Hard Symbolism

Cristina Rivera Garza, The Iliac Crest. Sarah Booker, trans. (And Other Stories, 2018)

Magical realism has been around for a while now. Long enough to have its heroic founders, its Nobel Laureates, and its third-generation imitators. The like-Marqueses, like-Borgeses, and like-Carters seem to have turned the form into as much of a genre as are the like-Lovecrafts of horror and the like-Tolkeins of fantasy.

But at its core magical realism has always been a literary form. It seems to separate itself off from genre fiction, elevating the supernatural to a symbolic element. If magical realism is to survive as an innovative rather than derivative form then, I believe, it is this symbolical element that must be emphasized.

Garza’s newly translated novel, The Iliac Crest, is an excellent example of this symbolism elevating narrative in a new and exciting way. It uses magical realism as a way of making symbolic aspects physical; they come to life and walk around the page. Rather than magical realism, it might be better described as Hard Symbolism.

The narrative concerns our male protagonist, a doctor at a sanatorium where political dissidents are quietly silenced, defending his masculinity against the incursions of two women. These young revenants in black are alternately known as the Magpies, False One, the Betrayer or the Betrayed. They are in search of a lost manuscript by Amparo Dávila, a writer who has gone missing in a region infamous for its femicides.

The resulting story plays out as a contest for power, with the unnamed protagonist seeking to maintain his humanity in the face of the women’s accusations and the requirements of his job. Soon he finds that he’s trying to use his medical pacifiers – morphine, restraints – on the women… and that they conspire to use them on him.

As a narrative it wanders around far more than a ghost story would, although its atmosphere is unmistakably that of Gothic mystery. Instead of heart-racing progression, the unease lingers in each scene. The direction of travel is unclear and, as readers, we are left guessing as to where we are going to be led next. The Symbols, it seems, are leading us.

The translation by Sarah Booker is effective in reflecting Garza’s narrative in its prose. She uses long sentences, often with a baroque flavour to their grammar and word choice. What she can’t capture, as she explains in her translator’s note, is the play Garza makes of gendered referents. Spanish, as a highly gendered language, leaves many opportunities for disruption and ambiguity which English doesn’t. Booker nevertheless approximates these effects well by exploring the possibilities of first person.

The Iliac Crest is a fascinating book for these and other reasons. It exhibits the rare capacity to transcend its conceptual innovations and become a compellingly readable tale, all the while never downplaying its own innovations.

A reviewer has already compared it to David Lynch, although to me a more fitting comparison is Rex Warner and his quasi-allegorical tales. The story may be symbolic but, unlike Lynch, this isn’t necessarily its core focus. It is readable, immersive and concise.

I highly recommend the book for reading over a spooky weekend, ideally with a glass of red wine and the sound of ravens tapping at the window.

– Joe Darlington 

Advertisements

Yin Minus Yang

Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women (Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen trans., Vintage, 2018)

I’m not exactly sure when I became one of the Men Without Women. I don’t recall a specific transformation. One arrives at it slowly. Barely notices it until, suddenly, it’s there. You’re one of them.

Murakami’s latest short story collection (published in Japan in 2014, the US in 2017, and now in the UK) concerns this strange breed in all of its many shapes. From Kafuku the solitary thespian, to Dr Tokai the bachelor with many fleeting partners, to the lovelorn, recently divorced Kino; all are men defined in some way by their lack of an other half. They are single, if not in terms of their relationships, at least in terms of their identity, their self-contained natures.

It is tempting to draw some easy moral from Murakami’s choice of subject matter. Urban living, as the great paradox dictates, isolates us from others. The internet too seems to have made love valueless through sheer overabundance. In oft-quoted statistics and polls, Japan leads the world in producing a “sexless” generation of young people who find dating a bore.

As the diversity of these stories shows, however, the idea that Men Without Women can be reduced to an anonymous mass of incel losers does an injustice to the variety of lives that are to be lived by unattached men. True, each story contains an undertone of sadness, but there is also hope and conviction.

