The Black Friday of Book Sales

That particular time of my particular year has come and gone once again: the annual weekend-long book sale put on by one of the local research libraries. I’ve discussed with another bibliophile how this event irritates me in a way I can’t quite identify; after all, there’s nothing especially unique about the chaos that ensues, the destruction of categorized sections, when greedy crowds flock in with their cardboard boxes and foldable dollies, staking their territory with the carton they’re currently in the business of filling almost haphazardly, blocking not only the stack of books on offer underneath said carton, but also clogging the already too-narrow aisles that force together the glutes of strangers who would never consent to such frottage in normal life.

Public domain image by Eli Francis, available from Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe the slight resentment arises when faced with the sheer volume of books on offer, and within all that tonnage, with the inevitable amount of crap and/or things that every respectable college freshman should already have on hand somewhere—pure bargain ballast that kills the hope of uncovering the truly great finds we’re led to expect from a place that specializes in classy historical seminars and snooty reading groups.

I always end up wondering what happens to all those mass-produced editions of The Symposium or Siddhartha. How it is that anyone at these sales doesn’t already have a copy? Is it that the brittle yellow pages are reproducing themselves, Magician’s Nephew-fashion, in some weird attempt to take over even the smallest garage sale in the most backwater corner of non-reading America? I still hear talk of too many PhDs being churned out, that there aren’t nearly enough positions for these over-educated debtors to fill—but even that horde, combined with all the incoming first-years at all of the colleges still requiring actual books, couldn’t consume this glut of prescribed greats. Do these things just keep circulating from one sale to the next? Do they have semi-interesting histories, as in those tales of violins or pearl earrings or, hell, tissues, hundreds of hands have traded over the centuries?

I don’t know. All I’m aware of is the fact that I was lured in once again—that I made, in fact, two trips, resulting in a total of eight books that will have to find some place on my already crowded shelves. And that, after scanning table after table filled with 19th-century British and American classics and slabs of Wallace Stegners and Richard Russos,* I am exhausted and completely unable to open even one of the volumes I bought. And finally, that I will be back again next year, grumbling at nuisances so vague, I wonder whether I’m just making them up, an ineffectual excuse to counter my addiction to books, plain and simple.

 

* Had Richard Russo, as in the author himself, been lying on a table, I would have been oddly charmed. Maybe it would have helped for him to hold all of his works atop his body, or use them as a sort of pallet, as a way of maintaining order. I don’t know what sorts of conversations he and Stegner could have had with that arrangement made for both of them; the set-up might have been even more interesting had the latter’s own preserved corpse been present, Lenin-like under glass.

Advertisements

The Collective as Protagonist

Yesterday, I decided to blow through a novel that’s been on my to-be-read shelf for about a decade. I’ll have to admit: the design of Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons did nothing to attract me to the book. The full-cover photograph only differentiates itself from generic shots anyone’s dad could have taken on vacation by the fact that an orange gel was apparently placed over the lens. Combine that with an uninspiring title font, and you fear you’ll be faced with a cheesy Sunday school text from the 1970s. But I put my image-based prejudices behind me, and dove into a book that deserves a much better visual introduction.

The unfortunate cover put out by Oxford- and Portsmouth, NH-based Heinemann, 1979.

Reading this work was a strange experience, in that, at first, it just felt like one more piece of constructed folklore with nothing to set it apart from other, similar attempts to grapple with the history of slavery and colonialism. But even during that somewhat blah initial stage, I couldn’t put the book down. And then, a little over halfway through, there I was, terrified at what I knew was going to happen—and terrified for characters who’d only recently come onto the scene, and who only stood out as a group (and one of fluctuating numbers at that) from the larger society with whom we’d been moving up to this point. What I may be trying to say is that I only really became invested in this tale when something like identifiable personalities started to emerge out of the communal mass—but in emerging, never split themselves off from each other, and never revealed just who the narrator was.

