Category Archives: Aira

Notable Books of 2015

In terms of Best Books I Read in 2015, Elena Ferrante takes the cake by far, unquestionably. Other stand-outs (in no particular order) include:

  • IFFP-winner (of both the shadow jury AND “real” prize!) The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck)
  • The Serialist (David Gordon)
  • In the Beginning Was the Sea (Tomás González) and The Dead Lake (Hamid Ismailov), two IFFP books that have lingered long in my memory
  • 10:04 (Ben Lerner); The First Bad Man (Miranda July); The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro); All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews); all badass contemporary novels I thoroughly enjoyed.
  • A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel) was the most impressive book in terms of ambition, achievement, and just plain FUN. A Little Life would come in second, minus the fun (replaced by cathartic fascination…!).
  • The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Iván Repila) = Most Haunting
  • A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgård), Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offhill), and Sisters By a River (Barbara Comyns) had the biggest effect (for now) on my own writing.
  • A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler) was my most comforting cup of familiar tea.
  • And finally, Wallflowers (Eliza Robertson) and We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Thomas Morris) are two kickass and inspiring short story collections. In full disclosure, I know both of these authors, but I wouldn’t bother mentioning their books on this blog if I truly didn’t FERVENTLY believe that their books are THAT good. Highly recommended, both of them.

Here are some other books I read last year (not yet discussed on this blog) that stood out to me:

A Little Lumpen Novelita (Roberto Bolaño)

“Everything seemed as clear as could be and as entertaining as a TV show and still I was close to tears.”

I’ve reviewed almost every single Bolaño book I’ve ever read on this blog and see no reason to break the trend with his latest opus to be translated, the arguably minor work A Little Lumpen Novelita. Minor Bolaño is still enjoyable Bolaño, though, especially for a card-carrying fangirl such as myself. A lot of Novelita sounded very familiar to The Secret of Evil, but I’d have to compare the texts side-by-side in order to officially verify this.

Themes of Novelita include bodybuilding as art, orphanhood, sight and cinema. I liked the first part, with the sister and brother befriending the refugee bodybuilders, but the second half definitely sloooows down. Thankfully the book is short, so it’s not really a problem. Is the main theme of this work the innate appeal of the visual? The triumph of cinematic storytelling? With this in mind, it’s interesting that the book itself (as said before) is so slow–it’s basically all set-up, a VERY anti-Hollywood crime tale. Nevertheless, the last paragraph still worked as an effective pay-off for me (is anybody better at writing those long, hypnotic, breathlessly long sentences than Bolaño?).

With both this book and The Secret of Evil, would it be safe to ask if Bolaño’s post-2666 work was entering a phase or taking an interest in a more avant-garde style, in the sense of an almost Knausgård-esque obsession with the mundane (as opposed to the plot-driven, almost crime novel set-ups of Savage Detectives, Distant Star or even 2666)? An interesting question to consider, but since this is one of the last books Bolaño published, it’ll be hard to ever say for sure.

The other thing this book made me think about was the question of belief when reading–what books ask us to do. I’ve already started and abandoned a book in 2016 (Fates and Furies), a very critically acclaimed and popular novel that I nevertheless unfortunately just couldn’t get through (I REALLY TRIED!). Some of it might just have to do with personal preferences in terms of style: I tend to prefer the easy, minimalist, straightforward readability of Chekhov, Carver, Bolaño, Vonnegut and Ferrante (that being said, I love Faulkner, Borges and Woolf, so am by no means a purist). And yet I just couldn’t deal with Fates and Furies because it came off as so “written” to me–I was aware of the author on every page. The Author Writing, Being Writerly. The writing itself was amazing: very flow-y, great similes, but in the end I didn’t believe or care about the story. I never got lost or absorbed or obsessed with in it the way I got lost in Ferrante, and ultimately it just didn’t feel worth the time or effort.

It’s such a tricky feeling to describe–the way a novel asks you to “read” it, what it wants you to believe–and yet it feels so integral to my experience as a reader. I was thinking about how this notion of belief in the fictional is just one reason among many that Don Quixote is The Best Book Ever (talk about a book I really should reread this year!). I remember that some of the most interesting parts of Quixote is when he appears startlingly lucid and self-aware, leading to questions of how much is he really lost in his vision of a knight-errant world, or how much of it is a deliberately crafted illusion for him–an escape versus a genuine delusion. I guess ultimately I prefer books that come off as delusions to me–obsessive dreams I sink into–rather than well-crafted, admirable, lyrically-written escapades.

Family Life (Akhil Sharma)

This is definitely one of the best books I read last year, if not THE best after Ferrante. I learned so much about both writing and reading from this book. I especially recommend this article by the author–captivating, astonishing stuff.

What I most admired about this book is the plot. Basically, there is none. The plot is family life. The family suffers, but it doesn’t fall apart, not really. Instead they plod on and try to endure, just like us all. More and more I’m finding myself intrigued by books that aren’t traditionally plotted (hellooooooo Knausgård and Lydia Davis). It feels to me like there’s a lot of exciting, interesting potential to explore with this. Forget traditional plot twists and build-ups and convenient revelations and coincidences. YES YES YES to momentum, energy, obsession and drive (especially on the level of the sentence).

