There but for the by Ali Smith

One of the only faults I found with this immensely pleasurable novel is its title, which, for all its poetic incompleteness, is undeniably awkward to say aloud.

Ungainly title aside, There but for the is a delightful read. The prose is light and playful, embodied in many ways by a charming nine-year-old character named Brooke, whose enjoyment of language is catching and whose curiosity is unparalleled. Several nested stories unfold as Smith maneuvers around the book’s central issue: Miles Garth, towards the end of an unpleasant meal at the home of the aptly named Gen & Eric Lee, wordlessly leaves the table and disappears into an upstairs bedroom and refuses to leave or even speak… for months. The premise calls to mind Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s La Salle de Bain (1985; here’s a review of the English translation), whose narrator listlessly retreats to his bathroom and remains fully clothed in the tub for days on end. Whereas Toussaint’s narrator is weary and defeated, however, Miles Garth is energetic and enigmatic, and seems to be judging the foolishness of the world around him.

One image I loved was that of May Winch (a subplot and two degrees of separation from Miles Garth) remembering a night when, as a young woman, she had been riding her bicycle in the dark when she hit something and flew over the handlebars into the road. She is fine but shaken, mainly due to the nature of the accident:

It was the dark taking shape, going solid out of nowhere in front of her. It wasn’t like when the bomb hit the ball-bearing factory next door to the shop and she’d been blown across the room backwards and hit the wall behind her. That had been different. This had come out of nowhere and it had no sound, just the muffled thump of May being hit by the dark. The difference was that she’d just gone headlong with her eyes wide open into it, that she’d done it herself somehow, hit the dark. (164)

May’s reaction to this moment of “hitting the dark” suggests that the fears that affect us most deeply are those that are invisible and internal, when we cannot point to an explosion or any other external cause and know what caused us pain. These kinds of truths can easily feel tired or facile, but Smith introduces them with grace and a lightness of touch that imbue them with freshness.

This lightness is the book’s hallmark, in the prose as in the characters. Smith creates a small circle of witty, like-minded characters whose paths cross throughout the stories; whenever two of them meet, you can almost see the glint in their eyes as they recognize themselves in one another. Both Brooke and Miles are among them. Brooke in particular is an improbable child of pure joy and intelligence, brilliant with language and wordplay and surprisingly attuned to the world around her. Puns send her reeling with pleasure, and she is obsessed with knowing and recording the facts of her own story. The last section of the book consists of Brooke’s internal monologue, and Smith does an excellent job of it, retaining just enough of a childlike quality to the language while also conveying Brooke’s tack-sharp curiosity and creativity.

There are many more characters and storylines that unfold like the origami plane described in the book’s preamble (“Outside, on its top, it looks like a plain folded piece of paper. Inside, underneath, it is packed tight into itself with surprising neatness like origami, like a small machine” [xiii]), and the whole thing holds together beautifully. I’ll definitely be adding Smith’s earlier novels to my reading list.

Talks and Events

Joan Didion with Sloane Crosley at NYPL Live

I’m hesitant to post about the NYPL Live conversation between Joan Didion and Sloane Crosley, because I was pretty disappointed with it. I really love these NYPL events, but the thing I love most about them–the chemistry in the interview–was missing this particular night. I don’t know Crosley’s work and haven’t heard her interview anyone before, so I don’t know if perhaps she hasn’t had a lot of experience with it yet, or if she was nervous, but she seemed a little overprepared yet unable to listen. It was disappointing, because I would have loved it if she could have drawn Didion out a little more.

The interview did get me thinking about style and subject matter, though, and how readers engage with them. Didion clearly had no interest in talking about mourning, loss, or (especially) catharsis–or even the genre of memoir, really. And yet, the subject matter of her two most recent books, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking is so intimate and emotionally charged that people can’t seem to see anything else. Didion said tonight that for her, style was everything; that she wrote about these things because they were things that happened to her, and because that’s the way she tries to understand things, but that the main difficulty (of Blue Nights in particular) was getting the style right.

People don’t seem to want to hear this message. Didion responded bluntly to questions about the emotionally difficult subject matter of her latest books, event complaining gently of readers who approached her to discuss their personal tragedies. While I suspect part of her reticence may be a way of conserving some privacy over her quite public mourning process, I wish people had listened for openings and asked questions along lines that Didion was more open to discussing. Didion’s remarks tended towards sharp, understated wit, and it felt like riches were waiting just behind her stubbornly brief replies–if someone could just open up the dialogue in the right way.

