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It's usually only in retrospect that we can consider the seismic importance of major political events we lived through in our childhood. “The Remainder” opens with an account of the children of Chilean revolutionaries whose parents are having a party on the evening of 1988 when Pinochet is voted out of office. Of course, the children are more interested in sneaking sips of alcohol and fostering their own obsessions while the adults are embroiled in politics. Many years later the three children Paloma, Iquela and Felipe embark in a hearse on a surreal road trip. They want to retrieve the body of Paloma's mother which has been lost in transport because a volcanic eruption has covered nearby cities in ash and has caused the plane transporting the body to be redirected. The lyrical prose describe the rich intricacy of their interactions and shifting relationships with each other as well as their stumbling efforts to make sense of the political circumstances they were raised in. This is vibrant story that captures all the complexities of feeling experienced by a particular country's new generation burdened with the weight of the past. 

It's impressive how the prose is mainly composed of big blocks of dense text which are filled with oblique references, yet there's an admirable lightness of style which make them compulsively readable. Chapters switch between the perspectives of Iquela who has a tense distant relationship with her mother and Felipe who turns the country's numerous dead into a mathematical equation he feels obliged to solve. A strong subtle bond develops between Iquela and Paloma who has lived abroad for years so her experience contrasts sharply against Iquela's circumscribed existence. In Felipe's more rhapsodic sections he has emotionally-fraught brief encounters with both the living and the dead. There's a great pleasure in following their chaotic journey which is filled with all the angst and humour of young people trying to figure out their place in the world and navigate the shifting depths of their own desires.

At times It felt like a hallucinatory experience reading this novel – partly because they take some strong drugs left from Paloma's mother's illness and partly because of the haunting physical setting of a city coated in ash. But I found it easy to relate to their ardent confusion trying to connect to a proceeding generation who lost themselves in an imagined future. Felipe's mathematical mission “to count objects so that they became associated with a perfect, seamless figure” takes on a great poignancy as these three young people face the reality of innumerable casualties lost amidst a crushing former dictatorship. Though they don't embody the values of their parents, these queer young people have inherited the fallout of that generation’s conflicts. This novel currently shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize powerfully captures this tension in a way which is imaginative and convincing.

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Intense curiosity has surrounded Australian author Gerald Murnane since a prominent New York Times Article from 2018 asked in its title ‘Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?’ The literary community adores having a genius spring from obscurity – especially one who has been working diligently and quietly producing books for years. The trouble is that not much of his writing has been available outside of Australia, but this year the wonderful publisher And Other Stories are bringing out a couple of his books.

So I picked up “Border Districts” to see why Teju Cole states that “Murnane, a genius, is a worthy heir to Beckett.” It turns out to be an apt characterization of this author because this novel is dominated by the voice of an old man living on the edge of civilization sifting through resonant images from his past and highlighting more of what he’s forgotten than what he remembers. Rather than plot we’re offered a way of seeing through the kaleidoscope of the narrator’s consciousness the ideas and sensations which persist in his mind - though their origin has frequently been lost.

Sometimes I ask myself what’s the good of reading as much as I do. Is it about the pleasure of the experience, my edification or connecting with high culture? Of course, it can be about all three. And, although I have the urge to read as much as I can, it creates a ridiculous anxiety that the more I read the more I’m apt to forget (hence one mission of this blog is to help aid my recall.) The narrator of this novel focuses frequently on the experience of reading and surmises that “whatever I had forgotten from my experiences as a reader of books had not deserved to be remembered.” This seems to discount one of the great joys of reading which is rereading where you can often discover things you missed the first time around or interpret what you’ve read very differently because you’ve aged and have more experience.

What’s really interesting about the narrator’s assertion is about the impressions which works of fiction leave rather than the exact arrangement of their words. “I have not yet forgotten the period in my life when I read book after book of fiction in the belief that I would learn thereby matters of much importance not to be learned from any other kind of book… I can recall many images that occurred to me and many moods that overcame me, but the words and sentences that were in front of my eyes when the images occurred or the moods arose – of those countless items I recall hardly any.” I like how this expresses the way we’re left with an overall feeling from a novel because, in a sense, we’ve lived through it. And, though the exact details or quotes they contain might be lost, our bodies and minds can recall the sensations of that experience.

Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane

Much of the story is preoccupied with the narrator trying to recover something he wrote down amidst all his accumulated possessions or trying to understand why certain memories dominate his thoughts. We get impressions of his early life being taught in a religious school and the outline of his family life, but the drama of the story resides solely in the narrator’s striving to connect his present sense of being with his past. There’s a tragicomedy to this endeavour which is very Beckett-like especially when he fruitlessly tries to write to a woman he heard on a radio broadcast. But the true beauty of his tale is how recurring imagery such as the experience of looking through stained glass or a coloured swirl within a marble takes on a profusion of meaning amidst his ruminations.

There’s something curiously refreshing about the staunchly technophobic perspective of the narrator and his endeavour to grasp the meaning of his past. Given how the internet provides us with quick access to so much information and prompts us to relentlessly document the minutiae of our daily experience, the narrator’s strategy for sitting at a remove from his familiar home and the people closest to him represents a valuable counter way of being. It shows how letting go can be more important than the act of memorializing because it sharpens the focus on who you really are. It also beautifully highlights how our lives may be nothing more than a muddle, but that doesn’t mean our experience isn’t meaningful.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGerald Murnane
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This is the first novel by Norah Lange to be translated into English and it’s just been published by the wonderful independent press And Other Stories. It was written in Spanish and originally published in Argentina in 1950. In her day Lange was a celebrated member of the Argentine literary scene – especially the avant-garde Buenos Aires group of the 20s and 30s. Throughout her life she famously hosted many literary salons and associated with writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. She was awarded a Grand Prize of Honor by the Argentine Society of Writers having published poetry, memoirs, nonfiction and novels. Yet, she’s barely known outside her native country for reasons which César Aira’s introduction to the book and James Reith’s recent article in the Guardian interestingly suggest. It’s thrilling to discover a novel like “People in the Room” because, although I studied avant-garde literature at university from Borges to Alain Robbe-Grillet to Tristan Tzara, there were few female writers of this era included on the course list outside of Gertrude Stein and Nathalie Sarraute. It’s somewhat alarming to think that Norah Lange was there all the time, but most North American and European readers had no access to her work.

As characteristic of the innovative art and writing from this time, “People in the Room” pushes the boundaries of character and narrative where we’re given few specific details about the protagonist and her situation. Instead the reader follows her labyrinthine train of thought as she voyeuristically observes three women in their thirties through a window across the street from where she lives. Her obsession with these neighbours leads to endless speculations about their potential status as criminals or tragic figures or secretive heroines. Curiously, though she makes tentative contact with the women, she doesn’t want to discover any actual facts about them – not even their names. It’s as if her observations can transform them into an endlessly tantalizing array of fictional characters of her own creation: “I knew, if I was patient, I could have their finished portraits just the way I liked finished portraits to be: for them to be missing something only I knew how to add”.

Maybe it was the frequent references to portraits and three women that made me fleetingly think of the portrait of the Brontë sisters as I was reading the novel. But it was thrilling to discover when I read in Aira’s introduction (which I only did after I finished reading the novel so as to avoid any spoilers or interpretation of the text before I’d experienced it myself) that Lange had publicly stated she was partly inspired by Branwell’s famous portrait of his sisters where a ghostly painted out figure looms in the background. There’s a popular romantic conception of the Brontës living a cloistered existence of literary creativity that seems to chime with this story. But “People in the Room” also doesn’t shy from exploring darkly troubling concepts as well. Throughout the book Lange refers to portraits as if to fix a version of the women in place before excitedly creating another portrait which shows them in a different light. But this leads to an unwieldy multiplicity: “She seemed to possess many portraits, as if constantly adding them to the hidden gallery of her own face; as if arranging, on the four walls of the drawing room, in order, the story of her face.” It’s fascinating how these descriptions naturally inspire ideas about our psychology and William James’ concept of how we have a different personality for each person we know. It suggests that no matter how dedicated we are in observing or spending time with one another we can never really know one another completely.

Branwell's portrait of the Bronte sisters

Branwell's portrait of the Bronte sisters

Alongside these fascinating ideas, there’s a compelling ambiguity throughout the text about the narrator herself. She’s a teenager on the brink of some great change who is directed by her family at one point to take a trip elsewhere. Yet, rather than meditate on her own state of being or future, she continues her frenzied focus on the women across the way who might be entirely in her imagination or mannequins or women involved in their own unknowable preoccupations. It’s as if she wants to preserve something about her creative process and imagination before yielding to the responsibilities and limitations of adult life. There’s a sombre tone to this enterprise “it would always be as if she was gathering memories beside a plot reserved for a grave.” There are frequent macabre references throughout the novel to death or the narrator’s expectation/desire/fear that the women she observes might soon die. Perhaps if they are dead she can better preserve her own idea of them without the messy complication of their real personalities. There’s a disturbingly bleak sort of romance to this which she describes stating “when I was fond of people I always imagined them dead.”