It was a brilliant illustration on Armah’s part of the theme of (lost) reciprocity and interconnection that runs throughout Two Thousand Suns. An incarnation of the book’s allegation that self-separation is as good as death, and self-elevation both a root of destruction for a healthily functioning society, and an inherent attribute of those people bent on exerting power over and destroying others. The author somehow managed to portray entire masses as more than bunched statistics, without making any one person’s story more worthy or significant than another’s.

The novel was also interesting in Armah’s emphasis of gender equality as key to reciprocity—this at a time before questions of pronoun usage and fluid identities had become anywhere close to the mainstream.(1) For the most part, it was a welcome surprise—but was undermined at first by what felt like the old trick of justifying a bit of porn by making it the setting for victims taking revenge on their oppressors.(2)

Overall, it was fabulous to feel myself lost inside a book, and to give over most of a day to completing it—and to walk away with some uncertainties about how to rate it. At the very least, it was a reminder that one really shouldn’t judge a book by its terribly awful cover.

 

(1) The book was originally published in 1973.

(2) viz., pp. 21–4, where the slaves use the occasion of an orgy to bring out knives and poisons in the midst of servicing their persecutors.

Of Flies and Finitude: No Final Judgment Thus Far

I don’t remember how I originally came across Fredrik Sjöberg’s The Fly Trap, or what drew me to it; I don’t even remember where I finally purchased the little volume. Tomas Traströmer’s appreciative blurb on the back cover did nudge me—although I was puzzled for a while about the poet’s conviction that the text “reveal[s] sudden insights into one’s life. Sometimes I almost think that he wrote it for me.”(1) It’s not that the book is bad, not that it lacks seriousness. Maybe it just took me a while to understand what this mix of biography and essay was trying to do—or maybe it took Sjöberg took a while to figure out what Sjöberg was trying to do.

Henry Hacker with insect-collecting equipment, 1907. Public domain image available via State Library of Queensland on Wikimedia Commons.

The “goal,” if there is a single one, appears to be giving an account of René Malaise, a hero in Sjöberg’s field of entomology—and in doing so, trying (it seems) to explain Malaise’s (and maybe the author’s) life by the man’s inability to limit himself to one thing, to devote himself to one science, or to a particular subsection thereof, and to really just stick with that his entire life. And so the biography and the theme that seems to rule it form a sort of lumpy mixture—a warning I missed early-on with Sjöberg’s admission that “Here and there, my story is about something else. Exactly what, I don’t know. Some days I tell myself my mission is to say something about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation.”(2)

I think the best way to describe my disquiet is via the sense that the author steps up to complex matters, hands out a spiffy word-chunk about them, and then trots off to other things, as if passing out starter koans before immediately dragging his followers along to the next bodhi tree, not allowing them time or space to think over these bits of wisdom. (Perhaps this is what Traströmer meant by “sudden insights.”) I think I’m right in saying that the second mention we get of limits/limitation is in a discourse about Malaise’s travels and all the new species he discovered thereon. The author states he’d go nuts trying to deal with such variety, follows that with a reasonable explanation that he’s “interested only in hoverflies,” and goes on to assert that “For people like me, limits are an essential part of life.”(3) Well, yes. That’s a potentially important statement, one that could apply in so many ways to life in general. But Sjöberg then demonstrates just how much he limits himself by tossing off a three-sentence reference to his own trip to Rangoon one time, and then we’re on to the particular sorts of insect trap Malaise invented.

Maybe that assertion was just a hint of what we’re meant to look for throughout the rest of the text, a hazy assurance that we’ll get a gradual answer to why people like him need limits. The same mention-and-flee tactic is used almost half the time Sjöberg gestures at the significance of limitation.(4) At first, I was irritated by what felt less like a failure to expand upon a claim, and more like an inability to concentrate, to focus—a variety, I suppose, of the art of limitation. But then I began, grudgingly, to appreciate the light touch, to see that theme of limitations play out in discussions of islands and in “buttonology,” the potentially dark side of limitation that in extreme cases might better be called shutting oneself off from the world.(5) I began to appreciate Sjöberg’s unwillingness to run with these glimmers that might pull lesser authors into self-helpy advice and admonishment, or onto the path of sentimentality or the nostrums of positive psychology. But it did take me a while to get past feeling teased with little whiffs of significance. If you want to be subtle about it, I often felt, then be subtle: don’t keep explicitly bringing up your theme without slowing down and going with it.

