16 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Things are a bit rough for Chad the morning after the Open Letter gala, but he powers through and talks about this new phase of Rodoreda’s stories. He and Brian break down some of the more challenging of her stories, including “Noctural” and “The Bath,” and talk about what does and doesn’t work in creating an authentic voice, and how to behave on airplanes.

Both Selected Stories and Death in Spring are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.



14 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I go it alone and talk about six Rodoreda stories: “The Beginning,” “Nocturnal,” “The Red Blouse,” “The Fate of Lisa Sperling,” “The Bath,” and “On the Train.” On that podcast, we bumble around talking about “Nocturnal,” so I thought I’d try and rectify that here.

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



This week, I’m going to try something different. Rather than talk about some general themes, or how to break apart Rodoreda’s stories by tracing particular motifs, I’m going to, in basically real time, try and figure out the first story in this collection that absolutely baffled me—“Nocturnal.”

We already recorded this week’s podcast, on which we talked a bit about this story, but I don’t think that we really got into it enough, or solved it, whatever that actually means. Although in retrospect, maybe “solved” is the right term. This is a strange story that seems to have some hidden layers of meaning, some larger significance that isn’t exactly clear on first read. So here I am. Going back through it line-by-line, trying to puzzle this out. (And probably failing and saying dumb shit along the way, but at least let’s hope that it’s somewhat entertaining shit.)

I can’t figure out when exactly “Nocturnal” was written, but given that it was part of Vint-i-dos contes (1957), and features German soldiers and a French setting, it likely draws from Rodoreda’s experiences living outside of Paris in 1939, but was probably written a few years later, when she’s living in Switzerland and starting to publish again. I’m not sure that this means anything, except that perhaps, given our familiarity with World War II, we, as readers, are tempted to read into this a degree of realism that might not actually be present.

Let’s go back to the beginning though—the Germans will come when they come.

A plaintive moan filled the room. It continued for a while before suddenly dying, as if it had passed through the walls. It sounded like a whimper from a wounded animal that had not yet lost any blood or energy. The dense silence again invaded everything. A moment later a body moved beneath the sheets as if, rather than a moan, the mysterious echo of a moan had awoken him from a deep sleep. The meowing of a cat on the stairs rose in tone and volume, becoming sharp and urgent. Another moan silenced the cat. A shadow jumped out of the bed, followed by an arpeggio of springs. The sound of bare feet on the floor, two or three coughs, a switch being flipped, and the room was flooded with light.

Just your normal, cheery Rodoreda story! As we find out in the next paragraph, the moan coming from the body under the sheets is from a pregnant woman who is going into labor, but, also, doesn’t seem to be doing very well.

A tired voice rose from beneath the sheets: “First put some water on to boil, then go knock on the druggist’s door and ask if he’ll let you phone the doctor.” She looks so pale, the man thought to himself. He had never seen her so pale, with such sunken eyes. On the stairs the cat resumed, his meows filled with desire.

What’s up with this cat? It’s initially meowing in a “sharp and urgent” manner and now meows “filled with desire.” Is this some sort of signal? An animalistic representation of the birthing process? A random detail to add veracity to the setting? (I assume France is mostly feral cats and Amélie, but I might be wrong about that.)



Right here, while trying to follow his wife’s instructions, our protagonist (a former geography teacher living in exile from Barcelona) thinks his go-to phrase for the first time: Order, order, order. This is somewhat explained a page later when we find out that he’s working on a book called The Terrible Consequences of Truth (which would make a good title for this collection):

The original title of the book was The Terrible Consequences of the Desire to be Truthful. But then he had decided on the other. Truth as the dissolution of all human relations. Truth as the negation of all authentic values. Salvation achieved through systematic deception, applied with a radical spirit, could be transformed into truth. Man could become truthful by means of a lie, in a way that was more real than sincerity. These somewhat confusing ideas nevertheless possessed a coherence: “Order, order, order.” His rather verbose study had led to another, entitled “Toward Freedom by Means of Dissimulation.” I simulate ergo I am free. This was the point of departure for his thesis. “Order, order, order.”

On one simple level, this could be taken as a radical defense of fiction as a whole. The truth, great, that will ruin everything. But a system of simulations and lies? That’s more freeing and, in the end, closer to the truth. How this idea—planted here, at the beginning of the story—plays out is yet to be seen. But this tension between order and simulation will surely be important.

One other early note: The writer’s wife is having her fourth child. At a more advanced age. The situation of the other three also feels like a clue to unpacking this story:

It was almost as if the three children in his life were holding him back. One in Madrid, a member of Franco’s Falange party; another a left-wing exile in Mexico; the third—a daughter—in Reggio, seduced by an Italian officer. My interior contradictions expressed in the flesh, he often thought. The last child now eighteen and the fourth about to be born.

So, a fascist, a leftist, and one married to an officer (all walk into a bar?). Which represent his “interior contradictions”? Trying to tie these two ideas together: His children are all creating narratives for politics and life that are based in lies, with the intention of creating order, order, order. Maybe.

To try and save his wife, the writer leaves the unlit house (“To save electricity the light hadn’t been turned on since the war began.”) and stumbles into a drunk sleeping in the hallway (“This wasn’t the first night that a drunk had slept on the hard floor in the entrance hall; it was a common occurrence in this working-class neighborhood.”). Once he gets outside, we have our first appearance of the German soldiers and the brothel down the way.

The street was dark. On the other side, seven or eight houses further up, a red light attracted his attention. A stealthy shadow was visible as it crossed beneath the light and disappeared into the doorway. “A German?” For the last few nights, groups of two or three German soldiers had walked down the street, their boots resonating on the pavement, attracted by the light despite the sign on the door that read “Verboten.”



This bit clarifies, for certain, that we’re in World War II, that the city is occupied by German soldiers, and that, like Chekhov’s gun, the house with the red light will play a significant role in our story. And then we get those cats again:

At the top of the stairs two cats started a furious fight. They hissed and growled furiously, no doubt all tooth-and-claw and arched backs. Suddenly, one of the cats, mad with fury, its eyes lit, brushed against his legs and crossed the street. It frightened him.

Brian pointed this out on the podcast, but the repetition of “furious/furiously/fury” is curious. So the cat was meowing “urgently,” then “filled with desire,” and is now “furious.” Still not sure what to make of this, except that it doesn’t bode well.

The druggist was close by. He heard the sound of steps and ducked back inside his building, closing the door slightly for fear that his light-colored pajamas would give him away. For an instant he saw the outline of a coat beneath the red light. Then it disappeared. He thought he heard a scream and returned to reality. He had to move, had to knock. Cautiously he went out, as the cat slipped back inside between his legs, fast as a curse.

Definitely does not bode well. These few lines are a great example of what Rodoreda does so well. By combining a bunch of elements (druggist, pajamas giving him away, solider, red light, scream, cat) in such a rapid fashion, she provides the reader with a clear sense of the character’s inner state. And leaves you unsettled. Nothing good is going to happen tonight. And it’s probably that damn cat’s fault.

Anyway, he knocks on the door, but the phone’s been out since morning (another Rodoreda theme is highlighting all the things disrupted by war, such as phones, running water, etc.), so he heads back to his room, unsure of what to do. On the way, he passes the “fuming cat.” (Is the cat a representative of his inner state? Urgent when his wife goes into labor, excited by having a child, furious when he sees the shit world they’re giving birth into, fuming when his attempt to get help is thwarted?)

Back in his room, some neighbors have gathered, and are trying to help out his wife, who looks “terribly pale.” Given the news that the phone is out, they come up with a plan—one that we’ve been leading to all along:

The group of women deliberated in a low voice. The lady from downstairs found a solution, “As far as I know there’s only one other telephone in the neighborhood.” “Whose?” asked the woman from next door. “The one at Number Fourteen.” “Number Fourteen” was the name all the neighbors in the building used for the house with the red light. “Hurry!” “You have to change your clothes.” “Only the trousers.” A spasm of pain rocked the bed. She’s so pale, so pale. Almost without realizing, he found himself behind the folding screen, thinking: Order, order. An energetic hand passed him the clothes he needed. Once again: stairs, dark, obstacle, splendid night.

The next paragraph initially seems a bit unnecessary. All we’re really doing is moving the man from his wife’s bedside to the whorehouse. But in this section, we get a really sharp summary of who this man is, and what his history is prior to entering the house with the red light.

He starts by confessing that he’s never been to a place like that, but that he’s heard tales from the “bolder lads.” This leads to a moment of self-pity about his autonomy in life.

He had lived a lot through the lives of others. Too much. Sometimes this surrogacy produced in him a certain sadness that was pasty, cosmic, rough-hewn. No one cares about me. If I have a problem, I’ll have to solve it by myself. I’m like an abandoned soul in a wasteland. Life had passed him by, just beyond his reach. Like a river, he had captured the sounds, the commotion, had recognized the dangers, but he had remained on the shore. When he had thrown himself into the stream, inexpert as he was, it was to follow others. Simply a matter of contagion, as if he had caught typhoid fever. The current had dragged him to France, where he had been discarded like a dead branch. He had married young so he could work calmly, feel himself strong through his child, so he wouldn’t lose himself completely.

This parallels his “order, order, order” mantra. He’s a follower who stands on the side. Who does what is necessary to “work calmly” and avoid “losing himself completely.” This is reinforced in the next couple lines in which he confesses that years ago a woman nearly led him to sin.

A more experienced girl could have really derailed him, but this one, with all her charm, had only managed to trouble his spirit for a few months and prompt a spate of sleepless nights, a brief interruption of his moral serenity. The experience had left him with a tremendous attraction to crime novels and blue blouses.

That last line is perfect.

So we have a man who, for all his writings about lies and the terrible consequences of the truth, is pretty fucking moral. Especially for a Rodoreda character. Never cheated on his wife, never went to a whorehouse, is out in the middle of the night ducking behind corners to avoid German soldiers, all to help his wife. Order, order, order. And a cat.



And then, he enters the house with the red light. Shit is about to get weird. Although initially, everything is rather subdued, almost anticlimactic. (Well, except for the military march he can hear coming from one of the rooms.)

He found himself in a narrow hall with doors on either side. The military march was coming from the second door on the right. A whiff of perfume distracted him. “Lilac,” he thought. Had it not been for the music, the house would have seemed deserted, like a house recently abandoned in a village filled with the threat of an enemy. He continued along the hall till at the end he reached a comfortable sitting room. Over the sofa, in a gilded frame, presided the portrait of a gentleman. Quite Proustian, with a wing collar, gardenia in his buttonhole, romantic mustache. The gentleman was staring pensively at the door. He must be the founder. There were no shiny, golden pillows or lace curtains with pink bows, no trace of the diabolical chiaroscuro that he had always imagined. All together it had a rather grave air, a bit like the waiting room of an austere, provincial lung specialist.

That’s not so bad! One other note: I think these are our first flower references. The lilac perfume and the gardenia in the buttonhole. The fact that the perfume is “distracting” puts it closer to the idea of sin, whereas the gardenia points to importance, given that he assumes the man in the picture is the founder of the whorehouse. (“Proustian” feels like some sort of foreshadowing.)

After failing to flag down a passing woman to find a phone, the music changes and a German soldier appears before him with some booze.

He stood up. A stout German soldier in shirtsleeves, with gray hair and a tanned face, stopped in front of him. He was carrying a bottle of cognac under his arm and an empty champagne glass in his hand. He clicked his heels. He clearly had some difficulty keeping his balance. For a moment they stood without moving. The soldier looked at him with gentle eyes. A secret flow of sympathy seemed to emerge from deep within the soldier’s intense gaze, almost like a balmy breeze. With a resolute gesture, the soldier had him sit down and filled the glass.

A few toasts and another phone failure later, our protagonist is reaching a sort of moral crossroads:

He realized he had to make a decision, that it was urgent to find a phone, make the call, wake up the doctor, beg, intimidate. A gentle warmth had settled in his cheeks and began spreading insidiously through his body. It must have slipped into the obscure region of his will, changing some delicate mechanism within him. He felt a slight tingling in his legs and arms, a deep sense of well-being in his heart. With a brisk gesture he emptied another glass. How many years had it been since he had tasted cognac? Six? Seven?

You know what he’s not doing here? Repeating “order, order, order.” Everything has gone sideways. The German soldier with the great booze (cognac during wartime!) is tempting him into another life. One of alcohol, prostitutes, a sense of “well-being in his heart.” This is not good.

The soldier opened his round eyes, nodded his head in agreement and refilled the glass. He raised it to his lips, but a violent hiccup stopped him. Order, ooooorder. A string of hiccups followed.

Spoke too soon! His phrase is back, but, well, disordered. Again, not good. Not good at all for our man who used to stand on the side, living life through others and never really diving into the river.

They returned to their drinking with looks of complicity. The soldier asked, “Franzose?” He hesitated before responding, “Barcelona.” “Spanier?” “Oui.” They burst out laughing at the same time. “Rotspanier?” “Yes.” They laughed louder and resumed drinking.

So, this “Rotspanier” thing. Initially, I just thought that was a slam, like “rotten Spaniard?,” which works, but it may also be “Red Spaniard,” referring more specifically to the actions of the radical left in Spain who, after the military coup in 1936, wrecked shit all over, especially targeting landowners, Catholic priests, etc. The fact that he replies “yes,” is disconcerting.

Another soldier entered the room. He was barefoot; they hadn’t heard him. The seated soldier cried out, “Spanier,” and passed the bottle to the newcomer. The painting showed two gentlemen with gardenias in their buttonholes and wing collars. The frame slowly split in two, but then the figures reassembled, as if brought together by a stubborn desire for unity.

This painting showing two gentlemen confused me unnecessarily the first time I read it. He’s drunk. He’s seeing double. He’s trying to keep it together, but failing.

After a few more soldiers enter the room, they all start singing:

Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden,
einen bessern find’st du nit [. . .]

Eine Kugel kam geflogen
gilt es mir, oder gilt es dir?

This is “The Good Comrade,” a German Armed Forces song that’s been around since the 1800s and, according to Wikipedia, isn’t affiliated with a particular faction and has been translated into dozens of languages. It’s about a comrade who dies in battle, and the two section that are used here are “I once had a comrade / you will find none better” and “a bullet came flying / is it meant for me or is it for you?”

From there, our protagonist gets more and more wasted:

The painting now held three gentlemen, or four. All with gardenias in their buttonholes. Occasionally one was superimposed on the other, perhaps filled with the hurried wish to share confidences, but then they separated in a disorderly fashion, surrounded by gold. At one point it was possible to make out six or seven of them. A whirlwind.

And then starts reciting part of Dante’s Inferno, which can be translated as:

Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
Of my old father, nor return of love,
That should have crown’d Penelope with joy,
Could overcome in me the zeal I had
To’ explore the world, and search the ways of life,
Man’s evil and his virtue.

This seems to be the crux of the story. Instead of maintaining order, getting the doctor, helping his wife and being at the birth of his child, he’s tempted by the dissolution of the German soldiers and cognac. Suddenly nothing can stop him from exploring all of life, including man’s evil. He is in the damn river, vaguely remembering his wife at all. (“A bouquet for the pregnant senyora, shut in her room! Carpe diem.”)

And then the police arrive.

A bottle flew through the air. Order, or . . . der. The gendarme beside him dragged one of the soldiers toward the hall. He ran after the gendarme and grabbed him by the belt. “Cochon! Vous cochon!” “Was?” A heavy blow from the gendarme’s fist sent him crashing against the wall. He was alone, helpless, seated on the floor, the whole side of his face in pain.

Does he really grab the gendarme and call him a pig? That’s a bad idea. But to be honest, the French goes a bit crazy here . . . at least if you’re relying on Google Translate to make sense of everything.

His whole body was aflame. The air must be coming from the clouds, from the stars. He vomited. “Voyons,” shouted a woman who looked ruffled, her nose bleeding. “Bande d’acrobates!”

“Band of acrobats”? What is that all about?

He passed the door to his building, without seeing her. At the corner they loaded him onto a truck. With a tremendous din, everything disappeared forever, down the street, enveloped by silence and the night.

And that’s the end. The end of everything?

*




After all of that, I feel like I have a better handle on the plot of this story, and see immediately where I went wrong (by missing the multiplying people in the portrait as his drunkenness), but I’m still not sure of the why of this story.

If it’s supposed to be a more moral story—a man obsessed with order who is tempted by the dark side, dives headlong into the “river of life” and things go very wrong—it’s not overly powerful or convincing. Other stories of Rodoreda’s about men making bad choices work better, in part because his decision to start drinking just passes by and is immediately followed by insanely destructive consequences.

But maybe there’s something in that idea of why he takes the first drink. The fact that it’s a German soldier and he’s living in exile, in danger, puts him in a situation in which his autonomy is compromised. This does circle back to the earlier comment about his children representing his internal contradictions through their attachment to various political parties. Maybe the moral of this story isn’t “seizing the day can fuck you,” but “don’t get involved in politics.” Is that the lie that becomes the truth? That can set man free? But maybe freedom is just a slippery slope ending in a truck driving down the road, never to return.

The way this progresses is a bit dreamlike as well. “Nocturnal” as a title sort of hints in that direction, as does the almost carnivalesque nature of the German soldiers, the wine, the champagne and it’s gold bubbles, even the arrival of the police.

And although this is close third-person and not a first-person narration, it is one of the few stories that’s tight in on a male protagonist. That’s another reason why it intrigued me initially, and I wonder if this wasn’t an experiment in trying to depict the moral dangers men can face.

In the end, I’m not sure how well this story works. It’s a strange piece that shifts from domesticity to something weirder, and doesn’t really do justice in capturing the writer’s character. It’s maybe most interesting in the way that it evades creating a simplistic moral choice—“should I help my wife or screw around in the brothel?”—by constructing a night that feels out of control, in which everything cascades in a way that’s not entirely terrifying, but ends in the worst possible way.

I’m curious what others have to say about this—regular readers and professors. But really, the question that still nags at me: what happened to the cat?

9 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore and the Best Translated Book Award committee joins Chad and Brian to talk about the next seven stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s collection. Although they touch on a number of them, a lot of time is spent focusing on “Carnival” and the literary antecedents to Rodoreda.

Both Selected Stories and Death in Spring are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And follow Mark Haber to learn more about contemporary literature and bookselling.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.



6 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I talk about the next seven stories in Selected Stories by Mercè Rodoreda (with special guest Mark Haber!): “Afternoon at the Cinema,” “Ice Cream,” “Carnival,” “Engaged,” “In a Whisper,” “Departure,” and “Friday, June 8.” On Thursday’s podcast, we’ll get into more specifics about some of these stories, but in advance, you can get some initial insights below, especially about “Carnival.”

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Last week, I spent a lot of time on “The Mirror,” which was my favorite story of the six we read for that podcast. This week, I want to focus exclusively on what makes “Carnival”—now one of my favorite stories ever—work so well.

Before getting into the more structural mapping of motifs in this story, and how it links back to everything discussed before, I want to take a second to just talk about the emotional power of this piece.

In brief, “Carnival” is the story of a young boy and a young woman who meet coincidentally outside of a Carnival party. The boy is awkward, poor, has bad skin, is very alone, and is wearing a tailor’s costume that initially baffles the young woman. By contrast, she is lovely, more cosmopolitan (she tells him she’s leaving Barcelona for Paris in a couple of days, and then from there to Nice), more worldly (she initially claims to be having an affair with the host of the party), more vibrant. A sort of proto-manic pixie dream girl.

Stuck in the light rain, unable to get a taxi, they decide to walk home together. A number of things happen along the way: she convinces him to scale a fence and steal her some flowers, he falls for her quirky charm and beauty, they’re accosted by two thieves, they share secrets, they hold hands. We’ll discuss the sort of twist to all of this in more detail below, but on the surface, knowing these details, most readers would assume that this is a stereotypical story of young, burgeoning love. A love that’s initiated by a coincidence; a love that grows quickly over the course of a near magical night together.

That’s not what this story is, and that’s not what happens.

Although all of those cues are there, the story undercuts itself at the end, reversing in the most powerful of fashions, including these absolutely heartbreaking lines:

Carnival had ended. The wind and rain had helped it die. We too have died a bit, he thought, or the ghosts we have left along the way. No one would be able to see them at the top of Avinguda del Tibidabo, with the pastries and champagne, by the gate with the perfume of the false gardenias, at the door where they had sheltered during the rain. It was all far away, indistinct, a bit absurd, as if it had never happened.

“Will you give me your address in France?”

“I don’t even know it yet.”

She, however, would never again remember that night. The sound of the train taking her away would erase the last vestiges of it. But he . . . he would never find another girl like her, with that smile, that hair. From time to time he would see her blurred outline standing in front of him, her image evoked by a certain perfume, a sigh of leaves, a swarm of ghostly stars at the back of the sky, a silence that suddenly manifests itself.


I don’t know why, exactly, but this story was like a punch to my soul. It’s heartbreaking how the hope of that night, a night that is filled with such charm and promise, is just another moment that will be washed away by time and disinterest.

There’s more to what makes this story so emotionally charged, but we’ll get to that at the very end . . . For now, I just want to say that I read this just before falling asleep and having an absolutely terrible dream that was clearly related to “Carnival.” This story lodged in my subconscious, and thinking about it days later, I’m still overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness and nostalgia. To me, this is a viscerally emotional story, one which serves as a blueprint for how Rodoreda’s different motifs and techniques can come together to create something incredibly powerful.

*


Last year, I read (and then wrote about) Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading. This book is a collection of the inconoclastic literary critic’s essays, ranging from his core concept of “distant reading” (looking at larger literary trends instead of closely reading a single text) to ways in which you can incorporate quantitative analysis into literary criticism. One essay from here, “The End of the Beginning,” keeps coming to mind as I try and think about how to summarize and analyze Rodoreda’s stories as a whole.

Feel free to read that earlier article for a longer description of and response to Moretti’s ideas, but in short, in this piece he describes a graduate seminar he taught in which he and his students analyze a huge range of detective stories written around the same time as some of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories. Their analysis started from selecting a “unit of analysis”—in this case the presence or absence of “clues”—and then seeing how that unit was treated in the various stories under consideration. Out of this they created a sort of tree-like diagram built from subdivision after subdivision. In other words, they separated all the stories into those with clues and those without. Then separated out the ones with clues that were “necessary,” then those that were both necessary and “visible,” and so on and forth. What they found in the end was that all of the stories that fit these categories were written by Arthur Conan Doyle, and that these were some of his most popular and well-liked pieces. One hypothesis as to why Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are still read today, whereas his contemporaries really aren’t, is that he stumbled onto this way of presenting “clues” that greatly appealed to readers. Then ideas of market acceleration and all of that set in, but that’s a subject for an entirely different article. (Actually, it’s the subject of the article referenced above.)

Anyway, I’m not about to choose a single “unit of analysis” and create a map of Rodoreda’s stories and those of her contemporaries, but I do think there is something to the way in which certain “units” in her writing are found over and again in her most lasting, important stories.

*


In last week’s Two Month Review post, I identified a few of these motifs. Namely, the presence of “tropisms,” of garden imagery representing the state of a romantic relationship, shifts in the time of the narration, and fragments reflecting the character’s inner state. All of these elements were found in “The Mirror,” and all are found within “Carnival” . . . along with one more that I think will add something crucial to our evaluation of the rest of the stories in this collection.

Garden Imagery

In the stories we discussed last week, flowers, or garden imagery in general, tended to draw characters to a more primeval time, often pointing toward the healthiness of a relationship, or the desire for some sort of human connection. These images function differently in different stories, but some sort of wildlife is present in all of Rodoreda’s best stories.

One of the key scenes in “Carnival” is when the girl asks the boy to get her some gardenias. He hops a fence, steals some flowers, gets barked at by a dog, and ends up ripping his costume. In a bit of foreshadowing, they then have this conversation:

“I still haven’t looked at the gardenias, or thanked you.”

She gently removed a flower from the handkerchief, but as she was about to smell it, she said with a surprise, “What kind of flowers did you pick?”

“The ones by the tree.”

“These aren’t gardenias. They have no scent at all.”

She glanced at the unfamiliar flower with an obvious expression of disappointment.

“Don’t give it another thought. If you don’t like them, toss them away.”

Without realizing, he’d used the familiar “tu.” He liked her, standing there absorbed in thought.


And then they try and figure out what the non-gardenias are:

“[. . .] What if they were begonias?”

“They’re smaller. I mean larger. I mean gardenias are smaller.”

“Maybe they’re stunted begonias.”

“They’re probably camellias.” Both had started playing the game.

“Camellias? No, I’d recognize a camellia anywhere. These, I can assure you, are mysterious flowers. Flowers that bloom on the night of Carnival.”


No need to point out that there are other things that can bloom on the night of Carnival, but I still will.

And what happens to those flowers? This is the bit that ties this story most directly back into last week’s accounting of various Rodoreda motifs.

She bit her lips. She felt bad that she’d lost the flowers. She would have kept one in a book till it was dry as paper, had lost its perfume—it wasn’t even a gardenia—and when she stumbled across it in the future, it would have always evoked the color of night, the sound of the wind, her eighteen years, the years she felt she had lost as soon as she had gained them.


There’s this great thing in Rodoreda where future memories, soon-to-be nostalgia, is created in the present moment on the page. I love that. As an old, this hits home a lot more now than it did when I first read these pieces.

Tropisms

These moments are sprinkled throughout the story, so I’ll just choose a couple examples here to show that these same inner emotional states are present in “Carnival.”

“[. . .] You know, perhaps it’s only when you’re young that you wish so desperately that now would last, that nothing we have would ever end. We wish it even more when what we have now seems the best thing possible.”


Or:

“I don’t see a thing.”

“That means you’ll have a long life,” she said with a touch of disdain. “People who see seven colors die the following day. Today I’ve seen five. Wait, let me try again, see if it changes.”

The boy felt depressed, as if having a long life was a true sign of mediocrity. The girl held her breath, still submerged in her experiment.


There are others, but to get on with it, here’s a segue to the next point:

“Why are you so worried?”

He couldn’t stand the silence any longer and began speaking with a serious voice.

“It’s not that I’m worried. It’s something much worse. I wanted to make this evening . . . I don’t know how to explain . . . a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry.”


Dissonance Between Reality and Desire

This is the “unit of analysis” or “motif” or whatever you’d like to call it that I’d like to add to the list above. It’s present in “The Mirror” in the way that the narrator thinks back on her night with Roger and contrasts that with her actual marriage. This disconnect is doubled up on by the conversation with the doctor about sweets, and the denial of that conversation later on in the story. But it’s here in “Carnival” that she really plays this to great emotional heights.

If you haven’t read this story yet and don’t want to lose any of its punch, close this tab, grab your copy of Selected Stories, and come back in a half-hour.

Okay.

Let’s start with the young girl. Here’s her initial explanation for why she’s leaving the party.

“The owner of the house,” the girl began explaining, “is . . . I guess I should confess—after all, we’re friends. He’s my lover. He’s the one I’m going to Paris with. He has to go on business, so we have an opportunity. His wife was at the dance. She’s rarely at home, travels all the time. Since she was there, I decided to leave. The situation was really tense, especially for me of course. I left without saying good-bye to anyone, and now I’m guessing he’s searching for me all through the house and garden. But if he wanted me to stay, why didn’t he lock his wife up in the dark room. For one night . . . I don’t want to give the impression she’s nasty. She’s very nice, dresses really well, knows how to be welcoming. I’d say she’s una gran senyora, a real lady. But I have the feeling that when she climbs in bed, covers her face with cream . . . He doesn’t love her any more; he likes me. As we danced he told me, ‘You’re the most charming girl at the party; you’re like a flower.’ And a little while later he said, ‘I’ll love you eternally’ or something like that.”


She also pauses for a moment along their walk because of a health issue:

“Nothing, my heart. I was just dizzy all of a sudden.”

He looked at her in alarm, not knowing what to say, whether he should hold her, let her go. She sighed deeply and ran her hand across her forehead.

“I’m all right now, it’s starting to pass. I have a weak heart. It must be the kind of life I lead.”

“What does your family say about it?”

“It doesn’t seem to worry them.”

“You should lead a healthier life. Fresh air, exercise, get to bed early.”

“I know the story: lots of fish and vegetables.”

“No,” he responded, a bit disconcerted. “That’s not what I mean. I mean to love more honestly.”

“And die of boredom. No thanks. I decided long ago the kind of life I wanted. I plan only to pick the flowers, as my concierge would put it,” she said, lowering her voice and shooting him a quick, amused look.


Let’s turn to the boy’s backstory for a second. After telling her that he’s dressed as Louis XV’s tailor, and immediately before she has her heart spell, he gives her a bit of info about his life and dreams.

“When I finish my studies, I’ll travel. I want to know the world. I’ll leave without a penny in my pocket. Maybe I’ll get myself hired as a stoker. Poets here all tend to die in bed surrounded by family, and the newspaper prints their dying words, describing the force of their last breath, the whole bit. I want to die alone, with my boots on, face down, an arrow in my back.”


Given how long this already is, I’m going to skip over the scene where they’re mugged, where the boy tries to stand up for himself and is immediately brushed aside, where the young girl momentarily goes off with the two muggers in a semi-flirtatious manner, but this is where the dream of the night—of having a lover who is taking you to Paris, of being a young poet who will live a life of adventure, of a night that will mysteriously bloom into something life-changing—all of it, comes crashing down.

Back to an earlier quote, but this time using the whole thing.

“It’s not that I’m worried. It’s something much worse. I wanted to make this evening . . . I don’t know how to explain . . . a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry. And it’s not true that I study. I used to, now I work. I have a younger brother and I’m head of the household. So, now you know it all. You also know what a bad impression I’ve made. I’ve made a fool of myself.”

