The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

accident

I adore Graeme Macrae Burnet’s work, and I’ll continue to eagerly devour everything he does, but the fierce love I first started to feel last year, after reading His Bloody Project, which only grew stronger when I read The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau earlier this year now diminished a little.

This novel is certainly not a major disappointment – Macrae Burnet’s style is as enjoyable as ever, and he’s as smart and funny as ever – the only reason I’m slightly disappointed is that I like even my favorite authors to change (or at least: to do the same thing differently). Adèle Bedeau and His Bloody Project, despite dealing with similar topics, are two very distinct novels, while The Accident does the same thing Adèle Bedeau did in the same way, and I find this slightly boring.

Once again, the story takes place in the small and boring French border town, Saint-Louis, where nothing interesting ever happens and which isn’t exactly a crime-infested place, either. Even if there’s a crime, in the end we usually learn that it wasn’t a crime at all, that perhaps someone only imagined there was a crime, or we simply don’t learn anything at all. Of course, this is ironic, postmodern, and so on, and I enjoy watching how Macrae Burnet gently mocks the traditions of detective novels and seems to conclude that life is incomprehensible anyway, and we never learn anything about anything.

Here, for instance, we meet Monsieur Barthelme, a reserved and well-respected member of the local community, who swerves off the A35 on his way home on an average Tuesday night, hits a tree and dies. It looks like an accident, no questions, but Gorski, the less-than-super-sleuth we already met in Adèle Bedeau starts to investigate the circumstance based on the request of M. Barthelme’s widow, and sure enough, he quickly comes across some suspicious details. For instance, turns out that M. Barthelme lied to his wife as to his whereabouts on Tuesday nights, and some signs seem to indicate that perhaps he wasn’t such an upstanding citizen after all.

While Gorski investigates rather awkwardly and without much success (of course we all know from detective novels that all detectives are alcoholics, but this Gorski – who’s not a genius inspector to begin with – really drinks so much that if affects his work, and since he’s constantly drunk it’s no wonder that his progress in the investigation is hardly spectacular), Barthelme’s son, Raymond also starts out on a private investigation of his own after finding a slip of paper in his late father’s desk drawer, with an address written on it.

What follows is a parade of everyone spying on and following everyone else, or else constantly wondering what others would think about their actions and reactions if they were spying on or following them. It’s so complicated, and everyone is so paranoid that the original case (which wasn’t a case to begin with, was it – it was only an accident) fades into the background after a while.

Which is fine because the psychological aspect of the story is again extremely interesting – it’s especially remarkable that Macrae Burnet seems to know a lot about how the minds of losers and eternally awkward people work – and the small-town atmosphere and the small-town figures he conjures up are depicted vividly and with gentle irony. It’s just – I’d seen exactly this already, in Adèle Bedeau.

And now I’m curious where Macrae Burnet goes next. Judging from the fictitious foreword revealing the fictitious origins of this novel, there’s possibly going to be one more novel set in Saint-Louis, presumably another detective story featuring Gorski. If so, I’ll read it for sure but I’m secretly hoping that later on Macrae Burnet moves on and writes stories outside of this universe – it’d be a pity if he used all his considerable talent writing about small-town small-time paranoia – there’s so many other kinds of paranoia out there waiting to be examined by such keen observers as he is.

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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.

Kanley Stubrick by Mike Kleine

kanley

I read The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish, Mike Kleine’s new play a few weeks ago, so it was interesting to read his new novella shortly after, and compare the two.

Now, having read three of his four works (and the fourth – chronologically the second – is coming up soon), it’s getting more and more obvious to me that Kleine is a world-building author.

Like I said in earlier posts, Kleine’s works are set in the here and now, but beyond that, his world is unique – it’s immediately recognizable, and it’s getting richer and richer in his characteristic symbols, stylistic elements, and references.

Of course, Kleine’s universe is not the universe of a fantasy series, where the characters of one book make appearances in another book, or where the unexplained details of one book’s story become clear in the next book – not the least because his characters don’t tend to hold on to their personality or character-ness even within a single book, and because his books don’t tend to have real stories.

What I mean is that certain events and tropes keep appearing again and again. For instance, both in Pilot Fish and in Kanley Stubrick, there’s a sentence that goes something like this: “Godzilla happens”. Neither of the two books explains what this means, but this is a sufficiently weird sentence for me to immediately notice that it’s there in both books. And because my guess is that Godzilla happens relatively rarely, the fact that it happens in at least two of Kleine’s books makes it highly likely that they are set in the same world. In a world where Godzilla tends to happen – as a matter of fact event, without explanations.

