Mouthful.jpg

Like many people, I was fascinated by the surreal atmosphere and ambiguous meaning of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin's novel “Fever Dream” when it first appeared in English a couple of years ago. Now a collection of her short fiction has just been published and it's of a similar sinister vibe with odd twists of logic that often veer into near nightmares. Here are stories of children that transform into butterflies, businessmen who are turned into farm hands, a dissatisfied wife who meets an amorous merman and a daughter whose new diet consists solely of consuming living birds. This subject matter could easily feel whimsical if it were written by another author, but Schweblin maintains elements of psychological truth so this fiction continues to feel real even if it's filled with the fantastical. Her stories often feel like puzzles where the meaning is tantalizingly close and I could solve it if I could just work out the intricately constructed design she's skilfully created. But, of course, these stories offer no definitive answers – just glimpses of the inexpressible fears, desires and carnage which simmer just under the surface of our everyday reality.

The way Schweblin approaches common themes from an unlikely angle brings out a new kind of emotional honesty. So subjects such as infidelity, miscarriages, eating disorders, spousal abuse, body image and depression are explored in these stories but in a way which defamiliarises the way we commonly think about them. Although the stories are fantasies they deal with serious issues. For instance, in the story 'Preserves' a woman whose unborn child dies in uterus goes through the process of pregnancy with the support of her family even though they know the child will be stillborn. It shows how the idea of a new child forms so fully in the minds of the family its due to be born into and becomes part of their lives even before its arrival. So the story considers how to deal with feelings of mourning which can arise in this tragic situation common to many families. It's a different kind of magical thinking from what Kit De Waal describes in her novel “The Trick to Time”.

Another story which had a strong resonance for me was the titular tale 'Mouthful of Birds' which describes the perspective of a father whose daughter begins only consuming living birds and refuses to engage in discussions. He's separated from his wife and when the daughter is left in his care he witnesses her deteriorating health because he doesn't want to support her barbaric new diet. In one of the few instances when the daughter speaks she asks if her father loves her and in this moment there is so much unexpressed longing and sorrow as she desperately tries to find a way to control her crumbling family and situation.

The way Schweblin approaches her subject matter feels most poignant when it’s teased out in her longer stories. I felt some of the less successful and least impactful tales were also some of the shorter pieces such as ‘Butterflies’ and 'Rage of Pestilence'. In these it seemed like a central concept was compressed too explicitly into surreal imagery. Some stories also stretch too far into the oblique and become twisted up in a convoluted structure such as 'Olingiris'. Schweblin’s ideas come more alive when they are situated in longer stories such as ‘Headlights’ where brides left on the roadside congregate into a vengeful swarm or 'Heads Against Concrete' where a narrator’s violent impulses, emotional disconnection and racial prejudice are translated into “high” art. Better yet, some of the most eerie tales are where the central object of the story remains entirely unseen and unnamed such as a couple’s desperate attempts to “capture” a child in 'On the Steppe' or a village of vanished children in 'Underground'.

Samanta Schweblin & writer Valeria Luiselli in conversation

Not all the stories in this book are so outrageously bizarre. Some such as 'Santa Claus Sleeps at our House' and 'The Test' are so deeply ensconced in the narrator’s perspective that reality seems to be shifting around them due to innocence or guilt. Still others movingly capture people’s concealed emotions such as 'The Size of Things' where a rich, successful man steadily regresses while inhabiting a toy shop. Other stories grope at understanding the unknowable emotional condition of others such as a man that suffers from depression in 'My Brother Walter' or the story ‘Irman’ where the death of a man’s wife swiftly leaves him perilously helpless.

Overall I loved getting lost in these tales with their refreshing flavour for the absurd. They brim with a vibrant creativity and I admire the way they offer a warped counter reality to life.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
People-in-the-Room.jpg

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. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNorah Lange
FeverDream.jpg

This gripping novel made me immediately flip back to the beginning to search for details I might have missed. I also felt compelled to search for other people’s opinions online to try to figure out what happened. “Fever Dream” is an incredibly creepy and mesmerising story about a woman named Amanda confined in a rural hospital having a tense conversation with her neighbour’s son David. She discusses with him her arrival at a holiday home with her daughter Nina (her husband is due to arrive later) and events involving David’s mother Carla. At first I found this to be quite a disorientating story because it’s largely composed of dialogue taking place in two distinct time periods, but once I had a good handle on the characters I felt completely wrapped in the mystery. I didn’t entirely understand what was happening, but I knew a lot was at stake as David continuously prompts Amanda to skip over parts of the story that are “not important.” Time is limited because he tells Amanda that her life is drawing to a close.

Reading “Fever Dream” felt like the experience of watching a Guillermo del Toro film where reality is slightly distorted as something very sinister is happening just beneath the surface of all the events taking place. We’re in that blurry territory that borders the fantastical and the psychologically disturbed. In this way, the novel accurately recreates the experience of being in a feverish state of mind. There are horses that go missing, a boy that turns into a monster, dead ducks, a disease that’s “like worms” and a poison that permeates the environment. Because of Amanda’s hazy sense of consciousness and uncertain memory, this story has an infectious hallucinatory effect that left me highly unsettled and grasping for understanding.

One of the prevailing themes of the novel is the degree to which we’re connected to the people we love the most. Amanda frequently expresses concern throughout the story that she wants to keep her daughter Nina within “rescue distance,” which is another way of saying within the bounds of her protective reach. She envisions it like an invisible rope connecting them and if Nina roams too far away this virtual rope will snap. This accurately reflects the way the people we love inhabit our consciousness – something which causes us happiness but also anxiety because we fear for their safety. In her debilitated state in the hospital, Amanda repeatedly expresses concern for the whereabouts of Nina. David assures her that this isn’t important, but of course for Amanda her daughter’s safety is the most important thing. The way in which children are individuals we alternately fear and fear for reminded me of the similarly gothic novel “The Children’s Home” by Charles Lambert. It could be that David is reminding Amanda that in the end we are quintessentially alone or he could be a sinister force compelling Amanda to break her connection with the person she cares for the most.

The tension over whether Amanda should trust David or his mother Carla is so interesting. Carla is mistrustful of her son, yet she seems to be the one preventing Amanda from leaving this uneasy environment when she becomes alarmed. Schweblin drops in tantalizing imagery such as the way Carla wears a gold bikini or the ominous dampness which covers Nina’s clothes which Amanda mistakenly assumes is dew from the grass. These are details which feel intensely vivid, yet their meaning is uncertain. The story needles the reader’s sub-conscious playing upon our unexpressed fears and anxieties in a way that simulates how we are helpless participants within a nightmare. For such a short novel “Fever Dream” makes an incredibly compelling and satisfying puzzle.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
10 CommentsPost a comment

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.

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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCésar Aira