Book Review

Baggy Monsters and Tangled Tales

Complex narratives require their writers to make formal choices about how to tell multiple stories. Authors can embed stories within a frame—a structure at least as old as the Decameron. They can write capacious novels with multiple plots, what Henry James disparagingly described as “large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary.” They can write linked short stories. They can use the strategies of what critic Joseph Frank first named “spatial form,” in which the writer disrupts traditional narrative continuities to achieve the effect of juxtaposition of narrative fragments in space. They can write a book in dialogue with another, viewing the original plot and characters from a different perspective.

All of the books that are the subject of this review have complex narrative designs that bring multiple stories to bear upon each other. Perhaps the most unusual is Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists.[1] A collaboration between friends—Robinson, a writer, teacher, and translator, Kovite, an army lawyer who has served in Iraq—the novel follows two young men whose experiences may parallel those of the writers. The characters are Mickey Montauk, whose plans to go to graduate school are disrupted when his National Guard unit deploys to Baghdad, and Halifax Corderoy, who moves from his home city of Seattle to Boston to start graduate work in English, only to become alienated from the academic world of the university, drop out, and drift into a marginal life in the city. The two men’s lives are linked by complex relationships to two women—Mani, an artist, and Tricia, a graduate student and would-be journalist and human rights activist.

The novel vividly captures the anomie of the lives of young adults, inhabiting worlds that they in some sense have chosen but that have stopped making sense. The narrative moves in counterpoint between the stories of the two men and the worlds they inhabit—academia, with its pretentious intellectual discourse and attenuated human relationships, and the war in Iraq, with its unnerving combination of bureaucracy, boredom, and unpredictable violence. Misrepresentation disorients both men’s lives. When Corderoy drops out of graduate school, he maintains the fiction that he is still enrolled; in Iraq, Mickey’s experi­ence of war bears little relationship to its political representation. Boston and Iraq alike seem arbitrary and unreal; their juxtaposition intensifies the sense of disconnection even as the two young men move toward moments of serious consequence in their lives.

The title of the novel refers to the way the friends keep in touch—through editing a Wikipedia entry on Encyclopaedists, whose various versions punctuate the novel. The Wikipedia entry stems from a set of parties the two friends create in Seattle—half avant-garde art project, half absurd joke. For each party, they choose a theme from the encyclopedia; the first was “monocularity.” They then build a multimedia installation to serve as a party set and invite friends to come, in appro­priate costumes. The novel begins with such a party—on the theme of “conspiracy” and ends with one, after Mickey returns, wounded, from Iraq; its theme is “fool.” The conceit of the Wikipedia entry is the novel’s most brilliant formal device, for it provides an image of the book’s insight into order and disorder. The book bores into what James calls “the accidental and the arbitrary,” understanding it as the warp and woof from which we weave our lives. The novel is paradoxically weakest where it is most plotted, in the use of the two women to connect the two men. The novel seems caught between two stools; the concept of an encyclopedic ordering, a Wikipedia of the novel, is somewhat at cross-purposes with the elaboration of some of its plotting.

Anne Roiphe’s Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind[2] is also a contrapuntal novel, constructed of multiple narratives. Roiphe seeks to give the reader an understanding of psychoanalysis by representing the lives of a community of analysts and the sessions they hold with their patients. The book moves between the daily pains and anxieties of living—the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to—and more severe trauma and dysfunction—a shoplifting, substance-abusing actress unable to find an authentic self, a college student suffering serious depression who cuts herself, a recent widower whose criminally charged son has fled the country. Roiphe connects these vignettes through a Freudian substratum of violent and lustful impulses motivating mundane fantasies and destructive acts alike. The novel resembles a collection of interwoven short story narratives, held within the frame of the analytic community of doctors who treat the patients. Roiphe brings some of her narratives to rather melodramatic conclusions; others she leaves unresolved—snapshots of a moment in time.

For all the psychoanalytic patter of the book, its most strongly felt subject is the relationship between parents and adult children—the frustration and sadness of the parents of the depressed college student, the despair of the widower who feels the loss of his son more acutely than the death of his wife. The most powerful and successful part of the novel is Roiphe’s portrayal of the dementia overtaking the book’s main character, a distinguished woman analyst, long a leader in the field; Roiphe alternates an interior view of the progress of her illness with chorus-like comments by her colleagues. Neither of these subjects—the relationship of parents to adult children and worsening dementia—is particularly psychoanalytic; Roiphe’s psychoanalytically informed reflec­tions on subconscious motivation seem at odds with her central subjects. Moreover, the novel’s multiplicity of focus diffuses and diminishes its impact; Roiphe has too many balls in the air, particularly for the kind of emotionally intense narrative she is attempting. The densely contrapuntal structure she creates doesn’t give enough space for each story to have the presence and shape it might.

