Tag Archives: new to me

Data visualizations: Learning d3.js

[Cross-posted at scholarslab.org]

The SCI study on humanities graduate programs and career preparation is humming along, and while survey responses come in, I’ve been working on determining how best to translate the data into meaningful graphics. After a lot of experimenting, I think the winner is d3.js. Short for for Data-Driven Documents, D3 is Michael Bostock’s creation; a quick glance at his gallery shows the kinds of beautiful and complex visualizations it’s capable of. It’s a low-level tool, though, which means that learning to use it even in a rudimentary way has already involved picking up some html, css, and javascript along the way. It’s a lot to chew on, but I think I’m starting to turn a corner as a blurry whirl of concepts, terms, and commands are slowly resolving themselves into some clarity.

While I don’t have anything that cool that to show yet, I’m excited that I do have a little something. Here’s the fruit of everything I’ve learned so far:

Continue Reading Data visualizations: Learning d3.js

Western by Christine Montalbetti

I dislike reading French books in translation, so it’s a bit my own fault for picking up Montalbetti’s novel, Western, translated into English by Betsy Wing. Despite actually having met her briefly at a reading in Boulder, I haven’t read Montalbetti’s work before, so the biggest issue about reading in translation is that I don’t know her own voice. I can’t tell whether I’m not crazy about the translation, or whether the translation is faithful but I am not wild about Montalbetti’s style. (Or, a third possibility: I’m annoyed with myself for buying the translation and can’t quite relax into the writing the way I normally would.) Whatever the reason, I found much of the prose to be choppy and forced, and I kept finding myself putting the book down or re-reading the same paragraph multiple times. This changed a bit toward the end of the book, when the style smoothed out considerably and I found it a much more pleasurable read. I’m a bit confused by my lukewarm reaction to the book, considering that two people whose book opinions I highly value–my advisor, Warren Motte, and my friend and former colleague, P–really enjoy her work.

The book’s premise is that of an old American western, but rather than being plot-driven, Montalbetti withholds the action as long as possible in favor of exploring endlessly meandering details. In one passage early on, I loved the personification of words in a conversation–those that tumble easily from the lips of a confident and relaxed participant, compared with others that fight to leave the mouth of a shy and awkward party to the conversation. This character, Dirk,

look[s] all around for words as though they already existed somewhere in a solid state and just had to be extracted from whatever out-of-the-way place they’re hiding in… and when he finds one of them, he grabs hold of it for you by the scruff of its neck and drags it, without further ado–struggling because of the weight of this cumbersome, limp individual, resisting him with all the power of its passivity–all the way up to the mouth that opens to submit the prisoner to Ted and our thirty-year-old. (44)

This slow and detailed progression repeats itself to create the book’s rhythm. Ants in the shadow of a character’s boot are explored in depth and with great psychological attention,  and similar detail is afforded to the movement of a drop of water, light in a mirror, a character on a screen. This sentence describing the boot that forms the ants’ terrain was lovely, if a bit overwritten:

The boot’s style is identifiable, with its beveled heel and the topstitching running up the leg in a wavy pattern–should we be seeing hills in all this stitching, their slopes full of game, their bucolic undulations so pleasing to the eye?–or is yours a more maritime imagination, leading you to think about the traces left by every obstinate returning wave on the sand of a beach–not the ribbons of foam that float ont eh air like fragments that have come loose from a mummy’s wrappings (something you might come across on a very windy day), but those embellished drawings, those arabesques that that same regathering wave pours over: pulling back to consider what it’s inscribed before coming again to scrawl some new figure with wild daubs of its brush, adding to its earlier lines in the sand. (7)

In the end, as I mentioned, the book surprised me in quite a positive way, drawing me in much more than it did initially. And actually, as I’m writing this now, I’m finding myself wanting to go back and give it another shot, to get another glimpse of those details so intricately explored. I’ll definitely give Montalbetti another try–but next time, I’ll read her in French.

Heartbreak Tango by Manuel Puig

I picked up Heartbreak Tango as part of my haul from Dalkey Archive Press’s holiday book sale, and absolutely loved this first encounter with Manuel Puig. The musicality of the title (Boquitas pintadas in the original Spanish) permeates the book, with each section building to crescendos, creating and resolving tension, and riffing improvisationally on the themes of love and loss. I can’t believe I didn’t read his work sooner; it adds one more reason to a growing list of why a literary pilgrimage to Buenos Aires is a necessary part of my future travels.