She was filled with a deep sadness. It was as if a secret reserve of anguish had melted in the bottom of his chest, risen to his throat, and turned yet again into pain. [. . .]

He must think I’ll always laugh at him when I remember this night, those men, laughing at him always, till the end of time.


And, while we’re at it, let’s pour on the sadness and suffering:

“Me too. I’d been saving my money for three months so I could rent this costume, not even catching the tram, and I live in Gràcia but work on Carrer de la Princesa. When my father was alive we had everything we needed. One day he went to bed feeling very ill and never got up. What little we had disappeared with his illness and the funeral. It was really hard for me. I had to give up everything I enjoyed, all my plans. Everything. We were really alone, and I was the oldest child. I had to make a real show of pretense, so as not to add to my mother’s grief. It’s kind of ridiculous that I’m explaining all this, complaining. It shows a poor spirit. My life would make a great dime novel. Here I’d been saving for three months, thinking I’d have fun with my friends, but as soon as I saw myself in this costume, I was embarrassed. I did go out with my friends, but they were all with their girlfriends; and after we’d been in the park up on Tibidabo for a while, they disappeared without my realizing. I walked for a long time, I sat for a while on a bench by the funicular . . . but that’s not true. It’s painful to tell the truth. I went up Tibidabo because a friend of mine works in a restaurant there, and he told me to stop by and see him. He gave me the pastries we ate. I sat on the park bench, thinking how terribly boring life was, and gazed at the night, the lights of the city below me, till I was tired.”


Even within this confession there’s that little moment where he explains why he was up at Tibidabo and then immediately admits that that reason is a lie! This is that dissonance between inner desires and outer reality that really ramps up the emotion in Rodoreda’s early stories. And in case you thought the boy was the only one spinning tales . . .

“You know what? It’s not true that I have a lover. I’ve never loved anyone. All my brother’s friends that liked me a little, I found them . . . I don’t know how to explain it. It’s difficult to say the things the way we think them or feel them. I mean, all the boys who have liked me up till now left me indifferent. It’s probably that I don’t like young men and older men scare me a bit. Sometimes I’m convinced that I’m suffering from some strange illness, because I feel good all alone in my room, with my books, my thoughts. I know my thoughts aren’t particularly lofty; I’m not trying to sound grand. I don’t really know why I ran way from the party. I went with my brother and his fiancée. I shouldn’t say it, but I don’t like that my brother’s engaged. We were best friends. No brother and sister ever got along better. Nor is it true that I have a heart condition. Sometimes I can feel it beating fast and it’s because . . . I’ll never find a substitute for my brother, someone who can be what my brother was to me.”

He felt a sadness rising from deep within him. He’d have given his life to be able to replace her brother. [. . .]

She sighed deeply, affected by the insidious magic of the hour and the night. “I won’t marry for love or merely to serve my own interest. Or maybe I’ll marry for both these reasons. I’ll have an orderly house filled with jars and jars of marmalade and summer preserves made for winter and large wardrobes with neatly folded clothes. If I have children, they’ll have what I’ve had: heat in winter and the broad sea in summer.”


How it All Ends

You can find those other elements mentioned above in this story. Slight shifts in perspective and time that add complexity to the story, moments in which fragmentary prose reflects the inner thoughts of the characters, etc. They’re all there. In fact, I’d argue that these motifs are there in all of her great stories, and this is a great story.

Having come all that way though, through Moretti and various “units” that combine to make a larger, more powerful whole, let’s end where we began, at the end of this journey, where things just . . . end.

Carnival had ended. The wind and rain had helped it die. We too have died a bit, he thought, or the ghosts we have left along the way. No one would be able to see them at the top of Avinguda del Tibidabo, with the pastries and champagne, by the gate with the perfume of the false gardenias, at the door where they had sheltered during the rain. It was all far away, indistinct, a bit absurd, as if it had never happened.

“Will you give me your address in France?”

“I don’t even know it yet.”

She, however, would never again remember that night. The sound of the train taking her away would erase the last vestiges of it. But he . . . he would never find another girl like her, with that smile, that hair. From time to time he would see her blurred outline standing in front of him, her image evoked by a certain perfume, a sigh of leaves, a swarm of ghostly stars at the back of the sky, a silence that suddenly manifests itself.


That’s not exactly the end, there are a couple more beats, but I’ll leave those for you to enjoy for yourself.

2 November 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Chad and Brian dive into the first six stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s Selected Stories and call up Quim Monzó, arguably the most important contemporary Catalan author, to talk about the precision and emotionality in her work. They also talk about Catalan literature as a whole, A Thousand Morons, Catalan independence, and much more. An incredibly fun and funny episode, this one really lays the groundwork for approaching Rodoreda’s stories.

Both Selected Stories and Death in Spring are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And follow Quim Monzó to learn more about his writings and the case for Catalan independence.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.

30 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast Brian and I talk about the first six stories in Mercè Rodoreda’s Selected Stories : “Blood,” “Threaded Needle,” “Summer,” “Guinea Fowls,” “The Mirror,” and “Happiness.” Which is only the first 50 pages, yet is as emotionally intense as almost any set of stories you can name. To give you a bit more insight into these stories, and to get you prepared for Thursday’s podcast, I’m going to summarize a few things I noticed in rereading these, and dig in a bit more into my favorite story of the bunch.

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Selected Stories and Death in Spring for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



1) I Want to Reread Nathalie Sarraute.

I think I’ve brought her up on both of our podcasts—and inevitably will a dozen more times—but the first author who comes to mind when reading these early stories has to be Nathalie Sarraute.

Frequently grouped in with Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Pinget, Simon, and the rest of the “Nouveau Roman,” Sarraute was one of the most interesting French writers of the mid-twentieth century. And although she was instrumental in paving the way for this group’s relationship to the possibilities for the novel, her work isn’t as staunchly cerebral as the rest of these writers. Not that her books aren’t incredibly intelligent and experimental in style and form, but the first handful—Tropisms, Portrait of a Man Unknown, Martereau, and The Planetarium—revolve around the idea of depicting “tropisms,” a imprecise feeling or set of feelings that arise within a given person or character in response to the outside environment. Here—The Guardian does a better job of explaining this:

The term “tropism” she had taken from biology, where it names the reactive, almost imperceptible movements that living organisms make, towards or away from whatever impinges on them. Sarraute’s are tropisms with a human face, the buried, never quite conscious to-ings and fro-ings of the psyche that accompany all social contact, which she turns pitilessly yet very gracefully into words as she delves into the unspoken and quite often unspeakable root-system of polite conversation. Politeness is shown cruelly up in Sarraute, as the mask for aggression on the part of some and for a corresponding anxiety on the part of others. She is the unforgiving zoologist of our dissembling species, as observed in the habitat she shared with it, of “civilised” Paris.

Or, in her own words, tropisms are “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” And from an interview in the Paris Review

I knew it seemed impossible to me to write in the traditional forms. They seemed to have no access to what we experienced. If we en- closed that in characters, personalities, a plot, we were overlooking everything that our senses were perceiving, which is what interested me. One had to take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it. That’s what I tried to do in Tropisms.

I’m in Poland, sans my copy of Tropisms, but I think this example from a Full Stop review of Saurrate’s short book can link this idea with Rodoreda:

“Well, then! How are you?” He would dare to do that. “Well, then! How do you feel?” he would dare to say that to her – and then he would wait. She should speak, make a move, show her real self, let it come out, let it finally explode – that wouldn’t frighten him. But he would never have the strength to do this. So he was obliged to check it as long as possible, to keep it from coming out, from spurting from her, curb it in her, at any cost, no matter what.

So, turning to Rodoreda’s stories, here’s a bit from “Blood”:

But then I started to agonize. If I hadn’t seen them together, maybe the strange change in me would never have happened. I began to feel like I was a nuisance to my husband; something was different, and without wanting to, I started to distance myself from him. [. . .] Obsessions of mine, I know. Because you see, when a woman stops being a woman, her head fills with obsessions.

From “Summer”:

His wife turned over. She was small and weak. She had been very sick three or four years ago and looked the worse for it. She tired easily and coughed all winter. The doctor said it wasn’t anything serious. All of a sudden, she sighed. A brief sigh, just enough to show she was alive. He was filled with grief. Yes, a deep grief, without really knowing why.

One last one, from “Guinea Fowls”:

Quimet started sobbing uncontrollably. He wept loudly, his mouth open, his eyes all wrinkled from being closed so tight.

“What’s the matter? Did someone hit you? What is it?”

He shook his head after each question, but couldn’t stop crying. All his grief, all his pent-up pain, came pouring out. When the trauma began to pass, his chest still shaking from the last of his sobs, he announced, as if he had suddenly grown older:

“I’m terribly sad.”



2) No Surprise She Wrote a Novel Called Garden By the Sea

I have no grand statements about how to interpret all the garden imagery in these stories, but I just want to draw attention to it now, since it might be interesting to track across both this collection and Death in Spring.

“Blood” opens with the narrator talking about how her husband used to plant dahlias in a particular basket, and the climax of this story involves her husband playing a trick on her (or just has a vivid dream) in which there’s a woman sneaking around their garden. And, tying this back into the first observation, the story ends with this paragraph:

“Dahlias have never grown in this basket again. Sometimes, when the weeds grow high, I pull them up, and move the earth around so it won’t look bad, and if I see dahlias at the florist, a kind of dizziness sweeps over me and I feel like vomiting. Forgive me.”

Things are a bit more complicated in “Summer,” although flowers once again draw the characters into the past, this time also symbolizing some primal desires and the vitality of life (or lack thereof). This story is narrated by the husband, who goes into a bit of a revery on his balcony after getting into a bit of a debate with his wife about their son’s safety:

The scent of flowers reached him from the gardens below. He could see them all from the balcony. The palm tree at the Codinas’ spread its dusty fans in the thick air. The darkest tree of all was a medlar, old and tall, with a smooth, knotless trunk and leaves so stiff they looked like cardboard. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and neck. A mosquito buzzed furiously around him. What if by magic he suddenly found himself in the woods . . . If he could only spend the night in the woods . . . Life, after all . . . This is the only good thing there is in life. Just this. The night. A girl. Just this. And even then it’s so terrible, as if you were suffering or dying. For a girl like that you could do anything. “Carme, Carme.” Why does a beautiful girl always have an ugly girlfriend?

And then, after his son gets back home, right before he’s overcome by “grief” looking at his recently-ill wife, he thinks, “He knew both of them were thinking about the unwatered carnations.”

Near the opening of “Guinea Fowls,” Quimet, the young boy who will end the story “terribly sad” after helping slaughter some poultry, has a chance to take a different path:

The garbage was piled up in front of him, at the edge of the sidewalk. As he munched calmly on the bread, he poked through the pile and discovered a bouquet of wilted flowers, a dark, still fresh carnation, cabbage and lettuce leaves, leek stems, and a few squashed tomatoes full of shiny white seeds. He was tempted to pick up the seeds and put them in the empty matchbox in his pocket; he could plant them in a flowerpot and put it on the balcony. But he was feeling lazy after the sleepless night.

I’ll write more about “The Mirror” later, but in the present of this story, the narrator’s daughter-in-law and grandson are working in the garden. More unsettling though—if we link gardens up with interior life, healthy relationships, etc.—we get this passage about the narrator:

She wanted to be alone, to rest. Her room was her world, filled with secrets, with pictures of people that not even her son or daughter-in-law knew. As she entered, the mirror on the wardrobe reflected the mysterious-looking green garden, barely visible behind the slats on the partially lowered blinds, a dreamlike landscape.

“Happiness” includes another example of the link between a garden (or nature generally) and a more serene, positive relationship:

Quick, quick, she thought. If only the clock could be turned back, back to a previous moment. Back to the little house last year by the sea. The sky, water, palm trees, the fiery red of the sun reflected at sunset on the glass of the balcony. Blooming jasmine gripping the balcony. And the clouds, the waves, the wind that furiously blew the windows closed . . . It was all in her heart.



3) The Complexing of Form

This post is already thesis length, so I’ll try and keep this section to just a couple of paragraphs. Mostly, I just want to point out that, for anyone who’s read War, So Much War or Death in Spring, these first stories might come as a bit of a shock. They’re so direct! So straightforward! A different side of Rodoreda.

And this is all true. These early pieces are working within an aesthetic that’s not as baroque or symbolic as her later works. They’re still absolutely amazing in their precision, emotional power, and depiction of her character’s inner lives. But in terms of form and structure, we’re going to see an immense amount of growth over the next two months.

That growth is even evident in these first six stories. We talk about “Blood” a bit on the podcast this week, so I won’t say too much here, but this framing device seems acts as a sort of unlocking mechanism, a simple way for Rodoreda to give herself permission to tell this story of a marriage failing and a woman leaving. In “Threaded Needle,” internal fantasies start to appear, fantasies that run counter to what is portrayed in “real life” and add a lot of emotional dimensions to these characters. The same thing is seen in “Happiness,” when the narrator goes through a whole internal journey in which she dreams of leaving her husband, and imagines what her life would be like if she went through with it. Finally, “Summer” has a nice interlude about the woods (see above) that’s one of the earliest examples of how Rodoreda juxtaposes unexplained images that are both fragmentary and open to interpretation. This will definitely show up later, and is one of the most incredible ways in which she complicates her texts and transforms them from simple stories into something more universal and multifaceted.

The story where these techniques really come together (at least in this artificial grouping of six pieces) is in “The Mirror”—my personal favorite of this bunch.



“The Mirror”

This is the story in which Rodoreda levels up. The primary elements of what makes this story work so well—melodrama related to a bad marriage, internal feelings straining to be expressive, events from the past couched in slightly obscure ways—can be found in the other stories as well, just not quite as compressed.

This is the same passage I mention on the (forthcoming) podcast, but it’s also a great place to start:

Beneath the lilac-filled vases lay purple stars; lots of tiny flowers had fallen. Roger was getting dressed. His initials, R.G., were embroidered on the left side of his shirt. I too needed to get dressed, but I lingered, afraid that the most insignificant gesture would shatter that mirror of sad, fragile happiness. As if my dismay could make the afternoon last for years and years. When we went down to the street, we stopped beneath a streetlight and shook hands, as if we were simply friends, and said good-bye. Yet coming down the stairs, we had stopped to kiss on each step. When I was alone again, I thought, “We’ll never see each other again as we have today.” I looked around for something to call my own: the light from the streetlamp, the purple sky, a window with a light. Then I started walking. And later? The dance, Agata, the child, my marriage.

So many great things about this paragraph! Tying this into all that came above, we have “lilac-filled vases” that are shedding their flowers. We have the “mirror of sad, fragile happiness” that’s ready to shatter. We have the honest, depressing thought that comes as soon as she’s alone. But most notably to me, we have a series of fragments that punctuate the real plot of this story and drive home the narrator’s sadness tinged with anger. “And later? The dance, Agata, the child, my marriage.” Just typing that leaves me with a sense of longing and nostalgia for what could’ve been.

I don’t want to spoil this story completely for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but it works through two plots running in parallel. In the present, the narrator goes to the doctor who gives her some advice about treating her diabetes by avoiding sweets. She then buys a bag of cookies and goes to her son’s house, where she lies about seeing the doctor and watches her grandson dig up the garden. There is a simmering contempt there, especially toward her son. (I’ll leave the why for you to figure out.)

Then there’s the story of the past, of two men, a too-brief romance, a tormented marriage, and a death. This too I’ll let you find out about as you read, but I want to end with one other example of the reason why I think her writing took a leap with this story. This muddled representation of the narrator’s internal life works so well because it’s slightly confusing to process, yet reeks of emotion.

“Why won’t you dance with me?”

Jaume Mas, her husband, had entered her life in that manner: timidly, as she gazed at Roger, remembering that afternoon. She was filled with the terrible wish to scream. Jaume had entered her life too late, but it was at the precise moment when she was losing her bearings. Are you tired? She was gazing at her fan, the mother-of-pearl ribs, the silk tassel. She had had a mauve dress with a lilac posy at the waist made for her. She had it made with Roger’s words in mind. We’ve begun to love each other beneath the sign of the lilacs. You could see clumps of lilacs in the park, and branches of them stood in vases around the room. On that afternoon. If Roger comes near, he’ll see the landscape on my fan, tender apple green with a peach-colored sky. But he didn’t approach. I don’t think he even saw me, and I wanted to scream.

“You don’t want to dance?”

I felt sorry for him, a sudden sadness, as if I had just been shown a condemned man.

Till next week . . .

26 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Brian Wood is BACK. Complete with a poem he wrote in his time away from the Two Month Review . . . In the introduction to season three, Chad and Brian talk about Catalan literature (briefly), Mercè Rodoreda’s career and comps, possible approaches to discussing Rodoreda’s stories, and more. As noted “elsewhere,”: this season will start with Mercè Rodoreda’s Selected Stories followed by one of her novels, Death in Spring.

Both of these books are available through the Open Letter website, and if you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll get 20% off.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. And be sure to leave us a review on iTunes!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Montseny by Els Surfing Sirles.



23 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.

As you hopefully already know, the third season of the Two Month Review podcast will be dedicated to Mercè Rodoreda. Since most of her books are relatively slim (a.k.a., of readable length unlike the beasts that we’ve worked through in seasons one and two), we decided to do two of her books: Selected Stories and Death in Spring. You can get 20% off of both of these by using the code 2MONTH at checkout on the Open Letter site. (BTW, this link is good forever, so feel free to use it to buy any of the books featured in the Two Month Review.)

We’ll be starting in on her actual work next week, with author Quim Monzó joining our November 2nd podcast to talk about first six stories from Selected Stories (pages 1-50). But before you get started on reading this, I thought I’d post a short overview of Rodoreda’s life and works for anyone who isn’t already familiar with, arguably, one of the greatest Catalan writers ever.



Patriots Stand Erect!

Her Life

Admittedly, I’ve spent many more hours reading Rodoreda’s books than studying her biography, so this is really just a basic overview pulled from a few different sources. In pulling this together though, I was reminded of just how great it would be for someone to write a new biography of her and her work. Something like what Ben Moser did for Lispector. Hmm . . . Anyway . . .

Basics: Rodoreda was born in Barcelona in 1908 and passed away in Girona, Spain in 1983 at the age of 74. She got married young—at only 20—to her uncle, who happened to be fourteen years older than her. They had one child together, a son named Jordi.

She was working for the Catalan Government when the Spanish Civil War started, and fled the country shortly after the war ended. This isn’t the place for a history lesson on the Spanish Civil War (which, again, not an expert on), but suffice it say that when Franco won, things didn’t go so well for Catalans. After the Nationalist troops run roughshod over the region, destroying, looting, wrecking everything in sight, Catalonia lost its autonomy, and its language and flag were explicitly banned. And don’t forget the destruction of all Catalan newspapers along with the burning of banned books! These prohibitions lasted throughout the Franco regime, and are an unsettling basis for why things are so messy today, in 2017, in Catalonia.

When she left Barcelona, Rodoreda first lived in Paris (a setting for a number of her early stories) and then, well, World War II happened and the Germans arrived. According to the bio on the Fundació Mercè Rodoreda site, “when the Germans arrived, she had to flee on foot, facing horrifying sights, particularly the burning of Orleans.” (We’ll be reading “Orléans, Three Kilometers” in just a few weeks.)

It was in Switzerland that she started publishing again, and since it’s really her works that we’re interested in, let’s leave her bio here, after pointing out that there is a Catalan prize for short stories named in her honor, and that she was named as a Member of Honour to the Association of Catalan Writers.



Select Works

To put the two books we’ll be reading into the context of her career, here’s a rundown of some of her most famous books.

Aloma (1938): Of the early novels that she wrote, Aloma is the only one that she didn’t end up rejecting. This hasn’t been translated into English, although we have considered it in the past. It’s a short novel in the vein of Time of the Doves and Camilla Street, both of which are detailed below.

Vint-i-dos contes (1958): Twenty years, a civil war, and two major changes of scenery later, Rodoreda finally published another book. This time it’s a collection of stories—twenty-two to be exact. Twenty of these ended up in our Selected Stories, along with seven from Semblava de seda i alters contes (1978; “It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories”) and three from My Christina and Other Stories (which was published in full by Graywolf in the 1980s). In other words, this collection is more or less what we’ll be talking about for the next month.

La plaça del Diamant (1962): This is Rodoreda’s most famous and popular novel. It’s the second most translated book from the Catalan (behind Albert Sánchez Piñol’s La pell freda or Cold Skin, which, whatever), and is oftentimes held up as one of the three or four most important works of Catalan writing. In fact, back in 2009, Jessica Lange performed the entire book as a single monologue for the Catalan Days festival that took place in New York.

A realistic novel that employs some stream of consciousness techniques, La plaça del Diamant is about a single woman’s life, the complications of marriage and motherhood, love and its deterioration, and the impact of the civil war. It’s a beautiful book that features a woman developing her own singular viewpoint and understanding of the world, and is both empowering and emotionally intense. It’s very much in keeping with the tone and nature of the early stories, and is incredibly well crafted. Anyone who likes Lispector, Ferrante, Sarraute, etc., will love this novel. Without question.

Before moving on from here, it’s worth noting that this has been translated twice. The Time of the Doves (translated by David Rosenthal) came out from Graywolf in 1986 and is still available here in the U.S. This is a semi-controversial translation, since the title has little to do with the original (which is just the name of a plaza in Barcelona—one that now features the statue pictured below), and the “doves” of the title are generally referred to as “pigeons,” a nitpicky thing that creates a totally different tone in English. (Can you imagine naming a book, “In the Time of the Pigeons”?) There is a more recent translation from Peter Bush and Virago entitled In Diamond Square. I would love for Open Letter to publish this version in the U.S. But alas.

El carrer de les camèlies (1966): This is Camellia Street, which we will be reprinting next year. It’s the story of a woman raised by nuns after the Spanish Civil War who becomes a prostitute. In terms of literary technique and emotional power, this novel fits in perfectly with the early stories and La plaça del Diamant.

Jardí vora el mar (1967): Another forthcoming Open Letter book, Garden By the Sea is told from the point of view of a male gardener who relates the goings on at the house where he works. Although it was published after La plaça del Diamant and El carrer de les camèlies, Rodoreda started working on it before those two novels and claimed that it was what allowed her to find the way to write those other books.

Mirall Trencat (1974): Translated as A Broken Mirror, this was the first Rodoreda novel I read, and god damn! That reading led to all of our Rodoreda publications, which led to a great deal of success for Open Letter, which lead to this new podcast featuring her work. Such is life. A relatively short novel, it relates a family’s dissolution over three generations, and is told in three distinct styles: part one is very naturalistic; the second uses a lot of high modernist techniques; and the final part is incredibly fragmented, ending in little poetic gems and no singular narrative. Although it may seem simple, the way form reflects content is absolutely masterful and reminds me of António Lobo Antunes and other more experimental writers. If this book ever goes out of print (if you’re reading this University of Nebraska Press, just let it go!) we’re going to reissue it immediately.

Quanta, quanta guerra . . . (1980): War, So Much War! This was the last book published in Rodoreda’s lifetime, and we brought it out in English a couple years ago. It’s a phenomenal book about a young boy wandering a war-torn landscape. Much more surreal and strange than La plaça del Diamant, a lot more in keeping with A Broken Mirror and Death in Spring.

La mort i la primavera (1986): Published a few years after her death, Death in Spring is, in the eyes of some readers and critics, the true high point of Rodoreda’s career. She worked on this for years and, as we’ll see, it’s a book that’s rife with symbolism and open to be interpreted as a representation of Spain under Franco, of the natural order of life, death, rebirth, and all sorts of things. Hold tight—come December, this book is going to blow your mind.



Other Resources

If you’re looking for more information about Rodoreda, a good place to start is the aforementioned Fundació Mercè Rodoreda. Their mission is to oversee her works and papers, maintain a library of all her works and translations of those works, promote her legacy, and offer grants to support research into her writing.

One of the most famous pieces about Rodoreda ever has to be this one (original Spanish) by Gabriel García Márquez. Here’s the opening:

While in a Barcelona bookstore last week, inquired about Merce Rodoreda, and y told me that she had died the previous month. The news caused me great sad-first, for the much-deserved admiration I have for her books and, second, for the unwarranted fact that the news of her death had not been publicized outside Spain with due coverage and honors. Apparently, few people outside Catalonia know just who this invisible woman was who wrote some wonderful and enduring novels in a splendid Catalan rarely found in contemporary literature. One such work, La Placa del Diamant (1963; Eng. The Time of the Doves, 1980), is, in my opinion, the most beautiful to have been published in Spain following the Spanish civil war.


(I have no idea why there are so many weird typos and snafus in this text, “great sad” being the most comical. Rather than edit this, I’ll just leave it as is, since the logic is still present despite the odd language.)

Fun fact! This appeared in the forerunner to World Literature Today.

I haven’t dug too much into the scholarly work that’s been done on Rodoreda in the States, but Kathleen McNerney has edited two volumes about her work, Voices and Visions: The Works of Mercè Rodoreda, and The Garden Across the Border: Mercè Rodoreda’s Fiction.

There are tons of reviews out there about her novels, including a bunch from the past year that include War, So Much War, but two notable ones that relate to this season of the podcast have to be: Jesmyn Ward’s You Must Read This piece on Death in Spring for NPR, and Paul Kerschen’s piece in the Quarterly Conversation, Mercè Rodoreda and the Style of Innocence, which covers the Selected Stories, Death in Spring, A Broken Mirror, and The Time of the Doves.

Tune in on Thursday for a bit more information, and then next week we’ll dive into the first six stories!

12 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Here it is—the infamous LIVE recording of the Two Month Review! Chad and Lytton travelled all the way to Brooklyn to record this episode as part of the “Taste of Iceland Festivities.” As a result, they recap the book as a whole and reflect on the speech from Iceland’s First Lady that prefaced the recording (and which you don’t get to hear) before diving into the particulars of the final section of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. They also take questions from the audience about WWII and Kafka, and spend some time pondering the final line of the book: “i call the northern lights night rainbows.” And Chad works in multiple references to Twin Peaks: The Return.

As previously noted, the next season of the Two Month Review will feature two books by Mercè Rodoreda: Selected Stories and Death in Spring. Click here to get the full schedule, and use the 2MONTH code at our website to get 20% off. (That discount code also works for “Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller”: and “The Invented Part.”: And if you’d rather support your local bookstore, do it! They should have all of these titles. If not, shame them. Preferably in a very public way. Kidding, totally kidding. Obviously every store carries all of our books.)

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

And please rate us on iTunes and tell your friends to listen. We really appreciate your support of the podcast and want to reach as many listeners as possible.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



5 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Icelandic novelist and poet Kári Tulinius joins Chad and Lytton this week to talk about three of the darkest sections of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller and the history of this novel’s reception in Iceland. They also talk about the recent scandal that brought down the Icelandic government—and how it ties into Tómas Jónsson—about why the book was out of print in Iceland for a couple of decades after its initial release, the way this book is scarily prescient, and much more.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

You can read an excerpt from Kári’s latest novel (translated by Larissa Kyzer) at Words and Worlds and can find his archived Grapevine articles here.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



4 October 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The voting is in and . . . Well, The Physics of Sorrow and Maidenhair ended up with the most votes. That said, we’re not going to do those books next. Instead, since we haven’t featured any books by women yet—and since Catalan is undergoing some serious shit right now—we’re going to start by doing two books by Mercè Rodoreda: Selected Stories and then Death in Spring. And then we’ll do Physics of Sorrow. In fact, for the Physics season, we’ll do a live recording in New York with Georgi Gospodinov himself! So, stay tuned.



Here’s the schedule for the third season of the Two Month Review, the “Rodoreda and Catalan Independence” season:

October 26: Introduction to Mercè Rodoreda

November 2: Selected Stories: “Blood,” “Threaded Needle,” “Summer,” “Guinea Fowls,” “The Mirror,” and “Happiness” (pages 1-50)

November 9: Selected Stories: “Afternoon at the Cinema,” “Ice Cream,” “Carnival,” “Engaged,” “In a Whisper,” “Departure,” “Friday, June 8” (51-102)

November 16: Selected Stories: “The Beginning,” “Nocturnal,” “The Red Blouse,” “The Fate of Lisa Sperling,” “The Bath,” and “On the Train” (103-143)

November 23: Selected Stories: “Before I Die,” “Ada Liz,” “On a Dark Night,” “Night and Fog,” and “Orléans, Three Kilometers” (144-207)

November 30: Selected Stories: “The Thousand Franc Bill,” “Paralysis,” “It Seemed Like Silk,” “The Salamander,” “Love,” and “White Geranium” (208-255)

December 7: Death in Spring Part One (1-27)

December 14: Death in Spring Part Two (28-68)

December 21: Death in Spring Part Three (69-118)

December 28: Death in Spring Part Four (119-150)

And then we’ll kick off 2018 with Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and will follow up with Mikhail Shiskin’s Maidenhair, Dubravka Ugresic’s Fox, and Rodrigo Fresán’s The Bottom of the Sky.

Get the books now and join the Goodreads group to join in the discussion! And, of course, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

28 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

CORRECTION: Throughout this podcast, we joke about having recorded the final episode of the season live at Spoonbill & Sugartown last weekend. This is a lie! The live event will take place THIS SATURDAY (September 30, 2017) as part of the Taste of Iceland events. Eliza Reid, Iceland’s First Lady, will start things off at 2pm, and Lytton and I will follow her. So please ignore all our childish banter and please come out on Saturday for this live recording!