Another frequent trope is traveling/searching, which is both real traveling (or let’s say, place-switching, a manic kind) and searching for (life) meaning. Kleine always deals with questions like this – the questions of identity, the difficulties or impossibility of knowledge and expression, and the quest for and the impossibility of meaning.

And in Kanley Stubrick there’s another main topic, quite a surprising one: love – which can be the symbol for connecting, for being understood by someone.

And this time I can even say something about the story: there’s a couple here, perhaps in April, perhaps in June, living all accustomed to each other and their unhappiness. One day the woman loses her shoes, and even after enlisting the help of friends, the shoes are not found. The man is bored – therefore he goes on a trip, it doesn’t matter where. By the time he gets home, the woman is gone – only an enigmatic message remains after her, a message that directs the man to an unknown city and promises that he’ll find the woman there.

He goes on a quest to find the woman, but he’s not that enthusiastic – it feels like he only follows the message because he has nothing better to do. He almost gives up right in the first city, but then he keeps following the woman’s trail up and down in California (again, the setting is probably not an accident – with my European mind, I can hardly imagine a place more surreal than California). Then at one point, when he’s only a couple of miles away from his destination (or the next stop of his quest) he gives up for good. Later on, he travels elsewhere, joins a cult (just for the sake of experiencing a feeling of community), leaves the cult, is captured, is released from capture, and so on. None of these events mean much – either to him, or in themselves. I don’t mean this as criticism, though.

This is deliberate here, and I don’t know how it happens – as there’s no “real” characterization, there are no motivations, there’s nothing specific here that could awaken emotions in me, but still, it happens: after a while I start to feel deeply for this man and this woman – for the man who searches in vain, and for the woman who wants to be found.

It’s interesting by the way that the personal pronouns referring to the man are always written with initial caps. Partly because of this, partly because of his wandering in the desert of the world, and partly because of something else I can’t pinpoint, I feel there’s something god-like, Christ-like in this man. Ironically, sure, but still heart-breakingly – he seems like a man whom the woman considers a savior, but the man himself is just as much in need of finding a savior as the woman, he also wants to be saved by her, and of course neither of them can save the other. Which is sad.

It’s not all just sadness here, though. As in Kleine’s other works, there’s a whole lot of smart, funny, and ironic details and small episodes in the book that could be analyzed separately for hours. And again, it’s clear that Kleine has a talent for mini-episodes and he can make them very telling.

Just an example: the man is once watching the movie called Nosferatu, and he is simultaneously reading Roger Ebert’s review of the film. This is a great, revealing detail – without professional help, these characters are unable to determine what they should feel or think – not just about something specific – but about anything at all.

The characters are unable to find their way in life without referential points or anchors in movies, music, or TV – but it often turns out that they even have trouble understanding their own points of references – like in this case with the Nosferatu movie, or in a similar case, when the couple watch the movie called Kanley Stubrick, and the man asks the woman about her opinion of American culture.

“i don’t get it,”
she says.

“What do you mean –
what is there to get?”

And this feels less of a criticism of American culture to me than a commentary on the inability to understand.

Connected to this is something else that’s characteristic of Kleine’s writing – the hyper-realistic and hyper-precise depiction of the most banal details of everyday life. For instance, as they are watching TV, the characters notice that a caption is written in Constantia font, or that the sound they hear is the sound of a very specific type of motorbike – but they don’t notice that the person next to them is unhappy, and they even fail to take note of their own unhappiness – they can only express it vaguely, with saying things like “I think I’m bored, but I’m not sure.”

Or like here:

“He feels alone again, like it’s the
first time all over again. He doesn’t
quite know how to feel.”

(Which is all the more interesting because it means that the man has no idea how to feel in the given situation, and also means that he doesn’t know how to feel in general.)

As apparent from the passages I quoted, Kleine this time wrote in a kind of poetry-form (I don’t know what makes poetry poetry, so let’s just stick to the definition for now that a poem is that thing that doesn’t go all the way to the edges of the page), and this form fits this story well, and it also fits Kleine’s minimalistic-enigmatic style that leaves a lot to the imagination but is extremely sensitive to detail.

And this is the first time I don’t have doubts about the possible expiration date of Kleine’s work. I have no idea whether this book will be read 20 years from now, but I’m pretty sure it will be readable even then, because it’s sufficiently universal to remain understandable and enjoyable.

