The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme

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Ten years ago I spent my spring days writing a master’s thesis about this novel. It was a great spring: my supervisor was fortunately fully engrossed in his own doctoral thesis, which meant that he didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what I was doing, and there was hardly any secondary source available about this novel, which made me ecstatic as it meant that I wasn’t obliged to cite the thoughts of 826 experts but could go with my thesis wherever I wanted to.

Reading this novel at that time, as a relatively inexperienced reader of postmodern, when any literature out of the ordinary could easily make me swoon, was an eye-opener for me.

I read The Dead Father forward and backward many times then, but haven’t read it since – this was something like an anniversary re-reading (or an investigation into the ways the brain of a young postmodern-lover literature student’s changes in 10 years out here in the so-called real and adult world.)

I was happy to see that my brain is still more than fine with this novel. Even if nowadays I tend to be impatient with the average random postmodern novel (I don’t like it when something is postmodern just because that’s the way things are done), The Dead Father still titillates my brain (though a little bit less now).

I still feel this is a wonderfully rich, multilayered and expressive novel. You could write whole theses about all the things this novel says about the way power works, the way it’s handed down from generation to generation, about the ways it can be disrupted and recreated; about gender roles; about language as an instrument of power, repression and brainwashing; about patriarchal society; and a whole lot of other things (but that’s exactly what I did ten years ago, so this time I try not to write dozens of pages here).

Well, then, there’s a Dead Father here – a childish despot, the symbol of the past, who’s nearing his end but is willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive a little bit longer and rejuvenate himself. His children (and/or subjects) are seemingly working hard to fulfill his wishes and they act as if they were taking the Dead Father to the mythical Golden Fleece, the source of eternal youth and power – but in reality the wayward children are making plans to disrupt the old order and create a new one, an order in which they won’t be forced to make fools of themselves all their adult lives; in which they can determines the power structure on their own; in which they are allowed to make their own stupid mistakes instead of obediently doing whatever the Dead Father orders them to do.

Will they succeed?

According to Barthelme (according to me according to Barthelme) the question is silly and meaningless – power regenerates itself, and no matter what kind of structure we create, most probably it won’t be any better than the previous one.

It’s a strange game – both the Dead Father and the children know how it will end, yet, they play their roles to the best of their ability, as if they had no other option. And most probably they really don’t have another option. And it’s a depressing and cruel world here, with all these complicated power games and hierarchies where power arises out of the symbol of power; where women sometimes seems to be the owners or guardians of the greatest power but only when and until there are men who lust after them; where fathers say it won’t hurt but then it starts hurting immediately; where sons want to become fathers and tear down the whole structure of fatherhood at the same time; where the one who has the power controls language and the one who possesses language has the power.

And the way Barthelme keeps most of these things unsaid, only hints at them and implies them still fills me with awe.

And it also fills me with awe that this is a very humorous, playful, open novel in which you’re not forced to look for logic and meaning in every line – I probably tried to do that ten years ago but this time around I often just sat back and enjoyed Barthelme’s imaginative, colorful and absurd dialogs (mainly between the two main female characters), and no – I didn’t want to understand everything. I don’t think power games are designed to be understandable and logical anyway, so it feels just right to me that Barthelme doesn’t always try to create meaning and logic where no meaning and logic are to be found.

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The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

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I read an exquisite short story by Ben Marcus once (“The Dark Arts”), and ever since then I’ve been curious to find out whether he can be as great in more pages as he was in the couple of pages of that story – whether he could consistently write such precise, associative, well-crafted (but not over-crafted), just-right sentences. (Which is by no means easy.)

And to my great delight: He can.

It was already obvious while I was reading “The Dark Arts” how well Marcus can shape language into any shape he wants, and how well he can create layers of meanings and associations, and the same is true here. And in fact, it’s even more interesting here as one of the main themes of this novel is language itself, and how language is completely useless.

The Flame Alphabet is the story of a double apocalypse of language and meaning – a personal one, and one affecting humanity as a whole. The story is about a mysterious epidemic where the language of children becomes toxic for adults, and everyone who’s exposed to this language slowly starts to wither away. Later on the situation gets even worse: even the language of adults becomes poisonous for other adults. As a result, adults slowly give up on language, or only resort to using it when they absolutely must, after administering special protective serums, while children, who are immune to the poison, are quarantined so that they cannot harm others with their language.

Why does language suddenly become toxic? The narrator quotes different theories and sources, according to which language has always been a poison – an imperfect, harmful tool, hardly adequate for communication, something which slowly kills both the person who uses it and the one it’s used on, something children can still use freely only because they haven’t yet been exposed to a sufficiently (mortally) high dose of it.

Throughout the story, the narrator (a determined, self-doubting father, who’d do just about anything to be reunited with his quarantined daughter with the venomous tongue, whose words are slowly killing him and his wife) mentions lots of everyday examples to illustrate the deadly nature of language.

