Book 7 [The No Context Project]
A couple months ago, while writing about Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell’s translation of Silvina Ocampo’s The Promise, I came up with a sort of crazy scheme:
But this gave me a grand idea: What if I could review twenty books from twenty publishers in as blind as a fashion as possible? I wouldn’t know the title, author, translator, or publisher for any of these. All the books would be so far out in the future that I wouldn’t have seen trade reviews or overheard anyone talking about these books at Winter Institute. I would have these all sent to my Kindle with titles like “Book 1,” “Book 2,” “Book 3,” and all put into the standardized Kindle font and layout so that my opinion couldn’t be impacted by the font choice or other design advantages.
Each week or so, I’ll review one of these books, writing about it in more detail than I usually do, since I’ll be trying to figure out what I like, if I think it works, etc., and assigning it a score between 5 and 20 in four categories: Style, Translation, Structure, Cultural Value. Adding those together, each book will receive a score between 20 and 80. (Which, coincidentally, is the same scale that scouts use when evaluating baseball prospects. Coincidentally.) And I’ll try and guess who the publisher is. And the language it’s translated from.
So, over the past couple months, Anthony has received at least 10 books from publishers. He uploaded them all onto my Kindle with titles “Book 2 (220)” with the number in parentheses indicating the total number of pages. Which I asked for just so I had a sense of how to schedule my time to get these posts up on a regular basis. (Although, wouldn’t it be funny if Anthony just made all these up? So that I wouldn’t even know that about the book. I would have to decide whether a book is a slog or not even fewer points of reference . . . )
Anyway, I finally finished one of these context-less titles and am ready to get this project underway. First up: “Book 7 (37).”
Going into this, I knew that reading books with no context clues—not knowing the author, translator, language, or even publisher—was going to be strange. Not having any jacket copy seemed less significant, although even when I’m reading submissions, or editing our books, there’s some sort of synopsis available.
It didn’t occur to me beforehand that I wouldn’t even know if this book was fiction or nonfiction, short stories or a novel. I think this book was three short stories, although the fact that the MS was only 37 pages (or 842 locations on the Kindle) made me wonder if this was even the complete book. It’s not impossible that this is just a fragment, and if I had read the whole book, it would become clear that this was a novel. I doubt it, but who knows?
That really makes me feel like one of my students . . . I’ve received no fewer than a half-dozen readers reports that start with something like, “in this novel of short stories,” or that complain about how “the novel is hard to follow because each story has different characters.” I once asked a class if anyone had ever even read a book of short stories and someone said, “do you mean fiction or nonfiction?”
Realizing 33% of the way through the file that this probably wasn’t a novel highlighted just how much fundamental information I was missing . . .
The first story, “Kollwitz Strasse” starts out straightforward enough, with the narrator watching a child walking, in a strange way, down the street with his mother, wearing shoes that blink. This reminds the narrator (him?) of a dystopian novel that he read involving child robots. As his reverie about how best to educate the child robot to be more human, I got my first clue as to where this book is set—and probably what language it was written in.
The mother and child in front of me started walking again, so I followed at the same pace. I saw a logo tag, small yet visible from a distance, sewn into the hood of the child’s white down jacket, for a company that once specialized in mountaineering gear for alpine climbers but was now known for its top-of-the-line children’s clothing. The jacket must have cost several hundred euros. In this area, there were people who thought nothing of shelling out a couple of thousand, or even five thousand euros to get their child ready for winter.
I had read in the newspaper about young couples who, having inherited sizable fortunes, were moving from southern Germany to raise their children in this district of Berlin.
There we go. And that’s just about where shit starts to get weird . . .
All three stories follow a similar pattern: An unidentified narrator is walking to some particular place (a café that he thought was closed with a portrait of Mayakovsky hanging on the wall, a special park with a statue honoring Russia’s involvement in reclaiming Berlin from the Nazis) and then everything goes sideways, turning unreal. A ghost-child forces the narrator to buy her candies and various other things. The Mayakovsky portrait talks to the narrator about how he’s been waiting for the woman he’s having an affair with for hours, then he, the portrait, leaves the café and finds Lilya and Osip together. And in the third story the narrator is transported into some sort of German-Russian-Japanese city where the monument he went to see turns epic and strange, with cartoonish drawings (that are sometimes in motion) carved around its base.
I won’t at all be surprised if the jacket copy—or a reviewer—refers to this collection as “Kafakesque,” but it reminds me a bit more of Can Xue, maybe Yoko Tawada?
