Saturday, 29 August 2015

Narrative appetizers by Sheila Heti

Full title: The Middle Stories
Author: Sheila Heti
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 160 pages, paperback
Publisher: McSweeney's (2012)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

You know you’re in for a feast of fiction when you open a book to titles such as “The Princess and the Plumber,” “Mermaid in a Jar,” “The Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” or “The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates.” Thirty such titles are lined up at the start line in Sheila Heti’s second edition of The Middle Stories. The volume, boasting nine additions to the cast of characters of the first take (2001), is a collection of minuets in prose with roots in the tradition of fairy tales and with branches in various offshoots of postmodernity.
By employing an identical tone and a unitary spatial and chronological progression, Heti managed to solve one of the most threatening aspects of short-story collections: unity. All her texts sound the same. I don’t mean this in a bad sense but on the contrary, as a tribute to the positive qualities of her prose.
There is a rhythm proper to fairy tales, in which sentences rise and fall so as to accommodate the reader/listener to the tempo of the telling. That rhythm, repetitive and ritualistic, has its proper utility: it is meant to reassure the reader/listener that they are in familiar territory, that what’s going to happen won’t do them any harm. That’s precisely what one finds in The Middle Stories too. Random example, the near-iambic scansion in the following opening paragraph, with special emphasis on the first sentence (“The Favorite Monkey”):
“They lay under the tree in the morning June air and breathed in each other’s whispers. That’s how romantic it was under the tree – under any tree! And nobody made them leave or come out of it or shake it off.”
This is what makes the stories familiar. This, as well as the easy embracing of the fantastic, in ways that keep no secret of their affiliation to fairy tales. At least these two elements make the collection a ride worth taking. And speaking of rides, I assume the brevity of the pieces collected in the volume is likely in tune with what we like to call ‘the modern life.’ Taken in isolation, these texts are tiny morsels of storytelling for the use of the hurried commuter, who has only this long to finish one text, and who needs to reach resolutions before reaching destinations. The Middle Stories delivers this sense of quick fixes lined up in a continuum of little episodes to be consumed like appetizers between this stop and the next. Mostly two to three pages in length, the stories manage narrative timing with a specialist’s exactitude. One wouldn’t find it hard to spot the austere style, the dialogues that don’t have much time to dwell on deep psychologies, the generous time lapses, the preference for outlines rather than full portraitures. All this is good and feels good when read, because it rings that familiar bell of fairy tales which, short and specific, take no prisoners in the battle for efficiency of expression.

Sheila Heti. Source: The Times-Picayune
Also from the fairy-tale molds emerges this noticeable tendency towards titles that grab (see above), followed by introductory sentences that pursue the lead announced by said titles. To illustrate, here’s the story called “The Giant,” and more specifically the way it starts:
“There was a giant in their town. His name was Sal. Everybody laughed as he walked by and said things like, ‘Hey, giant!’ and waved and grinned and elbowed their dates and stuff like that, which the giant tolerated only because he was a giant. It was part of his lot to be way bigger than everybody and teased mercilessly for being so.”
And so, following the above, there’s no doubt as to what the stories are about. The title makes it clear; the opening paragraph makes it clearer. Once again, a busy commuter must appreciate the slight of hand, although they have a wee bit of work to do for themselves before they can say the stories have been well comprehended.
Heti rarely describes characters through references to their physical features. When those are present, they’re often limited to very elusive hints. It’s often more important that “Eleanor was fond of ice cream” (“Eleanor”) or that “there was sweat under her arms” (“A Few Adventures of the Young Fornicator”) or that “Marcus was getting a headache” (“Janis and Marcus”). Or, when further narration is involved, it’s more important for things to go like this: “One boy was taller, and the three went slowly down the street, and it was cold” (“The Girl Who Planted Flowers”). Or like this: “A little old woman who never stopped smiling walked into the kitchen from her garden” (“The Raspberry Bush”). The pleasure the author takes in playing the good cards of brevity is noticeable throughout.
On another hand, connections between elements are often short-circuited in the manner just illustrated through the last two sample sentences. As a result, whatever stands in the place of description is puzzling, dazzling, nonplussing. But that’s exactly what gives the stories the flavor they have: this sense of rapid fires after rapid fires, this economy of means, this austerity.
Heti prefers to make her characters perform little sketches in front of their readers, because she wants to use narration as a means of description. Some stories are entirely conceived as such, although these portrayals are well disguised behind plot lines. How does one know, thought, that they’re only disguises? Because a lot of these stories don’t have conclusions. They make full use of the cliff-hanger trick to remain suspended in the reader’s mind and to create tiny tornadoes in their consciousness. They don’t distribute well-chewed closures, and when there is anything resembling moralitas at all, one can be sure that it is done in order to enforce sarcasm.
And so the general musicality of the thirty pieces in the collection is mostly jocular. In spite of the fact that many situations depicted in them are on the sad side of things (read again the opening to “The Giant”), the telling doesn’t feel depressed. This rhythmic parade lifts the texts to that innocent skipping-rope realism that characterizes fairy tales, in which even the most outrageous fantasy is understood to be real. Because that’s what the story dictates.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Valeria Luiselli’s narrative hide-and-seek

