Tag Archives: Argentina

Some contemporary Latin American fiction

Fever Dream (Samantha Schweblin)

I’ve been dying to read this book for ages (I’ve loved her short stories for years). Hence, it’s become yet another book purchased in my never-ending, uncontrollable kindle-addiction.

This novel has been highly acclaimed, deservedly so, and I eagerly await to see if it ends up on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. The plot is difficult to describe. It appears to be a (psychic? imagined?) conversation taking place between a hospitalized woman in a coma and a young boy sitting on the edge of her bed. The question of how she ended up there, and what her connection is with the boy, is what propels the narrative forward. Here’s the opening:

They’re like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
Earthworms?
No, another kind of worms.
It’s dark and I can’t see. The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body. I can’t move, but I’m talking.
It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.
Why?
Because it’s important, it’s very important for us all.

As you may have guessed, the novel is deeply strange and hallucinatory. Almost a horror story. You definitely read it more for the mood and the suspense, than for specific answers. If you like books where everything is explained at the end, then this is not for you. The prose felt very cinematic to me, which makes sense, given the author’s background in screenwriting. As a reader, you are keep turning the pages due to the most base of desires: you want to find out what happens next. But be forewarned: the answers will not be specific. I’ve become less patient than I used to be with novels that withhold information and don’t explain everything, but I feel like the answers for this one are there, if you’re willing to stop and think.

The other hook in this book is the hypnotic repetition of certain phrases. Like “the worms” in the opening passage. Another is the search for “the important thing.” An obsession of a rope or “rescue distance” between a mother and daughter is another–or the time it would take the mother to rescue the daughter from danger:

I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.

“The worms” — what is up with that? Aliens? An ecological disaster? They seem to be connected with creepy white spots and flakey pink skin. And crippled distorted children. An “Invasions of the Body Snatchers” motif. That one scene with the can of peas, a brand the mother would never buy, is SO freaking disturbing. Who would have thought?

I want to read this again.

Multiple Choice (Alejandro Zambra)

What a great book! So sad, so funny. It almost read like a book of poetry at times. I liked the Reading Comprehension questions the best, maybe because they were a bit longer, so there was more to unpack. But yeah, you can definitely pick out some themes from this: death, getting old, cancer, children, angry children, angry parents, bad fathers, bad marriages, divorce (I had no idea it was illegal to get a divorce in Chile until 2004–2004!!!!)… Good stuff. Highly recommended. Definitely a great example of a book that’s “pushing the form,” “exploring the potential of writing,” etc.

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (Horacio Castellanos Moya)

What an angry, bitter book. I LOVED IT. I want to get coffee with the narrator. What does that say about me?

This book was famously written in the 90’s by Moya, in an attempt to imitate the style of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (who I’m not familiar with). The narrator of the book is Edgardo Vega, who addresses Moya directly throughout the narrative in an angry rant. Nothing escapes his withering gaze: car thieves, plane rides, men wearing sombreros picking their noses, chubby women wiping sweat off their necks with towels that they then squeeze out, mosquitos, “sluggish servants,” writing culture, master degrees in business, “diarrhea-inducing beer,” a touristy seaport, pupusas, newspapers, the lack of arts and culture (his description of this really made me laugh).

Some of his most scathing moments are in reference to:

  • the city of San Salvador (“one of the filthiest and most hostile cities, a city designed for animals, not human beings, a city that converted its historical center into a garbage dump“)
  • bus drivers (“It’s incredible, Moya, the bus drivers have been pathological criminals since birth, criminals converted into salaried bus drivers, said Vega, they’re guys who were no doubt torturers and participated in massacres during the civil war and now they’re recycled as bus drivers… It’s terrifying, Moya, an experience that’s not recommended for cardiac patients; no one in their right mind could travel every day on a bus in this city, one would have to be permanently and sadistically degraded in spirit to travel every day with these recycled criminals who drive the buses”)
  • the university campus (“I couldn’t imagine anything so disgraceful, it seemed like a refugee camp in Africa: crumbling buildings, a ton of overcrowded, infested wooden constructions, and defecation in the hallways of buildings that were still standing, human defecation in the University of El Salvador’s hallways”),
  • and the country itself (“I’m completely sure that this country is out of sync with time and the world, it only existed when it was a bloodbath, it only existed thanks to the thousands who were assassinated, thanks to the criminal capacity, the people of this country have no possibility of demonstrating their existence in the world.”)