This week, Tom Flynn of Volumes Bookcafe returns to the Two Month Review to talk about three of the more difficult bits of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller: one section that’s a dream, one about mediums and resurrection, and one that’s a poem for going to bed and for death. Thanks to Tom’s perceptive insights and Lytton’s genius, they’re able to puzzle out all three sections and provide some solid guidance for everyone reading along.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And be sure to follow Volumes Bookstore and Tom Flynn and visit the store when you’re in Chicago.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



21 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week Patrick Smith (Best Translated Book Award judge, The Scofield) joins Chad and Lytton to talk about this incredibly powerful section of the book, which raises all sorts of topical ideas about adhering to national myths and the problems of masculinity. This is also the section where Hitler shows up, and where a character literally eats himself out of house and home. And this podcast is a crucial one in helping frame the way this novel simultaneously holds up and undermines a variety of dangerous, unpleasant ideas. After listening to this, we hope you will have an even broader and more nuanced understanding—and appreciation—of this great novel.

Reminder! On September 30th, we will be recording the final episode of this season of the Two Month Review at Spoonville & Sugartown in Brooklyn as part of Taste of Iceland. The First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, will kick things off at 2pm with a lecture and reading, then at 3pm, Lytton and Chad will discuss the final section of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller (and take audience questions), followed by a recpetion at 4pm. It’s free to attend, so come on out and see us do this live!

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And follow Patrick Smith for a variety of literary insights and other commentary.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



14 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week Norwegian translator and ALTA Fellowship recipient David Smith joins Chad and Lytton to talk about the next forty pages of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. The two sections covered this week are wildly different from one another, opening with a much more fragmented, poetic bit then transitioning through a hilarious, yet creepy, moment in which Tómas pees all over the laundry room into a more straightforward section—but one that still brings out all the wild contradictions in Tómas’s character and this book itself. This week’s episode also includes Chad reading a section that’s perfect for a voiceover movie trailer. (And yes, he reads it in exactly that voice.)

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



11 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next couple weeks, you’re going to hear me mess up this announcement on podcast after podcast, but on Saturday, September 30th at 3:30pm Lytton and I will be recording the final episode of the second season of the Two Month Review LIVE at Spoonbill & Sugartown in Brooklyn.

This will be part of the Taste of Iceland events taking place from September 28th through October 1st. There will be music events, film screenings, food tastings, art exhibits, and, of course, literary readings. Here’s a link to the official announcement for the literary stuff, which starts with Eliza Reid, the First Lady of Iceland, talking about Iceland’s story tradition, following by this:

Immediately following The Write Stuff literature discussion by Eliza Reid, join in the live recording of Chad Post’s Two Month Review podcast as it dives into the classic Icelandic epic, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, by Guðbergur Bergsson. Featuring a reading from renowned Icelandic translator, Lytton Smith, the live recording will cover the last section of the book many consider to be the “Icelandic Ulysses.

This recording of the Two Month Review is the culmination of a season long analysis of Bergsson’s work, with each episode meticulously dissecting, discussing and appreciating Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller section by section and page by page. With rotating guests that include famous authors, booksellers, translators, and other readers, the podcast is perfect for anyone interested in plumbing the depths of this fascinating novel about the dangers of nationalism, chamber pots, and death.

We’ve never done this live before, so . . . . come on out to support us! We’ll be covering the last bit of the book, looking back on it as a whole, and taking questions from the audience. Should be even more shambolic than our usual recordings!

The event is free, and will be followed by a reception. But they do ask that you RSVP on Facebook so that they have an idea of how many people to expect.

Hope to see you in a few weeks!

7 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week author and translator Idra Novey joins Chad and Lytton to talk about one of the most challenging sections of the book so far. Not only is there a proliferation of children whose voices constantly interrupt Tómas’s thoughts, but there are a few more unsettling bits that raise questions about what we should believe about Tómas’s narrative and morality. (Questions that will be further addressed next week.) They also talk about the brilliant ways in which Lytton balances all these various registers, and the poetry that shines through Tómas’s curmudgeonly rants.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. Also, you can support Idra Novey by following her on twitter and buying her novel, Ways to Disappear, which is available now.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



31 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Jacob Rogers—translator from the Galician and bookseller at Malaprop’s in Asheville, North Carolina—joins Chad and Lytton to talk about Tómas Jónsson’s next two “composition books.” Included in these sections are a long bit about the “board” and the general hierarchy of Tómas’s dining hall, the ways in which he’s both an insider and someone on the fringes, and the role of the U.S. military base in Iceland’s overall development. These sections are crucial in fleshing out both Tómas’s character and that of Iceland as a whole, while adding a lot of interesting—and funny—details about his everyday life.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. You can also follow Malaprop’s on Twitter, and Jacob on Instagram.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



30 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the fifth composition book and VI (pages 69-139) from Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Over the next few weeks—or the next few podcasts, next few chapters—you’re going to get a much clearer picture of the main themes of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller and, more interestingly, how complicated it is to read and react to these core ideas. I don’t want to go too deep on this before we get to those sections of the book, but to provide a sort of outline of the narrative’s engine: There’s a great tension in this novel revolving around the desire to mythologize the past/masculinity/national pride/the self, and the inherent dangers in doing so.

At times Tómas is aware of how troubling this impulse can be, critical of nationalism, concerned about the men trolling the streets for drunken ladies and lewd moments. At other times we get Tómas saying some awful shit about his lodgers, and maybe doing some inappropriate things. (Although, as you’ll see, some of these implied activities are buried under heaps of ambiguous and contradictory information.)

In the “fifth composition book” we get a couple of key bits that set up future readings of Tómas’s character. Specifically, this is a chapter in which perceived humiliations—and a general discomfort with self—fuels Tómas’s current aggressive crankiness to everyone around him. This oftentimes puts the reader in an awkward position where, on the one hand, you feel sympathetic to Tómas, but on the other, he does (or says, or writes) some reprehensible shit.

Couple quick examples from this chapter, which is loaded with lines about all the disrespect Tómas has, and does, suffer.

Lying pancake-flat without moving my legs or joints in order to protect myself: the threshold, gold bronze baseboards, the faucet tips, the cabinet doors, sensitive to ridicule because of my outtie, when everyone use has a beautiful innie, each and every member of the Homeowners’ Association. I could not go to the meetings because of the risk that someone would bend down and say: There’s some sort of pimple poking out your knitted vest. Perhaps it is just a button made of bone on my trouser string, I would say. He would believe me, and soon a rumor starts that I have a wart on my belly. People’s curiosity would increase, ending with a proposal for required swimming for the organization’s members; no one is allowed to leave, or else he would lose his favorable rental terms. And when I stood there naked (having given up on finding an old-fashioned swimsuit, the sort that offers privacy above the navel; swimming trunks nowadays only cover a man’s genitals), the belly button, Angler, would be exposed (I had named my navel Angler), and they would burst out laughing and say: rent, and rent at high cost.



And then there’s this extended description of how Tómas views himself, punctuated by an invasive bit of disrespect at the end:

In a large mirror, between the nymphs and satyrs on the ashtray, I loomed large, made into a massive picture: an almost globular head with a freckled scalp and hairy ears: gray, obstinate tufts. The image turned carefully to the side: deep folds on the neck, slightly red (clear now) from friction against a stiff collar. A night-shadow beard, white and mad-spiked, peeks from the vein-split skin; a thick club nose with coarse nostrils and a greasy bridge; moss-eared; under the shoulder straps of his undershirt, by the bluish vein-marked chest, grow frost gray blotches; his abdomen swells out over thin curd-white feet which reveal the picture is sitting in a chair: the image steps onto the chair, lifts his torso and rakes white nails over the curd-white flesh of his clammy, cold belly; the image tries to perform some desperate hand movements but becomes increasingly thwarted in spite of his morning’s exercise; it presses its face fast against the mirror to examine its mouth: the red uvula dripping drool; a throat covered with blue veins; the scabrous palate; the lappet under the tongue; the darkened teeth. The treads of the teeth marked by seventy-seven years cycling past. The image got goose bumps and sighed as it thought: I’ve become this sorrowful old picture. He plunked himself on the rim of the tub and sighed again. This man deserves rewards for his age and his decency. Here you sit. This is you. No, I was not allowed to think like that for long. The door was grabbed from outside, the knob yanked, twice. What, is the door locked, who’s loitering on the toilet. I dove into my clothes, hesitated a moment, and doggedly resisted. I and I alone decide how long I will sit on the toilet, I thought.


And then there’s this succinct statement of defeat and despair:

I threw myself on the bed, defeated. Obviously I was not man enough to openly oppose disgrace even in the confines of my own home.


These self-deprecating, woe-is-me sentiments are offset in this chapter by Tómas’s general complaints about his lodgers (like the public affection between Sveinn and Katrín), and their kids, (the forever lonely Tómas is irked by both). He insults both females in various ways—the creepy bathroom scene with Katrín, then the insults of Anna as a “devious personage”—before merging them into one (Annakatrín), imaging one of them basically raping him, then creating an odd sort of folk tale in which a woman seduces the old king (stand in for Tómas) in order to get some of his royal blood into her offspring, thus giving her cause to take over the kingdom (or apartment).

Like I said at the start, there are times where you feel for this old, unrespected crank; there are times when you see him lashing out at possibly imagined abuses in ways that are pretty off-putting.

*


One more quick thing about the “fifth composition book” before moving on, and that’s the very last paragraph in which a new “I” emerges, seemingly the musician living with Tómas who gives us a hint of Tómas’s reality:

I remember how the man was utterly opposed to her dress, practically allergic to it. It sometimes happened, especially in winter, that they would meet by chance in the hallway early in the morning, as she tussled at coat hooks “herding the kids by their ass-ears,” as she put it, off to school (the children were not particularly eager to learn). They got a lot of pleasure from the electric guitar (and also its square meter sounds; it was astonishing to me that the man Tómas could measure sound in meters); I played in a dance band at night while studying at the university. If he should pass in the corridor during this tussle, she made sure to swing her hip into him, as he made a detour in attempt to avoid conflict and sneak out. This little contact resulted in the appearance the next day of red patches on the lower part of his forehead between his eyes; they spread around his nose and eyes. These spots gave way to gray scabs, a kind of dandruff crust. He was always fiddling with his nose and rubbing the dandruff from his eyebrows with his fingertips, blowing it away so the dust didn’t land on his jacket. He twitched and groped instinctively about his eyebrows. This chaffed skin plagued him typically for three to four weeks, then disappeared, but his forehead flushed in the cold. [. . .] The first day in the refectory, I was quite surprised to see old Tómas Jónsson there, sitting next to me at the table. I partially pitied the man, how cautiously he went to dinner with that skin on his forehead it was; primarily because of the appearance of these fish-scales that his eyes seemed weary of pleasure, marked by life, though food seemed to awaken pleasure in him.

*


There’s a lot that could be unpacked from “VI.” But to keep this post somewhat readable, and to keep some surprises for the podcast and your own personal reading, I’m just going to focus on two things—The Board and Tómas’s ridicule of writers.



The Board section takes place from pages 117-139, and is one of the most lucid, compelling sections of the book so far.

In brief, Tómas—along with seemingly all other major characters—take their meals at this particular refectory. The dining hall is split into two main sections—the inner room and the outer room. As with most any lunchroom ever, the “less important” people sit in the outer area, and the most important sit at The Board—the main table in the inner room.

Although there was no visible boundary between the rooms, except the plinths and flowers, the pensioners were divided according to their rank at work. In the inner room sat people who engaged in clean work; in the anterior were others who performed dirty work. [. . .] At the long table in the inner room, which in canteen parlance was The Board [. . .] The nucleus of the Board was four bank employees (I never reached this nucleus), a woman, two ladies who worked alternately in stationary stores or bookstores, a year at each place in sequence, they said, to make life varied and diverse. They were nicknamed the porcelains. Also in the nucleus were two middle-aged women and a housing adviser who never spoke to anyone, or rarely. The Board was considerably snobbish, looking down on we who claimed to have an all-round understanding of the human being.


This section is spectacular in its detailed account of the way The Board functions. In particualr, Ólaf and Sigurdur—both of whom were introduced earlier as bank employees, with Ólaf taking the promotion Tómas believed he deserved—are fleshed out, and act as sort of stand ins for the pompousness and blather of The Board as a whole. The Board is exactly the sort of group of people who know everything, yet like to pretend they’re intellectually curious. They debate politics in passionate tones, but switch opinions whenever it will get them more attention or score some points on their opponents. They’re incredibly proud and invested in the grand history of Iceland, yet ridicule the young students who adopt traditional Icelandic names when they come over to study the sagas and folklore. It’s a ball of contradictions, and exactly what you can imagine such a group of people would be like.

And where’s Tómas in all of this? Not on The Board, but not in the outer room either. He’s on the fringes, watching and judging, feeling both slighted and superior. Being Tómas Jónsson, in other words.

There’s so much greatness in this section, in the way that Bergsson—through the voice of Tómas—lays out the internal politics of this dining hall. It’s a section that comes at the perfect moment, grounding the reader in an entertaining fashion that also fills in some gaps about what’s come before. But again, given how fun—and relatively comprehensible—this section is, I’m just going to leave things there for now.

*


And just for fun, let’s end with some of Tómas’s comments about writers. (Once again, we have his sort of line-straddling—he’s making fun of writers, in a book that he’s writing . . . a biography . . . that’s going to be a bestseller.)

In truth, fiction is a superstition spun in the fabric of people who neither know nor want to know life itself. LIFE IS NOT IN BOOKS. If the writers and poets wrote about men at work and during their leisure, fiction would be superfluous. Should a writer, however, construct some narrative that does not exist in reality but rather takes reality’s place, i.e. the only true fiction, fantasy and imagination, then no one can understand it but the writer himself (supposing even he understands it). With this eliminated, nothing should be left but writing biographies. Fictions are useless to every living human. On the path of life, people meet others who are much closer to their problems and to real environments than those in novels.



The following reasons are the basis of why I do not read literature:

I do not read novels. They are written with secret revenge in mind, the revenge of craven writers who shrink from coming clean and spitting filth and obscenities in the faces of people on the street. [. . .] Writers are not physicians but the carriers of infection who weep from their various individual sores and bestow those same sores upon the nation. [. . .] Writers are always being revived. The dead must stay dead, I say. I want to beat them all to death. I have gained a new understanding of death: I kill a writer every time I read a book. Why should writers live longer than anyone else. Do they achieve more. They have no legal right to extra days than we who complete our full day’s work up to evening.


Of course, as he says elsewhere, “Note: I am invariably writing a veiled self-portrait.” All of Tómas’s internal contractions are about to get ramped up, so prepare yourself.

24 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this episode—covering Tómas Jónsson’s fourth composition book—a number of the themes of the overall novel are put on display: Tómas’s relationship to his body, the way he tries to create a narrative for himself, possible injustices he’s suffered during his life, the way his lodgers are like an army, and more. And there’s no one better to help parse these elements than author and critic Scott Esposito. He joins Chad and Lytton for an episode that may be a bit long, but is stuffed full of insight about this Icelandic masterpiece.

Also discussed in this episode is Scott’s interview with Lytton for Conversational Reading.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

You can follow Scott Esposito on Twitter and Instagram, or at Conversational Reading. And you can get his latest book, The Doubles, from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



21 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the IV composition book (pages 32-68) from Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

On last week’s podcast, I mentioned that I wanted to try and pay attention to the patterns in Tómas Jónsson’s thoughts, try and puzzle out the internal logic to his peculiar stream-of-consciousness. This isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do—how do you not just get swept up in the torrents of prose?—but there was on extended bit in this composition book that does illuminate some of the inner workings of Tómas’s mind. (This is all from one paragraph that begins on page 35 and ends on 38.)

In any case, I managed to wake rested and refreshed after a deep sleep as the clock rang Sunday in. I was in no hurry to dress. I needed to wake, yawn, put in my teeth, release the piss from my penis, lie back under the covers, drink from my half-thermos, and lie still on my back, my hands at my sides on top of the comforter, which swells with air and feathers, take out my teeth, doze for five minutes, wake for another five, turn again to sleep, and wake in five minute intervals. [. . .] Sleeping is not respected except for where there are sick people or the decrepit or those about to die. Before you die, you must be properly asleep. Preferable to die in your sleep. Hospitals usually turn off the lights at ten o’clock at night. I need my sleep dearly. But I would rather die than be frozen inside a retirement home. Once you get to my age, an orderly lifestyle is the surest defense against the force which fills graves. A long time ago I had to give up coffee with dinner. That was a great struggle. Almost impossible. Coffee in the evening, sitting in the comfort and privacy of a divan corner with the chair’s seat clamped between my knees, the thermos within reach on the ground, morsels of letters on the back of the chair and the cup steady in the seat’s depression, alone in your company, my puss, that was my life’s true purpose, my diversion. [. . .] But you remember nothing of this. Feline instinct has little memory. Words spoken to cats in confidence are not used later in retaliation. The absence of coffee in the evenings. Life became empty and my environment impoverished in quality. So it ends. There comes a time you have to give up evening coffee and everything of quality in the world. [. . .] No one can know me in my sleep (except my dreams). I do not need to get to work until half past eight. Until that time, when it is time to prepare for my departure, I potter about in my room, tidying up around me. I am washed and brushed. I have cleaned the sleep from my face, my scrotum, and my hands with a washcloth. I brush the bad taste of sleep from my mouth with a toothbrush. I blow the sleep from my nose with a tissue. I wipe sleep from my eyes by closing them, rolling them five times in the sun’s direction then counterclockwise the same number of times. I never feel comfortable until I have scraped off my stubble. The day begins as soon as the night’s clamminess has left my flesh, the mind ready to start earning money. Dressed, I drink my morning coffee, of which I will also be robbed before long. Once in a retirement home, you get dishwater mix instead. I am prepared for the worst. I face it with the calm and tranquility of my early days. O yes. [. . .] Complete anarchy reigns in the other parts of the apartment. The kids buzz around their parents’ heads, and objects buzz around the heads of both the kids and the parents. Blind, I could go to my closet, stretch out my hand, touch the key, turn it into a semicircle in the lock, open the door, and reach for the green pencil in a jacket’s breast pocket; I could do other tricks like this. Orderliness has come in handy now that I am blind and decrepit. I leave the house as soon as my internal organizing and planning voice says: Tómas, everything is in its ideal place within your room. Even my thoughts sit in an organized series within my cerebral cortex.


Yes, yes, that’s an incredibly long passage. And there’s so much more that I could pull out or point to! But in that bit above, we get a really good overview of the drift of Tómas’s thoughts: he wakes up and wants to put his self/clothes/thoughts into order, since orderliness is a prized attribute in his mind, and at the same time, the idea of sleep (and the Great Sleep) reminds him of his aging, of losing his evening coffee (and soon the morning cup as well), and that everything is working against him, that his life (due to his lodgers and his body’s natural entropy) is falling apart.

This idea—that there are meta-structures behind his thought patterns revealing his character—fits in well with all the references to orderliness and structure in this composition book. But at the same time, as much as he prizes these qualities, the novel itself, the “bestseller” describing his life, is so miasmic, so chaotic, that all these claims to order feel totally specious. Yet, probably aren’t?

I’m still working toward a more complete understanding of how any one of these composition books is structured as a whole, but in this particular case, we have a few mentions or motifs that play off one another and give this chapter a fairly circular structure. For example, Lóa is mentioned twice—at the beginning in reference to being raped, and at the end, when she’s taking the trash out of the bank. The above quoted section about getting ready for work and the way that Tómas organizes his mind and life is a nice complement to the bit near the end about the bank, in which he’s either passed over for a promotion because he can’t keep up with technology (“Faced with the complex electrical accounting machine, I shattered like a thermos. Here in my solitude I have demanded my brain reveal what my supervisors said. Everything is beautifully ordered, but where is the corpse.”), or because life is just unfair. There’re also two invented stories in the book, one a biography, one a sort of parody of a country folk tale. And there’s the relationship between Tómas and his body and his body in relation to women.

*


In case you haven’t noticed, Tómas talks about his body a lot. So many bodily functions! Not only peeing—which, I feel like he doesn’t take a piss that he doesn’t also feel obliged to write into his composition books—but also references to his oxygen tank, his size, even his daily washroom routine (see above). All you have as you approach the end is your body. And in this particular section, the idea of the body takes on an even greater significance:

I had a body the body is dressed on its exterior in skin under the skin there is flesh on the skin there is hair      I touch my body           I have a body      inside it: bones and entrails      But I could find no memories inside the body. I had never thought that my travels were entrusted with memories. I was told that as age increases and the flesh softens, drowsy memories awaken in the mind. That is not my experience.        for me, nostalgia awakens in the flesh


And then:

Maybe I’m too fat to be able to remember anything for more than a moment. The outer surface of my body is too far away from my soul. Aristotle probably came to this same conclusion after he grew older and fatter.


At the same time that Tómas is happy to talk about his pissing and flesh, he has a strong dislike for even allusions to sex. Like with that opening scene—which keeps being referenced, making me think that a lot of this book is taking place around this one single moment—in which he hears his lodgers getting busy in the hallway, which pisses him off. Not only are they having sex right outside his door, but they have the lights on (!), and end up ruining the cloth hook used to hang up his overcoat (!!). Not to mention that sex leads to children, and do we really have to talk about the disruptive nature of children in an apartment?

This aversion to that particular bodily function bleeds over into Tómas’s uneasy relationship to women as a whole. There’s the aforementioned allusion to Lóa being raped (a central scene to come),
followed by recounting the weird—and very inappropriate—pranks that are played on Gerður.

His thoughts about Gerður are particularly complicated in this section. At times, he describes her in fairly sexualized ways:

She perches one ass cheek on the desk’s edge beside me, dangles a foot, her thickened thighs vibrating and jarring at her old, rusty, arthritic groin. I momentarily become a street urchin       her legs have no fat


And then, after running through some of her flaws, refers to her as good wife material . . . sort of:

However flawed Miss Gerður is known to be—and she is certainly a very flawed person—she is still excellently qualified in her areas. As a wife, she would certainly stand in good stead running the apartment, keeping it hygienic and clean: she would brush dust from the baseboards daily, wash the kitchen down after every meal, open a window when she fries, go into all the corners with a floor cloth, clean the cobwebs from all the crannies, and wash her underwear nightly—but surely would neglect me, forgetting to tighten my oxygen mask at the right time.


And although his mind constantly swerves in her direction when he thinks of romance or having a family or whatever, he ends his thoughts on her in this chapter pretty harshly:

She shuffles bundles and stretches a band quick around them. The whole time I was as a joker and mockingbird; a jolly companionship. Our Tómas is becoming a comic, I make people think about me. I watch her behavior and gestures which are nothing because Miss Gerður as a woman has been pasteurized. From now on, I will only write badly of her.


(At times reading this is like reading some of the old notebooks I find that my kids have written in. My daughter one day: “Aidan is a brat and a jerk and gets away with everything.” Then, 24 hours later: “I love my brother and I’m going to write a nice thing about him in here every day and then give it to him as a present.” The next page is torn out. The end.)

*


All this is great, but really, the part that I love the best is his rant about ghostwriters and biographies:

No chance, then, that I’ll be able to commission a ghostwriter to write a bestseller in my name in time for the christmas market—I will have to write it myself—the way those others did, Schiaparelli the fashion queen, Rockefeller, and old Kalli, the lumpfish king. These are the labors of rich people in this country who do nothing for the arts, when they plead their existence, the publishers and the royalties there on the table to support writers, who do not need to focus on anything but spelling.


And then, after writing a bit of a faux biography of “old Kalli, the lumpfish king,” he drops in this amazing breakdown of those sorts of books that read like something from one of the writer’s guides that Fresán mocked in The Invented Part:

20% places and the names of people; 2% trials, peril at sea, and amazing rescues; 19% scenic descriptions scattered throughout the book’s chapters; 3% poetic sex, which runs together with the poetry of the scenic descriptions (in bestsellers it’s traditional to save sex for near the end of each chapter, so that the reader feels his brain has been mentally masturbated prior to reading the next section the next night. What’s literature but mental masturbation for the emotions?); 7% reflections and conversations with intelligent animals the character has acquired as friends; 11% food and conditions on ships (comparisons of past and present); 15% forebodings and dreams (dream women, Kalli is far too healthy to get dream pussy at sea); 7% Kalli the lumpfish king himself, the creation of this character who is, of course, “driven by powerful contrasts” as the academics term it. A “lively final surge and conflict at the culmination.” This is important stuff.


Alongside this though, there’s an absurd play that he writes for the “Icelandic Opera” followed by a sort of parody of a folk tale about a man who falls for a farmhand, which ends with three people sleeping in a bed feet-to-head and having to avoid getting toes in the crotch or the nose. What do we do with this?

Bit of a spoiler, but in the next few sections there are more of these literary inventions. And, although this is a bit obvious or almost trite to say, I see these as attempts on Tómas’s part to find the right form through which to tell his story. He’s looking for a pathway to writing a bestseller, which could take the form of a biography, or an opera, or a countryside tale in the fashion of Laxness. I don’t know that it’s necessarily that explicit, but this is something to sort of track over the next few composition books.

*


Finally, I want to end by saying how funny this book is. But that it’s a weird sort of humor in the vein of Samuel Beckett. Sure, there are straight up funny bits (see above bit about literature as masturbation for the emotions, or the story of what happens to the CEO in Switzerland after he loses the 20 million and has to have his blood completely replaced), but a lot of the humor comes from the vacillations of ironic distance between Tómas’s situation and his verbosity.

Here you have a old man, unable to get out of bed or wash himself, who is pissed about people in the hallway banging with the lights on, getting all worked up internally and on the page, but who can’t really do anything. Someone who praises himself with a Gatsby-esque list of how ordered his thoughts are throughout the day, but who loses his job because he can’t work an adding machine. And sometimes he covers up the squalor of his present moment with memories and rants against the new, weak Icelanders, but at other times, everything breaks down, collapsing into a true representation of the present, in which he’s just a man who wanted to be great but is now about to die alone, bringing out all the pathos of a more conventional epic.

And in some ways, this humor is most present when you go back to the book. In the present moment, reading it, I’ve found myself focused mostly on trying to figure out the whats and whys. Is this what’s really happening? But the second I get on the podcast with Lytton and start talking through what I just read, all the humor comes to the surface.

17 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Ph.D. candidate Anastasia Nikolis joins Chad and Lytton to talk about the real meat of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller—chamber pot usage! They also discuss the way our grumpy narrator’s mind works, the way he finds beauty in ambiguity, how Lytton translated a very specific word game, and a couple cues to help keep track of “when” particular sections are taking place. A lively and learned episode—just like the novel itself.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And listen to Anastasia’s poetry podcast, Black Box Poetry, to hear more of her thoughts about writing and literature.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



14 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the Biography, first composition book, second book, and third composition book (pages 1-31) from Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This initial post is probably going to be straightforward and short, but I think it’s worthwhile getting things started by trying to lay out the most basic elements of this book—like who’s talking, and when is this taking place—while also starting to hone in on Guðbergur’s unique sense of humor.

Let’s start with a bit of a simplified timeline for these four sections based out of quotes from the book:

I think it would be easiest to begin this way, this First Book, and move without further delay right to the kernel of the matter, thus: during the first years of World War II, I took some lodgers into my apartment, Sveinn and Katrín, a married couple with five children: Stína, who died; Dóri, their son; an infant boy; and a small cat, Títa,           he naps soft and warm against me as I write and has come back, together with Anna and Magnús and Dóri           I think they’re all grown up and moreover there’s a new addition to the crowd, Hermann, I hear them call him,           cursed forever is the day they returned,           and the musician, who rented the small bedroom on the other side of the partition, i.e. this bedroom where I now live, after he moved into the other bedroom, which is much smaller.



And then a bit later in that same section:

I have been forced to take ignorant people into my property’s square footage           but are there any laws against lawlessness           who makes laws dictating that apartments cannot stand empty and unoccupied in the struggle over housing           am I bound to be a sacrifice to the homeless and improvident, me who is almost blind, deaf, enfeebled [. . .] my mistake from the start consists in being frugal, from deciding to own whyever I did so and Sveinn and Katrín gave notice and left the apartment standing empty for a while           the option was to welcome Magnús and Anna following their relationship with Katrín and Sveinn and Anna is a distant relative of mine, both on the side of the great Bergsætts, the chief family of this country, descended from the kings of Norway at the time of the Settlement, all the kings and queens and princes and princesses on the way to inherit a country a family with joint ownerships it is split into entrepreneurs and intellectuals


In other words, due to Icelandic law (I assume, although can’t find reference to this on the Internet), Tómas Jónsson was forced to take lodgers into his apartment. First off, during World War II, Sveinn and Katrín lived with him. Then, they left, and for a time he was alone. After that (starting in the 1950s and running through the 60s?) Magnús and Anna came to live with him, Anna being a distant relative who also agreed to take care of him in his bedridden state. There’s also a musician, who will become a major character later in the novel.

As you can tell from the very start, the chronology in this book is jumbled. (Total understatement.) Which is why keeping track of these names—and when they lived with Tómas—can be really helpful. Sveinn and Katrín were first, Magnús and Anna came later. This won’t always be a key to deciphering things, but it is a definite help at the start.

*




Who is Tómas Jónsson?