Getting brief clues about the narrator herself at different points in the text makes “People in the Room” a mystery wrapped in a mystery. I enjoyed the many layered and oblique ideas this book holds. It’s a novel which ought to be read alongside Norah Lange’s contemporaries for the fascinating concepts it explores and the way the curious story pushes the meaning of narrative. But it’s also a compelling exploration of the process of writing itself. The women are the narrator’s malleable characters which she endlessly enjoys reshaping, imbuing with her own psychology and destroying in a perverse godly act when she can no longer control them. It’s a novel that can be read in many different ways and would no doubt benefit from multiple rereadings. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNorah Lange
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“The Illiac Crest” describes the journey of a narrator whose fixed idea of the world gradually comes undone after being visited by two women; one who claims to be the Mexican writer Amparo Dávila and one who is an ex-lover ominously referred to as “the Betrayed”. The women take up residence in the narrator's house and develop a language of their own which the narrator is excluded from. It's a story which becomes increasingly surreal as the narrator who works as a doctor at a sanatorium investigates a former rebellious patient, seeks to uncover a lost manuscript and comes under suspicion by the facility's administration. At the same time the narrator visits a challenging older version of Amparo Dávila who claims the narrator really doesn't understand anything. Questions arise surrounding what makes an authentic identity in terms of gender, social standing, citizenship and political beliefs. When the young version of Dávila arrives at the house the narrator is drawn to the prominent bone of her pelvis and feels a mixture of desire and fear. The struggle to recall the name of this bone and acknowledge the truth lying beneath appearances becomes central to the story. This is such an intriguing book and I feel like it's going to take some time for its meaning to fully sink in. 

Experimental fiction which uses a non-traditional approach to plot structure and characters feels like it works best for me when I'm engaged by the immediate story, but only feel its subtler effects as time progresses. There are so many intriguing parts in this novel like the way people come to be named by the narrator as “the Betrayed” or “the False One” as a way of narrowly defining or claiming ownership to them. But, at one point, the narrator switches from the one in authority to the one being prosecuted. It disrupts the narrator's sense of being and his/her certainty about the world. The conscious and unconscious world start to blur into each other. The more ardently the narrator tries to understand things and insist that he is a man the more confused the narrator becomes. I was particularly intrigued by how the narrator is so drawn to the ocean and staring at the ocean as a way of obliterating the need for control: “You need the ocean for this: to stop believing in reality. To ask yourself impossible questions. To not know. To cease knowing. To become intoxicated by the smell. To close your eyes. To stop believing in reality.” 

It's interesting how this novel was first published in Mexico in 2002, but it's only just now been published in English for the first time. Its themes seem even more relevant today in terms of how borders are defined and laid out in a way which doesn't necessarily correspond with our subjective reality or the way we physically inhabit the world. These are the borders between one place and another and between one gender and another. The more rigidly these borders are defined the more conflict seems to arise. In the afterward, the novel's translator Sarah Booker describes how these themes are particularly relevant to Garza having grown up near the US/Mexico border. The novel seeks to disrupt our fixed ideas of reality as they've been socially constructed and demarcated by the society we inhabit. I enjoyed being immersed in its atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. I'm sure it'll be a book I'll think back on often and which will greatly benefit from a re-reading as it contains many hidden treasures. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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This is the first time I’ve read a book by acclaimed novelist and short story writer Christine Schutt, but she has a disarming and fascinating way of writing about self-consciousness, family and the passage of time.  In “Pure Hollywood” the opening title story is also the longest tale in this collection. It’s an impressionistic story of a brother and sister after the sister’s much older husband dies. He was a wealthy famous comedian, but she soon finds she’s shut out of any substantial inheritance and she’s forced to vacate the modernist home she inhabited like a California Hockney painting. The odd series of events which make up her life feel as if they’ve been crafted in a Hollywood film script so she forms an odd emotional distance from her own sense of being. This is a feeling that recurs throughout many of the stories in this book where the enormity of characters’ loves and losses have a sense of being scripted and so they are abstracted out of the personal. What’s left is the sordid and grimy reality that they inhabit like bemused spectators blinking in the sunlight after spending too long in a dark movie theatre.