Oh, well. Not every event can be a hit. NYPL Live’s season is winding down, but BAM’s Eat, Drink and Be Literary is just beginning, so I hope there will be another good interview or two in the not-too-distant future.


Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

The motifs of entrapment, communication, and identity dominate the beautiful and emotionally intense Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk. Published in 2004 in Afrikaans, and in a skilled English translation by Michiel Heyns in 2006 (2010 in the U.S.), the apartheid-era novel tackles emotionally complex relationships among the members of a family of white South African farmers and the black servants and laborers that share their space. In particular, van Niekerk focuses attention on Milla, the mistress of the farm, and her maidservant, Agaat. The novel spans 1947 to 1994, tracing the entire period of apartheid through the story of Milla’s lifetime, from courtship to death.

The narrative jumps among several different modes and time periods. The reader encounters Milla through the eyes of her grown son; in her internal monologue on her deathbed with Agaat as her sole caretaker; in a remarkably good second-person narrative; and in diary entries, both as she wrote them and as Agaat reads them back to her in her mute and immobile old age. Agaat, of course, is present in nearly all of these threads, depicted with a varying degree of agency and richness in each. The multiple narratives work beautifully together, weaving a portrait of the two women that grows increasingly complex (or perhaps entangled)–and yet that same notion of weaving is complicated by Agaat’s literal embroidery, which is first forced upon her, then becomes a coping mechanism, and finally seals her closure from Milla as she weaves Milla’s death shroud.

As I alluded to previously, communication and entrapment oppose each other as focal points in the novel. The immediate context for these two themes is that of Milla’s end days, as she is mutely trapped within an unmoving body, her lucid mind flying among comfort and rage and pain as her fraught relationship with Agaat plays out its final notes, often without a word being spoken by either of them. The depiction of what is left for Milla is beautiful and unexpected:

As if it’s conceivable that of a whole concert only this would remain to listen to: The siffling of the sleeves encircling the wrists of the musicians, the creaking of the chairs on which they sit, the heaving of their breathing with the up and the down stroke of the bow, the riffling of the pages of the score. Only that, without the music. Harmless negative music, the soil without the cultivation. (309)

Milla’s world is diminished: Not a reduction of volume, but an elimination of beauty, leaving only the framework of the musicians’ movements. Her silent negotiation with Agaat to reduce her discomforts and meet her physical needs at times seems to be an intricate and intimate dance, but it is clear that the dance brings no joy and no beauty to either party. What the reader learns later in the novel is that the movement toward understanding through silence actually began much earlier between Milla and Agaat, and has colored their relationship over many decades.

Milla has tried to preserve everything about her life in diaries, not so much to remember it as to try and create or uncover meaning amid a pile of moments that defy her comprehension. She clings to traces of the past, especially through diaries and maps, and even tries to unearth the past in mirrors:

Does a mirror sometimes preserve everything that has been reflected in it? Is there a record of light, thin membranes compressed layer upon layer that one has to ease apart with the finger-tips so that the colours don’t dissipate, so that the moments don’t blot and the hours don’t run together into inconsequential splotches? […] So many tears for nothing? For light? For bygone moments? (137)

The tragedy for Milla is that rather than finding in these traces a pattern of meaning that had been invisible to her as she moved through each day, she is instead forced to listen to Agaat recount Milla’s own stories to her in a way that elicits more shame and bitterness than reconciliation and healing.

In her final moments, Milla, whose identity has been deeply bound with her farmland since she was a child, craves a connection with her land. Deprived of the ability to move or to speak, she cannot so much as look out the window; instead, she wills Agaat to bring her all the maps of the land that have been stowed away. Her desire is to consume the land, make it ever more deeply a part of her. She wants to swallow and digest the maps: “So that I can be filled and braced from the inside and fortified for the voyage. Because without my world inside me I will contract and congeal, more even than I am now, without speech and without actions and without any purchase upon time” (88). The knowledge that her land continues to exist and thrive comforts Milla, as she feels the land to be an extension of herself. And yet, imprisoned in her body in a sterile room, she desperately feels she must lay eyes on the symbol of the land in order to feel whole before her imminent death.