Other things I loved about this book: the dark, dark humor (“You’re sad?” the father says at one point to the narrator. “I want to hang myself every day.”) The narrator’s visions of God-as-Superman. The brutally tender scenes with the brother (an antidote to the way we turn our eyes away from illness, suffering, and decay in everyday life). The Chekhovian writing style, the page-turning readability. The classic-yet-surprising and subversive immigrant story, the tender details and painfully honest depiction of the local Indian community.

I can’t believe I didn’t read this book earlier!

Pnin (Nabokov)

This book is absolutely fantastic and made me want to read ALL of the Nabokov now, immediately. I very nearly finished Pale Fire before leaving for India and getting derailed–yet another book I will have to return to and finish!

I first listened to an excerpt of Pnin via Aleksandar Hemon’s reading of the first chapter on the New Yorker fiction podcast, which I highly, highly recommend. It’s definitely a brilliant introduction, especially with the discussion that follows. Sadly, I didn’t take notes when reading this book (I read it on the plane to Colombia in one sitting), but what I remember standing out to me is the hysterical humor, the wonderful use of detail (no wonder Hemon is a fan; his short story “Islands” will never not be exemplary to me in this regard); the brilliant parallels with Quixote; the oh so relevant themes of exile, home and immigration, the dancing back and forth between comedy and tragedy… oho man. I would totally reread this. Dare I say… I may even prefer it to Lolita?!?

Martian Time-Slip (Philip K. Dick)

My old friend Philip. What would I do without him? What a classic Dickian read. Set on (where else?) the Wild West-esque Mars, we follow a cast of characters, including a union boss who controls the water supply, a schizophrenic repairman, local Martians who resemble Australian Aborigines, and an autistic child who is ultimately responsible for the titular “time-slip” (the sections narrated from his perspective are definitely some of the most admirably demented). This wasn’t the best Dick novel I’ve read (Dr. Bloodmoney and VALIS are still up there for me) but when do I not enjoy reading him? Even the bland female characters don’t bother me. Themes include the blurring of madness with reality, the question of what it means to be sane, and again that debate about belief, about what makes something “true,” if reality is just whatever we choose to believe (“The mind is its own place” and all that jazz). I will never get bored of reading stuff like this–science fiction as an intellectual debate or exercise.

Also, there’s paragraphs like this one:

Both boys had pets, Martian critters that struck him as horrid: praying mantis types of bugs, as large as donkeys. The damn things were called boxers, because they were often seen propped up erect and squaring off at one another in a ritual battle which generally ended with one killing and eating the other. Bert and Ned had gotten their pet boxers trained to do manual chores of a low calibre, and not to eat each other.

Love it.

Ban en Banlieue (Bhanu Kapil)

This book is nuts. I didn’t enjoy my experience of reading it, but I would still recommend it, but more as an intellectual exercise. I’ve never had a reading experience like this book before. I’ve never read a book like this before, period. It’s not even a book per se–it’s a collection of notes, jottings, thoughts, and fragments of a failed novel, a book that never came into being, a Failed Book, a novel that doesn’t exist and never will. It’s more like a performance art piece than a proper book, really (and indeed, the final book is apparently based on performances done by the author). Basically, Kapil is obsessed with the idea of telling the story of Ban, a young dark-skinned schoolgirl, as she walks home from school during the first moments of a riot in 1979 London. As the riot begins, Ban lies down to die.

…That’s pretty much it. That’s the whole book. The book returns to the gesture again and again, circling around it, describing it, relentlessly, obsessively: the image of this girl lying down, at certain points turning into soot, diesel oil, dirt, meat.

I sympathized with and admired this book because more than anything else, it shows that writing IS REALLY ****ING HARD AND YOU HAVE TO BE A  REAL BADASS MOTHER****ER IF YOU WANNA DO IT. If you wanna write a novel, you better not be shitting around because the writing process is going to eat you up and leave you gasping, raw, and bruised in sight of the most painful revelations from the innermost core of your Jungian Shadow-being. To me, this book shows how certain images (in this case, that of a brown girl lying down as the world around her burns) can grab an author and never let you go–it becomes a compulsion; you HAVE to write about it, you have no choice. But how to bring that image into being? How to turn it into a novel or a story you can share? How do you put it into a narrative, shape it, craft it? In this case, the author wasn’t able to do so–she wasn’t able to get past the singular image. As the author writes at one point, “I want a literature that is not made from literature,” and that is SO… FREAKING… hard to do. Instead of literature, she’s done something else with this book. I have no idea what it is or how to talk about it. But due to its sheer force of will, determination, and doggedness, this book earned both my admiration and respect.

The Musical Brain (César Aira)

(Thank you New Directions for the review copy of this book!)

Another one of the best books I read last year. This may be one of the best César Aira books I’ve read, and would serve as a jolly good introduction to anybody unfamiliar with his madcap visions.

