Share Your Thoughts on "On the Edge" by Chirbes and "Monospace" by Parian [RTWBC]

Sure, February is officially over, but next week Tom and I will be discussing last month’s Reading the Book Book Club selections: On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes and Monospace by Anne Parian.

We’d love to include comments and questions and topics from everyone else, so if you have any thoughts or reactions, you can email them to me (chad.post [at] rochester.edu), post them in the comments section below, share them on Twitter with #RTWBC, or post them to the Facebook Group. I’ll collate everything that I can find and try and work it into the conversation.

To get things started I thought I’d put together a short post with some info about both of the books covering some of the topics I plan on bringing up with Tom.

I still haven’t finished this, but I’m absolutely loving it. Stylistically it reminds me of Celine and Antonio Lobo Antunes with the grounded rants and general disdain for everything. Of the two books I’ve read recently that touch on Spain’s economic collapse, this is definitely the more forceful and direct. At its core, this book is a chronicle of the shittiness that the collapse brought about, with everyone losing their money, their jobs, their future.

This is all centered around Esteban, the narrator for most of the book, who ended up stranded in this small Spanish town, running his father’s carpentry shop. In hopes of finally getting something substantial for himself, he invests a ton of money into his friend’s construction business, which promptly goes bust. As a result, he has to fire everyone, and it’s their voices interspersed throughout the text that really drive home the bleakness of the situation. (Talking about the structure of this book—the rant with the interspersed monologues, the relationship between Esteban’s memories, the card game, and the swamp—will be really interesting as well.)

One of the things that struck me—especially in contrast to a different book I was reading concurrently with this and then put aside—is how honest and true the despair running throughout this book seems. These characters just want a decent life—enough money to feed their kids and to make it to the end. But that’s all been taken away from them by unseen (for the most part) sources and now their futures are incredibly hopeless. This is so much more powerful than books in which the author constructs really contrived situations with which to batter the characters. Nothing in On the Edge feels contrived to me.

I also want to talk with Tom about the humor. To me, the rants can be pretty funny, turning from a sort of bleak observation into something more charged, self-reflexive and playful. What else can you do when everything’s turned to shit but rant in an entertaining fashion?

A couple weeks back, I received an email from a reader praising the book for how compelling the writing is and how it gets right to the heart of the pain of being human. She included a few choice quotes, which I think are worth sharing:

Sometimes it’s the biggest, heaviest things that are the easiest to move. Huge stones in the back of a truck, vans laden with heavy metals. And yet everything that’s inside you—what you think, what you want—all of which apparently weighs nothing—no strong man can lift that onto his shoulder and move it somewhere else. [. . .]

In day-to-day living, you’re constrained by your kids, by your wife; if it wasn’t for them, you’d do all kinds of crazy things, but when you’re in really deep trouble, when you reach that final tipping point, the very opposite happens: it is precisely your wife and kids who make you do the crazy thing that, before, they seemed to be stopping you from doing.

We tend to think that people’s true nature comes out at decisive moments, when the going gets tough, when they’re pushed to the limit. The moment for heroes and saints. And yet, strange though it may seem, at such moments, human behavior is usually neither exemplary nor encouraging. The group who elbow their way to the head of the line where the concert tickets are being handed out; the spectators who flee the burning theater, trampling over the weaker members of the audience . . .

It’ll also be interesting to compare this review by Mara Faye Lethem, with this one by Aaron Thier.

Mara Faye Lethem’s review opens with:

On the Edge is not a book you want to read in fits and starts. It is an anti-tweet, a brick of dense prose, that 70-year-old uncle who corners you at a holiday party, grabs you by the lapels and demands you hear him out. Your eyes sometimes glaze over, and you occasionally have to wipe a fleck of whitish spit off your face, but once you give yourself over to his story, you find there are plenty of rewards.

Whereas Aaron Thier’s is titled “On the Edge Gives No Pleasure.”

I’ve already written a couple things about Monospace, so instead of rehashing that all here, I just want to share most of what Charles Gabel posted in the Facebook Group:

So “The Scenery” not only has the footnotes, but from what I can tell by far the most concrete nouns. There’s an obsession of defining the space of the garden, and as the awesome translator Emma Ramadan wrote in one of the blog posts on 3%, it’s inseparable from the act of its own making. In these terms, I kept thinking of the garden as the already-failed arcadia, which suffers completely from its inability to exist, existing only in the flawed medium of language, of poetry (“First problem// a garden is never ideal” (61)) That said, “The Scenery” packs in as much concrete reality as it can, but somehow it’s never stable. Much like the lines aren’t definable in terms of singular tone or texture (I wish I’d underlined a good example of this), I could never fully picture any concrete space of a garden, no matter how many objects appeared or how much the poems talk about graphing the space and putting stuff in it. The definition itself is too insufficient to be confined to a poem, perhaps necessitating the footnotes?

It’s also the section with the most sense of longing, and erotic reaching toward another, the rose bed, etc. (Does this disappear as the book moves toward the later sections? Or did I not pick up on it?) The eros of the first section seems like a useful tension furthering the anxious lack that the book moves to resolve. The first page of “Repetitions” (p. 79) has zero concrete nouns, and seems to be more at ease with its own form; the footnotes are gone, it looks like a poem.

I guess I also want to mention the title, which appears throughout the book, I think as early as p. 16 (italicized as a title would be, maintaining the distance of the creation, the book’s object-ness, something that made me gleeful as a reader), and that it’s a type of typesetting where all the characters take up the same amount of space, which just awesomely sets up and furthers the text-garden-object association. Also, partly because the book’s original title in French is also Monospace, I went to google.fr, and the first association that came up (before the typesetting, which also came up) was a model of minivan. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with anything.

Again, if you have any thoughts or comments, send them in or post them wherever and we’ll try and address them next week on the podcast.

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