Sunday, August 28, 2011

Chejfec’s Narrated Thoughts in My Two Worlds

Thank goodness for introductions! After reading Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, in Margaret B. Carson’s translation from the original Spanish Mis dos mundos, I wondered how to describe the book. My Two Worlds is a 103-page work that doesn’t quite feel like a novel or novella: a writer on the cusp of his fiftieth birthday takes a walk in a Brazilian park, remembers, sits, observes, watches a menacing swan paddle boat, and even has a cup of coffee. Filled with minutiae and meta-material but short on what’s typically known as plot, My Two Worlds is dense reading best taken at a very leisurely pace. It’s an unusual walk in the park.

I didn’t read Enrique Vila-Matas’s introduction, also translated by Carson, until I sat down to write… I was happy to find this very apt description of Chejfec:

“But if I really think about it, Chejfec is someone intelligent for whom the word novelist is a poor fit, because he creates artifacts, narrations, books, narrated thoughts rather than novels.”

And there it was, a perfect description of the book’s genre, handily italicized, as if for me: narrated thoughts. Readers who enjoy micron-level meditations on life, often prompted by observations in the present that, in turn, prompt memory, will love Chejfec’s narrated thoughts.

Narrated thoughts isn’t one of my preferred genres—I tend to think of their narrators, including this one, as nudniks who want to tell me too much that I’ve already thought or read about before—but I have to admit that My Two Worlds contains some very, very satisfying passages and themes. And thoughts. A few rather random examples that play on my own memories, thoughts, and parallel realities but don’t begin to get to the complexity of the book:

Geography and Finding One’s Place: Our narrator mentions operating using “territorial intuition” but has difficulty finding the way to the park. I like the geographical metaphor for finding one’s place in life, particularly within the context of Chejfec’s overlapping worlds.

The Eternal Walker: The narrator refers to himself as “an eternal walker,” saying “to walk is to enact the illusion of autonomy and above all the myth of authenticity.” He walks for hours, finding tedium but…

He Also Finds the Past and an Alternate Dimension: The narrator thinks about his own life and history and the world’s history, presenting the reader with bits of both that feel to me like a hybrid of concentric circles and Venn diagrams. (Of course, I love Venn diagrams.)

The Impact of the Internet: I particularly enjoyed the thought that “The places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the form of Internet links… On a walk an image will lead me into a memory or into several…” This makes me wonder about hypertext as a digital form of madeleines. (And reminds me that I really should read all of In Search of Lost Time... The shame!) I, too, find my off-line thought processes ever more influenced by digital habits. On a very prosaic level: I’m sure I’m not the only person who wonders what happened to autocorrect when she writes with a pen.

That Menacing Swan Boat: That damn swan boat, ridden by a girl and her father, stuck with me more than anything, impinging on the narrator’s space and privacy, as if following, spying. Neatest of all about the swan boat is that Chejfec links this imitation swan to real, live swans that the narrator remembers, earlier in the book: those swans are “so unpleasant that I had to retreat to a path several dozen meters away that led to an avenue that encircled the lake.”

Disclaimers: A big thanks to Chad Post of Open Letter (with whom I’ve discussed translated fiction) for providing a review copy of the book. Open Letter has signed two more Chejfec books.

Image Credit: SeanJC, via

Up Next: Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Perrotta’s Warmed Over Leftovers

I looked forward to Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, a novel about the aftermath of a rapture-like event known as the Sudden Departure: I found lots of promise in the book’s prologue, which mentions a feeling of rejection among people who weren’t taken away during the instantaneous, nondenominational disappearance of millions. After the mention of the Departed Heroes’ Day of Remembrance and Reflection and a heated argument in the first chapter, I expected lots of telling 21st-century conflict, maybe an apocalyptically angry religious right fighting with grieving family members over religion, memory, and news coverage. Alas, it wasn’t to be: The Leftovers fizzled out for me like Harold Camping’s doomsday warnings of May 2011.

Oddly, I think the biggest problem with the novel is its verisimilitude: Perrotta creates grieving, confused characters who numb themselves with typical stuff like agreeability, teenage sex and drinking, adult screenings of SpongeBob, and peculiar cult-like activity. The central characters are the Garvey family: father Kevin (agreeability), mother Laurie (joins Guilty Remnants religious group that limits talking, requires smoking), college-age son Tom (joins Healing Hug Movement), and high school student daughter Jill (drinks, skips school). None of the Garvey family disappeared, though Jill was with a not-so-close-anymore friend who vanished whilst YouTubing.