One of the highlights of this collection is the sheer diversity contained within. It’s like twenty mini-Aira novellas contained within one volume, twenty glimpses into utterly unique universes that are often reminiscent of Cortázar at his best and most experimental. There’s nostalgic childhood-themed pieces about intricate games (“A Brick Wall,” “The Infinite”), contrasted with the sheer utter insanity that is the title story (think 1950’s horror movie cross-bred with Philip K. Dick and Duchamp). There’s creepy Kafkaesque fables with unsettling endings (“The Cart,” “The Dog”). There’s even a story that reads as half-fairy tale, half contemporary political allegory (“Acts of Charity,” placed near the end of the collection and arguably one of the strongest pieces).

A strange continuity links these stories. We are informed more than once that nine is the maximum number of times a piece of paper can be folded in half, and there are at least two cameos by a polyhedron. There’s an obsessions with numbers and precision throughout, with the micro and macroscopic, eternity and ephemerality. Non-human characters include a subatomic particle, a shopping cart gone rogue, a melancholic ovenbird and drops of Renaissance-era paint that flee the Mona Lisa and go around the world having adventures (and that’s just a cursory summary, believe me…).

Originality and innovation are clearly important to Aira: “human creativity,” he writes near the collection’s end, “was inexhaustible.” To put it plainly, the inventiveness and unpredictability of these stories is a big reason they are so enjoyable to read. “Only the unrepeatable was truly alive…” Now that’s an Aira call to arms if there ever was one.

*

To wrap up this post, I guess I’ll give a shout-out to books I didn’t enjoy, even though I don’t like being a hater (god knows that writing a book is hard enough… authors deserve credit “just” for that!!). Off the top of my head, When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds was not my cup of tea, despite reviews in The Rumpus and NY Times that made me believe that it would be. I wonder if I am sort of over that whole “quirkily experimental” form of writing–maybe I just plain prefer the dark nihilistic “quirkiness” (and just plain mental beserk FUN) of César Aira. Anyway, all of this doesn’t mean that Mystical Creatures isn’t a book (or genre even) that other people won’t enjoy–I totally own up to it being a matter of taste.

I also did not enjoy The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Reading this book made me realize what a blessing George R.R. Martin is, and how spoiled I’ve been by the Song of Ice and Fire series. It may have ruined other fantasy novels for me forever. The Blade Itself started promisingly enough–I basically just wanted a guilty pleasure read, something to read mindlessly on buses or planes or late at night when trying to fall asleep.  Gradually, though, I lost interest due to too many fight scenes and (most importantly) the utter lack of interesting female characters. Too much of a boy’s club for me.

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

Varamo

This latest little recently translated gem by Cesar Aira is only 89 pages long but packs in more fanciful ideas and crazy images than you would find in most 200+ page novels. This book took me about an hour to read (maybe a little less) and by the end I felt like I’d just woken up from a really trippy, weird food inspired dream.

The basic plot of the book concerns the titular character, Varamo, a 1920’s government employee in Panama. In the opening scenes of the novel, he is handed his paycheck, which unfortunately turns out to be counterfeit money. In the last pages of the book, he sits down and writes “the most celebrated masterwork of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy,” despite having never previously written or read a single line of poetry or any form of literature.

The way that Varamo gets from Point A (counterfeit money) to Point B (literary infamy) is the the book’s main subject. Aira has a lot of fun with this idea of sequences–in a way it’s the perfect subject for him, because a lot of his fiction plays with how one thing can lead to the next. Aira is famous for his writing style, in which nothing is discarded but instead he just keeps the pen moving and goes on to the next page. It’s like all his books are one giant freewrite. This occasionally gives his books a slightly improvisatory feel–in the middle of reading a page you sometimes you feel like you’re “reading” the act of him coming up with his ideas.

The best example of this is the scene with Varamo in a house that is vaguely cluttered, which he initially ignores before realizing that it’s because of all the golf clubs that are lying around. This leads to a long sequence that explains how the sisters that live in the house make their living by smuggling in golf clubs for all the French, British and American people working on the canal (smuggling, counterfeit and illegal activities is a reoccurring motif through the book). It was mentioned earlier that one of the sisters had a prosthetic leg, so she is able to smuggle the golf clubs off the ship one at a time by pretending that they were a strange kind of new walking stick that the customs officials don’t recognize. The golf clubs also explain why everyone in the town thinks that the sisters work in another kind of highly illicit business: “smuggling in putters” sounds uncomfortably like “smuggling in putas.” Nevermind if this isn’t wholly believable (so nobody would notice the same woman walking up and down a gangplank thousands of times with a peculiarly shaped walking stick?)–what counts is the buildup with the unexpected payoff. It’s a dream-like logic, in which everything in isolation is totally weird and doesn’t make any sense (prosthetic leg + golf clubs + rumored whore house), but when you put it all together, it somehow all fits.

Another great example of this “one thing leads to another” method is the sequence in which we learn about Varamo’s side hobby: embalming dead mutant animals. First of all, the idea of embalming as a hobby is just plain hilarious. I also liked how Aira uses the description of embalming as way to mention all the pollution and toxic metals that are getting thrown into the water by the foreign companies digging the canal (it’s a great way to make an important point without hitting us over the head with a long political rant). I loved his description of how he tries to embalm a fish to look  like it’s playing a miniature piano, before he realizes (what a mistake!) that fish have no arms, so then he’s stuck with trying to make it look like it’s playing a wind instrument instead.

