I’m guessing that this is a different Cesar Aira than the mad scientist who tried to clone Carlos Fuentes in The Literary Conference, or the hermaphrodite child Cesar Aira poisoned by ice cream in How I Became A NunOr maybe they’re one and the same. Who knows? Who am I to say, or even complain?

It’s funny. When authors insert themselves as characters into their own works, it doesn’t tend to annoy or bother me. I loved it when Kurt Vonnegut did it in Breakfast of Champions, which I believe was the first time I ever encountered such a technique in a book. I remember his self-portrait at the end moved me to tears. I’m also a big Borges fan, obviously. To be honest, the only example I can think of in which Author-as-Character annoyed me is in Tom Robbins novels (it’s hard to explain why this is so, since I don’t remember his books too well… maybe it just didn’t feel genuine to me, too gimmicky, as opposed to like it had an actual purpose to the plot).

Anyway. The Seamstress and the Wind is another short little novel (like the other aforementioned Aira works), 134 pages and divided into 24 short little bursts, that purports to relate an incident from Aira’s childhood. Cesar and his friend were playing hide-and-seek, and his friend was mistakenly thought to have hid in the back of a truck heading out into the desolate wastelands of Patagonia. His friend’s mother Delia, the titular seamstress, hysterically orders a local cab to follow the truck, bringing along the wedding dress that she’s been frantically working on to finish for the local school marm’s wedding. This sets the stage for the tale of how the Wind ends up falling in love with Delia, as well as the story behind a mysterious little blue car trailing behind the cab, the birth of a hideously deformed Monster that reaches out of its mother’s womb with “pale blue little fingers”, and a poker game in the most unlikely of settings. Among other things.

I think this would be a good introductory novel for someone to read, if they had never read Aira before. All of his trademark qualities are here: his playful approach to autobiography, the way he integrates reflections upon the act of writing into the development of the novel itself, his use of folk-tale, fairy tale and science fiction elements, his Calvino and Kafka-like flourishes.

What I love most about reading a Cesar Aira novel is the following: YOU SERIOUSLY NEVER KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT. Thankfully, this is thrilling rather than frustrating (to me, at least). It never feels to me like Cesar Aira is being like, “Oh, OK, let’s have this character build and drive a car made out of prehistoric armadillo bones JUST FOR THE HECK OF IT.” (Yes, said armadillo car does appear.)  Even if that’s what he’s doing, i.e. making characters do things just for the heck of it, as opposed to because it’s something that the plot demands…. it never really feels that way. His novels always (shockingly) feel like they fit together, like the path his characters are taking is really and truly the one best path for them to take, as opposed to something he randomly pulled out of thin air in order to make his book seem quirky or weird. It amazes me that for novels that are so spontaneous and free-flowing, they nevertheless still feel remarkably well-structured and planned.

It also interests me how Aira deals with resolution and conclusion, in terms of satisfying the reader. He literally ends the novel in its climatic scene. Like, literally IN THE MIDDLE of the climatic scene. We are given no hints as to what will happen or how it will be resolved. It would be like David Foster Wallace ending Infinite Jest on the page where Hal Incandenza and Don Gately finally meet each other after 990 pages of being apart (not that that actually happens in Infinite Jest either… haha, that’s more like an example of a so-called frustrating ending!). I guess a better example would be if Shakespeare ended with the scene where Macbeth and Macduff start fighting. Or if LOTR ended with Frodo and Sam standing on the edge of Mt. Doom.

However… this deliberate avoidance of climax surprisingly did not annoy me. Incredibly enough, it made sense and felt appropriate in the context of what came before in the novel. It ties in, I think, to Aira’s discussions throughout the book concerning the themes of memory and forgetfulness. I don’t think I’m going to be able to connect the two (thwarted climax + forgetfulness) in a super articulate way, but I will try. The novel opens with Aira in the aforementioned Parisian cafe, trying to write his novel, talking about a dream he had in which everything fit perfectly together and everything made sense, but when he woke up he’d forgotten it all, and all he was left with was a sense of loss. He goes on to connect this idea of forgetfulness with his “theory of literature”:

“Taking control of forgetting is little more than a gesture, but it would be a gesture consistent with my theory of literature, at least with my disdain for memory as a writer’s instrument. Forgetting is richer, freer, more powerful…” (5)

I wonder if Aira is talking about IMAGINATION here, and connecting the idea of forgetfulness (Loss –> Emptiness –> A Space you can fill in with whatever you want!) with creativity. The wind seems to represent this creative, willful quality throughout the book, as something that can just suck you up and whisk you away  into a radically different universe (the wind as a metaphor for the novel is a subject for another term paper, methinks). Right before the novel ends, Aira talks a lot about forgetting as as act of loss: “In loss everything comes together. Loss is all-devouring… To lose is to forget things in cafes.”  (127) So, by deliberately withholding the climax from us at the novel’s end, is Aira trying to represent the act of forgetting, in literary form? Is he daring us to fill it in with our own delightfully whimsical imaginings, much in the same way as he fills in the blank during the rest of the story?