While Milla’s sense of identity is restricted by her immobility, Agaat’s reveals itself to be far more complicated. I won’t unveil the mysteries of how Agaat came to join Milla’s household or why her acts of caregiving are both conscientious and cruel, but it is clear that she has carved away a part of her identity and made it invisible, as though to protect it. When Milla spies on Agaat as a young women, we learn through her diary that she is startled and confused by what she sees:

Could the binoculars have been playing tricks upon me? Hr arm a pointer? pointing-out pointing-to what is what & who is who? An oar? A blade? Hr fist pressing apart the membrane & the meat as if she’s dressing a slaughter animal? But not a sheep, as if she’s separating the divisions of the night. Or dividing something within herself. Root cluster. (127)

Milla doesn’t know what to make of Agaat’s movements, but the heavy symbolism of Agaat being prepared as an animal for slaughter suggests the depth of the trauma that Agaat has undergone and against which she now steels herself.

Milla and Agaat struggle for power throughout the novel’s timeline, and while Agaat holds much of the real authority on the farm–even getting Milla and Jak to do her bidding in moments of urgency–Milla’s diary reminds the reader (and also Agaat and Milla as the diaries are uncovered and retold) that true power is held by the one who bestows a name. Milla had taught Agaat this very lesson as she tried to coax a young Agaat into speech: “I want Agaat to understand that if you call things by their names, you have power over them”  (439). No matter how great the extent of Agaat’s implicit power, she cannot cease to be dominated by the one who has given her her name. For me, that is the most chilling note of the novel.

Talks and Events

Umberto Eco with Paul Holdengräber at NYPL Live

When I’m missing the mountains and open skies of Colorado, there are two bookish things that always make me appreciate being in New York: BAM’s “Eat, Drink, and Be Literary” series, and the New York Public Library’s Live series. (Good food will usually do the trick, too.) BAM has the advantage of food, drink, and a more intimate venue, while NYPL has the upper hand on interviewing excellence–I simply love the way Paul Holdengräber engages his guests. A few days ago I went to hear him interview Umberto Eco, and from the moment they kicked things off by talking about books they haven’t read (à la Pierre Bayard), I remembered why I love being in a big city. The conversation was full of gems, and I particularly enjoyed thinking about the idea that hatred and stupidity are boundless, whereas love and truth are limited and predictable. (Love is exclusive, after all, and two plus two always equals four; whereas hatred can be shared and multiplied among any number of people, and the number of wrong answers to two plus two is limitless…)

Somewhere between declaring that the ability to lie sets humanity apart from animals, and avowing that “discombobulated” and “flabbergasted” are his two favorite words in English, Eco asserted the importance of contraints–rather than freedom–in the creative process. This is the essential idea of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle); while Eco is not a part of OuLiPo, he does have strong affinities with the group, as is evident from this event at the Louvre. The OuLiPo project has fascinated me since my first (or second?) year as a grad student, when my advisor, Warren Motte, introduced me to some of the group’s work. Deeply playful and rigorous, writers of OuLiPo embrace the role of form in the creative process to an unusual degree, setting arbitrary limits and rules on their work to see what comes out of it. One of my favorite examples is Jacques Jouet’s Poèmes du métro, in which each line was written between metro stops as he traveled along a pre-determined route that he had carefully mapped to maximize the metro stops that he visited while minimizing backtracking and repeats. Other writers, like Jacques Roubaud, rely on mathematical formulations to set constraints. Georges Perec famously wrote a novel without using the letter “e” (La disparition, 1990), then followed it up with a novel that used no vowels other than “e” (Les revenentes, 1997). Not all the works that are born of these constraints are fun to read, but the successes are truly magical.

I like the argument for limits quite a lot. I’ve seen it to be true personally with regards to my photography. I have a good camera and live in a photogenic city, but the times that I get the most interesting shots are when I have really specific assignments (like one, from a recent class, to capture blurry motion, silhouette, and deep depth of field in the same frame. This was one result of that task; here is another.) Freedom is not so useful in sparking creativity; set limits, though, and the creative mind comes to life. This is one reason I was interested in silence and the “unsayable” in my dissertation–what can more sharply limit language than silence? When writers work through and around silence, the results can be remarkable.

Returning to Eco after this OuLiPo rabbithole, I’ll mention that the only disappointment of the evening was nonetheless a substantial one. Closing out the interview, Holdengräber asked Eco, who professes to own 50,000 books, whether libraries have a role to play in the increasingly digital future. Eco responded that of course they do! They will be the museums for the lone copies of printed books; they will be like the tombs that preserve the mummified pharaohs.