That sense of readerly indignation, though, calmed down, and gratitude for that lack of explicitness or prolonged discussion began to settle in. This change of heart may be due to the suspicion that what I’m really picking up on is a fear I know well: namely, of saying something too profound or serious, a fear managed by cutting off your statement with a flippant remark. Having grown up among good ol’ boys in hardy German-Scandinavian communities, I’m skilled in recognizing the anxiety of being chastised for getting too deep or admitting to any real enthusiasm. For being accused of thinking you and your big ideas are better than average people(‘s).

That sense kept popping up in the ways in which Sjöberg regularly brings up his own global travels, but then quickly puts them down as meaningless. (Or, as he calls it, his ” reluctance to travel… [being] an unsuccessful globetrotter… so homesick all the time.” [6]) I did love his gesturing toward the ways in which people often seem to travel just to be able to make themselves look worldly to others—just to tell impressive stories to people.(7) But then he keeps bringing up his experiences in Rangoon, rain forests, Los Angeles, and so on and so forth—but also telling us very little other than that he was in these places, perhaps so we don’t consider him to be one of those travel-braggarts.(8) Queen Gertrude would have pegged the practice as “protest[ing] too much, methinks.”(9)

I’ve obviously not come to a settled conclusion about The Fly Trap, and that’s fine. Maybe it’s how Sjöberg himself still feels about his beloved Malaise, or about any number of other topics mentioned in the book. But what I did applaud in this piece of work was the justification it (or its author) finally used for its creation, its existence: namely, Sjöberg’s reaction to a scientist’s declaration about the precise number of stars in the universe: “Against all odds, some presbyopic chump takes a shot at it… And he falls flat on his face, of course. But at least he’s tried… if someone can cheer me up this much by completely failing to describe a thing that doesn’t even interest me, then the last barrier has fallen. Nothing can stop me now… I stood up and went into the library, closed the door, sat down at my desk…”(10)

The important thing is to make the attempt. If I take away nothing else from the reading of this book, that insight and the determination that follows it will have been worth it, irritation or unsettling sensation be damned. The main thing is to try. Let’s hope we’ll all risk falling flat on our faces at some point in our lives, and at least having fun doing it before bandaging our bleeding noses and bruised egos.

 

 

(1) Fredrik Sjöberg, The Fly Trap, translated by Thomas Teal (New York: Pantheon Books, 2014), back cover. Of course, the few times I’ve tried to get into Traströmer, I’ve wandered away, feeling slightly sleepy and skeletal.

(2) Sjöberg, 12. I admit to being dense, and being so on a regular basis. But I didn’t realize until well over half of the way through the book that, oh, its purpose was to act as a biography. And oh, here’s why the book bears the title it does. (For the curious, this happened specifically on p. 172.)

(3) Sjöberg, 35–6.

(4) A couple of exceptions include Sjöberg, pp. 110–1 and 248–50, with discussions about people being willing to talk to strangers in airports (or on vacation) because they know they’ll only have a short time together. Or on p. 80, the paragraph, also to do with travels, about “the limited period between now and then… This allotment of time was an island.”

(5) Or, as defined on Sjöberg, 50, “tunnel vision.”

(6) Sjöberg, 39.

(7) For example, on Sjöberg, 24: “What an adventure! What stories I would tell! About freedom! But it didn’t happen. I never managed to say much more than that the forests were vast and the river as broad as Kalmar Sound. And that I’d been there. So it goes when you travel for the sake of something to say.”