Murakami’s writing is narrative-driven. This excuses the sometimes static language of the translations, as it is action and observation that bring his characters to life, not language itself. The eccentric Kitaru whose presence lies at the heart of the story “Yesterday”, for example, speaks, we are told, in a rough Kansai dialect; a dialect he has adopted after long study as he finds it more interesting than the popular Tokyo dialect in which he was raised. No attempt is made to provide an English language equivalent – it is the mere fact of his attempt that marks him out as an eccentric, pushing against the grain of linguistic standardization.

Kitaru has a girlfriend, but he feels too close to her emotionally to be interested in her physically. He sets her up with the protagonist of the story, Aki, whose more stereotypical and ritualized dating habits are the inspiration that Erika, the girlfriend, needs to finally leave Kitaru. Kitaru, as a Man Without Women, has his own life organized to best fit his personality. For Erika, a normal girl with conventional aspirations, the process of maturing depends upon her casting off the guy with the strong personality in favour of the flexible man who is willing to abide by social convention.

Social conventions lie at the core of each story. The Men Without Women are largely defined by a core stubbornness that keeps them from regular dating, or a happy marriage. The same stubbornness is seen at a distance in the corresponding world of Women Without Men. Kafuku’s chainsmoking driver who would rather sit in silence than make idle conversation. Scheherazade, the woman for whom sex is only foreplay compared to the thrill of telling stories about her former lovers. These women too are self-contained. Their universes too are solitary.

A notable thing about the collection is that, despite its focus, there are no men within it who are entirely without women as companions and lovers. The phenomenon Murukami is addressing is more complex. The Men Without Women and the Women Without Men are creatures defined by their intrinsic separateness even during moments of intimacy.

In some ways the people who Murukami is writing about are ideal adults. They have grown habitually independent, or non-dependent, free of reliance upon others. Dependency, by contrast, is a trait associated with emotional immaturity, with cloying sentimentality and with childishness. Yet, such is the paradox, the very independence of these characters also inevitably seems sad, lonely, and perhaps itself immature; indicative of an unwillingness to compromise and bend.

The final message is ultimately ambiguous. Murukami’s stories wander around a lot. Their structure is loose as if to accommodate his character’s obstinacy and unwillingness to follow a pre-ordained path. With the exception of “Samsa in Love” (a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that, although intriguing, is a poor fit with the rest of the stories), each tale is a slow unfolding of one or two characters. One is left with a sense of overall unity. Not just stories brought together, but a whole picture constructed of seven fragments.

This is my first time reading Murukami and I can understand why he is such a global phenomenon. The balance between the literary and the popular in his writing guarantees that you will read quickly and forget slowly. Much like the relationships of our solitary protagonists it will pass all too quickly, but the memories stick will with you long after.

– Joe Darlington

Flapping Gums

Rachel Cusk – Kudos (Faber and Faber, 2018)

There is a hypnotic appeal to direct speech. Those quotation marks lean out and grab you by the collars, shaking you to attention. When a character speaks directly, it is like they speak directly to us.

Rachel Cusk’s gambit in her latest trilogy is that direct speech is all you need. Having read only the third book, Kudos, I find the results to be arresting, if not entirely conclusive. By constructing an entire novel out of direct speech, Cusk seems to have superseded the novel form altogether.

There is no narrative to Kudos as such, at least not in terms of plot. A writer flies to a writer’s conference and is spoken to by an assortment of characters. The businessman she sits next to on the plane tells a dramatic story about putting down his dog. A journalist tells a gossipy story about her sister. One writer praises another for preferring real life to extravagant plots.

The stories are held together only by the central protagonist who remains almost silent throughout; if she speaks conveyed to the reader indirectly rather than produced verbatim. As a result, Kudos reads more like a disguised short story collection than a novel, or perhaps like an RPG where a silent protagonist runs between NPCs, clicking on them to activate more dialogue.

It can be frustrating. Boring even. A reminder that life is mostly inane chatter.

But it is in the totality of Cusk’s vision that Kudos offers its hidden charms. Each of the voices presents a subtle variation of the world. Cusk’s neat, clipped prose rarely slides into the literary, remaining convincingly real throughout. Her presentation of character’s speech is like reportage, while the content of that speech is familiar, intimate, and occasionally stirring.

