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This Headline’ll Make You MAD, MAD!

It’s fitting that I’m writing this post about a book called Trick as Stormy Daniels is on 60 Minutes? This is one of the daily reminders that life is not books, and that books aren’t as important as I make them out to be in my mind. Nothing matters, nothing makes sense. Guns and corruption are way more important than anyone’s thoughts on Mr. Elena Ferrante’s latest novel.

More people watched Duke lose to Kansas (prompting some of my favorite tweets of the year, mostly about how Grayson Allen looks like he has a future in sweater vests and cubicles: “Grayson Allen had three good opportunities” “And yet not a single person bought insurance from him. #NotACloser” or “Don’t be sad, Grayson Allen. Nationwide is on your siiiide —And hiring! #NCAA #ncaataunts”) than will read a book in the next month.1

That said, I feel like I owe it to myself to keep logging these weekly posts about 2018 translations, especially since I took the time to read Domenico Starnone’s Trick this week under what I thought were enough interesting conditions to prompt a fairly decent post. In the end, I’m not sure that’s true, but I’ll give it my best for three-four bits and then go watch the pilot episode of Krypton because it’s Sunday and there’s no baseball on.

 

Trick by Domenico Starnone, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri (Europa Editions)

Last weekend, when I was working on that frigging post, I alluded to writing about the newest Lispector and Will Self this week. Well. So. That Lispector book? DENSE AS FUCK. I’m still planning on writing something about it, but it’s ten thousand times smarter than I am and I don’t know if I actually like it. So I want to save that for next week, when I’ll write about it and “what we want out of a review of a translation” while watching Opening Day baseball all day.2

When I realized that I had no chance of finishing The Chandelier in time to work on this, I scrambled for for another March translation to read. Michael Orthofer—the most well-read dude in America?—mentioned Starnone in an email this week, so I quickly went on Europa Editions’s site and downloaded the first book of his I saw—Ties.

See, my idea was to read a book with as little background expectations as possible. I knew nothing about Starnone or his books, didn’t read the jacket copy, only glanced at the cover (out of necessity), and skipped the intro. I wanted to replicate the experience of listening to a new album from a band I know nothing about, or watching a new TV show with some innocuous name, like “Animal Kingdom” or “Search Party,” where there aren’t any expectations brought to bear. What is it like to just read a book? Instead of “reading a book” with a critical, ‘I’m gonna write about this’ sort of opening?

Halfway through Ties I realized that this book came out in March 2017. But! Starnone has a new book out this month as well! Trick! Which sounds like Ties and is also translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. (Whom I’ve never read, although I should?3)

So I quickly gave up on Ties (which was fine, 100% a narrative with characters and plot), and downloaded Trick. And read it over two days so that I could keep up my 2018 resolution.

I’m probably a little full of shit, but here are all the prejudices I had before reading this book:

1) Thanks to Lori Feathers’s post on this very site, I became aware that Starnone4 is married to Elena Ferrante.

2) Europa Editions is the publisher, and, for me, their books fall into three categories: decent Latin American works (Gamboa), crime novels I would probably like, and book club books.

3) Jhumpa Lahiri translated this after learning Italian and writing her last book in Italian. No judgements associated with that, but it was a fact that was hard to miss when buying this book.

I had no idea what to expect when I started this book—would it be a romance? a thriller?—and just took it all as it came. Which was relieving. It’s gotten to the point in my life where I can barely read a book for enjoyment anymore. Everything’s for class (read to teach), for publication (should we do this?), for these articles (how can I seem smart?), or for the general optics (I need to be seen on social media reading this). It’s so stressful! Books are like pages to get through sometimes and that’s not for the best.

Instead of any of that self-imposed bullshit, I had a really good time reading Trick. I wouldn’t recommend it to my friends because my friends are filled with cynicism and indifference, but it’s the sort of book my mom would read if she read books and wasn’t exactly my mom. It’s a book that makes you feel your age, but in a way that’s not depressing or existential, and I appreciated that. I also appreciated not ever thinking about translation issues while reading it. I just read it, and mostly enjoyed the bits where the grandfather was a dick to his grandson because kids can be annoying and when I’m old I’m not going to want to put up with that shit either and here’s a really bad role model who I can relate to.

This is the sort of book for people who relate to characters in books. This is a neutral statement.

Before I look at the jacket copy for real (I seriously haven’t read it yet), here’s my description:

A famous illustrator is hired to draw some plates for a “deluxe edition” of Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner.”5 He does a couple, they suck, he’s old, tired. Such is baseball, such is life. His daughter convinces/forces him come watch his grandson for a few days while she goes to a math conference6 with her husband, who is “scrawneebly” and jealous and kind of a penis. Grandfather finds grandson a bit spoiled and annoying—because duh and or obviously, four year olds are—and doesn’t come off looking so good to the maid/neighbors who see him. The climax takes place when his grandson “tricks” him by locking him on the balcony behind a defective door that won’t open. In the rain. At seventy. While he should be working on his plates for the James story about a man who returns home and sees what his life could’ve been . . .

