Simon Van Booy 4/5 Simon Van Booy can evoke melancholy like a seasoned killjoy, but he’s too big-hearted and euphoric to linger in his well-wrought sadness. In the wistfully titled story collection Love Begins In Winter, the best characters are emo flaneurs who come off like they just stepped out of an early Belle and Sebastian song. George, a vaguely depressed Brooklynite residing in an apartment above the Greenpoint Home for the Aged, presents us with a list of interests that includes ‘large Chinese kites’ and ‘sitting beside the window in his bathrobe with a box of Raisinets.’ The title story’s Bruno Bonnet is a grown-up cellist who, still haunted by the death of his childhood friend, enjoys wandering the streets at night. What happens to these men, and many other characters in the book, could have seemed trite: they fall in love. What surprises is how Van Booy’s gently eccentric stories, like Grégoire Bouillier’s memoir The Mystery Guest, start out bleak and austere and then turn completely (and convincingly) jubilant.
Given his ample sense of wonder, it’s no surprise that Van Booy is deeply interested in adolescent playfulness (and how it’s lost). The standout story ‘Tiger, Tiger’ features a D.W. Winnicott-like doctor who has written a study titled ‘The Silence After Childhood’. You could say that Van Booy’s adult characters are searching for new ways to reclaim their lost voices. They don’t do this by obsessing about the past or their upbringings; rather, they forge new relationships – this is where real possibility and excitement lie. Like most writers striving for emotional ardency, Van Booy makes occasional missteps – he writes adults slightly better than he does kids, and he occasionally uses a metaphor that goes beyond the call of duty. But when he hits his high notes, these stories are cool, empathetic and romantic without being corny. It’s rare that reading, typically a solitary exercise, makes you feel so connected to other people – particularly to the characters in this book. Michael Miller Harper Perennial Dhs52 Available to order from Magrudy’s
Robert Walser. Translated by Susan Bernofsky 5/5 Although the Swiss-born modernist Robert Walser was cited as a favourite author by Franz Kafka and Robert Musil, his stellar fan base never translated into actual fame, at least during his lifetime. He died inglorious and relatively unknown, dead in the snow of a heart attack, having resided in a mental institution for most of the last 27 years of his life. The man whom W.G Sebald, in his introduction to The Tanners, calls ‘a clairvoyant of the small’ not only observed and beautifully reported the easy-to-miss minutiae of his surroundings in four surviving novels and hundreds of shorter pieces, but actually wrote, in pencil, in a hand so tiny that editors have found some of it indecipherable.
The Tanners – an early semi-autobiographical novel, but the last to be translated into English – is the story of utterly unambitious Simon Tanner and his siblings Kaspar, Klaus and Hedwig (there is one more brother, consigned to a mental institution, but he’s mentioned only in passing). Much to his upright brother Klaus’s chagrin, Simon is content to neither contribute to nor detract from society, happy to be a whimsical nonentity. But while he may seem unremarkable, watch him and you’ll see that his statements are hilarious and subversive. Walser’s writing lacks much of the outright cynicism and existential despair that characterises the work of his better-known contemporaries. The sensibility is that of a writer who understands misery but chooses to dance a jig around it, hinting at the melancholy rather than diving in headfirst. Simon is the perfect vehicle for Walser’s playful, faux-obsequious language – through him, the many tangents and clownish hyperbole that make Walser so special seem natural. And while Simon will never be a leader, Walser has shown himself to be every bit the master. Drew Toal New Directions Dhs68 Available to order from Magrudy’s
Victor Lavalle 3/5 Ricky Rice, the protagonist of Victor LaValle’s otherworldly new book, is mopping up sludge in bus station bathrooms upstate when his life is irrevocably altered by a peculiar piece of mail. The parcel (no return address) contains a one-way bus ticket to Vermont and an eerie message: ‘You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honour it.’ So Ricky buses to snowy Burlington, where he and other black Americans – most of them addicts or scam artists – wind up at the mysterious Washburn Library, which has invited them to become ‘Unlikely Scholars.’ As newly appointed intellectuals, these former delinquents must don couture from the Jazz Age and attempt to connect with a supernatural ‘Voice’ that enjoined an 18th-century runaway slave to ‘go forth and survive.’
Chosen for a mission to bring back rogue scholar Solomon Clay, Ricky flies to the Bay Area, where he learns that Clay has formed a cult made up of homeless and downtrodden suicide bombers. Swooping amid this chaos is a pair of fiendish ‘swamp angels,’ messengers from the Voice who impregnate Ricky to avoid extinction. All of this phantasmagoria and violence cleverly converge to blur the boundaries that separate good from evil, oppressor from oppressed.
Despite being so action-packed, Big Machine sometimes gets bogged down by its off-key first-person narrator. The novel’s most engaging and evocative parts are its flashbacks to Ricky’s childhood in Queens, when his family belonged to the Washerwomen, a Christian cult that rewrote the Bible using African-American lore and culture. These tracts not only elucidate the truly spellbinding, strange tale of how Ricky Rice almost starved to death in a Cedar Rapids dungeon, they also highlight the author’s ability to delicately depict complex characters and extremely bizarre situations. Hirsh Sawhney Spiegel & Grau Dhs107 Available to order from Magrudy’s
William T. Vollmann 2/5 William T. Vollmann’s big, baggy monster of a book begins with the stories of those who share his singular obsession with Imperial County: the illegal immigrants hurdling the border fences and wading through the fetid New River to reach the poorest area in California. Vollmann seeks a metaphorical ingress into the heart of Imperial, and his sprawling study – which seeks to be an almanac, history and psychic census of the region – is a sensual chaos.
That Imperial deserves a substantive treatment is never in doubt. A sliver of desert land that’s been artificially irrigated into prodigious if insecure fertility, the county has a history and a future that can be read as a microcosm of any number of hot topics: immigration, ecology, homeland security, and labour and women’s rights. But Vollmann drowns his readers in detail: oral histories, local songs, newspaper headlines, street signs, medical records, snapshots and statistics on precipitation, the rising salinity of the lakes, cash harvests, crop yields. For all the data, our knowledge of Imperial never accrues. The book’s sections don’t communicate with, let alone build upon, each other; they eddy sluggishly.
Vollmann’s aim seems to be not to understand Imperial but to possess it – even as he admits to the impossibility of truly knowing ‘the other.’ Mini history lessons trickle into obsessive (and repetitive) lists: Imperial is ‘palm trees, tract houses, and the full moon’; Imperial is ‘whatever we want it to be.’ In the absence of the possibility of certainty, he circles his subject, sketching every lineament, every slant of light. The specter of Steinbeck haunts the book, but while Vollmann can competently summon sympathy for exploited migrant workers, when he buckles down to serious investigative reporting, his conclusions are limp and his aim disappointingly scattershot. Vollmann is prescient when he writes, ‘Upon Imperial’s blankness…it becomes all too easy to project myself, which is a way of discovering nothing.’ Ultimately, it is the depth of his obsession – not its object – that truly invites awe. Parul Sehgal Viking Dhs234 Available to order from Magrudy’s