Nell Leyshon, Memoirs of a Dipper (2015)

Dipper

In that minute when you’re somewhere you oughtn’t to be, when your fingers are touching someone else’s stuff, when you know a key could go in the lock, a door be opened, a footstep come into the room, in that minute you feel it all over your body. You’re alive. The hairs on the inside of your nose are raised. Your ears are moving to help detect any sound. Bits of your body you didn’t know existed are switched on.

– from Memoirs of a Dipper by Nell Leyshon, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

Paulette Jonguitud, Mildew (2010/5)

MildewIncreasingly, I find that the novels I respond to most strongly are those that create their own seamless reality. I’m not talking here about the meticulous re-creation of a historical period, nor the ‘world-building’ of genre fantasy and science fiction, but something that seems to me more fundamental. I mean those times when the language of fiction unites with its subject: then, there’s nothing between me and the work – and I don’t know how far it might reach.

Here, for example, is Mildew, a short novel by the Mexican writer Paulette Jonguitud (translated by the author from her Spanish original, and now published by the ever-excellent CB Editions). It’s a novel that creeps through you, rather like the mildew which begins growing on its narrator Constanza’s body the day before her daughter’s wedding. I didn’t realise until I started thinking back on the novel just how much it had infected my thoughts. Similarly, when Constanza sees the first spot of mildew, it seems a relatively minor inconvenience:

I don’t like surprises and since the last one had been an affair between my husband and my niece, I was not feeling in the mood for another one (pp. 4-5).

Immediately this remark implies an equivalence between the physical changes that Constanza is experiencing and the events of her life. There’s still more conflation when she describes coming across her husband and niece (also named Constanza):

It was after ten that night. I walked in silence through the dining room. I assumed everyone was upstairs. And then I found Felipe and Constanza sitting at the table, their heads close together as though they were sharing a secret, a bottle of wine between them. I did not need to see much more. Those few seconds were enough for me to know that I didn’t belong there. The furniture seemed to know I was there and feel ashamed, I heard the table creak and saw the chairs wanting to tip over to one side. The edge of the wine glasses, my glasses, seemed to shrink when touched by those lips (p. 12).

This paragraph brings in memory, the physical space of Constanza’s house, and (perhaps faulty, but who’s to say?) perception. Mildew’s narrator ranges far and wide through past and present, all without leaving the house – but there’s something claustrophobic about the experience of reading all this range. Maybe it’s the knowledge of how precarious it all is: Constanza makes no secret of how fallible her memory can be; there’s plenty that she doesn’t know, for example about her niece as a person; then there are her visions, such as the mirrors that reflect old memories and occasionally talk back.

There’s no room here for the safely real to end and the imaginary to begin; this is what we feel too as we read Mildew, and start to wonder what sort of grip Constanza has on her own space, her own story. And we might wonder that with dread, because we sense that, when Constanza’s grip loosens, ours can only do likewise.

Alisa Ganieva, The Mountain and the Wall (2012/5)

MTN_WALL_COVER_CMYKThe Mountain and the Wall is both the first novel by Alisa Ganieva, and the first in English translation from the Russian republic of Dagestan. I have to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never even heard of Dagestan until I read this book, so I come to write this review more tentatively than I might usually. In a way, though, that’s quite appropriate; because it seems to me that Ganieva’s novel is very much concerned with hearsay and the limits of knowledge.

The prologue, set at a social gathering, is a cinematic carousel of anecdotes told by a succession of characters, until someone realises a critical fact that nobody knew. In the first chapter, we find Ganieva’s protagonist Shamil visiting a village of goldsmiths, on assignment from a newspaper to write about their traditional crafts – though he soon discovers that these are losing out to cheaper tourist trinkets, which is not the story he’s there to tell. These set the scene for a tale of hidden information, not least of which is the rumour that the government is building a wall to separate off Russia’s Caucasus republics – a wall that we hear plenty about, but never see.

Carol Apollonio’s translation from the Russian moves through a range of different styles, particularly as it quotes from various fictional texts – including a novel which Shamil reads, and about he which he might feel differently if he knew what we find out about its author. In all, The Mountain and the Wall strikes me as a story of characters on shifting ground, trying to find their way with incomplete information – and the ultimate sense is that, to go forward, they need to know where they’ve been.

The Mountain and the Wall is published by Deep Vellum.

Over-exposed

I have a print – you can buy them at the Victoria and Albert Museum – of a photograph of the village street of Thetford, taken in 1868, in which William Smith is not. The street is empty. There is a grocer’s shop and a blacksmith’s and a stationary cart and a great spreading tree, but not a single human figure. In fact William Smith – or someone, or several people, dogs too, geese, a man on a horse – passed beneath the tree, went into the grocer’s shop, loitered for a moment talking to a friend while the photograph was taken but he is invisible, all of them are invisible. The exposure of the photograph – sixty minutes – was so long that William Smith and everyone else passed through it and away leaving no trace. Not even so much of a mark as those primordial worms that passed through the Cambrian mud of northern Scotland and left the empty tube of their passage in the rock.

I like that. I like that very much. A neat image for the relation of man to the physical world. Gone, passed through and away. Suppose though that William Smith – or whoever did walk down that street that morning – had in his progress moved the cart from point A to point B. What would we see then? A smudge? Two carts? Or suppose he had cut down the tree? Tampering with the physical world is what we do supremely well – in the end, perhaps, we shall achieve it definitively. Finis. And history will indeed come to an end.

– Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger (1987), p. 13

Adam Roberts, Saint Rebor (2014)

SaintStrange Horizons have my review of Saint Rebor, the latest short story collection from Adam Roberts (published as part of Newcon Press’s Imaginings series). I wanted to say a few words on my approach to this review, because it grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the other reviews that were out there.

