The Things We Don't Do
Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be found only in great literature.” You will find this on the covers of Andres Neuman’s works. In addition, Music & Literature claims “Neuman has transcended the boundaries of geography, time, and language to become one of the most significant writers of the early twenty-first century.” Based on Neuman’s introduction to the English-speaking audience with his novel Traveler of a Century —which I still personally believe is our modern-day War and Peace or Anna Karenina —I find absolute truth in the quotes from both Roberto Bolaño and M&L.
The Things We Don’t Do —Neuman’s latest work in English translation—does not disappoint. Admittedly, I was very reluctant to shift to a male author in the midst of my Elena Ferrante and Clarice Lispector binge. However, I was quickly reminded of why one should read Neuman. Neuman’s work consists of the combination of the reasons you should read Elena Ferrante and Clarice Lispector with the caveat being that Neuman’s talent is in his ability to capture the voices of all genders, ages, and backgrounds in his works while bringing sparse language to a new level. As M&L said, Neuman transcends time, but also literary history and talent.
The Things We Don’t Do is divided into four parts, which appear to be based on thematic similarities between the short stories in their respective sections, and ending with a section containing clever aphorisms on writing within the short story form. The strength of the collection lies in Neuman’s ability to craft short stories covering topics, on which people remain silent or which they often forget completely. These topics range from terminal illness to suicide to the contents of hotel guest-books, to experiences of sex intertwined with birth and the information one can learn from a clothesline. The collection is also quite compelling due to Neuman’s playfulness when it comes to mind games, which are scattered throughout the entire collection. Each story starts from zero, embellishing the suspense of the collection as a whole and causing the reader to finish reading the work in one sitting. As Neuman himself states:
The extreme freedom of a book of short stories derives from the possibility of starting from zero each time. To demand unity from it is like padlocking the laboratory.
Perhaps the most notable short story was “The Innocence Test” because of its relevance to the discourse focused on police power-limitations, which now is front and center in the news cycle. The story starts with a protagonist proclaiming:
Yes, I like it that the police question me. We all need someone to confirm to us that we truly are good citizens. That we are innocent. That we have nothing to hide.
Right away, the reader is left to wonder what sane person would ever make such a statement. As one can guess, the tale quickly shifts into the murkiness of police power in situations where there is no threat and instead only mere suspicion and unchecked power on the part of the government. The story is timeless, yet relevant at the same time. As the future approaches, each story in this collection will have only its relevance in relation to discourses of the time as it moves forward into the future.
The last section of The Things We Don’t Do is comprised of a series of statements—not meant to be “dogmatic poetics” but are “happy to contradict each other”—serving as an enjoyable reference on the art of writing short stories. The section’s placement serves as a dare to the reader to apply the preceding stories to the statements as a test of whether the collection passes a muster that can only come from an author who is aware of his language, his peers, and what came before and what will come after.