Susan Barker’s The Incarnations[3] takes a very different approach to multiple narratives. The novel concerns a Chinese taxi driver, Wang, pursued by a ghostly presence who sends him a series of letters describing the past lives they’ve shared—the incarnations of the book’s title. Each of these incarnations, dating from the Tang dynasty (632) to the Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls (1966), is a story of desire and violence, culminating in murder. Genders change through the series of incarnations, but the passion remains the same—frustrated fixation and pursuit. The stories are salacious and sadistic; their pattern of emotional obsession tends to flatten any historical particularity. Despite the exoticism and variety of their settings, they have a certain monotonous sameness; the repetition of pattern blunts character development. These tales—exotic set pieces—punctuate the more extensive narrative of Wang’s life in contemporary Beijing, where the novel is more successful. Barker powerfully depicts the urban miasma of the city, its constant crush of people and traffic, its ever expanding ring roads and apartment blocks, and the struggle of Wang and his wife to create some small island of domesticity outside the numbing routine of their dead-end jobs for themselves and their daughter. This central story is the surer inspiration; the tales that interrupt it seem almost like episodes from Game of Thrones, violent fantasies that satisfy a thirst for stimulation in what Wordsworth describes as the “savage torpor” of modern city life. Unfortunately, the novel needs to assimilate Wang’s current life to the pattern of the incarnations, so even the contemporary plot becomes increasingly bizarre.

Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time[4] uses a more traditional modern­ist technique to interweave multiple narratives. The book begins with an unnamed traveler, coming upon a road accident, in which the lives of three of the main characters, unknown to each other, come to a violent intersection. The book then moves backward, using what Virginia Woolf called a “tunneling process”; Harrison moves from consciousness to consciousness of her characters, constructing the narrative through their memories and thoughts, depicting their histories through stream of consciousness. The main characters are Howard and Kitty, a couple recently retired from London to the rural hamlet of Lodeshill in the English Midlands whose marriage is falling apart; Jamie, a nineteen-year-old Lodeshill boy who works at a dead-end job at a distribution center that separates him from his rural roots and who fantasizes that a car he is fixing up will change his life; and Jack, an eccentric wanderer, who wants to be free to walk rural England, supporting himself through occasional agricultural labor, and sleeping rough. The characters come together through the land. Harrison has studied her Hardy as well as her Woolf. The novel portrays a deeply moving sense of the land and the human paths upon it, from Roman times to the present, conveyed in the characters’ walking, from Jack’s vagrancy to Howard and Kitty’s participation in Lodeshill’s annual Rogation Walk, in which the local church’s congregation walks the boundaries of the parish.

At Hawthorn Time is a modern pastoral that turns the reader’s eyes to Lodeshill’s juxtapositions, symbolized in Kitty’s paintings—“the brutal footing of a pylon . . . anchored in cow shit and dandelions.” This is a brilliant, and brilliantly written, novel, capturing, in its own words, “the evanescent narrative we each trail behind us like the faint disturbance of air from a sparrow’s wing as it flies, barely felt, touching little, and soon lost.” Harrison’s style is limpid; words seem almost like objects. She uses a large vocabulary of natural terms that lead you to see in detail the landscape that the characters inhabit—the change, for example, “from chalk to greensand to lias” under Jack’s feet. Like Hardy’s fiction, the novel is elegiac; it mourns not only the erosion of a rural way of life, but the loss in the lives of its characters—Howard and Kitty’s crumbling marriage, Jamie’s loneliness and boredom, and Jack’s frustrated desire to walk where he likes. Jack is the soul of the book—a poet, a wanderer, almost at times, the spirit of the land, “the fugitive spirit of English rural rebellion” in a world where vagrants are arrested or told to keep to the roads and move on.

Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas’s The Illogic of Kassel continually focuses the reader’s attention on the artifice of narrative.[5] The novel’s first paragraph introduces the idea of the McGuffin, a plot device with little or no narrative explanation that arrests the reader’s attention and allows the story to advance. The classic definition of a McGuffin comes from a story that Alfred Hitchcock told in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University about two men on a train. “What’s that package up there in the luggage rack?” one man asks the other. “It’s McGuffin.” “What’s McGuffin?” “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.” “Well then, that’s no McGuffin.” The Illogic of Kassel propels its narrative by McGuffins. Vila-Matas constructs the texture of his novel from the accidental and the arbitrary.

The novel takes place at Documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany. The Documenta is a an exhibition of contemporary art, lasting one hundred days that takes place every five years in Kassel. At the 13th Documenta, the curators invited Vila-Matas, among a number of writers, to sit in a Chinese restaurant for several days and write in front of the public. Vila-Matas accepted the invitation and shaped his novel from the experience. The novel thus plays with the relationship of fiction and reality; Vila-Matas represents himself as the main character—the narrative is in the first person—who, in the course of his stay, reinvents himself as a character named Piniowsky. The narrator spends rather little time in the Chinese restaurant; most of the novel describes his walking around Kassel, “a sort of erratic stroller in continuous perplexed wandering,” in which “every story leads to another story, which in turn leads to another story, and so on into infinity.” The novel contains what Vila-Matas in another context calls a “brilliant polarity of its focal points,” in a rhythm containing both interconnection and displacement.

Much of the novel describes the narrator’s experience of the art works at the Documenta, most of them installations in which the viewer’s movement through the work is part of its design. The art works are indeed those from Documenta 13; The Illogic of Kassel seeks to create narrative from visual art. But the art works impose a spatial form on the narrative. The narrator, representing Vila-Matas, at one point defines his contribution to the Documenta as “turning time into space.” The novel explores in a strikingly original way the concept of spatial form as it seeks to inhabit a space in which narrative represents the avant-garde in visual art. The Illogic of Kassel offers a brilliant tour through experimental works of contemporary art even as it re-creates the effects of the viewers’ shaping these works as they walk through them.

The novel makes claims for the transformative power of art, paradoxically through moments that are often bewildering—to the narrator and to the reader. The theme of the Documenta is “Collapse and Recovery,” an apt frame for the novel as well. The narrator expresses what he hopes from his trip: “to look for the mystery of the universe and be initiated into the poetry of an unknown algebra, and also to try to find an oblique clock and a Chinese restaurant and, of course, to try to find a home along the way.” In his erratic strolling, he finds a new energy and a renewed belief in art’s transformative power, even as he rebels “against the logic of our common language.” The Illogic of Kassel is a dazzling and amusing book, challenging the reader to think about art and about narrative in radical terms. The novel, in language it uses to describe one of its art works, brushes up against you, asking you to make something of it.

Natural Histories[6] has a different approach to multiple narratives. The first book by the Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel, translated into English, it is a collection of linked short stories. Each concerns a moment of acute emotional disequilibrium and pain—a mother’s and son’s discovery of the husband’s and father’s affair; a young boy’s displacement from his home and family; the breakdown of a marriage; a young woman’s miscarriage; the end of a love affair. Each of these stories is refracted through an obsessive relationship to an animal. Nettel chooses animals, for the most part, that are not high on the chain of being—a goldfish, cockroaches, a snake—creatures to which it is hard to give human character—even a fungus, an organism not an animal. They therefore work more strikingly as repositories for the human emotion at the center of the tale. Each of the main characters becomes fixated on the natural history of the animal. In “The Marriage of the Red Fish,” for example, a first-time expectant wife, whose marriage is crumbling, becomes obsessed with the relationship between their two Siamese fighting fish. In “War in the Trash Cans,” a young boy, sent to live at his aunt’s because of his parents’ separation and his mother’s mental illness, becomes fixated on the cockroaches his aunt is trying to eradicate.