Saint Rebor itself hadn’t garnered much commentary at the time I was putting together my review, but the book’s opening story, ‘What Did Tessimond Tell You?’, had several reviews following its appearance in a year’s-best anthology . The story is about a scientist who discovers why the members of her project team are quitting even though they’re on the verge of winning the Nobel. Generally, the reviews I read revolved around the plausibility of the science, and didn’t go much further than that.

This approach wouldn’t do for me because I had a very different sense of what was interesting about the story. To me, the issue of scientific plausibility was simply not important in terms of what Roberts was actually doing – in my experience of his fiction, it rarely is. I wanted to write a review that offered a different way of looking at the stories in Saint Rebor.

I was a little daunted by the prospect: Roberts’s style can be dense and allusive, and I know that his references are often beyond my own sphere of experience. I may well not have been the best person to engage with what I saw in Roberts’s stories – but it looked as though if I didn’t, no one else would, and I felt strongly that it needed to be done. (This, incidentally, is one of the impulses behind book blogging: that you feel something has to be said about a book, and nobody else is saying it.)

So I have a review which focuses in on a few of Saint Rebor‘s stories  and (taking a cue from Roberts’s introduction) attempts to examine how – on the structural and linguistic levels – they exploit the tensions between ‘science’ and ‘fiction’. I hope you find it interesting.

Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009/15)

Signs

Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things. The world happening anew, Makina realizes: promising other things, signifying other things, producing different objects. Who knows if they’ll last, who knows if these names will be adopted by all, she thinks, but there they are, doing their damnedest.

This is from Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman), which I’ve reviewed for Words Without Borders. If you’ve never come across Words Without Borders before, I do recommend you spend some time exploring – it’s an essential site for fiction in translation, and I’m proud to be reviewing for it.

Signs Preceding the End of the World, meanwhile, is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It’s the story of Makina’s crossing from Mexico to the US with a message for her brother. But it’s also a novel of translation and fluid languages, thresholds and fuzzy boundaries. The novel’s language becomes the medium of Makina’s journey, and I hope I’ve captured a sense of that in my review.

Trapped in the viewpoint: Ian Parkinson and Catherine Lacey

Ian Parkinson, The Beginning of the End (2015)
Catherine Lacey, Nobody Is Ever Missing (2014)

There was a time when I wouldn’t have wanted to read a novel that was essentially a self-absorbed character obsessing over their disconnection from the world. But times change, and so do readers: now it’s the writing and the experience that matter to me, not the subject; and I know that the obsessive exploration of a character’s subjectivity can lead to as powerful a reading experience as anything.

Parkinson

Here I have two debut novels with psychologically damaged narrators, where the shape of the sentences creates the world. Ian Parkinson’s The Beginning of the End is the tale of Raymond, a Belgian whose life is a treadmill of microwave meals, internet sex chat, walking his dog on the beach, and generally avoiding other people as far as possible (the dog belonged to a neighbour who asked Raymond to look after it, then committed suicide). Raymond marries a Thai sex worker that he’s been talking to online, is told his father has died, moves into his father’s run-down villa… and life trudges on in a downward spiral.

Throughout the novel, Raymond’s narration is largely flat. For example:

The kitchen was beginning to disgust me. I had to leave the TV turned on so that I didn’t have to listen to the rats. I’d carried the microwave into the living room so I could heat a meal for one without having to go into the kitchen. I was thinking about setting fire to the cupboards and the broken refrigerator and leaving the room to burn down to its concrete shell. But there was a risk that someone would see the smoke and call the fire brigade. There would be an investigation and the case would be considered for prosecution on the grounds that I’d wasted the time of the emergency services. I would have to make sure the fire looked like an accident. It would be a good idea to get slightly injured so that it looked like I’d made an effort to put out the flames (pp. 73-4).

I call this ‘flat’, then I think back to reading Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, and how that made me reflect on what it really meant to describe prose as ‘spare’. It’s one thing when you can ascribe a particular quality to prose; it’s quite another when the prose embodies that quality so thoroughly. Whatever Raymond is doing – having sex, contemplating death, surveying the squalor around him – he relates in the same drab tone. But the effect is (perhaps surprisingly) compelling, because Parkinson’s prose has created this whole world of neutrality which rubs against what we as readers expect to be feeling and the occasional reminder that there is a world outside Raymond’s viewpoint, where not everything makes all the sense that it does to him.

LaceyNobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey also encloses its readers in a singular viewpoint: this time that of Elyria, who has fled her marriage in America to wander through New Zealand – though it’s a moot point whether she’s trying to find herself or lose herself. Where Raymond’s narration in The Beginning of the End creates an experience of emotional distance, Elyria’s draws you right into her constant questioning.

Lacey’s narrator will frequently use long, meandering sentences (see here for an example) that wrap around the reader. Crucial to this technique is the sense that Elyria isn’t sure how her sentences will end when she begins them – and so uncertainty lives and breathes throughout the text. Elyria is deeply ambivalent about what she wants:

I walked into the library and the library smelled like every library I’d ever been in and Dewey decimals were on all the spines, same tiny font, tiny numbers, and I thought, for a moment, that there actually were things you could count on in this world until I realized that the most dependable things in the world are not of any significant use to any substantial problems. I left the library after some time and I thought I should maybe bring some groceries or something to Werner’s and I tried to determine if I should hitch again, but I didn’t want to explain myself to anyone and I thought if I heard someone call me brave one more time I might rip off my own thumb and not even bother to stop the blood from staining their upholstery. (p. 104)

This indecision transforms Nobody Is Ever Missing: you can’t separate Elyria’s travels from her thoughts, because effectively they are each other. Words make the world, all over again.