Conventional wisdom pronounced that Team USA would face a quick death in this year’s World Cup: drawing into the “group of death”; no superstar players; Coach Klinsmann’s pessimistic prognosis of his team’s chances. But Team USA survived (just barely) to advance to the “knock-out” stage and so too, The Pale King to face-off Belgium’s, The Misfortunates.
A few years after his death and much later than really serious readers of contemporary American literature, I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I had mixed feelings before starting. I’ve always loved fat, dense novels—tomes of 700 plus pages are, by their very nature, projects, commitments, not something that you undertake on a whim and works that challenge your perseverance. But, experimental fiction left me cold—the effort to do something different (dare I say novel?) was too apparent, overwhelming the characters and the story. When I reached the last of its 980 pages (plus 95 pages of (very small print) endnotes), I admired Infinite Jest. I did not always enjoy reading Infinite Jest. And in any case, I was certain that I had read enough DFW to last my lifetime. Then I drew The Pale King in the 2014 World Cup of Literature . . .
On its face The Pale King is about the Internal Revenue Service and a bureaucratic snafu that creates a case of mistaken identity between two IRS employees named David F. Wallace. The characters orbit a back-story involving the mismanagement of tax returns and an IRS regional processing center’s bungled cover-up. (I don’t think that Lois Lerner read The Pale King.) But do not read The Pale King if you are looking for a novel with a strong plot. What you will find are fully drawn characters who feel alive and true, with their various neuroses, skin conditions, glandular disorders, and hardship enduring the consistent drudgery of the Service. These people (mostly men) are boring. Their work is boring. And DFW’s slow, granular descriptions, use of repetition and bureaucrat-speak make the tedium of their lives palpable. The labyrinthine IRS procedures and protocols depicted are absurd. But for these “anti-actors” adherence to them is a test of will, even heroic. Weak will is failure.
I worked for a number of years as a GS-9 and GS-11 (I never got to ride in a government repossessed Gremlin), and as I recall, my federal agency was less grim and more sensible than that depicted in the pages of The Pale King. But when your topic is the IRS, artistic license allows, even demands, some exaggeration. And this is a funny book. The Pale King is every bit as brilliant as Infinite Jest but its focus is the mendacity of office work, a world more familiar than Quebec separatists, elite tennis academies, and movies that inflict mind controlling paralysis and death on unsuspecting viewers. And, this, I think, makes it a better book.
And the writing is great: immediate, but not urgent; technical, but accessible; overly descriptive, but entertaining. All of the opposing elements combine to create something extraordinary, like eating something that is both sweet and salty. Obviously The Pale King could (should) have been written with more economy, but the effect would have been diminished. The time and attention given to the characters’ emotions, impressions and thoughts made them mine, as well. Self-doubt, pride, paranoia, hubris and many of the feelings that equate to being human, are acutely felt.
The Misfortunates is a collection of short stories about a very poor, beer-addled family in a small Flemish town, a place that I imagine as similar to the Appalachian village (yes was and still is today, officially, a “village”) where I grew up. Only in Arsendegem, the beer has to be better than Schaefer Light!
The book’s eponymous narrator, Dimitri Verhulst, shares a dozen or so tales from his childhood and early adulthood: misadventures about town, all involving mind-boggling amounts of alcohol, mostly beer. The Verhulst’s are very poor, and when the men of the house take up work from time to time, it is for the single purpose of paying-up their tab at the local pub. Dima’s mother abandons him to his grandmother, father and uncles when he is only ten. Despite the poverty, motherless childhood, and general, non-malicious neglect, Dima’s life is not particularly sad, and his story does not follow the well-trod path of an alcoholic father begetting a damaged son. Instead, Dima is loved by his grandmother and her brood of four sons—he is “our Kid,” and this brings cohesion and a weird normalcy to Dima’s life. It’s refreshing when we see Dima at the end of the book, mostly sober, mostly stable and with a woman that he really loves. The Misfortunates and The Pale King both are very funny. In The Misfortunates, the laughs are copious and frequently ribald, and translator David Colmer deserves kudos for translating Danish humor into sharp, colloquial English. (By contrast, The Pale King’s humor is dry and requires the reader to excavate the text (including the footnotes) carefully in order not to miss some of the funniest bits.) The Misfortunates is good fun, and I encourage you to read it (preferably over a beer or two). I look forward to reading more from Verhulst.