What we know so far is that he is—at least in the most current now—an old, nearly blind (see all the bits about the government provided guide dogs), bedridden man who needs Anna’s help.

yes: according to the terms of the lease it is Anna’s duty to come three times per day at a minimum and change me though she does not come when needed most so it dries on me all by itself and what does Anna do then but turn her nose up and fuss over the strong odor in the room


He’s also someone who refers to himself on several occasions as being “frugal.” Which is a quality that shows up a lot in Laxness’s Independent People as well. (I’m reading that in conjunction with my reread of this, so I can’t help but see parallels and divergences.) And even when he’s not talking about his “General Thrift” money envelope (oh man, does he remind me of my mom), he’s demonstrating his fiscal conservativeness in other, more rant-like ways:

Clearly someone was wasting electricity late into the depth of night. After this incident, I set myself this rule: to take out the fuses from the board each evening. Before I went to bed I made sure to check that the lights everywhere were extinguished. The electricity bill was enough of a burden on me already, sparing as I was with light. And I dropped into the lease conditions some new clauses about light-times in the apartment (I was idiotic enough to include light and heat in the rent): on weekdays in all the shady months, lights must be turned off after 11:30 p.m.; moreover, the housework must stop by then and the apartment must be silent, with the exception of weekends, when the light-time is extended by one hour. And a clause about the use of lights around the major festivals: a) A week before the big festivals, christmas and Easter, the rules that apply on weekends will be observed (to allow for baking and the consumption of baked goods); b) On christmas eve, according to ancient traditions, the lights shall stay on, but the tenant shall replace their bulbs, ones with a smaller wattage. Instead of conventional bulbs, only 15-candle bulbs are allowed. In a chandelier with more than four arms, there must only be two bulbs. All wall sconces and standing lamps must be extinguished. Special provisions for light over the summer months: the homeowner reserves the right to remove all the fuses from the fuse box, other than the one labeled kitchen, and store them in his own room. Final clause: should a situation arise in which someone needs light after the lawfully-approved light time, he must have a flashlight available so he can go in and out of the house. Non-negotiable clause: The use of oil- or candlelight is strictly prohibited because of the risk of fire. Exemption from these regulatory clauses: If a student is in the apartment, he shall be authorized to have a night lamp on, provided the landlord is notified in advance of the bulb size and how long the student intends to read into the night.

Reykjavík, 13. January 1943.
Tómas Jónsson.


(Going back to the first point about the “when” of this novel, the incident he refers to seems to be the first one related in the book, in which he hears some somewhat sexual sounds in the hallway and can see a light through his keyhole. He makes reference to Katrín later, which would fit with the idea that in 1943, after this “incident” in which light was wasted, he made these amendments to the lease.)

Frugal. In poor health. Nearly blind. Basically alone in the world. And yet, also someone who is rather learned. See this bit about naming the new guide dogs:

Tómas, as you know, we have gained a foreign import license from the necessary parties regarding a new shipment of dogs arriving after the New Year. So we have an opportunity to choose appropriately symbolic names for them. And it popped into mind, because the union of shop stewards has heard you’re outstandingly accomplished in many fields—didn’t you teach final exams outside school?—whether such a learned man as you might advise us. We were thinking of choosing dog names from famous dogs from history, or names that refer to the dimming of the sight. We already have, as you know, dogs with names like Trygg, Höðr, Oðin, Heimdallr. These are extremely popular. Höður was blind. Oðin one-eyed. Heimdallr had ears instead of eyes. I had to hold myself back from christening dogs after famous dogs in the movies: Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, although I know that this would prove amiable to most sponsors. Do you have any ideas for names?


And he also has this really great paragraph in which he touches on the impact major works have had on history and ideas of the self:

nothing is left but chaos           not since the great conquest of Gibraltar has the world been safe           after On the Origin of Species I am not explicitly created in the image of god           after the publication of Das Kapital the proprietary rights to my apartment are cast in doubt           undoubtedly I do not sleep the innocent sleep of a child following the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams even dreams are not innocent anymore nothing is innocent           the damned nineteenth century woke us up from innocence


*




And along with Tómas’s learnedness comes his edge. His ranting style, that takes off from one idea and runs scattershot (should be a mixed metaphor, but it also makes a ton of sense in the context of this book) until trailing off in a moment of repose and/or senility. (Footnote! This book reminds me of House Mother Normal by B. S. Johnson in its representation of the inner workings of a senile mind. I’ll try and get into that more next week.)

Here follows a short list of the main risks that beset the small population of the icelandic nation from 1939 up until the Marshall Plan:

a) Gymnastics softens the bellies of young men and makes them work-shy; b) bicycle saddles destroy young virgins—“the priority being that every husband enjoys his wife on their wedding night; for girls, bicycles are no different than promiscuity”; c) the extension of school-going nourishes debility in people and hardens the mouths of adolescents (Enemy No. 1, Brynjólf Bjarnason, K. fl.); d) Contraceptives, “which are nothing but the assassination of fine upstanding citizens who are alive and fertile in the seed of those who desire nothing more than to see the creation of The One” in the fullness of time (Enemy No. 1, Katrín Thoroddsen, K. fl.); away with sheaths from the breast pockets of all men’s jackets! A prophylactic-free land! All such new products in the stores amount to the end of the world, the plucking and eradication of the icelandic family. Merchants and shady dealers contribute to this I) with brilliantine, which renders Icelanders as bald as foreigners; II) burning people’s stomachs with mustard and ketchup; III) increasing everyone’s belching and wind by means of vegetables; IV) killing tourists in tents with canned poison in canned food; V) hollowing out the insides of people’s heads via radio; VI) importing sexually transmitted diseases and sexual promiscuity with open foreign underwear, “which must be carefully boiled in a high strength alkali soap before wear;” VII) increasing appendicitis by importing overpriced raisins with pits in them; destroying women’s brains with imports of high heels (2000000 blows daily to the spinal cord and cerebellum); all this that makes one’s wife indifferent to housework and child-rearing.


OK, that one’s funny, but maybe not the best example of the wandering off of thought and sense. Here’s something that gets a bit closer to what I’m talking about:

I cannot think of anything that lets toxins into the blood through the nervous system but something that brings peace and quiet and balance and beauty ABOVE ALL BEAUTY while I pray to the reaper to come or else the messenger with the guide dog and bell collar           they reckon they can teach me to place all my faith in a dog and later care for my belongings with kind intentions they are planning to save those who will never be saved forever improvident who know nothing but foul language and create so much trouble that everything must revolve around the invalids or else the whole community will become invalids and then how will money be taken from Tómas Jónsson

And my favorite line—maybe of all time:

I could punch the friendliness of these voices right in the mouth


*


Over the next couple months, Tómas’s situation and feelings about his lodgers, family, nation, will be expanded upon greatly. But for now, at least you have a bit of a setting in which to let his words spill forth. And don’t focus too much on trying to make everything fit, or understanding every single line. His writings in these notebooks are sporadic and represent his momentary thoughts and urges. They’re not written to be a coherent narrative or novel, but as a sort of last ditch chance to understand himself and his world. As such, it’s fragmented, contradictory, and, at times, steeped in either his private history, or that of Iceland. Keep reading and listening to the podcast though, and the book will definitely open up to you.

10 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And with this episode, we launch the second season of the Two Month Review! Over a ten-week period, we will be breaking down Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, helping explain and explore what makes this book (often referred to as “Iceland’s Ulysses”) so influential and interesting. This season translator, poet, and professor Lytton Smith will join Chad Post to talk about the book, along with a variety of guests, including a number of booksellers, critics, and readers. The full reading schedule can be found here, but in this particular episode, Lytton and Chad provide some background information about the book, Bergsson’s career, and Icelandic literature as a whole. They’re joined this week by Brian Wood, who, as usual, is entertaining and funny while also asking really important questions that help provide a context for approaching this novel.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and Brian Wood, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



7 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first episode in the new season of the Two Month Review will release on Thursday, and in case you haven’t already heard, for the next ten weeks we’ll be discussing Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson.

We have a Goodreads group set up to talk about about this, so feel free to join in and post any and all thoughts, comments, and questions.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

This season’s reading schedule is posted below, with the dates corresponding to when the new podcast episode will go live. (A general post about that section will appear on Three Percent a few days prior to the podcast.)

August 17: Biography, first composition book, second book, third composition book (1-31)

August 24: IV composition book (32-68)

August 31: fifth composition book, VI (69-139)

September 7: tómas’s seventh composition book, 8 (140-199)

September 14: IX. class A, tenth composition book (to “The Soprano Katrín Jónsdóttir”) (200-238)

September 21: tenth composition book (238-281)

September 28: this is the eleventh book, my 12th composition book, book 13 (282-305)

October 5: fourteen, fifteenth book, 16.notebook (306-360)

October 12: 17. composition book (361-411)

Buy the book, read along, listen to the podcast, and join in the conversation!

4 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you probably heard on the most recent episode of the Two Month Review, Chad and Brian used a “guide to writing and publishing” to create new, focus-group approved, jacket copy for Fresán’s The Invented Part. In case it was hard to follow on the audio amid all the laughter, here are their respective attempts at describing this book according to the Tried And True Jacket Copy Formula©:

[Chad]

The Writer is a writer who realizes that the last part of his career isn’t going how he expected. As sales of his books steadily decline, those of his arch-nemesis, IKEA—a former student with a better agent, better hair, and a better looking audience—continue to explode. To the Writer, his future seems grim, destined to fade slowly into outmode obsolescence.

Suddenly, the Writer is given an assignment to go to Switzerland and write about the Large Hadron Collider—an opportunity that gives him an idea for resurrecting his career. Maybe he can break into the collider, expose himself to the “god particle” and transcend space-time.

Now he has a way out. A way to leave the world with one last great impression.

But what does transcendence hold for him? Even with an infinite amount of time, will he ever be able to craft the perfect sentence? Will he ever best IKEA?

The Invented Part is as slick as a Kubrick movie, as witty as Sabrina the Teenage Witch meets The Matirx, and will change your life forever.

3 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As a special bonus episode, both Rodrigo Fresán and Will Vanderhyden joined Chad and Brian to talk about The Invented Part as a whole, the first season of the Two Month Review, what’s next in the trilogy, technology’s revenge on Rodrigo, David Lynch, and, how to write jacket copy.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

The next season will focus on Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson. Get your copy now from Open Letter (use 2MONTH at checkout!) or from your favorite book retailer. More info on that reading schedule will be available next week.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and Will Vanderhyden on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.



1 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As she was reading along with the Two Month Review, Tiffany Nichols kept track of every time the phrase “the invented part” appeared. Here they all are!

“he’ll invent something, anything, when answering how he invents the invented part. The invented part—an oh so insubstantial cloud that, nonetheless, manages to make the sun shut its mouth and stay quiet for a while.” (44)

“That the invented part of what’s told also be the way that fiction speaks and expresses itself.” (76)

“And that part, so entertaining that many will say it must be the invented part, ends here.” (206)

“. . . invented parts floating in the air, waiting for him to inhale them and then, inspired, exhale them.” (252)

“the other part” (264)

“One after another. Invented parts.” (265-6)

“Writers are people who, inexactly, always prefer to look away, toward another part—the invented part.” (304)

“Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty.” (317)

“Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty.” (351)

“The children like fragile invented parts always poised to attacked and always exposed to attack from real parts, never clearly seen until it’s already too late.” (352)

“Talking with Scott one time I told him that for me, only the invented part of life was satisifying, only the unrealistic park.” (352)

“His childhood recovered not via personal memories but via personal objects and places that evoke them, reinvented real parts . . .” (353)

“But Fin prefers documentaries. He said once that he prefers ‘the real part’ to ‘the invented part.’” (368)

“So, telling the part in which everything is invented and accepting the most distant past as a form of definitive futurism.” (392)

“And coincidences—falsifications of the fantastic—are nothing more than brief and concentrated and self-sufficient and instantly-analyzable versions of reality. Invented parts.” (410)

“The Great Inventing Part, like Elvis, has left the building.” (437)

“And he wonders again: why since his vocation was always that of inventing, he didn’t apply that talent to inventions like those of Shadow & Plath instead of to literature or whatever it is that he does, that he doesn’t do anymore, that, if anything, he undoes.” (448)

“What’s the invented part and what’s the true part?” (483)

IKEA, who wasn’t as he’d thought him, as he’s described him, as he’d, in part, invented him.” (524)

27 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We did it! After two months, eleven episodes, and a half dozen different guests, Brian and Chand finished their discussion of Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part! Joining them this week to wrap things up is Valerie Miles, translator, publisher, co-founder of Granta en Español, and editor of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. She’s also friends with Rodrigo and offers amazing insight into this wild, stuffed chapter in which we return to the beginning (“How to end. Or better: How to end?”) while The Writer flies through the skies, revisiting all the rants he made at a recent conference, and the spectacular attack from his archnemesis IKEA. There’s a lot more to this section though—especially how it relates to the structure of the overall book.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

The next season will focus on Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson. Get your copy now from Open Letter (use 2MONTH at checkout!) or from your favorite book retailer. More info on that reading schedule will be available next week.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and Valerie Miles on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.



26 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If you’d rather read this podcast in one document, just dowload this PDF. Otherwise, click here to find all four of the earlier pieces along with a bunch of other Two Month Review posts about The Invented Part.

Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.



Will Vanderhyden: Most of your books change over time, meaning subsequent editions are published with corrections, changes, and entirely new content. Like for instance, in the case of The Invented Part, you added some 60 pages of new material to the book as I was translating it. This tendency of yours to continuously rewrite, to add, reminds me, again, of Borges and his quintessentially postmodern ideas about the impossibility of an authentic or definitive original, about how all writing is rewriting, about how literature is alive and cyclically shifting with every reading, rewrite, translation, never fixed and never finished . . . Where does this impulse of yours come from? And, while we are it: can we call your novels novels?

Rodrigo Fresán: Let’s say that it’s hard for me to let go of my books (though it gets easier all the time: material fatigue as time goes by . . . ) When it comes to what I do, the truth is I don’t think much about genres and formats. I prefer to imagine that each one of my books is a different room in the same house that I am discovering as I move through it. Someday, I hope, I’ll climb up to the basement or descend to the attic.

WV: The Invented Part has now grown into a trilogy. The second volume, La parte soñada The Dreamed Part has already been published in Spanish and you’re well into the writing of the third volume, La parte recordada The Remembered Part. Can you talk about how this happened? You didn’t set out to write a trilogy did you?

RF: In the first place, The Dreamed Part wasn’t going to exist. When I wrote The Invented Part I had no plan to do a trilogy, just the opposite, when I finished the novel I had the impression that everything would end there and that I was going to devote myself to something else. And yet, I spent almost a whole long year adding small fragments to The Invented Part, first for the French translation, which came out un January, and, then, to the English translation, which is just coming out now. I didn’t have a plan about how and what the next book after The Invented Part would be, but I was thinking of something small, of something uncomplicated and quickly written. And yet, I realized that I was having a really hard time letting go of the voice of The Invented Part. I really liked what I had achieved with that voice: it’s a kind of third person in first person. I think that, also, when I finished the novel, I had become sort of addicted to that version of myself, a kind of alter ego/Mr. Hyde who could say all the things that not only could I not say, but that I couldn’t even think. It was appealing to see how I would have been if I had suffered certain constants and not done certain things, like become a father. Then that small book that I had thought of, whose idea was a night in the life of two kids and their slightly mad uncle, going all over a city looking for their parents, was abducted by The Dreamed Part and, in fact, that story of the two kids was the last thing I wrote, turning it into the final four or five pages of The Dreamed Part. And the truth is that when I accepted that I was going to continue with the voice of The Invented Part, I felt very comfortable and the writing of this second novel went quite quickly, as is the writing of the third one, The Remembered Part. The idea is that the trilogy ends up creating a portrait, between figurative and abstract, of how a writer thinks . . . A memoir not of a life but of a method. When you remember something, at the same time, you decide to forget something, because you never remember the totality of events. That, in itself, is already exists a form of editing and narrative building. The same thing happens when you dream and when you invent. That is, if you will, the formal center of the trilogy. To invent and to dream and to remember. Those are the three motors of the narration of a life that together make a work of art. The inevitable problem, of course, will be what to do when the trilogy is finished. But it will be a happy problem, I hope.

Tune in tomorrow for the final episode of the Two Month Review on The Invented Part. Then come back next week when we launch into season two, which will feature Guðbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller.

25 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the seventh, and final, part of The Invented Part (“The Imaginary Person,” pages 441-552). As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

In a couple weeks, the second season of the Two Month Review will start up and will feature Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson. As with The Invented Part you can get this for 20% off from our website by using the same 2MONTH code. A preview podcast about Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller will go up on August 10th, and on August 17th we’ll be talking about pages 1-31.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This is likely going to be a quote-heavy post, so why not start things off right:

How to end.

Or better: How to end?

Adding the question mark that—nothing happens by chance—has the shape of . . . / OF WHAT? / INSERT HERE /; sharp and pointy pages like the edges of the wings of Jumbo Jets / FIND, PLEASE, A BETTER SIMILE TO CREATE THE ATMOSPHERE OF AN AIRPORT /, slicing into both those who rise and those who fall, pulling them, dragging them down the air-conditioned aisles or making them fly in pieces through the air to land just inside the airport of these parentheses / COULD THERE BE PLACES MOREBETWEEN PARENTHESESTHAN AIRPORTS? (EXPAND) / that more than one person will criticize or judge as unnecessary; but that, in the uncertainty of a beginning, are oh so similar to hands coming together in an act of prayer, asking for a fair voyage now drawing to an end. And good luck to all, wishes you this voice / ALLUSION HERE TO THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE VOICE OF THE SIREN LOUDSPEAKERS THAT SING AND CONFUSE TRAVELERS IN AIRPORTS? TO THE IRRITATION OF SUCCESSIVE CHECKPOINTS CLOSING LIKE CHINESE BOXES OR RUSSIAN NESTING DOLLS? / that the gag of the parentheses renders unknown, and yet—like with certain unforgettable songs, whose melodies impose themselves over the title—it recalls the voice of someone whose name you can’t quite identify and recognize. / BOB DYLAN? PINK FLOYD? LLOYD COLE? THE BEATLES? NILSSON? THE KINGS? / And, yes, if possible, avoid this kind of paragraph from here onward / FORBID ANY FUTURE MENTION OF ELECTRONIC READERS ON PAIN OF DEATH? / ALLUDE TO THAT CHINESE CURSEMAY YOU HAVE AN INTERESTING LIFETRANSLATED NOW INTO MILLIONS OF ASIANS ENSLAVED BY THE WEST TO PRODUCE THEIR SMALL ELECTRONIC INVENTIONS THAT, LATER, WILL IN TURN ENSLAVE THEM, TURNING THEM INTO ADDICTS OF A NEW FORM OF OPIUM? THE CYCLE OF THE INTERESTING LIFE? HAKUNA MATATA? / FEAR THAT THE WHOLE THING IS BEGINNING TO SOUND LIKE AN OBSESSION OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT, FEAR OF BEING LIKE THOSE LUNATICS SCREAMING IN EMPTY STREETS / because, they say, it scares away today’s readers, accustomed to reading quickly and briefly on small screens, counting up to one hundred forty, and send / AND, ALONG THE WAY, ASKING, JUST TO KNOW, WHAT PARENTHESES MEAN AND WHAT IS THE RAISON D’ÊTRE, BUT PLEASE; WITHOUT SUCCUMBING TO IMAGES LIKEPARENTHESES ARE LIKE PRAYER PINS” / THE THING ABOUT PARENTHESES AS “HANDS COMING TOGETHER IN AN ACT OF PRAYER” IS MORE THAN ENOUGH ALREADY / and . . .


(All the caps above are actually in small caps, and a different font in the book itself. But not American Typewriter, the font that has come to stand in for the Transcended Writer in earlier chapters. Something new.)



This might sound familiar, and that’s because here’s the opening of the novel:

How to begin.

Or better: How to begin?

(Adding the question mark that—nothing happens by chance—has the shape of a fish or meat hook. A sharp and pointy curve that skewers both the reader and the read. Pulling them, dragging them up from the clear and calm bottom to the cloudy and restless surface. Or sending them flying through the air to land just inside the beach of these parentheses. Parentheses that more than one person will judge or criticize as orthographically and aesthetically unnecessary but that, in the uncertainty of the beginning, are oh so similar to hands coming together in an act of prayer, asking for a fair voyage just now underway. We read: “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate;” we hear: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” And good luck to all, wishes you this voice—halfway down the road of life, lost in a dark woods, because it wandered off the right path—that the gag of the parentheses renders unknown. And yet—like with certain unforgettable songs, whose melodies impose themselves over the title and even over the signature lines of the chorus, what’s it called? how’d it go?—this voice also recalls that of someone whose name isn’t easy to identify or recognize. And, yes, if possible, avoid this kind of paragraph from here onward because, they say, it scares away many of today’s readers. Today’s electrocuted readers, accustomed to reading quickly and briefly on small screens. And, yes, goodbye to all of them, at least for as long as this book lasts and might last. Unplug from external inputs to nourish yourselves exclusively on internal electricity. And—warning! warning!—at least in the beginning and to begin with, that’s the idea here, the idea from here onward. Consider yourselves warned.)


So, not exactly the same, but made up of the same bones. Although now that we’re on the airplane, approaching the end, coming in to land, we get to see how The Writer/Fresán puts the meat on those bones. It’s almost like seeing the rough draft, but in the mirror, after The Writer’s story has unfolded, in contrast to that opening section in which he’s a little boy, having the singular experience that will make him into a writer.

And yes, the novel is an ouroboros, as The Writer looks out the window to see a beach that’s mighty close to the one in part one . . .

Now he looks out the little window and down below is a beach, and the mouth of a river opening onto the sea, and a speck floating in the water that—he could swear it—is a boy who looks up at the sky and points at the airplane and at him inside it, looking down. Now, at the end but again at the beginning, his mouth is full of water and laughter. He’s drowning but, seen from the present of his future, as if invoking the ghost of vacation past, he knows he’ll survive, that he’ll live to tell it and turn it into a story. But knowing how it ends doesn’t remake it any less interesting. Just the opposite, the details of that small moment merge with the immensity of what’s to come and, for example, now he can specify that the novel, the same novel, that his parents are reading is Tender Is the Night (1934, first published in four installments, between January and April of that year, in Scribner’s Magazine) and that its author is Francis Scott Fitzgerald (St. Paul Minnesota 1896 / Hollywood, California, 1940). He also knows why they’re arguing, near but far away, on the beach, unaware their son is drowning. And also—courtesy of Ways of Dying—he understands in detail what’s happening—the way the water is entering his body to dilute his blood. The fireworks of endorphins getting ready to explode in his brain, throwing the party of the white light at the end of the tunnel. An entire life revisited in a couple minutes, like one of those little books with pictures printed in the margins that, when you flip through it at full speed, creates the illusion of a kind of movement. Seeing himself from outside as if, correcting what he just finished writing, he were reading himself and, reading himself, he remembers how he read once that one of Truman Capote’s favorite questions was what do you imagine you would imagine—“what images, in the classic tradition,” to be precise—in that eternal moment of drowning.


*

So what is real, and what is this book exactly? In some ways, this chapter totally pulls the carpet out from under the reader—makes sense that it all takes place on an airplane—or overturns the chess board, or whatever metaphor you prefer to use when referring to some literary mindfuckery. Regardless, this is the chapter in which what you’ve been lead to believe—that The Writer broke into CERN and now can control reality as if it were a piece of writing—didn’t happen.



Of course, something went wrong, nothing went right. The whole moment had the tremulous and ultraviolent choreography of one of those old silent (but seemingly filmed at full volume) Keystone Kops movies. Or, better, of one of the Coen brothers’ movies where dreamers and visionaries like Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski or Llewyn Davis or Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough or Tom Reagan or Ulysses Everett McGill don’t get what they deserve but do get what a good story deserves, and so—for them as for him now—events precipitate, yessir. They spotted him approaching a restricted access door and, immediately, he was jumped on by several guards who—they weren’t fooling him—were direct descendants of SS officers. They quickly subdued and removed him without a beating (“Elvis has left the building,” he thought as they cuffed his hands and feet and dragged him out of there), but executing a series of tai-chi martial arts moves and Vulcan death grips on his cervical nerves that left no trace, and he wasn’t so much tossed as deposited in a holding cell that was far nicer and cleaner than the flat he lived in and that, oh boy, seemed decorated entirely with, yes, IKEA-brand furniture. [. . .]


And then—ultimate humiliation—he was rescued by IKEA.

IKEA, who wasn’t as he’d thought him, as he’d described him, as he’d, in part, invented him.

IKEA was an excellent person, who had always been very grateful to him for everything, and who pulled strings and used his considerable influence to get him released and paid his fine in the millions for “attempting to bring about the end of the world.”

I love the fact that even after admitting this, The Writer falls right back into making fun of his invented IKEA and everything that he stands for. Although in the greater scheme of things, this imagined IKEA gets in the final—and maybe the best, or at least the one that hits closest to home for me and The Writer—shot.

At the Swiss writers’ conference, The Writer is on a panel playing the role of slightly older writer who can crap on the new trends with some authority and respect. He does all of his various bits—about writers who don’t read, who just want to be known as being writers (see all of #AmWriting on Twitter ever), about Twitter, about the future of books being more concerned with the package than the content, etc., etc.—the same sort of bits we’ve been reading (and loving, and cheering on) for five hundred pages. And then, there’s a long response from his archnemesis IKEA, who lays bare the truths of conventional readers:

I’ll take this opportunity to give you some far more useful advice than the advice you once gave me, ha. No, seriously, listen: enough already with these books about writers, books about writing. Nobody’s interested in literature, beginning with the majority of readers, man. And writers are only interested in their own writing and, at most, to seem impressive, the writing of some distant dead man whom they latch onto as if they’d known him all their lives. Normal people just want to pass time and feel represented. Haven’t you ever read the comments on Amazon that condemn a book with the worst rating? No? Read them and you’ll learn. The reason is always the same: ‘I didn’t identify with any of the characters’ or ‘There wasn’t a single character worth getting to know.’ Why do you think all my books have the characters’ faces on the covers? [. . .] And also, enough with your referential mania and stop with your enumerations and lists and going around pointing out and acknowledging each and every one of your sources and debts and allusions. This display of honesty is in bad taste and it makes you look like the combination of an old man of the nouveau riche and a little orphan of literature. The worst of both worlds. And no one expects or asks you for that display of honesty. We all steal things, nobody admits it, and we don’t like that you go around reminding us of our little sins. [. . .] And while you’re at it: quit repeating that thing about the one hundred forty characters of Twitter. That’s not how it works. Not exactly. Don’t talk about things you don’t understand and, even worse, don’t get pissed about what you don’t know. Relax, man.


*


As I was finishing my reread of The Invented Part, I was reminded of a piece of punctuation that I helped (with Kaija Straumanis) to invent some years ago: the hyphellipsis.

This was something that we came up with during a translation workshop that was meant to function halfway between a normal ellipses and an emdash. We envisioned it as three dots floating halfway up, in the space where a normal emdash would go. Looking back on it though—and trying to figure out how best to represent it in three-dimensional space—it might make more sense to think of these three little dots suspended mid-line between two parenthesis (. . .)

Which, more so than an ouroboros, represents the overall pattern of this novel. On the two ends, you have the two parentheses—one looking toward the future, one toward the past. In between, we have five sections that are held in between these two hands, each dependent more on its overall surroundings than what came before or after, almost like little dots held aloft. Like a hyphellipsis.

*


So what comes next?



The Dreamed Part is out in Spanish, there to be read by all of you whose comprehension of the Spanish language is far more advanced than mine. (It takes quite a bit of attention and expertise to wade through the torrents of language and games and lists and references when reading Fresán in English; I can’t imagine what it’s like trying to undertake this in your second language.) And he’s currently working on The Remembered Part, which will round out the trilogy.

Two things I know: The Spanish press has referred to the first two volumes of the trilogy as Fresán’s own Inland Empire. A big fan of David Lynch’s works (we spend most Mondays discussing Twin Peaks: The Return), this totally makes sense, especially in the way in which The Invented Part opens up his creative process, peeling back layers, letting the reader see how his own personal obsessions and touchstones are invoked, recombined, expanded, and woven into his texts. This thrills me to no end.

The other thing I know is that The Dreamed Part has much more Nabokov than Fitzgerald. Does this mean that it’s more stylistically tricksy and less straight emotional? That’s also thrilling.

Looking back over the novel we just finished reading, here are a bunch of ideas of what might lie ahead: More on Ishmael Tantor. Full explanation of what happened to Penelope’s son. More about the rivalry with IKEA. Some sort of recourse from trying to break into CERN? Or maybe something entirely different, a new reworking of these tropes into a beautiful, imaginative, mind-bending novel?

Whatever comes next, I’ll be there for the ride, enjoying every second of it.

20 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s another 2MR review with just Chad and Brian! Similar to the last guest-less podcast, this one goes a bit off the rails . . . Although this time around it gets a lot darker, as they talk about Chekov, Girl, Night, Swimming Pool, Etc., a scream descending from the skies, John Cheever’s writing prompt, and much much more.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

If you don’t already subscribe to Two Month Review/Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and elsewhere. Or you can subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss



17 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the sixth part of The Invented Part (“Meanwhile, Once Again, Beside the Museum Stairway, Under a Big Day,” pages 405-440). As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Last week I referenced my theory about how the whole of The Invented Part is structured, with the fourth section serving as a fulcrum, and the parts on either side reflecting each other. So, the first section is mirrored in the seventh, the second in the sixth, third in the fifth.

Granted, I read the book last year when we were preparing it for publication, so yes, I was cheating a bit, but I was still glad to see my theory play itself out in this section (the sixth), which features The Young Man and Young Woman and mirrors the second section, “The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin.” Without giving away too many details, I’ll just say that this part wraps up a ton of plot points from the earlier section: Why did The Writer name The Young Man as one of his favorite living authors? What’s the deal with Ishmael Tantor? What happened to The Writer after breaking into CERN and merging with the so-called god particle? What would The Writer do with this power? Why so many pages about airplanes? (Actually, we’ll come back to that last one next week.)