Composed in sixteen “episodes,” the perspective and narrative style shift dramatically from one section to another. The various pieces work together harmoniously, though they look like scraps of stories rather than parts of a whole (letters, police reports, stream of consciousness, newspaper clippings, and more). While it lacks the strongly visual and tactile components of Nox, and is more loosely constructed, its patchwork structure somewhat resembles Carson’s technique. Where Carson’s compilation tightly focused the reader’s attention on one particular relationship and loss, though, Puig’s mosaic spins the reader’s gaze outward from a central point into increasing chaos. Circling the character of Juan Carlos Etchepare, the narrative spends little time on his own perspective, and instead traces the trail of broken hearts that he has left in his wake–which turns out to be quite a crowd indeed.

Something in the book reminds me of an Almodóvar film: colorful and somewhat hysterical characters (mainly women), driven by emotions to carry out passionate, reckless, and even macabre acts. Each episode starts with an epigraph, each one a nod to the implausible values that drive many social interactions: passionate tango lyrics, snippets of movie dialogue, and the promises and entreaties found in advertising. Indeed, Puig was highly interested in film, both as a medium and in terms of its role in popular culture; this 1989 interview in the Paris Review gives an interesting glimpse of his techniques and tastes. (In it, he also discusses the importance of writing every day, something I’ve recently started to do.) It’s worth noting that despite the novel’s nod to films and contemporary culture, Puig confesses to watching mainly movies from the 1940’s.

Throughout the work, Puig maintains a remarkable tension between the illusory and the real, the desirable and the cruel. While the veneer of the beautiful and the false seems to discount the veracity of the characters’ emotions and experiences, the subtitles that divide the book into two sections suggest that real damage is done: “A tango lingers on true red lips” and “A tango lingers on blue, violet, black lips.” Even when the characters are larger than life, the pain they cause in others is darkly genuine.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

I read very little historical non-fiction. In fact, I’m probably within a rounding error of reading none at all. So it was an unusual moment indeed when I found myself wanting to pick up The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal — and I’m so very glad that I did.

I heard about the book from the NYPL Live line up, and noticed the way Paul Holdengraber was writing about it on Twitter — he mentioned that it was a book to read slowly, with prose that should be savored. I must have been going through my Alice Munro raptures around that time, and was luxuriating in slow reading, so in that regard it made some sense that I’d be interested. Still, it’s a book about 19th century family history and art collection — not my thing. I ordered the book and wondered how long it would sit on my shelf.

The book clearly didn’t gather dust for very long. It has actually proven to be a welcome change of pace from fiction, and something I might enjoy delving into more often. (Maybe.) De Waal sets out to trace the story of how a collection of netsuke (small, carved figures from Japan, like these) came to belong to him. He traces his lineage through the Ephrussi family, who had astonishing connections in 19th century France (Charles Swann is based partly on Charles Ephrussi, a friend of Proust’s!) and amazing art to go with it.

Deep down, what I care about most when I read is style. If a writer’s style grabs me, I will happily go in for the characters or the plot or the aesthetics or whatever it is that the writer draws my attention to. That’s probably why I enjoyed this book, even though the genre is so far out of my norm: de Waal’s style is carefully crafted and quite beautiful. De Waal is a potter, and the materiality of language is strongly present in the way he shapes his words and phrases. I think that’s why the book reads slowly: there’s a carefully measured rhythm to it, always keeping the balance, like a pot being slowly pulled into shape on a wheel.

De Waal cares about the netsuke, and he cares about learning enough about the story to make it all feel real to him. The reader benefits as the generations are revived and explored, each person examined one by one like the figures de Waal removes from their display case. He doesn’t just tell about them; it’s as though he wants to know them by touch, have a sensory experience of them.

The portrait that de Waal paints looks inward as much as back through history; the reader accompanies him on a distinct journey as he researches the movements of his netsuke through generations and across borders. He relays his discoveries about his family, of course, but he also brings the reader with him into libraries and archives, through opulent family homes that have been reconfigured into insurance offices, across borders from France to Austria to Japan to Russia. His research replicates the path of the netsuke, which echoes the journeys of the family.

The family history is a painful one, and really could not be otherwise, given that it focuses on a Jewish family of Russian origin living in Paris and Vienna during World War I and II. As he learns of the events leading up to World War II — which stripped his family of all that they had built, and then continued stripping away their nationalities and even their names — de Waal comes to the crushing realization that “the family is not erased, but written over” until not a trace of them can be seen in the revised Austria (259). One of the most moving images for me was Viktor, stripped of wealth, homeland, and much of his family, spending the days of his own exile reading Ovid and concealing his emotion (270).