Final score: USA 3 – Belgium 1
The Misfortunates scored some fast, hard laughs, but The Pale King kicked it na gaveta with the undeniable talent of DFW whose fiction reshaped what American literature is and what it can be. Maybe Team USA can do the same for US soccer.
Lori Feathers is an attorney who lives in Dallas, Texas with her two, fat English bulldogs and (not-fat) boyfriend. She is a member of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas.
Everybody knows you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and I’m trying damn hard to resist doing just that, but the fact remains that the cover of the St. Martin’s edition of The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst features a cartoon drawing of several drunk men swimming in a gigantic been stein and about to be overtaken by a huge wave of pilsner.
Against that, Kim Young-Ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You offers two creepy, razor-sharp, stylized eyes, one featuring the North Korean flag for its iris, the other the South Korean flag.
So there’s your match-up right there: Cold War thriller versus drunk louts about to be drowned by their own beer.
Ki-yong, the protagonist of Your Republic, is a North Korean spy who has infiltrated South Korea. He’s been there for 21 years, long enough to start up a perfectly dull marriage and even have a daughter. He’s kinda forgotten that North Korea even exists. Except one day he receives a transmission: liquidate everything and return home ASAP.
Ki-yong doesn’t exactly want to do that. He likes it where he is, and who knows what awaits him back north. Thus begins Kim’s story of spy intrigue and identity.
That’s a clever plot and an interesting way to get at identity. Headed into the net, 1-0.
The protagonist of The Misfortunates is a 13-year-old named Dimmy, who is surrounded on all sides by extremely drunk men. Seriously: these dudes are so drunk and so working class that avoiding cancer, cirrhosis, etc., and reaching 60 years of age is regarded as some sort of unthinkable concession to bourgeois values.
Um, what? There are some damn screwy books in this competition (Senselessness, The Map and the Territory, Day of the Oprichnik) but this book’s just as screwed-up as any you will find here. Equalized, 1-1.
And then, The Misfortunates makes a leitmotif out of pissing. Seriously. Rarely in a work of literature will you encounter urination in so many varieties, fit so snugly and inventively into so many scenes, described with such care and, dare I say—yes, I do—artistry. Lobbed (drunkenly) over the goalkeeper’s outstretched hand and into the goal. 2-1.
And then, as if this were not enough, there is a Tour de France of drinking in The Misfortunates. Yes, a drinking game based on the freaking Tour de France, complete with day-long stages and colored jerseys for the lead drinkers. 3-1.
Your Republic Is Calling You has got some things going for it—interesting characters, a good way to look at the two Koreas, some paranoid intrigue. But overall it’s just outmatched by what Verhulst is doing here. This is the difference between the second division and the first, a textbook example of one team being outclassed by the other. Game Belgium.
As mentioned last month, I decided to start this monthly round-up for two reasons—to highlight a few interesting books in translation that other venues likely won’t, and because I think there’s more to literature that the monthly Flavorwire listicles. (One more Flavorwire thing: It’s totally fine that we’re not on the 25 Best Indie Presses list, but did you have to title it “Fuck You, Open Letter”?)
I’m writing this in haste, putting to use the four hours of “found time” that US Airways granted me by canceling my flight. Not that I really mind—I think I’m one of the few people who, aside from the remarkably uncomfortable seating options, doesn’t mind airports. If I could concentrate as well at work as I can in airports, we’d be golden. (And by “golden,” I mean, probably on that Flavorwire list.) The only thing that ever really gets to me are all of the asinine “businessmen” talking nonsense into their Nextel phones. What are these people even on about? I swear, I’ve eavesdropped on so many conversations that the NSA should hire me, but the only conclusion I’ve come to is that our entire economy runs on Excel pivot tables for mysterious “services,” about which the client is always a) unsatisfied, and b) a total prick. I wouldn’t be surprised if half these “businessmen” were just playing dress up to try and convince everyone that the U.S. economy wasn’t totally fucked. “Look! My cell phone’s not even on! What, did you really think Nextel phones worked? All I know about Excel is Minesweeper.” Business is stupid.
OK, this month’s books.