On the podcast we’ve mentioned the fact that Fresán wrote the seven sections of this book simultaneously at least a dozen times. As a gratuitous reminder, here’s the section from his interview with translator Will Vanderhyden in which he mentions it:

I wasn’t saying that I write with the same degree of genius and talent that The Beatles had, not at all. I was saying, and I explained this in the interview, that after reading a memoir by Geoff Emerick, The Beatles’ sound engineer, the thing about equalizing and utilizing different channels on the sound mixer ended up having a great deal to do with the way I wrote The Invented Part, whose seven parts I wrote simultaneously. I had seven files open, and I worked on a different one each day. And, at the same time, I didn’t really know where that novel was going, until my son provided me with the key, the little toy figure that appears on the cover of the original edition, which has now become a kind of little literary icon . . . I was bogged down. I had spent years writing a novel, I knew what I wanted to say, I even had a plan, but it wasn’t coming together.


If you’re reading this book for the first time, it’s easy to see it as a sort of wild, Beat-poet inspired ramble through the mind of an aging author. (I’m reminded of a drunken conversation I once had with Wells Tower in which he complained of Roberto Bolaño, “Is there anything this guy doesn’t include in his novels?”)

But, as you reread, or think about, or revisit the book, it becomes more and more clear just how intricately the novel has been constructed. There are little clues and hints and references littered throughout, such as this bit from the second section, in which The Young Man is recounting all the writing workshops he’s attended:

The one with the guy who insisted “that everything begins and ends with Chekov.” Which caused The Young Man a lot of anxiety: because The Young Man read Chekov, enjoyed Chekov, but never understood what his genius was. And he understood even less all the people who wanted to write like that. Those endings that were so open, where nothing was resolved and where all you seem to hear was the voice of the wind slipping in and running around. Endings where, for example, a man and a woman meet beside a museum stairway, with the whole sky above their heads, just to say goodbye to each other. And that’s about it.



(An Anton Chekhov finger puppet seems appropriate.)

On first read you might think that’s pretty funny, or it reminds you of a professor you once had. But then, a mere 322 pages later, you get this bit about The Young Man and Young Woman:

Meanwhile, once again, beside the Museum stairway, under a big sky, he and she wonder how and why they’ve ended up there, after so long without seeing each other (though really it was only a few minutes ago that they said goodbye, again), and only so they can say goodbye.


Or, to really drive this home, twenty-nine pages later, this section ends with:

Meanwhile, once again, beside the Museum stairway, under a big sky, he says to himself that this is, in a way, the closest thing to an Anton Chekov story he’ll ever write. He wonders, also, if all the preceding might not be clearer if it were rearranged in strict chronological order, from back to front, with the most nocturnal of tenderness, until it arrived to this eternal present, meanwhile, once again, beside the Museum stairway, under a big sky.


Books that reward you for paying attention are the best.

*

So, in relation to this section we have, on the one hand, Chekov, and on the other, Rick and Morty. There’re elegant phrasings (e.g., “meanwhile, once again, beside the Museum stairway, under a big sky”), emotional partings, and a tragic death alongside a giant museum of The Writer, which is The Writer, who has been transformed into the Big Sky, an almighty figure who can control everything, including The Young Man and Young Woman, whom he keeps bringing together, beside the Museum stairway, under a big sky, to have the depart, say “goodbye” until he’s ready to intervene and replay this same moment, with slight variation, yet again.

I couldn’t help but think of this “museum” as a giant Rick-shaped head, tweaking reality over and over again, while Morty flips out on the side, “oh, oh geez Rick, you can’t just be toying with people’s existential realities that way. That’s, that’s just not good Rick. You built a museum of yourself to be worshipped and now you’re making everyone read your books over and over, with like, no regard for their free will? Y-you’ve gone too far.” (My Morty impersonation is only good in person, when inebriated.)



One way to read this section is to treat it at face value, as the culmination of the novel’s “plot.” The Writer has accomplished his goal of merging with the god particle and transcending space-time in order to rewrite reality whenever he wants. Which is crazy. Which would be glorious!

Or, you can see this as a new spin (a quantum spin? sorry) on metafiction, in which the pretense that a book is reflecting reality is shoved aside in favor of acknowledging that characters are just that—characters.

The Invented Part has always been a book about “the invented parts” of fiction and art, and part of that inventing is rewriting, redrafting, tweaking, and rejiggering scenes and sentences. Here, in this section, we’re witness to a new version of that, in which we get to the see the Writer doing this right on the page, with comments on his own writing, or bits like this, which almost look like MS Word with track changes turned on:

Insert: “Big Sky” was one of X’s favorite songs before becoming X and ascending into the big sky, and that’s that. There was a time when X, before becoming X, could compose lyrical tirades about songs. Now, since becoming X, X prefers to let the song itself sing and he just steps aside to listen to the song being sung. That song is like the equivalent and replacement of all the sacramental hymns floating in the naves of all the churches and cathedrals. Glory to the Creator, Blessed be, Hallowed be thy name, Forever and ever, etcetera.


And right from the beginning, The Young Man and Young Woman realize that they are characters under the Writer’s control:

There was a time when, yes, they were the ones who decided and improvised how they said goodbye and how they got back together, amid tears and laughter, masters of a story that might have been poorly written but, at least, they were the ones writing it.

Now, not so much, not anymore.

Now, the goodbye is final and refined and elegant.

A carefully considered and calculated and far better written goodbye; but a goodbye written by someone else.

Written by someone who is never entirely pleased with the result and, so, starting over, saying “hello” again to say “goodbye” again. Though now the one who writes and edits them seems to be concentrating not on the twist of the reunion, but, solely, on the pogo-stick of the goodbye.



There’s even a moment in which The Young Man breaks free for a minute before The Writer (referred to here as X) takes back over with a vengeance.

Like, he suddenly remembers, those plantation owners who ceaselessly read The Count of Monte Cristo to their slaves, forced to roll Montecristo-brand cigars: as if giving the prisoners the gift of a great fictitious revenge whose smoke and fragrance they’ll never get to breathe in. And, suddenly, intoxicated by that not new but, yes, sudden memory (and frightened by the carelessness of X, who, distracted maybe, allowed him to remember it), he starts to tremble. And he feels him come back. X. Firing off shrieks like flares. And entering his head and scrambling it until, there inside, on a tropical island, plantation owners don’t read The Count of Monte Cristo to those working the land anymore; they read them Dracula—the story of a hunter who suddenly finds himself hunted. [. . .]

And X’s message is clear: “Don’t get clever, there’s no way out, I’m the only one who thinks around here, and you, now, are nothing but the writing of my writing, the ink of my ink, the blood of my blood, circulating through the tangled mess of wiring that grows inside my centrifuge brain.”

And, yes, there it is, there it remains.

The edifice of the Museum has the shape of a head.


Rick’s head!

Metafiction has been around for a very long time—long before John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse directly addressed its own structure, and before Gilbert Sorrentino borrowed, and then trapped, two characters from other books in Mulligan Stew, Laurence Sterne was pulling back the curtain in Tristam Shandy—and there’s no real reason to go over all of that right here, but I do want to mention that this particular flavor of metafiction reminds me a lot of Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel). A fellow Argentinian writer, Macedonio’s book was a huge inspiration to Borges, and is made up of two parts: 122 pages of prologues (“The Model Prologue,” “Prologue of Indecision,” “Another Prologue”) followed by 126 pages of the “novel,” in which an author forces his characters to practice their lines and movements in preparation for his novel. Actually, there is a third section as well. This page, which comes between the two aforementioned parts:

Were those prologues? And is this the novel?

This page is for the reader to linger, in his well-deserved and serious indecision, before reading on.


So much fun. Both of these books are just a joy to read. Especially if you’re at all into the idea that fiction is a fiction, and there’s no good reason to strictly adhere to the illusion that words on a page correspond—via images and ideas—to the so-called “real” world. In these books you get to see creators at play; in more realistic books, you get Jonathan Franzen.

13 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review, Tom Roberge from Riffraff and the Three Percent Podcast joins Chad and Brian talk about 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pink Floyd, potential errors and non-errors, cultural touchstones that serve to define friendships, the overall structure of this chapter of The Invented Part, and Tom’s experience coming on the podcast having read only these forty pages of the novel. And, as per usual, Chad sneaks in a few Twin Peaks references.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and “The” Tom Roberge on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

If you don’t already subscribe to Two Month Review/Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and elsewhere. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss



12 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the fourth of a five-part interview with Rodrigo Fresán. Earlier parts are all avialble on the Three Percent website (I, II, and III), as are all other Two Month Review posts.

Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.



Will Vanderhyden: The narrator of The Invented Part has strong feelings about screen culture, about the prevalence of certain technologies—i.e. ebooks, smartphones, Facebook, twitter, etc.—and their implications for literature. To what extent do you share his feelings? How do you think technology is changing the way we read and write?

Rodrigo Fresán: A little. But not that much. It irritates and bothers me, but I can look the other way. In The Dreamed Part, the second book in the trilogy, the reason for and root of the protagonist’s luddite passion is clarified. But I don’t know if I should say or give anything away in that sense. Yes, maybe, it might be appropriate here to offer a fragment from the next book where the narrator, in the form of a list of questions, delves into a particular preoccupation of his (also mine) about how we have sold our souls and our eyes to certain gadgets. There I go, here it comes: “Think about it a little: not that long ago none of you were going around carrying those little devices with you everywhere and you lived lives that were more or less the same as the ones you live now and you were masters of the same intelligence quotient and the same powers of internal and external observation . . . Tell me, what is it that has changed so much in your lives and the lives of your acquaintances in recent years that has made you feel the obligation or need to share everything that happens to you and everything that you happen to think of, eh? Sure, if all of you had, courtesy of some fork in space-time, been in Dallas with your little phones that morning in 1963, we’d probably know exactly how many shooters there were and where they shot from and we’d be able to see JFK’s head explode from all possible angles. But seriously, I mean it, believe me: nobody is interested in that photo of what you’re eating or that sunset you’re seeing or your most recent deep thought that you just have to share with all of humanity unless you’re interested in their reflections and their sunsets and their meals too . . . Isn’t it true that not that long ago you liked many fewer things and that you took your time to think about whether something was or wasn’t worthy of a like? Isn’t it true that just a few years ago you didn’t read so much and definitely didn’t write so much? Isn’t it true that it used to make more to sense to go to the bathroom to read than to write? Isn’t it true that you used to live without wondering whether everything you did or thought was inspiring enough and worthy of being instantaneously and constantly sent out into the fullest emptiness in all of history? Isn’t it true that those lives were actually more interesting and that, every so often, it was fun to sit down with a friend, live and direct and in person, and say to them: ‘You have no idea what happened to me last week’ and then proceed to tell them with a full luxury of details, just as you had practiced in your heads, with authentic tears and laughter? Isn’t it true that it’s more appropriate to tell people about your pregnancies or tumors in private and one on one and in different ways depending on the person and not to tell everyone at the same time with the same words? Isn’t it true that there was a certain charm to coming home and—when it wasn’t bad news—finding a handwritten note on the ground beside the door or on a desk or stuck to the refrigerator door and opening it and under that cold light reading the warmth of that message? Isn’t it true that it’s disturbing to think that the activity you do most throughout the day is stare at your phone? Isn’t it true that it’s much more pleasant not to feel that already-diagnosed-by-neurologists ‘phantom vibration’ at the height of your pockets, as if it were the phone that we forgot and that isn’t even there calling and reminding us of its existence from far away, like the reflex and memory of some unforgettable amputated body part. Isn’t it true that you kind of miss that delectable torture of not being able to remember something—a name, a title, a song—and not find it and abort it immediately via Google so that, instead, you allow that forgotten thing to live and expand and, while you try to defeat it, you awaken other memories and other songs and titles and names? Isn’t it true that it used to be so gratifying to be the first to remember something in a gathering of the absent-minded? Isn’t it true that it was much easier to detect the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s and to get ahead in its treatment without the use of instantaneous memory aids? Isn’t it true that it was exciting when every time you took a photo you were also making a choice? Isn’t it true that it was better to have memories that were far more precise than all those blurry photos where you can’t even tell who is in them? Isn’t it true that it was more exciting when every time you didn’t take a photo you were also making a choice? Isn’t it true that you used to film and photograph your kids less and you looked at them more and saw them better at home or at end-of-year performances or at birthdays? Isn’t it true that life was a little better when everyone who made fun of you in high school or at work could only do it from nine to five and not like now, on Facebook (‘Facebook friend’ was a great oxymoron, he thought) or Instagram or wherever, at all hours of the day and night, and you there promising and deceiving yourself that you won’t log back on to see how they hit you and insult you and laugh in your screen-face. Isn’t it true that it’s better to go out into the street and meet up with friends and not to capture virtual monsters that cost you less and less money, which takes more and more work to earn? Isn’t it true that it was better to go out walking in the street and randomly run into people instead of knowing where they are at all times but never seeing them in person? Isn’t it true that it was so nice to go out walking and be sure that nobody could call you on the phone? Isn’t it true that it was better to go out into the street when there were none of those new stoplights, on the ground, specially located to protect people who keep getting run over because they’re walking, head down, looking at the screen of their phone? Isn’t it true that it was nobler to immediately come to the aid of the unknown victim of an accident instead of making a video and “sharing it” first? Isn’t it true that it’s weird that doctors, when it comes time to let family members say goodbye to their loves ones—many of them dying because they were so concentrated on their phones they never saw what was coming at them until it was too late—have opted, I read about this the other day, to unplug the screens of the monitors that register the dying vital signs, because many people, reflexively, ignore the dying person and stare at those devices with the sound of videogames of game over? Isn’t it true that everything sounded better when all the phones sounded more or less the same, when their voice was more or less the same? Isn’t it true that you kind of miss those days when having a good memory was something to be proud of and not something we put in the hands of that device in our hands? Isn’t it true that it was exciting to memorize the phone number of a person you loved and to dial their digits one and a time, as if they were the letters of the person’s name, instead of just pressing a button without ever knowing what those numbers might add to or subtract from our hearts? Isn’t it true that we should be prouder of the memory of our soft brain than that of our hard disc? Isn’t it true that the world seemed better ordered and fairer when it wasn’t so easy to reach anybody via email, and certain levels of friendship and hierarchies of familiarity and rules of protocol were respected? Isn’t it true that things worked better when someone asked the legitimate owner first before casually giving away their phone number and email address to just anybody? Isn’t it true that it was a pleasure to unplug the phone or to think that you had achieved enough success in your life that you could dispense with it, that you had someone to deal with those ring-ring-rings or with those ringtones personalized—like those car horns that used to sing “La cucaracha”—with songs from TV shows or movies or famous speeches or, even worse, the wailing of your own baby? Isn’t it true that you made love more often or at least thought about making love more often or slept more and more deeply dreaming about making love and not about staring at and talking on your phone? Isn’t it true that it was much more enjoyable to go to the bathroom with a book and not a phone? Isn’t it true that spy thrillers and love stories were much better and more exciting when their moles and kitty cats had to search for and locate a phone on the street or in a bar and weren’t carrying it with them everywhere? Isn’t it true that the president of the United States still looks more elegant in the oval office with an old-school telephone and not holding one of those plastic and metal wafers? Isn’t it true that everything was more comfortable when you didn’t have to declare them at airports as if they were lethal weapons? Isn’t it true that it was easier to live a calmer life in a world where phones weren’t exploding and the new model of something wasn’t worse than previous models? Isn’t it true that your lives were better when you were people who thought something, and thought about it for a while before broadcasting it, and your face and name were out in the open and not the maniacal masks of avatars and aliases and anonymous and invasive body snatchers? Isn’t it true that everything was much nicer when phone calls were much less frequent and lasted much less time? Isn’t it true that life was more relaxed when you spent time reading absolutely nothing and maybe achieved some kind of Zen emptiness, unlike now when you read all the time, and all you read are brief stupidities that, in their accumulation, end up turning you into a big stupid nothing. Isn’t it true that what makes you check your social media profiles every minute isn’t the satisfaction of seeing yourselves there but of confronting the constant dissatisfaction of not really being seen by anyone? Isn’t it true that everything was much nicer when you didn’t have to take constant and interminable seminars to be able to use new applications, suspecting that soon everything would completely flip upside down and you’d have to start from mechanics’ ground zero and take classes to learn how to hold a spoon and slurp down your soup? Isn’t it true that everything seemed much grander and much more expressive when the world was much smaller and much more incommunicado? Isn’t it true that everything felt much more exciting and adventurous and proximal and close when the long-distance thing existed? Isn’t it true that it was easier to trust those foldable and uncomfortable and silent but oh so much more believable paper maps that, in addition to showing you where you were, pointed out where you had been and where you would be? Isn’t it true that the air felt lighter and the landscape shone much brighter when the only thing you knew about writers was what was in their books or in the occasional interview and when you knew absolutely nothing about the life and work of readers because readers didn’t write? . . .” And enough, for now, right?

The fifth and final part of this interview will go live on July 26th, just before the final podcast of the first “season” of the Two Month Review podcast. In the meantime, click here to check out earlier episodes and all other Two Month Review related posts!

11 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Fans of challenging, cerebral, modernist epics, rejoice! Today marks the official release date of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, a masterpiece of twentieth-century Icelandic literature, the fifth Icelandic work Open Letter has published to date. This is a book that is sure to launch a thousand dissertations and books of commentary—both about the book itself, and about Lytton Smith’s masterful translation.



Joyceans, Pynchonians, and David-Foster-Wallacians (yes, I just made that word) should be especially drawn to Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. But to aid those who are unfamiliar with the novel’s author, background, and allusions (i.e. the 99.9 % of the world’s population not from Iceland), Three Percent will be rolling out a lot of secondary material in the months to come: essays, interviews, and podcasts to help orient the brave reader who decides to take the plunge. (As previously mentioned, this title will be the focus of the second season of the Two Month Review podcast. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss a single episode of this entertaining deep read of this incredibly funny book.)

For the next couple months, we’ll be selling copies of the book for 20% off via our website. Just enter the code 2MONTH at checkout.

To whet your appetite, here is the (rather unusual) press release Lytton and I came up with to promote the book to reviewers and booksellers. It gives a good idea of why this book is so rewarding, even if it is so hard to pin down.



For Immediate Release: Tómas Jónsson—Bestseller

Translated from the Icelandic, Guðbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson is a pulp commercial novel about a stalwart hero defying his times.

No, that’s not right. A compendious, genre-twisting modernist novel, it keeps retelling itself, correcting itself.

Second Attempt: Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller?

We need a clickbait gallery of the books that are the Ulysses of their particular country. Three Trapped Tigers by G. Cabrera Infante is the Cuban Ulysses for its inventive, manic wordplay. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass could be the German Ulysses for its historical importance and length.

The representative from Iceland would have to be Guðbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. Flip your copy open to any page and you’ll realize immediately that you’re encountering a novel that, like Ulysses, rewrote the rules of what a novel can do. Lists, false starts, sections without punctuation, italicized stories within digressions, flashes of concrete poetry—all within the mindscape of Tómas Jónsson, a man bed-bound (or not), his mind wandering and failing him (maybe).

No one wrote like this in Iceland in 1966 when Tómas Jónsson’s polemic hit the scene. Halldór Laxness had won the Nobel Prize a decade earlier, and Tómas took swings at his historical, realistic novels with their noble rural characters and dramatic plots. International bestsellers, they were seen as the most sophisticated and praise-worthy representation of Icelandic art and the spirit of Icelanders.

Bergsson didn’t just veer away from that mold: he shattered it, calling into question and undermining the core values of Icelandic nationalism. An iconoclast of the artistic order, many writers in Iceland today think Bergsson—born in 1932, the author of over twenty-one books, including novels, poetry collections, and works of children’s literature—is the Icelandic author who really deserved the Nobel Prize.

Which is why everyone in Iceland owns a copy of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. Although not that many of them have actually finished it.

Third Draft: Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller

No. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is less like Ulysses, and more like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—which Bergsson translated into Icelandic.

As with Marquez, reality is stretched past its limit in Bestseller: the idiom “eaten out of house and home” takes physical shape as characters find their apartments shrink in size with every bite of every meal they take.

Considered to be Bergsson’s masterpiece, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is, at its most basic level, a novel about a retired bank clerk who, senile and enraged at contemporary culture, decides to write his memoirs, ambitious to pen a bestseller like celebrity CEOs do, using his book to rage against the dumbing down of Iceland, against what he sees as moral dissolution, how the number one value in modern life is how “driven” or “enterprising” you are, and so on and so forth for notebook after notebook, filled with starts and stops and revisions and rants and so much more.

Fourth Press Release: Sjón on Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller

Sjón, one of Iceland’s most famous writers, was recently asked which contemporary Icelandic authors were current inspirations to his work. He had this to say:

The grand old man of Icelandic literature is Guðbergur Bergsson and I keep being influenced by his modernist novels from the 60s as well as some of his later works. Luckily for English readers his early masterpiece Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller will be published by Open Letter in the U.S. next year. It is the greatest attack ever launched against the overblown ideas behind the official image of the Icelandic national character. It is a picaresque, Rabelaisian, joyful experiment where the main character even assigns a passport to his penis: Occupation: Toy. Height: 18 cm. Eye color: Red. Etc. Like all works that are watershed events his best novels have made writing both easier and more difficult for those of us who followed in his wake.

This is good blurb material, even if some readers don’t like penis jokes and others aren’t familiar with Rabelais. But the world needs attacks against overblown, nationalistic ideas. It’s both good and scary how timely this novel is.

The Fifth Release: Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller

Better yet: the comparison should be William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, what with the old man rants and textual games. This is not an easy novel to understand—a statement Tómas Jónsson embraces right from its start. Is art supposed to be something we understand? Should it reflect the values and trends of the moment, regurgitating what the occasional book reader—who has never read Ulysses and owns an un-opened Book Club edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude—would like so as to reaffirm their preexisting ideas?

These are some of the questions that will be addressed in the weekly Two Month Review podcast (and series of posts on Three Percent) for Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller taking place over August and September. Co-hosted by Open Letter’s Chad W. Post and poet-translator Lytton Smith (who has referred to this as the most difficult and important translation he’s ever done), the podcast will provide a deep dive into Bergsson’s novel chunk by chunk, recapping and appreciating the book while exploring its more Joycean-Marquezian-Gassian bits, providing a wider historical and literary context. All of these podcasts will be available on iTunes, Stitcher, the Three Percent website, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Be sure and take advantage of the 20% discount (enter 2MONTH at checkout), subscribe to the podcast, and join in the discussion about Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller over at Goodreads. And stay tuned over the next week for a number of other posts about this incredible novel.

10 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the fifth part of The Invented Part (“Life After People, or Notes for a Brief History of Progressive Rock and Science Fiction,” pages 361-404). As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



As has been noted on a few occasions, The Invented Part is made up of seven clear sections (one of which has three chapters), which are grouped into three different parts. So far, we’ve read five of them:

Part I

“The Real Character”: The Writer as The Boy nearly drowning at the beach.

Part II

“The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin”: Young Man and Young Woman are working on the movie about the absent Writer.

“A Few Things You Happen to Think About When All You Want Is to Think About Nothing”: In which The Writer feels his own encroaching mortality and wants more time to write all the stories that flood his brain.

“Many Fêtes, or Study for a Group Portrait with Broken Decalogues”: Notes about a book The Writer wants to write (which seems to be The Invented Part) and his various inspirations.

“Life After People, or Notes for a Brief History of Progressive Rock and Science Fiction”: Features Tom, a childhood friend of The Writer’s, who gets a call from The Writer right after The Writer breaks into CERN and does what he does to end up “floating through time and space, happily multidimensional.”

Before listing the two sections we haven’t read, I want to take a second to point out a structural pattern that I’m only noticing now, on this re-read. Namely, that this is a symmetrical book with sections 1-7, 2-6, 3-5 reflecting each other, with section 4 being a sort of fulcrum around which the rest balance.

For example, in section 3 we’re in the mind of The Writer, approaching a false death (remember—he thinks it’s the end times, but tests prove that his chest pain was nothing serious at all) while constantly constructing ideas.

In section 5, The Writer has gone beyond, and we’re in the mind of a friend of his—who receives an incredibly powerful story from The Transcended Writer. First approaching death, now on the other side of it. Initially making stories to maybe write, now dropping a story into someone’s mind.

If I’m right about this sort of overarching, almost mathematical, structure, then section 6 (“Meanwhile, Once Again, Beside the Museum Stairway, Under a Big Sky”) should be about the Young Man and Young Woman from section 2, and the last section—the only one of Part III—“The Imaginary Person,” should end back with The Writer, fully grown, no longer The Boy from section 1.

Just something to keep in mind (maybe!) as you contemplate the book as a whole. Fresán may have written all seven sections at the same time, but he’s a genius, and the connections and underlying structures are far from random. Again: genius.

*


Speaking of structure—and this came up at the very end of the podcast you’ll hear on Thursday—this particular chapter is really interesting in terms of how much time actually elapses during the course of these pages.

Here’s the opening:

“Dun dun dun da-DAdun, da-DAdun . . .” He realizes that he’s in big trouble when, hearing a strange sound in his house and not being able to locate its source, he finally discovers that the sound is springing (springing, ah, such a sonic verb) from his own mouth. Through clenched teeth. And that it’s nothing but his own voice singing low, deep, martial, the ominous and instantly catchy and unforgettable musical theme that marks the entrances and exits of the dark and asthmatic and uniformed and reconstructed Darth Vader in the movies of the Star Wars saga.

So that’s what he’s doing, advancing through a house that’s too big for him now. And he moves through its hallways and bedrooms with the sneaking suspicion that, behind and beneath them, are more hallways and more rooms. [. . .]

“What year is it?” he wonders.

“Does it matter?” he answers.

For a couple months now—since his wife left him, taking their little son with her—he’s been living in the near-suspended animation of the minute-to-minute. It’s harder—but it hurts less.

I never noticed how many references to time are embedded in this opening page until copying this out. References to what he’s doing “now,” questions about the year (and it not mattering), the couple of months since his wife left, living in the “near-suspended animation of the minute-to-minute.” Given the ending twist to this chapter—The Writer living beyond it all, having merged with the god particle or whatever—this focus on time passing feels not at all coincidental.

After a digression about the ex-wife and his relationship with his son, we get a minor meditation on the past:

The past is a telephone that rings like those old telephones never rang, the ones that, in the beginning of their history, only rang to inform you of something decisive, historic. And, yes, with time there will be many people (though not as many as, for example, those who fixed in their memory the precise and private context that surrounded the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy or the death of John Lennon; those moments in History, with a capital H, that turn into something almost palpable, something that’s almost breathed and enters the lungs and heart and brain) who’ll remember with millimetric precision exactly what they were doing when they found out about the disintegration of that writer.



And then amid those reflections we get the most direct statement about what happens to The Writer and a statement from The Transcended Writer himself, which really drives home this “time” theme:

But yes Tom was wide awake and with fifty years draped over him like a very heavy blanket when the writer, who’d once been his best childhood and adolescent friend, evaporated in a storm of particles and quantum physics and dark matter. And, yes, Tom remembers precisely what he was doing then. Not only when he learned of the “accident”—better and more in-depth, on the news that night—but in the exact instant that it took place. Because he’d just finished not talking to the writer but listening to him * (“I’m calling you after so long because you have to know where I am and what I’m about to do, what I’m doing, what I did; because now all times are one for me. Now I no longer have time, I’m atemporal,” his friend had said from so far away) talk on the telephone; because Tom didn’t dare interrupt him, didn’t dare say a word. Tom just listened to his sharp and clear voice for a long time on the answering machine recording, after his son came to find him in the bathroom and said: “Papi, the phone is making a weird noise.”

Now, I could be wrong—and probably am—but I think this moment of Tom’s son telling him about the phone ringing is the only real “now” of this chapter. The rest of it—memories of meeting The Writer and Penelope, of Tom’s relationship with his son Fin, the bits about Life After People, Pink Floyd, 2001: A Space Odyssey, even the words of The Writer, which are seemingly implanted into Tom’s mind along with Penelope’s story—are all memories filling in around this moment.

(The one exception is the final bit of this chapter which begins, “It’s night now. The dead of night.” A bit of a coda after the storm in which Tom remembers Penelope’s story, forever seared into his mind—“It’s late now, now it’s too late to forget—now he’ll never forget it—what Penelope did or stopped doing with her little son.”—and has the most touching of moments with Fin.)

*


Similar to the William Burroughs part in Penelope’s Mount Karma section, Fresán incorporates a lot of factual, real-life events and artworks here. Specifically, this is the “Pink Floyd section,” telling of Syd Barrett’s mental breakdown, his random appearance at the recording studio where Pink Floyd II was recording Wish You Were Here, along with descriptions and accounts of a few other Pink Floyd albums.

Similar to how Fitzgerald transformed the real life of the Murphys into Tender Is the Night, Fresán is transforming real-life stories about art into new art. Transforming information about creators into a creation about a creator.

All of these stories are told within Tom’s mind though, which adds an interesting wrinkle or two. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that you are what you read (or watch, or listen to), but like Brian mentions on the podcast, major works of art oftentimes serve as sort of touchstones to determine and shape friendships. (Anyone I meet who mentions The Crying of Lot 49 and Twin Peaks and Dan Deacon will become an insta-friend.)

Interpretation does play a role though, as does one’s memory. The mind isn’t a flawless recording device, but something more mysterious and active, in which things shift and morph and become something else.