From the third story:
At the blacksmith’s there was a basket overflowing with Suma-phones and Ai-phones which the blacksmith was tossing, one after another, into the fire. They had all been confiscated from ordinary citizens. These devices were now prohibited, so that they wouldn’t feed the people misinformation. But the blacksmith didn’t leave them to burn; after a while he took them out again, put them on his anvil, and pounded them flat. Then a dragonfly wearing welding glasses placed the flattened phones on a tray and flew them to a factory far to the back, where they were apparently used to make metal helmets. These were not ordinary helmets, though. Once they were on, they attached themselves firmly to the human skull, and could never be removed.
To be completely honest, this is one of the paragraphs where I rolled my eyes and looked to see how close I was to being finished with this book. (Only 9% more to go!) This is not my favorite style of writing. It works for me when it’s not just “weird” in a silly way (a dragonfly wearing welding glasses), but is either funny, like with Robert Walser, or is a more experiential-based reading process, in which the stories beg you to puzzle out their logic, like with Can Xue’s Vertical Motion.
Not that I mean to compare the two, but the woman I’m with now never reaches out any further than she has to. While carefully guarding her own territory, keeping it under control, she’s never curious enough to invade anyone else’s.
The plainness of the writing here—that’s almost without narrative voice, and a bit wooden in its flat progressions and lack of rhythm—was a bit tiresome to me. Although there is a bit of musicality in that blacksmith paragraph above with all the “b” and “p” sounds (“the blacksmith didn’t leave them to burn,” “put them on his anvil, and pounded them flat”) and alliteration (“wearing welding glasses”).
If the narrator’s point of view was more well-defined in its wackiness, I might have felt like investing more in the strange images that come up. As is, I found it to be rather plodding.
Style Score: 12 out of 20
I would really like to talk to the translation about how they envision the narrator sounding. Right now, this translation feels a bit too stiff, lacking in a clear interpretation of how it’s supposed to sound. It has hints of playfulness, but the language is often so rigid that these get drowned out, or come off sounding kind of awkward.
From the first story, when the ghost-child is trying to get the narrator to buy them things.
“What do you want?”
That had definitely been the name of a cheap sweet a long time ago, but I remembered that the name had been changed because “Negro” was now a racist word. Egg whites whipped into a cream ball about the size of a child’s fist, covered with a thin layer of chocolate. Unable to remember the new name, I said, “Negro is a word you use when you’re looking down on someone with black skin, so why don’t we just stop using it, okay?” It was no use telling this sort of thing to a child who was already dead, but with a child standing in front of me, I always want to explain about words.
“Why would you want somebody you look down on to kiss you?” he asked—truly an impressive comeback.
On the Two Month Review podcast, Brian often brings up the idea of concision, of lean, efficient writing. Not that everyone should write like Raymond Carver or Hemingway, but that whatever your style is, it should be energetic, rather than murky.
Depending on what type of voice the translator is working toward—a windbag who over-explains everything, or a dispassionate observer recounting strange shit—this could be tightened in a few different ways. The first two sentences could be combined, either to be shorter (“This had been the name of a cheap chocolate cream ball that changed its name when “Negro” became a racist word.”) or more digressive (“That was definitely the former name of those cheap sweets, the ones made of whipped egg whites, large as a child’s fist, covered with a thin layer of milk chocolate. But that wasn’t the name anymore, it had to be changed when “Negro” became a racist word.”).
I’m not saying that this translation isn’t accurate, or isn’t good, just that if I were providing feedback—as an editor or in a workshop—I would ask a lot of questions about how the translator was interpreting the voices of the narrators. Actually, is it even “narrators”? Are these all supposed to be told by the same person? (This is when jacket copy would really help.) Having a better sense of how the translator has interpreted the narrator’s worldview, or way of being, would be really helpful in making this translation sing a bit more.
Translation Score: 13 out of 20
This category will be much more useful when writing about a novel, but whatever. I read these three stories over a two-week period, which is definitely not helpful in evaluating textual patterns. As I mentioned above, each story does start with a journey of sorts (to meet someone for dinner, to go to a café, to visit a park) and they seem to move eastward with each iteration. The first feels like East Berlin, the second has a lot of Russian tinges, and the third ends in Japan.
I think I could talk myself into a sort of interpretation that each of these stories is following the same core river-like structure—eastward movement that kicks off a surreal journey though cities, relationships, and history—that’s repeated three times, creating an overall cyclical movement. One that moves from the personal (the narrator who meets the child ghost) to the more societal (the depiction of the city with the blacksmith mentioned above).
This is a digression, or caveat, or both, but I’m still learning how to read on the Kindle. I know how to bookmark things, add notes, and highlight passages; I don’t know how to use these three in separate, meaningful ways, nor have I figured out the best way to use these to riffle through the book in a way that I could tease out different readings and interpretations.