Anyway. I highly recommend this book if you’ve never read Aira before and are looking for an entry point. This and The Literary Conference, I think, are good places to start. Heck, nevermind, they’re all great! That is to say, the 6 works I’ve read so far out of the 70 that’s he’s published… O_O

Clans of the Alphane Moon (Philip K. Dick)

Another good one by Dick (honestly, do I ever say anything different?). The concept behind this novel is intriguing: what would an abandoned colony on a faraway planet look like, if it was inhabited solely by patients from the mental institution?

One of the novel’s most delicious treats is how Dick slowly reveals the different clans that the patients have divided themselves into on the titular Alphane Moon, based on their respective illnesses. It was pretty clear to me early on that the Deps were the depressives, for example, but the Mans and Pares (manics and paranoids) were more intriguing. Making the schizophrenics the poet-religious visionary class was another really clever move on Dick’s part.

Anyway, this is another Dick book that I would happily recommend to pretty much anyone. For example, one of the main characters is a telepathic slime mold–yes, that’s right–with the name of Lord Running Clam (YES). If that does not make you want to read this book, I don’t know how else I can help you.

There are parts of the book, especially near the end, where it feels just a wee too frenetic at times: so many different characters and storylines, how are they supposed to integrate?! For the most part Dick is successful, though I feel he kind of forgot about the psychic girl, whose main power consisted of turning back time for five minutes (making her particularly popular and successful at road accident death scenes). So yeah, the ending of the book reminded me of some kind of zany comedy in which everybody was running around with really fast music playing. But whatever. I would still recommend this, based on Lord Running Clam alone.

Dr. Bloodmoney (Philip K. Dick)

One of the better Dick books I’ve read. I actually might even go so far as to recommend this one as one of his classic Must-Read novels. I think this could easily be mentioned in the same breath as his more famous ones, such as Ubik, Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly. How funny that it never gets mentioned. Anyway, I thought this book was pretty brilliant. It contains all the genius flashes of black Dick humor that I just simply adore.

I will never get over how brilliant Dick is at taking simple, mundane situations and then building upon them until they are twisted and dark and unforgettable. Basically, this book is a post-apocalyptic novel, talking about life on what was once the West Coast of the U.S., but what makes this book a treasure are the deliciously twisted details. Take the little girl in this book, for instance. Everyone thinks she has an imaginary friend she pretends is her brother, and then we eventually learn that her so-called “imaginary” friend is actually a wizened old man (!) growing inside of her, parasite-style, a result of the nuclear fallout. Talk. about. seriously. disturbing. (If you think about how traumatized Philip K. Dick was throughout his life due to the death of his twin sister at birth, this storyline becomes even more creepy. I think I would love to write an essay one day about how doppelgängers, twins and mirror images are treated throughout Dick’s work. Heck, being a twin myself, how could I resist?).

The other characters populating this post-nuclear fallout, collapse-of-civilization world are equally memorable. The armless and legless guy (Hoppy Harrington) doesn’t just have one of the best names of any of Dick’s characters, he’s also one of the most well sketched out. He would make a seriously evil villain, as well as an interesting topic of discussion for how Dick treats the theme of mechanization of human beings. All in all this novel is classic–CLASSIC, I tell you!–vintage Dick. Usually post-apocalyptic novels are so boring. Brilliant, but boring. Murakami said it best when he was talking about “The Road” in that recent NY Times interview: it’s a good book, well-written, but it’s, well, kind of boring. The apocalypse happens and then you just kind of walk around trying to avoid getting eaten by people. Anyway, this is one of the best examples of a post-apocalyptic novel that I’ve ever read, simply because it is so fun and entertaining to read. I was hugging myself in delight during some passages, simply because I had absolutely no idea where the were going or what on earth Dick had on store with me. Reading this book was one heck of a ride and I would seriously recommend it to just about anybody, even folks who are new to Dick.

My favorite part of the book is when Stuart (one of his main characters) is being taught how to play chess by his friend who’s dying of radiation sickness, and Stuart has to keep asking “Which way does the bishop move again?”, all this shortly after eating a dead rat raw. Again, if this doesn’t make you want to read this book, I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s Vintage Dick. Love it. Love the book, Love Dick, love, love, love.

I love Cesar Aira and Philip K. Dick books because they feel like Steve McQueen or Werner Herzog movies, only on pages instead of on film. Their images and language thrill and excite with with their newness and bravery, even if they aren’t always 100% successful. I feel like they are doing what Herzog talks about in this classic quote:

I have often spoken of what I call the inadequate imagery of today’s civilization. I have the impression that the images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind our cultural evolution… What have we done to our images? What have we done to our embarrassed landscapes? I have said this before and will repeat it again as long as I am able to talk: if we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs… One must dig like an archaeologist and search our violated landscapes to find anything new.

Aira and Dick are literary archaeologists. For sure, for sure.

1 Comment

Filed under Aira, books, Phillip K. Dick, review

One response to “Imaginative Literature

  1. liz

    The Philip K. Dick books sound really fun.

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