Two recommendations: Strange Stories, or Love is a Snail
I like strange stories. I like stories that soak into my viscera before I even understand the words, stories in which animals speak Old Prussian, stories with schizophrenic narrators, stories in which caterpillars invade mailboxes and houses implode into a pretty song. I read a book of stories in which a snail falls in love with itself, an ant becomes a dictator, and a cuckoo cuckolds a finch; I read a book in which a man fights a Hurricane and searches for a wife that he cannot remember.
I liked them.
A decade or so ago, Alessandro Boffa published a short story collection that follows twenty animal iterations of a character named Viskovitz, plus the only-occasionally-attainable love of his life, Ljuba, his reliable and mundane sometimes-wife, Jana, and a succession of friends, usually named Zucotic, Petrovic, and Lopez. As a hibernating dormouse, Visko dreams of a deeper sleep and his Ljuba … only to discover that he exists as Ljuba’s own dream. As a fish, he struggles to communicate while drifting in shifting waters—he always seems to mis-flip his tail or his fin and cannot “say” what he means. His advice: “A good rule … is to communicate as little as possible, limiting oneself to simple precepts such as ‘Don’t say vulgar things—it’s easier to just do them.’ Or ‘Don’t make up lies—you might accidentally tell the truth.’”
In “But Don’t You Ever Think of Sex, Viskovitz?” Boffa channels his absurdist humor into a snail—he takes material so biological, so factual, and accentuates its randomness. Through his animals’ stories, he points at our common human strife and makes it seem both futile and funny, both utterly hopeless and hilarious. Viskovitz the snail, unable to find a suitable mate in close proximity, spies one across the garden. He runs toward the he/she object of his affection (since snails, you know, are insufficient hermaphrodites); in Boffa’s universe, love is a snail that runs and runs, and runs and runs and runs. Visko is “consumed with yearning and anticipation. The sacrifice for love’s promise. And [isn’t] love always a great wager?”
But what does an absurdist Russian short story about a snail’s hermaphroditic love have to do with a contemporary experimental American novel about a man named Daniel Suppleton, who, after a lifetime of delusions, can no longer grasp reality and loses himself in the most fantastical world: an ageless boy named Iamso who writes peoples’ feelings in poems, the most handsome man in the world with terrible teeth, a man who doles out two-second dreams, a village of underwater pipes, and, over all of it, the sheen of a wife, possibly named Helena, that Daniel cannot find.
(The answer is hardly anything besides a roundabout way of capturing human feeling and, through simple strangeness, succeeding where hyperrealism fails.)
Shane Jones, the author of Daniel Fights a Hurricane, constructs a dense palace of matchstick words; his prose is, somehow, both light and easy and overflowing with complexity. He writes, “A pond held fog. Iamso sat on a rock. Peter danced, his feet kicking outward, his hands covering his mouth. The sky dripped ukelele. Music could be heard. The pipeline wrapped itself around the sun.” Each sentence does not, perhaps, possess clear meaning, despite simple words and structures—but implicit meaning abounds. I can sense the evening Jones describes. I know how a Hurricane might “[place] its face into the ocean and [blow] bubbles.” Don’t you?
When Viskovitz reaches his he/she lover, the conclusion of his epic, he stumbles into his own reflection in a shiny spigot. But instead of cursing his fate or, God forbid, retreating, he gives a lesson in determination: he makes love to himself.
The conclusion to Visko’s story may seem silly (oh, it is) and like an impossibly simple solution to the collection’s themes of greater labors, societal pressures, unattainable loves. Both Viskovitz the snail and Daniel Suppleton embody the power of delusion. For the former, the delusion involves literally retreating into himself, a physical escape from the world, a kind of happiness that hints at the hell embodied by others (to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line, “L’enfer, c’est les autres”). For Daniel, once the delusions appear, they accumulate strength until reality shatters. And poor Daniel is no hermaphrodite snail; as far as he can recall, he loves another woman. His hell, the whirling delusions, is only himself (to paraphrase Robert Lowell, “I myself am hell, / there’s no one here—”).
“‘Sometimes,’” Daniel would tell his wife (whose name is, actually, Karen), “‘the scariest part is when I can’t tell what’s real and what’s imagination … And the imagination is haunting, but so beautiful that I want to live in that instead.’”
[Shane Jones’s sketch for the novel’s cover]
Strange stories are our stories, are everyone’s stories, are happy and sad stories, simultaneously. They tell how pleasant the world is before—and, even, after—the Hurricane. In Jones’s novel, the characters suggest some definitions of the Hurricane: angry children; a dozen layers of wind stuck together; everyone’s vision of death combined; mountain growing from the ocean floor to the sun. But I think it might just be our reflection, in all of its destructive and unavoidable exquisiteness.
* * *
Daniel Fights a Hurricane by Shane Jones
Penguin Books, August 2012
ISBN: 9780143121190. 224 pp.
You’re an Animal, Viskovitz! by Alessandro Boffa
Vintage, June 2003 (n.b. my book / this cover are the Canongate UK edition)
ISBN: 9780375704833. 176 pp.
- unmannedpress likes this
- kaajoo likes this
- handschuhschneebalwerfer likes this
- ohkarolle likes this
- othernotebooksareavailable said: ‘You’re An Animal’ reminds be a little of In The Wilderness by Manuel Rivas, a Galician writer: all the dead of one village have been transformed into animals and are trying to work out what sort of hell that is. The Civil War casts a long shadow.
- othernotebooksareavailable likes this
- booksmatter posted this