It starts with a leisurely almost sluggishness, but I quickly found myself engrossed in the account of the three main characters and their academic loIt starts with a leisurely almost sluggishness, but I quickly found myself engrossed in the account of the three main characters and their academic love triangle....more
Paul West once dubbed Guy Davenport's stories "erotic skywriting" and that's sort of what I felt about these pieces. Favorite one is "Really ImportantPaul West once dubbed Guy Davenport's stories "erotic skywriting" and that's sort of what I felt about these pieces. Favorite one is "Really Important Sentences." Favorite sentences are "Your wallet smelled like oranges" and "The whale tells me he has only so many sentences before his death. I tell him I'll knit a bigger blanket." ...more
Possibly our greatest living sprawling miniaturist, Aira stirs rich helpings of thought and provocation into this compact novel, all while keeping itPossibly our greatest living sprawling miniaturist, Aira stirs rich helpings of thought and provocation into this compact novel, all while keeping it moving forward like some eddying but relentless stream. Aira both celebrates and pokes fun at the sort of intellectual conversations that eschew "gossip, soccer, health issues, or food" in favor of headier matters, i.e. "history and philosophy." In this case, a single conversation about a single scene in an action movie becomes the pretext for exploring any number of issues, from that of whether reality can be said to have multiple levels to the question of why verisimilitude matters at all. This single Conversation-of-conversations takes several twists and turns, and in spite of a certain timelessness, wherein the work verges on a sort of Platonic dialogue, it winds up addressing our contemporary condition of fragmentation and constant interruption, our harried selves. The internet is never mentioned, but one senses its insistent rhythms and leaps lurking along the edges, along with a Wikipedia-like obsession with minutiae and cultural marginalia. More personally, however, Conversations swept me back to my own seemingly endless conversations (though in retrospect, each came to an end) with friends, while walking or on the phone late at night or slothed out in an armchair, conversations which veered anywhere and everywhere according to a whimsical logic and felt frustratingly inconclusive yet somehow rewarding. At their ends you could always hear the other person's voice, still resounding in your ears and even continuing the dialogue in imagination, as when I play the trumpet I can still feel my lips tingling after setting the instrument down. The book made me more than a little nostalgic for those nights (always, they were nights). Maybe Aira's greatest achievement here is his way of conferring on conversations a quasi-physical form, a status somewhere shy of sculpture but surely well beyond mere sound-wave ephemera. I've lost those conversations with friends, lost some of the friends, but this book makes me think that perhaps they are not lost, only suspended somewhere in time, cast aside by the exigencies of the day, waiting for the right action film or football game or cheese-tasting or chance encounter to re-ignite them back into being.
Other pluses: 1) It fits in your pocket 2) You can read it twice in one night, which is like reliving the conversations which are already being relived in the narrator's mind, so you are acting in the spirit of the book, 3) Did I mention that there are toxic algae and a glowing owl?...more
On page? Who reads a lit. journal in order? Jagged forays are key. The x axis of the journal, the y axis of your life, the z axis of circumstantial inOn page? Who reads a lit. journal in order? Jagged forays are key. The x axis of the journal, the y axis of your life, the z axis of circumstantial intervention. Any way you graph it, Conjunctions rocks....more
Everything's coming back to Van Gogh today. Did you know Van Gogh once nursed a miner back from near-death for several months? I did not before today-Everything's coming back to Van Gogh today. Did you know Van Gogh once nursed a miner back from near-death for several months? I did not before today--read it in Gauguin's journals. Then this book arrived in the mail, with its various Van Goghs, its intergenerational transhistorical sprawl, its triple-Dutch form, its negations and negotiations...wow so far....more
**spoiler alert** So far I'm finding Ervin's first book to be very strong indeed. This is a quintessential example of a book review being misleading,**spoiler alert** So far I'm finding Ervin's first book to be very strong indeed. This is a quintessential example of a book review being misleading, though, specifically Robert Hanks's in The New York Times Book Review, available at ahttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/books/review/Hanks-t.html. I'm a fan of the NYTBR in general--witness the great pieces in this same issue by Dale Peck on Bernhard or Ed Park's fine survey of single sentence novels, or Justin Taylor's thorough, rigorous take on Barry Hannah; I was practically weaned on TBR, frankly. Unfortunately, Hanks misses the mark--or rather, fortunately for us, because Hanks makes it seem as though the book isn't worth reading, which it assuredly is.
