logo

Noble Expectations

When I first decided to undertake this project of writing about one 2018 translation a week, I knew that there would come a week in which I didn’t finish the book that I had planned to write about. This might be due to time constraints, or simply because I didn’t feel like finishing the book in question.

Well, it took less than two months to run into a book that I just gave up on: The Neighborhood by 2010 Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

I’ve got a lot to say about why I quit on this book, and how that reflects on readerly expectations, but I think the best place to start is by articulating my own reading history with Vargas Llosa.

Back in the 1990s, when I was working in bookstores and really starting to immerse myself in international fiction, Vargas Llosa was one of the Spanish-language giants you had to read, along with García Marquez, Fuentes, Cortázar, and Borges. There are other (better) Spanish-language authors from this same period (Onetti and Cabrera Infante come to mind), but these were the authors that I felt that I had to have some familiarity with if I was going to make any sort of claim to liking—and knowing something about—Spanish-language literature, especially what was coming out of Latin America.

Insecurity has played such a large role in my reading history. When I started at Dalkey Archive, I was greatly intimidated by the literary knowledge that everyone around me possessed. Not just John O’Brien—who, at that time at least, knew more about twentieth-century writing than anyone I knew—but also Martin Riker, Curtis White, Charlie Harris, Greg Howard, etc. (And that doesn’t even include David Foster Wallace, who was maybe the most intimidating?) The way they talked about the greats of the past century, from Céline to Gaddis to Gass to Queneau to Sorrentino to Ishmael Reed to Flann O’Brien to the wealth of undiscovered gems in the Dalkey Archive catalog (Stanley Elkin! Stanley Crawford! Nicholas Mosley! William Eastlake! Arno Schmidt!) really put into perspective how little I had actually read. I spent every spare moment of my first few years there catching up on the things I had missed. Granted, I had read a lot (someday I’ll write about the insane self-directed reading program I put myself through in preparation for the GRE English subject test), but not nearly as much as everyone else. This is how my personal canon was formed.

Before the Dalkey times though, I had read a couple Vargas Llosa books. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta was probably the first (and a good contrast with Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight) followed by Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, of which I remember nothing, and The War of the End of the World, which, assuming it still stands up, is one of those complete Latin American novels that’s political, harrowing, and all-encompassing.

Aside from personal insecurities, the other major motivating factor behind my reading choices was a desire to champion the more obscure greats. To find that incredible, transcendent book that wasn’t in every Norton anthology, that wasn’t being taught, that was rarely on display at the bookstore.

This has not changed at all.

Which is why, at that time, I respected Vargas Llosa more than I liked him. Too conventional. Too accepted. Not fringe enough. But then, at Dalkey Archive, John had me read The Green House and Conversations in a Cathedral and my opinion of Vargas Llosa skyrocketed.

These are both early books of his. (For those who don’t know, The Neighborhood is his nineteenth work of fiction to be translated into English.) And they’re fantastic. Conversations in a Cathedral is probably Vargas Llosa’s most experimental book that has a really intricate structure and requires a certain amount of attention and struggle for the reader to get into it. Exactly the sort of book I loved at that time! Too bad HarperCollins reissued these instead of letting us do them . . .

*
I haven’t read any of the recent Vargas Lllosa books. Nothing since he won the Nobel Prize in 2010 at least. Which is why I thought I’d give The Neighborhood a try. Like it would be fun to check in with him and see how he was writing these days.

That said, I did have some conflicting expectations going into this book. First off, I expected it to be dense and intelligent, with labyrinthine sentences—like his books of old. For example, here’s a paragraph from part IV of The War of the End of the World (translated by Helen Lane):

When a servant informed him who was asking for him, the Baron de Canabrava, rather than sending him back, as was his habit, to tell the person who had appeared on the doorstep that he neither made nor received unannounced visits, rushed downstairs, walked through the spacious rooms that the morning sun was flooding with light, and went to the front door to see if he had heard correctly: it was indeed he, no mistake about it. He shook hands with him without a word and showed him in. There leapt to his mind instantly what he had been trying his best to forget for months: the fire at Calumbi, Canudos, Estela’s crisis, his withdrawal from public life.

The opening paragraph of The Green House is thirteen pages long, so I’ll just quote the first few sentences in Gregory Rabassa’s translation:

The Sergeant takes a look at Sister Patrocinio and the botfly is still there. The launch is pitching on the muddy waters, between two walls of trees that give off a burning, sticky mist. Huddled under the canopy, stripped to the waist, the soldiers are asleep, with the greenish, yellowish noonday sun above: Shorty’s head is lying on Fats’s stomach, Blondy is breathing in short bursts, Blacky has his mouth open and is grunting. A thick shadow of gnats is escorting the launch, and butterflies, wasps, horseflies take shape among the bodies.

Neither of these are “blow your top off” sort of quotes, but they’re both good for setting the scene while retaining a certain distance that compels the reader to try and figure out what’s happening. These are sentences written by a professional writer. A writer who knows what he’s doing. I expected that from The Neighborhood.