The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish by Mike Kleine

pilotBased on the two books I’ve read out of the three he’s published so far, I have the feeling that Mike Kleine is an extremely contemporary writer. By this I mean that his work seems to be anchored very firmly to the present moment and the present atmosphere, so reading his books gives me a sense of inclusion and insider knowledge because I also live in the present moment and I know something of its atmosphere, too. But I can’t be sure how his works will come across 20 years from now – I have no way of knowing whether they will persist or expire.

Comparing this play to Mastodon Farm, Kleine’s first book, I think this has a higher chance to survive and avoid expiration because it’s not anchored as deeply to the present reality and to the pop-cultural products and the entertainment industry of the present as Mastodon Farm is. Instead, The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish is set in an undefinable place and time, somewhere around the (both temporal and spacial) end of the world. (So after all – it could just as easily be set here and now.)

There’s no point going into the details about the plot because the play doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have characters, either – at least not the kind of characters whose physique and identity remains roughly the same. It’s certainly no accident that the cast overview is missing from the beginning – here neither the appearance, nor the personality of the characters is stable. (Clearly, appearance and personality are never stable – but Kleine takes this changeability to whole new levels.)

What’s here instead of plot and constant characters is three persons switching their form, gender, name, occupation and personality throughout the play while sitting in a house where the floor is painted a deep ocean blue, and where hundreds of painted fish (including the titular seventeen pilot fish) swim without movement through the big big blue. The three characters spend most of their time discussing whether one of the male characters is the husband of the one female character or not, and they also try to find out the source of the noises that come from the wall. Meanwhile, the world outside is collapsing. In a very matter of course fashion.

So yes, this play is rather absurd. And it resists easy interpretation. During the last couple of weeks I read it three times, and it was only after the third time (which was incidentally the first time I read it with sufficiently fresh brain) that I realized that Kleine’s words are where they are because they need to be there. It was only after the third time I realized that Kleine is not just being absurd for absurdity’s sake (which would also be fine with me) but he has a point (several points) to make (and having a point in absurdity is even more to my taste than being absurd just for the fun of it).

A couple of themes this play examines: how hard it is to find meaning – in things, the world, and other humans; how everything is ever-changing and open to thousands of different interpretations; and most prominently: how weird, magical, reality-creating and reality-changing things words are – and how all the meaning we convey with them is based on strange, silent agreements, agreements that can be broken anytime – easily, unilaterally. And how all this – all this is scary and intimidating.

Just one example. The female character of the play once tells one of the male characters: „You can call me Heather.” A little later the man calls her Heather, to which she replies: „My name’s not Heather.” Sure, it’s absurd, but if we stop for a moment and take the meaning of words seriously, and not just interpret them on autopilot mode as we usually do, then it makes perfect sense. Offering someone to call you something doesn’t at all mean that that’s your real name. And anyway – does it even matter what’s someone’s real name? And what makes real real?

The themes are definitely interesting here, but I can’t avoid the question: why is this a play, and not a novella, or something else? I have a strong suspicion that it would be virtually impossible to stage this play. Granted, I can imagine a sort of divided stage, where one part is the house, and the other part is everything else out there (but both must be visible at the same time, as the events often happen simultaneously inside the house and outside in the world), and I can also imagine projecting photos and videos to show what’s going on outside – but none of these would be precise. I often feel that the words here are not translatable to another medium, they couldn’t be shown or acted out because their effect lies in the fact that I consume them as written words.

Seeing onstage that the ocean blue floor of the room is teeming with painted fish wouldn’t have the same effect as reading about the ocean blue floor of the room, and then reading a list running several pages about the exact types and number of fish covering the floor. Reading the list of dozens of fish species (while I secretly wonder: do all these really exist, or are some of them just fictitious fish?) on the one hand gives the play lots of verisimilitude (because only reality can be so messy, so random, so disorderly as Mike Kleine’s fish), on the other hand it creates a distance between me and reality – because reading lists of several dozens of items makes my brain switch off after a while, and I just keep reading hypnotized, and no – I’m not going online to check whether each and every type of fish here is real or not.

So why is this a play then? I presume it’s because it’s a good genre for Kleine to play with the things he likes to play with, to use lots of music and visual elements in his work, and to be as minimalistic as possible. After all, in a play there’s no pressing need to provide detailed, explanatory descriptions of events and characters (not that there’s too much of those in Mastodon Farm, either). Here it’s only language, only random and pointless and contradictory and all-too-real utterances – with no background, no explanation. Yes, it feels real. Often frightfully so.

