NewPages Book Reviews
November 2, 2009
Fiction by Brian Evenson
Art by Zak Sally
Coffee House Press, July 2009
Paperback: 205pp; $14.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
If you are prowling for something truly chilling to read, Edgar and International Horror Guild Award-nominated author Brian Evenson's collection of unsettling short fiction, Fugue State, may be just the thing to curdle your blood. Accompanied by illustrations from the multi-talented graphic novelist Zak Sally, Fugue State also includes an evocative graphic short that brings "Dread" to life. Each of the book's nineteen stories include subjects who tenuously skirt the borderlines of sanity and the edges of awareness, of substantive reality. Significantly, Evenson successfully marries the usually disparate genres of horror and literary fiction.
In the title story, Evenson probes the depths of the psyche, his writing evoking the state of muddled confusion following trauma and perceived trauma. "Fugue State," as with much of the author's writing, continues in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe in both style and strategy. Poe's theory that the short story should be written to possess a unity of effect or impression is followed by Evenson in each of his stories. His attention to detail and nuance lends a focus that carries through to the theme as well. The author employs in the title story the device of memory loss, which serves his characters well: they circle around a single idea, that of identity, with which their purpose is entangled.
Entanglement, entrapment, apocalypse, and the falling away of mind and of the things that make sense – community, the ordinary world – are the author's touchstones. The writing is most often formal, educated, that of a scholar, and it is this formality that places the provisioning stamp of an orchestrated sense of order on every story. For example, "An Accounting" is the record of an accidental Jesus. In the days since "the rupture," the main character wanders the God-forsaken land to seek supplies for his heathen party, inadvertently obtaining his own 12 followers (disciples). Evenson makes excellent use of metanarrative here, while providing an often-humorous, allegorical parody of a familiar story. In this realm, apparently, a gun and a man with means can make a Jesus, as in the following excerpt, in which the unwitting Messiah attempts to ensure each of the men eats only his fair share of the scant communal meal:
It was only by my leveling the revolver at each of them in turn as he ate that each was assured a share of the little that remained. Indeed, by force of the revolver alone was established what later they referred to as "the miracle of the everlasting hare," where, it was said, the food was allowed to pass from hand to hand and yet there remained enough for all.
If this be in fact a miracle, it is attributable not to me but to the revolver. It would have been better to designate said revolver as their Messiah instead of myself. Perhaps you will argue that, though this be true, without my hand to hold said weapon it could not have become a Jesus, that both of us together did a Jesus make, and I admit that such an argument is hard to counter.
The author does a stellar job of employing literature as a device in various incarnations. In "Mudder Tongue," a man's physical condition is causing paraphasia, to the befuddlement and frustration of himself and those around him. The question of language and the importance of words are probed: "This is what it means to be immersed in language, he thought, to lose one's ability to think. To speak other people's words. But the only alternative is not to speak at all."
Evenson develops other stories with a consciousness of writing, narrative, and language. "In the Greenhouse" employs metafiction: the main character is invited to visit his writer acquaintance, whose "house was apparently less a literal space than a literary space." And humor of the literary sort can hardly be avoided in a story about an editor and a publisher – "Ninety over Ninety" delves into what might be called the literature versus popular fiction problem.
Evenson's collection as a whole circumscribes disquietude. The author strikes the note of discord on its head with each story, by means of narrative, tone and style. His imagery is disturbing, and sometimes darkly hilarious, but not so much as the state of mind he evinces. Fugue State blurs the boundaries between the real and the surreal, stretching the borders of the seemly and sane.
Novel by Michael Burke
Pleasure Boat Studio, September 2009
Paperback: 180pp; $15
Review by Elizabeth Townsend
Johnny ‘Blue’ Heron is a private eye more interested in sex and alcohol than the steady job he could have with the local police. Blue is hired by George Fuller to trai his son to find out if the younger Fuller is having an affair. This deceptively simple job lands Blue in the middle of affairs, intrigue, incest, corruption, and some rather shady business deals. Blue comes off as cynical sort of fellow, believing that no one is quite what they appear to be (“Always thought I was a fake, but aren’t we all. We invent ourselves and defy the world to discover the ruse.”), but he is surprisingly unaware of some people’s darker sides.
