Sunday, March 16, 2014

Light Reading That Wishes It Were a Little Heavier: Three Quick Takes

It’s rare that I read—and actually finish—three books in a row that don’t inspire much reflection, thought, or emotion. Either negative or positive. The three books below are a strange bunch: they all passed the treadmill test, meaning I spent miles plodding along a moving belt, enjoying my reading and, thus, even my walks. For better or worse—worse, I’d guess—all three books felt like they wanted to be, in the words of one of my college housemates, heavy, deep, and real. Meaning serious literature. That’s probably “worse” because all three felt a little lighter, shallower, and more artificial than they might or should have. All three felt a little safer than they might have, too, as if their authors didn’t develop them as much as they could have. Although I’m doubly sorry about that because all three books did keep me reading, the good news is that all three books are debuts: perhaps their authors will take more chances next time.

Albena Stambolova’s Everything Happens as It Does, which I read in Olga Nikolova’s translation of the Bulgarian novel Tova e kakto stava, knits together events in the lives of a family or two. There’s no dialogue to speak of and everything—life, love, death—just happens because it does, no real questions asked. Meaning the book seems to be about fatalism, which feels a little hypnotizing. The reader doesn’t know much about why anything happens in this book—why Margarita suddenly has a laptop, why her twin brother Valentin follows her, why Boris with the bees ends up a father—but not knowing why is apparently the point. Everything Happens as It Does is told in a flat narrative voice that contributes to the hypnotizing effect of the book and the feeling of inevitability. It couldn’t have been easy for Nikolova to translate.

The Book of Jonah, by Joshua Max Feldman, combines two plotlines: Jonah, a youngish Manhattan lawyer, is trying to make partner at his law firm and trying to decide which of two girlfriends to make his partner outside work; and Judith, a youngish woman whose life has seemed nearly perfect until tragedy hits, is trying to figure out where she fits in the world. Both are Jewish, and Feldman includes a mystical Jewish thread in the book that inspires Jonah to reassess his life and failings. The Book of Jonah had the most promise early on, when it read most like social satire set in New York City, post-crash, during the time of smart phones… there were some funny scenes and lines, which made this the most enjoyable of the three books, but location changes to Amsterdam and Las Vegas felt artificial.

The car in which Heydrich was wounded
Finally, there’s Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which I read in Sam Taylor’s smooth translation from the original French. This novel about writing a historical novel about Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš and their mission to assassinate Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich in Prague takes hemming and hawing about detail to extremes: the narrator fusses over historical detail in ways that might inspire respect (he wants to get things right) or annoyance (does the color of Heydrich’s car really, truly matter when Nazism is the topic?). Despite winning a Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, HHhH doesn’t feel original and shapely enough to be great fiction, and that’s largely because the balances of objectivity-subjectivity and narrator-subject felt askew. That’s not just because Heydrich’s doings—like forming the Einsatzgruppen—were so horrifying and the narrator’s decisions about car color feel so trivial by comparison. All the narrator’s hemming and hawing about familiar thoughts on truth, certainty, and writing fiction ended up padding the book so much that it became a little dull, despite my interest in learning more about Heydrich, Gabčík, and Kubiš. I agree with M.A. Orthofer’s Complete Review assessment that HHhH would make a good young adult novel.

Disclaimers: I received Everything Happens as It Does from Open Letter Books and The Book of Jonah from Henry Holt and Company. Thanks to both!

Up Next: It remains to be seen…

Photo: Creative Commons, from Bundesarchiv.