As Moya writers in the afterword, “With the relish of the resentful getting even, I had fun writing this novel, in which I wanted to demolish the culture and politics of San Salvador… with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry.” (86) The public reaction was intense–a friend’s wife threw the book out of the window in rage against the book’s rant against pupusas. And more seriously, while working as a journalist in Guatemala, Moya’s mother received threatening phone calls, which prevented Moya’s return to El Salvador country for years.

There are so many passages I could choose as gems from this book. Though some people might not see the point of this book (it’s basically an angry, bitter rant), I find a lot of value in it due to its ANGER. And the prose is mesmerizing and FUNNY: long sentences that build and build and build. Moya NEEDED to write this, and in turn, it needed to be read.

What taste the people of this country have for living in fear, Moya, such a morbid taste for living terrorized lives, what a perverted taste for the terror of the war turned into the terror of delinquency these people have, a pathological, morbid vice to make terror their permanent way of life. (75)

Ways to Disappear (Idra Novey)

I loved this book!

Beatriz, a famous Brazilian author, climbs a tree with her suitcase while smoking a cigar, thus disappearing from the lives of her family and the Brazilian literary scene. Her Pittsburg-based translator journeys to Brazil in order to track her down and meets with a man with a trash can tattooed on his neck, who claims that Beatriz owes him hundreds of thousands of dollars, money she borrowed to fuel an online poker addiction. And that’s just in the first eleven pages!

This book moves quickly, with the momentum of a bullet. I loved the news stories and dictionary entries it provided, and the descriptions of Beatriz’s books (I always love plot summaries of books that don’t actually exist).

I loved the descriptions of Brazil: “When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeao International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in. Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the stick sensation, the rising odours were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere.” (10)

I loved the interactions between Emma and Beatriz’s children, and how during Emma’s visit, “the living room would begin to reek of those American sunscreen lotions with an excess of zinc.” (14)

I loved the themes of translation, creativity, and foreigness:

“At first, all she could do was stare at the wall and feel futile, but that was something. Wasn’t the despair of feeling useless central to the modern human condition? Wasn’t that what Don Quijote was all about?” (82)

Obrigada. Emma thanked him, hearing the Yankee clang of her accent in a way she hadn’t heard in years. She’d learned the language too late to ever get the r’s right. Every time she spoke it was unavoidable: she released a fleet of mistakes.” (131)

“For so long, she’d willfully sought the in-between. She’d thought of herself as fated to live suspended, floating between two countries, in the vapor between languages. But too much vaporous freedom brought its own constraints. She now felt as confined by her floating state as other, more wholesome people were to the towns where they were born.” (164)

The ending was a bit sad, but I suppose I don’t know how else the novel could have ended. Overall, this reminded me of Ali Smith, in terms of its joyous celebration and attention to language. I’m definitely very much inspired by the quick way it kept the plot moving forward, and its short chapters. One of my favorite reads of the year so far.

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Filed under books, review

Best Books of 2014

I read 101 books last year!! I feel proud of this but I’m not sure if I will set that kind of specific goal for myself again (i.e. read x number of books in 1 year). I found myself reading a lot of short books (Rodrigo Rey Rosa was especially great for this) because it meant I could finish them faster and thus meet my “quota,” while long books like Underworld I sort of gave up on (though I did manage to read The Luminaries, Ulysses, and re-read 2666). It was really helpful having a set goal, though. It helped me stay focused and motivated. In terms of Reading Goals for 2015, I want to read more books in Spanish that haven’t been translated (I’m gonna aim for between four and twelve, starting with Juan Villoro’s El testigo) and one book of poetry per month. If I end up reading between fifty and sixty books total for the year, cool.

If I had to choose a single Best Book of 2014, it’d be a tie between Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s The African Shore and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers. I also have to say all the Cortázar short stories I read this year were amazing and basically exist in a category of their own (i.e. a higher plane of existence the rest of us can only dare to dream of inhabiting). I also loved Dani Shapiro’s self-help book on writing, and Mary Ruefle’s poetry and essays. But here are some other books (ones I haven’t talked about on this blog) that also stood out to me as pretty excellent works of literature.


