Book 6 [The No Context Project]
If you want the context for the “no context project,” check out this post, which lays everything out and applies a 20-80 grading scale to “Book 7.”
Since I really want to get through these mystery books sooner rather than later–so that I can find out what they are and grade myself–I put aside my Charco reading for a bit in favor of “Book 6 (40).” This is another short one, but this time I’m sure that it’s the complete book. And, well, I have a lot of comments.
Let’s not bury the lede: I did not like this book at all. Reading it was so aesthetically cringey. This book is like the worst of Wes Anderson. And yes, I am going full Chad 1.0 in this post. Who else out there spends their Sundays reading books from other presses to try and give them some attention? I’m trying so hard to be a better literary citizen, but instead of reading a great book, I spent a few hours with this nonsense . . . This bit is about Ovando, a former bookstall vendor who “was basically a down and out with intellectual pretensions.” (A “down and out.”)
On this occasion, Ovando said straight away that he had an important proposal to make. I was still thinking that if I had turned left to go out to the avenue instead of turning right, I would have been able to avoid him. But reality was defeating me. When I took in his words, I nodded and half smiled as if to say, “I’ll hear you out, with all the sympathy and attention I can muster, but I don’t think I’ll accept any part of what you’re proposing, because at my age, and in my current state of semi-retirement, I systematically avoid committing myself to projects that, no matter how well intentioned the people who put them forward, always mean extra work to do.”
God, what an academic, amirite?
But that’s not the lamest part.
Although I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, I should mention that I am an intellectual as well as a writer.
Fuck and no. This ISN’T the worst part—still getting there—but this is stupid. And I want to take a minute to acknowledge to all my former students that yes, I get it when you think the main characters are insufferable, and although I will argue forever that a bad character can make for an interesting work (see: Pale Fire), if you’re not at all invested, this shit does not play. How many more percentages do I have to read of this nonsense? 86% to go? God DAMN IT.
I need to save most of the rest of the quotes I tagged for the sections below, so let me do a bit of quick summary here: Ovando offered the narrator the opportunity to learn all the magic and control reality or something, but like with every fairy tale (and lame novella) there’s a catch! To access all the magic, the narrator has to give up Literature! (Always Capitalized because duh and or obviously.) No more writing or reading! Dear God! What a choice!
What ensues is 9,000,000 pages (and/or 25) of this asshole debating this choice in hifalutin, stilted tones that are just plain insufferable. (SEE BELOW. THERE ARE MANY EXAMPLES.) He visits his friends to ask them what he should do. They convert normal objects into precious objects of art (a first edition Raymond Roussel and a fancy pen and my god all of this is so trite) and tell him this isn’t a real decision to make.
Right here, right now, I have to say that I’m ASTONISHED this book wasn’t shelved. I know there are some authors who just write a draft and then put it out into the world without any editing (hint, hint), but I’m not sure that should be unequivocally supported. We all need editors.
So here’s the rest of this garbage: The narrator doesn’t know what to do. Should he give up Literature to understand the magics of the universe? (Including alchemy.) Or rewrite all of his fiction works as philosophical essays? TYPING THAT HURT MY BRAIN.
Anyway, anyway, he goes to Egypt for an e-flux conference. Suddenly. The day before he’s supposed to make his choice. On the day before he’s supposed to return home, he runs into Ovando! Who has been playing tricks and just wants to use the narrator to do some sort of magic something to the universe. (To be 100% honest, I was skimming at this point because I had no shits to give.) The narrator’s wife—who had been following him in case his fictional ideas took over reality, because, yes, this is that sort of book—saves him. The end.
You think I’m exaggerating and/or being a dick?
Ovando had brought me to the exact place where my brain would emit the waves that, in combination with his magical skills, would empower him to achieve world domination, his long-cherished dream as a failed writer.
I need to interject to say that I HATE this sort writing. This can work in a comic book—given the medium and the overblown nature of comic-book speak—but in a work of fiction that wants to be taken “seriously”? No thanks.
Stunned, the Magician shut his mouth, and the little figures that had come out of it disintegrated along with my mind waves. When the artificial illumination produced by the phosphorescence failed, I realized that it had made the inside of the building look like a darkroom. It had been the sort of light that doesn’t affect wet negatives.
Ugh. Forget it. Let’s just move on. This is just nonsense.
Bad. Is “bad” a style? This is supposed to be a pompous, yet influential artist, who gives a speech at a conference about how airport security is ruining art because artists can’t smuggle drugs and without drugs you can’t travel, therefore you can’t see the rest of the world and your art will be garbage . . . This would be a funny joke—under certain circumstances—but it’s really, absolutely not a funny joke when it’s written in this deadly, stale prose.