Hanks's points of contention just aren't borne out in the book. Consider his claim that "gratuitous cultural references are dropped with embarrassing freedom: on the first page, Harkalyi [a composer] hobnobs with the great Hungarian composer Zoldan Kolady, 'his old friend and mentor'; later, Brutus, a former philosophy student, reads Frantz Fanon, Paul Ricoeur, Marx, and Shakespeare." So one composer is interpersonally linked with another--is this really implausible? Brutus has read three philosophers and...Shakespeare? What truth, exactly, is being stretched? What makes these gratuitous? In fact, Ervin makes it clear that Brutus has read his Shakespeare, as has the superior officer who threatens him and invokes Julius Caesar ominously as a means of intimidating him. This, in fact, is among the details that coalesce to make him a "plausible character," not merely a bearer of themes, as Hanks would have it.
What about Hanks's other digs? He calls the Brutus chapter "incongruously thrillerish." How about the fact that 60 pages into the book we're introduced to an brand-new storyline that gets our pulses pounding and sustains that level of suspense and reader engagement for its 70-odd pages, complete with the twists and turns one hopes for in a thriller? The book's ability to switch gears here is inextricable from its successes.
Hanks writes that Ervin's invocation of the concentration camp of Terezin "feels more like a clumsy attempt to persuade the reader of the author's seriousness than a genuine attempt to grapple with the horror of the Holocaust." Yes, that is, if one ignores the entire characterization of Harkalyi, the composer-protagonist of part one, whose very musical trajectory has been shaped by what happened at Terezin. In fact, what sets the story apart from previous Holocaust narratives is its grappling with the specific conditions at Terezin through the prism of Harkalyi, another "plausible character[.]"
One final point to take issue with is Hanks's assertion that Brutus's narrative "is written in a flat-footed ghetto speak that, with its swipes at 'the Man' and 'the pigs,' is more reminiscent of '70s blaxploitation movies." A simple quote or two from the chapter will serve to dispel this mischaracterization of the style. From the section: "The disembodied Voice of America also provided five minutes of English-language news at the top of every hour. It spoke of the lingering effects of a cyanide spill that had polluted the Tisza River and 'devastated the livelihoods' of fishermen and chefs of Szeged's famous fish soup; there was an update on the ongoing debate, unresolved after a decade of legal mumbo jumbo in the Hague, about a dam on the Hungary-Slovakia border; and of course there was talk of more summits and of bright prospects for eternal peace next door in the once and future Yugoslavia." Or how about, "He took exception to the army's division of labor, and, as an intellectual exercise, even flirted with Marxism now and then, but had yet to consummate the relationship." All this, mind you, is in Brutus's perspective, his free indirect speech. If this sounds like the screenplay of "Blacula" to you, well, I can't help you. Perhaps Hanks is referring to some of the dialogue, such as "Me and the boyz will be moving into her house and there's a room for you when you come home. James put all your books in boxes and they're already over there in the basement up on some wooden pallets for when it floods."? But even this--the use of the slang "boyz" does little to conjure up the cartoonish stereotypes and funky soundtracks of the Blaxploitation genre; when slang is deployed here, it is generally strategic and understated.
Ervin's book isn't perfect so far; I find Brutus's voice to be less credible than Harkalyi's, for instance, less fully inhabited. And while Hanks takes issue with the book's structure, all he does is make light of the ambiguity as to whether it is a novel or short stories. A more worthwhile question to ask is whether the book might have been more effective if its storylines had been intertwined, if we shifted back and forth between them, drawing out the suspense and allowing the contrapuntal nature of its themes to hang in the air longer and with greater frequency. I'm not sure of the answer to this, but it would've been an interesting critical angle to pursue, rather than simply scoffing at the structure. ...more