Under the Skin (Michel Faber)

Well, this book blew me away. I loved the movie and after watching it immediately wanted to read the book, which shocked me by how different it was (as in, COMPLETELY different). But like the movie, I loved how the book was so disturbing, creepy, unforgettable, haunting, insert other exclamatory adjective here. This book is a masterful example of how to pull off an otherworldly narrator. The moment in which the word “Mercy” is scrawled into the ground by one of the characters is one that I think I will never forget; reading it almost gave me goosebumps. What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to be human? In terms of sympathizing with characters, should we root for what is alien or for what is familiar? Post-Elizabeth Costello Coetzee would dig this book, I think. So would Jonathan Safran-Foer. I hope those comments don’t make it sound like I’m implying that this book is a parable for vegetarianism, or a cry of arms against mega-scale meat farming. Though it very well could be those things, as well as a commentary on immigration. Who knows? Does it really matter when the writing is this good? I would recommend this book to pretty much anybody who wants to read something exceedingly creepy that will (can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but here we go!) crawl under your skin and refuse to leave.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

Another creepy, spectacular book recommended to me by my friend S. who also recommended Under the Skin and May-Lan Tan to me and has thus pretty much cemented her reputation as someone with exceedingly excellent literary taste. I would love to assign this book to read in creative writing classes. Just look at this opening paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

That voice!! I was instantly hooked. This is the kind of book that makes you remember why you love to read–you stay up until 2.30am even though you have to get up at 7AM the next morning because you just simply HAVE to find out what happens next. The way this book slowly but surely unveils its weirdness is exemplary. I wish I could extract a mathematical formula that explains how this book crafts suspense and develops its plot so that way I can just copy it myself. I guessed the “twist” revelation of this book early on, but even so that didn’t matter to me; I still couldn’t tear myself away. What truly elevates this book into the realm of the spectacularly weird classic is the unconventional, haunting ending. Is it a victory? A feminist triumph against the demands of society? Or a horrendous descent into madness? The book doesn’t tell, but ends with the chillingly sing-song phrase of “We are so happy.” This book is like the stories you hear late at night at sleepovers in sixth grade but then never, ever forget.

Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. Forget bingeing on Netflix; epic sci-fi trilogies about Mars are the way to go. I read Red Mars several years ago but amazingly still remembered just enough about what happened in it to read this book with relatively little confusion. The one problem I had while reading this is that boy, there sure are a lot of descriptions of Martian geography and landscapes. You can tell that the author did a ton of research and wanted to include EVERYTHING. No wonder the permaculture-loving, Biology-major Burners I lived with in Ecuador in 2008 loved these books. But even though I found myself occasionally skimming the descriptions of rock and crater formations and lichen growths, I still found this book (and its follow-up Blue Mars, which I’m currently reading) utterly, completely fascinating. Writing a dissertation about the representation of history in these books would be da bomb. The main conflict in the series is set up between the Greens–the people who want to “terraform” Mars, or transform it into a livable habitat similar to Earth–and the Reds,  the people who want to keep Mars the same, as untouched and uninfluenced by humans as possible. It’s such a relevant, urgent question, one that reminds me of this classic Radiolab episode (a show that has provided me with infinite small talk fodder for parties). Is it our responsibility to mold Earth the way we best see fit? Or is the world better off without us? This book does what science fiction does best–it raises very contemporary-feeling questions about futuristic societies that function as uneasy and uncomfortable parallels for our own.

School for Patriots (Martín Kohan)

This book was powerfully narrated and is an excellent example of how to write a novel about a fucked up historical period in an interesting, genuinely innovative way, as opposed to descending into some heart-rending classic cliché weepy plot about a Family Torn Apart By Violence and other such nonsense. Too bad the summary on the back cover SPOILS EVERYTHING (if you get this book, DON’T READ THE BACK COVER). Set in Argentina during the Falklands war, this book follows the teaching assistant María, who seeks to win the approval of her supervisor by attempting to catch male students smoking in the bathroom. Her efforts to catch the students leads to her spending most of her time hiding in the stalls, until things cumulate in a climax you may think is predictable, but just you wait–it’s not. The way this book indirectly deals with Argentina’s Dirty War, espionage, conformity and desire for power is masterful. What an amazing lesson this is in the power of fiction to “show” as opposed to “tell.” I learned way more about corruption from this book than any philosophical essay or news article could ever teach me. All in all, this book is a brilliant parable about state-enforced violence, in which much remains unspoken and unsaid, lurking uneasily beneath the surface of things.

