Spring Lit Roundup 2016
Fardwor, Russia! by Oleg Kashin Publication Date: January 12, 2016 Publisher: Restless Books
When I saw that Will Evans, director of Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas, had translated a book called Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin, I felt that I should read it. Not just because Will is a friend of mine, or because Deep Vellum is responsible for some of the greatest books in translation of the past year, including Anne Garréta’s Sphinx and Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83, but because I had just finished reading Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno, and I wanted to know more about contemporary Russian life. Marra’s book, like his debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is an achingly beautiful tale of lives wrecked and pieced back together in the aftermath of the Chechen Wars. Consequently, his characters wear the scars of Russian history like exotic cloaks. I wanted something that treated Russia less like a bauble and more as a backdrop. I was hoping this might do the trick.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get my wish. Or perhaps my wish came too true—you must always be careful what you wish for. Either way, Russia’s presence in Fardwor, Russia! is limited to oligarchs and corruption. If you take out the Russian names, it could just as easily take place here in the U.S. Then again, oligarchy and corruption are hardly foreign to the contemporary American landscape.
This may not be a fair critique. The book bills itself as bearing “an uncanny resonance with today’s Russia under Putin” and “a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary Russia or the hilarious and frightening follies of power.” If the former is true—and it may well be—it requires more knowledge of Russia then this reader possesses. The introduction indicates that the novel’s characters correlate to specific Russian political figures and that the book’s events recall real-life occurrences. Unfortunately, such nuance is lost on the average American reader. Time Out St. Petersburg calls it “highly topical satirical fiction” and “a documentation of our times.” I can see that it is clever and it is certainly satire of the most fantastical kind. Unfortunately, it isn’t all that interesting. There isn’t any real description of people or place. We get to know Karpov, a scientist who invents a miracle growth serum; his wife, Marina; and Mefody, a little person who gets to experience life at normal proportions after Karpov experiments on him. We meet a slew of other characters afterward, but these are the only ones that we are led to care about, and even then just barely. As the book progresses, the plot moves solely to showcase the diabolical behavior of bigwigs and the corruption of Russia’s corporate climate. It can be funny, but lacking the nuance of specificity, it feels heavy-handed and somewhat less than insightful.
Russophiles and fans of books like Tristram Shandy and Gulliver’s Travels will probably get more mileage out of this book than I did. It’s clever, but the characters are so two-dimensional, and the story becomes so farfetched, that it’s hard to feel invested enough to keep going. Thankfully, the plot twists regarding Karpov’s growth serum can be appreciated without a background in Russian politics. Unfortunately, the story gets so jerky at the end that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. But I will say that the translation is very serviceable. The chapters are short, the language is sharp, and the action is quick. At its best, Fardwor, Russia! is a fun little read, even though it’s a bit too zany for my taste.
What Belongs to You By Garth Greenwell Publication Date: January 19, 2016 Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In 2014, The Paris Review published Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar,” an anxious, ruminating short story about a man who pursues anonymous sadomasochistic sex in Bulgaria. In that story, Greenwell showed the overpowering psychic weight of desire, underscoring the danger inherent in desire’s risks and compromises. In What Belongs to You, Greenwell’s austere, lyrical debut novel, he delves the full emotional depth of this theme. He explores the ever-shifting boundaries and power dynamic between two lovers, a pensive American schoolteacher and Mitko, the magnetic, much-younger hustler he picks up in the darkened subterranean bathroom of Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture. Interwoven stigma and desire drive the novel, in which Greenwell emerges as a heavy-hitting new voice of the queer literary tradition.
From their first encounter in Sofia, the narrator is intoxicated with Mitko, compelled to become one of the troubled waif’s priyateli,the ambiguous signifier reserved for the seedy cadre of men he meets in streets and chatrooms. Mitko, beautiful and at total ease in his body, uses his appeal to manipulate, becoming ever more alcoholic, petulant and leaching, “speaking in the abstract as he always did when making his threats, gesturing to that gallery of faces or masks, any of which he might choose to put on…” Greenwell writes sex that’s more heady and visceral than graphic, capturing the extent to which desire may be divorced from reason: “I sucked eagerly on his tongue, which was antiseptic with alcohol. I knew he was performing a desire he didn’t feel… but then there’s something theatrical in all our embraces… as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly. I was performing too, pretending to believe…”
The richness of the novel resides in the narrator’s inner conflict between desire and will. Mitko serves mainly to fuel this conflict. He appears illusory and self-destructive to the reader, showing up drunk in the middle of the night, muttering “…the three words again and again, men me nyama, men me nyama.” The narrator explains: “I’m gone, it means, or I’m not here, literally there’s no me.” Futilely and cyclically, the narrator forgoes his money, dignity, and safety for fleeting possession of Mitko, his gratification quickly turning to ash after each transaction. Sex takes place in sparse hotel rooms and McDonald’s bathrooms, elevating the subversive spaces of male hook-up culture to the realm of high literature, taboo places depicted in elegant language. “Warning, in places like the bathrooms… is like some element coterminous with the air,” Greenwell writes, “ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it… of the desire that draws us there.”