Overall I found Swan Dive to be an engaging and enjoyable read. I found his use of imagery to be good, as shown in such descriptions as, “Slowly, he stops moving, and lies alone, silent, on the grass, by the hedge, in the dark, out of sight.” I didn’t expect to find myself liking Blue, but there’s just something about him that’s hard not to like. Personally, I’m hoping to see more of Johnny Heron in the future.
The Subversive Scribe
Translating Latin American Fiction
Suzanne Jill Levine
Dalkey Archive Press, October 2009
Paperback: 208pp; $13.95
Review by John Madera
Synopsizing her own book The Subversive Scribe, Suzanne Jill Levine in “Cositas Are Not Things,” the book’s penultimate chapter, writes:
The title The Subversive Scribe and what follows – with an ironic smile underneath – is meant to jolt the reader out of a comfortable (or uncomfortable) view of translations as secondary, as faint shadows of primary, vivid but lost, originals. Originals and translations, acts of communication, both fail and succeed, both fulfill and subvert the drive to communicate. The word aspires to be the same, to be as complete as its object (be it another word or a primal reality), but is always, to greater or lesser extent, a fragment, an approximation. To dramatize this I have purposely focused on writers that speak explicitly of the original’s self-betrayal.
The writers Levine refers to are some of Latin-America’s most inventive, and relatively marginalized, writers, namely, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig, and Severo Sarduy. What drew Levine as a translator to these writers was “the playful, creative possibility of self-betrayal, of re-creating (in) language.”
“Language is already always a betrayal,” Levine writes. It is “a translation of the object it intends, pretends to re-create.” It’s an idea that she revisits throughout her book. Whatever words are chosen to describe something “is not the reality it describes but the words used to describe that reality.” In other words, words are signs, not the bubbling, raw material that they represent. As words are, at best, approximations of the object they correspond to, a translation is yet another approximation. So then, Levine elevates the role of the translator from mere technician to a kind of co-conspirator who always approximates the act of writing.
For Levine, literary translation should be an act of creation. Her suppositions echo Jorge Luis Borges’s “Word Music and Translation,” a lecture wherein he describes two camps in regards to translation: the purveyors of literal word-for-word translations and those who take creative license and leaps, where the translation attempts to echo the grandeur of the original, becoming a work of art in its own right. As Levine and Borges argue, translators should be allowed the same room for interpretation as musicians, poets, artists, filmmakers, etc., those who have been inspired by a literary work to realize their own work of art. Borges states that the translator should be allowed to “read a work and then somehow evolv[e] that work from himself, from his own might, from the possibilities hitherto known of his language.”
Likewise, Levine asserts that she sees translation as “continuations of the original creative process.” Translation “saddl[es] the scholarly and the creative, can be a route through which a writer/translator may seek to reconcile fragments: fragments of texts, of language, of oneself.” Therefore, it is impossible for any work to have a definitive translation. A translation will always be a rather than the translation. Levine’s belief that translation is a means of creative evolution is a provocative and stimulating idea, and serves as a challenge to potential translators.
The Subversive Scribe is a fascinating over-the-shoulder look at a master translator at work, who approaches texts with sharp rigor, humor, and an improvisatory flair that’s coupled with lucid exactitude. As it explores the challenges of translating puns, portmanteaus, neologisms, jokes, and other forms of wordplay, highlights the necessity of finding specific analogue’s to regional colloquialisms, and specific cultural and historical associations, and depicts the captivating circumstances surrounding Levine’s various translations, The Subversive Scribe brings the reader closer toward understanding the amazingly challenging tasks facing any translator of literary fiction.