The stories include a range of characters from an affluent young couple on holiday to men purchasing flowers for a garden to a widow harangued by her daughters about her growing drinking habit. But almost all the characters are accompanied by some sense of personal loss whether it’s a spouse or child. Gardens also frequently feature in the stories so running alongside these deaths are a proliferation of plants and flowers growing with stubborn insistence. Tied into this surrounding life is a sense of eroticism, but the presence of gardens isn’t necessarily comforting or benign. In ‘The Duchess of Albany’ it’s stated “The garden was not genteel.”  In fact, two of the stories refer to the surrounding flora as “thuggish” as if they are mocking or bullying these survivors. Gardens must be tended and cared for, but also controlled and wrangled with just like the people in these characters’ unruly lives. The result is a bewitching mingling of imagery and sensations about how our relationships grow beautifully, but soon wilt or threaten to restrictively entangle us.

"The Duchess of Albany was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a clematis with deep pink, upside-down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells."

"The Duchess of Albany was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a clematis with deep pink, upside-down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells."

It’s interesting how some of the stories slip into the surreal. The story ‘Where You Live, When You Need Me?’ about a woman named Ella who is employed by a number of affluent mothers to care for their children is particularly intriguing. The narrator reports how this child carer is much trusted, but no one knows much about her. At the same time as Ella appears the body parts of unknown children start being found in KFC buckets. The story has a high-pitched unsettling edge while not giving any conclusions. It strongly reminded me of Schweblin’s anxiety-inducing novel “Fever Dream”. The shortest stories in this collection seem to be the ones where Schutt also takes the most narrative risks in a way which doesn’t always feel successful or satisfying. Yet these micro stories also left some unsettling concepts lingering in my mind such as ‘Family Man’ where a husband living a remote “country-quiet life” feels that “The past sleds behind him.” But, on the whole, it feels like longer stories allow Schutt the space to develop characters that will resonate more powerfully such as an imperious rich old horse rider named Mrs Pall-Meyer or an irascible highly sexed famous painter named Gordon. On the whole I enjoyed these stories which have a vertiginous power to disorient their reader and articulate the peculiar subtleties of conflicting emotions. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

When I was a teenager one of my favourite authors was Eugene Ionesco – I was much more into theatre/ playwriting at that time than I was into reading novels. One of his most famous plays “Exit the King” depicts a belligerent king who sees his kingdom and followers literally disappearing around him. Yuri Herrera’s novel “Kingdom Cons” shows a similarly absurdist sensibility and medieval-in-nature drama to discuss contemporary existentialist issues. But rather than focus on the perspective of the tyrannical ruler, Herrera’s protagonist is an artist/musician named Lobo who ingratiates himself into becoming a part of the court of a “king.” In reality this king is the leader of a drug cartel, but the descriptions of his followers (a witch/heir/doctor/commoners) and the manner of their business all hark back to a mythic time centuries ago. The gritty realism of gang warfare is mixed with a language that invokes vast royal kingdoms grasping for power. Lobo seeks to find his place and maintain the authenticity of his songs amidst these bloody battles to maintain control.

This is a very short novel and Herrera’s writing leaps between vast cerebral subjects to peculiar tangents. I was really up for an absurdist take on gang violence and the artist’s sensibility, but unfortunately this book didn’t come together for me. It felt too erratic and passed too quickly. Lobo’s struggle about how far he should compromise in order to gain the favour of the king and enjoy everything that goes with privilege is compelling: “he kept telling himself that to lie for Him was worth it, it was”. But this doesn’t develop as substantially as it could. It’s let down further by the sense that as an artist Lobo sees himself as fundamentally better than everyone else around him: “The only special one was him.” This really put me off his character and I found the arc of his journey sadly devolved into an unnecessary quest to save his lover.

The question of an artist’s role in society is compelling, especially when artists are under pressure to manipulate or use their artwork for political purposes. This issue was explored so powerfully in the novels “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes and “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien which used real historical incidents within their stories. I think it would be possible to meaningful explore similar themes in a fantastical or absurdist landscape, but Herrera doesn’t quite accomplish this in a novel so brief and cryptic. It felt particularly disappointing to me since I’ve heard lots of great things about this writer and was so eager to try one of his books. But even though “Kingdom Cons” didn’t work for me, I’d still be interested to try reading his earlier novels.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYuri Herrera
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There's something really compelling and endearing about the prolific maverick Argentinian writer César Aira. He takes an idea and runs with it pulling the reader through madcap, existential or surreal adventures. Previously, I've only read his novel “The Seamstress and the Wind” but I can tell likes to take his characters on trips: both physical journeys and through altered psychological states that warp reality. “The Little Buddhist Monk” (first published in 2005 under the title “El Pequeño Monje Budista”) is about a diminutive monk who feels his life was meant for something much larger than the circumscribed existence in his native Korea. French couple Napoleon and Jacqueline arrive in the country seeking artistic inspiration and cultural edification. The small man has difficulty being seen, but once they notice him he offers to take them to an out of the way monastery. What at first appears like a realistic cross-cultural experience gradually morphs into something much more strange and abstract. In this way, Aira challenges and surprises while making uncommon connections.