In turn, Bulgaria’s capital provides a disconsolate backdrop, as the teacher walks in confusion past crumbling blokove, dire Soviet apartment complexes, having been told by his students, “not in class, but in private, whispering as though it shouldn’t be said out loud, it is a dying country.” The author’s pacing is patient and controlled as his characters tussle, unable to transcend the performance, the underlying falseness of their time together. Greenwell has crafted an intricate novel on the mutability of desire and identity, and a thoughtful meditation on how in sex, and human interaction more generally, we often find ourselves performing.
—Sarah Jane Quillin
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue Publication Date: February 9, 2016 Publisher: Riverhead
In an age of book-writing robots, I sometimes wonder what the future of literature holds. Technology has advanced to the point where deep data can be mined so efficiently that computers regularly beat us at knowledge-intensive games like chess and now, too, at the intuition-based game of Go. Transhumanists speak of the day when we will be able to harness such power to our own feeble minds, whence we will be able to scan all of the novels and short stories of time and point to the most brilliantly crafted plotlines, the most affecting language. It already sometimes feels like we have read it all before—what will we have left to explore, in these dark days of technological excess?
On page 125 of his novel Sudden Death, Álvaro Enrigue makes an argument for the novel and, coincidentally, assuages my fear. “The function of the novel,” he says, is “to name what is lost, to replace the void with an imaginary archive.” And so he does, to remarkable results. Sudden Death presents us with a kaleidoscopic view of Spanish and Italian history circa the dawn of the 17th century, following the fall of the Aztec empire, the birth of the Counter-Reformation, and the fame of Caravaggio. Enrigue brings the latter together with Galileo, Francisco de Quevedo, Anne Boleyn, the Great Duke of Osuna, Hernán Cortés, Cuauhtémoc , Vasco de Quiroga, and countless others through a game of tennis. Half the book consists of watching Caravaggio and Quevedo serve the tennis ball back and forth and counting up points. Somehow, the results are spellbinding—and I don’t even like tennis.
You may be wondering who some of those figures I mentioned are. I certainly didn’t know when I was reading the book, but I felt compelled to continuously search Wikipedia to contextualize these characters and deduce historical fact from fiction. It is a testament to Enrigue’s masterful writing and Natasha Wimmer’s translation abilities (she also brought us Bolaño’s 2666 and The Savage Detectives) that, rather than intimidating, the book serves as a most engrossing history lesson. If I were a robot, I would have been able to access all of this information instantaneously, but I imagine the book would have been no less engaging for it. Part of this is because the writing is so warm and assured that it is simply hard to put down, and the other part is because, as Enrigue would have it, the story fills the void of what we don’t know about the past. Consider Cortés’ Wikipedia entry: “Because of the controversial undertakings of Cortés and the scarcity of reliable sources of information about him, it has become difficult to assert anything definitive about his personality and motivations.” And yet, he is the man who brought Western civilization to Mexico. The dearth of information about these individuals gives Enrigue a wide berth to craft personalities of his own choosing, while their historical importance provides a backdrop of immediate interest, given its real-world significance.
That said, Sudden Death is not a traditional piece of historical fiction, nor is it a particularly character-driven novel. It is almost beside the point that these are the characters that he chose to write about. I imagine that Enrigue could write an equally engrossing novel about a handful of totally different historical figures, provided he had access to limitless stores of data with which to trace out their connections. He displays the calm, subtle mastery of writers like Sebald and Mann, who also excelled at weaving a superhuman trove of information into their novels, moving effortlessly between history lessons and insightful meditations on human experience. Enrigue doesn’t provide much of the latter, but his work is no less engrossing for it. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d expect a powerful book-writing robot to produce. Maybe the future won’t be so bad after all.
Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka Publication Date: February 16, 2016 Publisher: Graywolf
Sara Majka’s debut collection of short stories, Cities I’ve Never Been, is a subtle arm of strength showcasing the power of the short story and the makings of a great novelist. Majka’s beautiful storytelling is spare and leaves an ethereal haze hovering above the reader. Glimpses of daily living after love, after loss, and after the scabs begin to heal invoke the ghosts we all hold and find ourselves thinking about late at night.