Wigrum by Daniel Canty. Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioael. (Talonbooks, $14.95)
We ran a review of this book a week or so ago, and Patrick Smith captured all the things about this that first grabbed my attention when I saw it at BEA:
Known also as a graphic designer in Quebec, Canty takes those skills and puts them towards this “novel of inventory” and creates a framework from which to hang the inventories. We get a table of contents, where oddly, the preface follows the only chapter, we are given a set of “Instructions to the Reader” and the whole work ends with an index. The bulk of the book is the collection, the objects ostensibly found by the collector Wigrum, the man behind these collections (though the book throws this into doubt; there are other collectors, other writers). They are arranged alphabetically, all with an illustration in the margin, a touch that gives them more weight, rather than letting the story dominate the scale. It is a nice graphic touch, and eventually becomes part of how the book complicates itself.
That’s all great, but undersells the fun of yelling out “WIGRUM!” every once in a while. Such a great word that sounds both threatening and goofy all at once.
Milk and Other Stories by Simon Fruelund. Translated from the Danish by K. E. Semmel. (Santa Fe Writers Project, $12.00)
Kyle and Simon were in Rochester just last week to talk about Milk, an early book of Simon’s, and Civil Twilight, a more recent, and stylistically very different, novella, and I think you should really read both of these books.
Also, we’ll have a recording of the event up on Three Percent in the near future along with the one we did with Jean-Marie Blas de Robles. Watch both of these—they turned out to be two of our best ever Reading the World Conversation Series events.
Kyle Semmel is, like me, a die-hard Cardinals fan. How we grew up in Rochester, NY and Bay City, MI and became St. Louis fans is a bit strange, but Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and Whitey Herzog should explain most of that. My baseball imagination was totally captured by those mid-80s teams who stole more than 240 bases a year (over 300 in 1985!)—a number that’s insane by today’s standards. (Jacoby Ellsbury lead the majors with 52 stolen bases this year; Vince Coleman stole 110 in 1985.) I loved the idea that you could succeed not by being all jacked up and huge, but by bunting and stealing every base even when the world knew you were going to be running. That’s baseball to me.
And for that reason, I’ve been through the emotional wringer the past few years, with Game 6 against Texas being the high point, and hating the shit out of San Francisco last year. After falling into a deep depression about last night’s loss, I’m fairly certain that the Cardinals will go down 5-1 today before staging a miraculous ninth inning comeback that will end with my heart exploding. Baseball.
Final sports note: Fuck Boston. Not only are their fans the worst—a sickening combination of faux-put upon (“But we didn’t win for years! We’re long-suffering!”) and entitlement (“We spent the most money and didn’t win last year—we deserve it!”)—but their franchise decided to carve “BOSTON STRONG” into the outfield. That’s tasteless to me, although I did predict that Boston would (grossly) capitalize on the Marathon Bombings as another reason why they “deserve” to win this year. “We’ve got to heal the city, ya’ know?” Shut up and please get swept by the Tigers. And screw Bill Simmons.
Private Pleasures by Hamdy el-Gazzar.& Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies. ($18.95, American University at Cairo Press)
I’m currently reading another book that Humphrey Davies translated—Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be by Fāris al-Shidyāq. I mentioned this a while back as a sort of Arabic Laurence Sterne, and now that I’m more than halfway through the first (of four?) volume, I can affirm that this is a pretty apt comparison. I’ll write a full-length review later on, but I just want to say that this is nothing what I had expected a book written in Arabic in 1855 to be like. It’s filthy—I particularly like the bit where the people in the pub argue about what type of person is the happiest and decide that the whore must be, since she gets both money and pleasure and the devotion of her clients—and funny and obsessed with language. The language bits seem like the most difficult for Davies to translate, which is why there are hundreds of footnotes, but also make it clear that Fāris al-Shidyāq was a super-intelligent, strange man.
In a way, this reminds me of Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) for all of its delays and sections addressed to future critics and readers and religious men and the like. Definitely worth reading.
Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst. Translated from the Flemish by David Colmer. ($23.99, St. Martin’s Press)
I haven’t read this Verhulst book yet—I really like Problemski Hotel when I read that years ago—but I do have a DVD of the movie version in my office:
Leapfrog and Other Stories by Guillermo Rosales. Translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner. ($14.95, New Directions)
New Directions brought out Rosales’s The Halfway House a few years back to great acclaim, so I’m sure this collection will also do pretty well.