This little pet interest of Varamo’s reminded me of the narrator of The Literary Conference and his mad scientist hobby of cloning famous Latin American authors. In these two works Aira obviously is interested in incorporating the scientific progress alongside long philosophical reflections on the nature of literature (kind of a thinking man’s science fiction). The very scientific, precise way that Varamo works on his embalming (step one leading to step two to step three) is paralleled with the search for literary inspiration. Anyway, Aira’s writing in this section was a big inspiration for me; I would love to be able to do what he does in sequences like this one.

The other aspect I enjoyed most about this book was the way that things that appear in earlier pages reappear later on in the book in unexpected and delightful (or sometimes just plain weird) ways. A candy that Varamo throws away in a bush in the main square, for example, reappears on the next to last page as the inspiration for Varamo’s last epiphany before he heads home to start work on his masterpiece. Birds swoop around the bush, delicately pecking at the candy and eating it one piece at a time, in a scene that strikes Varamo as unexpectedly and poetically beautiful, what he calls a “writerly experience”:

“For him, everything was “writerly” now. Poision or elixir, narcotic or aphrodisiac, whatever it was, this flower [the melted candy stuck to the bush], relic of a day in the life of an accidental writer, an inadvertent counterfeiter leaving his traces in code, the birds were coming to try it, performing a dance for no one and flying up toward the moon.” (88)

There were a lot of ideas I loved in this book, and I don’t have enough time to cite or fully describe them all. I do need to namecheck regularity racing, a concept that is just plain delightful. Regularity racing is a form of auto racing that Varamo witnesses, in which the winner is the person who drives the most punctually at the most average speed on the race course and reaches the top-secret checkpoints at pre-determined times. “In fact,” Aira writes, “competing in a regularity rally was so nerve-wracking that it could turn a normal and previously law-abiding citizen into an anarchist.”

I could go on and on about things I liked about this book; Aira is always like a rich little treasure trove for me. I don’t know if I could recommend him to everyone; there are some parts of his books that are a little philosophical, Big Idea heavy that read like very intense digressions. A good example of this in Varamo is the section about Varamo’s mother:

“But how could he have a civilized conversation with that barbarous, instinctive, inhuman being: The Mother? How had other men managed in the past? A mother was a creature made up of superimposed layers of life: before and after giving birth, but also the befores and afters of all the other life-changing events, still present within her. Anything he said would have to be multiplied by all those layers of existential representation.”

Like, you read these asides in the middle of a long paragraph, and then you’re like, “I could stop and give that idea intense thought and reflection… but then I might go insane, so I think I’ll just keep reading.” Not a bad strategy.

The biggest punchline book comes at the very end. If you haven’t read this book yet and you plan to, consider this an official SPOILER ALERT: it turns out that Varamo’s epic, critically acclaimed poem is just a word for word transcription of all the papers the Varamo collected in his pockets over the course of the day.

The first thing that this made me think of, of course, was Borges’ Pierre Menard, in which a word-for-word transcription is also highly praised and critically acclaimed as this transcendental work of art (“Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer”). We never get to see Varamo’s poem, but Aira to me seems to be making fun of or commenting on the idea of how you represent realism in fiction. The reason I think this is because in an earlier section, right before Varamo runs home to write, he’s in a cafe talking to some book publishers who make money publishing counterfeit books by revered literary heroes like Darío (there you go again with the illegality motif!):

“In fact, the publishers admitted that over the last few years they had simply been turning out the same kind of product; they needed to provide a new generation of readers with something really new to read. Perhaps, said one, “the time had come for realism.” The other two disagreed vehemently: the time for realism would never come. To which the reply, and here they were all in agreement again, was that it depended on how realism was defined. The time for realism in that sense (to be defined) was always now.” (78)

This section made me think about a topic that I never got to write about for my undergraduate senior year thesis (so much for too much coffee and poor time management, LOL–whatever, maybe I’ll get to do it in graduate school!). There was supposedly going to be a big section in my thesis about literary realism. I was gonna read the works by this homeboy called Lukács, and talk about how in his POV, the modernist, subjective ways of depicting reality (a la Kafka, Joyce, etc) were decidedly inferior to the traditional ways of realism (a la Balzac). The main reason that Lukács thought that realism in modernist literature kind of sucked (based on my memory and wikipedia, two not super good resources) was that it wasn’t effective at confronting objective reality, specifically the capitalist totality that underlies all of our puny existences (important to note homeboy Lukács was obviously a Marxist).

The reason why I think this is interesting in connection to Varamo, is that Aira seems to be parodying this idea of Varamo having created great art using just these very raw materials from this capitalist world he moves through: receipts, gambling notes, etc. Like, there is NOTHING subjective about this kind of art; it is PURE objective reality. But would this kind of poem really be this transcendental, avant-garde, revolutionary work of art, or is it just this hapless dude dutifully typing up his notes as he was instructed to do by the book publishers he just met?