Having spent a great deal of time lately thinking about this very question, I am convinced that the future role of libraries has far less to do with the physical form of the book (much as I love my real books), and far more to do with the careful and dynamic curation of works in all their forms. I think libraries have the potential to become even more living and vibrant as the expertise of librarians comes to the forefront. Museums, tombs, dusty archives–I think these are absolutely the wrong images to have in mind as libraries adapt to a quickly changing environment. I wish there had been a bit more time for discussion after Eco made these remarks, because I would love to know Holdengräber’s reaction. His usual opening remarks reflect a desire to bring lightness and liveliness to a sometimes heavy institution, so I’d like to think that he would agree with me on this one.

This post touches on some topics related to my work at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, so I will note that all views are my own and should not be taken to represent the organization.


The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Expectation is such a tricky thing. I loved Middlesex. I couldn’t wait to read The Marriage Plot because I loved Middlesex. But because I was expecting Eugenides’ latest book to make me feel the way I felt about his previous, I didn’t love it.

Perhaps I was still coming down from my Munro high and wasn’t ready to land in Eugenides’ more straightforward, less lyrical prose. The premise might also have had something to do with it; stories that center around WASP-y privilege are mildly depressing to me in even the best cases, and I couldn’t garner much enthusiasm for Madeleine (though I could relate to her feelings of intimidation when facing her first encounter with Derrida and his admiring devotees). Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book quite a bit, and had I not set the bar quite so high, I might have had an unequivocally positive response to it.

The story follows three characters, all of them undergraduate students at Brown: Madeleine Hanna, who would prefer life to look a whole lot more like a nineteenth century novel than it usually does; Leonard Bankhead, who sticks in my mind as a sort of lumbering oaf because of his name, size, and mannerisms, though he is fiercely intelligent and emotionally complex; and Mitchell Grammaticus, a skinny, smart, monastic wanderer. A more-or-less standard love triangle ties the three together: Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, Leonard’s energy is completely swallowed up by efforts to manage his manic depression.

Unlike the vast scope of Middlesex, in The Marriage Plot Eugenides keeps the focus tightly on these three figures. He explores the ways that they each respond to the impending turning point of college graduation–the ways in which they begin to see themselves as adults. Madeleine, naive in her longing to be loved, curling up daily and nightly with Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse to amplify first her love, then her heartsickness, plunges herself headlong into a marriage with issues far more adult than she is ready to handle. I found her to be a pretty flat character and was mildly annoyed by her at a few points in the novel.

Mitchell and Leonard I found more interesting and endearing characters. Mitchell embarks on a clichéd voyage to Europe and India, but his moments of self-discovery are genuine and told with affection. (Having become greatly interested in Christian mysticism, for instance, the focal point of Mitchell’s trip is a period of service in Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes. Once there, however, Mitchell finds himself shirking duties and feeling both admiration for and aversion to the other volunteers. He eventually bolts from the place, in a sequence that appeared in the New Yorker as “Asleep in the Lord” (paywall, sorry). Mitchell’s baffling and longstanding obsession with Madeleine betrays his youth, but it’s clear that he’s got (or is developing) a pretty good sense of who he is.

Finally, Leonard. Leonard lacks the luxury of “discovering himself” that both Madeleine and Mitchell can indulge in. Besieged by manic depression, Leonard’s personality, behavior, and intelligence are alternately propelled to extremes, crushed by depression, and nullified by medications. He is acutely aware of his condition, but can only sometimes surmount its effects. A moment of interaction between Leonard and Mitchell completely alters the dynamic of the triangle, and leads me to believe that Leonard, not Madeleine, is the character with the most influence over the others.

As I said, the book was enjoyable, and I cared about the characters; it just didn’t blow me away. As an aside, I mentioned that part of the book appeared previously in the New Yorker; in fact, two sections have appeared there over the past year and a half or so (the other is “Extreme Solitude”). It’s probably just personal preference, but I’m not really a fan of realizing that large chunks of the novel I’m reading are pieces that I’ve already read before. It makes it harder for me to integrate everything into a cohesive whole, for one thing; I read short stories very differently than I read novels, and it’s not always easy for me to break my associations with the stories to let them dissolve into the other threads of the novel. This happens a lot, of course, and I recognize that it’s useful to publish components of a book while still working through the full piece. Still, it’s not my favorite thing, and I almost always end up feeling like I enjoyed the stories more than the novel.