Whether it’s the athletic writer who looks down on his shabby, unfit peers with disgust, or the preachy Remainer bemoaning the poor, deluded, terraced-housed-dwelling Leave voters; each speaker passes judgement, each has their ingroups and outgroups. The act of telling stories marks out social place. Each speaker seeks to bring the protagonist over to their standpoint. Their stories place her in their shoes and, in return, they expect her to confirm them in their point of view.

Cusk’s mosaic of voices, inspired by reality or not, appeal to the sociological gaze of the modern literary reader. The search for power structures, social markers and authentic voices finds succour here. The first-person narrator achieves such a level of self-erasure as to become a walking recorder. How life really is is reduced to a contest of stories, a panoply of competing voices.

Which raises again the question of whether Kudos is, in fact, a novel or – perhaps a better question – whether its rejection of certain fictional elements (plot, structure, action, description, objectives, motivation, arcs) results in an advancement of the medium?

Having read only Kudos, I am not convinced. Perhaps a reading of the entire trilogy will change my mind. Cusk has mastered the art of reproducing natural speech on the page; something which is exceptionally difficult and performed beautifully here. Particular stories also verge on the symbolic, adding depth to these one-sided conversations.

Nevertheless, I find myself longing for action and allegory; for a character who makes decisions and passes the judgement that Cusk’s protagonist refuses to. The struggle of the individual to exist meaningfully in the world is the essence of great literature and is notably absent here.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cusk’s daring experiment. I highly recommend it to writers looking to enhance their dialogue, or readers who enjoy close observation. I, for one, will definitely be purchasing Cusk’s next work, although I will be hoping for more story, and fewer stories, next time around.

Joe Darlington

And why wouldn’t I show him how like butter I was?

André Aciman – Call Me By Your Name (Atlantic Books)

With all of the press surrounding the new film adaptation directed by Luca Guadagnino, I thought I should revisit André Aciman’s beautiful book Call Me By Your Name. Several months have passed since I set out to write this review, and I think this adjournment is a testament to that beauty of Aciman’s work. I often find it difficult to write about things that I love.

The film, of course, is beautiful in its own respect. It is very visual, where the book is entirely insular. However, despite existing from and within inside the protagonist’s head, the novel itself achieves such impressive visual stimulation. It is no wonder that Guadagnino made the decision to focus on the outside rather than the inside. As reader, we are privy to all the things that in the film are left unsaid. They are left unsaid because they are in fact unsaid – they are thought and felt. And for me, the incessant and passionate divulge of Elio’s thoughts and feelings is wonderful.

This work presents the devastating infiltration of passion and desire with such poignancy and veracity. Love; the way it rushes in and out; like waves. I could be sat in the Italian sun. There is romance in every word. Aciman conveys the energy and dedication of infatuation in a way that I have never come across before. The wholeheartedness and wholemindedness of love. He creates such familiarity with the feeling that one would do anything for the object of their longing, “from ice to sunshine”.

The desperate wondering that we might have all experienced is so genuinely translated. We feel the violence of Elio’s obsession with Oliver: “Fire like fear, like panic, like one more minute of this and I’ll die if he doesn’t knock at my door”. We feel the impossible pace of feeling, so wonderfully expressed.

This portrayal of a young love offers so much as an examination of the essence of humanness. How everything changes in the light of love. There is a delightful voice created throughout, with abundant poetic offerings on every page – “that foot in the water – I could have kissed every toe on it”.

We follow Elio through the different stages of obsession, the indignation, and the denial. He tells us “I didn’t even care for him or his shoulders or the white of his arms. The bottom of his feet, the flat of his palms…” and it is perfect. We don’t believe him and he doesn’t believe himself. We see the wonderful uncertainty of adolescence, of self discovery. “I want to know your body, I want to know how you feel, I want to know you, and through you, me”. There is a beautiful, almost pederastic, resistance between the two. The life and death absoluteness of it all, the “mournful silence” and the “I don’t know how I’d have survived another day like this.”

While writing, now that I am finally writing, I realise I am still yet to say anything worthwhile. I am tempted to simply make a list of quotes from the book. Aciman is a wonderful writer, and his words resonate with me. Son of Nabokov. Dream machine. The book is just so beautiful. Just read it, please. A review couldn’t touch it.