Prose and poetry by Jacques Réda
Translated from the French by Aaron Prevots
Host Publications, June 2010
Hardcover: 153pp; $12.00
Review by Roy Wang
With his Proust-like ramblings, Europes is Jacques Réda's entertaining reflection upon the various selves that surface in different locales across the continent. In fact, often the named country provides only the most tangential entry point for the inner world into which he dives. Take for example a passage from “Switzerland. IV. The Eagle”:
We had the feeling of belonging to a collegial club for the chosen few: we had seen the eagle.
This is how revealed religions and their martyrs are born. Had we been threatened with irons, fire, boiling hot oil, we would still have persisted: “an eagle, the Eagle, I saw it, I'm telling you. My Belgian friend was with me.”
These are the thoughts of a man who is much more concerned with his inner landscapes than ones the train passes through, one who tells the reader about what he would like to have seen rather than the reality that disappointed him.
But how to make such direct introspection palatable? The key is the self-deprecating, distracted tone; it gives the impression that Réda is musing aloud while ambling through the countryside rather than fuming into his laptop. Hence, consistency is not important. Rather, by affecting his limited physical and cognitive powers, he disarms the reader into being very indulgent of his philosophizing. And it carries all the whimsical, cerebral playfulness that is quintessentially French.
Consider, again from “The Eagle,” “I wouldn't have confused it with a vulture . . . nor with a condor, which wouldn't exist in the Alps. And let's be sensible: if I thought I'd seen a condor, it would be formal proof that it was indeed an eagle.”
Or, from “Dresden's Black and Gold” after describing his rather poor navigation, “a vague impulse of this kind asserted itself, a new trepidation soon offered me a means of intuitively resolving the dilemma. I was tacking.”
But Réda does not need to rely on humor, and this is the evidence that we have something of more serious power. Consider, from “Tram 28,” “Certainly electricity doesn't age (or so I imagine), but its modes of production have changed to the point of banishing allegorical representations. So much so that the survival of equipment dating from ladies veiled in tulle . . . maintains the illusion that the housing feeds off an inexhaustible reservoir of vintage watts.”
Given Réda's preference in this volume for long, rambling prose, the poetry was a welcome contrast, and executed just as well. It also tends toward the narrative, but drops the “affect of unsurity” of his prose, leaving fairly direct statements, with just the right amount of indefiniteness in the better ones. Here is the last stanza from “The Lispoet”:
Although with pleasure I note: on this square in Lisbon
where he stays exposed to pigeons' insults, to rain,
for the ten-voiced poet who literally was “no one”
they had the sensitivity to not inscribe a name.
A note on the translation by Aaron Prevots. It generally flows, adhering reasonably well to the French. A few rambling affects and turns of phrase have been muted, losing some of the effect, but the English is also an enjoyable read. Special mention of the poetry translations: Prevots has kept at least a semblance of most of the rhyme schemes, often settling for a abcb from an original abab. There are some stumbles, however this is more than made up for in “Arroz y Luna”, where he transcends the original:
Somber days all alike,
The colorless towns
With Sundays' lightning
And the white or black of country;
Love, white bread of suffering;
The fire of memory.
Novel by Muriel Barbery
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, September 2009
Paper: 160pp; $15.00
Review by Laura Di Giovine
Gourmet Rhapsody, Muriel Barbery’s slim but savory novel, is like poetry served on a platter – filled with dazzling and delicious language. The story begins with the world’s most famous (and most despised) food critic realizing that he will die in 48 hours. Monsieur Pierre Arthens lives in Paris, in the building immortalized in Barbery’s first novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Monsieur Arthens spent his life building and destroying people’s reputations without caring about the consequences. Yet now, while he’s dying, he seeks the simplicity of the one true flavor, something he tasted in his youth and cannot remember: “I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it. I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced.” For decades, his arrogance and prime position at the top of the restaurant food chain mask what he truly craves – the simplicity of youth. While various themes echo the 2008 Disney film Ratatouille, the book stands alone as a sublime reflection on the human soul.
