Archive for February, 2011

Poem Strip

February 27, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Dino Buzzati

The Italian writer Dino Buzzati is almost entirely known for his brooding masterpiece The Tartar Steppe (well worth seeking out if you haven’t done so already); so much so that I assumed he was one of those writers who live on in a single achievement – the novel seems to have been in print from various publishers since it was first translated into English in 1952. A couple of years ago, however, the New York Review of Books published Poem Strip under their classics imprint, translated by Marina Harss. Interestingly, the books are separated by over twenty years: The Tartar Steppe was published in 1945, Poem Strip in 1969, when Buzzati was, like the century, in his sixties. What is surprising about this is that Poem Strip is what would now be termed a graphic novel.

Buzzati’s intention to marry literature with illustration is obvious from his choice of classical myth as the basis of his story. Poem Strip retells the Orpheus myth in a contemporary Italian setting. It begins when Orfy, a singer songwriter of typical sixties vintage, sees his ‘girl’, Eura, walk through a door one night, and discovers the next morning she is dead. Taking his guitar, he is able to sing his way through the same door into an underworld that seems just the same as the Milan he has left behind. The underworld’s master, an empty jacket (one of a number of surreal touches), explains that the only difference is the absence of death:


Further singing ensues and Orfy is given permission to search for Eura and take her back to the surface. Although he finds her, he returns alone, Eura seemingly reluctant to leave the underworld, or to believe that it is possible: “No, your songs are not enough. Here the great law decides. Don’t believe those old myths.”

The illustrations can be striking. Sometimes they rely on surrealism (the melting buildings which show the city’s tiredness); at other times they adopt a photo-realism. Illustrations that would fit comfortably into a children’s book sit side by side with naked women in poses derived from pornography (no genitals feature, however – Buzzati focuses instead on covering a wide range of breast shapes). Throughout Buzzati adopts a limited palette of colours to provide unity. Buzzati was a painter and there are frequent allusions to other paintings, and films. He is not among his country’s great comic artists, though. Largely this is an illustrated text, with most pages featuring only a single picture. The graphics are not generally used to tell the story by demonstrating action.

The story itself has dated rather more quickly than The Tartar Steppe. His central message is clear –life without death is empty:


But ultimately this message is both rather trite (not many of us face the danger of immortality) and rather over-stated. Strip away the strip and the poem has little to recommend it. The characters remain two dimensional and the retelling of the myth lacks the bite of originality that would continue to resonate today. As a curiosity, a precursor to the graphic novels of today, its publication is deserved, and it is largely for that reason that it retains some fascination.

Danger rating: The preponderance of naked woman may make this dangerous to read in public, but otherwise the only danger is a sixties flashback (whether you were there or not).

How I Became a Nun

February 20, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Cesar Aira

The Argentinian writer Cesar Aira is quite difficult to become acquainted with in English. Despite having apparently written more than forty novels, only five have been translated so far. But he is also difficult to know in another way: rejecting the traditional rules of the novel to reach for a form of story-telling based on a different, more intuitive logic. As he has explained himself:

“The story is always about something inexplicable. The art of narration declines as explanations are added.”

This is in direct opposition to the development of the novel, where the depth and coherence of character has become one of the primary aims. How I Became a Nun is a good example of these difficulties: for a start, despite the opening declaration, “My story, the story of ‘how I became a nun’ began very early in my life”, this is not a novel in which the narrator becomes a nun, or shows any inclination to become a nun. In fact, it is not clear if the narrator is male or female. An early statement (“I was a devoted daughter”) is soon contradicted by a reference to the narrator from another character as “the boy.” This is the general rule that is followed throughout: the narrator refers to herself as a girl; others do so as a boy. So, we have a female narrator who looks male, a male narrator who thinks he is female, or a game on the part of the author. The latter seems the most likely as the narrator is called Cesar Aira, lives in the same town where Aira was brought up, and has a friend with the same name as another writer from that town.

What can be said with some certainty, however, is that the novel begins with the six year old Aira eating ice cream for the first time:

“No sooner had the first particles dissolved on my tongue than I felt physically ill. I had never tasted anything so revolting.”

His father cannot believe he doesn’t like it and forces him to eat it, a situation that last until he tastes it himself and discovers that it is, indeed, disgusting. A violent altercation with the ice cream vendor follows. Aira next wakes up in hospital; his father is in prison.