– Blair James 

Of Means and Endings

Megan Hunter – The End We Start From (Picador, 2017)

I want to tell you about a book. I liked reading it and I think that you, too, would like reading it. Where do I start? I tell you its genre: it’s about an apocalypse. What type? A flood. And who’s the protagonist? A mother of a newborn son… so I suppose you could say it’s about motherhood too.

But already I feel worried, and guilty. A book recommendation is a dangerous thing. I am asking to take hours of your life from you, asking you to spend them reading sentence after sentence. There are some great lines, I clarify. It is short, I add. But there are so many other things you might be doing. So many things that don’t involve reading.

The book I am describing is The End We Start From; the 2017 debut of author and poet Megan Hunter. It is, as I say, a novel about a new mother navigating Britain after an apocalyptic flood. Society has collapsed, refugee camps abound and our hero, with her son ‘Z’, must entrust themselves to a shifting array of men, women and officials as they wait for a new normality to return.

The most fascinating aspect of Hunter’s work, however, is not so much the story as the way it is constructed. The narrative is communicated through tiny paragraphs, mostly between one or two sentences in length. The characters’ names are single letters: S, J, N, R, G. There is very little by way of description and no speech. There is, nevertheless, a full plot and, within those tiny paragraphs, many moments of pure, sweet imagery.

It is the reading equivalent of Ian Simpson’s architecture: the structure is there, you can see its shape, but instead of bricks and mortar there is a wall of glass.

And, as with glass and steel, Hunter’s prose represents a response to twenty-first century technology; a kind of minimalist ornament. The novel might be a quick read (I got through it in a single afternoon) but it is not a fast read. One lingers on the imagery. All that white space on the page is there to promote reverie and reflection. Faced with the impatience of the modern reader, Hunter has bartered a small wordcount for high rate of impact-per-word. This promises a new route for the stylist. A baroque in miniature.

What we lose in Hunter’s writing is the rhythmical journey. For characters defined by their wandering, our protagonists nevertheless seem to exist in an eternal present. There is no space in the narrative for their hopes or their regrets, for mundane conversations or the details of setting. Perhaps these elements have been usurped by visual mediums? What is left for literature, Hunter’s writing seems to suggest, is the allusive detail and the perfect sentence… the stylistics which have become our substance. But then, the story tells itself in a moving way – so perhaps these hesitancies are unwarranted.

The End We Start From is an intriguing prospect. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary writing. To writers I’d recommend it for its innovations, for readers I’d recommend it for its pace. More than anything I’d recommend it because it’s easy to recommend. It is a fundamentally recommendable book.

– Joe Darlington

The Story Ritual

Zoe Gilbert – Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018)

Humans have never been an apex predator. Not for us the noble complacency of the lion. No, our intelligence is born of a low cunning and fear. The appeal of the folktale is that it reminds us of these old fears and the cunning magics we used to overcome them. Zoe Gilbert’s debut book, Folk, channels these ancient energies, focuses and enhances them. The results are captivating.

Folk, like any magical item, unsettles you even while it entices. The gorgeous dust jacket by David Mann (admittedly, the reason I first bought the book) seems, at a distance, like a William Morris print. Look closer, however, and you notice the blood spattering sparrow’s beaks, the bees in the roses and, considering the detailed foliage, a notable lack of green. Gilbert’s stories have the same effect; pastoral scenes with underlying threats, dangers by the hearth. Her prose too combines a capitating flair for linguistic ornament with short, punchy, brutal sentences.

Gilbert, in capturing the essence of the folktale, has structured the book as a series of overlapping stories. There is no overarching narrative in novelistic terms. Instead, by setting the book in the small island community of Neverness in some non-specific pre-modern time, Gilbert achieves a sense of continuity through the recurrence of characters, the passage of time, and the rituals which bind them all together. The book is structured as Neverness is structured.

Gilbert has a knack for conjuring believable rituals. The book opens and closes with the gorse maze game. The girls tie their names to arrows and fire them deep in the gorse. The boys shave their heads and dive in to get them, the deepest divers winning the dearest hearts. When a boy emerges with a girls arrow she kisses him on his bloody lips. The bloodier the better, is how the girls talk of it.