The reader first becomes attuned to something off-kilter about Aira’s landscape when the monk and French couple travel to the monastery. Individuals periodically pull the emergency brake on the train and exit onto stations which look slightly off to Napoleon and Jacqueline. The monk confides to them that these people have been enchanted by witches that inhabit the surrounding environment and find it fun to prank travellers into stopping at stations which don’t really exist. This concept of people being controlled by unknown forces repeats in later revelations about the monk’s state of being. It prompts questions about the degree of liberty people are capable of possessing. We often dream of living beyond the bounds of the lives we’re born into, but few people are actually able to break out of the paths created through our particular circumstances and culture. It also asks the degree of difference between one place and another in the modern world: “globalisation, which nowadays had converted all civilisations into one.” The French couple travel to experience some “authentic” kind of other, yet find themselves in a reality that has merely been formatted for their consumption.

Another dominant concept of the novel is about the question of perspective. Napoleon is a photographer who takes 360 degree photos as a way of trying to capture the totality of a particular time and place. The mischievous monks at the monastery dart in and out of the picture frame because they find it funny, but their image isn’t captured due to the long exposure. So does Napoleon’s photo fully capture the reality of this place? Aira questions the validity of realism in artwork stating “The less realist a work of art, the more the artist has been obliged to get his hands dirty in the mud of reality.” It could be that through his absurdist storytelling, the author more fully engages with our psychological reality rather than novels that render a landscape within nature’s laws. One of the final concepts this novel poses is a television program which the monk is desperate to watch as it claims to definitively map female genitalia. This is a humorous joke about some men’s inability to sexually satisfy women because they can’t locate the pleasure spot, but it also says something about our difficulty in really seeing each other even when we’re as intimate as possible and completely stripped down.

It’s challenging to get the reader to truly care about the journey of the characters in such cerebral writing. But I feel Aira shows real empathy for his characters’ situations and takes their struggles seriously even while driving them through the funhouse of his creation. There’s tension in the French couple’s relationship when Jacqueline sees no place for herself in Napoleon’s all-encompassing photographs. She finds that “In real life there were no enchanted princesses, only hopes extinguished by routine, by prosaic and gradual deaths.” Their many journeys abroad do little to bring the pair emotionally closer together. I was even more compelled by the monk’s dilemma who seeks to become larger than the small existence he’s been programmed to live.

Aira is such a curious writer, but I think his novels only manage to be so compelling because they are so brief. There are now over eighty of them! His style of leaping from idea to idea around a central story concept wouldn’t be sustained very well in a larger fictional work. For instance, I don’t think he could pull off a novel as long as Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsolled” or "The Buried Giant" which follow dream-like structures. Nevertheless, Aira’s absurdist imagery peppered with philosophical musing has such a seductive appeal. It’s invigorating writing that has a curious way of lingering in the reader’s imagination.

Last month I responded to the Try a Story TAG on Youtube to read the first story of five different collections and “Vertigo” was one of them. Whether “Vertigo” is a book of stories or a novel is something which could be debated. Many of the sections/chapters/stories follow a woman at various stages in her life: travelling without her husband, dealing with her mother's death, attending an engagement as an esteemed professional. It might be the same character or different women. Few personal details or names are given, yet Joanna Walsh gets at the heart of her protagonist's life so that you feel immediately involved in her story. She does this through an innovative and compelling style which shifts your perspective to let you see the fully rounded truth of emotional experience. These finely-crafted vignettes give a refreshing and sometimes startling perspective on our ever-shifting identities.

There is a fascinating attention to physical detail and space throughout this book. Quite often there will be descriptions about the exact placement between the narrator and other people in a cafe she might happen to be in, the dynamics of the room and the environment outside. It's as if the protagonist is desperately trying to establish a presence wherever she's located in order to affirm and better understand her place within and relationship to the world. This is similar to when we're trying to comfort someone when they are upset by saying “There there.” This is a way of conveying “You are there” or “You are not lost.” These spatial descriptions often occur in instances when there is reason for the character to be highly distressed such as knowing that her husband might be having an affair or waiting for news about a sick child's prognosis.