Full title: Faces in the Crowd
Author: Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 150 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Granta (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

“If you dedicate your life to writing novels, you’re dedicating yourself to folding time.”

(Faces in the Crowd)

Things get complicated in Faces in the Crowd every time it comes to spatial and chronological transgressions. The female narrator meets (or thinks she’s met) the Mexican poet Gilberto Owen on the New York subway. Owen himself meets (or thinks he’s met) Ezra Pound, Federico Garcia Lorca, or Joshua Zvorsky. The latter, a made-up character, is an impersonation of Louis Zukovsky (it takes only a few clues to figure it out). Valeria Luiselli plays expertly the game of who’s who in a style that smacks of Borges. This is a style that doesn’t bring any light to the puzzle represented by the text but, on the contrary, complicates every instance of uncertainty. It all goes crazy, until the reader gives up diagramming connections and accepts to play the game only for the pleasure of it. Of course, tracing the relations between characters is not an impossible task. The aha moments, when you recognize Chekhov’s gun before it gets fired, are everywhere. Hence the pleasure that comes with this novel. But the crux of the matter is this: time and space are relative, fictional chronotops allow intermixing of characters and interweaving of narratives.
Identities and settings are, therefore, crucial, as they provide the foundation of the entire story. Not only is the text split in two, with two narrative voices at two different moments in time going their mildly separate ways (one: a female writer/translator in Mexico City somewhere in the late 2000s; two: Gilberto Owen, decades earlier, strolling the streets of Harlem); it also features a nosy reader who keeps upsetting the progression of the narrative – up to a certain point, when he upsets no more. This intruder is the writer/translator’s husband, who has been peering over her shoulder while she’s been writing this novel that we’re reading. The husband comments every time he finds the occasion, picking on details of the story that involve himself or his wife’s amorous adventures. The role of this intruder is to shift the focus of narration and to highlight the artificial aspect of the fiction. He disagrees with certain episodes, questions others, and appears to be influenced in his actions by what he’s reading in his wife’s novel. Because of this character, a further complication of the narrative occurs. There is the level of the actual novel on the one hand, and the time-zero of narration on the other hand. The latter is still a fiction to us, the actual readers, but it acts as a real-life situation to the fictional reader who intervenes in the story.
Valeria Luiselli. Source: Translatable
You see how things get difficult to follow. Or should I say difficult to explain in a few lines? Faces in the Crowd (with a title taken, at least in its English rendition, from Ezra Pound’s poem, “In a Station of the Metro” – so here’s another complication) needs to be followed closely to be truly enjoyed. It’s not the kind of book you hear about and decide you don’t have to read because you’ve got the plot, so why bother. Its intricate intertextuality and the network of relationships and trajectories make it a game worth playing, an exercise in readerly attention.
It’s quite something to follow the way Luiselli twists events like a well-trained puppeteer, giving them a different connotation or a chance to be seen from a new perspective. I’m all for the following example, a fragment where she imagines Ezra Pound at the very moment when he is struck by the image that will produce “In a Station of the Metro.” Note, this is Gilberto Owen (1904-1952) speaking.
“The first thing I do remember is the face of Ezra Pound in the crowd waiting on the platform for the train. Of course it wasn’t really him. The doors opened and there he was on the platform, leaning against a pillar. We looked each other straight in the eye, as if in recognition, although he couldn’t possibly have heard anything about me, a young Irish-Mexican, neither red haired nor good looking, more bastard than poet. I was transfixed – instead of getting off the train, I let the passengers leave and be replaced by others, identically ugly, overheated and ordinary. Pound didn’t board the train. He was lost among the crowd of faces on the platform, faces like the wet petals of his poem.”
For those who don’t remember Pound’s poem, here it is in its entirety:
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;Petals on a wet, black bough.”
The fragment by Luiselli describes a look from the opposite side of a train platform, seeing Pound as he sees the incoming trains. It calls for some good courage only to go there.
What else. Well, this: unreliable narrator. A trick that can look cheap when handled by certain realist authors, is given a major part to play, and to remarkable effects. The female narrator (I hate the fact that she doesn’t have a name, so I have to keep calling here this) makes no secret of the fact that she’s a liar. She’s faked translations of poems by Owen, pretending they’d been done by Zvorsky (a fictional character himself, so another case of lying); she’s also lied to her husband about her sexual encounters; she’s lying through her teeth every time she has the opportunity. And yet she is the one whose story has to be believed. Everything hinges on the issue of truth: of how hard it is to acquire it, of how complicated the most straightforward form of truth could sometimes be. And guess what? The reader does believe her. We believe the story precisely because we know it’s based on lies, illusions, hallucinatory ideation. We believe the story because we know it’s fiction. That’s the greatest achievement of this little debut novel, the reason it has been so excitedly received by critics. That, of course, plus the author’s talent, her proficient handling of literary references, the intricacies of her architectonics, the tricks she plays on us, readers, when she pulls a stint of citation of which we might not be aware.
It’s sometimes nothing but a game, a game of guessing, a game of reading enjoyments. Best described in a passage like the following, where the female narrator, the metanarrative guarantor of the story, insinuates her condition in the form of a childish game:
“We play at hide-and-seek in this enormous house. It’s a different version of the game. I hide and the others have to find me. Sometimes hours go by. I shut myself up in the closet and write long, long paragraphs about another life, a life which is mine but not mine. Until someone remembers that I’m hiding and they find me.”
It’s this constant search for the characters, for their connections and their functions, that gives the novel that special air of a labyrinth (o, Borges, you again!), of an experiment well played. The others in the fragment just quoted – who could they be. Us, of course, the readers. The story is all about us, like it was in Last Year in Marienbad, a film Luiselli quotes, I think (now I can’t be sure but what the hell), so as to throw yet another allusion at us.
Allusion taken.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Dylan Horrocks and the aesthetic of incompleteness