I’ve still got some fiction lined up in my to-read pile (next up: Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk), but I’m also starting to feel the urge to read some good non-fiction. We’ll see what comes next.


Alice Munro, Runaway

After loving Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker piece (“Dear Life”), I felt that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had more of her work in my hands. I chose Runaway more or less at random from among her collections, and wow. I am blown away by Munro’s incredible skill with characters. She creates an incredible emotional climate with each story, drawing the reader in to share each protagonist’s hope, fear, or betrayal. I simply love the intimacy of her stories and the subtle ways that she teases out the complexities of human interaction.

Familial and romantic relationships are central in Runaway, and in a couple of instances Munro spins the development out beyond the length of a single story.  In “Chance” for instance, we read a beautiful and hopeful story of a couple coming together; the characters reappear in the next story, “Soon,” where we read a much more complicated continuation of the same family. “Chance” ends with Juliet and Eric in each others’ arms. (Well, not quite; the couple comes together with this breathtaking paragraph–

She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her. She stands up, quite numb, and sees that he is older, heavier, more impetuous than she has remembered. He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay. (85)

–which Munro gently sets down by adding a bit of context, a bit of explanation, and the faintest sketch of the couple’s life together. The actual end of the story is not an image of Juliet and Eric together, but the perhaps more intriguing mention of the “submerged rivalry” of Juliet and Christa, Eric’s former lover.)

“Soon” takes place many years later, and complicates the emotions of the first story with the inevitable growth and change as characters spend their lives together.  As I started “Soon,” it came as a surprise to see Juliet re-emerge; Munro’s exquisite skills as a short story writer mean that each piece conveys a sense of perfect wholeness on its own, making the continuation unexpected, but the added nuance of the connected stories multiplies the effect of each. Excellent short stories always create a tension for me: I want so much to see the writer continue developing the characters into a full-blown novel, and yet I know that the very thing I love so much depends on the succinct form of the story.

I came across this review by Jonathan Franzen from the New York Times in 2004, and was amused to find that he gives free reign to the gushing admiration that I have been trying somewhat to temper:

“The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself.
Which leaves me with the simple instruction that I began with: Read Munro! Read Munro!”

(Franzen’s review is excellent, by the way, and worth reading in its entirety.)

I’m selfishly glad that there are still so many of Munro’s stories ahead of me to read. I suspect I’ll be returning often.


Christian Oster, Rouler

Rouler put me face to face with a character that I couldn’t stand, and yet Oster’s writing is so enjoyable that I couldn’t stop reading. The premise is not uncommon: a man suffers a difficult emotional experience, gets in his car, gets on the road, and starts driving with no destination in mind. The problem, in this case, is that Jean, the narrator who has taken to the road, can’t really tolerate the uncertainties of what he’s doing, and makes himself and his various companions miserable throughout the entire journey.

In many ways the novel reads like an exploration of masculinity, and the glimpse that it provides is unflattering. Jean seeks to be impulsive, spontaneous, and irresponsible, but he constantly slips into small-minded worrying, scolding, and and self-doubt. Even his actions that look free-spirited are actually signs that he has worked himself into an inner turmoil of feeling obligated to do something that he finds utterly distasteful. At a gas station, for instance, he offers to drop a couple of hitchhikers at a nearby town–not because he wants to help them, but because he’s afraid they’ll ask him to take them much further, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to refuse. He immediately begrudges their carefree mentality, becoming a scolding father-type figure rather than opening himself up to any new experiences. When the hitchhikers convince him to stop near a stream so that they can swim, he stubbornly refuses to go with them–even though he is hot, uncomfortable, and wants nothing more than to jump in the water. Throughout his travels, Jean puts himself into situations like this, hurting nobody but himself and for no reason other than a vague distaste for his own decision-making.

An encounter with an old high school friend of his perfectly illustrates Jean’s entrapment within himself. After encountering the friend, Fred, while approaching a hotel in Arles, Jean wants only to avoid having to spend time with him; rather than politely decline an invitation, though, he launches into a needless sequence of lies that don’t even maintain an internal logic. Unable to properly turn down the offer, Jean ends up following Fred and intentionally losing him–but then regrets it, and can’t stand either the thought of going back to Arles or arriving already in Marseille, and spends the night in his car before arriving at Fred’s bed and breakfast in a terribly awkward scene the next morning. This kind of things happens throughout the book: Jean traps himself in sequences that he could easily stop or change, but instead he ends up playing them out to their uncomfortable conclusions.