There is magic in Neverness too, of a sort. “Verlyn’s Blessings”, my favourite of the tales, is about a man born with a wing for an arm. One sees how he has adapted, weaving baskets as his fisherman brothers go to sea, and while his wife has him hide the arm, his son is proud of the feathered thumb he has inherited. Gilbert captures how a community deals with difference, and how it feels to be different. She emphasises the realism in magic realism; a refreshing approach in a genre still too much in the shadow of Angela Carter.

A theme runs through the book concerning the pleasures of the wilderness, of the dark and unrestrained. “The Water Bull Bride” embodies this attraction in an amphibious lover, the story “Turning” embodies it through shamanic visions. There are things we catch glimpses of, out of the corner of our eyes, which promise a rampant and devastating freedom. “Civilisation”, if it means anything, means turning away from these dangers. Folk, in its daring, holds up a mirror where, looking carefully, we can see them reflected.

There is a category of novel, hard to define, that includes Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness. They are novels about the conflict inside the soul of every person; a conflict between order and chaos, between freedom and dignity.

Critics of late have sought to purge the canon of these texts on account of their colonial implications. Folk, I would argue, demonstrates that such conflicts are real, they are everyday and they are important subjects for literature. By setting her tales on a remote island, Gilbert repositions these stories away from the colonial. That is perhaps what Neverness means: there are no tribes, there are no “Others”, we are doing these things to ourselves.

A final, and critically important thing to note about Folk, is its use of third person. Every novel I read that was published in 2017 was written in first person. Individually, each had its reasons, but collectively the effect was disconcerting. A novelist’s ability to evoke the third person, the objective observer outside the situation, demonstrates our medium’s capacity to depict the universal. By returning us to our folk roots, I hope that Zoe Gilbert will remind us of our duties in this matter. I hope this book becomes a bestseller.

Folk is a brilliant piece of fictionwork. One that promises to stick in the mind for years to come.

– Joe Darlington

Until shame came to drive a wedge between us

Édouard Louis – The End of Eddy (Vintage, 2018)

There is a lot gained from a strong opening line, and Édouard Louis certainly gave me what I look for in The End of Eddy (2014): “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” Sometimes enduring pain can only be expressed simply, and the book continues in this curt style. Louis deals with brutality casually and without indulgence, offering many of these concise sentiments: “You never get used to insults.” The book is full of calm observations of his crippling childhood fears and punishable treatment. I would in fact go as far as to call Eddy a masterpiece of observation, written with dignity and control, anti-hysterical, a hard past laid out neatly and assuredly. It is a telling of shame unburdened by self-pity or flowery prose. His presentation of memory, its wanderings and coming-back-agains, is beautiful and veracious in its simplicity. The book is thoughtfully punctuated in an extremely literal sense of the word; Louis writes with a cognitive pace.

Louis’ reflections on the pressure he felt growing up are pertinent to our culture’s current dialogue on masculinity, and it seems that this has played a large part in Eddy’s critical acclaim. It is indeed a brutal unveiling of “masculinity” and its misconceptions, a contemplation of what it means to be a man often disgusted in its musings but never obtusely so. The italicised and often rambling dialogue of his family and surrounding persons is drastically opposed in nature to his own controlled, concise and elegant prose – theirs so desperate and exaggerated, and so often delivering perverse statements of “manliness”.

We are presented with an articulation of the threat perceived in difference – the working class fear of the unknown. Louis communicates the idea that we are complicit in our own mistreatment, or, at least, that low status seems to be accompanied by this complicity. The book portrays the isolation of poverty – both forced and chosen, and the distancing of the working class both suffered and perpetuated. The characters that surround Eddy are complicit in the perpetuation of their own poverty in all senses: financial, moral and sentimental. Louis writes “There is a will that exists, a desperate, continual, constantly renewed effort to place some people on a level below you, not to be on the lowest rung of the social ladder” and captures a kind of communal distance – the seemingly inescapable fate of the working class. However despite this overwhelming representation of isolation, this beautiful portrait of himself is actually built up through his detailed meditations on those around him. Louis highlights our condition as a social species, that we must tell the stories of others in order to tell your own, making the distancing all the more apparent and cruel. Thoughtfulness in the very absence of thought.