Barbery traces Monsieur Arthens’s life from childhood to his famous profession in adulthood. Along the way, we share in the culinary delights of his past as he searches for the singular flavor that defined his life. We also hear from a cavalcade of characters – his wife, his children, his lover, the homeless man outside his apartment complex – all who have a very strong opinion about this arrogant and self-absorbed man. But what truly stands out is Barbery’s mastery with words. The language in Gourmet Rhapsody is something to relish, like a fine wine, crisp yet sumptuous. Sample the following sensuous passage wherein Monsieur Arthens describes his first taste of a tomato:
And yet I had always been acquainted with the tomato, since the time of aunt Marthe’s garden, since the summer when an ever more ardent sun kissed the timid little growths, since the moment my teeth tore into the flesh to splatter my tongue with the rich, warm and bountiful juice . . . The resistance of the skin – slightly taut, just enough; the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one’s lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of straining one’s fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.
In another passage, Monsieur Arthens recounts watching his uncle prepare a meal. Arthens never even tasted the food, but watching his uncle’s subtle, careful preparation was his true reward that evening. He notes, “[T]his meal that I did not touch remained one of the most delicious I have ever tasted in my life. Tasting is an act of pleasure, and writing about that pleasure is an artistic gesture, but the only true work of art, in the end, is another person’s feast.”
Arthens meticulously details his first experiences with food – from meat to fish to vegetable to bread to sorbet to whisky, among other delights. He realizes that the simplest flavors are what he’s disdained throughout his career, but what call to him now on his deathbed. For example, as a critic, he always favored wine, but now feels that whisky is more rustic and more authentic as a flavor. He philosophizes:
Oh, Mephistophelean whisky, I loved you from the first swig, and betrayed you from the second – but nowhere else did I ever find, amidst the tyranny of flavors imposed upon me by my position, such a nuclear expansion capable of blasting my jaw away with delight.
While Arthens ruminates beautifully on these flavors of his past, none of them are what he seeks. And yet, he discovers again the pleasures of his youth and realizes that he not only feasted on food throughout his life, but also on what accompanies the food – the people, the conversation, the language and the atmosphere. This is authenticity; this is what’s important. Simple foods provide the best memories. He mulls over topics such as pleasure (like Alain de Botton does), fleeting happiness, aging and language. By stripping away the falseness of his job, he finds the truth. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Arthens will find the forgotten flavor because he ultimately returns to simplicity and shuns arrogance.
Rich and savory, Gourmet Rhapsody is a pleasure of the senses.
Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots
Ed. Lorraine M. López
University of Michigan Press, October 2009
Paperback: 216pp; $22.95
Review by Krystal Languell
Few aspects of personal experience are taboo any longer, but Lorraine López has collected a set of essays in this anthology that address an emerging topic of national conversation: what does it mean to grow up poor? In our current cultural moment, when the availability of health care for all Americans is being negotiated, the concerns of this collection are particularly sage.
An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots gathers prose from eighteen women reflecting on the transition they have each made from lives of struggle into successful careers in the arts. In particular, Amelia Maria De La Luz Montes’s “Queen for a Day” and Bich Minh Nguyen’s “Laverne & Shirley Days” directly address the evolving role of popular culture in each writer’s life.
Nguyen writes about the desire of the men in her family for large electronics, with special focus on acquiring an expensive television. She describes their triumphant upgrade from a black and white model to “a gorgeous behemoth encased solidly in oak,” an item that represents success for her family. In college, Nguyen learned through observation that a TV set would no longer be an appropriate “mode of assimilation” for her; upon entering into higher education, a sea change had occurred. “Not to have a television,” Nguyen writes, “not to need a television, was to know real privilege.”
Readers male and female alike will value the often brutal honesty of the essays in this collection, which is packed with faux pas and gaffes, epiphanies both victorious and discouraging. As Joy Castro writes in her contribution, “Jumping class comes at a price, and the price is not belonging.” This book illustrates many strategies for understanding the seldom discussed movement between the working-class and academia – the opportunity to read this book is one such strategy.