All that agreeability, uncommunicativeness, and avoidance might reflect real ways people grieve and handle stress, and they may show how people, survivors, depart without departing because they wall themselves off from their friends and family. But it’s tricky to propel a novel with inertness and inertia, particularly when the reader knows an angry-as-hell character like Reverend Jamison, who wonders why he wasn’t worthy of being whooshed from the earth, is lurking around town, ready to reveal the sins of the departed. Yes, Jamison breaks the story of Nora Durst’s husband’s affair but there’s no showdown, and Jamison gets very little ink.

I think my other biggest problem with the book is that the narrative voice felts a pinch too snarky, ironic, and/or smug for the book to generate much empathy for the characters, their situations, or the human condition, even though I had no trouble believing everyone hurt. The novel didn’t quite feel like satire, either, and absurdity would be an even bigger stretch. The tone felt out of balance, and I came away with the impression that Perrotta backed away from the edginess and riskiness he’d begun to establish in the book’s early pages.

Tension does develop—finally!—in the book’s last 50-75 pages, when [mild spoiler alert!] we confirm what we suspect about Laurie’s Guilty Remnants, a couple doesn’t quite make it, Jill starts to sort things out, and Tom finishes his job escorting a teenage mother who’s given birth to a baby fathered by the head healing hugger. Perrotta frenetically jumps between subplots then neatly ends the novel with something resembling a clean slate. Maybe Perrotta intends it as a final clich√© in a novel filled with predictable turns? Whatever, as they say. I was indifferent by the time I got to the end of this readable but disappointing book: I was ready to move on with my reading life, finish mourning The Leftovers that might’ve been, and search my shelves for a book I’d enjoy more.

Disclaimers: I received an advance review copy of The Leftovers from St. Martin’s Press at BookExpo America. Thank you!

Up Next: Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bad to the Bone: Greene’s Brighton Rock

The front flap of my Penguin Classics edition of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock uses appealingly dark—and, it turns out, accurate—words like murder, menace, tawdry, apathy, and evil to describe the novel. Though saying teenage criminal Pinkie Brown “worships in the temple of evil” might sound a bit melodramatic, it’s not an unfair characterization, given Pinkie’s Roman [Catholic] background and criminal transgressions.

Pinkie, a.k.a. the Boy, is a teenage gang member in 1930s Brighton, England. Through the course of the novel, Pinkie is involved in the afore-mentioned murderous activity, a knife fight, and a not-quite-legal marriage, which he arranges so a very young waitress, Rose, can’t testify against him. Mix that with the afore-mentioned Catholic upbringing, Latin quotations, some cruel cuts at Rose, and talk of mortal sin, and you end up with a lovely mess of moral confusion.

I particularly enjoyed the contrasts that Greene creates in Brighton Rock. On one side, there’s the prideful Pinkie, who carries a boulder of a chip on his shoulder because he’s so young and easy to humiliate: he can only dream of being the older, wealthier criminal boss Colleoni. And then there’s the sybaritic Ida Arnold—she of big bosom and little religious faith—who knows the difference between right and wrong and, sure she knows the truth about a death, pesters Rose and Pinkie. Rose, by the way, has no use for Ida’s right and wrong, preferring “stronger foods—Good and Evil” and making some surprising choices.

I should note that Ida loves her alcohol and doesn’t mind a good tip on the horse races, particularly if the winnings can fund her search for the truth. Here’s Ida, whom I described as “a carpe diem kind of gal” in a margin note: “The √©clair and the deep couch and the gaudy furnishings were like an aphrodisiac in her tea. She was shaken by a Bacchic and a bawdy mood.” On the next page: “She bore the same relation to passion as a peepshow.”

In the end, Pinkie gets what he deserves, a fate that fits the nihilistic worldview of a boy-man who wanted to be a priest when he was a small child but ends up a murderer as a slightly larger child. Perhaps the front flap is more right than I’d thought about Pinkie worshiping at the temple of evil: at one point he tells Rose he hasn’t changed over the years, saying, “I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.” Brighton Rock candy, a note in the back of the book explains, is sold in stick form and always says Brighton inside, no matter how you break it. (A photo)

Up next: Not sure… but likely Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds.

Image credit: “Aquarium, Brighton, England,” from user Durova on Wikipedia’s Brighton, page.