It’s not the road itself that seems to draw Jean, as he doesn’t especially like being there. He does, however, value the idea of it, and he hangs onto a rough goal of reaching Marseille–as long as he doesn’t arrive there too quickly. He wants to have everything before him and nothing behind him, and it’s clear that this desire has to do with his constant regret over decisions made. Once he reaches Marseilles, then, even that goal will be behind him, and he will have nothing to do but look back on his experiences, and return to his life in Paris.

Eventually and surprisingly, Jean is able to escape from the cycle of obligation and regret that he puts himself through, and the end of the book reads like a sort of redemption.  At the bed and breakfast that he never wanted to visit in the first place, and where he oversteps his welcome with the host couple, Jean manages to make a genuine connection with a fellow guest. The guest, elderly André Ségustat, is gruff and distant with most of the others at the bed and breakfast, yet mysteriously allows himself to be vulnerable with Jean.  Ségustat makes it possible for Jean to be useful in a small but meaningful way, which is enough for Jean to shed his self-protective stance that does him so little good.

I didn’t expect the turnaround, and while I was relieved to see Jean finally stop making himself and everyone around him miserable, the change happened a little too quickly to feel natural. Still, Oster’s insightful look into a difficult character is wonderfully written, and while it may not be my favorite of Oster’s novels (I still prefer both Mon grand appartement and Une femme de ménage), Rouler is well worth a read.


Jean Echenoz, Des éclairs

I know little enough about the history of scientific innovation that it was an embarrassingly long time before I realized that Gregor, the protagonist of Des éclairs by Jean Echenoz, is based on the life story of Nikola Tesla. The book is part of a trio of novels inspired by biographical stories; I haven’t read the other two, which are based on the lives of composer Maurice Ravel (Ravel) and long-distance runner Émil Zátopek (Courir).

Like Tesla, Gregor moves from southeastern Europe to New York City to work for Thomas Edison. The lightning of the title comes into play within the first few pages: born into an otherwise unilluminated night, a flash of lightning accompanies the moment of his birth. The shock of the lightning, thunderclap, and resulting forest fire stun those attending the birth, with the result that nobody can remember quite when he was born. Echenoz dubs it a “naissance hors du temps, donc, et hors de la lumière” (9). For Gregor, his birth outside of time and light is the start of a lifelong obsession with electricity.

Gregor’s brilliance is undeniable and undisputed–he learns languages in minutes, his memory is photographic, and most of all he conceives of astonishing new ideas in flashes of ingenuity. Before we learn a thing about his intellect and capacity for innovation, though, we learn that he is profoundly unpleasant.  His character is described as “ombrageux, méprisant, susceptible, cassant” and above all, “précocement antipathique” (11). In fact, his personality is as unpredictable and stormy as the lightning storms that obsess him.

After the first series of reversals in fortune as Gregor tries to persuade first Edison, then Westinghouse of the utility and viability of alternating current, his subsequent ideas and conceptual inventions are no longer foregrounded as major innovations, but rather referred to in passing in a way that makes Gregor seem increasingly absurd and pitiful. Serious and essential inventions like radio, hydroelectricity, and robotics are mentioned alongside his efforts to communicate with Mars and establish world peace. He excels in the initial idea phase, but has no interest whatsoever in the nuts-and-bolts implementation of a project. Completely unable to navigate the system of intellectual property, patent development, and business negotiation, Gregor is duped again and again into releasing just enough of a kernel of each idea to allow someone else to develop it to fruition and profit.  He appears foolish and impatient:

“Ce n’est donc peut-être pas que Gregor invente des choses à proprement parler mais, dans la découverte et l’intuition de ces choses, il se borne à jeter l’idée qui les produira. Il a tort, allant beacoup trop vite, il debrait s’arrêter cinq minutes sur l’une d’elles pour la mener à son terme et la développer, l’explorer d’autant plus qu’il s’agit chaque fois de phénomènes promis à un certain avenir, jugez-en. La radio. Les rayons X. L’air liquide. La télécommande. Les robots. Le microscope électronique. L’accélérateur de particules. L’Internet. J’en passe.” (80)

His mismanagement of astonishing new ideas eventually leaves him destitute. Having willingly torn up what would have been a highly lucrative contract with Western Union, Gregor slips deeper into poverty. No longer simply antisocial or volatile, he becomes an image of absurdity as his brilliance slips into the background, leaving his compulsions and oddities to come into sharper and sharper relief.