London Fields by Martin Amis

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Martin Amis feels like the Michel Houellebecq for one-time literary majors like me who don’t necessarily like to take everything seriously. Amis writes about the same topics as Houellebecq (the world is coming to an end; the era of emotions and „normal” human relationships is past; the only possible connection between two humans is sex; nothing makes sense any more; and so on) in the same postmodern way, and if I were inclined to take him seriously, he would make me want to cut my wrist like Houellebecq does. As opposed to Houellebecq, however, Amis does have a sense of humor, and he gives me the chance to not take him seriously. And this is a chance I gladly take – partly because I don’t think that life is terribly bad, and partly because – if life were really such terribly bad, I would only be able to stand it with lots of humor.

But now on to the novel. London Fields is the story of a carefully planned murder (or suicide), and symbolically the story of the whole world’s suicide. As regards the particular personal suicide and the characters in the novel: the protagonist is Nicola Six, a mind-blowingly seductive, manipulative sex goddess, and mistress of all kinds of erotic games – a woman who’s always been able to give men anything they wanted, except for love, a woman who’s always been able to get everything she wanted from men – except for love. It’s not at all certain that love would have changed anything in her life (Nicola Six is not exactly a sentimental woman), so her lovelessness in life is not the only reason why she decides to commit suicide – but it’s part of the picture.

Nicola, however, doesn’t want to go through the suicide-business alone – she needs someone who does her the favor of killing her. At the beginning of the story, she finds two possible candidates for this role. One of them is Keith Talent, a violent, not particularly winsome con man whose life consists of sex, booze, and darts, and who generally acts like a man perfectly capable of and willing to kill a woman, should the circumstances arise. The other candidate is Guy Clinch, a soft, gentle, exceedingly naive aristocrat, who doesn’t at all look capable of killing anyone – but Nicola Six is just the person to induce murderous rage in the most peaceful man on earth. And then there’s a third man here (and a fourth, hidden in the background) – these latter two are ironic alter-egos for Martin Amis: one of them is the person who knows the most about Nicola’s plans and is writing a supposedly true-life novel about Nicola’s way to self-obliteration, and the other one is also a writer, and he’s the person Nicola has been the most attached to all her life (or not).

Is this already sufficiently tangled, annoyingly over-complicated, and postmodern? I guess so. But I also guess that this is Martin Amis’ method. I haven’t read all his novels, far from it, but from what I’ve read, it seems that he likes to build his stories around a single joke. This is what happens in Money, this is what happens here, and this is what probably happens in some of his other works I either haven’t read or don’t remember anymore. Another typical Amis feature is that he likes to exaggerate (a lot), thereby making everything hardly-real, hardly-credible. Case in point: his characters’ name, and their habits and behavior: Guy Clinch with his out-of-this-world naivety; Keith Talent with his unsustainable habits of drinking, smoking, and womanizing; and Nicola Six with her one-of-a-kind sexual prowess.

And I’m glad Amis writes like this – this way I can pretend while reading that none of it is true. Sure, if I try to glance behind the exaggerations, the irony, and the unreliable narration, then I see how hideous and horrible all this is – but I don’t necessarily want to see all of this. And I appreciate it that Amis lets me decide when and how much I take him seriously. And I like it, too, that it’s also my decision how much I take this novel to be the suicide story of not just Nicola Six but of the whole world. Right now – not too much. Amis can be awesome when he deals with someone’s personal apocalypse but he hardly ever manages to make me believe in his large-scale apocalypses. In fact, I feel as if he himself hasn’t yet figured out – hmm – why exactly he thinks the world is ending, and what’s this world-scale apocalypse anyway. Which is just as well for me.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Heartbreaking_Work

It’s not easy to say anything about a book whose writer is as self-aware as Dave Eggers. Eggers knows exactly what he created (and how excellent a work he created), and he says as much right at the beginning of this novel/memoir. For instance, in his foreword he claims that the first couple of chapters are basically perfect, while the rest is of a somewhat uneven quality. And this is exactly so, even though the uneven quality produced by Dave Eggers is such that almost anyone would be glad to write so unevenly in peak form.

Generally I’m not a great fan of forewords written by writers about their own works, because it seems to me that writers either tend to say lots of silly things about their work, or they tend to speak about it so self-critically that they make me doubt whether I really want to read their book after all.

Dave Eggers is an exception, though. Perhaps because he’s extremely smart, and what he says about his book is indeed right. Or perhaps because Eggers is the child of the postmodern-ironic age, and he knows that it’s almost impossible to create fiction without self-reflection – but also knows that all the usual postmodern self-reflection doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Sure, we all know it already – everything had already been written, every emotion had already been felt, every experience had already been experienced by countless others, and reflecting on this is a very postmodern thing – but it’s somewhat boring. Or more precisely: it can be boring when there’s nothing else besides the reflection. Because even though we know that our emotions and experiences are usually rather ordinary, they are still ours, and it would be stupid to completely hide behind irony and cancel everything we live through just because someone else already felt, already experienced the same.