The family manages to rebuild itself after the war, albeit in a very different form and in many new places. That the netsuke remain with the family when so much else was lost is incredible, and their particular journey out of post-war Vienna is especially poignant — but I’ll leave it for other readers to discover.

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.

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.

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

My favorite thing about this novel, which was a travel read for me, was its setting. The Rome of the story is a liminal city for the Jewish emigrants fleeing the Soviet Union; their final destinations vary from the U.S. and Canada to Israel or Australia, but all of them face an undetermined amount of time in Italy while they await visas for their departures. They stay too long to be considered travelers, but not long enough to adapt to the culture (or really to rebel against it). It’s neither a destination nor a place of exile.

I like grey areas. I think you learn very interesting things about people when they’re on the move between two places, whether physical or metaphorical. While on a journey, people are vulnerable–they are outside of their comfortable ways of being in the world, as any travelers are. At the same time, though, they’re often a little more open than they may be once they start to establish themselves in a new circumstance. For the duration of the journey, identity doesn’t seem quite as fixed, consequences don’t seem quite as real, and everything has a temporary tang.

We see some of this in The Free World, especially in Polina. Of the three generations of Krasnansky family members passing through Italy, she is in the middle. She has joined the family by marriage, and has strong emotional ties to the sister that she left in Latvia (not to mention a guilty conscience because of the way that she left her parents). Her marriage is new and a little tumultuous, which leaves her in a position of instability relative to the family. Her decision to leave Latvia was a very serious one, and it’s clear that both home and her future abroad are equally weighty prospects. And yet, in the interim, Bezmozgis paints her with levity. She’s able to embrace her temporary life in Rome without worrying too much about what comes next, and we see her as a character that takes pleasure in finding her place the world. I liked that her impatience with being a tourist and a bystander passed as she found (and excelled at) a job, and that as she did, she began to absorb the beautiful and odd things that crossed her path. I don’t think that we could have seen Polina in quite the same way either in Latvia or in her future homeland.

While I enjoyed the circumstances of transition and vulnerability that Rome provided, I still wasn’t as enthusiastic about the book as many reviewers were. I’m still trying to put my finger on exactly what they saw that I didn’t see. The best I can come up with is that there may be a resonance with Soviet culture (and language) that’s just totally foreign to me. Where many enjoyed the book for its humor, I found it dry; the tone felt so straightforward as to be almost plodding at times. I also had the strong impression that I was reading translated text. As it turns out, there was good reason that I felt this way. In an interview in The Paris Review with Irina Aleksander, Bezmozgis discusses the “translated” nature of the writing:

[Aleksander] My mother—who, for the most part, refuses books in English—recently read The Free World and said that the writing felt very familiar and very Russian. How did you approach the language in the book?

[Bezmozgis] I usually thought about what the conversation would be like in Russian and then would translate it into English. If there was something ungainly about it, then I’d try to correct for it. There are certain words where, if I had a choice between that and some other English synonym, I’d consciously use the one that’s more Russian. My belief is that it will be transparent enough for an English speaker, but if you’re a Russian–speaking reader and you can translate backwards, there are certain nuances that will come through.

Bezmozgis clearly created this effect deliberately, but it didn’t work for me. The language felt stilted, and rather than drawing me into a world that was new to me, I felt like it shut the door in many ways.

Would I have felt differently about this book if I had a personal connection to the cultures depicted? Maybe. But why couldn’t Bezmozgis transport someone who hadn’t shared that experience? In the end, while I liked certain elements of the book–especially the setting and parts of the storyline–I didn’t find it to be especially rich or compelling. I seem to be in the minority on this, though, so if anyone has read it, I’d love to hear other thoughts.

Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

While I’m working my way through Infinite Jest, I’ll post a few more thoughts on other books that I’ve read recently. Speaking of Infinite Jest: I still don’t know what is different for me this time around, but I’ve become so attached to the narrative that I’ve actually started reading the book on my commute. This has involved developing strategies for holding the mammoth book at a readable distance while keeping myself upright in heels, and without losing my place in either the book or the footnotes. (I find that resting the book’s spine along the forearm that’s holding onto the subway pole works pretty well, as long as the train isn’t too crowded.) I’ve also had to come to terms with how pretentious it looks to be carrying the thing around. Which is to say, I really love this book.