For example, there is this:

And his friends are left there to cry. And to record. And, with time, Waters and Gilmour think that that might have been the moment, after wrapping up Wish You Were Here (that in the beginning didn’t entirely win over the critics, that reaches number one in sales on both sides of the Atlantic when it’s released, and that time and perspective and distance elevate as their unanimous and indisputable crowning achievement), the exact and perfect time for the band to break up. The precise instant—from which there was no going back—to conclude their life cycle, with that ode to the omnipresent absent friend. And that way avoid the imminent ex-friendships resulting from the convulsive and revulsive recordings of Animals and The Wall and The Final Cut. To go, to let go, with those airs bottled in the fullest of emptinesses, the absolute and joyously sad emptiness of their lyrics and music. With that magic moment—at the end of “Welcome to the Machine” and the beginning of “Wish You Were Here”—when someone seemed to be trying to tune in a radio, the one in David Gilmour’s car. And you heard voices and a few bars of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. And suddenly all the sound drops, like a candle blown out for the birthday of an era. A pause that it took Tom many listens (staring intently at the needle above the grooves, trying to see what was happening) to grasp wasn’t a potential defect in his parents’ stereo equipment reacting to some secret frequency so that then, after the entrance of that vintage acoustic guitar solo, everything would climb again, like the highest of rising of tides.

What’s interesting about this is the bridge between the story about Pink Floyd breaking up to Tom’s personal story about internalizing that specific moment in which Tom remembers the album incorrectly. As Rodrigo mentioned to me in an email, “Wish You Were Here” doesn’t come at the end of “Welcome to the Machine,” but at the end of “Have a Cigar.” We are in Tom’s memory here now . . . And, as a tease, I’ll just mention that Rodrigo said that this will be explained in The Remembered Part . . .

*


Finally, I have a few quick notes about parents and their children. This is something I’ve been honing in on throughout my re-read. From the opening section about The Boy and his parents (who lead a crazy life!) to the proliferation of stories about fathers and sons that The Writer comes up with while at the hospital to Penelope’s story to Tom and his son. Still not 100% sure of what to make of all this, but there’s a theme of disappointment and failure that runs throughout. Along with fears of death and violence.

That really comes home in this episode, in which The Writer “gifts” Tom the full story of Penelope and her son, which isn’t fully explained, but which Tom can’t get out of his mind (“now he’ll never forget it—what Penelope did or stopped doing with her little son”) and leads him to go to Fin’s room and the final, pretty emotional sentence of this section: “Sitting on the edge of the bed, he holds his son to keep from falling.”

*


One last quote:

Major Tom: until a few minutes ago I was a disillusioned writer. And there’s nothing sadder than a disillusioned writer, Major Tom. A disillusioned writer has that sadness that makes no one sad but himself.

6 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review, Chad and Brian talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tender Is the Night, puzzles, how to properly introduce the show, the Modern Library list of top 100 novels of the twentieth century, Booth Tarkington, and much more more.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood, on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

If you don’t already subscribe to Two Month Review/Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and elsewhere. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss



3 July 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the fourth part of The Invented Part (“Many Fêtes, or Study for a Group Portrait with Broken Decalogues,” pagest 301-360). As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

As has been mentioned time and again—in posts and on the podcast—each of the seven sections of The Invented Part operate under a different style and literary technique. Sure, there are similarities in voice and general outlook, in recurring stories, themes and ideas, but Fresán keeps experimenting with different approaches to this material throughout the book. It’s probably not completely wrong to say that this novel is as much concerned with cataloging various literary styles and structures as it is with the plot. (More on that coming!)

Last week we had the internal monologue section, with The Writer thinking his time had come and being unable to shut off his brain while in the hospital undergoing an MRI and waiting to learn his fate. By contrast, this week’s section (“Many Fêtes, or Study for a Group Portrait with Broken Decalogues”) is much more fragmented and discontinuous. (Warning: That’s what this post will likely be as well. Buckle up?)

Specifically, the rubric for this section is the “biji.”

The biji (筆記) is a genre of classic Chinese literature. “Biji” can be translated, roughly yet more or less faithfully, as “notebook.” And a biji can contain curious anecdotes, nearly blind quotations, random musings, philosophical speculations, private theories regarding intimate matters, criticism of other works, and anything that its owner and author deems appropriate.

As you’ll hear in Thursday’s podcast, Brian likens this section to a puzzle being put together. Even more than that, he sees this section as building the frame to the novel as a whole. And we do get a lot of plot pieces in this part, providing the emotional outline of The Writer’s life—especially in relation to his parents, which reminds me that I would like to write a long post about the parent-child relationships running throughout this book. I’ll just make a note of that here so that I don’t forget.



As you’ll also hear on Thursday, we weren’t sure what the daggers before every “biji” or fragment represented. We are dumb. We are also lazy. Here’s what I found in four seconds of using the Google.

The dagger is usually used to indicate a footnote if an asterisk has already been used. A third footnote employs the double dagger. Additional footnotes are somewhat inconsistent and represented by a variety of symbols, e.g., parallels (‖) and the pilcrow (¶), some of which were nonexistent in early modern typography.

One of the echoes from an early section that shows up here is the recurring phrase “have you read all these books?”

(In relation to this book and the daggers and the asterisks in the previous section, a better question might be: have you read all the footnotes AND the footnotes to the footnotes?”)



In 1998, the Modern Library put Tender Is the Night at number twenty-eight on the list of one hundred best novels in English of the twentieth century. The Great Gatsby is number two, after Ulysses by James Joyce.

Has he read all of those novels? Just those one hundred novels?

He looks on the Internet and finds it and—memo for the girl from the beginning—he discovers that yes he has read ninety-three of the one hundred on the list.

And says to himself that that is something.

Then he thinks that Christmas is coming.

This is very much a book in conversation with other books.

Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s a book steeped in a world in which books matter. There are books that are books for writers. (“He sure is a writer’s writer!” “You mean his books don’t sell, but people go to his panels at AWP?”) But this is a book that’s maybe a bit of that, but a bit more of a reader’s reader book. A book for the people who believe in books and are surrounded by them.

“Have you read all those books?”

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this here, on the podcast, or solely in conversation with myself, but I take great solace in being surrounded by way more books than I will ever read. It’s probably 50-50 that I’ll make it through the titles on my “to read soon” shelves. And I’m good with that. In no way will that reality prevent me from buying more books, being swayed by the new shiny authors, and the promise of some mind-altering literary experience. If life is mostly managing anxiety, and if I am being honest, I’m way more anxious when I feel like I don’t have too many books physically around me. I take four times the number of books I need to on every flight, breaking my back mainly because I’m scared of being on a plane and not liking the one and only book I took with me. What would I even do?

The way in which Christmas is dropped into that excerpt above is at the crux of what I think I want to write about this week: the way this novel is almost inverted in its aims, condensing the plot into little information dumps while unfurling a near-endless investigation into the mystery of how literature is transformed from facts into something more.

How the “invented part”—which is the best part, the magical part—comes to be. And why that matters.

This is the story: Christmas Eve 1977, his parents and their friends, models and artists and publicists and beautiful people, storm a prestigious department store branch and, within a few hours, are “subdued by the forces of order.” [. . .]

And “subdued by the forces of order” means that the army comes in with tanks and bazookas and many people die, among them several customers who were there buying Christmas presents. [. . .]

It was never clear if his parents died during the retaking of the department store or if, weeks later, they were thrown from a seaplane into the waters off that beach where they used to take him on vacation and where one time he almost drowned without them noticing.

Imagine another book. A book written by a writer concerned with using words to represent events in cinematic ways on the page. A QWERTY writer. (That’s an in-joke for the Rochester translation community, but I’m letting it stand.) A writer who has a name like “Jodi Picoult.” A writer who would take those three paragraphs and make them ride for a hundred pages. With emotional crescendos, endless details about the politics and emotional background that led The Writer and Penelope’s parents to “storm” a department store, a really muscular descripton of the “forces of order” shutting things down, and a charged denounment involving parents, children, and broken dreams, this imaginary book would be a lot more than three paragraphs.

Instead, here are three other paragraphs from the same “bijis” that point to what Fresán is really up to.

Another note: This part of the novel (and it will be very complex) will be built around the testimonies of hostages, between terror and wonder, seeing themselves subdued by “that couple from those ads on a sailboat.” Some of them won’t be able to stop admiring the perfect cut and tailoring of their guerilla-chic style uniforms. Someone will ask for their autographs and to take a picture with them. And his parents, of course, will comply. And they smile at the camera. And that oh so Murphian photo will appear on the front page of daily and weekly newspapers in the coming days and weeks. [. . .]

The attack is filmed by news cameras and (not long ago he saw those shaky scenes again) the quality of the film is curiously similar to the postcards of battles from World War One. Something that looks much older than it actually is. [. . .]

An inconfessable confession, inadmissible admission: he’s increasingly convinced that he’d benefitted from his parents’ disappearance. And not just because it made him seem so much more interesting when he published his first book where his parents’ disappearance made an appearance. [. . .] His parents, on the other hand, hadn’t even left behind good-looking corpses. His parents were like dead stars whose light still twinkled a little, from so many dark years of unfathomable cosmic distance. His parents were, yes—a good story. [. . .]

It’s trite to point this out, but this is just as much a book about making books as much as it is a book about the life and times of its imagined characters.

Two more long quotes!

“Wuthering Heights Revisited” tells the story of a beautiful and romantic young woman who, obsessed with gothic novels, marries a rich yet bohemian heir who has come to Europe to find success as an artist. Her husband falls seriously ill and both of them return to his family’s home, on the other side of the ocean. There, the young woman suffers and, discovering that she is pregnant, runs away without saying anything to her in-laws out of fear that they won’t let her leave and will claim her child for the heir. The young woman, without a home, lives with her brother. The boy is born and the young mother, sensing that she’s going mad, discovers not only that the boy won’t ever love her, but that in addition, as the years go by, he’ll love her brother more and more. One night, the young woman takes her son for a walk along a beach that leads into a forest. And the young woman comes home alone and smiling. And she says she doesn’t know what happened, that she doesn’t remember anything, that she was “possessed by the ugliest of all the Ugly Spirits,” and, when questioned about the boy, she sings and sings and doesn’t stop singing.

“Dear: dear, dear, dear . . .”

In a paragraph and a sentence, we get the whole crushing story of Penelope’s life. And that line, “sensing that she’s going mad, discovers not only that the boy won’t ever love her, but that in addition, as the years go by, he’ll love her brother more and more.” Fuck. That’s so much more poignant than a chapter trying to capture her inner emotional states.

I’m just spitballing ideas here, treating this blog like a private notebook, but in a way, this book works really well by inhabiting a world of books, a world of books that the reader is also familiar with, and allowing the stories and aspects of those other books to fill in the outline of this book’s plot. In a less convoluted way: I don’t need more of Penelope’s story, because with this one line I realize that I’ve read it before somewhere. Or if not exactly read her story, I can imagine having read that story. Or seen it, or heard it.

What’s the fun in trying to write a story that’s all plot and characters and neo-realism? We’ve all seen that, we’ve all read better versions. Creating something new in the world of contemporary realism seems so daunting . . . and not nearly as enriching and inventive and exciting as what Fresán’s doing. Especially since there still is so much heart and emotion and meat to this novel.



Although to be honest, anyone who would ask “have you read all these books?” would probably also ask, “why do you read?”

What could his parents—in full-on process of deterioration, their morale broken—have seen in Tender Is the Night? What could their systematic serial reading of the novel—as if searching for a secret code, an explanation for everything in their world—have helped them with? Maybe, seeing themselves reflected in the Divers just as the Murphys (though they deny it) saw themselves reflected in the Divers, his parents were able to understand themselves better and maybe forgive themselves. Or perhaps, to the contrary, the bourgeoisie and comfortable image reflected back to them by that black and magic mirror—the warning from a Lost Generation that under no circumstance should they lose their generation again—did nothing but harden their respective positions and they read that book the way other people read Sun Tzu or Von Clausewitz. As a call to arms.

29 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, Chronic City) joins Chad and Brian to talk about The Writer’s trip to a hospital, where he assumes something horrible is happening, which is countered by a gushing forth of new story ideas. Jonathan tells of his own experience coming up with one of his most famous books while recovering from an operation, tells of how he first met and bonded with Rodrigo Fresán, and talks about Believeniks!. This is a really meaty, fascinating episode about being a writer, mortality, Fresán’s incredible talent, and much more.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood, on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And you can find out about all of Jonathan Lethem’s books and more at his website.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here.

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

If you don’t already subscribe to Two Month Review/Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and elsewhere. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss



26 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the third part (“A Few Things You Happen to Think About When All You Want Is to Think About Nothing”) of The Invented Part . As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This week’s podcast with special guest Jonathan Lethem is one of the best yet, and really digs into the meat of this chapter (mortality and creation). So, rather than try and frame this section as specifically and in as deep a detailed fashion as I have in weeks past, I think I’ll just focus on an aspect of this section (and the book as a whole) that I can very much relate to: anger at the contemporary world. Especially the contemporary world as it relates to books and literature.

I wrote a book last summer during a residency in Marfa, TX that was more or less a litany of all the shit about book culture and the way we talk about books that bugs me on a near daily basis. Lists in place of reviews. “Literary Twitter” in general. Lit Hub’s Book Marks thing. Using algorithms to determine what to publish. Using algorithms to determine what to read. Instaread and its imitators. The fact that almost all book organizations are poorly named and include a reference to “book,” “lit,” a combination of the two. (BookLamp, Jelly Books, Lit Hub, BookGrabbr, Litbreaker, Readgeek, Whichbook, BookRiot, Bookperks, BookBub, BookJetty, etc., etc., etc., etc. etc.)

The book was half-screed against the current trends in book culture; half-lament that none of this matters since we’re all going to die anyway. And although the latter can make you more zen about the former (“does it really matter if 85% of BuzzFeed’s books content is about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter given the current state of the world?”), it’s still very easy to get wrapped up in all the frustrating things the come along with dedicating one’s life to the promotion and cultivation of real literature. (Not agented ideas for bookish-like objects. The fetishization of the book industry will never not piss me off.)

All of which is to say, I feel this on a near daily basis:

Could it be because of things like this—so stupid, but that he feels so passionately about—that it seems like his chest is parting in two to reveal the reddest of seas? Is that the reason for this pain? And, obviously, this wasn’t the only literary rant that he found himself—between fascinated and worried—going off on these days. The Lonely Man, who’d always considered himself a kind of evangelist of his vocation and all his colleagues, in conversation with the dumbest or wildest of animals, promoting the pleasures of reading, and always publishing highly favorable reviews, because, he explained with a question: “Why malign something when there’re so many good things to recommend?”; some time ago, he’d found himself possessed by a new and unknown and almost Hulk-green fury. A euphoric thirst for vengeance and an exhilarating longing for destruction that, who knows, might’ve had something to do, once again, with the arrival of that pain in his chest and that made him so much like certain characters of Jewish American literature. Saul Bellow’s Von Humboldt Fleisher, Joseph Heller’s Bob Slocum, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Harry Towns, Phillip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath. People who, howling with rage and joy, laid waste to everything in their paths: families, jobs, and even hospitals. Homo Catastrophicos, their genesis the apocalypse of everyone else.

And this:

There was a time, thinks The Lonely Man, when people related to books like that. 2 × 1. What the writer gave you and what you did with it inside your own head. Now, not so much, less and less: it’s not the content that matters, it’s the packaging. The device. The latest model. Little mirrors and colored glass. Reading on it all the time, more than ever, but in homeopathic doses. And writing more than ever but, also, writing more about nothing and, the truth is, The Lonely Man couldn’t care less about these issues, which he thought and wrote about a great deal in another era, another dimension, just yesterday, in the days when he was healthy or at least felt healthy.

*


I also like how this chapter opens with the idea of a portrait. If the first part opens with a near metafictional reflection on the medium of writing (“How to begin. Or better: How to begin?” [Adding the question mark that—nothing happens by chance—has the shape of a fish or meat hook.”]), and the second is all about video (“The first thing they film, of course, is the library. Close-ups and wide shots and zoom-ins and zoom-outs where they can read titles but not names.”), this section opens in a more museum-like fashion (“Don’t touch.”), focusing on the idea of a portrait:

The name of his creator doesn’t matter, the name of the portrayed man either. Anonymous author, yes. And one of those neutral titles, simple and simply descriptive. The kind of prosthetic title (the true title was amputated by the passing of years and the movement of forgotten things) applied when anything is better than nothing. Anything, as long as it isn’t that, for him, oh so irritating Untitled trailed by a number, an attempt to cover up the author’s lack of will, or the lack of expertise of the experts in his work. Something helpful when the time comes to present it at the hour of the catalogue and the auction. And that’s it. And moving right along. And next! and look to the future.

So, now, Portrait of a Lonely Man. And done. Period and new sentence. A simple descriptive title. And period and new paragraph.

*


The last thing I want to note about this part is the quality of the stories it contains within. The set-up is pretty simple: The Writer has chest pains and goes to the emergency room expecting the worst. While there, his mind goes into overdrive and he comes up with story idea after story idea after story idea. So much that he could write—were he still healthy—all of which he’s willing to abandon in exchange for more life.

A lot of these stories revolve around death and being a parent, and they’re all pretty amazing. Any number could be expanded into more full-length pieces although, to be honest, I think they’re maybe even better in these abbreviated versions that act like a seed, pointing toward the potential of the idea.

My favorite is actually a non-death, non-parent one (and don’t worry, ideas about parenting and death and inheritance and family will be back in force in the not too distant future), which is also one of the funniest.

The title “The Little Dwarf” [. . .] seems, at first, a redundancy, a joke as bad as it is cruel and wrong. But no. Or yes. It depends on how you look at that boy, about four years old, who appears in its opening lines, on a street in the city of B, so that two friends, taking a walk to their favorite bookstore, encounter him and watch and discuss him with barely hidden fascination. The two friends are writers and have been resigned for a while now to the fact that everything they see on this side can end up being useful in the other part, a place they refuse to call “their work,” but, really, what else can they call it? So better, yes, to call it “The Other Part.” As mentioned, the boy must be three or four or five years old. But even though, for his age, he’s the “right” and “normal” height (note: find better adjectives), the boy is already, also, a dwarf. The short arms, the short legs, the big head. The boy is, for the two writer friends, a curious organism: a being living in two times at the same time. His present as a boy of the appropriate height already coexisting with his increasingly near future as a dwarf. The two writer friends watch him walk by, give a slight shudder, change the subject: neither of them can stop thinking about the little dwarf and, now in the bookstore, leafing through books, they can barely contain the desire to run out of there. To head home at full velocity, to their desks, to their computers, to see how and where they can insert that little dwarf into what they’re writing. He’ll fit somewhere, in the other part.

Tune in Thursday to hear more about this section, along with stories from Jonathan Lethem’s own hospital experiences and some talk about whether to blurb or not to blurb.

22 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Speculative Fiction in Translation founder and Best Translated Book Award judge Rachel Cordasco joins Chad and Brian to talk about the nature of time, deals with the devil, conflagrations, and writerly desires, or, in other words, the third part of “The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin” in Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part. A very elegant section of the book following the wild, giant green cow bit that came before, the three hosts enthusiastically break down some of the plot clues included in this section, and what makes this book so damn good. (Stay till the very end to hear Rachel’s enthusiasm take her over!)

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, including Volumes Bookcafe. You can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and Rachel Cordasco on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here.

Next week we will be back to discuss “A Few Things You Happen to Think About When All You Want Is to Think About Nothing” (pages 231-300).

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.



21 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

You can read the first part of this interview here, the second here, and you can click here for all Two Month Review posts.

Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.

Will Vanderhyden: Your fiction wears its influences on its sleeve, but not only do you fully acknowledge your literary forbearers, you repurpose, and—à la Borges, when he wrote: “Every writer creates his own precursors”—(re)create them. Your books, both in form and content, revolve around and play with the work and lives of other writers, both real and invented: your narratives are full of ersatz and factual stories of great artists and writers; your writing is riddled with quotations, allusions, and rewritten/recycled/re-contextualized ideas. But out of this bricolage of references you create your own sensibility, your own voice—an undeniably original style. Can you talk about what style means to you and where you think it comes from?

Rodrigo Fresán: Ah, that is the great mystery. Over the years I have come to realize that personal style is nothing more than the way in which the wounds of successive failures stop bleeding and scar over. Out of all those things that never turn out how you thought or hoped they would, if you persevere, in the end your own style will emerge, inside of which, yes, in my case (and in everyone’s case; I just don’t have any problem admitting it and acknowledging it) many other voices coexist. I am a referential maniac. And I’m very proud of it.

WV: Even this idea of “referential mania,” is itself a reference. In his story Signs and Symbols Nabokov uses the term to describe a psychological disorder suffered by the institutionalized son of an elderly couple of Russian Jewish émigrés. This disorder causes the patient to imagine that “everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence” and that: “Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.” You’ve turned referential mania into a literary device, a way to harness information overload, to make stories out of the multitude of stories that have been personally meaningful to you at different times in your life. Is there a particular moment or experience that kick started your referential mania?

RF: I think I talked about this somewhat in response to previous questions (early exposure to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” etc.). But maybe the Big Bang . . . I remember perfectly my father coming home with the freshly released, the first, and automatic favorite Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and looking at that cover and wondering who all those people were and what were they doing there, and feeling already how that image was setting in motion a referential mania that would become the incurable and delightful pathology of all my future books.



WV: The Writer has theory about the formation of the reader/writer. Can you describe that theory? And while we’re at it: who are your readers?

RF: I’ll quote myself again or, better, quote The Writer from The Invented Part: “A theory of the reader/writer: As far as the formation and/or deformation of a writer, I believe the process is a lot like the formation of the reader. When we start writing, as children, the most important thing is the hero, identification with the hero. We fall in love with the boy or girl in the story, and then take it upon ourselves to find out if they’ve starred in other adventures. So, stacks and stacks of comics and Sandokan, the Musketeers, Nemo, Jo, etcetera. And there/here is as far as most readers go (and they can stop here, no problem). To continue the adventure, into the jungle, a new kind of reader appears. A slightly more sophisticated reader, with a particular interest in the structure of the adventures and, later, a particular fascination with who created them and under what circumstances—with that living ghost called author and with the distinct possibility of other similar authors. The final and most evolved stage of reader—and writer—is one who, in addition to all the foregoing, is also concerned with and enjoys a particular style. That’s the only way you can fight back and make peace in our digital and pluralized times, electrified by writers who narrate but don’t write, by writers who simply recount but on whom you can never count when you need them the most. And there are few writers—the truly great ones—who make their style come through in their prose and, also, in what their prose tells. And thus, the miracle of a plot and a style all their own—unique, nontransferable. If there is a goal, it is certainly that—to have plot and style make space and time for a new and personal language. That the invented part of what’s told also be the way that fiction speaks and expresses itself. But—warning—never forget that the style you achieve is always—though a posteriori you try to convince yourself of the opposite, that everything was coldly calculated—just a detour along the path. Style ends up being nothing more than the hangover following a bender. What’s left behind and provokes a headache and so let’s see what we can do with this. Style is the successful distillation of a failure, the glorious, unforgettable accident. A laboratory problem, like in The Fly, like in The Hulk. That’s the only way to understand the expansive yet Prussian digression of Saul Bellow or the novelistic mutation of Shakespeare in Iris Murdoch. A thing you find when you’re looking for something else entirely.”

As far as my potential readers go, I’ve always said that I like to imagine them as people who are a lot like me but slightly more intelligent.



WV: There is a symbolic/mythic space that exists in The Invented Part and throughout your fiction called “Sad Songs.” Though its function and location seem to shift from one book to the next, I feel like it has something to do with nostalgia, with childhood memories, and with the origin of lifelong obsessions. Can you talk about this idea and it’s role in your fiction?

RF: I wouldn’t say that it’s nostalgia, rather that the past is increasingly interesting. And also increasingly big. Because yesterday keeps getting fatter, tomorrow keeps getting skinnier, and the present keeps sneaking away to purge in secret. Of all times—and I get this from Proust no less—the past is the place that’s best written and the one you can write best. It’s a place where we already were but that we can always go back to. It’s not “a foreign country: they do different things there,” as L.P. Hartley wrote, but the country where all of us were born and that we leave behind just so we can go back. In the future, we will all die in the past. Maybe that’s why they say that our entire life passes before our memory’s eyes in a matter of seconds, in the moment of our definitive goodbye, right? When it comes to childhood, everything happened there and everything that happened there keeps happening to us because—as readers or writers—we will always be animals that can only fall asleep if, first, someone comes and tells us a story. The idea of Sad Songs is, on the one hand, a joke/homage to certain tics of magical realism and, on the other hand, a very convenient and functional strategy: when I can’t think of where to go, I go and go back to Sad Songs. And Sad Songs can be anywhere in the world and even—like in The Bottom of the Sky—on another planet.

Check back in on July 12th for the fourth part of this interview—a screed about screen culture!—and in the meantime, be sure to check out the podcast and other Two Month Review posts!

19 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the third chapter of the second part (“The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin”) of The Invented Part . As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Following the long, more digressive section about Penelope and the Karmas, we return in this part to The Young Man and Young Woman who are staying outside of Penelope’s house (paid for with the diamonds she found when fleeing the Karmas) and making a movie about The Writer. A much more concise, direct section, these 30 pages include a lot of hints about the overall plot of the novel (e.g., allusions what happens to The Writer, another reference to Ishmael Tantor, Penelope’s destruction of the house) while continuing to dwell on the nature of being a writer.

Or, to be more specific, The Young Man’s burning desire to be known as a writer.

The Young Man would sign in blood any microscopic-clause-crammed contract to be worthy of such questions, to be published, to be a “cult writer” or a “writer’s writer” or whatever. But, please, let it be in print, black on white, and let it have a beginning and an end, and later on let him see it on display for a while in bookstores where he’ll reposition it in a prime location and ask the employees—disguising his voice and hiding his face—what they think of it, whether or not they liked it, and walk out worrying that they might have recognized him and are laughing behind his back, but it doesn’t matter, hopefully they recognized him and . . .

This is by no means uncommon (I suspect half of the attendees of the AWP Writers Conference would sign anything to be a published author), but will stand in stark contrast to The Writer’s relationship to being a writer, which we’ll get more info about in the next chapter. But in the meantime, I think it’s interesting to see how The Young Man almost fetishizes the idea of being a writer, even to the point that, when he finds a video of The Writer praising him (The Young Man) as being one of his all-time favorite writers, The Young Man doesn’t outwardly worry about how this is even possible (given that he hasn’t written a book), but instead jumps immediately to the idea of how to get this out there into the world, so that everyone can hear The Writer praising him:

I have a lot to do, The Young Man says to himself. Suddenly, ecstatic, he has a map, instructions to follow, an objective in reach, a goal so near. The first thing—with a rapid dance of his fingers across a keypad—will be to upload that video from The Writer’s camera, launch it into the space of the Internet and wait for it to, inevitably, return to that planet of shipwrecked astronauts and spread like a virus and come back to him and to The Young Woman. And The Young Man can almost see The Young Woman’s surprise—her mouth half open, the circle of her lips letting out an: “Oh!”—when she sees and hears his name as one of The Writer’s favorites. Then her love, her adoration for him, will be inevitable, The Young Man says to himself. And then . . .

Again, not uncommon! Along with political tweetstorms and sharing Game of Thrones rumors, drawing attention to yourself and your accomplishments—so that friends and fans can heart and retweet—is one of the main reasons Twitter exists.

Even as someone who’s not a writer, I can sympathize with this urge to be in print, to see your name on the front of an actual book, to be on a bookshelf, or, even better, to see someone enjoying your creation on the subway, but at the same time, the process of being a writer is all-consuming. It’s not a job like any other, which The Young Man does acknowledge:

The Young Man thinks too much. The Young Man wishes he could think less. The Young Man wishes he’d wake up one day and discover that his thing was really the law or industrial design or odontology. Professions that you can disconnect from once you get home—professions that are left far and away, like certain animals mislabeled domestic—and that aren’t pulling at your sleeve all the time, calling your attention and obliging you to imagine what Julien Sorel or Christopher Teitjens or Jay Gatsby would have done (automatically recalling, another symptom of the same troubling affliction, that the real name of the latter was James Gatz) in this or that situation. Much safer and more relaxing professions that—when people ask what you do—don’t generate other questions, uncomfortable ones, like “What are your books about?” or “What’s your name?” or “Are you well known?” or “Were any of your books made into a movie?” or ultimate classics with a complicit wink like “I’ve got a great story . . . want me to tell it so you can use it?” and “Being a writer you must meet a lot of interesting women, huh?”

It’s worth noting that the next section of the book—the first in which we get to meet The Writer, fully grown up—is called “A Few Things You Happen to Think About When All You Want Is to Think About Nothing.” I don’t want to spoil this section for anyone reading along with the podcast, but this part revolves around the inability of The Writer to shut down, to turn off his creative impulses.

Taken as a whole, The Invented Part is about the idea of being a writer, about creativity and where the “invented part” comes from. About the way in which writing, thinking about writing, being a writer, shapes a life, and about what might come next. For most people I know in the book industry—and I’m including publishers, booksellers, writers, translators, agents, etc., in this—books are more of a lifestyle than a profession. You rarely have the chance to turn off, to not be thinking about the book you’re reading/about to read/just read/should read, or how that connects to everything else you’re doing. It’s like this ad for Major League Baseball: If you’re not writing a book, you’re reading a book. Or you’re thinking about writing, or reading about writing, or talking about writing, or writing about reading.

Given the all-consuming nature of writing and books, why would anyone want to be a writer? And what does being a writer do to you?

*

The flipside of being a writer is being a character. There’s a great story by Felipe Alfau called “Identity” in which a writer’s friend begs the writer to make him a character in a future story. His life has been insignificant, people never pay attention to him—or even notice him, to be honest—he hasn’t amounted to much or anything. BUT, if his friend puts him in a story, then he’ll be immortalized! A story about the most insignificant person makes that person significant. (Isn’t there a paradox about this? That the least interesting fact is interesting simply by being the least?)