The other thing that I think is interesting is that I do kind of agre with Lukács. Personally, I like books that try to incorporate this greater sense of reality, a tiny slice of the bigger picture that the characters move in. Latin American authors do a good job of this by mentioning political or economic situations: Varamo with the Panama Canal, Bolaño with all his references the Central American revolutions, torture in Chile or violence at the Mexican border, not to mention ORWELL (the undisputed King of the lot). To me, a work of fiction is all the more powerful and better if it tries to make some kind of commentary or point something out about the bigger world we all move in. It’s fine that there are books that are just for entertainment value only, books that just try to tell a good story, but as Rodolfo Walsh once wrote, “These are different times, and this is a time for a bigger undertaking.” Does this mean that I don’t like my modernist parche, my Kafka and Woolf, Joyce and Faulkner? No…. there’s a time and place for subjectivity… and I DON’T agree that subjective modernist works can’t make a big point about our messed up capitalist world the way more traditionally realist works can…. but that’s a discussion for another day.

Anyway, I would recommend reading this book, as well as the  ““Realism in the Balance” (1938)—Lukács’ defence of literary realism” section of the Lukács wikipedia article. Two interesting reads for a sleepy Sunday morning.

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Filed under Aira, books, review, Rio Plata

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.

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Mad Scientists

I just finished The Invention of Morel, an Argentinean novella. I was very happy and pleased to learn that the author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was a very close friend of Borges’. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Borges was a huge Bioy fanboy: he writes the introduction to Morel, and Bioy is the friend who appears in Borges’ wonderful story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Now that I’ve finished it (only 103 pages, yay) I think more highly of it than I did when I was actually reading it, if that makes any sense. While I was reading it I was just kind of impatient to find out what would happen next, and now that I’ve finished I’m like “wow, OK, lots o’ layers to unpack here.” The plot concerns a fugitive, pursued by police for reasons that are never specified, who flees to a deserted island with an abandoned museum rumored to be inhabited by ghosts. A random mysterious group of tourists arrive, and while hiding from them he falls in love with a woman in the group. While trying to win her affections he discovers that the reality on the island is not as it seems, and that’s when things start getting trippy.  The wikipedia article claims that Morel was an inspiration for the computer game Myst, which I unfortunately remember finding very boring and tedious–ha ha!

Morel is neither boring or tedious, though I did feel like the protagonist was a little thick-headed at times (that feeds into one of his many theories though, that he is an inmate in a psychiatric hospital imagining the whole thing!). Morel reminded me a lot of Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference, in the sense that while reading it you are just carried away by the sheer inventiveness of the author. You are completely immersed in a carefully constructed, perfectly logical world, logical in all its surreality and absurdity. I got the same feeling reading this book as I did when reading Kafka, all the way back in sixth grade (OH! How I was inspired and moved by Kafka!), or more recently by a collection of short stories (none longer than 4 pages) that a friend gave me for Christmas, The Girl on the Fridge. I like it when authors remind me of mad scientists in laboratories, furiously mixing up potions of plots and stirring mysterious ingredients and flights and fancy together. There are certain authors who are just great at this: Cesar Aira, Phillip K. Dick, Vonnegut, Borges even… I’ve come to (re)discover that I really like fiction that’s wildly imaginative and inventive. It’s fun to read, and I imagine that it’s fun to write as well. There’s just something very liberating about it: it is a “story” in the very best sense of the word. Like Gary Shteyngart says in this interview (I also recently read his Super Sad True Love Story, another good example of an author-as-mad scientist book!), it is necesarry for literature to be entertaining just as much as intellectual.

Anyway, the other thing I thought was funny about finishing this book is that it is an appropriate continuation of the Mad Scientist theme of my past few days. On Friday at the elementary school where I work we had Family Movie Night and showed “Despicable Me,” a craptastic animation film about a mad scientist that the kids and parents nevertheless enjoyed, so there ya go. And then at my new writing group this morning (yay writing group!) I wrote a silly little piece inspired by the film, specifically by the yellow sponge-like characters. I don’t claim that this story is particularly good, but it was fun to write, to just heedlessly charge from one thing to the next, inventing one crazed frenetic detail after another. I dunno, a lot of the fiction I’ve written since graduating from college has tried to be very realistic, when a lot of the stuff I wrote in high school or early on in college reads as very imaginative, free-wheeling and heedless to me now. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision at one point or not to stop writing that way–I think I was sick of magical realism, and of reading fantastical techniques in novels that just felt very forced and hokey to me. And that was something I didn’t want my writing to be, hokey or gimmicky, by being centered around this fantastical qualities.

But then Borges’s essay at the beginning of Morel provides some comfort, as he argues that it is fantasy novels that are more strict and rule-based than realist fiction, as opposed to the othe way around. In books such as Ulysses or War and Peace, anything can happen, while in an H.G. Wells or fantasy/adventure/science fiction story, what happens has to follow the logic of what happenned before, or the logic of the world and the narrative completely collapses. So in this way a story built around fantastical elements needs to be more adherent to logic and rigidly plotted than a realist novel (this is SO TRUE for Kafka in particular! What would The Metamorphosis be without the specific details?). As Borges puts it in Morel’s introduction:

The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example. . . . In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. . . . The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to be a transcription of reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.

So all hail fanastical ridiculous nonsensical messy arbitrary fiction. It gives me lots of feelings I like. Such as: writing is fun! Creativity is good. Art is necesarry. And so forth.

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Ema la Cautiva: Boredom and Indifference

How do you make literature out of boredom and monotony?