The animals provide not just a unifying device for the collection of stories, but Nettel’s vehicle for a theory of emotion. Her characters are driven by strong feelings they barely understand—desires that disrupt the domesticity in which they seem to be happily settled. As each situation unravels, the animal comes to represent the emotion as its core. In “The Snake from Beijing,” for example, a father has had a brief intense affair on a trip to his native China with a young actress. Returning to his Dutch wife and his son in America, he embraces his grief by bringing home a snake that he has separated from its mate. The mother and son discover the father’s secret and plot to kill the snake. The snake represents the affair to all three members of the family, who use it to act out passions that finally destroy the family. The Siamese fighting fish function similarly in “The Marriage of the Red Fish”; the husband insists the fish must be separated to give each more space; the wife puts them back together, and the male ultimately kills the female. Animals in Natural Histories represent the fierceness of human feeling at the same time that the narrative indirection of the stories shows how difficult and torturous the process of recognizing and understanding those passions can be. Perhaps the most bizarre of the stories, “Fungus,” concerns a woman who treasures a vaginal fungus infection, almost like a pet, as the last token of a crumbled affair; the woman becomes like a fungus herself, at the end of the story, locked up and motionless in a dim and dark apartment. These are brilliant, unsettling stories, deftly and economically written. Each one is like a jewel, or a strange, unique stone, whose facets and striations shift as they revolve in the light.

The Meursault Investigation[7] by Kamel Daoud, creates a counterpoint between two narratives by rewriting a classic text. The novel retells Albert Camus’s The Stranger from the point of view of Harun, the younger brother of the nameless Algerian that Camus’s narrator murders at the midpoint of his novel. The parallels of Daoud’s book with Camus’s are meticulous: Daoud’s narrator also murders a man—a European—halfway through his novel; he rails at religion; he has a violent argument with a cleric in prison; and his mother is critical to the story. But Harun’s mother is alive. He rewrites the first sentence of Camus’s novel, “Mother died today,” “Mama’s still alive today.” That sentence is the seed of the novel, for Daoud imagines how the death of a nameless man, important in Camus only as it defines the accidental, arbitrary nature of human life, possesses and shapes the lives of mother and brother and defines the political reality in which they live. Daoud uses an epigram for his novel from E. M. Cioran: “The hour of crime does not strike at the same time for every people. This explains the permanence of history.”

The Meursault Investigation is a brilliant political rewriting of The Stranger. Harun, as he puts it on the first page of the novel, speaks in the place of Camus’s murdered man. He describes his fictional project: “I’m going to take the stones from the old houses left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language. The murderer’s words and expressions are my unclaimed goods.” Like another novel with a similar project, Jean Rhys’s rewriting of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, The Meursault Investigation compels us to change our perspective, presenting a colonial narrative through the eyes of the colonized. We understand Camus’s title, The Stranger, differently, not as an existential identity but a political one. We understand the trial, in which Meursault is condemned more for his lack of grief upon his mother’s death than for the murder of an Arab, through different eyes. The body of the Arab, Daoud shows us, is invisible; he makes us see it.

But describing the political critique of Daoud’s novel may make it seem more tendentious than it is, for The Meursault Investigation is also an homage to The Stranger. The voice and the style resemble Camus’s, almost as if Daoud is resetting the jewels of an old necklace. Harun says of Meursault: “He writes so well that his words are like precious stones.” Daoud’s style has that same limpidity and precision, which he uses to similar purpose. As Harun says, “I knew your hero’s genius: the ability to tear open the common, everyday language and emerge on the other side, where a more devastating language is waiting to narrate the world in another way.” That other way shares elements of Camus’s vision—the sense of estrangement at life’s core, the paradoxical combination of immense space and close confinement, the arbitrary, sudden, and mysterious punctuation of death, the contempt for religious consola­tion. But Camus’s hero seems to float free of history, experiencing an arbitrary sequence of present moments; Daoud’s cannot escape it, most particularly the history that is Camus, moving within the words of a reflection, remaking it, rewriting it, even as he speaks its language. In The Illogic of Kassel, Vila-Matas says that no one writes to entertain; “one writes to take the reader captive.” Daoud does exactly that.

[1] WAR OF THE ENCYCLOPAEDISTS, by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite. Scribner. $26.00.
[2] BALLAD OF THE BLACK AND BLUE MIND, by Anne Roiphe. Seven Stories Press. $23.95.
[3] THE INCARNATIONS, by Susan Barker. Touchstone. $26.00.
[4] AT HAWTHORN TIME, by Melissa Harrison. Bloomsbury. $26.00.
[5] THE ILLOGIC OF KASSEL, by Enrique Vila-Matas. Trans. by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom. New Directions. $16.95p.
[6] NATURAL HISTORIES, by Guadalupe Nettel. Trans. by J. T. Lichtenstein. Seven Stories Press. $18.95.
[7] THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION, by Kamel Daoud. Trans. by John Cullen. Other Press. $14.95p.