But not everyone wants to become a character. It’s risky for authors to put elements of their friends and lovers into print. See the relationship between the Murphys and F. Scott Fitzgerald post Tender Is the Night. Transforming experience into art is all fun and games until someone recognizes unflattering aspects of themselves in your prose.

And that’s the last thing I want to include this week—Penelope’s desire to get out from under her brother’s shadow. When she appears at the end of this section, there are three things that define her: the need to not remember a particular thing to the point that she wants to forget that she’s forgetting, her initial desire to be a character like Cathy Earnshaw, and her current desire to escape from her brother’s influence and reputation.

Since I love how these bits are woven together, I’ll end with this really long quote:

Sure, it’s been years since she accepted the fact that she’d never be a combative Cathy Earnshaw. Not even a Jane Eyre. But with every bit of the little strength she has left she refuses to end up like an exotic and foreign Bertha Antoinetta Mason, mad and burning in the attic of Thornfield Hall, throwing herself from the flaming roof, her infidelities and alcoholism and hallucinations forgiven, chalked up to a genetic disorder. Bertha, who sacrifices herself to leave the path free and open for the marriage of the blind Edward Fairfax Rochester and the servant Jane Eyre. Penelope doesn’t want to be the lame and boring device of an envious sister—because the merely very talented Charlotte was always intimidated by Emily’s rare genius, and didn’t hesitate to lovingly sabotage her memory, imposing the survivor’s official version—that neatly ties up the plot. And everybody’s happy.

But no—that’d be too easy.

To the contrary, the role that Penelope has fallen into is that of the lone survivor. Everything and everyone around her dead or disappeared. And the responsibility of telling the story is hers and hers alone. And, truthfully, she never wanted to be a writer. She just wanted to have and to live a good story. And now she’s so tired. So tired that, if she had a rifle, she wouldn’t hesitate to empty it into The Young Man’s body. To fill him full of lead and defend herself by saying she’d thought he was a burglar. And end up exonerated or in jail. Either way. Anything so long as the small storyline of her life diverges from the atomic and particular saga of her brother, who absorbs everything and rewrites it. Including the only thing that, she assumed, was hers and hers alone and that she—not for revenge but out of desperation—tore out the way you tear the page from a book that, though you never open it, you’ll always know is missing a page and that it’s that page.

15 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s episode is all about Penelope and her experiences with the Karmas. (And a Big Green Cow.) A lot of the Odyssey, Wuthering Heights, and William Burroughs are in this section, which is hilariously dissected by Brian, Chad, and their guest, Tom Flynn, the manager of Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago. One of the funniest—and most free-flowing, almost beat-like—sections of the book to date, this section explains a lot of the causes for Penelope’s madness, while parodying an ultra-rich family of backstabbing, self-involved, frustratingly funny characters—many of whom make great material for a novel . . .

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, including Volumes Bookcafe. You can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and Volumes Bookcafe on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here.

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

If you don’t already subscribe to Two Month Review/Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and other places. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss



13 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s Two Month Review post is a bit unusual. What you’ll find below is the working list of cultural allusions that Jeremy Garber found while preparing for the podcast that he was on. Creating a list of all the allusions found in the entire book is probably too much for any single person to construct, so if you identify anything in the book that should be added, just send it my way.

For ease in identifying what Jeremy found (in the first chapter), I’ve just listed everything alphabetically by title or author, depending. This is probably not terribly helpful; it is likely impossible to catalog all the references Fresán has in this novel. That all said, if you want to add to this list, just email me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu and I can keep dropping things onto this post as the Two Month Review goes along.

But, for now:

2001
Bambi
Barbuzal/Bluebeard
Batman
Challenger explosion
Cinderella
Coca-cola
Dante, Inferno
Dickens
Donald Duck
Dracula
Edward Bulwery-Lytton, Paul Clifford
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night
Godzilla
Google
Jell-o
Joker
King Kong
La garoupe
Lex Luthor
Mickey Mouse
Miss Universe
Patty Hamburgers & Maggi mashed potatoes
“Penelope,” Joan Manuel Serrat
Roadrunner
Sarah & Gerald Murphy
Saul Bellow, Herzog
Shakespeare, Hamlet
Shakespeare, Henry V
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Shakespeare, Macbeth
Sugus (candy)
Superman
Toy Story
Wil E. Coyote
Wittgenstein

12 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On last Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast we covered the opening to the second section of The Invented Part, and coming up later this week we’ll be covering pages 99-207—the second section of “The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin.” As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



Last week I was at the New Directions party for BookExpo and ran into a reviewer who has been reading The Invented Part. He’s greatly enjoying the novel so far, but thought that this particular section—focusing on Penelope’s interactions with the Karmas—would be the most off-putting to average readers.

At first, I was sort of taken aback. This section? The one with the most tragi-romantic plot? The funniest section so far? The one that takes potshots at the sort of rich and awful and awfully rich family we all love to hate? The one with the glowing green cow? This one’s the most difficult?

Short of Finnegans Wake, I don’t like to think of books as being “difficult.” I think that certain types of books subvert existing expectations about what fiction can—and should—do, and that that gives some people fits. When you’re used to getting a certain type of information in a certain way, with a certain sort of end goal in mind (narrative closure, the answer to the mystery laid bare, happiness), books that provide different info in unexpected ways might well frustrate you. They can be “hard to figure out.” In other words: not all readers like weird shit.

This could turn into a long post about style, altering reader expectations, books that teach you how to approach them, and other differences between novels obsessed with plot and those that focus on form. But instead, I just want to go over some of the aspects that complicate this section of Fresán’s novel.

1) What’s Up with the Two Narrators?

One of the first things a reader will notice about this section is that it’s written in two different fonts (Times New Roman and American Typewriter) that seem to represent two different narrators. They both advance Penelope’s story at different times, but for the most part, Typeface #1 (Times New Roman) provides the bones of her story (falls in love, husband ends up in a drug-induced coma on their wedding night, she has to go live with his crazy family, from which she eventually escapes) and Typeface #2 gives additional commentary, like the color man on a sports broadcast.

[Typeface #2 starts after the asterisk.]

Not long now, just a little while, all landing is inevitable, and Penelope’s ears are covered, and, in back of the aircraft, watched over by a doctor and nurse, her husband breathes mechanically, deep in a coma for two weeks now. * The story, of course, doesn’t begin here. But this is a good starting point, as good as opening—like in those black and white films of Hollywood’s golden age—with a map filling the whole screen and, across it, a line that draws itself from one point to another. And, like in those same movies, lines of text rising from the bottom of the screen and climbing, like a sunrise, to the highest point, explaining everything that happened before, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. But all at the same time, as if all times were the same time. Backward and forward and up and down and, also, to the right and the left and at oblique and sharp and steeply ascending and descending angles. A lot like the tumbling, head-over-heels deluge of speech that spews forth after drinking multiple liters of truth serum, but, also, like the panoramic and encompassing way the gods think, leisurely reflecting on a landscape where past and present and future occur simultaneously. “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” Who said that? Francis Scott Fitzgerald?

This is a fairly unusual strategy, and one that takes a little while to adjust to, mostly because

2) Who Is the Second Voice?

There are a lot of hints in here that this second voice—the American Typewriter typeface—is The Writer, Penelope’s brother:

[Typeface #2 starts after the asterisk.]

Sing, O goddess, the wrath of Penelope. A ruinous wrath that caused her family countless sorrows; but that was, it seems, of great inspiration to her brother, who’s now more particular than ever. A brother transformed into particles, courtesy of the God particle and now, all of him, stardust, blowin’ in the wind, floating here and there and everywhere, high above in the Big Sky looking down at this little Earth. * And like the dysfunctions in satellites provoked by hysterical solar storms, he appears, without warning, like those parentheticals directing a histrionic and operatic ghost to enter and exit the most innocent of crime scenes. Lo, here he is, incorporeal yet omnipresent, interfering and interceding and—sheltered by the alibi of le mot juste and all that—obsessively repeating ideas and judgments. Projecting himself like the loop of a video that no search engine can locate to download and edit; a video from a security camera where he enters the frame and, after overpowering a fragile scientist, shuts the door and, alone and inside a laboratory, as everyone first orders and then begs him not to, presses a button so that everything, including him, is set in motion and spins and spins and spins until it provokes a nauseating vertigo behind the eyes. Being a nuisance, yes. [. . .] Nothing more and nothing less than that instant, suspended between nothing and everything when a writer spends an eternity of seconds thinking of what he’ll subsequently put down in writing. A map of unfathomable distance separating the measures of the cerebral score from the arrival of the fingers to the goal of the keyboard. Coming out of the same body but from a different source, in a different font. And, to state the obvious, that font is American Typewriter, right?; because that was the script on his first typewriter. And because Penelope’s brother was (is?) a writer, always, with a particular and often criticized interest in American literature, and over and out for a while and . . .

Based on that little bit, it’s possible to read these two voices as both coming from The Writer. Maybe Typeface #1 is his original attempt to write out Penelope’s story, and Typeface #2 is his voice from wherever he is now. Which bring us to



3) What Happened to The Writer?

We more or less lay reference to this in the jacket copy, but sticking to the part of the book that we’ve read so far, this is the closest we’ve gotten to an explanation:

[All from Typeface #2.]

Here, again, he feels the temptation to modify and literarily enhance that hospital Penelope was moving through with the description of a different hospital. A hospital in the city of B where, later, he’d go with an emergency, a red pain biting his chest at the height of his heart. And going even further: to add additional details about the laboratory/accelerator near Geneva where he’d be transformed into what he is now. [. . .] And here he follows her, her brother, who, not dead but yes disappeared, part of the air and everywhere, watches her not on a TV screen of the netherworld, but as if he were reading her; as if she were a character in a book, that book he never managed to write but that he can’t stop thinking about or wondering about or playing with sometimes complex and sometimes not so complex possible choices, like the one that a flight attendant with the enigmatic smile of a sphinx presents Penelope with now: “Beef, chicken, fish, or pasta?,” she asks.

That more or less clarifies everything, no?



4) Is This Magical Realism?

Of the sections we’ve read so far, this is definitely the one that strays the furthest from so-called “realism.” There are the allusions to the author as a disembodied voice commenting on and editing the story, possibly from some ethereal beyond, and then, if that weren’t enough, we get this:

And her most recent “achievement” (because Hiriz’s disasters, somehow, end up being flexible conversations at tense dinner tables) has had something to do with her thinking that she can develop a special food for cattle. A diet that, she swears, would make them bigger and more productive. It makes no difference that Hiriz knows nothing about cows, or bulls, or about what they eat, or even what they are for and what they do. Hiriz invested “a little funds, a little savings” in a hundred head of cattle (Penelope hears about this on the way from the airport to Mount Karma, Mamagrandma’s matriarchal mansion) and created, all on her own, a race of colossal mutant bovines the color of emerald fluoride. A fierce and anabolic breed that reproduce at a vertiginous rate and have developed an insatiable carnivorous appetite, prompting them to laughter each other with raw bites and eat each other in a revelry of bovine cannibalism.

Giant green cannibalistic cows. Like the narrators say at the beginning, “Fasten your seatbelts. Turbulence. Deploy the landing gear. Flaps down. * Here we go.”



5) What’s Up with the William Burroughs Stuff?

So, in the middle of this section, amid discussions of—and jokes about—the Karma Family, there’s a long expository bit about William Burroughs’s time in Mexico with Jean Vollmer, including a description of the fateful night when Burroughs shot and killed her. This digression is sparked by the performance of Lina, Penelope’s one friend in Karma Land:

On the stage, with a red hole in the side of her head, Lina is sitting in front of a TV that broadcasts nothing. Lina is Joan Vollmer, sitting in front of a TV, broadcasting her death and life from the depths of the pre-Columbian netherworld. In the body and voice of Lina, Joan Vollmer is hating on the beatniks and refusing to resign herself to be a minor member in the body of the beat.

Typeface #2 immediately comments on this performance:

Lina isn’t doing justice to the person that Joan Vollmer was and the character that she could be. Joan Vollmer as a sort of Megamix, where parts of Penelope and parts of Hiriz and parts of Lina mix together: the fury of the centuries, the eternal dissatisfaction, the artistic temperament that’s nothing but a single, unrelenting bad mood, functioning as a kind of tormented manifesto of aesthetics and ethics. Joan Vollmer as the universal woman (this really does seem to him to be Lina’s great idea, an idea that he’ll guiltlessly rob) and goddess of the afterlife watching over everything, her face illuminated by the cold phosphorescence of a screen that tunes in a single channel, broadcast from a celestial and ancient and circular hell.

If Fitzgerald and Tender Is the Night is the spirit hovering over the first section of the book (“A Real Character”) and part of the second, Burroughs is the one that takes over the second. I see this whole part (pages 97-207) as the Beat Section. In terms of style, this section is much more free-flowing than the earlier ones, filled with jazzy riffs, all running on for page after page, em-dash after digressive em-dash, in basically one long paragraph that can occasionally feel like a processing of the raw materials of art. As if the first narrator is just getting down all the main points, the bulk of the story, and the second narrator is reworking it, molding it, adding in the appropriate facts (“Or because the protagonist in one of her brother’s favorite books was also the son of a comatose father and a restless mother and that book was called . . . * The World According to Garp [1978] by John Irving.) or pulling new observations out of the initial material.

All of these various elements—the dual narrators, the addition of more non-realistic elements, the essayistic bit on Burroughs, the way the whole section sort of provides a reworking-in-progress of the main story—all set this section apart and force the reader to readjust. (The first of many readjustments, to be honest.) But everyone reading this should remember that this section also contains a lot of fun. The Karma bits are wild—Mamagrandma always riding her horse!—and hilarious, and too recognizable. It’s a long tale of Penelope that has all the aspects of a great story—love, tragedy, humor, a miracle ending . . .

In closing, there is one quote from this section that sticks with me, though, that’s less fun, and more ominous:

And one thing is certain, undeniable: you must be very careful of the spirits you invoke for the love of art, the ugly spirits, the malignant spirits always given to poetic justice and tragedy. It’s not good to mess with the reality of the dead. Rewriting their reality is like playing with a loaded gun.

8 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, author and journalist Mark Binelli joins Chad and Brian to discuss the first part of the second section of Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part. In “The Place Where the Seas Ends So the Forest Can Begin,” we meet The Young Man and The Young Woman, who are making a movie about The Writer after his disappearance/death/whatever. From discussion of “irreal realism” to writing classes to the idea of a sitcom about writers, this week’s discussion delights in The Writer’s ideas about writing and reading, and the hints this chapter contains about the rest of the book.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, including from Open Letter directly, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and Mark Binelli on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

Also, click here to read the profile of Al Franken that Mark wrote for the new issue of Rolling Stone.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here.

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

And for those interested, here’s Joan Manuel Serrat’s Penelope.



If you don’t already subscribe to Two Month Review/Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and other places. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss



7 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

You can read the first part of this interview here, and you can click here for all Two Month Review posts.

Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.

Will Vanderhyden: Now, this is a question that, in a way, the book takes as its point of departure—so it might make a good segue into talking about to what extent The Invented Part is autobiographical, to what extent the book’s primary narrator, The Writer, is you—but: what made you want to be a writer? Or, to put it another way: how and why did you end up pursuing a career/vocation as a writer? And: how is the reality of that story different from The Writer’s origin story in the book?

Rodrigo Fresán: It isn’t autobiographical, but it is the most personal in certain respects. In ways that have more to do with what I have written than what I have lived, in the sense that it is about how a writer, who is also me, thinks. In other words: I don’t have a mad sister, but I do have a very sensible son; my parents weren’t killed during the military dictatorship of the ‘70s-80s, but we did have to flee the country and barely made it out (the most precise version of that story is told at the end of Historia argentina, my first book). In terms of what it was that made me into a writer, I don’t have a precise memory of that. I always wanted to be one. Even before I learned to read and write. That’s why, in The Invented Part, I invented en epiphanic instant in the life of the book’s narrator when his writerly-vocation is activated after he almost drowns . . . As far as I’m concerned, I have always considered it a great privilege and gift to get to live and not have to betray my childhood dream of what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” Not many people get to keep and concretize that. But maybe, yes, it’s all linked to my own almost-death: I was born and declared clinically dead. I had a very complicated birth. And, mysteriously and miraculously, I came back from the other side. I lived to tell the tale. To tell it and to write it.

WV: In The Invented Part, you explore the relationship between disastrous moments in the lives of certain famous artists—F. Scott Fitzgerald and his relationships with Zelda Sayre, Ernest Hemmingway, and Sara and Gerald Murphy; William S. Burroughs and the killing of his wife Joan Vollmer; the members of Pink Floyd and the loss of their original band mate Syd Barrett—and the famous works of art that emerged from the wreckage. How do these famous instances of the confluence of life and art parallel The Writer’s own situation and inform the decisions he makes in the book?

RF: I wouldn’t say they inform any of his decisions (his decisions are, in general, bad when not catastrophic), but they do function as talismans for him or as the floating remains of a shipwreck that he can cling to. Also, clearly, he thinks about them to not think about himself and a body of work (his own) that would be hard pressed to ever reach those heights. And there’s an additional application of these geniuses and figures (like the figures of Bob Dylan, the Brontë sisters, and Vladimir Nabokov in the next “installment” of the monster) all of them have something in common: they were consummate (and some consumed) rewriters of themselves.



WV: This will likely be clear to anybody who has read the book, but can you talk about where the title, The Invented Part, came from?

RF: It’s from a letter that Gerald Murphy sent to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I had already used it as an epigraph in Historia argentina and . . . we can agree that it makes a great title and it was always a mystery to me that nobody had used it. “I know now that what you said in Tender Is the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty,” writes Murphy, who—along with his wife Sara—had been upset by how, without consulting them, Fitzgerald had used their marriage as the point of departure for his second great novel.

WV: The Invented Part, like many of your books, has a triptych or three-act structure, with the long middle section divided into five subsections. Although there is a narrative arc that develops in a quasi-linear way throughout the book, there is also the sense that all seven parts are happening simultaneously: they overlap, riff off each other, and sometimes tell different versions of the same events. Where did this structure come from? To what extent was it planned and to what extent improvised? How was it written? Did you start at the beginning and write through to the end or was the final structure something that you came to later on?

RF: I always think in trios, triads, triptychs, triangles. I fear that it has to do with the influence resulting from very early exposure to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Once I said that I write the way The Beatles recorded and it was misinterpreted in the sense that I was accused of considering myself as great as The Beatles. Well, no . . . The truth is, I said what I said thinking more about George Martin (The Beatles producer) than about The Beatles. Anyway, the headline was misinterpreted. People today just read headlines and feel compelled to retweet them right away without reading the entire interview. I wasn’t saying that I write with the same degree of genius and talent that The Beatles had, not at all. I was saying, and I explained this in the interview, that after reading a memoir by Geoff Emerick, The Beatles’ sound engineer, the thing about equalizing and utilizing different channels on the sound mixer ended up having a great deal to do with the way I wrote The Invented Part, whose seven parts I wrote simultaneously. I had seven files open, and I worked on a different one each day. And, at the same time, I didn’t really know where that novel was going, until my son provided me with the key, the little toy figure that appears on the cover of the original edition, which has now become a kind of little literary icon . . . I was bogged down. I had spent years writing a novel, I knew what I wanted to say, I even had a plan, but it wasn’t coming together. I was stuck in uncertainty, I had five hundred pages of nothing, and then my son, Daniel, who was five years old at the time, told me he had found the cover for my next book. We saw it in the window of a stationary shop on the way to his school. It was a windup toy: a traveler wearing a raincoat and hat, carrying a big suitcase. We bought it. “I want him to be the hero too,” Daniel said. I ended up discarding that last idea, but I hung onto the toy. And that’s when it happened: it was as if I’d been wound up and set in motion and I didn’t stop until I got to the end.



WV: In this book and elsewhere you tell an anecdote about a conversation you had with the Irish writer John Banville in which you ask him what is more important, plot or style, and he responds by saying: “Style goes on ahead giving triumphal leaps while the plot follows along behind dragging its feet.” Can you talk about this idea and how it relates to your work?

RF: What Banville said seems to me a great sentence. And a great truth. And it was a great privilege to be there and hear him say it. But in The Invented Part, I reproduce it and, I hope, politely and respectfully add to it. I’ll cite here what I say in the novel: “Later he wondered whether it might not be possible for style to go back a few steps and lovingly lift the plot up in its arms, as if it were a brilliant and complicated child, and turn it into something new, different: into a stylistic plot, into the most well-plotted of styles.” In my life as a reader, the truth is that it’s harder and harder for me to read anybody who doesn’t rely on style.

Come back on June 21st for the third part of this interview, and in the meantime, be sure to check out the podcast and other Two Month Review posts!

5 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On last Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast we covered the first forty-five pages of The Invented Part, and coming up later this week we’ll be covering pages 46-98—the first section of “The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin.” As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



Even though it’s not directly related to what I want to focus on in the first section of the second part of The Invented Part (pages 46-98 of “The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin”), I just have to point out this passage, which sort of hits close to home . . . It’s one of The Writer’s statements about literature that The Young Man and The Young Woman have been gathering:

“My surprise at how, all the time, less of what’s written outside the country is read inside it and that it’s only read when that foreign writer is published by a small local publisher and thus ‘discovered’ by some local critic or academic, no matter that the book has already been circulating there for years. As if foreign writing is only worthy of consideration after being appropriated and nationalized. And, sometimes, there are even discussions that establish absurd connections and comparisons—convinced to the point of fanaticism, insisting on impossible chronological influences of something written there on something written here—with some national writer, more a sect writer than a cult writer. Someone, generally, already conveniently and comfortably dead, and hence possible to manipulate. Someone who, no doubt, neither read nor knew of that generally far-superior foreign writer.”

Yeah.

But what I really want to start with are two other quotes from The Writer about the process of writing itself. Or, more to the point, the way in which writing represents reality.

Writing is a discipline that becomes more difficult every day. It’s like what happens with a camera lens. Or with the human eye. At first, everything appears upside down, head down, feet up. And it’s the machine and the brain that take charge of straightening it, righting it, and giving it some logical meaning. But it’s a deceptive meaning. An illusion. And so, at any moment, everything can come crashing down and expose the deception in all its clumsy obviousness.

And:

Literature doesn’t serve reality. That’s why it’s fiction . . . But let’s get back to the idea of realism. To that whole fallacy of literature as reality’s faithful mirror . . . A lie, impossible. Reality doesn’t function like it does in supposedly realist books, it doesn’t respect such dramatic pacing, neat sequences of events, one after another in perfect and functional formation . . .

The idea of literature being a mirror of reality—and the corollary that follows about how literature is just an artifice pretending to reflect reality—is an idea that’s been around for essentially ever. Here’s a quote from Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma:

A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.

And although it’s not exactly the same, there’s also this bit from Stephan Dedalus in Ulysses (a book that pops up a few times in this particular chapter):

Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. [. . .]

Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:

—It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant.

*


I don’t want to suggest that Fresán’s approach in this chapter is a simplistic refutation of the idea that fiction should serve as a reflection of reality. The Writer more or less takes that viewpoint apart in his mini-rant about “logical irrealism” as the counterpoint to “magical realism” on page 65. That bit is brilliant—and pretty much defines the sort of books that I like to read—but The Writer isn’t Fresán, or not exactly. He’s a reflection of Fresán, a sort of fun-house mirror version of Fresán, in which Fresán’s more rational, muted views can be exaggerated and over-emphasized. (See the fourth part of the interview we’re running on Three Percent, which is an excerpt from The Dreamed Part in which The Writer unleashes a screed against our screen culture.) I think what Fresán is doing in this section is more subtle and interesting than a straightforward attack on the tenets of neo-realistic literature. Instead of mirroring “reality,” this section essentially reflects the book itself, creating a series of mirrorings, or doublings, that articulate a part of Fresán’s aesthetic approach and create a stronger sense of literary sincerity than a simple “reflection of reality” ever can.

Instead of trying to explain what I mean in some pseudo-academic, well-crafted, persuasive set of arguments, I’m going to resort to a simple list of observations and long quotes.

*


In the first chapter, we get The Writer’s near-death experience as a child, which serves as the origin, or birth, of all his future ideas. In this chapter, we see The Writer after he’s gone, all of his creations created, his body having left the Earth.

*


Now, The Young Man inhabits that terrible moment in the life of any writer, any prewriter. A zone without limits where everything seems worthy of being told, everything could end up making a good story, every horse looks at you with those bet-on-me eyes. But it’s all a dreamer’s dream. A desert of deceptive fertility where nothing germinates. Just titles, first sentences, endings, dedications, epigraphs (of which, like in The Writer’s books, there will be, for many people, too many), acknowledgements (which, like in The Writer’s books will be, for most people, too many; but The Young Man has been reconsidering their inclusion ever since The Young Woman told him that, “I don’t believe them, they’re false, they’re acknowliedgements”), and speeches, and even cover designs for editions with various publishers and in various languages.

So many epigraphs and acknowledgments—just like in the book you’re reading . . .

*


From all those hours and hours recorded in a variety of formats—from celluloid, to video, and even to digitalization for mobile phones and tablets—The Young Man and The Young Woman have selected a handful of what The Writer tended to refer to as “my minimal maxims,” which he repeated again and again throughout his books. So, a curious effect. An audio-visual effect. A kind of slippery passageway between fiction and nonfiction. Like someone who sounds—simultaneously, a twofer, a special offer—like the ventriloquist dummy of a ventriloquist. And The Young Man and The Young Woman are going to toy with it, splicing together similar sentences from different periods (like that timeless and constant and strange addiction to quoting Faulkner, a writer he almost never read), establishing an idea with The Writer looking young and more or less successful and finishing it off with The Writer looking older and more remote and, then, showing that same sentence, almost verbatim, appearing in the mouth and the role of one of his characters.

*


There’s also the fun aspect of this chapter—which has a lot of visual elements throughout—opening with The Young Man and Young Woman videotaping The Writer’s library, leading to a long series of reflections on the nature of libraries (or liferaries), on their importance, on the reactions people have to them, all ending with the Young Woman proclaiming, in disgust, “Ugh, I hope we don’t open by showing the books and desk and all of that.”

*


Speaking of the books The Writer is obsessed with, Tender Is the Night fits right in with this general theme, given its two editions that are similar to each other, yet not.

*




More arcane, but these two excerpts from The Invented Part bring to mind The Bottom of the Sky, another of Fresán’s novels (coming to English readers everywhere in spring 2018!).

The Young Woman talks in her sleep and says strange things, that she repeats the verb “fall” and the place “swimming pool” over and over again. [. . .]

And third, because then she read The Writer. And it’s not that she fell in love with him. But she did fall in love with the character of a woman who went in and out of his books, in different times and circumstances, in different swimming pools and cities and even planets—and that produced in her the irrepressible need to know more, to get a little closer.

Pulling in bits from the rest of Fresán’s oeuvre not only establishes a larger backdrop against which his books play out, but helps to reflect and recontextualize what’s come before.

*


The very phrase “bottom of the sky” implies a sort of reflection.

*


One of the more intriguing reflections within this chapter itself is the contrast between The Writer’s “minimal maxims,” which are all reflections on the process of writing or being a writer, and the imaginary writers that The Young Man has created. On the one hand we get the slippery pontifications of what it’s like to write (“So, that’s how I think about the writing of stories and novels. A particular balance of feelings and sound and phrasings and word games.”), and on the other, we get actual creations (“Cash Krugerrand, the literary agent whom everyone derides in public but dreams of having [and being possessed by] in private.”). Creative material versus more dogmatic pronouncements about writing.

*


One of the things I’m really enjoying about this slow reread of The Invented Part is how there are elements of traditional novels—great characters and characterizations (see the description of the Young Man and Young Woman on pages 58-9), enough of a plot to keep pulling the reader through (we get hints of the future of The Writer, and his interaction with the Young Man, in this part), and sentences and phrases that carry a weight of significance (“That’s why others exist: so that we convince ourselves that, for a while, we can stop thinking about ourselves when really, in that moment, we’re just thinking about what others think of us.”)—while also indulging in more playful, intellectual games that aren’t simply rehashed tricks of 60s metafiction or whatever, but seem to be something new.

I’ll leave off this week with one final quote to that sort of speaks to that:

Look at them: The Young Man and The Young Woman are literary animals. They live to read literature and dream of making a living off of a literature based in reading. And they know that modernism (when anything was possible), postmodernism (when everything had been worn out), and post-postmodernism (when, since everything had been worn out, anything was possible) have already passed. And so, now, they’re waiting for the new thing, for what’s next, for their own moment and the corresponding era that corresponds to them.

1 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Jeremy Garber from Powells Books joins Chad and Brian to discuss the first section of Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part. This section, entitled “The Real Character,” introduces us to the main character of the book—known here as The Boy, and later as The Writer—as well as some of the major themes of the novel. Wide-ranging and very fun, the discussion touches on The Boy’s epic list of thoughts and ideas (such as “It Jell-O animal, vegetal, mineral, or interplanetary?”), on the two versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Gerald and Sara Murphy, the idea of “the invented part,” turning off our cell phones, and much more.

Next week’s guest will be Mark Binelli (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits, Detroit City Is the Place to Be), and will cover the first section of the second part of the novel, pages 46-98 of “Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin.”

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, including Powells. You can also get it from Open Letter directly for 20% off. Just enter 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. (Jeremy is smart and stays off social media entirely.)

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here.

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

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31 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments



Here are the first few paragraphs of Rodrigo Fresán’s Kensington Gardens, translated by Natasha Wimmer:

It begins with a boy who was never a man and ends with a man who was never a boy.