(Not that you can blame Gregor; even now the patent system in the U.S. looks more like a Rubik’s cube of litigation, buyouts, and stock value than a genuine protection of intellectual property. The tragedy that befalls Gregor because of his inability to protect his ideas and turn them into profit is a timely image of the ways the patent system favors corporations rather than individuals.)

Patent reform issues aside, I haven’t yet mentioned the pigeons that accompany Gregor’s demise. While Gregor bristles at even the thought of intimacy or companionship, and despite his crippling phobia of germs and dirt, he has no trouble at all communing with, yes, pigeons. What innocently begins as a certain pleasure and relaxation found in feeding the pigeons in Bryan Park escalates to an obsession. The tipping point between quirkiness and insanity becomes starkly (and humorously) apparent in his attempt to give Christmas gifts to the creatures. The birds swarm him, covering him from head to toe, and he revels in their company:

“Enveloppé de la tête aux pieds par ce manteau de bestioles, ne respirant qu’à peine pour ne pas les troubler, Gregor reste immobile près de la grille du square à travers laquelle des passants arrêtés dans l’ombre, porteurs de gros paquets enrubannés, le considèrent en hochant.” (130)

From there, the pigeons become key players in scenes of violence, determination, and romance in perplexing ways that I’ll leave other readers to discover. More than for his inventions, I’ll remember Gregor for his connection to the foul birds that cover New York’s public parks.

All in all, Des éclairs a highly creative look at brilliance, madness, and society. As always, Echenoz’s prose is super-smart and elegant; his works are consistently among my favorite contemporary French novels (Au piano and Cherokee  are longstanding favorites; L’occupation des sols was fascinating, dense, and will stick with me for a long time). In this case, the historical backdrop opens up into a narrative that is an unusual (and a really enjoyable) read. Gregor’s descent into irrelevance and absurdity is both bleak and comic–and I’ll never look at NYC pigeons in quite the same way again.


“Dear Life” by Alice Munro

What I had been looking for in a novel, I found in a short personal reflection instead. I hadn’t seen Munro’s name in the table of contents of the September 19th New Yorker; I was flipping the page to skip over Shouts & Murmurs (which I almost never like), and her first paragraph snuck up on me and made my breath catch a little in my chest.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me. Behind me, as I walked home from primary school, and then from high school, was the real town with its activity and its sidewalks and its streetlights for after dark. Marking the end of town were two bridges over the Maitland River: one narrow iron bridge, where cars sometimes got into trouble over which one should pull off and wait for the other, and a wooden walkway, which occasionally had a plank missing, so that you could look right down into the bright, hurrying water. I liked that, but somebody always came and replaced the plank eventually.

The scene is straightforward, as is the language, but the pace willfully departs from the sharp clip of much contemporary writing. Munro makes the reader breathe a little slower and savor the childhood scene, pausing over the gap in the bridge that opened onto the water, mourning a little the loss of small wonders.

I have only read a little of Munro’s work before, but what I have read, I loved. I was halfway through Too Much Happiness when I forgot it on a plane; I bought a Kindle version so that I could keep reading right away. (I really hope someone picked up the book and enjoyed it.) What struck me in those stories, as in this piece, was the depth of the cruelty and the luminous beauty that Munro draws out. The feeling, for me, is not unlike looking at a perfectly exposed black and white photograph, with pockets of deep black and pure white calling attention to the full range of greys that fill the frame. The cruelty of the priest pronouncing satisfaction instead of a eulogy at the prostitute’s funeral; the absurdity of Mrs. Netterfield attacking the delivery boy with an axe over forgotten butter; the pain of watching a parent’s health deteriorate so completely surpassing the less-felt suffering of poverty. Munro narrates each of these moments with such specificity and care that the emotion of each resonates deeply with the reader, despite the unfamiliarity of the setting. I felt like I read the piece more with my breath than with my brain, which was a really wonderful feeling.

I’ve now added Runaway to my to-read list, too. If anyone reads this post and wants to read the book along with me, let me know–I’d love to eventually turn this blog into a little more of a dialogue so that I can hear how other people have read what I’m reading.


On another note…

Somewhere between whale watching in Nova Scotia and discovering how much I love Montreal, I finished reading Infinite Jest. I can hardly believe how much I loved it, and am puzzling over what made it finally click. I’m not ready to write about it yet, but I hope that I will be soon.