The controls are increasingly strict, and the instruments of detection have become implacable (they’re even using dogs now, for God’s sake), so artists, faced with the prospect of an unpleasant encounter with the police, give up the idea of travelling with drugs, or simply give up travelling altogether. If they don’t travel, they are disadvantaged personally and artistically, since they are cut off from the cosmopolitan scene and contact with their peers: it’s a mutilation of their experience.
This is second-rate Toussaint. Third-rate Salvayre. Maybe Cesar Aira? (Actually, I think it is Cesar Aira and I think he’s overrated. But we’ll get there.)
Obviously, someone with British tendencies is doing this book, although I suspect it also has a U.S. publisher and is an author people already think is special: As an unknown slush pile submission there’s a 5% chance this book gets published. (I can’t doubt myself like I did in my last “no context post.” This book is not good. Full stop.)
The voice is too twee to be academic, too academic to be twee. It is onion to my literary eyes.
Style Score: 7 out of 20
I don’t even know . . . I feel like the translation is as stilted as the crappy original conception, and that’s not the translator’s fault. The voice doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. It’s not half as interesting as it thinks it is, and the writing is so banal that you can’t even squint and see some idealistic, “good” book. (Spoiler! I think this book is from New Directions, so it’ll probably win the National Book Award next year, at which point, I will absolutely stop posting, move to the mountains alone with my hoodie, and never ever speak to the rest of you again. I’ll adopt a lynx to replace my cat and just smoke roots till everyone dies in a horrible heat death. I guess I’m saying that if this book wins an award, I support extreme climate change? Yeah. That totally tracks. Give this an award and we all die by level 7 hurricane!)
The parallel between the two situations was so striking (in both, I was out searching for a cybercafé on a Saturday night, for the same reason), and what had happened in between was so irrelevant to the events related here, that I had the bright idea of simply skipping ahead . . .
I can’t type out any more of this limp prose.
Translation Score: 11 out of 20
None. There is no interesting structure. Which is the exact moment I started to wonder if this is by César Aira.
Aira is an author I can’t get behind. I like Ghosts and pretty much nothing else. I just picked up my edition of The Seamstress and the Wind with the belief that I had never read it and instead found marked pages. Who knew? Is there another contemporary writer whose musings are more forgettable?
(OK, OK, I’m taking my bit a bit too far, so let me explain a bit: I am really taking this project seriously. I set aside days to read books that publishers want me to evaluate. Could I have watched soccer or football or The Handmaiden today? I could have! Instead, I thought that I should follow through on a request I made and read “Book 6.” Which left me in the position of being honest—FUCK THIS BOOK—or overly nice . . . But will Book 6’s publisher read one of Open Letters’ books and give it this sort of attention? [Doubt it.] Which, given that, it’s only fair if I go unfiltered today.)
Here’s the thing: Years and years ago, like, in 2011 or so, I used Ghosts and The Literary Conference in my class. Two Aira titles, two translators: what’s the same and what’s different when you compare both of them?
Here are three things I fixated on during those discussions:
- Aira doesn’t edit his books, just like I don’t edit my posts. I don’t think this is a good idea for an internationally beloved writer.
- There’s a trick at the start of every Aira book. He uses realistic writing techniques to spill forth something terribly unbelievable, after which, assuming you buy into that first illogical/magical bit, the rest of his wild imaginings of plot seem “acceptable.” (It’s like an anchoring trick. Or the hairy arm theory.)
- His books are overrated and reviewed and received through a lens of New Directions rather than the work itself.
This is harsh, but to be honest, Aira is the male Joyce Carol Oates. Any literary person who happily craps on her for writing “too fast” (aka writing 3 pages a day and producing a 400 page book every year), but doesn’t mention that Aira’s 150+ novels are far more superficial and dashed off is a Trumpian-level hypocrite.
Structure Score: 11 out of 20
Grand Total: 34 out of 80
“Book 7 (37)”—which is also not very good!—received a 51, so this 34 for “Book 6 (40)” is rough.
I have nothing to say. This type of story, voice, and whatever, doesn’t work for me. And if I find out this is a new New Directions book? A new Aira book?
No contemporary female writer does this. MALE. 100%
Language & Country
Spanish. Argentina. From Coronel Pringles. Just like the narrator. Just like Aira. UGH THIS BOOK GOD DAMN IT. (Although this is the exact moment that I decided Aira must be the author. How many other translations reference Coronel Pringles?)
New Directions. I assume there’s some sort of Devil’s Bargain James Laughlin made by which for every Krazsnahorkai novel they publish five Tawada/Aira titles get their wings.
Don’t buy this. HARD PASS.