It’s hard to write about Rosales without mentioning his personal history, which is really bleak and awful. He was born in Cuba in the 1940s, but was forced to leave for Miami because of his “morose, pornographic, and irreverent” works. The rest of his life was spent going in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and he finally took his own life at the age of 47 after destroying most of his unpublished manuscripts.
The Elixir of Immortality by Gabi Gleichmann. Translated from the Norwegian by Michael Meigs. ($18.95, Other Press)
Other Press sure doesn’t shy away from publishing gigantic books. Where Tigers Are at Home, which I HIGHLY recommend, and I guarantee you’ll want to rush out and buy after watching the RTWCS interview with Blas de Robles, came out in March and clocks in at 832 pages. A True Novel by Minae Mizamura, which comes out next month, is 880 pages and comes in two volumes with a slipcase. This novel, The Elixir of Immortality is 768 pages long.
God bless Other Press for publishing such huge tomes at a time when the conventional wisdom is that readers have an attention span of approximately 140 characters. I love big-ass huge books, which brings me to—
Blinding: The Left Wing by Mircea Cartarescu. Translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter. ($22.00, Archipelago Books)
Along with Leg over Leg and the new Pynchon (which I’m really enjoying so far), this is the third book that I brought with me for this trip to Frankfurt. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and, to tell a whingey publishing story, Open Letter tried to get the rights to this book but we were rejected. (Cartarescu wasn’t impressed with us. But to be fair, this was back in 2006 before we had any books.)
Let me just quote you a part of Archipelago’s press release:
Blinding takes us on a mystical trip into the protagonist’s childhood, his memories of hospitalization as a teenager, the prehistory of his family, a traveling circus, secret police, zombie armies, American fighter pilots, the jazz underworld of New Orleans, and the installation of the Communist regime.
I won’t be surprised if this wins the 2014 BTBA for Fiction.
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray. ($13.00, Yale University Press)
Rodrigo Rey Rosa is an author I know I should read—some of his works were translated into English by Paul Bowles—but haven’t gotten to yet. I love the idea that The African Shore is a work of “dystopic travel fiction,” and I especially love what Roberto Bolaño said about Rey Rosa:
Miguel Ángel Asturias, Augusto Monterroso, and now Rodrigo Rey Rosa, three giant writers from a small, unhappy country.
Also, that owl is eating a frog. I am both disgusted and intrigued. Intriguingly disgusted.
The Dark by Sergio Chejfec. Translated from Spanish by Heather Cleary. ($14.95, Open Letter)
Moment of Open Letter self-promotion: Chejfec is one of the best Argentine writers working today. If you like Javier Marias, if you like W.G. Sebald, you will like all of Chejfec’s books. And of the three we’ve published—My Two Worlds, The Planets—I think this is my favorite. It has the concise style of My Two Worlds with the plotted aspects of The Planets. Both of his other books have been finalists for the BTBA, and with another stunning translation by Heather Cleary, I suspect this one will also make the shortlist.
Speaking of Heather Cleary, you need to check out the Buenos Aires Review. This is a fantastic new online journal that Heather is involved with, and which is spectacularly designed. It’s loaded with great writers and translators—from Russell Valentino to Tyrno Maldonado to Pola Oloixarac and more—and has recently been recommended to me by multiple people who just wanted to make sure I was aware of this “amazing new website.” Check it out!
The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. ($22.00, McSweeney’s Books)
As part of Middlebury’s Clifford Symposium, I had the opportunity to meet Yumiko Yanagisawa, a Swedish-Japanese and English-Japanese translator who, over the course of her career, has worked on almost 80 different titles. Not only is she one of the most prolific translators of our time, but throughout Japan there are reading groups dedicated to her translations. This is something that an American translator can only dream of.
That said, I know that I’ll pay serious consideration to anything Bill Johnston, Margaret Jull Costa, Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, Susan Bernofsky, or Katherine Silver translates. And more. (Then again, I am weird, and not a typical reader.)
I know nothing about The End of Love, but I would totally join a Katherine Silver book club and read this.
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Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
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We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .