George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, by Peter Dimock (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013) It’s been just over ten years since the first so-called “torture memos” were written to give legal shield to the Bush administration’s severe treatment of detainees. These “enhanced interrogation techniques” included such infamous tactics as mock execution, forced standing for days, extreme sleep deprivation, and waterboarding. Marking a dark era when the United States forewent its obligation to the Geneva Conventions, the torture memos were written by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, whose duty historically had been to serve as an internal check on the White House, to remind administrations of their legal and constitutional obligations.
Peter Dimock’s new novel George Anderson is written as a letter to one of these lawyers, David Kallen. Kallen is a thinly fictionalized version of the real-life Daniel Levin, former head of the OLC, who, as part of his research, decided to undergo waterboarding himself to determine if it could be defined as torture. After this experience, Levin signed a memo ostensibly denouncing torture (albeit with an important, contradictory footnote) and shortly thereafter was forced out of the OLC.
That would be an elaborate enough plot already, but add to it that the book’s narrator is proposing a method to Kallen, loosely based on a thirty-day meditation program created by Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola—a method by which the narrator claims Kallen can “rid the self of its attachment to empire”—while simultaneously asking for legal advice on an intellectual property claim by the son of a famous African-American composer, and you get some idea of the complex sweep this slim novel undertakes.
As in his previous novel, A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, Dimock covers this intricate ground with a unique, subtly manufactured style—the crucial aspect of which is a deeply ingrained but modulated and gradually encroaching madness. We’re never entirely sure how insane the narrator, Theo Fales, is, because he uses a cosmetically rational syntax to argue for wholly improbable results. In a key ironic passage where he shares his vision for his method’s outcome, he states, “Together, if we practice a reliable method well, we can find a way to repair what we have done. I have learned to see us standing, an arm’s length apart, explaining to people suddenly gathering on a bridge in Fallujah the redemptive logic of American dominion.”
Which is a kind of madness. To be convinced any kind of meditative technique will fully repair our various state sins is a hysterical, religious hope. On the other hand, Fales reveals an intimate knowledge of our history and is sane in his anguish for the individual’s complicity in our nation’s iniquitous history. He is, with great ingenuity and finally with desperate delusion, trying to rectify the contradiction of our democratic ideals with our repeated episodes of brutality.
A singular and profound work, George Anderson attempts to deal with not only our recent Faustian pact involving rendition and torture, but also the fundamental legacy of slavery. An impossible project of redemption, what Fales’s letter then becomes, in its failure to redeem, is a secular confession of a class and race as an attempt to persist, however broken in mind and articulation, with the acknowledgement and burden of these wrongdoings.
Scars, by Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph (Open Letter Books, 2011) Faulkner (fibbing) claimed he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks. Juan José Saer, an innovative Argentine writer who died in 2005, impressively improved on that time (that is, if writers are to be trusted when discussing their own work) and in 1967 wrote his prismatic, excellently monotonous first novel Scars in less than three.
While several later works of Saer’s, whom The Independent called “the most important Argentinian writer since Borges,” have been translated into English, it’s only in this past year, through Steve Dolph’s skillful translation and the continuing heroism of Open Letter Books, that Scars has been made available to us.
The core event in the novel is a murder: 39-year-old laborer Luis Fiore shoots his wife outside a bar after a day spent duck hunting. From this central episode four distinct first-person narratives spiral out through novelistic time and space: a moody young reporter, living and arguing with his mother, is witness to Fiore’s consequential deposition; an attorney refuses to represent Fiore and instead gives spiritual attributions to his own stunning gambling addiction; a cynical judge investigates Fiore’s case and envisions the world populated and motivated with irredeemable savagery; and Luis Fiore himself describes the day and night of the murder.
While each narrative is distinct—the young reporter for instance is brooding and cocky, and the judge is haunted while appearing emotionless (“The only grace man has is death,” he says impassively)—none are over-voiced nor ostentatiously stamped with idiosyncrasy or quirks of expression. Instead the subtle but consistent distinctions of character are at play against a shared idea of masculinity and variations of the same world-weary philosophy. This means that, though there are four perspectives, the effect is less that of four radically different and contrasting worldviews than of a single (perhaps fundamental) type changed by what seems to be mere circumstance.
Not without humor, Saer seems aware of the traps of that worldview and yet is helpless but to be loyal to it:
You’re a rotten petit bourgeoisie, said Marguitos.
Better a rotten petit bourgeoisie than a healthy petit bourgeoisie, I said. A rotten apple is better than a healthy one, because the rotten apple is closer to the truth than a healthy one. The rotten apple is a mirror in which a million generations catch sight of themselves just before they explode.
That aphorism does not do you credit, said Marquitos.
Probably not, I said.
That world-weariness also gets expressed in a quality that’s usually considered more drawback than accomplishment, but which here is one of the novel’s admirable hallmarks: a resistance to drama’s suspense or relief. We start at a slightly quicker tempo—the opening section with Ángel the young reporter is unabashedly hardboiled (Chandler gets frequent namecheck)—but soon it’s clear this youthful bravado is the closest Saer is willing to get to manipulative theatrics. Instead, even though the potential for such drama exists—in the gambler’s high-stakes baccarat game, in the judge’s visions akin to Hieronymus Bosch paintings, in the murder itself—Saer will instead flatten those peaks of emotion to maintain the integrity of his representation of an unconsoling universe. And yet even while given details in flat, matter-of-fact terms, we are still drawn forward by the narrative’s consistently paced unfolding and the gradual, if finally hollow, crescendo.
Feigning at eventual revelation, Scars instead has no great reveal. Juan José Saer, like Jean Echenoz, has somehow inverted the core premise of a genre. In Scars, except the underlying existential one—which of course is never solved—there is a murder, but there is no mystery.
Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, by Murong Xuecun, translated by Harvey Thomlinson (Make-Do Publishing, 2010) Originally published online by Murong Xuecun (before going all kinds of viral), Leave Me Alone, which was eventually long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, takes place in Chengdu, a city of more than 14 million souls. Chen Zhong, a businessman treading water in Chengdu’s sleaze, for a time prevails by following its dog-eat-dog rules of greed and corruption—before his own habitual putrescence takes him down. Due to the gutsy translation by Harvey Thomlinson, the poetics and slang of Murong’s vernacular are seamlessly incorporated—for example the past is “blurred like birds flying by”; an angry face turns “purple as a rotten eggplant”; and when the narrator is at the height of anxiety over money, his “urine was as yellow as freshly squeezed orange juice.”
Even as it’s inflected through state capitalism and Chinese culture, aspects of Murong’s portrait of ubiquitous moral exhaustion seem very familiar:
The music that night at Zero Point was loud, the lights blinding. On the second floor, one person was crying—Chen Zhong. Another laughed—his rival in love, his friend. Outside, Chengdu was like a crematorium. Once in a while there were flickers of starlight, the phosphorescence of those smiling and crying people slowly moving towards the vault of death, like ants on their way to the grave.
When its translation was published in 2010, Leave Me Alone received scant attention. In an alternative universe Murong’s book could have become here what it was in China: a blockbuster. Saucy and sad, accessible but with a sting, satirical and reflectively sexist, Murong is a Houellebecq-ian type of enfant terrible—that is, along with the defiant attitude and the gobs of scathing judgment, Murong presents intimate knowledge of the hedonist’s pleasures and, most importantly, his self-loathing.
These days Murong has used his fame to become an important voice against censorship, both government censorship and the self-censorship that inevitably arises alongside it. He’s called himself a “word criminal,” regularly publishes unexpurgated versions online of his censored print works, and in late 2011 wrote a critical piece republished in The Guardian about his attempts to visit the activist lawyer Chen Guangchang:
I couldn’t decide whether or not I wanted to go see him . . . I didn’t want my books to get banned. I didn’t want to become a “sensitive topic” . . . Most importantly, I was scared. I'm scared of pain, scared of getting beaten, scared of losing my freedom. Some people might feel that I’m being dramatic. It’s just paying someone a visit, right? That’s a normal person’s normal logic. But in this abnormal world, the spectacle of visiting one’s friend is indeed this dramatic.
An important bellwether book, Leave Me Alone’s translation was published by Hong Kong’s Make-Do Publishing. Perhaps its size and the lack of a domestic presence is the reason this book has gotten comparatively minuscule attention relative to books like Yu Hua’s messier doorstop Brothers. Hopefully this will change as Murong’s fame begins to grow outside of China. In France, his publisher is the prestigious Éditions Gallimard, who will soon bring out two more of his works in French. We’ll have to wait for the English versions of these, but in the meantime Leave Me Alone gives a relevant and provocative update to our understanding of life behind the Great Firewall.
A Breath of Life, by Clarice Lispector, translated by Johnny Lorenz (New Directions, 2012) Five Clarice Lispector titles have come out recently from New Directions under the editorial guidance of her indefatigable biographer, Benjamin Moser. Except for one, all are re-translations with an aim to more faithfully channel Lispector’s idiosyncratic Portuguese. (However, I was glad to hear publisher Barbara Epler say recently that “no disrespect” was intended for the original New Directions translation of Hour of the Star (1992) by Giovanni Ponteiro, which I was bewitched by and continue to believe is masterfully done.) The one novel that has never appeared before in English is Lispector’s final one, A Breath of Life, completed just before she died, published after her death, organized by Lispector’s long-time companion Olga Borelli—who, in a preface, calls it Lispector’s “definitive book”—and now translated into English by Johnny Lorenz.