The novel continues to tell of Aira’s school days, a visit to the prison to see his father, listening to the radio, his friendship with Arturo Carrera. Though there is progression, most chapters could be read as short stories, and there is certainly no urgency to the plotting. Only the final chapter makes a handbrake turn from the leisurely tone of memoir into thriller territory with a deliberately over-the top denouement which parallels the novel’s opening.

It has been suggested that the novel is concerned with writing, providing some explanation for the autobiographical elements. Certainly, the idea of creating stories is repeated throughout, beginning with Aira’s time in hospital:

“I was in a state of unremitting delirium with plenty of time to concoct the most baroque stories.”

This continues when he becomes lost on his prison visit:

“I imagined a scene in which I was explaining to the governor of the prison what had really happened: ‘…it was my dad. He grabbed me and hid me somewhere…he’s going to use me as a hostage in the breakout he’s planning with his accomplices…”

Later, when he is following his mother as if shadowing her, he admits that the game is a result of his “sheer love of fiction.”

It is “sheer love of fiction” that is most noticeable in the novel, with Aira seemingly delighting in letting the story go where it will, only to reassert control at the conclusion.

Danger rating: like ice cream – moreish, but too much at once could lead to brain freeze.

Richard Yates

February 12, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Tao Lin

Fast forward fifty years and, if you were looking for a suitable counterpart to Richard Brautigan’s chronicling of the slackers and misfits of his generation, you might do worse than turn to Tao Lin, whose latest novel name checks another American writer of the sixties, Richard Yates. Yates himself is only mentioned six times in the novel (I can use the handy index to be sure of this fact), but presumably it is writing about dysfunctional relationships that is the more telling link. That and, of course, a mischievous desire to play on names and celebrity: the lovers in Richard Yates are called Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment.

I think we can be fairly sure that the characters in the novel are not the actors of the same name – neither of them mention acting (Dakota is at school and Haley is a writer), and they frequently discuss Dakota’s weight issues. However, there are a number of other coincidences: the ‘real’ Haley is six years older than Dakota as in the novel, and their ages as given in the novel (16 and 22) were their ages in 2010, when the novel was published, though not in 2006, when it is set. Why choose these names? Well, obviously Lin is having fun by giving very ordinary characters celebrity tags, furthering emphasising their ordinariness. Those particular celebrities, however, have perhaps been particularly chosen: Haley Joel Osment’s most famous role was in The Sixth Sense…playing a ghost; Dakota Fanning’s most famous role is probably in the Twilight series…playing a vampire. As one of Lin’s purposes seems to be to show the emotional and spiritual deadness of his characters (see also their casual references to suicide), it is more likely the actors’ roles that we should be reminded of rather than the actors. (This in itself, of course, makes a further point).

To read the novel is to enter a very small world that focuses entirely on Haley and Dakota’s relationship, in much the way they do. When they are together they talk about themselves and their feelings and when they are apart they talk on Gmail about themselves and their feelings. Both are very needy. Haley frequently complains that Dakota is making him feel lonely, for example when she sings to herself:

“People sing like that when they aren’t focused on anyone else except themselves. It makes the people around them feel alone.”

For much of the novel the age difference between them is not obvious as Haley is as childish as Dakota. One way Lin achieves this impression is to report their feelings without always giving us the cause:

“She came out and Haley Joel Osment became upset about something. About a minute later he was upset about something else, that she wasn’t making him feel better. He stared at the ground feeling her looking at him and then felt a little confused as he looked at her staring at the ground.”

Lin delineates the minutiae of their emotional lives with a dispassionate accuracy that also diminishes them (as does the constant use of their full names). “Upset”, here used twice, is a word that we would normally associate with a child and the deliberate repetition of “looking…staring…looked…stared” bleaches out any drama from the scene. This is the unceasing register of the novel. Even the sex scenes are not only empty of love (as is the entire novel) but of passion:

“Dakota Fanning pushed him a little and he lay on his back and lifted his head and looked at her face with a neutral facial expression and though ‘She looks very sexy.’
After a few minutes he orgasmed.
They lay without talking for about ten minutes.”

As a reader, it is sometimes difficult to know whether to laugh at Haley and Dakota or pity them. Initially their narcissistic neediness and incessant whining seem entirely the stuff of satire, but this is partly because it is only as the novel unfolds that the characters develop some depth as our only knowledge of them comes from what they are prepared to tell each other. No archaic conventions such as description or background: this a novel trapped in the now. One of the darker aspects of the novel is their youthful fetishizing of truth, as when Dakota e-mails:

“You have done the greatest thing for me than anyone has my entire life. You have been honest with me.”