Walsh's use of space extends from the physical world to the interior. She writes about the sky and water as a reflective surface. A woman window shops in Paris and it's noted of the clothing on display: “come December the first wisps of lace and chiffon will appear and with them bottomless skies reflected blue in mirror swimming pools.” It makes me think about how we try to reflect each other in style and dress, how we try to present ourselves as one thing until we begin to believe that the presentation is the reality and how people only see the exterior but sometimes see hints of untold depth. Later in ‘Summer Story’ it's observed that “there were puddles that looked deep and reflected the sunwashed sky.” These images create a strong sense of the physical world as well as building a meaningful feeling for how social personality is constructed.

In ‘Claustrophobia' there is a sense in which family is both a comfort and a thing of dread. Walsh has an interesting way of approaching the concept of home where she states “Home is a rehearsal, by which I mean a repetition like in French: both what’s behind the curtain and in front of it, a cherry cake studded with the same surprise on repeat. It confirms itself; it must confirm itself.” It's challenging to think of home as not the main event but a repeated series of actions and reactions to create consistency. Eventually we begin to believe that the comforts of domestic bliss are not a construct but real or an inevitability. When this is not confirmed, when members of that home go off script (as they do in some stories where there is family illness or a wife discovers her husband has been meeting women online) then these well ordered, repeated narratives of daily life become severely disrupted. The title story ‘Vertigo’ speaks powerfully about the fear of settling into domestic happiness. Yet the final story 'Drowning' seems to suggest that its only through a flirtation with the infinite alternative possibilities of life that we can find real comfort in making a home.

It's interesting that I happen to be rereading Jean Rhys' books at the moment because the tone of many of these stories is somewhat similar to her novels. Walsh frequently gives a wry look at the hard facts of life whether its a narrator noticing the ironically cheery images on the outfit of a medical profession or a beleaguered woman in Paris looking for affirmation in the admittedly superficial pleasure of clothes shopping. In particular ‘Summer Story’ shows a woman who knowingly debases herself in a search for affection and passion: “With all the time I have, I could learn a language, I could read a book, I could write a book. In the end I walk nowhere and the wind gets up wand the rain starts and it is still too early to go to his party.” There is a keen sense of aimless wandering which the narrator knows can't build to anything meaningful and putting faith in possibilities which she knows will bear no fruit.

Perspective shifts from story to story so that we see the central woman or women from different angles. This shift changes the feeling between each section so it's sometimes painfully intimate or at other times more objectively detached. One of the most comic stories ‘Young Mothers’ takes a satirical edge on motherhood in a way similar to Helen Ellis' hilarious book “American Housewife” from earlier this year: “we looked after our young selves, awarding ourselves little treats – cakes, glasses of juice or wine – never too much.” It's narrated in the collective which is a perfectly suited format to convey how these new mothers unite to infantilize themselves as a way of halting the process of ceding youth to the next generation they've created.

“Vertigo” frequently makes you linger on certain lines to consider the possible interpretations and the full impact what's being said. It's artful how this doesn't disrupt the flow of each section or story but allows you to engage with the emotional dilemmas more fully. This is a strikingly original, thoughtful and creatively executed book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoanna Walsh
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I had almost finished reading César Aira's short novel on my way home from a book launch last night when I stopped at a Chinese takeaway to get my dinner. After placing my order, I sat down to continue reading when an eight year old boy came up to me and asked if I knew I had entered a force field which transported me to another time. I replied I didn't know that and asked what time I was now in. He said we are now in 2008 which is the year he was born. He looked up thoughtfully and reasoned that this meant he wasn't really here yet. Such an unexpected plunge into the realm of fantasy is entirely in sync with this surreal and surprising novel.

The main story involves a car chase. Seamstress Delia Siffoni's son has gone missing. Believing he might be in the back of a neighbour's large truck that has embarked on a long haul drive, she pursues him. Her gambler husband Ramón pursues Delia and in pursuit of Ramón is a mysterious little blue car. Following all of them is a gust of wind named Ventarrón which carries a wedding dress. There's also a sinister monstrous baby let loose on the world after a horrific incident. This might all sound bizarre enough, but it gets a lot stranger. There's an Alice in Wonderland-type journey through the convoluted labyrinth of a truck. One character's skin colour changes. A meteorological phenomenon falls in love. At all times, you are aware that this novel is a construct as it is a story being composed by a writer sitting in a Parisian cafe. In doing so, Aira creates a bewitching tale at the same time as meditating on the meaning of invention, memory and art.