The main disappointment that I have felt with regards to Eddy is Louis’ refusal to claim it as his own story. If I wanted to be facile, I could say that this generic fear stems from the fear instilled within Louis as a child. Genre shame caused by the unadulterated fear told in the book. There is very little more shameful than being forced to lap up freshly spat gobs of someone else’s phlegm from your sleeve. I believe that this book would be more courageously, appropriately and importantly named as non-fiction. Are we still living in the shadow of the James Frey scandal? Are you happy Oprah?

Louis writes “here I am simply trying to imagine, to reconstitute what must have been my cousin’s state of mind at that moment”, evoking the autobiographical contract. But why include comments such as this to then brand the work a novel? It is important for this book to be read in terms of our dire need to readdress our understanding of genre. It makes no sense to offer these excusatory comments in fiction – as we currently define it. Do we still feel that the novel is the only respectable form? Are memoirs an embarrassing relic of the past?

Literary journalism in the modern climate seems to trump subject matter over writing style and achievement, however Louis does deserve commendation – if not to the dramatic extent it has been awarded – for his prose. It is also surprising that most reviewers of this book have gone away in wonder at Louis’ success in spite of his desperate beginnings; experience shows us that it is from the depths that most heroes rise. Adversity surely brings us strength. The question is not one of whether we can rise, but of how well we can rise from our falls. Louis has put his troubles to good use.

Overall, here is a refreshing voice and an invigorating handling of suffering, evocative without laud or gaud, but it is disappointing that this courage couldn’t traverse in generic terms.

– Blair James

Footprints in the Snow

Han Kang – The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017)

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Nonsense! Books are physical objects. Things to be experienced. That a writer should leave a book’s design to chance, or worse, a half-conscious set of inherited expectations, strikes me as carelessness.

That isn’t to say that every writer should be considering presentation from the moment of conception, but when a book comes along to which this level of thought has been put, one can’t help but take a moment to appreciate it.

Han Kang’s The White Book is the novel to which I’m alluding. It is a novel about a woman reflecting on life’s poignant moments and its presentation – stark white with short paragraphs like footprints through snow – invites a mood of reflection before one has even read the first page. We are addressed by the narrator, who begins her story by listing white things: ‘swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice…’.

We find she has moved from Korea to a ‘town with white walls’ in the Mediterranean. From here she imagines her mother who, lost in a snowstorm deep in their rural homeland, gave birth to a stillborn child.

Her mother told her the baby was as white as a ricecake. From here the colour white enters, and then recurs, recurs, recurs, at times clever, at times surprising, at times heartbreaking, until the close of the book. As the book moves forward in short, self-contained sections it is tempting to compare it to poetry. The use of the poetic moment, deep but without obvious metaphor, is most closely associated with haiku (particularly Basho).

But this is nevertheless a rigidly structured novel. Each step forward in the narrative is subtly announced beforehand, a catalogue of white imagery interlaces disparate sections, tying together moments across time. The recurrence itself is accounted for, becoming a metaphor for memories whose emotion fades more with each remembering. The translation by Deborah Smith is itself a thing of subtle beauty.

Some Korean words appear, couched naturally in context, as do some translated phrases – ‘laughing whitely’, for example – which draw attention to themselves as curiosities of language to be commented on. The unjustified text and short sentences complement the sense of the writing as a fragile thing. Small marks stamped black on a white page, the whiteness threatening to swallow it all up.

White is not a colour, it is an absence of colour, and The White Book is made, in a similar paradox, of words defined by their silences. The sparing black on the tundra of white pages, the scattering of moments which rely on white images to connect them together; all of it seems to suggest our continued desire for language to communicate in the face of its impossibility.

The use of traditional imagery reinforces this; snow, the sea, birdsong, all carefully deployed to invoke the poetic while avoiding cliché. Trying to say something about the unsayable, again.

We are wandering on, leaving footprints in snow, as more and more snow seems to fall. It’s difficult to review a book like this other than to admire its power and the wholeness of its vision.