An emotional rollercoaster for anyone who loves Erma Bombeck.7

 

This is not what anyone wants from a review.8

Here’s the official copy:

Sharp, succinct storytelling and breathtaking prose combine in this new novel by the author of the New York Times editor’s pick, Ties.

Imagine a duel between an elderly man and a mere boy. The same blood runs through their veins. One, Daniele Mallarico, is a successful illustrator whose reputation is slowly fading. The other, Mario, is his four-year-old grandson. The older combatant has lived for years in solitude, focusing obsessively on his work. The younger one has been left by his querulous parents with his grandfather for a 72-hour stay. Shut inside an apartment in Naples that is filled with the ghosts of Mallarico’s own childhood, grandfather and grandson match wits, while outside lurks Naples, a wily, violent, and passionate city whose influence is not easily shaken.

Trick is a gripping, wry, brilliantly devised drama, “an extremely playful literary composition,” as Jhumpa Lahiri describes it in her introduction, about aging, family, art, and reconciling with one’s past.

 

Far be it from me to shit on anyone’s copy, but I’m glad I didn’t read that first. Hey, literary hipsters—this book is fine. Sure, it’s no Kobo Abe, but fuck, man, sometimes it’s fun to shut off and read a book that’s just about being alive and knowing that you’re going to be replaced by little shitheads you’re not sure you like.

Three observations, then the fun stuff:

1) The best part of this book is that the story ends, and then there’s an illustrator’s afterword/epilogue (I bought the book and fuck you if you think I’m going to actually play with my Kindle to figure out the real name of this section) in which the grandfather expresses—in first person diary—his creative struggles with the James commission and his thoughts on life, alone, physically removed from his daughter and family. There are actual artworks in this bit. It is not what you’d expect to find in a B&N best-seller.

2) The best part of this book is the idea that Lahiri expresses in which the text swings back and forth from one sort of book to another. The grandfather’s reactions to his grandson are loving one second, then aggressive, then resigned. The book feels like one thing (a story of a domestic falling apart), then another (death is right there and will happen through an accident you won’t be prepared for) line by line. I don’t think I would’ve gotten into this had I picked up this book knowing anything about.

3) The best part of this book is that the main event—the grandfather locked on the balcony—wasn’t treated in expected ways. It could’ve been a joke, a bit of sketch comedy to drive home the overall idea of the book. It could’ve been more heavy handed. It could’ve been dumb. But if you’re a “identify with the character” sort of reader, it was probably just scary. Dying through accident is scary.

—————
I’ve got nothing more to say about Trick. If you’re the sort of person who reads things, then you can read it. And if you’re the sort of person who enjoys identifying with characters, you’ll get all that rush. Someone you sympathize with who’s also a dick, but old and feeble, and there’s so much to mull over.

Hey look, ambassadors from a bunch of countries recommended books! They each recommended a book to read before visiting their country and, well, these descriptions don’t make me believe in the future . . .

About Nordic Ways:

“It came out last fall and is representative of all five Nordic countries. It describes life in the North from different perspectives.“—H.E. Björn Lyrvall

If a politician isn’t good at tautologies they’re not much of a politcIan. YOU HAVE MY VOTE, LYRVALL!

About TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, the pick for Ireland. Repeat: Ireland:

H.E. Anne Anderson recommends Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, which tells the intertwined stories of the first non-stop transatlantic fliers in 1919; the visit of Frederick Douglass to Ireland in 1845/46; and the story of the 1998 Irish peace process.

Uh. Yeah. Like. Wait. So. Wait. I know Colum. We’ve shared Guinness. I love Colum. He’s talented! Incredibly so. But. Ireland. There are options. And if you want to choose this book, then blurb it. (“Chad W. Post, president of nothing, recommends The Crying of Lot 49, a book about mail.”) LAME. NO VOTE FOR YOU, ANDERSON.

Just gonna let this stand on its own:

The Man Who Spoke Snakish is an exploration of alternative history by a well-loved contemporary author.” —H.E. Eerik Marmei

“Book is book about book and people book love book.” What is this, a promotion for Patterson’s “BookShots”? ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE NOPE. NO VOTE.9

One more, one more!

Malta

H.E. Pierre Clive Agius recommends Immanuel Mifsud’s In the Name of the Father (And of the Son), which won the 2011 European Union Prize for Literature and tells the story of a man reading a diary his father kept during his days as a soldier in World War II, which subsequently pushes him to re-examine the personal relationship he had with his father.

BORING. NO VOTE.

—————
So the other week, Will Self gave an interview for the Guardian that ended up with the title “The Novel is Absolutely Doomed.”

This made me so excited! I felt like there might be a date in the future where I would spend more time with my newborn than with printed words. But alas, all Self (a fantastic writer) had to say was this:

You’re not awfully optimistic about the future of the novel, are you?

I think the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony. And that’s already happened. I’ve been publishing since 1990, so I’ve seen it happen in my writing lifetime. It’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably.

It’s frequently said that that’s partly because narrative has migrated to box sets. Is there any truth in that?