Wallace’s voice captures the absurdities of contemporary American society so well that as I’m looking back at Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, I’m having a very hard time not comparing the two works–which doesn’t work in Love Story‘s favor. The corporate conglomerations (e.g., “ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandsViacomCredit,” “LandO’LakesGMFordCredit” ) read like the subsidized time of Infinite Jest (e.g., “Year of the Whopper,” “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar”), gesturing at the same sort of corporate pervasiveness. The empty and absurd political structures of Shteyngart’s American Restoration Authority and the bipartisan party are reminiscent of Wallace’s Office of Unspecified Services and the Organization of North American Nations. The cartridge viewer has been replaced by the äppärät, but the absorption that results, while more isolated, remains very similar.

The degree of isolation that the characters experience, either knowingly (in Lenny’s case) or blindly (most of the other characters) is one possible reason that Super Sad True Love Story appeals to me less than Infinite Jest, though the two consider similar themes. Perhaps Shteyngart’s portrayal resonates a little too much with my own discomfort with the possible outcomes that the combined forces of consumerism and technology can lead to; after all, in the fourteen years between the publication of Infinite Jest and Love Story, the way that we use technology has fundamentally changed, and Shteyngart captures that shift quite well. Instead of collective absorption in a weapons-grade film (more on this in a later post), the äppärat individualizes the addictive experience, deeply isolating the characters in Love Story. Rather than pursuing pleasure and entertainment, as in Infinite Jest, the characters in Love Story pursue the still emptier ends of money and eternal youth–even if no pleasure results from their gains.

Shteyngart’s portrayal is apt, but results in terribly repellent characters. The shallowness with which Eunice and her friend (whose real name I don’t recall) communicate on the network “GlobalTeens” may be an incisive depiction of text-message friendships, but it makes me cringe. Here’s the first exchange:

EUNI-TARD ABROAD TO GRILLBITCH:

Hi, Precious Pony!

What’s up, twat? Missing your ‘tard? Wanna dump a little sugar on me? JBF. I am so sick of making out with girls.

The messages the two friends send to one another are poorly-written and crass, laden with superficial and hyper-sexualized expressions, plus unending comments on shopping, appearance, and landing a suitable partner. I can understand the message that Shteyngart is sending regarding the effects of changing technology on the way that people relate to one another, but it feels a little heavy-handed to me. Still, the vapidity of their written “conversation” does allow for a marked contrast with Eunice’s genuine attempts to connect with people, especially with her sister. Though that last passage doesn’t show it, Shteyngart does feel a clear affection for his characters, and he seems to lament the ways they are affected by social pressures, consumerism, and unfettered technological advancement. It just doesn’t always make for a compelling portrait.

Before picking up the novel, I had encountered Super Sad True Love Story in “Lenny Hearts Eunice” in the New Yorker, and also through an interview with Shteyngart on Fresh Air–and I really enjoyed these first glimpses. The story is sharp and funny and often endearing. In some ways I think the narrative worked better as a short story than it did in the full novel, though; Shteyngart’s ideas and characters are compelling in short form, and I’m not sure that they had the depth to sustain their intensity in the full novel. Then again, it may simply be that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the scenario that Shteyngart depicts, and have a hard time taking pleasure in what I see as a really bleak and not entirely unlikely future.

Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife

I’ve read a fair amount of tricksy postmodern fiction, and as a grad student I liked quite a lot of it. I loved thinking about the evolution of the form of the novel, metaliterary reflections on the readerly and writerly processes, and how far narrative could bend before it snapped. I know this kind of experimentation isn’t a recent phenomenon (Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published between 1759 and 1767, may be the quintessential postmodern novel), but there’s an abundance of it today, as not only the content but also the physical form of the book is called into question. (As an aside, these Book Autopsies by Brian Dettmer are perhaps the most astonishing and beautiful thing I’ve seen done to the book as an object. They make me feel that if I had to read everything on a digital device just so he could create more of these works, it just might be worth it.)

While I still get most excited by literature that does something new and different with its form, now that I read primarily for fun I find myself demanding more cohesive narrative structure. I still love playfulness and experimentation, but I don’t love it quite as much for its own sake. Looking back again to Stern for a moment, it’s clear that his playfulness wasn’t self-indulgent; rather, he wrote with the reader’s pleasure in mind, and he conveys a certain awareness of and complicity with his reader.  (e.g., “I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all,–who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of everything which concerns you. It is in pure compliance with this humour of theirs, and from a backwardness in my nature to disappoint any one soul living, that I have been so very particular already” [book 1, ch. 4]). Sterne’s playfulness is delightful; the same is true of the best contemporary and recent writers.