(8) Witness, for example, his talk of the geologist who weighed in on Malaise’s thoughts on Atlantis: a person “whose expertise I trust—ever since we crossed the Ural Mountains together.” (213) Or on p. 244, after having mentioned an analogy about grains of sand that was effective enough on its own, “I travelled across the Sahara once, from Ouargla to Agadez, so I understand very well the scope of the astronomers’ discovery.”

(9) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene II.

(10) Sjöberg, 245.

Lots of Options, No Easy Answers

Before I get into singing the praises of Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice, let me offer a burst of indignation about what held me back from my immediate dive into the novel.

You know I love being treated to what previous readers have left behind in books I purchase or check out from the library. I’m not so fond of margin notes or underlining, although for the most part, I can still get past those marks, able to ignore them without a great deal of effort. But the joker who owned the book before me? I was in a fury when I opened the novel to find evidence of his(1) thoughts all over every page.

Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choice, translated by Megan McDowell (New York: Penguin, 2014), 3.

With Zambra’s text, a reader’s notes are much more difficult to tune out. Written in the format of a standardized test, where the possible answers are part of the work itself, it’s a pretty vile thing for a reader to select the answers he thinks are correct. Had he planned on keeping the book, no problem: it’s his copy forever, and it doesn’t matter what he does with it. But from the moment he decided to hand it over for resale, the reader should have had the courtesy to erase the slashes and big circles indicating what he believed to be the right answers.(2) Maybe the guy didn’t have time; maybe he forgot about it. But the fact that no erasures were made reeks of some need to prove how smart the reader is, even in a situation where no one can possibly know his identity.

Before I could get started, then, I grabbed my pencil and erased the mark made on every question over the course of 101 pages. I ended up sacrificing most of the eraser on my crossword-completing pencil, and I won’t blame it for refusing to remove a single thing from the surface of a piece of paper for a very long time to come. Here’s to you, trusty pencil.

The aftermath of an erasing spree, in an appropriately blurry photo.

But now to the text itself. One of the things I love about Zambra’s book is what the previous reader apparently failed to understand: that there are often, maybe usually, no right answers in actual life, especially in the midst of conditions such as economic precariousness, dictatorship, corrupt social structures, and so on and so forth, in which choices are already made for you. Said reader’s apparent belief that these questions could be answered with anything like certainty felt offensive. Sad, perhaps, but mostly insulting.

Then again, maybe that reader was marking up the text in the spirit of its resigned humor, playing along with its absurdity. For example, with questions 35 and 36, in which each of the five possible answers is the same, the reader bothered to choose A.(3)

The author’s black humor, the uncommented-upon tricks that are themselves commentary, are an immense part of what make this novel so great—maybe what keeps the pretense going at all. There’s the sense here that if you can still make a joke or even wry observation about the purposeless trap in which you exist, something in you still isn’t dead. There’s some sort of hard strength about offering an option in which the circumstances of your birth, or your birth itself, aren’t considered germane.(4) There’s also plain, sad comedy in stepping out of the tone of a test to offer as a possible answer to the prompt, “One can infer from the text that the teachers at the school,” “(C) Were deadened by sadness, because they got paid shit.”(5)

And then, there are just too many bleakly efficient, compactly creative gems to list here, although my favorite may be, in response to the prompt, “According to the text, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the nation of Chile was,” “(C) Innovative in its levity and literal in its tragedy.”(6) I don’t know what it could mean to be literal in one’s tragedy, unless it goes back to acting out real dramas in which there simply are no right answers, but in which choices must be made nevertheless—and in which consequences are concrete, material, and in no sense the stuff of literary imaginings.

The way in which the nature and/or purpose of (standardized) testing and education blends into and supports the treatment of particular times in Chile’s history, and of the ways in which relationships fare (or don’t) within them, is fantastic. Without flogging the reader with big arguments about what it should mean to teach or learn, to form a child or a citizen or an adult or a nation, we’re given evidence of how rigid systems and their tools don’t remotely pass muster. Anyone who’s been subjected to a standardized test knows what an insult they are—knows, if not whom they do serve, that at least it’s not the test-taker. There are few better examples of useless rituals into which we’re shunted—whether educational, civic, religious, or other—than these exams designed for easy grading of large groups. I’m still nearly giddy at how Zambra has so skillfully, and enjoyably, let us in on just how badly these things prepare us for, or help to explain, any aspect of real life.