Unfortunately this has included truths such as:

“I’m horrible caring so much about weight. But obviously I need to be physically attracted to someone or else some part of the relationship is not fulfilled.”

As Dakota’s bulimia is revealed, Haley insists on honesty from her:

“What have you lied about today and yesterday?”

This culminates in a four page e-mail in which Dakota confesses all her lies, yet behind it all you sense not a more open relationship, but the interrogation of a bully. The final lines perhaps reveal the true nature of their relationship:

“Haley Joel Osment looked in her direction without focusing on her face.”

This ultimately makes the novel rather bleak, but Lin has undoubtedly identified important truths of his own generation.

Danger rating: a bit like walking into a bar and noticing that everyone is half your age – disorientating but not unpleasant.

A Confederate General from Big Sur

February 5, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Richard Brautigan

A Confederate General at Big Sur was Richard Brautigan’s first published novel in 1964. It was, however, written after Trout Fishing in America, perhaps his most famous book, and made it into print first because his publishers felt it was more conventional. Not ideal, then, for a year of reading unconventional novels, but as I already had a copy (in a bargain three-for-one edition with two later novels) and it is only conventional in comparison with his own work, here we go…

The novel is split into two parts, though this suggests a sense of planning that is not otherwise evident. The first part details the narrator, Jesse’s, first meeting with Lee Mellon, who believes that his great grandfather was a Confederate general, though no written evidence can be discovered. They move into the same building and Lee begins sleeping with a girl called Susan (“The room smelled like Cupid’s gym”) who unfortunately is only sixteen and is soon collected by her father, though not before Lee manages to impregnate her. She returns to look for him but by this point Lee has moved to Big Sur. In part two, after an exchange of letters, Jesse joins Lee and they live an isolated and poverty-stricken life, tormented by a chorus of frogs:

“It was silent because a small amount of the day was still with us, but in a few hours the pond would be changed into the Inquisition. Auto-da-fe at Big Sur. Frogs wearing the robes, carrying the black candles – CROAK! CROAK! CROAK! CROAK!”

A few visitors enliven things: two young boys who attempt to steal gas from their truck; Roy Earle, a friend of Lee’s with $100,000 in his briefcase; and Elaine, who quickly pairs up with Jesse and moves in with them. They acquire a couple of alligators to rid themselves of the frogs. At the end they get high and lie on the beach – perhaps unsure how to conclude things, Brautigan offers us 186,000 endings per second, specifying five of them.

What makes Brautigan worth reading, however, is not the plot but the outlandish (though somehow apt) images he conjures up. My personal favourite on this occasion has to be his description of the cinema:

“From time to time I would get the desire to confuse my senses by watching large flat people crawl back and forth across a huge pieces of light, like worms in the intestinal track of a tornado.”

These bursts of imagination are not unrelated to the novel’s theme which seems to be about the power of imagination to impose itself on reality. This begins with Lee’s claims for his great grandfather:

“’Promise me to your dying day, you’ll believe that a Mellon was a Confederate general. It’s the truth! That God-damn book lies! There was a Confederate general in my family!’
‘I promise,’ I said and it was a promise that I kept.”

Later, when Susan returns, pregnant, looking for Lee, and the narrator lies about not having seen him, a lie that grows a life of its own:

“Once I was standing on a street corner talking to Lee Mellon and she came up to me. ‘Have you seen Lee Mellon?’ she lied with a big smile on her face.
‘No,’ I could say truthfully now.”

(Susan herself finds happiness through the power of her imagination: “She decided that she was a painter and being intelligent she realised that it was much easier to talk about painting than to actually paint.”)

Jesse and Elaine’s relationship is based on the attraction they feel towards each other rather than what they know about each other, as shown through their playful answers to any personal questions. Brautigan is very convincing on that attraction, from the romantic:

“Her lips were parted and I ran my fingers gently along her teeth and touched the sleeping tip of her tongue. I felt like a musician touching a darkened piano.”

to the more straightforward:

“She didn’t have any clothes on and the sight of her butt renewed my faith in evolution.”

The happiness they find together is in keeping with the novel’s generally upbeat tone. This is not a great novel but, a bit like Lee Mellon, it has a quirky charm that is difficult to resist.

Danger rating: a little like smoking dope – moments of apparent profundity don’t really lead anywhere, but it may become addictive.