When done poorly, though, the self-reflection and nonlinearity of experimental fiction becomes a drudge. I have to confess that as much as I loved the way that Danielewski’s House of Leaves made me think, I don’t think that I’d enjoy it nearly as much if I picked it up today. The form, the ideas, and the execution of both are fascinating, but the fundamental storytelling doesn’t hold up as well. (Granted, it may also just be a question of attention span…)

All of this is a long introduction to the fact that I recently called up a good friend and complained that I hadn’t read much in the way of really beautiful prose lately. I felt that I had gotten a little bit lost in stories that were on the dry and snarky side, or on the dry and technical side, and I missed lush prose and engaging characters. I asked for suggestions, and EF pointed me to Téa Obreht.

While Obreht’s writing didn’t cause me to catch my breath in the way I was hoping for, I found her to be an excellent storyteller. One character after another in The Tiger’s Wife unfolded and drew me in. For me, the characters were the book’s strongest feature; it is the characters’ humanity, no matter how strange they (or their circumstances) first appear, that made it impossible for me to break my gaze. The determined science teacher whose incredible wartime achievement was to steal lungs for her students to dissect; the deathless man who reads the deaths of others in their coffee grounds; and of course, the tiger’s wife, whose story I won’t tell. I’ve read reviews suggesting that the characters are flat, but I think that their larger-than-life attributes lend the book its sense of folk tradition and oral storytelling. Rather, I think the plot would fall flat without the characters.

I’m not sure the book would stand up to rigorous analysis, and there were moments where the writing felt either overly simplistic or a little bit stilted; but then, this is Obreht’s first novel. I look forward to continuing to read her writing over time, and will look forward to her books when I want to be engrossed in a story for the pure pleasure of it.

Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness

I picked up Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball (2007) after being seduced by a New Yorker blurb that compared him to a blend of Calvino and Kafka. Because really, how could I possibly resist? The novel’s poetic title added another touch of mystique, and I picked the book up immediately in one of my not-infrequent Amazon book binges.

Oddly, though, as I started down a trail of reviews, the comparisons didn’t end with the enticing juxtaposition of Calvino and Kafka. I found Ball compared to Beckett, Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, Hitchcock, Saramago (eech, much less appealing), Hunter S. Thompson, Gogol, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, Borges, Charles Simic, and Guillermo del Toro–sometimes two or three in the same review.  If all of the name dropping was a marketing ploy, then it was brilliant–I’m sure nearly any reader can pluck a favorite or two out of the mix. The sum of it, though, was just strange for a new reader. I started the book with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, thinking that perhaps Ball had very little of his own writing identity and could therefore easily be molded into the form of one’s favorite style–or else that reviewers had run out of original vocabulary to describe his work and had resorted to names instead of adjectives.

I wish that I had read the novel as a blank slate, because there were elements of it that I liked a lot. The mystery of conspiracy, compounded by a complex and arbitrary system of rules (designed exclusively to create a coherent system for compulsive liars), a labyrinthine floorplan, changing and repeating character names, and uncracked ciphers, results in a really fun narrative experience with just the right amount of confusion for the reader.  The characters were a little bit flat; I found the most compelling character to be Grieve (the central one, as there are many). Ball imbues her with seriousness and odd whimsy that make it impossible to tell how she will respond to her circumstances. For example:

She stood up and hopped over. She had sewn herself into a bag the night before. She said she and James didn’t know each other well enough to sleep in the same bed otherwise, but that certainly there was no other bed that she intended to sleep in that night but his, and he had better get used to it. He had said nothing but had watched with a great deal of astonishment as she had honestly and truly sewn herself inside a bag. (85)

The prose is spare and graceful. There are not many passages unbroken by dialogue, and I wish that there were more, because Ball’s lengthier passages have a captivating rhythm to them. Even simple descriptions are poetic and just a bit surprising:

James shut the door and sat down on the hall-bench. He had always wanted to have such a bench. As he grew older, slowly he had procured for himself  more and more of the things he had wanted slightly. Finally, it was the bench’s turn, and he had procured it and set it down in this hall. Really, he never sat on it. Certainly, this was the most momentous thing that had ever befallen the bench.

In the end, though, neither the narrative nor the prose really shone in a way that stuck with me, and I finished the book feeling indifferent. It may simply be that my hopes were way too high given the Calvino and Kafka teaser. I’d really like to read The Way Through Doors (which appears to be a more complex nested narrative, even judging be the cover art) as well as The Curfew, which sounds like a more straightforward story. I’d like to get to know Ball’s style on its own terms, rather than seeing it through so many other unrelated lenses.