That was the question I found myself asking, over and over again, while reading Cesar Aira’s Ema la Cautiva (“Emma, the Captive”–there’s something about the English translation of the title that doesn’t feel quite right). Not because the book itself was boring (it’s hard to be bored when you never have any idea where the hell it’s going), but because it seemed to be about boredom more than anything else. I still have about 20 pages left to go, but I doubt that anything too earth-shattering is going to happen, which feels like a strange thing to say about a book in which a girl is kidnapped by Indians in the Argentinean pampas, after having been taken out there to live in a penal colony.

Apparently this was one of the earliest books that Aira wrote, back in 1981, and it definitely feels like a work that was produced early on in a writer’s development. At 200 pages, it’s much longer than 70-something page How I Became a Nun and The Literary Conference, and the surreal, dreamlike humor of the latter two is also distinctly missing. I definitely missed their crazy, crackling energy here; Ema reads much more like a turgid, slurpy opium-induced hallucination.

So what happens in this book? There’s a lot of marches across harsh Argentinean landscapes. Characters drift in and out (I especially liked the Indian guy named Bob, for obvious reasons). There’s a lot of smoking and playing of dice, by both Argentineans and Indians. There’s the occasional philosophical discussion about time, history and money. I liked how the Indians were depicted as bored as modern suburban families, retreating to their bougie lakeside getaways; it was definitely a fresh twist.

Is this book a parody of nineteenth-century adventure novels? What to make of the paper coins that a character starts printing in an attempt to stave off boredom? Or Ema’s transformation into a prosperous zookeeper of birds?

I don’t know what to make of this book. On the back there’s a quote by Aira in which he summarizes the book’s themes, addressing the reader as  “Ameno lector ” in the best Jane Eyre fashion. He explains how he came up with the idea for the novel: paraphrased, when he was very poor and working as a translator of Gothic English novels in which English women traveled over oceans to California to drink tea, he came up with the idea of writing una ‘gótica’ simplificada, a simplified Gothic novel. Y al terminar, he writes, resultó que Ema, mi pequeña yo, había creado una pasión nueva, por la que pueden cambiarse todas las otras como el dinero se cambia por todas: la indiferencia. ¿Qué pedir? ( “And in the end it turned out that Ema, my little self, had created a new passion, which can replace all the others in the same way that money is exchanged for all: indifference. What else could you want?”)

Is this Ema’s “passion” in the story? Indifference? There certainly are a lot of moments of her raising and lowering her shoulders in response to another character’s statement or question. It’s intriguing that he calls Ema “mi pequeña yo mismo,” “my little myself,” which reminds me of Flaubert’s similar obtuse statement of Madame Bovary, c’est moi. (I just realized that Madame Bovary is also called Emma. Hmm…) Is Ema meant to represent the closest figure resembling an artist in this story, in her attempt to collect and display pheasants, for no discernable reason other than that they’re beautiful? I don’t know how to interpret Aira’s claim beyond that.

Ema's faisanes. Good to know that they're a type of animal that actually exists.

So what am I left with in the end? Well… there’s a lot of descriptions of animals and nature, zoology and geography.  I had to keep looking up the names of the animals online in Spanish-English dictionaries; I’m still not sure if the ones I couldn’t find actually exist or not.The landscapes gradually grow more and more bizarre, with Ema moving from the pampas to the small fort to the Indian settlement to an Edenic lakeside until she eventually ends up in this insane land of ice and snow.

It’s hard for me to recommend this book, namely because it was so hard for me to read, but I definitely feel like there’s quite a bit to unpack here. I probably shouldn’t have read it when I was jetlagged and sick with the flu; I think I’m going to have to give it another chance another time. Ultimately, this book will remain lumped together in my mind with Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and the movie The New World, in the sense that it’s in the same genre of Young Girl trying to make sense of the new universe she finds herself in.

Speaking of The New World, the opening and closing Wagner song from “The Ring” is one I’ve been trying to play to myself a lot in my head lately, particularly when I feel that all is bleak and lost. There’s just something about the scenes of “Rebecca” frolicking in the English countryside that fills me with hope, like maybe it’s still possible to still see the world as a beautiful place.

I don’t know. I need to start (re)cultivating that ability to marvel at the world, instead of feeling like I’m bogged in and drowing in the same-old, same-old of day in and day out of dreary sameness (or sama-sama, as they say in Bahasa in Indonesia). I don’t know how much of this feeling of mine has to do with the fact that it’s winter, and that it’s grey and cold and snowy and icy day in and day out here in England, and it’s dark every day at 4.30pm. And yet I’m not excited at ALL about heading back to Portland on Sunday, since I feel like what’s waiting for me is more of the same wetness and rain and cold and darkness until freaking March.

So… I don’t want my life to be a like a novel that’s about boredom and indifference. So to end on a more positive note, I did go to Norwich on Monday in order to meet with my old creative writing professor, who gave me some nifty points of advice, including the following (because I just love advice):
– Let self-cricicism guide you.. it is important to cultivate that ability to be critical about your work.
– Write about what you know… what is most interesting to you?
– Read Elif Batuman’s critique of US Creative Writing programs in the London Review of books.
– Don’t worry about anything. Read a lot. Read critcism as well. Read the best critics.
– What is staying with you the most? What is your material?
– Read V.S. Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street.