Full title: Incomplete Works
Author: Dylan Horrocks
Genre: Comic strips
Attributes: 192 pages, paperback
Publisher: Victoria University Press (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

What’s left after an artist has published everything deemed publishable? This is the question that imposes itself in relation to Dylan Horrocks’ collection, Incomplete Works. The volume is an anthology of things scattered about, of morsels almost forgotten. The detail is important because these pieces (not debris, not rubbles, not wasted effort) draw attention to the importance of remainders. The things left behind gain a voice of their own by means of such exercises in remembering.
The mood is often gloomy in the earlier comics. They occupy themselves with the sad figure of a cartoonist away from home (living in London but dreaming always of New Zealand), whose art struggles to take shape and who lives through bouts of almost-depressive writer’s blocks
"When night came the moon hung like a ball of antarctic ice, reminding me of home."
There’s rarely a happy moment in these pieces, dark and inundated by shadows, with characters resembling the author’s physiognomy and with the tools of his trade looming like self-harming weapons:
“The long afternoons wear on; work slows. Inspiration is not forthcoming. Dates and deadlines evaporate. Where does it all go – all the wasted time, the infertile hours? How does a week become a day, an hour… ?”
And to explain, there’s a simple definition to be read, the kind of thing capable of making one turn one’s back to London in order to have one’s eyes facing distant home, lost somewhere in the opposite hemisphere (of the world, of the brain?):
“Nostalgia is simply memory detached from time – moments from the past turned into lazy eternities… […] Trying to catch up… and failing. Only the past is free of that constant queasy sense of time-driven guilt.”
There’s a lot of existentialist angst in these first cartoons, in the vein just exemplified above. Not unlike the tone of voice that comes from any immigrant who’s ever put his ache into words.
The mood is forced on by the sounds of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, with its provoking silences, its obsessive returns upon the central theme, its sense of being on the way of saying more.