He recalls, for example, how he hadn’t been able to understand his daughter or his wife, not even when language was still supposedly functional. He recalls the times he used language in a way to hurt someone with it. And he also recalls how mind-numbingly boring, disturbing, almost physically painful other people’s words can be.

Language can be like this: forever evading meaning, irritating, hurtful – and Marcus makes these real-life language problems, others’ deadly boring speech into really deadly.

But no matter how imperfect language is, its absence has serious consequences. As I said: it leads to both personal and large-scale deterioration. As regards the latter: the epidemic gets to a point where no-one can speak safely with anyone any longer, and where even words and meaning transmitted through radio waves, books, traffic signs or even more simple means lead to immediate illness. By this stage, society starts to disintegrate, and those still alive either become recluses, refraining from using language, or start to desperately look for their lost, quarantined children even though they know that their reunion will be fatal.

And as for the personal disintegration: the narrator doesn’t want to be a lonely hole-dweller, but he doesn’t want to die, either, just so that he can speak once more with his wife and daughter. Instead, he tries to find a cure: a language, or at least a sign that would enable the three of them to communicate without making them ill. The novel is partly about his quest for this deeply personal language only designed to be understood by three people in the world. But while the narrator is looking for this new language, he’s constantly aware of the crumbling and disintegration of the old language – and most importantly, he’s painfully aware how much of his humanness and his personality was built and depended on language and on the constant interpretation of signs.

So the ultimate question is: can you survive this loss with your sanity intact?

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

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Of course it was the title that got me. I’m inexplicably drawn to good titles, and in this case, too, I didn’t care a whole lot about what this novel might be because one look at the title was enough to convince me that this is something I want to read. And in hindsight I still say: this is an excellent title, not the least because through the course of the story these simple words gather new meanings and start to carry a lot of irony – that post-postmodern, sympathetic irony, which is something I deeply like.

The novel, true to its title, tells the story of a sad, super modern love story, in which Lenny Abramov, an almost middle-aged, unattractive, clumsy, but super-kind, caring, emotional, intelligent and honest man of Russian-Jewish origins falls in love with Eunice, a young, extremely hot Korean-American girl, who is emotionally wounded and is not particularly intelligent, either.

Their relationship follows the usual (?) way of the relationships of couples who don’t really fit – there’s a whole lot of power games going on here, and manipulation, exploitation, fighting, and sex withdrawal – and there’s also a whole lot of real tenderness and emotion. Lenny and Eunice both desire something real, something that resembles happiness (to which they don’t feel entitled), they both wish to express their innermost self to the other but are afraid of the exposure and vulnerability that comes with self-expression. Like I said (although there’s really no need for me to say it): it’s a super sad, true love story.

Their doomed love story is told from two perspectives: through Lenny’s diary entries, and through the various online content produced by Eunice – because Lenny is an old-fashioned man, someone who still writes a diary with pen on paper, while Eunice belongs to the new generation – she freely admits that she has never learned to read properly, and that all she can do with texts is scan them for information.

And here’s the bridge to the other aspect of the novel, because this is not only a love story. This is also a partly cynical and partly sympathetic satire about the over-digitalized generation and the demise of America.

As regards the over-digitalization: in the novel everyone carries a gadget called äppärät – a more advanced version of today’s smartphones, through which you can truly reach, share, and rate everything. (For example, the hotness of the guys and girls who happen to be in the same pub as you. And, naturally, everyone is interested in their rating – after all, if you rank last in the hotness list that evening, it’s probably better for you to just go home.) In the world of äppärät users, looking into each other’s eyes, or communication with real words is a rarity, and no private life whatsoever exists as even the supposedly private gathering of old friends is streamed live by one friend who hosts a popular online show.

I’m not one for criticizing online life mindlessly, as I don’t think it leads to inevitable doom, and I don’t like mindless criticism in novels, either. What I like is when someone does his criticism in a scary and smart way (like Dave Eggers in his novel, The Circle). And what I also like is what Shteyngart does here: in fact, he’s not even criticizing – rather, he captures the beauty and fragility of those rare moments when the characters accidentally communicate live and use real language, when they say an old, almost obsolete word, or when they read sections from The Unbearable Lightness of Being to their lover in bed (this is beautiful even if I don’t happen to like that novel). What Shteyngart does is a reversed criticism – he never says how shallow online life is, instead, he shows how beautiful it can be when something happens not online but in reality.

It feels to me that Shteyngart deeply loves language, and the question isn’t so much whether there’s still a chance for romantic love, but whether there’s still a chance for using real language.

And as regards the demise of America: that part is somewhat less sympathetically satirical – the America of the novel is a country ruined by debts, manic spending and credit card usage, fully at the mercy of Chinese, Norwegian, and Arabic creditors – a country where a person’s value is determined by his credit ranking. Now, this is truly scary, and leaves me feeling unhinged. Which is the feeling I ultimately left this novel with.