Majka’s voice is tender, vintage and, most importantly, true. Still, a distortion is present. Strange coincidences arise and people move and abandon without thought, sometimes causing confusion. Through Majka’s unique way of explaining, she positions the world of each story underwater. The characters have more solidity, with tangible mannerisms that could only be renderings from the author’s own traveling and observations. But all throughout it seems to be Majka’s goal of explaining each sequence as it truly happens, without enlargement. The only doubt comes from being let so close in to listen and watch through the characters’ most vulnerable moments and basic wants; the abandonment of a young daughter by a father who prefers the pace of life alone; a 20-some woman looking for strangers that remind her of her younger self. Majka has a gift for pulling us in with tales of being without the people you thought you couldn’t live without.
A handful of the stories suffer from endings that cannot compete with their beginnings and middles, leaving an already lofty premise to evaporate completely. They bleed from one to the next, creating idle where the reader wants a solid break. But it appears these seemingly incomplete chapters are serving a greater purpose. The reader is made to feel like many of Majka’s characters: forgotten and yet still living, still turning the pages because we want to find completion. “Boston,” the final story in the collection, is the return of that loved one we have been waiting for.
The final story begins where a previous story leaves off, with its author trying to find an ending for the character. We feel Majka admitting that she struggles with endings, perhaps because these stories of disappearances and loss are never really over. Both the ones forgotten and forgetting move somewhere; they drink, eat, sleep, and are left to find their way. The plot of “Boston” branches to focus on the author’s mother and early disappearance of her father, but somehow reminds the reader of all the stories they read earlier. A sense of completion is reached, without having to say this or that happened to the different characters. The affect is astounding and elevates the reader to a new, more tender perspective of the world and the people in it.
Cities I’ve Never Been is a book for those who enjoy being lonely, for the wanderers and watchers. We can only hope she writes more stories, perhaps in novel form, which may allow more time to see her characters through to the end and give the reader the closure we know Majka is capable of.
Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner Publication Date: March 8, 2016 Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Never mind the wince-inducing title; the true litmus test of whether one will enjoy the book is the concept behind it: a "reading" by an author in a mall food court, set up by his mother and attended by no one, which never actually comes to fruition. Or perhaps just this line: "Fuck everyone who said I was too paradoxical a hybrid of arrogant narcissism and vulnerable naïveté to succeed in life (even though they were right)." If you, like this reviewer, are amused, then it's safe to say you'll find some enjoyment in Gone with the Mind.
It may take a while to get to that enjoyment, though. The first segment, an introduction by the narrator's mother, is a slog. Once the reader understands the (clever enough) conceit behind it, there are still a good 30 pages to trudge through. Yet this seemingly interminable introduction is necessary to set up what follows. As Leyner's introduction to his own allegedly forthcoming reading spins and turns in on itself, events of his mother's speech are called back to, seen through different lenses. And here is where the fun really begins. Whether one chooses to focus on the recurring motifs that pop up intermittently in the book, or simply on the cleverness and, at times, beauty of Leyner's writing, the remaining 80% is truly a joy to read. Perhaps a good chunk of readers won't make it to that point, but one hopes that they will. The payoff is worth the wait.
Miraculous Fauna by Timmy Reed Publication Date: March 18, 2016Publisher: Underground Voices
In Timmy Reed's Miraculous Fauna, a teenage girl gives birth to a stillborn daughter who is, somehow, in some way, alive-ish. Undoubtedly, such a premise requires a somewhat graphic rendering of detail, yet the level of grotesque imagery in Reed's novel feels completely excessive. Reed relishes in the details of the maggots and decaying flesh surrounding his central character, making for a portrayal that leans heavily on shock value and had this reviewer nearly retching at times. These scenes are too nauseating for me to even re-type here.
It's unfortunate, because what lies between these vividly repulsive snapshots is some very fine writing. Bobbi is a multidimensional, finely drawn character; the plot surrounding her years of road-tripping with Rachel is compelling; and the themes present throughout the novel are affecting and thought-provoking, clearly stated without sinking into heavy-handedness. It's clear that Reed is a gifted writer who doesn't need to trade in shock value in this way. The concept of the novel is itself unusual enough to merit the "fucked up" descriptor attached to it, and as such, the only addition brought by the gag-inducing scenes described is some sort of Palahniuk-esque appeal to readers seeking cheap thrills. Reed doesn't need to pander to those readers; his work would easily stand on its own. This is the first I've read of his work, and while I found large portions of the book to be compelling and gorgeously written, I'm hesitant to check out anything else for fear of making myself sick.