How To Be Both (Ali Smith)

Ali Smith! Will I ever not like you? How do you do it? How does writing like this get done? What can I even say about this book? It’s two interconnected stories–one is historical fiction (narrated in a thoroughly modern voice) set in 15th-century Italy with much Shakespearean gender-bending and picaresque wandering. The other story is set in the present day, with all of its glories such internet advertisements, Edward Snowden-inspired fears about surveillance, and child pornography watched obsessively over and over again on ipads. There’s mothers and death. Gender and difference. Time-traveling ghosts. Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ is sung;  twin strands of DNA are studied. We think of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, George Eliot and George Sands. We confront classic Ali Smithian questions (yes, like Kafka and Orwell, I am turning Ali Smith into a literary adjective): what does it means to be properly compensated for art? Does art actually do anything in terms of helping us dealing with the world and all its grief-causing horrors? Or does “poetry make nothing happen“? Why do things have to be one or the other? Why CAN’t it be both? My God, what questions! What a book!

The Humans (Matt Haig)

This is definitely the crowd-pleasing, feel-good, comfort-food book on my list, a perfect read for a Saturday afternoon that you want to spend curled up on an armchair drinking tea, not doing anything other else than reading for five hours straight. I read this soon after reading Under the Skin and it felt compulsively appropriate. I find it fascinating that the author wrote this after a severe anxiety disorder (based on the afterword)–it feels SO appropriate. I definitely related to the narrator’s observations about human nature, especially after he read Cosmo magazine and experienced social media. A highly enjoyable read.

Randall (Jonathan Gibbs)

A very entertaining, thought-provoking novel. It reminded me of Bolaño with its parallel universe of artworks and artists, so effectively evoked it was impossible for me to tell what was Real and what was Fake. I loved how this book took risks (such as the final section, which is told from the perspective by a character who has yet to narrate, and its riddle-like final sentence) and yet was well-plotted in a very satisfying way, almost like a detective story. The other big pleasure about reading this is that I know absolutely nothing about contemporary art and this book was a fascinating introduction. I’ll certainly never think about the color yellow in quite the same way again. I especially loved the central question that the book kept circling around: “Is there any art in here, or does it just look like art? And is there a difference?” Food for thought, indeed.

Things to Make and Break (May-Lan Tan)

Fabulous language, melancholy tone. Like a demented, more emotional Miranda July. Summarizing the plots feels like a disservice–characters fall in love with stunt doubles, listen to Iron Maiden, participate in bizarre crucifixion rituals in the woods, have filthily rude hot sex, stalk a boyfriend’s exes based on nude photos, go on dates with couples dying of cancer. Ehh, see? I can’t do it justice!! But this is definitely one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve read. I can’t wait to see her read in April!

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

This was definitely one of THE best books I read this year–possibly one of the best books I’ve read ever, which is saying a lot. The premise is so simple–a house in Germany that hosts generation after generation of inhabitants–but the execution is simply stunning. While I didn’t always understand what was going on (there were at least two chapters I had to read twice), it didn’t feel like a problem. For me, it was worth it. Considering that hardly any of the characters have names in the second half of the book (most tellingly, the Holocaust victims do), the author does an amazing job of inserting sneaky little signs and telling characteristics that allow us to remember characters from chapter to chapter. The most powerful chapters for me were “The Visitor,” “The Girl” and “The Architect’s Wife.”

Fuck me, this book! The cold, factual narration, such a complete contrast to the emotional devastation that takes place! The way violent, traumatic incidents explode at the end of chapters, shocking you like a punch in the stomach (see, I have to resort to cliché in order to describe it, I’m failing to capture the appropriate words)! The epic themes of Exile, Time, History, Family, Identity! The experiments with time and structure! The hypnotic rhythm of the gardener’s chapters, the way they remind us of the daily tasks of life that are maybe the only things that keep us going and provide continuity in the face of the brutal, unstoppable forces of history. PLEASE READ THIS if you want to experience the absolute nuts, groundbreaking shit that fiction is capable of–a small tiny hopeful light in a dark dark world. Here are my two favorite Mrs. Dalloway-esque passages:

Things can follow one after the other only for as long as you are alive in order to extract a splinter from a child’s foot, to take the roast out of the oven before it burns or sew a dress from a potato sack, but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself, and everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads in a land as enormous as the air, and surely here as well you can find these dandelions, these larks.” (pg. 103)

In the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.” (pg. 108)

What a book! What a year!!

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Filed under Ali Smith, books, review, Rio Plata, short stories, year in review

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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