Something like that.

Or better: it begins with a man’s suicide and a boy’s death, and ends with a boy’s death and a man’s suicide.

Or with various deaths and various suicides at varying ages.

I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter.

Everybody knows—it’s understandable, excusable—that numbers, names, and faces are the first to be jettisoned or to throw themselves from the platform during the shipwreck of memory, which always lies there ready fro annihilation on the rails of the past.

One thing, at any rate, is clear. At the end of the beginning—at the beginning of the end—Peter Pan dies.

*




And here’s the beginning of The Bottom of the Sky (forthcoming), in Will Vanderhyden’s translation:

Find yourself wherever you find yourself, near or far, if you can read what I now write, please, remember, remember me, remember us, like this.

Remember us, remember me, remember that in those days the inhabitants of our planet, of our miniscule universe, were divided into interstellar travelers and creatures from other worlds.

The rest were but secondary characters.

The anonymous builders of the rocket.

Or men and women enslaved by distant creatures of impossible anatomy that, nevertheless, a great mystery, always spoke our language perfectly.

Or humans who practiced the tongue of extraterrestrials that, an even greater mystery, was so similar to the English spoken by a foreigner of a not-too-distant country.

And astronaut or alien weren’t yet terms of common use.

They weren’t, like today, present equally in the mouths of children and the elderly. Those words, like a familiar taste, easy to identify at first bite for teeth both young and new or old and fake.

It wasn’t like now (think of technological jargon as a new form of pornography, of the production of military and domestic gadgets of all size and utility, of faces and bodies modified by laser procedures, of a life after life, and of alternate realities tangled in a network of small computer screens) when there are days that I’m invaded by the suspicion that all the inhabitants of this planet are, without being aware of it, writers of science fiction.

Or, at least, characters created by writers of science fiction.

Back then, in the beginning, it was different.

*




Finally, here’s the opening of The Invented Part, also translated by Will Vanderhyden:

How to begin.

Or better: How to begin?

(Adding the question mark that—nothing happens by chance—has the shape of a fish or meat hook. A sharp and pointy curve that skewers both the reader and the read. Pulling them, dragging them up from the clear and calm bottom to the cloudy and restless surface. Or sending them flying through the air to land just inside the beach of these parentheses. Parentheses that more than one person will judge or criticize as orthographically and aesthetically unnecessary but that, in the uncertainty of the beginning, are oh so similar to hands coming together in an act of prayer, asking for a fair voyage just now underway. We read: “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate;” we hear: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” And good luck to all, wishes you this voice—halfway down the road of life, lost in a dark woods, because it wandered off the right path—that the gag of the parentheses renders unknown. And yet—like with certain unforgettable songs, whose melodies impose themselves over the title and even over the signature lines of the chorus, what’s it called? how’d it go?—this voice also recalls that of someone whose name isn’t easy to identify or recognize. And, yes, if possible, avoid this kind of paragraph from here onward because, they say, it scares away many of today’s readers. Today’s electrocuted readers, accustomed to reading quickly and briefly on small screens. And, yes, goodbye to all of them, at least for as long as this book lasts and might last. Unplug from external inputs to nourish yourselves exclusively on internal electricity. And—warning! warning!—at least in the beginning and to begin with, that’s the idea here, the idea from here onward. Consider yourselves warned.)

Or better still: To begin like this?

*


Although these are distinct, they each have an element of hesitation in them. Kensington Gardens opens strong (“It begins with a boy . . .”) before undercutting that certitude (“Something like that.”), and going off into other possibilites of how to frame the story (“Or better:” “Or” “I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter.”).

The Bottom of the Sky is more imploring in its opening hesitations, questioning if there’s anyone out there to read these words, needing them to remember, before turning toward the past and trying to recover a sense of what that time was like.

After questioning its opening (“How to begin. Or better: How to begin?”), The Invented Part turns on a metafictional dime, grounding the idea that this is a book that is aware it is being written (“Adding the question mark that—nothing happens by chance—has the shape of a fish or meat hook.”) and then addresses potential critics of this stylistic approach (“Parentheses that more than one person will judge or criticize as orthographically and aesthetically unnecessary . . .”).

I’m not sure what to make of these three openings, except that there’s something familiar between the three, a sort of groping around in the narrative voice that is—to me at least—inviting and honest. Looking at these after having read all three of these books, they call to mind the idea that these books sort of drift in out of the ether, signals from somewhere beyond that are in search of a reader. Once you get deeper into any of the novels, this sort of hesitation is shuffled off to the side, but it’s as if the narrative has to lull you in first, aware that all works of fiction are essentially unstable and rely on the imagination and belief of the reader to really work.

29 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As you hopefully already know, for the next two months we’ll be producing a weekly podcast and a series of posts all about Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part. All grouped under the title “Two Month Review,” this initiative is part book club, part exercise in slow reading, and part opportunity to discuss and expand upon many of the fun and wonderful aspects of Fresán’s novel. Over the course of the next two months, we’ll serialize an interview that translator Will Vanderhyden did with Fresán. It’s broken up to somewhat align the responses with the section of the book being discussed that week on the podcast, although this is somewhat inexact.

That said, this first section offers up an introduction to Fresán’s work as a whole—written by Will Vanderhyden—and includes a few good questions that serve as openings to The Invented Part. We’ve already posted a few quotes from the first section of the book to whet your interest, and later this week there will be a post about the beginnings of Fresán’s books. Then, on Thursday, June 1st, the new podcast will be released, covering pages 1-45.

You can find all of the “Two Month Review” posts and podcasts by clicking here. And if you use the code 2MONTH on our website, you can get 20% off the book itself. And be sure to weigh in with your comments over at the Goodreads forum!

Rodrigo Fresán was born in Argentina in 1963, spent much of his adolescence in Venezuela, and moved to Barcelona in the late 90s where—apart from a brief stint in the U.S. as an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program—he has lived ever since.

He published his first book of fiction, Historia argentina, in 1991 to great critical and commercial success, making him a reference point in a new generation of Argentinean and Latin American writers eager to escape the typecasts imposed by the global success of the Latin American Boom writers. Since that time, Fresán has published nine more books of fiction. His stories have been widely anthologized and his books translated into a variety of languages.



He has also worked as a journalist and columnist, writing prolifically for various publications in Spain, Argentina, and elsewhere. He has translated, edited, annotated, and/or written prologues for the work of numerous writers including John Cheever, Denis Johnson, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch, and Roberto Bolaño.

Fresán’s fiction has been praised by the likes of Jonathan Lethem, John Banville, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Osvaldo Soriano and described as “singular,” “virtuosic,” “irreverent,” “contagious,” and “kaleidoscopic.” He has been compared to Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Geoff Dyer, and David Foster Wallace and called a “pop Borges,” a “genius inventor,” a “guru of literary trends,” and “the only pure postmodern writer in the Spanish language.”

Fresán’s writing is saturated with literary and pop culture references, particularly—though by no means exclusively—references to modern and contemporary English-language literature and to global pop culture of the 1960s and 70s. His books are typically sprawling in both form and content, eschewing conventional narrative structures in favor of more open and fragmentary forms and incorporating elements of science fiction, literary and cultural criticism, and rock journalism. His style is characterized by a hyper self-conscious, encyclopedic, and darkly humoristic narrative sensibility and a prose that is simultaneously playful, kinetic, and unabashedly prolix.

Across his expansive body of work, Fresán explores myriad subjects (Argentina’s dirty war and globalism in the 1980s in Historia argentina and Esperanto, religion and pop art in Vidas de santos, Mexican identity in Mantra, Peter Pan and the lysergic 60s in Kensington Gardens, and science fiction and 9/11 in The Bottom of the Sky, for example) invariably linked to his own obsessions and preoccupations—childhood, memory, the pitfalls of idealism, great literature, writers’ lives, art, and pop culture to name a few—with an approach marked by an insatiable curiosity and an irrepressible compulsion to tell stories.

In a way, The Invented Part—Fresán’s ninth book of fiction and second to be translated into English—subsumes all the books that preceded it. His most overtly autobiographical work to date, this novel—now merely the first book in a trilogy whose second volume has already been published in Spanish and whose third is well under way—is an exploration of the capacious mind and creative process of an aging writer, jaded by readers’ tweet-length attention spans and his own struggle to find a way to feel relevant and to keep on writing. That struggle plays out on the page, across seven novella-length sections that, in one way or another, are descriptions of the novel the writer is trying to write. All of it amounts to a novel (Can I call this a novel?) that is quintessentially Fresanian: a carefully orchestrated yet tornadic crescendo of big ideas, leitmotifs, extended metaphors, humorous lists, surreal and satirical set pieces, reflective digressions, story sketches, and “referential mania,” revolving around questions about what it means to live and create art in our globalized, hyper-mediated, and technologized post-millennial world.



Will Vanderhyden: How to begin . . . I suspect that—considering its subject and scope—this novel contains, in one form or another, the answer (or an answer) to any question I might come up with . . . But setting that suspicion aside for the moment, in the interest of establishing a framework for talking about this book, I think it might be helpful for newcomers to your work to start with some questions about where you think you fit in terms of literary traditions and trends. So, first off: to what extent do you consider yourself an Argentine writer? I know it’s facile to reduce writers to their nationality, but Argentina’s literary tradition is a unique one and your work seems both inextricably bound up in it and somehow external to it. What does that tradition mean to you and where do you fit in it?

Rodrigo Fresán: I consider myself very Argentine in the sense that I don’t consider myself Argentine at all. There’s nothing more Argentine than this, I think. Among the many and exceedingly varied disadvantages of having been born where I was born there is—if you’re a writer—one great advantage, which Borges describes in his essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” and which, for me, is something like the trade’s tables of the law for someone who starts out writing as an Argentine in order to, suddenly, right away, as quickly as possible, turn, Argentineanly, into something else. There he writes: “What is Argentine tradition? I believe that this question poses no problem and can easily be answered. I believe our tradition is the whole of Western culture, and I also believe that we have a right to this tradition, a greater right than that which one of the inhabitants of one or another Western nation may have [. . .] Everything we Argentine writers do felicitously will belong to Argentine tradition, in the same way that the use of Italian subjects belongs to the tradition of England through Chaucer and Shakespeare [. . .] Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask. I believe that if we lose ourselves in the voluntary dream called artistic creation, we will be Argentine and we will be, as well, good and adequate writers.”

And, it seems to me, there’s nothing more to add . . .

WV: You have described yourself as “a reader who writes.” Is that a better way to think about where you fit in terms of Argentine tradition, among writers whose work is grounded less in their nationality and more in their library?

RF: Yes, another very Argentine trait. In way, all the writers I admire and am interested in (the aforementioned Borges, Bioy Casares, Cortázar, Piglia, Pauls, Pron, Saccomanno, and on and on) are overflowing with books and writers. I have said it many times in too many interviews: I think that, while other literatures from Latin American and even from Spain have their roots firmly buried in the ground where they take place, Argentine literature’s roots are buried in the wall and, more concretely, in the wall of the library. The tradition of the Argentine writer is built more on the foundation of the figure of the reader than the figure of the writer. And this seems good to me, because when it comes down to it, to tell the truth, everyone who ends up writing does so because they started out reading. The true homeland of writer is his or her library. And a writer’s library is also an important part of his or her biography: a liferary. Nabokov said that the only possible biography for a writer would have to pass through the history of his or her style. I agree, but an important part of one’s style is formed and informed and deformed by the history of one’s readings.



WV: Continuing in the vein of facile classifications . . . I remember hearing an interview with David Foster Wallace where he responds to a question about whether or not he’s a realist by saying that he doesn’t know any writers—even so-called postmodernists like himself—who don’t consider themselves realists, in terms of writing about what life really feels like to them. He goes on to say: “I mean, a lot of stuff that is capital ‘R’ realism just seems to me somewhat hokey, because obviously realism is an illusion of realism.” The narrator of The Invented Part, The Writer, seems to have similar ideas, even ironically coining the term “logical irrealism” to contrast his own writing with “magical realism.” He says: “If magical realism is realism with irreal details, then logical irrealism is its twin opposite: irreality with realistic details . . . And yet, is there anything as irreal as so-called realism? Those stories and novels with dramatic pacing and a perfectly calculated and managed sequence of events. Like Madame Bovary. Or the neat structure and the precise pacing of most detective novels. But reality isn’t like that. Reality is undisciplined and unpredictable. Real reality is authentically irreal . . . There is more realism and verisimilitude in single day of the free and fluid and conscious drifting of Clarissa Dalloway than in the entire prolix and well-measured life and death of Anna Karenina.” Can you talk about what these various classifications mean to you and how they relate to your work?

RF: I agree with Wallace: there are many realities that are in this one just as there are many worlds that are in this one. Nabokov (a writer I’ve gone back to in recent years, more dazzled than ever), again, is useful when it comes to positioning myself on this issue in an interview: “Reality is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates it’s own special reality having nothing to do with the average ‘reality’ perceived by the communal eye. [. . . ] You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you can never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects. [. . .] We speak of one thing being like some other thing when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth.” And let’s go a little further: “The most we can do when steering a favorite in the best direction, in circumstances not involving injury to others, is to act as a breath of wind and to apply the lightest, the most indirect pressure such as trying to induce a dream that we hope our favorite will recall as prophetic if a likely event does actually happen. On the printed page the words ‘likely’ and ‘actually’ should be italicized too, at least slightly, to indicate a slight breath of wind inclining those characters (in the sense of both signs and personae),” he points out as a sort of editorial advice in Transparent Things. “I am no more guilty of imitating ‘real life’ than ‘real life’ is responsible for plagiarizing me,” he explains in the preface to the collected stories Nabokov’s Dozen. And more, even more Nabokov: that flower plucked by Nabokov, in that interview, as an example of how “reality is a very subjective affair” and that “I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization.” That, again, reality is nothing but “an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms.” And that, of course, there is a neutral reality that includes and involves all of us; but that, in the next breath, each of us has our own reality and entirely personal perception of that flower. And that there’s no such thing as “everyday reality” which is a term that “presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known.” And still more: “‘Reality’ (one of the few words which means nothing without quotes),” he concludes in the afterword to Lolita.

The thing about “logical irrealism” was just a joke (I hope a good one) to escape from the “magical realism” that—when I first started to write and publish—every foreign publisher and academic and critic seemed to be searching for, even though it wasn’t there, in Argentine literature just because it was Latin American. In any case, Colombian or Chilean or Mexican or Peruvian writers of my generation had it much worse in that sense because their past and present were much more irradiated by their totemic writers and by the luminous shadow of the Boom. In Argentina, we were never that concerned with/interested in the Boom and, besides, all the great writers from my country embraced the fantastic genre as one/another facet of reality.

We’ll be back with more of this interview next week!

26 May 17 | Chad W. Post |

The first Two Month Review podcast went up just over a week ago, and the next one—covering the first section of the book, “The Real Character” (pages 1-45)—will be posted next Thursday, June 1st. Prior to each week’s podcast, we hope to have at least some sort of overview post that offers some entranceways to the section to be discussed. These posts aren’t supposed to be complete, absolute, or anything that formal. More like notes or musings, and featuring lots of quotes. They also will be—as much as humanly possible—spoiler free. So you can read them before getting into the book, or after you’ve read that particular section, or post-podcast.

You can also download this as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.



I can’t think of another book with as many epigraphs as The Invented Part. Sixteen! There are quotes from David Foster Wallace, Iris Murdoch, Bret Easton Ellis, Marcel Proust, Bob Dylan, and many others. Eleven others, to be exact. Covering the first two-and-a-half pages of the book. Some of these are pithy (Juan Carlos Onetti’s “Always lie”), whereas Geoff Dyer’s runs seven full lines.

Taken as a whole, these sixteen (again, sixteen!) epigraphs make a good deal of sense and serve almost as an overture for the book. They tend to revolve around ideas about reality vs. fiction. About writing and autobiography, and the relationship of both to the truth.

All of that comes together in this one from John Cheever, which also works to frame my initial thoughts about “The Real Character” (emphasis on “real,” emphasis on
“character”), the first part of The Invented Part.

Writing is not crypto-autobiography, and it’s not current events. I’m not writing my autobiography, and I’m not writing things as they happen to me, with the exception of the use of details—thunderstorms and that sort of thing. No, it’s nothing that happened to me. It’s a possibility. It’s an idea.

It’s easy to see The Writer (the main focus of the novel, known as The Boy in this particular chapter) as a stand-in for Fresán, and maybe when we get deeper into the book, it will make more sense to write a post about that. But for now, I want to focus on the last bit of Cheever’s quote: “It’s a possibility.” Because this book is all about possibilities—the way things were, the way they could’ve been—and the interplay between the possible and the invented.

*


“The Real Character” is basically an origin story. It shows The Boy (who will eventually become The Writer) on vacation with his parents (or “onvacation” since he hears it as a single word), at the beach, running and playing unselfconsciously while his soon-to-divorce parents read in the sun and bicker with each other. And then there’s an event that could’ve broke any number of ways, and which, in retrospect, is the moment that serves as a secret source for all his future writings.

Is this the most important thing that’s happened to him yet?, The Boy wonders. (Who knows, he responds; and, at the other end of his story, decades later, he’ll say yes, when he realizes that the most transcendent events take place in the past but only happen in the future, when we’re truly cognizant of their importance, of the influence and weight they’ve had on everything that has and will come to pass. And it’s that which happens after that makes the before sad or happy. We need to know where we’re coming to in order to fully understand the texture of where we came from. [. . .]

This is the sort of idea that could launch a thousand weed-filled dorm room conversations. We never know what was most important until that moment is long past. In the present, we might sense the possibilities, the way our life could shift based on a single decision or accident, but we never get to see those other pathways. Except maybe in fiction, but fiction has the benefit of being able to make those choices or events part of a larger whole—whether things turned out for the best or not.

This is jumping way ahead, but later in the book The Writer echoes this idea when talking about “logical irrealism”:

If magical realism is realism with irreal details, then logical irrealism is its twin opposite: irreality with realistic details . . . And yet, is there anything as irreal as so-called realism? Those stories and novels with dramatic pacing and a perfectly calculated and managed sequence of events. Like Madame Bovary. Or the neat structure and the precise pacing of most detective novels. But reality isn’t like that. Reality is undisciplined and unpredictable. Real reality is authentically irreal . . . There is more realism and verisimilitude in a single day of the free and fluid and conscious drifting of Clarissa Dalloway than in the entire prolix and well-measured life and death of Anna Karenina.



All this talk of fiction, possibilities, and books is the perfect segue to go back to the parents on the beach who are sort of, kind of reading the same book together:

On the beach, under the sun, the father and mother read the same book. It’s not the first time they’ve done this. That’s how they met: the two of them reading the same book. On a train, the most romantic of all modes of transit. That same book they never stop reading. And, of course, there’s no better argument than that for putting a conversation in drive and taking a ride down the tunnel of love. But as tends to happen with everything that seems charming in a romance’s initial hours, this ritual of reading separately together—of reading the same book but different books, at the same time—now just produces a kind of irritation. The kind of annoyance we experience when, after a long time, we still feel obliged to do something that we obliged ourselves to do in the first place. And, then, you can’t help but wonder, why am I doing this, damn it, damn it, how did I get here, could I be more of an idiot? [. . .]

And the father and mother don’t know it yet, but they’re reading different versions of the same novel in the same way that they’re writing different versions of their marriage and the imminent allegations of their defense and/or prosecution. Because the book’s author decided, almost desperate, just before dying, to alter the temporal flow of the plot—which wasn’t initially linear, but sinuous, present and past and present—and to reorganize it chronologically. To see—he’d just put so much work into those pages and nobody seemed that interested in them, considering them a successful failure or something like that—if, that way, the novel improved, if it was appreciated more, if it sold better. His instructions were followed post-mortem by his literary executor. The new version was considered inferior and he reverted to the original, to the one that—just like real time—moves forward and backward and forward again. But for a few years, in English and in translation, both versions existed at the same time. And The Boy—when he was no longer a boy, when he was able to read and compare them, multiple times—was never sure which his mother had read and which his father had read. Who moved straight and true from past to future and who was left spinning in place.

It’s made explicitly clear later, but the book The Boy/The Writer’s parents is reading is Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A novel that really was published in two differing orders: one that was semi-complicated and filled with flashbacks, the other that was more straightforward and chronological. With art there’s always the opportunity to rearrange things and explore other possibilities.

*


Another thread that runs throughout this chapter is a sort of tension about the possibility of going back in time and changing one’s life. This is most explicit with the parents, who, while they’re lying on the sand have that untoward thought that a lot of parents have at one time or another—what if I could go back to the time before I had kids?

No, the father and mother are dragged along by The Boy. The father and mother drag their feet, and a wicker basket, and an umbrella, and towels, and their own bodies. And the father and the mother are dragged by The Boy. As if he were steering them, lassoed, pulling them along, strangling them with an invisible and inseverable rope around their necks. And it’s not like the mother and father have tried to sever it, but it’s also not like they haven’t thought many times about what it would be like to cut it. And—presto!—magically return to the past, to those other beaches, where The Boy only existed as a pleasant and egotistical fantasy. The father and the mother return, further away all the time, to The Boy as a mere idea that occurred to them every so often. An idea to enjoy for a while and then hide away under lock and key (one of those keys that you can’t ever find when you look for it and that, with the aid of a pair of parentheses, seems to become invisible) in the drawers of a more or less possible future, always yet to come or, at least, a lateral future, in the possible variation of a possible future. This is what every father and mother in the universe dreams when they close their eyes, though none of them ever confess it. Right there. In that instant. Before falling asleep and dreaming of any other thing, of free falling or being naked in public—the greatest hits of the common nightmare. But first, like the trailer for a movie that will never premiere. About what it’d be like to not be parents. To wake up on a planet where there wasn’t someone resting—yet restlessly moving and making noise—in the next room. About times when they went to bed late or not at all. [. . .] And sometimes The Boy’s dreams overlap with his parents’ dreams, producing a strange phenomenon: The Boy dreams he’s running on a beach without them and his father and mother dream they’re running on a beach without him. And they’re all so happy. And yet the next morning they understand that they can’t live without each other; that, though less and less, they still need each other; that now, nothing and nobody can or will ever be able to separate them or untie the knot of their lives.

And yet, the invulnerability of that instant of pure love doesn’t last long; and now The Boy is trying get away from them, running.

*


One of my favorite aspects of Fresán’s writing—which he really exploits in this novel—is his endless list making. Amusing, poignant, wooly, and overflowing, these lists make manifest all the various possibilities of a given situation.

What does The Boy think about? Lots of things! A good writer would point to the racing nature of the boy’s mind, how thoughts are freer when you’re small and haven’t yet heard how stupid your voice sounds when it’s recorded, or what you look like when you dance. An equally good writer might pull out a few telling examples of what’s going on in The Boy’s mind—ideas that illuminate his character and fears, while foreshadowing the arc of his story. (I’m not sure that’s a book I would think is “good,” but whatever.) Fresán provides forty-one random examples of The Boy’s thoughts over six pages, ranging from the childish,

— Why does Superman appear to exert himself equally—the same muscle
tension, the same knit brow—when he picks up a car or alters the orbit of an
entire planet?

or,

— Is Jell-O animal, vegetal, mineral, or interplanetary?

to the more character-specific,

— What’s a comma doing putting itself between two numbers? Was mathematics created just to drive him crazy, a universal conspiracy in which everyone pretends to understand something that’s clearly incomprehensible and has no sense or logic? And what makes a psychotic so sure that 2 + 2 makes 5, while a neurotic knows that 2 + 2 makes 4 but just can’t handle it? And what about the person who always thinks that 2 + 2 equals 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, or the exact number of times you have to let the phone ring before answering or hanging up?

to the more philosophical wonderings a reader looking back on life as a child might think.

— Why is it that now, later on, when people sing “Happy Birthday” they seem to always be thinking about their own birthday, about how many they’ve had, how many they’ve got left, about whether or not they are happy birthdays?

*


Although I think the seven sections of this novel could be read in any order, “The Real Character” is a great opening piece, introducing The Boy/The Writer and Fresán’s literary style (references, digressions, lists, and sidesteps) alongside a number of key motifs, not the least of which is the idea of “the invented part,” which comes up near the end and which is where I’ll leave off for this week.

The invented part that is not, not ever, the deceitful part, but the part that actually makes something that merely happened into something as it should have happened. Something (everything to come, the rest of his life, will spring from that there and then, from that exact moment) more authentic and valuable and pure than the simple and banal and often unsubtle and sloppy truth. [. . .]

Then, unavoidably, unable to avoid it, when answering those questions, he’ll put on a parentheses face, he’ll invent something, anything, when answering how he invents the invented part. The invented part—an oh so insubstantial cloud that, nonetheless, manages to make the sun shut its mouth and stay quiet for a while—is nothing but a true shadow projecting itself across the real part.

16 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Translator Will Vanderhyden joins Chad and Brian to provide an overview of Rodrigo Fresán’s work—especially The Invented Part. They discuss some of his earlier works (including Kensington Gardens, which is available in an English translation), different pop culture touchstones running throughout his oeuvre, related authors, and ways to approach the Invented Part.

They also talk a bit about the schedule and the future Two Month Review podcasts. The entire reading schedule is listed below, but for the next episode (June 1st), Chad and Brian will be joined by bookseller and Best Translated Book Award just Jeremy Garber to talk about “The Real Character,” pages 1-45.

Here’s the complete rundown of Two Month Review podcasts for The Invented Part:

June 1: “The Real Character” (1-45)
June 8: “Place Where the Sea Ends” (Part 1) (46-98)
June 15: “Place Where the Sea Ends” (Parts 2) (99-207)
June 22: “Place Where the Sea Ends” (Parts 3) (208-229)
June 29: “A Few Things You Happen to Think About” (230-300)
July 6: “Many Fetes” (301-360)
July 13: “Life After People” (361-403)
July 20: “Meanwhile, Once Again” (404-439)
July 27: “The Imaginary Person” (440-547)

In addition to these weekly podcasts, there will be some bonus posts here on Three Percent, and you can share your opinions and questions at the official GoodReads Group.

Additionally, we are offering a 20% discount on orders of The Invented Part from the Open Letter website. Just enter 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout. Copies are on hand and will ship out immediately. They’re also available at better bookstores everywhere.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, and Brian Wood on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here.

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

2 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Punctuated by toddler Isak’s comments about Barney, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and Lytton Smith discuss the main motivations behind the upcoming “Two Month Review” podcasts, which will be released weekly starting in later this month, and will focus on a single book for a eight or nine week period.

As noted in this post, Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part will be the first featured book (episodes released every Tuesday from 5/16 through 7/27), and Guðbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller will be the second (8/3-9/28).

In addition to these weekly podcasts, there is a GoodReads Group where anyone following along can post comments, questions, or other opinions.

Additionally, we are offering a 20% discount on orders of these two books from the Open Letter website. Just enter 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout. And since these are already back from the printer, we’ll ship them out ASAP—well in advance of the official pub dates.

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.



2 May 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After six years and almost one hundred and thirty episodes, the Three Percent Podcast is expanding to include new weekly “Two Month Review” mini-episodes.

Each “season” of the Two Month Review podcasts will highlight a different Open Letter book, reading it slowly over the course of eight to nine episodes. Featuring a rotating set of literary guests, from authors (Jonathan Lethem is scheduled for the episode airing 6/29) to booksellers, critics, and translators, the individual episodes will recap a short section of the book and use that as a springboard to talk about literature in a general sense, pop culture, reading approaches, and much more.



On one level, each season will provide a wealth of opportunities to dig into a book, to read it slowly and thoughtfully—an important concept at a time in which a lot of book conversation revolves around list-making, with the majority of new titles receiving only passing mention before the next new title is available. By supplementing these weekly podcasts with a variety of different posts on Three Percent, and public conversation on a GoodReads Forum, each season will result in a sort of primer for the book in question, an almost real-time, long-running book club.

The podcasts will also try to capture the tone and feel of weekly TV-recap podcasts by treating the novels respectfully, but not reverentially. Discussion about great books need not be deadly serious, and the levity of the podcast will help make it accessible to everyone—even if you’re not reading along.



Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part will be the first featured book (episodes released every Tuesday from 5/16 through 7/27), and Guðbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller will be the second (8/3-9/28).

Three Percent Podcast co-host—and Open Letter publisher—Chad Post will be joined by Brian Wood (short story writer, mastermind behind the satirical ROC in Your Mouth podcast) to talk about The Invented Part, and poet-translator Lytton Smith will come on for the Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller discussions.

To support this new venture, both The Invented Part and Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller are available through the Open Letter website at a 20% discount. Just use the discount code 2MONTH at checkout. Both books are available now and will ship immediately.

All “Two Month Review” podcasts will appear in the Three Percent Podcast feed as well as under this Two Month Review tag.

If you have any questions—or guest suggestions—feel free to contact Chad Post at chad.post@rochester.edu.

*

Season One Schedule: The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán

May 16th: Introduction to The Invented Part
June 1st: “The Real Character” (pgs. 1-45)
June 8th: “Place Where the Seas Ends” (Part I) (pgs. 46-98)
June 15th: “Place Where the Seas Ends” (Part II) (pgs. 99-207)
June 22nd: “Place Where the Seas Ends” (Part III) (pgs. 208-229)
June 29th: “A Few Things You Happen to Think About” (pgs. 230-300)
July 6th: “Many Fêtes, or Study for a Group Portrait with Broken Decalogues” (pgs. 301-360)
July 13th: “Life After People” (pgs. 361-403)
July 20th: “Meanwhile, Once Again” (pgs. 404-439)
July 27th: “The Imaginary Person” (pgs. 440-547)

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