The White Book represents a significant achievement in the area of book-as-experience. Everyone who picks up this book will get something out of it, but people who read a lot of novels will, I think, adore it. There is nothing careless about this book. It commands the whole attention. It is a book which realises that reading too is an art form.

– Joe Darlington

Cold Comfort

Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff) – I Am the Brother of XX and Other Stories (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017)

In an interview conducted for TANK Magazine, interviewer Claudia Steinberg questions the Swiss author Fleur Jeaggy on the choice of narrative technique for her biographical work, ‘Three Possible Lives.’ Jaeggy responds, ‘I would prefer to tell you that I own a Hermes typewriter.’ She follows this with a brief description of the typewriter.

When Steinberg muses on ‘silence’ as a theme in Jaeggy’s writing, Jaeggy offers in return an account of her friendship with a swan, a friendship made a number of years ago.

The swan, which she named Erich, was a resident of a pond in Berlin. Jaeggy had been staying in an apartment near to the pond.  ‘A good friend,’ she remembers of Erich, before she describes strolling, with Erich waddling beside her, around the pond water.

The interview concludes with Jaeggy remarking, ‘We have talked very much. I hope there will be far fewer words in the magazine. Promise to mention Erich, and then say close to nothing.’

The interview, a rare thing for Jaeggy, was conducted on the occasion of publication of ‘I Am the Brother of XX.’ This is her latest collection of short stories, translated from Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

Throughout the interview, Jaeggy resists Steinberg’s efforts to elicit explanations of her peculiar prose. She swerves questions pertaining to craft, literary influences and formative childhood experiences. Above the interview text on the TANK Magazine website is a black and white photograph of Jaeggy. She has neatly bobbed hair and a thin smile.

I first encountered Jaeggy’s work on the website of literary magazine, The Paris Review. Her short story ‘Agnes,’ was published there last spring. Like many of the stories included in the collection, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ of which it is a part, ‘Agnes’ is concerned largely with death and madness.

The narrator of the story, a jilted lover, details the fallout of an infatuation. Of the stories I read that lunchtime at work, sat listlessly before my computer, it is ‘Agnes’ that I remember very clearly. I was struck by Jaeggy’s written style. Her sentences are so terse and sharp it is like they have been spat out.

The story has a strange structure. The narrator breaks off abruptly from one train of thought before beginning on another, apparently disconnected, thread. Past events are depicted in brief, bizarre flashes. Characters appear unintroduced, except by name, and are quickly discarded. It has a disorientating effect. It is a superb piece.

The stories included in ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ are also expertly, and peculiarly, composed. It is a collection of almost unremitting bleakness, both in setting and plot. The stories are situated in isolated places; a decrepit castle, a snowed under village, a mountain-top boarding school surrounded by boulders, a massive, suspended bird cage. 

Death looms large. Whether one takes place, has taken place, or a character is pre-occupied by the thought it.

The depressed, heavily sedated narrator of the title story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls, ‘once when I was eight years old my grandmother asked me, ‘what will you do when you grow up?’ And I answered, I want to die.’

Characters are described as having ‘cold’ and ‘dead’, ‘blank’ and ’empty’ eyes, a, sometimes laboured, intimation as to their inner states. Relationships are antagonistic. Denouements are brutal. Jaeggy recounts the fates of her characters very coolly.

Flowers have been placed on the coffin… a flowery meadow on our mothers’ skull,’ remarks one character observing his mother’s funeral. 

In the aforementioned interview for TANK magazine, Jaeggy remarks that she dislikes ‘effusion.’ Her descriptions and observations, indeed, are very precise. 

The narrator of the story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls of his stylish, disaffected-seeming sister, ‘She was saying she liked solitude. Meanwhile she was going out every night, coming back late, her mascara smudged.’

In one of the collection’s best stories, ‘The Black Veil,’ the narrator chances upon an old photograph of her mother. The photograph shows her, now deceased, mother at an audience with the Pope. She has a ‘desperate, depressed’ look in her eyes. For the daughter, the idea that her elegant, composed mother might have been ‘desperate’, is as startling as punch in the face. Jaeggy conveys this brilliantly.