Dylan Horrocks. Source: Victoria University Press
Some of Horrocks’ strips read like that. They are multi-themed because they are fragments. They’ve been collected from an unstated portfolio that contains failed projects, minute exercises, topical gigs, miscellaneous jobs. Put together as such, they draw a familiar kind of itinerary, an autobiography in comic strips that needed to be gathered in one place in order to be remembered as a whole.
The scope of the collection is ample. Chronologically, it covers a period of just over a quarter century (26 years, to be more precise, i.e. 1986 to 2012). Generically and thematically, it moves from memoir-style reflections to dream-like formations that tap into the fantastic and the other-worldly, and from contemporary one-page photographic records to sketches of historical events.
The autobiographical pieces stand out for that unique quality ordinary readers look after when reading artists’ memoirs: their access to secrets of the trade, to biographical details. That’s how a piece like “The Last Fox Story” (of 1990) becomes of interest. The longest of the pieces in the collection, it tells, in single-panel drawings, the story of Horrocks’ stay in London and his artistic tribulations. It is a series of sketches, plans, reproductions, and sometimes text-only descriptions of his struggle to make it through.
There’s a description attached in the Notes section at the end of the book, which is worth quoting in full, so as to let clarification materialize out of the author’s own words:
“THE LAST FOX STORY (1990): mostly drawn in ballpoint on memo paper and first published as a 104-page A6 mini-comic, printed on the office photocopier at Waterstone’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London (where I was working at the time). I began writing it for the final issue of Fox Comics (sadly never published), in which contributors were invited to tell stories about their own relationship with comics.”
That describes it pretty well. The piece moves elegantly from crude notations to reflections on home and distance, with the occasional despair that comes to irk an artist who hasn’t been allowed to roam the stratospheres of art:
“I am in London, alone & without much money. I am to become a professional cartoonist, but so far no-one seems able to understand my work.”
Of course, Dylan Horrocks has moved away from that. Or so it seems from the rest of the comic strips, where he exercises confidence and where he takes up vast projects without thinking twice, in spite of the fact that some of them showed slim chances of success to start with. Throughout his career but mostly in the latest years, Horrocks has also shown more than an artist’s interest in comics. He teaches art and he researches art. As it becomes apparent through some of the pieces in the collection, he’s worked on several projects dealing with the history of New Zealand or the history of New Zealand comics. Such is the case of his study of Barry Linton (“To the I-Land”), his references to Eric Resetar, a pioneer of New Zealand comics, or the allusions (comical or serious) to Captain James Cook’s travels of discovery in the eighteenth century, which led to the discovery of what is now New Zealand.
To end with, one must know that Dylan Horrocks is not just a local champion. He has featured on the world scene of his art in various ways. “A Cartoonist’s Diary,” the last piece in the book, was serialized in 2012 on The Comics Journal. His own website appears to be a hit too. He has been a constant presence at conventions and conferences, has contributed to collections, has given public lectures, and has been massively promoting the art that’s been keeping him busy for so long. All this makes the volume so much more interesting, especially to those who are trying their hand at the art of drawing. They will learn from Horrocks, and they will find solace, if needed.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Hats, decapitations, and hippopotamuses