At the same time, I didn’t expect The Neighborhood to be anywhere near as great as these early books. My expectation is that Vargas Llosa is past his prime.

There’s no logical reason why an author’s twentieth book can’t be his best. But it rarely works that way.

(AuthorTalent(TAL) x CraftAwareness(CA)) / PublishedWorks(PW) = CurrentAbility(ABL)

This is a callback. But one that fits, even if that equation is garbage. Basically, authors have a certain amount of inherent skill. And as they learn their craft, they hone this skill more and more. But the more books they write, the less fresh the ideas and the inherentness really seem. The more books they publish, the more craft takes the place of pure talent, and the less interesting the books become. See: John Updike. See: Philip Roth. See: Joyce Carol Oates.

So I expected something really smart, written in a way that was as engrossing as it was challenging, but nothing that would rewrite my general assessment of what Vargas Llosa was.

And maybe that’s exactly what this book is. And maybe this weekend it will get a glowing review in the New York Times or win the National Book Award in Translation and I’ll feel compelled to pick this up again sometime and give it another chance. But for now, I’m done.

*
There’s a great Tim Parks essay in Where I’m Reading From about quitting books. (I can’t find my book, and can’t recall the title of this piece, but trust me, it’s a real thing.) Not necessarily because the book is bad, but because you’ve gotten what you want to get out of the book already, and there’s nothing more to be gained by finishing it to the end.

Granted, this makes more sense if you’re the type of reader who reads the type of books that are more about style than plot (how many people set aside a detective novel mid-mystery because they have a good enough sense of what the author is up to?), but still, it’s an intriguing—and liberating—idea. It’s probably a good approach for reading Knausgaard! You don’t need to know the ending to know what makes his writing particular.

For me, fifty pages of The Neighborhood was enough to feel like I get the style and structure, and that I just don’t care. Yes, I know this is slightly different from what Parks is talking about, but it’s not like I hated this book—it just doesn’t have anything more to offer me at this time.

*
I have more to say about expectations, the right books at the right time, and West Cork, but I should probably make a list to explain what shut down The Neighborhood for me:

1) It opens with a lesbian love scene that feels like someone who’s read about lesbians and thought it would be trendy to include something like this in their novel. It’s like reading a book by an old man (Tom Wolfe?) about teenagers (I Am Charlotte Simmons?) in which nothing sounds quite authentic.

I abide by the idea that writers should feel free to write about whoever and whatever they want, but the workmanlike prose in The Neighborhood mixed with the strange prudishness of all the characters drags this particular storyline into a realm of unbelievability. This is a novel in which all the parts of novel-making are laid bare. You can see it all being constructed, which definitely doesn’t help.

2) Fuck this dialogue. Sorry, I’m done pretending that I can sound smart. The real reason I just quit was because of paragraphs like this:

“Everything in this life has a solution, Quique, except death.” He encouraged him: “Go on, tell me all about it, as Luciana, my younger daughter, says.”

 

What the fuck is that? Not only is “tell me all about it” not a phrase marked by youth or hipness, but why is one friend reminding the other of his younger daughter’s name. This is unnatural and dumb.

On the other side of things, this is probably my favorite bit:

“I finished the article, boss. One-Eye will shit fire.”

 

3) This “one-eye” thing bugged me so much though. It comes up in a chapter in which a muckraking journalist is trying to get dirt on a stage actress who shit on his paper on a nightly talk show. Here’s more crappy dialogue from when he’s berating a photographer he hired to get really unflattering pictures of her:

“It isn’t a question of giving her publicity of raising the one-eyed cow’s fees. It’s a question of sinking and defeating her, of discrediting her forever. It’s a question of their throwing her out of the show because she’s ugly and old and can’t move her ass. These pictures are going to illustrate an article where we say that the one-eyed cow is turning the show at the Monumental into a hodge-podge that nobody can stand.”

 

Admittedly, I’m totally going to incorporate “hodge-podge” into my active vocabulary? “Riverdale is such a hodge-podge!” (Damn it. That’s actually a good way of describing that show. WHICH IS AWESOME.)
<br?

4) I had enough of the plot. A seedy reporter has pictures of a powerful CEO getting nasty at an orgy and wants to take him down. The CEO’s wife starts a secret affair with his best-friend’s wife. There is a guy they all know who has been kidnapped who they mention with near disinterest a few times. The reporter driving the plot is motivated by vengeance. Cool. I don’t know how this all develops or is resolved, but I’m good.

*
Again, this book isn’t bad . . . well, that dialogue is bad, objectively bad, but aside from that, it’s fine. Some people will likely like this book. And maybe it gets more interesting! It’s possible that the mosaic structure of jumping from character to character will spiral outward to people who aren’t annoying and don’t speak like morons.

It’s just not the right book at the right time for me—possibly because of my expectations. I expected something different from Vargas Llosa. And I’d rather not have this book bitch up my personal feelings about his writing.

I know this is by far the most restrained and serious of these posts to date, and as tempting as it is to swerve back to the funny, I want to say two more serious things about expectations.