The relationship between the novel and film in the 20th century was like the relationship between Rome and Greece. Film depended upon the novel, at least in its infancy and youth. The problem is that now that film itself is being Balkanised – carved up, streamed, loaded on to DVDs, watched on people’s phones – it no longer needs its Greece, it no longer needs the novel lying behind it. It’s a disaster for the novel, actually – I think the novel is in freefall.

 

How many of you have read Will Self? Probably not any of the people who were quoted in this random “it’s not ‘Cat Person,’ but it’s almost a meme” article:

Self’s comments drew some criticism on Twitter from the literary community. Irish writer [Ian? No, sorry, Colin] Barrett, currently based in the US, tweeted: “As a writer, I’d be embarrassed to ever say there’s been no good contemporary writing/no good books in X number of years etc, because more than anything it just reveals the poverty of your own appetite for engagement.”

[Roxane] Gay, a writer and commentator also based in America, said: “White men love to declare an end to things when they no longer succeed in that arena. The novel is fine.”

The Essex Serpent author Sarah Perry asked: “Also: who cares if the novel is doomed, anyway? Storytelling is as old as time and the novel is revising for its GSCEs.”

 

My first question is “what are GSCEES?” and my second is “did they read the interview or just the headline?”

Well, CSCEES are a typo but GSCEs are “General Certificates of Secondary Education,” which must be some British in joke. (I just finished reading Troubles today and am not British-sympathetic. At all.)

But did they read the whole statement?

Everyone jumps on me for making fun of Buzzfeed (again, more next week, and you will love it) and clickbait headlines for being “dangerous.” THIS IS EXACTLY HOW THEY ARE DANGEROUS. Without “The Novel is Absolutely Doomed” this article goes unnoticed. With it? THE WORLD IS ENDING AND WE MUST TAKE DOWN WILL SELF FOR HIS LIES!

—————
I will always choose a Self book over a Barrett/Gay/Perry one, because I think Self does more interesting things with language and structure than any of these other three do/can. They’re all good writers! But we all have favorites, for better or because you only have so much time to read and watch Grayson Allen sell insurance.

Did Self merit this response? According to one friend, “he said dumb shit in the past,” which, fine?, sure?, but doesn’t dumb shit make the world go round? Where would Twitter be without people saying dumb shit and flipping out all the time?

“I think the novel is absolutely doomed to become a marginal cultural form” is, to me, something about culture, not about the novel as a form. “It’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably” because NO ONE GIVES A FUCK ABOUT NOVELS. How is this not a rallying cry? Why are you attacking Will Self for pointing out that 100X more people talk about Game of Titties Thrones than they do about a narrative in a book. (Yes, I know it was a book first, but what do you think the ratio between viewers and readers is? Does 500:1 sound plausible?)

That second statement is hard to puzzle out . . . in some ways. Here’s my attempt at unpacking this: For basically ever, novels were the source for narrative ideas and structures. The medium allows creators so much flexibility, and their exploration—of character-building, of plotting, of narrative structures—served as the building blocks for so many movies, TV shows, etc. Creators in the visual realm looked to novels for ideas of what to explore and how.

But things have advanced. Sure, there are still movies being made that are based on books, but I think Self is getting at something much more fundamental than simply talking about intellectual properties. Entertainment has become so fragmented over the past few years, with kids growing up in an environment in which they rarely—if ever—watch complete TV shows, and instead only want YouTubers and clips. The narrative structure that appeals to a lot of—most?—people today isn’t one based in Victorian principles of the novel, but on ideas that have developed from within the visual medium itself. In this sense, the TV shows/films that everyone talks about aren’t really pinned to the novel per se, but to larger ideas in culture and the art of filmmaking.

Again, I may be misreading this and giving Self more credit than he deserves, but I think this idea is really interesting and posits a sort of challenge to all of us in the book industry—is there a way for novels to regain a central space in the general conversation? If so, then how? If not, does it matter?

I also want to admit that I rarely talk about books I’ve read to people who aren’t already in this world. Like, say, my hairdresser. I’m a million times more likely to talk to her about a podcast or movie or TV show, but never a book. In part because we read very different things (but have both seen Black Panther), but also because the other art forms dominate pop culture. The closest thing books has to a pop culture phenomenon is Elena Ferrante.

—————

1 Not scientifically valid. But it almost is.

About a quarter of American adults (24%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.

2 More people watch baseball on Opening Day than . . . never mind.

3 I really wonder what professional Italian translators think of her suddenly getting a lot of work. I know that I’m an envious man with a lot of shortcomings and self-esteem problems, so maybe none of them actually care. But, if I were betting, I would put some cash on “probably have mixed feelings.”

4 I always want to type “Starcherone” when writing his last name. In honor of Starcherone Books, pronounced “starch-yer-own,” one of the wittier small presse out there. And I still can’t remember Ferrante’s “real” last name. Then again, who gives fucks. She’s a really good writer and we can leave it at that.

5 This is a real story that I wish wasn’t real. The book is way more interesting if you’re trying to puzzle out the fuck this imaginary ghost story about opportunities pissed away might be.

6 Can I have a book of the math conference?

7 You have no idea how many misspellings it took to get to that joke.

8 See next week’s post.

9 This book is AWFUL. Top ten of terrible. Sorry not sorry.



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