Full title: Down the Rabbit Hole
Author: Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated by Rosalind Harvey
Genre: Novella
Attributes: 74 pages, paperback
Publisher: And Other Stories (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole exhibits the essential attributes of Narcoliteratura. It has at the centre of the narrative a Mexican gang doing its deeds, armed to their teeth, killing, bribing, intimidating, making a lot of money and focusing almost exclusively on the protection of the immediate family. It is against this background that a young boy by the name of Tochtli (with very few exceptions, the characters have Nahuatl names that signify animal species; Tochtli = rabbit) leads his secluded life. The narrative is told exclusively from his perspective. The proximity of a person so young to violence of that magnitude is likely to upset some readers. Too bad for them, because Villalobos does a great job at giving the narrator a voice that’s innocent in spite of all that lies behind his life. And that voice makes everything interesting and worth reading. Not to mention the complexity of the text itself, a short but incredibly dense novella that exploits the experimental nature of the topic to incredible extents.
Like all young boys, Tochtli goes about getting wise about the world. For that purpose, his father, Yolcaut (= rattlesnake), the head of the gang, also known to the media as The King, has hired a private tutor. So Tochtli learns things. But he doesn’t do so the official way, not like other kids his age who attend proper schools with proper teachers teaching proper disciplines with proper learning outcomes. Mazatzin (=deer), the tutor, turns out to be an infiltrated journalist, but one who’s had the chance to put some seeds into the boy’s mind. His influence, however, is minimal, since the dominant figure is the father, who always speaks to the boy in the language of gangs and who teaches Tocthli almost everything he knows.

Juan Pablo Villalobos. Source: And Other Stories
The two of them play macabre games in which dead bodies and killing techniques are made to sound as innocent and child-like as a game of What’s the Time, Mister Wolf?
“One of the things I’ve learned from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet. Sometimes they need three or even fourteen bullets. It all depends where you aim them. If you put two bullets in their brain they’ll die for sure. But you can put up to 1,000 bullets in their hair and nothing will happen, although it must be fun to watch. I know all this from a game Yolcaut and I play. It’s a question-and-answer game. One person says a number of bullets in a part of the body and the other one answers: alive, corpse, or too early to tell.‘One bullet in the heart.’‘Corpse.’‘Thirty bullets in the little toenail of the left foot.’‘Alive.’‘Three bullets in the pancreas.’‘Too early to tell.’”
Speaking of things that might upset some readers, this is father and son having quality time together. Tochtli spends his childhood thus, mostly bored by the seclusion that’s the only thing he’s ever known. From his father, he learns how to count and how to account. He learns that the essence of things stands in numbers, whether the number of bullets that can kill a person or the number of killings shown on tv, or the amount of money that can buy someone’s silence, or simply the taking into account of the family’s possessions:
“[O]ur palace has ten rooms: my bedroom, Yolcaut’s bedroom, the hat room, the room Miztli and Chichilkuali use, Yolcault’s business room and five more empty rooms we don’t use.”
From his father, Tocthi also learns a nationalist sense of pride and a macho way of assessing self-worth.
“What I definitely am is macho. For example: I don’t cry all the time because I don’t have a mum. If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots. When I’m said Yolcaut tells me not to cry, he says:‘Chin up, Tochtli, take it like a man.’”
The entire novella has this tone of accountancy under the sign of maturity about it, the narrative voice recording life as if it were a ledger, with its various tables and categories and classes, their use, their worth, their applicability. Tochtli lists his desires the way he lists the rooms in the palace in which he lives. Whatever it is that he wants, he registers no apparent change in emotional intensity. He wants hats, he wants a samurai sword, he wants a Liberian pigmy hippopotamus, and all his wishes are granted. In what counts as his normality there’s a very short distance between desire and fulfilment. And because of that desire itself doesn’t stand out as anything special. It’s just a thing that exists out there, a list of wants, another list.
In spite of all this, though, Tochtli doesn’t sound like a spoiled child. He catalogues the world this way because this is how the world is to him. He doesn’t throw tantrums, he doesn’t stomp his feet while requesting things, he doesn’t ask for the impossible. What’s more, he’s intelligent and sympathetic. He’s capable of humour and of reason. When he acquires the hippopotamuses he’s been dreaming of (yes, there’s not just one but two, a pair), he calls them Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of Austria. Black humour, as it turns out to be, but humour nonetheless. And for all these things Tochthli sounds likeable, clever, congenial. Clever as the author who wrote him up, and who made this truly brilliant parallel between decapitations, of which the book is full.