For anyone who knows anything about behavioral economics, they know how powerful they can be. If you have a certain expectation, you can overwrite what you actually experience so that it fits your pre-existing schema. You can come to believe in insane things based on small samples that happened recently. You can dispense with contradictory knowledge that would enhance your understanding of the world and its nuances simply because it doesn’t fit what you already know you know is what you know is right.

In the class I teach on world literature and translation, this came up in regard to Filip Springer’s History of a Disappearance (trans. by Sean Bye), a work of Polish reportage about a city in Western Poland that has a crazy history and that essentially collapsed in on itself and is now completely gone. It’s an interesting book that juxtaposes factual history with people’s warped recollections and pieces together a fairly depressing history of a place.

My students didn’t know what to make of this book at all. They had expected it to be a “novel,” which, in their world means a book with a main set of characters and a primary plot that’s developed from page one till the end. A book in which there isn’t a protagonist to follow was a bit baffling to them. They had no idea what to make of this book and it ruptured their idea of what a book could be in a few ways—the main one being that they simply didn’t like this because it didn’t fit their expectations.

This is my insecurity about the future of reading: That the way in which the market ends up taking popular books and making them MEGAPOPULAR (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, to a lesser extent the Knausgaard and Ferrante phenomenons, whatever garbage BookMarks is tracking) will create a set of literary expectations in readers that will train them to look for a very small range of things to define a “good” book. This sort of blindered view of literature has always existed, but right now, thanks to our late-capitalist moment and the nature of aggregating websites online, there’s a crazy velocity to books that make it. It’s not like there are even twenty really popular books at any point in time nowadays—there are about seven. And these dominate all conversations, all the top spots on BookMarks as the “most reviewed” titles. They’re on every bookstore front table—B&N and indie—and promoted through every extant algorithm. If these books—which are usually pretty fine, if not using very predictable tropes with slight deviations, basically the NPR of fiction—are responsible for wiring readers’ expectations, there will be little space for the odd, the defiant.

*
 

I have a lot to say about expectations in relation to West Cork, the Audible Original podcast/audiobook about the still-unsolved murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.

Firstly, I know this will come as a shock to some, but Serial wasn’t the first podcast ever produced. That said, it would be ignorant to claim that it didn’t have a huge impact on the nature of podcasting. What used to be an audiospace for smart people to say smart things to each other about various topics turned commercial1 and over-produced. And one that was based in a particular style of narrative.

The Serial model—a long-running story filled with reversals, shocking revelations, cliffhangers—spawned a million deviations. Suddenly, this was the way in which podcasts should exist.2 This was all the rage. (For season one at least. You can’t go home again, can you Carol Sarah?)

And then there was Finding Richard Simmons and Shittown and maybe few other things whiskey is preventing me from remembering right now. My basic point though: These all work in a particular way. One hour. Cliffhangers to make the next episode seem like there’s going to be a big revelation. Ambiguity all the way down. It feels really comfortable to listen to these podcasts. They meet all expectations.

West Cork plays this game, but not exactly. There are revelations (for us who don’t pay attention to Irish news), a core mystery, reversals that mostly exist thanks to editing3, and ambiguity. But most episodes are 35 minutes. Most episodes don’t have a cliffhanger. Most episodes aren’t that revelatory. It’s a character piece that doesn’t quite one-up what came before. And can you really be bingeable in 20184 if you’re not one step more HOLY SHIT than the last podcast?

I want to break this series down in more detail, but I highly doubt anyone reading this has actually heard it yet. It’s good! It’s not great! The horse did it! But my point: Do we have a market that can support a quiet version of Serial? Or do we live in the arms race period of podcasting in which a murder has to be THE CRAZIEST MURDER WITH THE BEST CHARACTERS EVER to deserve a listen? What do we want? What are our expectations? And what does that mean about new start-up companies trying to make podcasts? Past performance influences future innovation and yet . . . What’s new and interesting and not designed to tickle the expectations crafted by NPR + Blue Apron + Square Space?

 

1 Where would Blue Apron be without podcasts? And podcasts without Blue Apron? Can you imagine who would be fucking nuts enough to sponsor the Three Percent Podcast? Is there a corporation trafficking in cynicism and middle-age? Who like swearing and other unpopular things? To be honest, I would shill for anyone—including Blue Apron, which, really? This needs to exist? I hate 2018. (I feel better now that I got one joke into this post.)

2 Sorry, now I just can’t stop. You should check out Finding Tammy Jo, a podcast from the local Rochester paper about an unsolved murder from 1979. It’s pretty horrible! Not only is the title an absolute lie—they found Tammy Jo’s body, they just didn’t know who she was, so what is “finding” anyway—but the production is such an aping of Serial that its identity is subsumed behind an attempt to take a popular format and shoehorn an uninteresting story into it. Also: one episode is just 2 minutes of piano.

3 Someday I’ll write about the relationship between This American Life, MFA programs, and PKD’s Valis in relation to the idea of what you believe as truth and why.

4 I literally punched myself for typing “bingeable” in a non-ironic way. I may have to stop soon. My fat belly can not absorb my own drunken fist.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.