Just as she can be majestic and stun you with an achingly exquisite image, Lispector can also be tedious and a prater of mushy aphorisms—I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks so. Yet a dichotomy of cost and reward is an unfortunate way to think of Lispector, whose self-absorption and self-analysis are integral to the process by which she achieves her transcendence. Like many a mystic, a primary obsession for Lispector is the relationship between the self, her own subjectivity, and capital lettered Being. “To study the self is to forget the self,” wrote Dogen. This obsession is given a haunting intensity in a book written at the gate of death—she was dying of ovarian cancer while she wrote it—a book that begins:
This is not a lament, it’s the cry of a bird of prey. An iridescent and restless bird. The kiss upon the dead face.
I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own. Life is a kind of madness that death makes. Long live the dead because we live in them.
It’s been said that Lispector’s novels are largely plotless. What seems even more remarkable is that they are also largely characterless. Thus, while achieving immediate and sustained popular and critical adoration, her works treat the two fundamental—in fact, genre-defining—elements of the novel in the most sparing way possible. Notably Lispector’s most popular work, The Hour of the Star, written concurrently with A Breath of Life, shows how skillful she can be with a relatively conventional story and character, telling the unforgettable tale of “a little girl born into the bleakest poverty” (Obama was thinking of Macabéa, no?) who is gradually ground down to dust, one of the final blows coming from a speeding automobile.
But A Breath of Life—where a male “Author” has an extended conversation with one of his female characters—through its use of the thinnest sliver of plots and in its nearly absent characterization, represents the more radical possibilities of Lispector’s (and Borelli’s) architecture. It turns out Lispector—like Plato and Paul Valéry—understands that dialogue is the most perfect disguise for monologue.
While the figment is the imagination’s interlocutor here, we’re far from Pirandello territory, with its meta-analysis of the creative process. Rather, A Breath of Life uses the act of “creative writing” to speak metaphorically about uncanny and terrifying Creation itself:
Author: Trying to possess Angela is like trying desperately to grab hold of the reflection in the mirror of a rose. Yet all I had to do was turn away from the mirror and I would have the rose itself. But then there enters a chilly fear of owning the strange and delicate reality of a flower.
Differentiating between the self-revealing function and the muddier process of manifesting life, Lispector writes elsewhere: “I am not going to be autobiographical. I want to be ‘bio.’ ” Death-soaked, and with a gradual raising of its volume, the sense of character in A Breath of Life comes from the authorial persona of Lispector herself, a purposeful Sphinx—as Moser describes her, the figure who appears but is unknowable, whose flawless shards of cosmic insight are hard-won from an epic confrontation with the self.
None of This Is Real, by Miranda Mellis (Sidebrow Books, 2012) None of This Is Real, a virtuosic braiding of moral tale, cultural criticism, dream symbology, and the odd headline rip, manages to speak precisely to that helplessness and guilt permeating the simultaneity of the climate-changed, apocalypse-always zeitgeist and the rapturous technowonderful singularity as advertised on your hand-holding device. Wonkily attuned to this predicament, Miranda Mellis’s fables, like the best fables, are less prescriptive than exaggerations of our daily mysteries into recognizable characters, allowing us the important opportunity to note the ethical mires, if not to clear them.
The title story in particular is chock-full of and comical about liberal handwringing (“It takes thousands of pounds of fuel to visit you”) and sends up both it and the market’s relentlessly efficient debasing:
O told her that if he had possessed her beauty, he would not have been a teacher. She asked him what he would have done instead. He would become an airhead, he said, or maybe a trophy wife... When one was beautiful one was sense itself. Mrs. Lee wondered where O had picked up the expression “Trophy wife.” From a game show, he said, called Who Wants to Remain Infantile?
Another story, “The Coffee Jockey,” is the 21st-century variant of Vladimir Sorokin’s 1983 novel The Queue, but whereas Sorokin speaks of the Soviet practice of lining up for one’s daily kleb (or blue jeans or stereos as the case would have it), Mellis evokes what’s become, thirty years later in the U.S., our actual and symbolic wait of choice: for the supremely customizable jolt of java, which we no doubt require to be productive (but don’t quite know productive for what): “To compound the frustration of everyone in line, it had recently been made clear that even though everyone had to work, most jobs were a waste of time.”
The final story “Transformer” could be a sly prequel to Mellis’s meditative novella about the afterlife The Spokes (out also in 2012, from Solid Objects Press). Often metaphorized in various present-but-missing mothers (there are a lot of missing mothers in Mellis-land) and as the collection’s title spells out, a consistent theme here is doubting our faith in and perception of reality. After all who can you trust if you can’t trust mom?
Mellis somehow manages to make a seamless and entrancing collage of progressive concerns, broken-family storylines, and therapy-derived surrealism with a risky, imbricated, and near-constant just-off parataxis. Through an authentic, recognizable mix of u- and dystopias, Mellis traces lives we didn’t quite yet know we were living.