The writer is upfront at the novel's beginning that all he has for this book is a title. How he goes about constructing a story to fill that title is something he pauses to consider in depth. Most would consider that novels are formed out of a blend of a writer's experience and imagination. What else could it be? But Aira is intent on utilizing the state of forgetfulness for his creativity rather than inventing a story: “In loss everything comes together.” He's mistrustful of imagination because he feels it will always draw upon memory which is unreliable. Rather than tie his creation to the past he wants it to exist freely: “Forgetting is like a great alchemy free of secrets, limpid, transforming everything into the present. In the end it makes our lives into this visible and tangible thing we hold in our hands, with no folds left hidden in the past. I seek it, to oblivion, in the insanity of art.” So the novel is a sort of freeform exercise based in what he doesn't recall and the result is a bizarre episodic series of events and descriptions which follow a dream-like logic.

Since I was having trouble puzzling over what to make of Aira's novel I asked these cute kids what they thought it was about. They answered time travel and Vikings.

Since I was having trouble puzzling over what to make of Aira's novel I asked these cute kids what they thought it was about. They answered time travel and Vikings.

I'm not sure I believe it's possible for Aira or “the writer” to create a story untied to the past. You certainly can't fit the strange images and twists of the story into any neat interpretation, but that doesn't mean they aren't based in part on his lived experience or emotional experience. He tries to hold his characters such as Delia in the present as she is spontaneously created: “Delia is not the luminous miniature in the reels of any movie projector. I said she was a real woman, and I submit myself to my words, to some of them at least... to the words before they make sentences, when they are still purely present.” But details arise, such as how the local housewives who don't work look sneeringly down upon Delia for maintaining a profession as a seamstress even though her husband works. This economic imbalance and sexist social injustice feels like it was inspired by the writer's experience either directly or indirectly. Similarly, there is a touching way how the writer describes his boyhood when the trucker Chiquito created snowmen for him to enjoy. The sentiment of this friendly, playful gesture feels real as well. I'm not saying these things happened to Aira and I never try to interpret a writer’s life into my reading, but how can there be any emotional resonance if it didn’t come from a person with experience? It feels to me like there is an emotional truth, rather than historical truth, which comes through whether the writer is conscious of it or not.

César Aira is an incredibly prolific Argentinian novelist with around eighty novels and novellas to his name. That his output is so rapid isn’t surprising when you read this novel – not because it lacks craft or refinement, but there is a rapid fire quality to the prose where ideas and images are boiling over to form an outrageous plot. His writing has been compared to Borges and it came across like reading an Italo Calvino novel to me or watching a David Lynch film. It’s clearly not cosy fiction, but it’s sophisticated and energetic writing which will leave you scratching your head with curious wonder. I have a feeling certain powerful eerie scenes will stick with me more than his theories on narrative. Most of all, I admire the sheer uncompromising audacity and verve of this novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCésar Aira

It feels like a provocation for an author to include another author's name in the title of her book – especially if she calls that other author a dog within the subtitle. The name comes out of a section of the novel about a brothel in a run-down town called Caudal in Spain. There's a kennel at the back filled only with male dogs who are given the names of male authors after a feminist comes to visit the prostitutes who work there. There's also a canary bird called Harold Bloom. When clients are cruel to the prostitutes they take it out on the dogs by feeding them rotten meat. Later this image of consuming rotten meat is repeated when a man named Rodrigo dreams of a starving man who is only given putrid scraps from a butcher to eat. Images of putrid sustenance in place of nourishment for men who have heretofore escaped punishment have a strong resonance in this “civilized” society. Rodrigo is telling this story to a girl named Araceli who comes to see him at a hotel on her very first job as a call girl. Araceli is fascinated by a neighbouring woman named Alba Cambo who writes dark short stories that she and her mother seek out to read. It's difficult to pin down a single plot for this novel set in the Spanish landscape. It's essentially a collection of anecdotes, yet they all feel eerily tied together and are frequently fascinating. What Wolff gets at through all her divergences and stories within dreams within stories is a special commentary on the way self-perception works in conjunction with the way others view us.

There are stories in here about people who sell themselves, who cheat on their spouses and who live in unbearably bitter loneliness. Characters seem guided more by instinct than by logic. It's stated that “You never really know anything about anything. At best you have an aching feeling in your stomach and a compass that sometimes points right, and other times spins crazily.” Much of the time there is a slightly surreal edge to things so that when a man slips and falls unconscious in the middle of a Sitges dinner party it doesn't seem strange that conversation just carries on. People feel on guard about becoming too close to others or allowing them into their lives. They feel caution is needed because “beneath the thick skin of even the most armour-plated person there is always a crack that runs straight to the centre and you should think it over very carefully before raising a hand to signal your willingness to fall inside.” Indeed when a group of students surprise their teacher with a bottle of bubbly she unexpectedly opens up about her severe disappointment with life in a direct and uncomfortable way. So too when Araceli takes Rodrigo on as a client, but it turns out he's not after sex as he was sent to her by Alba and her own mother. Instead he wants to talk all night which strikes Araceli as in some ways more difficult to take because “Selling your body was one thing – but your mind, that was prostitution on an unparalleled scale.”