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They’re Here

37 boxes of books arrived today from Colombia.

And the bookshelves, of course.

I’m reading Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference. It’s hilarious and I love it. The first chapter involves the solving of an ancient pirate riddle and finding secret treasure. The next few chapters describe the narrator’s dream of World Domination, in the best Mad Scientist sense, and his plan to do so (which involves cloning the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes). It is just glorious, glorious stuff. I wish I could be reading it in Spanish, but I can’t figure out how to order them via Interlibrary Loan (the regular library system hardly ever has the books I want). I need to fiddle with that tomorrow, since the quality of my Spanish is sinking to despicable levels, and there’s only so much that talking to the parents at the elementary school where I’m working now can do for me.

I read this interesting interview with Aira a while back, and the main part that has stuck with me was his description of his writing style: “”writing by picking up with the last line written the day before, planting something implausible in the work, and then continuing to write until he has made the implausible believable.” It sounds so fun and liberating, which makes sense, since those are the qualities I enjoy the most in his work. His books just make me LAUGH out loud, and I’m a hard person to make laugh!  I can’t quite explain what it is about his work I find so hystiercal. For example, the most recent part that made me LOL hard and long was when the narrator talks about the effects of his divorce: “I began to develop rather grotesque symptons; the worst was a contraction of my left leg, which began to behave as if it were eight inches shoter than my right; as faras I know, my two legs are exactly the same length, but for months I was going around with quite a conspicuous limp. This, on top of everything else, led me to take drugs (the only time in my life I’ve ever done so. I became addicted to proxidine and so severely abused it that I would have died of an overdose if I had not finally found a way out.” (51)

Proxidine! LOL! I just love the fact that the narrator is a self-described Mad Scientist hell-bent on world domination. That the way in which he steals a cell from Carlos Fuentes’ body is by sending a genetically engineered wasp he’s designed solely for the purpose of plucking it from Fuentes’ body. The wasp inspires several interesting and surprisingly moving passages: “I needed somebody to get me a cell belonging to Carlos Fuentes, and for that reason, and no other, I created a being within which converged millions of years and many more millions of fine points of selection, adaptation, and evolution… to carry out a unique service and thereby complete its purpose; a throw-away creature, as if the miracle that is man had been created one afternoon just so he could walk over to the door to look outside and see if it were raining, and once this task had been accomplished, he would be annihilated.” (39-40) I love Aira’s combination of Phillip K Dick-ish insanity with Borgeisan philosophical musings… that is really the best description I can think of for him.

Anyway, I’m about halfway through and the narrator is only just about to arrive at the titular literary conference, so we’ll see what insane shinanignas happen next.

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Aira’s ghosties


Little kids used to scare me. Though maybe “intimidate” is a better word. Kids are so emotional, you know? These little events upset us so much and remain deeply ingrained in our memories and psyches as moments of momentous injustice that we never, ever forget. I remember crying as a 5-year-old when a girl wouldn’t share her potato chips with me (we’re friends now on a social networking site, another testament to the weirdness that is the Internet). I guess I really, really wanted those potato chips (it was also the first day of kindergarten, so I was probably already pretty emotionally drained). There are so many moments at my job when I’m dealing with a kid who is just incredibly upset by something that seems so trivial to an adult (someone cutting ahead of you in a line is a big one).

The kids themselves in this novel aren’t as scary as the situation they’re in. Childhood was an important theme in Aira’s How I Became a Nun (perhaps more important than I realized when I first read it) and plays a similarly prominent role in the most recent of his works that I’ve read,Ghosts. Ghosts is my favorite of the three Aira novles I’ve read, maybe because it’s the one written in the most realistic tone. The focus of the novel is on a Chilean immigrant family living in an apartment building under construction. The father is the night watchmen. A lot of references are made to his heavy drinking, but all in all, this feels like a happy family. The children run up and down the stairs, play in the empty swimming pool, but an uneasy, ominous feeling hangs over everything.

And then there are the ghosts. Aira’s treatment of the ghosts is what makes this novella worth reading. It’s an understatement to say that I’ve never read anything quite like it before. They first appear sitting on the sharp metallic edge of the giant satellite dish, “on which no bird would have dared to perch, three completely naked men were sitting, with their faces turned up to the mdday sun; no one saw them, of course.” Here is the first full descriptive passages of the titular ghosts, from page 12:

The naked men shouted louder and louder as if competing with each other. They were dirty like builders, and had the same kind of bodies: rather stocky, solid, with small feet, and rough hands. Their toes were spread widely, like wild men’s toes. They were behaving like badly brought-up children. But they were adults. A builder who happenned to be passing by with a bucketful of rubble on the way to the skip stretched out his free hand and, without stopping, grasped the penis of one of the naked men and kept walking. The member stretched out to a length of two yards, and then three, five, ten, all the way to the sidewalk. When he let it go, it slapped back into place with a noise whose weird harmonics went on echoing off the unplastered concrete walls… The two ghosts laughed more loudly and frenetically than ever.

Yeah.