 

 

(1) Yeah, I know I shouldn’t assume anything about this person, including gender. I’m willing to accept allegations of bias on this one, but the presence of that previous reader sure felt male.

(2) OK, at least he marked this all up in pencil. I’ll give him credit for that.

(3) Zambra, 23–4.

(4) Zambra, 39.

(5) Zambra, 75.

(6) Zambra, 85.

The Contemporary Uncanny, Thrillingly Rendered

When a book opens with a quote from Jesse Ball, you know it’ll probably be good.(1) That expectation wasn’t disappointed by Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, which just plops you down from the very beginning into the febrile protagonist’s head.

I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by stating that we never really get an answer to what sort of darkness we’re dealing with here. Our environmental destructiveness finally catching up with us? Intangible forces eager to make use of the ecological ruin we continue to bring upon ourselves? Some weird, self-contained community secret accepted as inevitable? It’s as if we’ve landed in an Irish fairy tale where the mercurial fair folk have found contemporary ways of being impish, giving old-world tricks a subtle modern feel.

In addition to having written a scary story without getting caught in any genre conventions, Schweblin also offers up food for greater thought without being hamfisted about it. The extended conversation between protagonist Amanda and the neighbor’s boy, David, involves the two of them trying to get to “the important thing,” with the child repeatedly informing the woman that what she’s saying “is not important.” At one point, David admonishes Amanda for insisting on remembering the details of a particular memory, telling her she’s wasting their time because “nothing important happens [in that scene], and nothing is going to happen from here on… going forward with this story doesn’t make any sense.

But things keep happening,” Amanda responds, and pushes past David’s objections that “It’s not worth it anymore” to finish her description.(2)

Things keep happening: isn’t that what we assume life is about, what the point is of anything existing? Amanda insists on telling her story, because as long as things keep happening, she’s still alive. And if she’s still alive, this concatenation of details will be, perhaps will have been, worth it. To reference the recently read The Mushroom at the End of the World, the popular belief that life, that history, are about progress, that progress is the summum bonum, can often boil down into a senseless, even harmful, insistence that things, processes, conventions keep happening.

And yet, we keep getting memories of Amanda’s mother and grandmother warning her, warning each other, themselves, that terrible things will happen—just in general, as a fact of each life, of all lives. Admonishing each other always to be prepared for the inevitably terrible things on the horizon. It’s a reminder not to get too comfortable or confident in the face of fate—and yet even if what happens is terrible, things do keep happening. Life continues, and it’s best to be ready for how it will continue.

This is the first piece of work I’ve read by Schweblin, and I’m eager to check out her other stories. (Fever Dream is apparently her first novel.) Having pulled me right in from its first page, the book held me until its incredible last line. Not since (the original) Twin Peaks‘ nearly traumatic perfect ending have I encountered an author who so pointedly hands over to the reader the responsibility for thinking through the narrative’s aftermath (or origins) on his/her own—who makes it impossible to shut the book and simply go on with one’s life. Again, I don’t think it will ruin the tale for anyone if I end my review by quoting this instance of skillful non-wrapping-up: “He doesn’t see the important thing: the rope finally slack, like a lit fuse, somewhere; the motionless scourge about to erupt.”(3)

 

 

 

(1), viz., “For the first time in a long while, William looked down and saw his hands. If you have had this experience, you’ll know just what I mean.” Quotation from Jesse Ball’s The Curfew featured in Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017), epigraph.

(2) Schweblin, 139–40. Note that even though I’m not supposed to be doing so, I’m quoting from an uncorrected proof copy. Heck: it was the only version I had available, and I can’t imagine the final copy being substantively different.

(3) Schweblin, 183.