In this novel Lina Wolff is saying something really striking and original about human relationships and our relationship with literary culture. Children attending a school see literature as a diet which must be as balanced and nutritious as the food they consume: 'As literary anorexics we have to make sure we get some Borges inside us,' Muriel said. 'A few words a day, a few words that are the extremely nutritious parts of the tuna. Those are the bits that will feed us, and those are the bits from which we will be born.' This resonates strongly as I often feel that consuming the right books is important as eating right. There's a loutish man named Ilich who has an affair with Alba and blackmails Rodrigo who takes it upon himself to read “The Old Man and The Sea.” His crass interpretation of the book is laughable to Rodrigo who is more cultured. Yet, it is Ilich who ultimately succeeds in business and with Rodrigo's wife despite living a life which has been devoid of literary nourishment. When he flips through some salacious pages of Houellebecq's novel “Platform” he comments: “So this is what literature is all about? A bunch of wankers who stick pages together with their own sperm? Ha! It's enough to make you weep.” Wolff expresses in her stories a frustration with the hard economic realities of the world, but also a suspicion of the male-dominated literary culture. Her approach to depicting this reality is disarming and refreshing. “Bret Easton Ellis and The Other Dogs” is a highly unusual and haunting read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLina Wolff

If you don’t feel like you belong in the place of your birth, can you ever really feel at home elsewhere? This seems to be one of the questions at the heart of SJ Naude’s book. The six long stories which make up “The Alphabet of Birds” range in characters and locations, but all describe individuals groping for a connection and an affirmation of identity somewhere “other.” Many of the protagonists are South Africans struggling with an internal battle between asserting that their country of origin is the place where they belong and trying to emphatically dig their roots in elsewhere. Some prominent characters are gay men who meet other men in distant locations as if they are both survivors. There is a consolation in coming together, but there is no suggestion that there will be a lasting fraternity or that the artistic friends’ houses, German castles or drug-fuelled night clubs they find themselves in can ever closely resemble somewhere that can be called home.

A character purchases a Noh mask in Japan which changes emotion depending on how it is tilted

A character purchases a Noh mask in Japan which changes emotion depending on how it is tilted

Most notably the female character Ondien who appears in two stories founds a musical group that fuses together world sounds with African instruments. The group dissolves, yet she still seeks to write a music which creates unity. She embarks on a quest to visit her siblings who have settled in America, Dubai and London only to discover they are all in desperate circumstances. Their new homes have transformed into uniquely suffocating traps. She returns to South Africa to live an increasingly impoverished existence. Wherever these characters go they are accompanied by a profound sense of isolation and are plagued by loss. She discovers that “You steal from someone weaker, the stronger ones steal from you. You return to your weaker victim. Things circulate. A life cycle, an ecosystem.” The society portrayed is one founded on transactions of taking rather than exchange. Even when a woman named Sandrien in the story ‘Van’ dedicates herself to a life of philanthropy giving medical care to rural villages, her efforts are drowned in tidal waves of red tape, corruption and indifference.

It all sounds quite bleak and much of the striking drama in this book is undeniably solemn. Yet, Naude has a beautiful way with his prose that makes these stories feel consoling rather than harrowing. It faces up to reality rather than avoiding uncomfortable dilemmas or feelings. Sometimes the thoughtfulness of Naude’s writing grows too abstracted from the action of the story so it’s difficult to decipher what is actually happening in certain parts. Yet, through a persistent accumulation of images, scenes and feelings the reader is left with impressions of experience. This isn’t a light read, but it’s in many ways a hypnotic one. I did come across a rare passage which made me chuckle. One younger character admonishes an older one that “You should leave behind all the gym nonsense; the weight of weights settles into your muscles after a while.” What a fantastic justification to give up the gym! This appears in the final story ‘Loose’ which has a special radiance with its descriptions of dance as a way of strategically carving a way through the space of the world and expressing emotion. The title itself, one letter away from the word “lose,” suggests perhaps that a loss of self can be prevented by remaining in perpetual motion.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSJ Naude
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