Jaeggy writes reverently of her famed writer friends Ingrid Bachman, Oliver Sacks and Josef Brodsky. She writes warmly of animals. In the story, ‘Encounter in the Bronx,’ the narrator, dining out with two companions, describes feeling a sense of kinship with a kind eyed fish gliding about the restaurant aquarium. It is the kind of easy friendship that might have existed between Jaeggy and swan.

Such moments of relief are brief, however.

How unfortunate, the narrator reflects, that at any moment the fish will be fetched, killed and made into a meal.

– Abby Kearney

References

‘Promise to mention Erich and then say close to nothing,’ Fleur Jaeggy interview with Claudia Steinberg, Tank Magazine, The Book Issue, Summer 2017

‘Agnes’ by Fleur Jaeggy, The Paris Review, Issue 220, Spring 2017

Trials and Tribulations

James Miller – UnAmerican Activities (Dodo Ink)

Not every book can be perfect. The prologue and epilogue of this one, for example, are absolutely obnoxious and will ruin your reading experience, if not your whole day. Thankfully, books aren’t sacred either. Upon first purchasing a copy of UnAmerican Activities I recommend tearing these pages out and burning them. Congratulations, you are now left with a brilliant book.

UnAmerican Activities is a series of short stories which, as the book progresses, become tantalisingly close to a novel, before once again dissipating into tall tales. Their subject is America, the dark side of Americana, and, in particular, that dark side as it appears to a writer from London, England. It is a romantic ballad of trailer parks and badlands, or evangelists and good ol’ boys, seedy motels, crack and conspiracies. It’s B-movie America, and who doesn’t love a good B-Movie?

The first stories, with catchy titles like “Eat my Face” and “Exploding Zombie Cock”, establish a postlapsarian nation where all are sinners and there are no good intentions. The characters border on caricature but, as in Fielding, their lack of moral qualms is what makes them compelling. These stories are punchy. No-one’s wasting time. Everyone acts. Into this mix, Miller pours movie monsters, and then the story really gets moving.

The best part of UnAmerican Activities is the monsters. Miller’s monsters really deserve the name. Of all the movies, books and games of recent years to be about monsters, so many have been metaphors for something, or sub-Frankenstinian exercises in sympathy for the outsider, that to encounter real monsters – brutal, terrifying, evil – is refreshing.

Miller knows how to write them too. I found myself asking at a Halloween party this year, “-but are vampires really scary?” Miller’s vampires haunt the imagination. The second half of the book features an extended arc with Nephilim, vampire hunters, occult plagues and ancient evils uncovered in the desert. There is a real sense of danger; of something dark at the heart of a nation already tearing itself apart. “The Abomination of Desolation”, above all, is an exercise in sustained tension which could rival anything by Stephen King.

The book is sparing in its use of hero characters, with only two innocents among its expansive cast. Abraham Helsing, the cheery Christian bounty hunter who tracks vampires on the side, and Esther Daniels, a teen writer with loopy survivalist parents, provide our only respite from an unremittingly bleak panorama. Their presence provides the contrast the narrative needs. They help us to discern the merely weak and self-deluding humans from the truly evil monsters.

It is for this reason that, perhaps against Miller’s intention, I find UnAmerican Activities to be a truly American, morally righteous set of parables. It makes me look back to recent novels like The Girl With All The Gifts (2014) which, in a fever of zombie-relativism, finds a happy ending in the total destruction of mankind. The author, M.R. Carey, implies this is deserved as humans weren’t tolerant enough to coexist with flesh eating monsters. In Miller’s world, by contrast, when you give yourself up to dark powers, bad things happen. At times the writing in UnAmerican Activities may appear nihilistic, but there’s some old time religion hidden in its heart that is extremely refreshing.

This isn’t to say that UnAmerican Activities is purely a horror book. It breaks enough genre conventions and rings enough lit crit bells that I would hope it appeals to a discerning readership as well. It deserves to be widely read. Every story is tightly plotted, the prose is controlled and well-paced, while the publishers – DoDo Ink – have presented the work beautifully. I would highly recommend reading it… but only if you start at page 17. I can’t get over that implied author. James Miller, I hope it aint you.

– Joe Darlington