I’m also terrified that I’m going to sound like a total idiot when I look back at this post in light of some well-thought out, well-researched book review about how “Book 7 (37)” is a modern classic. I have nothing to go on here, except for my rather non-immersive reading experience spread out over too long a time. This book just didn’t stick for me, and I don’t know if that’s because I suck at reading, at memory, at knowing how to Kindle, or, if that’s just a really nasty side-effect of reading books with no context. I don’t know if this is supposed to be good.
To be fair though, thinking back on this book and the few details I remember, I’m satisfied with my belief that the book’s structure is better than it’s style or translation.
Structure Score: 16 out of 20
Following up on that last point, I’m trying to think of what sort of reading I would push in the press release for this book. What aspects of the book that, if we emphasize them in the right way, will persuade readers that this book is important or relevant or a unique literary voice? Putting a particular—and positive—read in the minds of people looking at this will be a huge help. (This is so much harder without knowing any backstory to the author or the book itself.)
Up above, I referred to the narrator in at least one story as a “he,” but to be honest, I’m not sure if there are any definitive gender markers in these stories. The narrator mentions a woman that they’re with, but the point of view doesn’t necessarily identify the voice as being either strongly male or strongly female. I really like that. Ambiguity is a strong element in this book. And that’s cool.
There’s also something to the exploration of relationships in these stories. The narrator to the child. Mayakovsky and Osip and Lilya. The history of a region. (Or dynamics of its social structure?) I think you could build a press release out of this that would appeal to some of the New Directions crowd. Overall though, this didn’t seem particularly socially relevant to me (without knowing anything of the author), and given my reservations about the voice, I don’t suspect this book will be read as a “fable for our times” or anything like that. And I’m not convinced that it’s actually a heavy-hitting important book that will bring a lot of attention and respect to the publisher.
Cultural Value Score: 10 out of 20
Grand Total: 51 out of 80
So “Book 7 (37)” received a 51, or a 80%, or what exactly? Is that good? Bad? Without any prior baseline, I have no idea. One truly is the smallest of samples. I wonder how many books it will take for this scoring method to really stabilize and make sense in the way that 5-stars or 10/10 do. Or, to be more specific, the way a 60FV does in baseball scouting. I could see it taking 8 books to really firm up. And could see it taking 3, after which every assigned value is relative to that first set of titles. Anyway . . .
Now for the fun part, where I get to be objectively wrong instead of being an imperceptive reader.
Early on, I was convinced this was written by a man, solely based on how it described an interaction between a mother and her child. But as I’ve been writing this, I’ve become half-paranoid that this is a new Yoko Tawada book. There’s something similar in voice and cadence in Memoirs of a Polar Bear. This is just a random paragraph near the opening of the book:
Since returning from Kiev, I’d done nothing but sit in my room in Moscow, scratching away at my text without respite. My head bent over the letter paper I’d taken from the hotel without asking. I kept painting over the same period of my childhood again and again. I couldn’t seem to get beyond it.
And the idea of moving from Germany to Japan tracks with Yoko Tawada, who was born in Japan but moved to Germany and writes in both languages. And although these stories don’t appear to be narrated by animals like in Memoirs, there is something related in the disaffected voice, which I think can also be found in The Emissary.
That said, I’m sticking with my gut and first instincts: This was written by a man.
Language & Country
All signs point to Germany. (Or maybe Germany & Japan?) Although it also feels very Russian at a number of points. But I’ve gotta go with the obvious: Translated from the Germany and written by an East German writer.
This is really hard to do . . . especially since I have no idea which of the 20+ editors I emailed sent stuff in.
Early on, I had the feeling this was a NYRB Classic. There’s a seriousness to the prose that fits with their list. And the representation of Russian and German books on their list matches up. But, if I’m working under the assumption that this is the whole book, I don’t think NYRB would do it. It would need a hell of an introduction to make this read like a fully formed collection and not just three promising stories.
New Directions was a second thought because of Yoko Tawada. But even if this were just the first three stories of her forthcoming collection, I feel like Tawada is a more interesting writer than this. Her prose—whether translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky or the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani—is much tighter and more propulsive. And although I could envision ND doing this, I don’t think it’s them.
Who else would do a slim book like this? Two Lines? Maybe . . . They do do those short Wolfgang Hilbig and João Gilberto Noll books, and although “Book 7 (37)” seems to match the aesthetic of an earlier period in Two Lines history, I could see this fitting. Two Lines it is!
I don’t know how long it will take for me to read all of these titles and write them up, but my goal is to finish in January. If you know what book I’m writing about, don’t tell me. I want to be surprised at the end. But feel free to make fun of me for being so far off base, and/or because I just wrote an entire post about a book virtually none of you can read and that I can’t even encourage you to buy.