This is why it’s amazing that Eggers went beyond the usual (let’s say: old-fashioned) postmodern. The way he writes, the way he reflects on himself, the way he talks out of the book – it’s all deeply and fascinatingly ironic (what else could it be around the year 2000), but the irony is not there just for irony’s sake – it means something (and I like it when something means something).

For Eggers, it seems to me, irony and the often very sick, very dark, desperately funny humor are not there because that’s the postmodern way to write and to experience – they are there because using these devices might be the best way for him to endure all kinds of horrors. Because what the novel is about is often horrible and almost insupportable.

One of the main story-lines is about how Dave Eggers, being in his early twenties, deals with the situation that both his parents die within a few weeks’ time from each other, and he inherits the task – still half a child himself – to raise his eight-year old brother. Their story is enough to shatter a heart – partly because of the obvious reasons, and partly because the way Eggers plays the role of a parent, and the way his brother adopts the role of a child being raised by another child is so beautiful and so chaotically zen that it almost makes me cry.

The other main theme is how, parallel to playing a parent, Eggers tries to be an average, that is, a completely out of this world, idealistic young guy in his twenties, someone who rushes head-first into experiences and never considers anything twice. And true, this story-line is somewhat uneven and less than perfectly written – but it’s strong, real, and it’s full of life.

Yes, this is a heartbreaking work, and not the ironic-distant heartbreaking kind, but the truly heartbreaking kind, even if it’s full of irony. And as regards the reference to a genius in the title – I’d just say that Eggers is mind-blowingly talented, extremely funny, and he writes the way I admire the most: without any apparent effort, he makes me believe, anytime, about anything that: I am there.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

supersad

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.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

winternightBefore getting down to any details about this novel, I just want to say quickly that this a magnificent and enchanting work of fiction. Or metafiction – as you wish. And indeed you can make your choice, because as it happens, you are the protagonist of the book.

As you might have noticed if you had read a couple of my reviews that I have no problem with metafiction or any kind of meta-stuff in general; I even like that sort of meta-literature which excludes the reader from itself, and which is mostly about the writer who would like to experiment with forms, points of views, narrative techniques or anything else, without thinking about the consequences. I love to read other people’s experiments, and I love to see how someone fools around and plays with ideas or styles just for the hell of it.

But Italo Calvino is way more polite (or way more cunning) than this. He doesn’t exclude me from his fiction – on the contrary, he makes me the protagonist: an adventurer, an explorer, a detective, and a young lover, and he tells me: “this is you”. And because I happen to be a sucker for books which tell me that they are about “me”, I immediately fall for this novel. (Even when I’m re-reading it for the third time. And I’m pretty sure I will fall for it again the next time I re-read it.)

It would be good to know what’s so very-very appealing and tempting about a novel which starts by saying that I’m just starting to read it, and then offers me some advice about the best position in which I might read it, and tells me that I should take care of my bodily needs before really getting involved in it, and then goes on to elaborate on the feelings I experience while I’m reading the first couple of pages.

Really – what’s so stunning about this? Perhaps I really love to read about myself, and I really like to be the main character. (On the other hand – who doesn’t?) Or perhaps the novel amazes me because it implies that someone’s paying attention to me and knows me inside out. Or maybe it’s fascinating because it gives me the illusion I used to know well when I was a more naive reader, but I don’t experience too often nowadays (even though I’m always looking for it): the illusion that I’m within the story; that “I” am “you”, and “I” am “me” at the same time; that I’m inside and outside at the same moment – I’m paying attention to the story, and I’m observing myself as I’m paying attention to the story. Or maybe it’s so enticing because it promises that it will tell me why and how I read, and what’s so good about reading.

I said in the beginning that Calvino is a polite writer, and that his metafiction is not in love with itself but always makes sure to include me. But in fact, this is not politeness – this is trickiness of the highest order. I know he will fool me, yet, I let myself be fooled. And I know he knows that I know that I’m being fooled. And I know that I’m alone while reading, but I let him persuade me that in fact I’m not alone.

So, yes, I know he’s not only playing with his text. He’s playing with me as well. But I don’t mind – I just hugely enjoy it. And anyway, if we “must” be postmodern-smart-playful, then I think the best, most entertaining and most uplifting way to do it is to do it together – the writer and the reader.