It feels significant that the rich folks that are being given a tour of their future apartment can’t see the ghosts, but the workers can. Aira never explains where the ghosts come from, how the workers first saw them, or how long it took for them to get used to naked men floating around the air and through walls. In a way, this is probably the best way to handle the ghosts. It’s like an extreme version of Kafka or Garcia Marquez, where we come to accept the fantastical elements of a story because they’re written in such a matter-of-fact, realistic way. In the end, we accept the ghosts because the characters accept them in such an unquestioning, logical fashion. For instance, the next passage in which the ghosts appear (after the member-pulling) concerns the father’s innovative wine-cooling system: “It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold.” (29) How practical!

The sense of impending doom (or “climate of malevolence”) (67) that hangs like a cloud over the children throughout the novel comes not so much from the ghosts (who come off more like a “flying puppet show” than a genuine menance or threat), but from how dangerous it is to have the children roaming around unsupervised in a roofless building with exposed electrical wiring. During a standard trip to the supermarket, the mother is described as “that anomaly, not nearly as rare as is often supposed: a mother immune to the terrifying fantasy of losing her children in a crowd.” (23) Is this attitude is an effect of becoming numb to the presence of the ghosts? Needless to say, we’re being set up: by the novel’s end, one of these kids is done for.

In David Lodge’s essay “The Novelist Today: Still at the Crossroads?” from his book The Practice of Writing (I’ve been on a huge David Lodge kick lately and have several of his lit theory books lying around the house for Corey to trip over and curse), he writes about how fabulation in works such as The Satanic Verses “aims to entertain us with the humorous extravagance and inventiveness of its story while offering this as a kind of metaphor… for the extreme contrasts and conflicts of modern experience.” (7) This could be applied very aptly to Aira, especially since humor plays such an important role in his fiction. My favorite character in Ghosts is Abel Reyes, the night watchman’s nephew, who embarks upon a Kafkaesque grocery shopping quest to buy lunch for the workmen. I love how he obstinately refuses to use a shopping basket and with arms full of bread and meat picks up the Coca Cola bottles with the index finger and thumb of each hand, “which was all he had free.” (20) I’m tempted to type up the entire passage that describes him: he is described as looking eleven years old despite being fifteen, “thin, ugly, awkward.” Much is made of his long gross hair that makes him look like a girl: “Being young, foreign and therefore naive, he didn’t realize that the Argentineans with long hair belonged to the lowest social stratum, and were precisely those who had condemned themselves to never escape from it… In Chile, [with hair that long] he would have been interviewed on television, or, more likely, thrown into prison.” (18) It’s funny, but “thrown into prison” catches us off guard slightly, as we ponder how true this might be.

Even though Abdul Reyes sadly disappears from the pages of Ghosts following his shopping expedition, I think his appearence sets up the subplot of Patri, the teenage daughter, whose musings and interactions with the ghosts comes to dominate the second half of the book. The other characters are consistently reminding Patri that she is reaching a “marriageable” age and worrying aloud about her lack of a social life, neither of which seem to interest her much. When her choice of men are people like Abdul Reyes, it’s unsurprising that Patri’s interest is piqued by the “virility” of the ghosts, who invite her to a party. The results of said party are not spoiler-friendly, and I leave it up to you, dear reader, to discover for yourself. I will say that Patri’s interactions with the ghosts definitely represents a sort of crossing-over journey for her, from childhood to womanhood.

That’s why I feel like childhood is one of the more important themes of the book. The children are made to seem just as freaky and otherwordly as the ghosts in this novel: “compared to an adult, they were always tiny. They were human in every way, but on another scale. And that alone could render them unrecognizable, or give the impression that they had been produced by the baffling distortions of a dream.” (51) For Patri, the ghosts also appear to her “as the opposite of obscenity, as a kind of innocence.” (54) I won’t attempt to unpack the long interlude about Australian aborigenes and Polynesian interactions with sleep, dreams and rite of passage that takes up a good 10-15 pages in the middle of the book, but anyway, it all feels connected in an important, obscure way (while simultaneously feeling quite random and disorienting).

So what are we left with in the end? Are the ghosts an appropriate metaphor for the impossibility of coping with the modern experience? Are the ghosts spirits of laborers or immigrants who died working on the building, or in one of Argentina’s military regimes? The last sentence of the novel is “Man and ghost stared at each other,” (139) and apart from Patri, it could be the first time that any of the characters really “sees” the ghosts (and, more significantly, the ghosts see the living). There are quite a number of scenes concerned with “seeing” throughout the novel, such as when the characters turn off the lights during the New Year’s Eve party in order to see the stars, or on the next to last sentence of the book, when one of the ghosts hands over a pair of glasses.

Lodge writes that one of the prominent marks of contemporary writing is a pronounced concern with communication, as opposed to self-expression (as with the romantic writers) or with innovation and creation of symbols (as with the modernists). Maybe this concern with communication is the result of genuine communication becoming an illusion; maybe it’s the result of the saturation of communications: internet, phones, twitter, blogging, Skype, faxes, e-mail… on and on and on. We live in a hyper-communicative age. I like to think that, like anything, this is a power that can be used for good just as easily as it can be used for evil. For better or worse, it’s the world we live in.

We’ll just have to see, I guess.

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